The Author A. E. Housman

Hell’s Gate


    Onward led the road again
    Through the sad uncoloured plain
    Under twilight brooding dim,
    And along the utmost rim
    Wall and rampart risen to sight
    Cast a shadow not of night,
    And beyond them seemed to glow
    Bonfires lighted long ago.
    And my dark conductor broke
    Silence at my side and spoke,
    Saying, "You conjecture well:
    Yonder is the gate of hell."

    Ill as yet the eye could see
    The eternal masonry,
    But beneath it on the dark
    To and fro there stirred a spark.
    And again the sombre guide
    Knew my question, and replied:
    "At hell gate the damned in turn
    Pace for sentinel and burn."

    Dully at the leaden sky
    Staring, and with idle eye
    Measuring the listless plain,
    I began to think again.
    Many things I thought of then,
    Battle, and the loves of men,
    Cities entered, oceans crossed,
    Knowledge gained and virtue lost,
    Cureless folly done and said,
    And the lovely way that led
    To the slimepit and the mire
    And the everlasting fire.
    And against a smoulder dun
    And a dawn without a sun
    Did the nearing bastion loom,
    And across the gate of gloom
    Still one saw the sentry go,
    Trim and burning, to and fro,
    One for women to admire
    In his finery of fire.
    Something, as I watched him pace,
    Minded me of time and place,
    Soldiers of another corps
    And a sentry known before.

    Ever darker hell on high
    Reared its strength upon the sky,
    And our football on the track
    Fetched the daunting echo back.
    But the soldier pacing still
    The insuperable sill,
    Nursing his tormented pride,
    Turned his head to neither side,
    Sunk into himself apart
    And the hell-fire of his heart.
    But against our entering in
    From the drawbridge Death and Sin
    Rose to render key and sword
    To their father and their lord.
    And the portress foul to see
    Lifted up her eyes on me
    Smiling, and I made reply:
    "Met again, my lass," said I.
    Then the sentry turned his head,
    Looked, and knew me, and was Ned.

    Once he looked, and halted straight,
    Set his back against the gate,
    Caught his musket to his chin,
    While the hive of hell within
    Sent abroad a seething hum
    As of towns whose king is come
    Leading conquest home from far
    And the captives of his war,
    And the car of triumph waits,
    And they open wide the gates.
    But across the entry barred
    Straddled the revolted guard,
    Weaponed and accoutred well
    From the arsenals of hell;
    And beside him, sick and white,
    Sin to left and Death to right
    Turned a countenance of fear
    On the flaming mutineer.
    Over us the darkness bowed,
    And the anger in the cloud
    Clenched the lightning for the stroke;
    But the traitor musket spoke.

    And the hollowness of hell
    Sounded as its master fell,
    And the mourning echo rolled
    Ruin through his kingdom old.
    Tyranny and terror flown
    Left a pair of friends alone,
    And beneath the nether sky
    All that stirred was he and I.

    Silent, nothing found to say,
    We began the backward way;
    And the ebbing luster died
    From the soldier at my side,
    As in all his spruce attire
    Failed the everlasting fire.
    Midmost of the homeward track
    Once we listened and looked back;
    But the city, dusk and mute,
    Slept, and there was no pursuit.


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