Helen Hunt Jackson

Helen Hunt Jackson



The True Ballad Of The King's Singer

by Helen Hunt Jackson

The king rode fast, the king rode well,
The royal hunt went loud and gay,
A thousand bleeding chamois fell
For royal sport that day.

When sunset turned the hills all red,
The royal hunt went still and slow;
The king's great horse with weary tread
Plunged ankle-deep in snow.

Sudden a strain of music sweet,
Unearthly sweet, came through the wood;
Up sprang the king, and on both feet
Straight in his saddle stood.

Now, by our lady, be it bird,
Or be it man or elf who plays,
Never before my ears have heard
A music fit for praise!

Sullen and tired, the royal hunt
Followed the king, who tracked the song,
Unthinking, as is royal wont,
How hard the way and long.

Stretched on a rock the shepherd lay
And dreamed and piped, and dreamed and sang,
And careless heard the shout and bay
With which the echoes rang.

Up, man! the king! the hunters cried.
He slowly stood, and, wondering,
Turned honest eyes from side to side:
To him, each looked like king.

Strange shyness seized the king's bold tongue;
He saw how easy to displease
This savage man who stood among
His courtiers, so at ease.

But kings have silver speech to use
When on their pleasure they are bent;
The simple shepherd could not choose;
Like one in dream he went.

O hear! O hear! The ringing sound
Of twenty trumpets swept the street,
The king a minstrel now has found,
For royal music meet.

With cloth of gold, and cloth of red,
And woman's eyes the place is bright.
Now, shepherd, sing, the king has said,
The song you sang last night!

One faint sound stirs the perfumed air,
The courtiers scornfully look down;
The shepherd kneels in dumb despair,
Seeing the king's dark frown.

The king is just; the king will wait.
Ho, guards! let him be gently led,
Let him grow used to royal state, --
To being housed and fed.

All night the king unquiet lay,
Racked by his dream's presentiment;
Then rose in haste at break of day,
And for the shepherd sent.

Ho now, thou beast, thou savage man,
How sound thou sleepest, not to hear!"
They jeering laughed, but soon began
To louder call in fear.

They wrenched the bolts; unrumpled stood
The princely bed all silken fine,
Untouched the plates of royal food,
The flask of royal wine!

The costly robes strewn on the floor,
The chamber empty, ghastly still;
The guards stood trembling at the door,
And dared not cross the sill.

All night the sentinels their round
Had kept. No man could pass that way.
The window dizzy highl from ground;
Below, the deep moat lay.

They crossed themselves. The foul fiend lurks
In this,
they said. They did not know
The miracles sweet Freedom works,
To let her children go.

It was the fiend himself who took
That shepherd's shape to pipe and sing;
And every man with terror shook,
For who would tell the king!

The heads of men all innocent
Rolled in the dust that day;
And east and west the bloodhounds went,
Baying their dreadful bay;

Safe on a snow too far, too high,
For scent of dogs or feet of men,
The shepherd watched the clouds sail by,
And dreamed and sang again;

And crossed himself, and knelt and cried,
And kissed the holy Edelweiss,
Believing that the fiends had tried
To buy him with a price.

The king rides fast, the king rides well;
The summer hunts go loud and gay;
The courtiers, who this tale can tell,
Are getting old and gray.

But still they say it was a fiend
That took a shepherd's shape to sing,
For still the king's heart is not weaned
To care for other thing.

Great minstrels come from far and near,
He will not let them sing or play,
But waits and listens still to hear
The song he heard that day.


Copyright 1888
Roberts Brothers, Boston