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[This week I would like to read to you a fable by Robert Louis Stevenson: “The Song of the Morrow”. Stevenson’s collection of fables and fairy tales – which was too scandalous to be published in his lifetime – is called in the manuscript Aesop in the Fog. That’s a hint to us not to expect easy morals. Things are more complicated, to suit our foggy world in which so little can be fully understood or communicated. Let the story stir you and move you, come back to it over a number of days and let the resonance play in your imagination and deep in the core of your self, while your intellect takes a holiday and does not try to figure this out. Just let the words and the images work on you. Then you may find some hints and glimpses of meaning, and maybe later you’ll understand more. There’s no rush. Let us know what you think. RLA]

The Princess listens

The Princess listens

The King of Duntrine had a daughter when he was old, and she was the fairest King’s daughter between two seas; her hair was like spun gold, and her eyes like pools in a river; and the King gave her a castle upon the sea beach, with a terrace, and a court of the hewn stone, and four towers at the four corners. Here she dwelt and grew up, and had no care for the morrow, and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men.

It befell that she walked one day by the beach of the sea, when it was autumn, and the wind blew from the place of rains; and upon the one hand of her the sea beat, and upon the other the dead leaves ran. This was the loneliest beach between two seas, and strange things had been done there in the ancient ages. Now the King’s daughter was aware of a crone that sat upon the beach. The sea foam ran to her feet, and the dead leaves swarmed about her back, and the rags blew about her face in the blowing of the wind.

“Now,” said the King’s daughter, and she named a holy name, “this is the most unhappy old crone between two seas.”

“Daughter of a King,” said the crone, “you dwell in a stone house, and your hair is like the gold: but what is your profit? Life is not long, nor lives strong; and you live after the way of simple men, and have no thought for the morrow and no power upon the hour.”

“Thought for the morrow, that I have,” said the King’s daughter; “but power upon the hour, that have I not.” And she mused with herself.

Then the crone smote her lean hands one within the other, and laughed like a sea-gull. “Home!” cried she.  “O daughter of a King, home to your stone house; for the longing is come upon you now, nor can you live any more after the manner of simple men. Home, and toil and suffer, till the gift come that will make you bare, and till the man come that will bring you care.”

The King’s daughter made no more ado, but she turned about and went home to her house in silence. And when she was come into her chamber she called for her nurse.

“Nurse,” said the King’s daughter, “thought is come upon me for the morrow, so that I can live no more after the manner of simple men. Tell me what I must do that I may have power upon the hour.”

Then the nurse moaned like a snow wind. “Alas!” said she, “that this thing should be; but the thought is gone into your marrow, nor is there any cure against the thought. Be it so, then, even as you will; though power is less than weakness, power shall you have; and though the thought is colder than winter, yet shall you think it to an end.”

So the King’s daughter sat in her vaulted chamber in the masoned house, and she thought upon the thought. Nine years she sat; and the sea beat upon the terrace, and the gulls cried about the turrets, and wind crooned in the chimneys of the house. Nine years she came not abroad, nor tasted the clean air, neither saw God’s sky. Nine years she sat and looked neither to the right nor to the left, nor heard speech of any one, but thought upon the thought of the morrow. And her nurse fed her in silence, and she took of the food with her left hand, and ate it without grace.

Now when the nine years were out, it fell dusk in the autumn, and there came a sound in the wind like a sound of piping. At that the nurse lifted up her finger in the vaulted house.

“I hear a sound in the wind,” said she, “that is like the sound of piping.”

“It is but a little sound,” said the King’s daughter, “but yet is it sound enough for me.”

So they went down in the dusk to the doors of the house, and along the beach of the sea. And the waves beat upon the one hand, and upon the other the dead leaves ran; and the clouds raced in the sky, and the gulls flew widdershins. And when they came to that part of the beach where strange things had been done in the ancient ages, lo, there was the crone, and she was dancing widdershins.

“What makes you dance widdershins, old crone?” said the King’s daughter; “here upon the bleak beach, between the waves and the dead leaves?”

“I hear a sound in the wind that is like a sound of piping,” quoth she. “And it is for that that I dance widdershins. For the gift comes that will make you bare, and the man comes that must bring you care. But for me the morrow is come that I have thought upon, and the hour of my power.”

“How comes it, crone,” said the King’s daughter, “that you waver like a rag, and pale like a dead leaf before my eyes?”

“Because the morrow has come that I have thought upon, and the hour of my power,” said the crone; and she fell on the beach, and, lo! she was but stalks of the sea tangle, and dust of the sea sand, and the sand lice hopped upon the place of her.

“This is the strangest thing that befell between two seas,” said the King’s daughter of Duntrine.

But the nurse broke out and moaned like an autumn gale. “I am weary of the wind,” quoth she; and she bewailed her day.

The King’s daughter was aware of a man upon the beach; he went hooded so that none might perceive his face, and a pipe was underneath his arm. The sound of his pipe was like singing wasps, and like the wind that sings in windlestraw; and it took hold upon men’s ears like the crying of gulls.

“Are you the comer?” quoth the King’s daughter of Duntrine.

“I am the corner,” said he, “and these are the pipes that a man may hear, and I have power upon the hour, and this is the song of the morrow.” And he piped the song of the morrow, and it was as long as years; and the nurse wept out aloud at the hearing of it.

“This is true,” said the King’s daughter, “that you pipe the song of the morrow; but that ye have power upon the hour, how may I know that? Show me a marvel here upon the beach, between the waves and the dead leaves.”

And the man said, “Upon whom?”

“Here is my nurse,” quoth the King’s daughter. “She is weary of the wind. Show me a good marvel upon her.”

And, lo! the nurse fell upon the beach as it were two handfuls of dead leaves, and the wind whirled them widdershins, and the sand lice hopped between.

“It is true,” said the King’s daughter of Duntrine, “you are the comer, and you have power upon the hour. Come with me to my stone house.”

So they went by the sea margin, and the man piped the song of the morrow, and the leaves followed behind them as they went.

Then they sat down together; and the sea beat on the terrace, and the gulls cried about the towers, and the wind crooned in the chimneys of the house. Nine years they sat, and every year when it fell autumn, the man said, “This is the hour, and I have power in it”; and the daughter of the King said, “Nay, but pipe me the song of the morrow”. And he piped it, and it was long like years.

Now when the nine years were gone, the King’s daughter of Duntrine got her to her feet, like one that remembers; and she looked about her in the masoned house; and all her servants were gone; only the man that piped sat upon the terrace with the hand upon his face; and as he piped the leaves ran about the terrace and the sea beat along the wall. Then she cried to him with a great voice, “This is the hour, and let me see the power in it”. And with that the wind blew off the hood from the man’s face, and, lo! there was no man there, only the clothes and the hood and the pipes tumbled one upon another in a corner of the terrace, and the dead leaves ran over them.

And the King’s daughter of Duntrine got her to that part of the beach where strange things had been done in the ancient ages; and there she sat her down. The sea foam ran to her feet, and the dead leaves swarmed about her back, and the veil blew about her face in the blowing of the wind. And when she lifted up her eyes, there was the daughter of a King come walking on the beach. Her hair was like the spun gold, and  her eyes like pools in a river, and she had no thought for the morrow and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men.

6 Responses to “The Song of the Morrow”

  1. Claire Chapman-Wright says:

    I don’t know, but I have some ideas. It might be something like the romantic difference between wanting and having, of what separates becoming from being. Something like growing old with foolishness instead of with wisdom, never actually seeing what’s there only having the perception of its appearance. Having said that, the combination of the languid tone and rythmn with the quiksilver edges in the imagery is beautiful. I wish I could write from that place.

  2. rla says:

    Thanks, Claire. What gets me about this story is that it doesn’t exist to give us a moral, but is an image of everyone’s life. Aren’t we all caught in that “masoned chamber”, living in abstractions, hoping for the “power upon the hour”, rather than just living in the moment. That’s what you said about separating becoming from being. Is it only after we’ve abstracted the prime of our life that we then are the crone, just sitting and being, and passing down this curse of consciousness to others?

    Is it a tremendously bleak story? But, as you say, it is also beautiful, and always a delight to read.

  3. Paul Mitchell says:

    I want to give some insight relative to how P.D. Ouspensky used this tale in his novel “The Strange Life of Ivan Osikin.” I think that the hag and the comer represent those in our lives that beckon us to live the standard life that everyone else leads (get married, have children, grow old then in your “hour of power” die and go to Heaven. The “thought for the morrow” deludes us into thinking if we don’t get serious about living then we will miss out on the really important things in life. When the King of Dutrine’s daughter “got her to her feet, like one that remembers” she comes to the realization that all this is an illusion and that people actually waste their lives this way because they become so serious that life becomes worrisome and toiling. So when her “hour of power” finally arrives, instead of dying and going to Heaven – she elects to go back to her youthful past and start over at the point that she made her original mistake (sin). This time when she sees the hag she will simply walk on by and live happily ever after.

  4. rla says:

    Yes, I was amazed a few years ago to discover Ouspensky taking up this story.

    Yet at the end it’s not that the princess walks past, but that she has become the hag. Time for the next generation to get caught in this crippling disease of thought. The same cycle all over again.

    So what keeps us from despair at such a prospect? I suppose the fact of fiction itself. Once we can create a story around this and become engaged with imagery, we can become conscious of this trap we keep falling into and, at least for a short while, be freed from it. Being engaged in the imagination is entirely different from being lost in abstractions like “thought for the morrow” or “power over the hour”.

    Readers often think that the princess “shouldn’t” do what she does, but “should” get out and live – all these clichés about waking up and smelling the roses, etc. But this is not a parable about what we should do; it’s a myth showing us a mirror of what we all actually do all the time. First we must be aware, then, maybe, there’s a chance to do a little about it.

    Thanks for bringing Ouspensky into the discussion, Paul.

    RLA

  5. Scott says:

    I don’t believe I yet understand the true depths of this, but I’ll share what I think.

    The princes and the hag are the same person. They have been going through this cycle since the beginning of time and they will go through this cycle forever. They represent human beings going through our cycles of life, wishing and waiting for tomorrow, when we’ll try harder, do better, become the people whom we really are. When tomorrow comes, we find ourselves repeating the same stupid patterns that we went through yesterday. We can look at this story covering a lifetime, a year, a day or even an hour. We repeat the same thoughts and we are trapped by this cycle. Yes, when we become aware of this, we have a chance to break free of it, but likely we’ll be vexed by watching ourselves repeat the same things. At least before the awareness, we could live in the manner of simple man (unaware). Now that there is awareness we are tormented by watching ourselves repeat, repeat, repeat.

  6. rla says:

    Yes, that seems just the point. The fable speaks of the way we never live in the minute but always beyond the minute, hoping to control the minute, but never there. And this goes on again and again – that cycle.

    But of course there are ways to be mindful of the minute – ways that lie beyond the scope of this fable.

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