The House of Orchids

by George Sterling (1869–1926)

Dedicated to Mrs. Joseph B. Coryell

    How swift a step from zone to zone!
        A moment since, the day
Was cool with winds from linden-bowers flown
        And breath of mounded hay
        That ripens on the plains,
Beneath the shadow of the western hill;
        But here the air is still,
Warm as a Lesbian valley’s afternoon
        Made langourous with June
And moist with spirits of unnumbered rains,
Pervaded with a perfume that might be
Of rainbow-haunted lands beyond the sea
        And ocean-ending sands—
A ghost of fragrance whose elusive hands
Touch not the hidden harp of memory.
        What sprites are those that gleam?
            Can eyes betray?
        Til now I did not deem
That Beauty’s flaming hands could shape in bloom
So marvelous and delicate designs.
        The vision here that shines
Seems not a fabric of our mortal day
        And Nature’s tireless loom,
        By custom long defiled,
But symbol of a loveliness supreme,
        A god’s forgotten dream
In alabaster told by elfin skill
In caverns underneath a haunted hill,
Or in some palace of enchantment hewn
From crystal in the twilights of the moon,
        Where white Astarte strays
And Echo and the silver-footed fays
Make alien music, fugitive and wild.
        Ye seem as flowers exiled,
More beautiful because they die so soon;
But who the gods that could have scorned
        Your tenderness unmarred?
    Put first ye forth your fragile wings,
Less of the form than of the soul of things,
        Where seraphim had mourned
    In Eden’s evening, heavy-starred,
    When first the gates were barred
        And cruel Time began?
For mystery hath lordship here, and ye
Seem spirit-flowers born to startle man
With intimations of eternity
And hint of what the flowers of Heaven may be.
Nor can your glamour greatly seem of earth;
        Her blossoms are of mirth,
But ye with loveliness can tell of grief—
Unhappy love most exquisite and brief.

        Wingéd ye seem and fleet,
        Such flowers pale as are
Worn by the goddess of a distant star—
        Before whose holy eyes
        Beauty and evening meet,
Mysterious beauty delicate and strange,
        And evening-calm that sighs
With Music’s inexpressible surmise—
        Her question ere she dies.
        From form to form ye range,
            From hue to hue,
And this, with petals wan and mystical,
Seems votive to those spirits of the dew
That weep at silvern twilights silently,
        With tears that gently fall
On hidden elves dim-curtained by the rose,
    And thou, thy chalice better glows
In purple grottos where the stainless sea
    On sands inviolable swirls—
        On evanescent pearls,
That hold not all thy bosom’s purity.

        And thou, more white
    Than when on some blue lake,
    Just as the zephyrs wake,
    The ripples flash to light—
Touched by a swan’s unsullied breast to foam,
Hadst thou in melancholy halls thy home?
For long ago thou seemest to have slept,
Forlorn, in palace-glooms where queens have wept.
        Ah! they too slept at last,
Whose sighs are half the music of the Past!

        But thou, O palest one!
        Dost seem to scorn the sun,
        And, in a tropic, dense,
        Languid magnificence,
    Desire to know they former place
        Where no man comes at night,
        And in its antic flight
Behold the vampire-bat veer off from thee
        As from a phantom face,
Or watch Antares’ light peer craftily
    Down from the dank and moonless sky,
        As goblins’ eyes might gleam
        Or baleful rubies glare,
Muffled in smoke or incense-laden air.
And thou, most weird companion, thou dost seem
        Some mottled moth of Hell,
        That stealthily might fly
To hover there above the carnal bell
Of some black lily, still and venomous,
        And poise forever thus.

    Chill, in thy drowsy aether warm,
    Softly thou gleamest, subtler form;
        Witch-bloom thou seem’st to be,
For Lilith would have bound thee in her hair—
    Smiling at dusk inscrutably,
And Circe gathered such for gods to wear,
        In evenings when the moon,
    A sorceress who steals in white
Along the cloudy parapets of night,
In every glade her ghostly pearl hath strewn.
        Thou are as violet-wan
As eyelids of a vestal dead and meek.
If after-life can come to blossoms gone,
        Surely Persephone
        Shall crown her brow with thee,
    In realms where burns nor star nor sun
To show the dead what amaranths to seek.
        And ah—this other! none
Of all thy kin more purely is arrayed—
    Pallid as Aphrodite’s cheek
    To some long passion-swoon betrayed,
        By ecstasy foretold;
    Yet as with blood thy bosom gleams;
    Red as Adonis’ wound it seems,
        By Syria mourned of old,
Or scarlet lips that drink from bowls of jade,
Slowly, an ivory poison, sweet and cold. . . . .

        Oh! mystically strange
That speechless things should so have power to hint,
        With subtle form and tint
That seize the heart’s high memories unaware,
The sorrow and the mystery of Change,
And elements in Fate’s controlling plan
Not altogether ministrant to man
        Nor mindful of his care—
        Some joy to death akin,
Or tragic kiss, or fruit malignly fair,
        Some garden built by Sin
        For Love to wander in,
Some face whose beauty bids the heart despair!
        And yet, O blossoms pure!
        How marvelous the lure
Of your fragility and innocence—
This grace and wistfulness of helpless things
        That ask no recompense!
        Ye give the spirit wings,
For yours the beauty that is near to pain,
        And stir the heart again
With visions of the Flowers that abide—
            Ah! sweet
        As when love’s glances meet
Across the music, heard at eventide!

    Lloyden, June, 1909.

“Lloyden” was the Menlo Park home of Mr. & Mrs. Joseph B. Coryell.  The poem is dedicated to Mrs. Coryell (née Mabel L. Jessup).

Sterling, George.  The House of Orchids and Other Poems.  (San Francisco:  A. M. Robertson, 1911).

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