Peter S. Beagle, Early Poems


Peter S. Beagle wrote a great deal of poetry while in high school and college — some of it in response to classsroom challenges regarding specific form or content, some of it inspired by his friendship with the famous poetrty anthologist Louis Untermeyer, and some of it straight from his own well of endless sparking invention. Peter's use of poetry in The Last Unicorn and other books is well-known to readers: here follows a rare glimpse of some of the pieces he wrote before he was 21 years old.

One of the poems reprinted here, "Thais' Lullaby," was written when Peter was only 15. The next year, 1955, it won the Scholastic Writing Awards Contest for best high school poem in the United States. As his prize, Peter received a four-year full-ride scholasrhip to the University of Pittsburgh, where he met the English professors who would eventually help him shape his first novel, A Fine and Private Place; and where he earned spare cash by ghostwriting academic papers for the University's football jocks (without Peter's help, Mike Ditka probably wouldn't have graduated).

Stable of Dragons
By Peter S. Beagle

I keep nine dragons in an old cow barn,
And sometimes I go down to look at them.
I didn't build the barn — I bought it
From a little old lady from Pasadena,
Who was arrested, the last I heard,
For selling the North Star
To a blind man.
          I bred the dragons.
I fed them on sorrowful meat and marmalade
And lighter fluid and an occasional postadolescent
Chicken. And then I built a house
Far away from the stable, because things burn down
Where dragons are.
          Outside the barn
Are fallen birds, their wings scorched
To fluff. The earth is livid, broken veined and rashed,
Pimpled with crimson ash and dragon droppings,
Big enough to fertilize the whole frigid world.
Within are dragons.
          The roof beams are low.
They are crowded and it makes them short tempered.
They smell of marshes and the lowland sea,
Starfish and seaweed and smashed clams dying in the sun.
They have small ears and their eyes are octagonal;
Their teeth are urine-yellow as contempt, and the hairs of their manes
Are like chains.
          The barn is lanced
With the raucous fire of their laughter, for they do
Breathe fire. Or perhaps the fire breathes them.
Dragon-scented fire it is, and it casts their shadows
On the mud-plastered walls.
          The males are coin scaled and sluggish.
Their wings are short and weak, useless
As an idea to a general. They cannot fly.
They will not walk. Therefore they lie amid applauding ashes
And breathe irrelevant damnation.
          But the females!
They are the purple of outdoor claustrophobia,
And they move like dusk. They have winter-colored wings,
As wide as cathedral doors. They pace the floors
Of their stalls, and their claws make an impatient sound,
As if they were scratching at the earth
To be let in.
          It is a waking sound.
I hear it in my high bed at night, and I cannot sleep
Until they do. And they never sleep
Unless they are satisfied. And they are never all satisfied
At once. There is always someone awake.
When I come in, their heads turn on their crested necks,
And they look at me out of their stained-glass eyes.
They know my name.
          I have mated with them.
I'm not the first. I never was an innovator. Knights used to do it.
They killed them later, when the angled eyes were dark with sleep,
And the knights were ashamed. So they killed them
And some were made saints for it. But I think
They were a little lonely in bed with their wives
For a while.
          I have embraced dragons in my time.
I have held my mouth on white-toothed fire, and been drawn
Down the whirlpool gullet that seared me to wakefulness.
I have felt claws sunk in my back,
Straining me against silver-dollar scales, and heard a strange heart
Exploding in my ears like a drunken grandfather clock.
And I have left my seed to care for itself
In a new and bitter cave.
          Then I have crawled away
And lain in the fields, my flaking skin crackling like wrapping
paper, reddening the well-meaning air
With my blood. And from the stable
Through the scarred, shut door, there comes no sound
Of querulous claws.
          A dragon is sleeping.
I think that I shall have a son someday.
He will be handsome, with sharp teeth.

Constructive Criticism
By Peter S. Beagle

(As I write this, in November of 1959, they' ve been doing the book burning bit in exotic Memphis. The American Legion Anti-Smut Committee, or title to that effect. D.H. Lawrence, Grace Metalious, and Shelby Foote, side by side. They would have burned Henry Miller too, but the head of the ALASC locked up his library and stood with his back to the door.)

I do not say that what you do is wrong.
Book burning is a good idea at times.
A concept can be shot to hell by song;
A ruler can be riddled through by rhymes.
A fire's a pretty thing. When men began
To feed false poets to the hungry gold,
They burned the book, and if they found the man —
Well, fires are good, and frightened gods grow cold.

But let us have some breadth of vision here!
Not one fire, but a thousand 's what you need.
For if the word of man is what you fear,
You must burn all the words. You see, they breed.
Reflect, my gentlemen, and count the cost:
If you burn one, burn all — or you are lost.

By Peter S. Beagle

Now I was a mountain, proud and high,
And she was the woman who passed me by.

Or I was a God, with a sneering frown,
And she was the woman who laughed me down.

Or I was a cat, with a black-silk purr,
And she was the woman wo smoothed my fur.

Or I was a man with a new-given name,
Who burned his hands in a silver flame.

The dead shall laugh and the gods turn gray
Before another shall pass my way.

My hands are scarred from the silver flame —
Where is the woman who called my name?

North Country Ballad
By Peter S. Beagle

My mother took me, some years ago,
To see a woman made all of snow.
A lean, bright woman, made all of snow.

In high, cold places my mother sought her,
And held me up, and said, "North wind's daughter,
What gift for the son of a beggar's daughter?"

"Three gifts I give you, and no gift more,"
Said she, as she stood in her crystal door.
"Be prince or peasant — I give no more."

A fine, bad song that the soldiers sing,
And a coin from far, with the head of a king.
A foreign coin with a gray, mad king.

And a nice wool cap that would keep me warm.
"It will not keep you," said she, "from harm.
But someone must see that the children be warm."

Three gifts she gave, and would give no more,
But my mother cried — we were very poor —
"Snow-lady, snow-lady, one gift more!"

The Snow Woman turned, and the Snow Woman laughed.
"May the son inherit the mother's craft!
I will give once more —" and like rain she laughed.

Now damn that woman in her crystal door,
And damn my mother and her one gift more!
Oh, damn my mother and her one gift more!

For the Snow Woman said a strange word to me,
A word like a bell ringing under the sea,
And a tiger came walking and smiled at me.

A young, small tiger, about my size.
A smoke-pawed tiger with indigo eyes.
Not a big tiger — about my size.

And I grew up, and the tiger too,
Which is what tigers and children do.
And where I walked came the tiger too.

Till I bought new shoes and went off to find
The steep, sharp lands where the winds go blind,
And the tiger padded along behind.

The song of soldiers I gave away
To a dark-haired lass on a windy day.
A song sung to women is gone for aye.

The coin I gave to a man one spring
Who liked the face of the far, mad king,
The sparrow face of the gray, mad king.

And the cap I gave to a boy one storm.
Too thin it was to keep crickets warm,
But a man should try to see children warm.

All that was given I've given again,
For this one's pleasure and that one's pain.
I have given it all — and will give again.

But I wake in bed when the nights are hot,
And see one spot and another green spot
That should be fireflies — and are not.

Down a valley and over a hill,
Smoky paws on the windowsill,
The tiger follows, and follows still.

Till we lie in a gully-gut and are dead,
And the rains fall down on each vagrant head;
Tiger head to my own sad head.

People of Barbary and Bashan,
Find us and riddle us, if you can —
Which was tiger, and which was man?

Thais' Lullaby
By Peter S. Beagle

Sleep, pretty daughter; the moon is behind you.
Soft-footed evening has vanquished the day.
Your lovers, the moonbeams, are coming to find you.
Nothing but scorn for your mother have they.
Sleep, pretty daughter, with no man beside you,
Jealous of stars that are kissing your brow.
None, when you walk in the street, shall deride you.
Sleep, pretty daughter, for I know not how.

Sleep, pretty daughter, but hark to my warning:
Stay thou a maiden — be simple and sweet.
Never discover the smell of the morning,
Or the touch of the grass on your little bare feet.
Marry a lord who is rich beyond measure;
Learn that the wise dog is safe in his yard —
Then they will give you the moon for your pleasure.
Sleep, pretty daughter — your mother keeps guard.

Persephone in September
By Peter S. Beagle

The leaves are at my feet. The grass is dead.
The air is bitter as a dragonbite.
I hear the thunder moaning overhead,
Like some great creature dying in the night.
The winter wraps my shoulders like a shawl,
And I can taste the still unfallen snow.
The darkness comes like footsteps in the hall.
The winds reclaim the world, and I must go.

I take a road beyond the sight of eyes
That runs beyond the minds of walking men,
And only this I leave — a song that cries,
"Oh, I will surely, surely come again!"
And, knowing this, I turn my eyes and mark
My iron lover, crouching in the dark.

The Ferret Speaks Under William Blake's Window
By Peter S. Beagle

Well, Mr. Blake sir, here I am,
Neither a tiger nor a lamb —
That pair of fearful symmetries
Through which a poet hopes to seize
The manes and tails of mysteries.

No, I am I. My furious pride
Is not by beauty justified.
Marrow's my meat, and blood's my drink —
I hunch and scuttle, and I stink
Of small hot thoughts you dare not think.

Send out your tiger, bid him kill!
He may retreat — I never will.
I have no thirst blood cannot slake;
I ask for naught I cannot take —
And least your liking, William Blake.

Yet, like your lamb, your shepherd boy,
I also dance for thoughtless joy,
Flickering, reeling, spinning free
Of all but that old ecstasy
That trembles, maddens, dances me.

Therefore, if you should chance to make
A little place for dancing's sake,
I would accept it, William Blake.

Very Plaintive Song
By Peter S. Beagle

My mother ran off with a streetcar,
My brother ran off to the zoo
And worked as a pinochle partner
For a boxing kangaroo.
My father ran off with a teabag,
My sister ran off to sea,
And I never ran off with anyone —
Which gives you an idea of me.


illustration photograph: section of Peter S. Beagle's 1959 passport picture