The Riders Held Back


One morning, as we travelled in the fields
            Of air and dew
With trumpets, and above the painted shields
            The banners flew,

We came upon three ladies, wreathed in roses,
            Where, hand in hand,
They danced–three slender, gentle, naked ladies,
            All in a woodland.

They'd been to the best schools in Italy;
            Their legs were Greek,
Their collarbones, as fine as jewellery,
            Their eyes, antique.

‘Why do lambs skip and shepherds shout "Ut hoy!"?
            Why do you dance?'
Said one, ‘It is an intellectual joy,
            The Renaissance.

‘As do the stars in heaven, ruled by Three,
            We twine and move.
It is the music of Astronomy,
            Not men, we love.

‘And as we dance, the beasts and flowers do;
            The fields of wheat
Sway like our arms; the curving hills continue
            The curves of our feet.

‘Here Raphael comes to paint; the thrushes flute
            To Petrarch's pen.
But Michael is not here, who carved the brute
            Unfinished men.'

They danced again, and on the mountain heights
            There seemed to rise
Towers and ramparts glittering with lights,
            Like Paradise.

How the bright morning passed, I cannot say.
            We woke and found
The dancers gone; and heard, far, far away,
            The trumpet sound.

We galloped to it. In the forest then
            Banners and shields
Were strewn like leaves; and there were many slain
            In the dark fields.


Louis Simpson, The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001, BOA Editions, 2003.