Was there a human spirit in the steed
That thus with his proud voice, ere night was gone,
He broke our linkèd rest? or do indeed
All living things a common nature own,
And thought erect an universal throne,
Where many shapes one tribute ever bear?
And Earth, their mutual mother, does she groan
To see her sons contend? and makes she bare
Her breast that all in peace its drainless stores may share?
I have heard friendly sounds from many a tongue
Which was not human; the lone nightingale
Has answered me with her most soothing song,
Out of her ivy bower, when I sate pale
With grief, and sighed beneath; from many a dale
The antelopes who flocked for food have spoken
With happy sounds and motions that avail
Like man’s own speech; and such was now the token
Of waning night, whose calm by that proud neigh was broken.
Each night that mighty steed bore me abroad,
And I returned with food to our retreat,
And dark intelligence; the blood which flowed
Over the fields had stained the courser’s feet;
Soon the dust drinks that bitter dew,--then meet
The vulture, and the wild-dog, and the snake,
The wolf, and the hyena gray, and eat
The dead in horrid truce; their throngs did make
Behind the steed a chasm like waves in a ship’s wake.
For from the utmost realms of earth came pouring
The banded slaves whom every despot sent
At that throned traitor’s summons; like the roaring
Of fire, whose floods the wild deer circumvent
In the scorched pastures of the south, so bent
The armies of the leaguèd kings around
Their files of steel and flame; the continent
Trembled, as with a zone of ruin bound,
Beneath their feet--the sea shook with their Navies’ sound.
From every nation of the earth they came,
The multitude of moving heartless things,
Whom slaves call men; obediently they came,
Like sheep whom from the fold the shepherd brings
To the stall, red with blood; their many kings
Led them, thus erring, from their native land--
Tartar and Frank, and millions whom the wings
Of Indian breezes lull; and many a band
The Arctic Anarch sent, and Idumea’s sand
Fertile in prodigies and lies. So there
Strange natures made a brotherhood of ill.
The desert savage ceased to grasp in fear
His Asian shield and bow when, at the will
Of Europe’s subtler son, the bolt would kill
Some shepherd sitting on a rock secure;
But smiles of wondering joy his face would fill,
And savage sympathy; those slaves impure
Each one the other thus from ill to ill did lure.
For traitorously did that foul Tyrant robe
His countenance in lies; even at the hour
When he was snatched from death, then o’er the globe,
With secret signs from many a mountain tower,
With smoke by day, and fire by night, the power
Of Kings and Priests, those dark conspirators,
He called; they knew his cause their own, and swore
Like wolves and serpents to their mutual wars
Strange truce, with many a rite which Earth and Heaven abhors.
Myriads had come--millions were on their way;
The Tyrant passed, surrounded by the steel
Of hired assassins, through the public way,
Choked with his country’s dead; his footsteps reel
On the fresh blood--he smiles. ’Ay, now I feel
I am a King in truth!’ he said, and took
His royal seat, and bade the torturing wheel
Be brought, and fire, and pincers, and the hook,
And scorpions, that his soul on its revenge might look.
’But first, go slay the rebels--why return
The victor bands?’ he said, ’millions yet live,
Of whom the weakest with one word might turn
The scales of victory yet; let none survive
But those within the walls--each fifth shall give
The expiation for his brethren here.
Go forth, and waste and kill!’--’O king, forgive
My speech,’ a soldier answered, ’but we fear
The spirits of the night, and morn is drawing near;
’For we were slaying still without remorse,
And now that dreadful chief beneath my hand
Defenceless lay, when on a hell-black horse
An Angel bright as day, waving a brand
Which flashed among the stars, passed.’--’Dost thou stand
Parleying with me, thou wretch?’ the king replied;
’Slaves, bind him to the wheel; and of this band
Whoso will drag that woman to his side
That scared him thus may burn his dearest foe beside;
’And gold and glory shall be his. Go forth!’
They rushed into the plain. Loud was the roar
Of their career; the horsemen shook the earth;
The wheeled artillery’s speed the pavement tore;
The infantry, file after file, did pour
Their clouds on the utmost hills. Five days they slew
Among the wasted fields; the sixth saw gore
Stream through the City; on the seventh the dew
Of slaughter became stiff, and there was peace anew:
Peace in the desert fields and villages,
Between the glutted beasts and mangled dead!
Peace in the silent streets! save when the cries
Of victims, to their fiery judgment led,
Made pale their voiceless lips who seemed to dread,
Even in their dearest kindred, lest some tongue
Be faithless to the fear yet unbetrayed;
Peace in the Tyrant’s palace, where the throng
Waste the triumphal hours in festival and song!
Day after day the burning Sun rolled on
Over the death-polluted land. It came
Out of the east like fire, and fiercely shone
A lamp of autumn, ripening with its flame
The few lone ears of corn; the sky became
Stagnate with heat, so that each cloud and blast
Languished and died; the thirsting air did claim
All moisture, and a rotting vapor passed
From the unburied dead, invisible and fast.
First Want, then Plague, came on the beasts; their food
Failed, and they drew the breath of its decay.
Millions on millions, whom the scent of blood
Had lured, or who from regions far away
Had tracked the hosts in festival array,
From their dark deserts, gaunt and wasting now
Stalked like fell shades among their perished prey;
In their green eyes a strange disease did glow--
They sank in hideous spasm, or pains severe and slow.
The fish were poisoned in the streams; the birds
In the green woods perished; the insect race
Was withered up; the scattered flocks and herds
Who had survived the wild beasts’ hungry chase
Died moaning, each upon the other’s face
In helpless agony gazing; round the City
All night, the lean hyenas their sad case
Like starving infants wailed--a woful ditty;
And many a mother wept, pierced with unnatural pity.
Amid the aërial minarets on high
The Æthiopian vultures fluttering fell
From their long line of brethren in the sky,
Startling the concourse of mankind. Too well
These signs the coming mischief did foretell.
Strange panic first, a deep and sickening dread,
Within each heart, like ice, did sink and dwell,
A voiceless thought of evil, which did spread
With the quick glance of eyes, like withering lightnings shed.
Day after day, when the year wanes, the frosts
Strip its green crown of leaves till all is bare;
So on those strange and congregated hosts
Came Famine, a swift shadow, and the air
Groaned with the burden of a new despair;
Famine, than whom Misrule no deadlier daughter
Feeds from her thousand breasts, though sleeping there
With lidless eyes lie Faith and Plague and Slaughter--
A ghastly brood conceived of Lethe’s sullen water.
There was no food; the corn was trampled down,
The flocks and herds had perished; on the shore
The dead and putrid fish were ever thrown;
The deeps were foodless, and the winds no more
Creaked with the weight of birds, but as before
Those wingèd things sprang forth, were void of shade;
The vines and orchards, autumn’s golden store,
Were burned; so that the meanest food was weighed
With gold, and avarice died before the god it made.
There was no corn--in the wide marketplace
All loathliest things, even human flesh, was sold;
They weighed it in small scales--and many a face
Was fixed in eager horror then. His gold
The miser brought; the tender maid, grown bold
Through hunger, bared her scornèd charms in vain;
The mother brought her eldest born, controlled
By instinct blind as love, but turned again
And bade her infant suck, and died in silent pain.
Then fell blue Plague upon the race of man.
’Oh, for the sheathèd steel, so late which gave
Oblivion to the dead when the streets ran
With brothers’ blood! Oh, that the earthquake’s grave
Would gape, or Ocean lift its stifling wave!’
Vain cries--throughout the streets thousands pursued
Each by his fiery torture howl and rave
Or sit in frenzy’s unimagined mood
Upon fresh heaps of dead--a ghastly multitude.
It was not hunger now, but thirst. Each well
Was choked with rotting corpses, and became
A caldron of green mist made visible
At sunrise. Thither still the myriads came,
Seeking to quench the agony of the flame
Which raged like poison through their bursting veins;
Naked they were from torture, without shame,
Spotted with nameless scars and lurid blains--
Childhood, and youth, and age, writhing in savage pains.
It was not thirst, but madness! Many saw
Their own lean image everywhere--it went
A ghastlier self beside them, till the awe
Of that dread sight to self-destruction sent
Those shrieking victims; some, ere life was spent,
Sought, with a horrid sympathy, to shed
Contagion on the sound; and others rent
Their matted hair, and cried aloud, ’We tread
On fire! the avenging Power his hell on earth has spread.’
Sometimes the living by the dead were hid.
Near the great fountain in the public square,
Where corpses made a crumbling pyramid
Under the sun, was heard one stifled prayer
For life, in the hot silence of the air;
And strange ’t was ’mid that hideous heap to see
Some shrouded in their long and golden hair,
As if not dead, but slumbering quietly,
Like forms which sculptors carve, then love to agony.
Famine had spared the palace of the King;
He rioted in festival the while,
He and his guards and Priests; but Plague did fling
One shadow upon all. Famine can smile
On him who brings it food, and pass, with guile
Of thankful falsehood, like a courtier gray,
The house-dog of the throne; but many a mile
Comes Plague, a wingèd wolf, who loathes alway
The garbage and the scum that strangers make her prey.
So, near the throne, amid the gorgeous feast,
Sheathed in resplendent arms, or loosely dight
To luxury, ere the mockery yet had ceased
That lingered on his lips, the warrior’s might
Was loosened, and a new and ghastlier night
In dreams of frenzy lapped his eyes; he fell
Headlong, or with stiff eyeballs sate upright
Among the guests, or raving mad did tell
Strange truths--a dying seer of dark oppression’s hell.
The Princes and the Priests were pale with terror;
That monstrous faith wherewith they ruled mankind
Fell, like a shaft loosed by the bowman’s error,
On their own hearts; they sought and they could find
No refuge--’t was the blind who led the blind!
So, through the desolate streets to the high fane,
The many-tongued and endless armies wind
In sad procession; each among the train
To his own idol lifts his supplications vain.
’O God!’ they cried, ’we know our secret pride
Has scorned thee, and thy worship, and thy name;
Secure in human power, we have defied
Thy fearful might; we bend in fear and shame
Before thy presence; with the dust we claim
Kindred; be merciful, O King of Heaven!
Most justly have we suffered for thy fame
Made dim, but be at length our sins forgiven,
Ere to despair and death thy worshippers be driven!
’O King of Glory! Thou alone hast power!
Who can resist thy will? who can restrain
Thy wrath when on the guilty thou dost shower
The shafts of thy revenge, a blistering rain?
Greatest and best, be merciful again!
Have we not stabbed thine enemies, and made
The Earth an altar, and the Heavens a fane,
Where thou wert worshipped with their blood, and laid
Those hearts in dust which would thy searchless works have weighed?
’Well didst thou loosen on this impious City
Thine angels of revenge! recall them now;
Thy worshippers abased here kneel for pity,
And bind their souls by an immortal vow.
We swear by thee--and to our oath do thou
Give sanction from thine hell of fiends and flame--
That we will kill with fire and torments slow
The last of those who mocked thy holy name
And scorned the sacred laws thy prophets did proclaim.’
Thus they with trembling limbs and pallid lips
Worshipped their own hearts’ image, dim and vast,
Scared by the shade wherewith they would eclipse
The light of other minds; troubled they passed
From the great Temple; fiercely still and fast
The arrows of the plague among them fell,
And they on one another gazed aghast,
And through the hosts contention wild befell,
As each of his own god the wondrous works did tell.
And Oromaze, Joshua, and Mahomet,
Moses, and Buddh, Zerdusht, and Brahm, and Foh,
A tumult of strange names, which never met
Before, as watchwords of a single woe,
Arose; each raging votary ’gan to throw
Aloft his armèd hands, and each did howl
’Our God alone is God!’ and slaughter now
Would have gone forth, when from beneath a cowl
A voice came forth which pierced like ice through every soul.
’T was an Iberian Priest from whom it came,
A zealous man, who led the legioned West,
With words which faith and pride had steeped in flame,
To quell the unbelievers; a dire guest
Even to his friends was he, for in his breast
Did hate and guile lie watchful, intertwined,
Twin serpents in one deep and winding nest;
He loathed all faith beside his own, and pined
To wreak his fear of Heaven in vengeance on mankind.
But more he loathed and hated the clear light
Of wisdom and free thought, and more did fear,
Lest, kindled once, its beams might pierce the night,
Even where his Idol stood; for far and near
Did many a heart in Europe leap to hear
That faith and tyranny were trampled down,--
Many a pale victim, doomed for truth to share
The murderer’s cell, or see with helpless groan
The Priests his children drag for slaves to serve their own.
He dared not kill the infidels with fire
Or steel, in Europe; the slow agonies
Of legal torture mocked his keen desire;
So he made truce with those who did despise
The expiation and the sacrifice,
That, though detested, Islam’s kindred creed
Might crush for him those deadlier enemies;
For fear of God did in his bosom breed
A jealous hate of man, an unreposing need.
’Peace! Peace!’ he cried, ’when we are dead, the Day
Of Judgment comes, and all shall surely know
Whose God is God; each fearfully shall pay
The errors of his faith in endless woe!
But there is sent a mortal vengeance now
On earth, because an impious race had spurned
Him whom we all adore,--a subtle foe,
By whom for ye this dread reward was earned,
And kingly thrones, which rest on faith, nigh overturned.
’Think ye, because ye weep and kneel and pray,
That God will lull the pestilence? It rose
Even from beneath his throne, where, many a day,
His mercy soothed it to a dark repose;
It walks upon the earth to judge his foes,
And what art thou and I, that he should deign
To curb his ghastly minister, or close
The gates of death, ere they receive the twain
Who shook with mortal spells his undefended reign?
’Ay, there is famine in the gulf of hell,
Its giant worms of fire forever yawn,--
Their lurid eyes are on us! those who fell
By the swift shafts of pestilence ere dawn
Are in their jaws! they hunger for the spawn
Of Satan, their own brethren, who were sent
To make our souls their spoil. See, see! they fawn
Like dogs, and they will sleep, with luxury spent,
When those detested hearts their iron fangs have rent!
’Our God may then lull Pestilence to sleep.
Pile high the pyre of expiation now!
A forest’s spoil of boughs; and on the heap
Pour venomous gums, which sullenly and slow,
When touched by flame, shall burn, and melt, and flow,
A stream of clinging fire--and fix on high
A net of iron, and spread forth below
A couch of snakes, and scorpions, and the fry
Of centipedes and worms, earth’s hellish progeny!
’Let Laon and Laone on that pyre,
Linked tight with burning brass, perish!--then pray
That with this sacrifice the withering ire
Of Heaven may be appeased.’ He ceased, and they
A space stood silent, as far, far away
The echoes of his voice among them died;
And he knelt down upon the dust, alway
Muttering the curses of his speechless pride,
Whilst shame, and fear, and awe, the armies did divide.
His voice was like a blast that burst the portal
Of fabled hell; and as he spake, each one
Saw gape beneath the chasms of fire immortal,
And Heaven above seemed cloven, where, on a throne
Girt round with storms and shadows, sate alone
Their King and Judge. Fear killed in every breast
All natural pity then, a fear unknown
Before, and with an inward fire possessed
They raged like homeless beasts whom burning woods invest.
’T was morn.--At noon the public crier went forth,
Proclaiming through the living and the dead,--
’The Monarch saith that his great empire’s worth
Is set on Laon and Laone’s head;
He who but one yet living here can lead,
Or who the life from both their hearts can wring,
Shall be the kingdom’s heir--a glorious meed!
But he who both alive can hither bring
The Princess shall espouse, and reign an equal King.’
Ere night the pyre was piled, the net of iron
Was spread above, the fearful couch below;
It overtopped the towers that did environ
That spacious square; for Fear is never slow
To build the thrones of Hate, her mate and foe;
So she scourged forth the maniac multitude
To rear this pyramid--tottering and slow,
Plague-stricken, foodless, like lean herds pursued
By gadflies, they have piled the heath and gums and wood.
Night came, a starless and a moonless gloom.
Until the dawn, those hosts of many a nation
Stood round that pile, as near one lover’s tomb
Two gentle sisters mourn their desolation;
And in the silence of that expectation
Was heard on high the reptiles’ hiss and crawl--
It was so deep, save when the devastation
Of the swift pest with fearful interval,
Marking its path with shrieks, among the crowd would fall.
Morn came.--Among those sleepless multitudes,
Madness, and Fear, and Plague, and Famine, still
Heaped corpse on corpse, as in autumnal woods
The frosts of many a wind with dead leaves fill
Earth’s cold and sullen brooks; in silence still,
The pale survivors stood; ere noon the fear
Of Hell became a panic, which did kill
Like hunger or disease, with whispers drear,
As ’Hush! hark! come they yet?--Just Heaven, thine hour is near!’
And Priests rushed through their ranks, some counterfeiting
The rage they did inspire, some mad indeed
With their own lies. They said their god was waiting
To see his enemies writhe, and burn, and bleed,--
And that, till then, the snakes of Hell had need
Of human souls; three hundred furnaces
Soon blazed through the wide City, where, with speed,
Men brought their infidel kindred to appease
God’s wrath, and, while they burned, knelt round on quivering knees.
The noontide sun was darkened with that smoke;
The winds of eve dispersed those ashes gray.
The madness, which these rites had lulled, awoke
Again at sunset. Who shall dare to say
The deeds which night and fear brought forth, or weigh
In balance just the good and evil there?
He might man’s deep and searchless heart display,
And cast a light on those dim labyrinths where
Hope near imagined chasm is struggling with despair.
’T is said a mother dragged three children then
To those fierce flames which roast the eyes in the head,
And laughed, and died; and that unholy men,
Feasting like fiends upon the infidel dead,
Looked from their meal, and saw an angel tread
The visible floor of Heaven, and it was she!
And, on that night, one without doubt or dread
Came to the fire, and said, ’Stop, I am he!
Kill me!’--They burned them both with hellish mockery.
And, one by one, that night, young maidens came,
Beauteous and calm, like shapes of living stone
Clothed in the light of dreams, and by the flame,
Which shrank as overgorged, they laid them down,
And sung a low sweet song, of which alone
One word was heard, and that was Liberty;
And that some kissed their marble feet, with moan
Like love, and died, and then that they did die
With happy smiles, which sunk in white tranquillity.