Elegy (Swinburne)

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Elegy
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
This poem is from the collection Astrophel and Other Poems, Book I of The Collected Poetical Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, Vol. VI.


1869-1891

     Auvergne, Auvergne, O wild and woful land,
       O glorious land and gracious, white as gleam
     The stairs of heaven, black as a flameless brand,
       Strange even as life, and stranger than a dream,

     Could earth remember man, whose eyes made bright
       The splendour of her beauty, lit by day
     Or soothed and softened and redeemed by night,
       Wouldst thou not know what light has passed away?

     Wouldst thou not know whom England, whom the world,
       Mourns? For the world whose wildest ways he trod,
     And smiled their dangers down that coiled and curled
       Against him, knows him now less man than god.

     Our demigod of daring, keenest-eyed
       To read and deepest read in earth's dim things,
     A spirit now whose body of death has died
       And left it mightier yet in eyes and wings,
     The sovereign seeker of the world, who now
       Hath sought what world the light of death may show,
     Hailed once with me the crowns that load thy brow,
       Crags dark as midnight, columns bright as snow.

     Thy steep small Siena, splendid and content
       As shines the mightier city's Tuscan pride
     Which here its face reflects in radiance, pent
       By narrower bounds from towering side to side,

     Set fast between the ridged and foamless waves
       Of earth more fierce and fluctuant than the sea,
     The fearless town of towers that hails and braves
       The heights that gird, the sun that brands Le Puy;

     The huddled churches clinging on the cliffs
       As birds alighting might for storm's sake cling,
     Moored to the rocks as tempest-harried skiffs
       To perilous refuge from the loud wind's wing;

     The stairs on stairs that wind and change and climb
       Even up to the utmost crag's edge curved and curled,
     More bright than vision, more than faith sublime,
       Strange as the light and darkness of the world;

     Strange as are night and morning, stars and sun,
       And washed from west and east by day's deep tide.
     Shine yet less fair, when all their heights are won,
       Than sundawn shows thy pillared mountain-side.

     Even so the dawn of death, whose light makes dim
       The starry fires that life sees rise and set,
     Shows higher than here he shone before us him
       Whom faith forgets not, nor shall fame forget.

     Even so those else unfooted heights we clomb
       Through scudding mist and eddying whirls of cloud,
     Blind as a pilot beaten blind with foam,
       And shrouded as a corpse with storm's grey shroud,

     Foot following foot along the sheer strait ledge
       Where space was none to bear the wild goat's feet
     Till blind we sat on the outer footless edge
       Where darkling death seemed fain to share the seat,

     The abyss before us, viewless even as time's,
       The abyss to left of us, the abyss to right,
     Bid thought now dream how high the freed soul climbs
       That death sets free from change of day and night.

     The might of raging mist and wind whose wrath
       Shut from our eyes the narrowing rock we trod,
     The wondrous world it darkened, made our path
       Like theirs who take the shadow of death for God.

     Yet eastward, veiled in vapour white as snow,
       The grim black herbless heights that scorn the sun
     And mock the face of morning rose to show
       The work of earth-born fire and earthquake done.

     And half the world was haggard night, wherein
       We strove our blind way through: but far above
     Was light that watched the wild mists whirl and spin,
       And far beneath a land worth light and love.

     Deep down the Valley of the Curse, undaunted
       By shadow and whisper of winds with sins for wings
     And ghosts of crime wherethrough the heights live haunted
       By present sense of past and monstrous things,

     The glimmering water holds its gracious way
       Full forth, and keeps one happier hand's-breadth green
     Of all that storm-scathed world whereon the sway
       Sits dark as death of deadlier things unseen.

     But on the soundless and the viewless river
       That bears through night perchance again to day
     The dead whom death and twin-born fame deliver
       From life that dies, and time's inveterate sway,

     No shadow save of falsehood and of fear
       That brands the future with the past, and bids
     The spirit wither and the soul grow sere,
       Hovers or hangs to cloud life's opening lids,

     If life have eyes to lift again and see,
       Beyond the bounds of sensual sight or breath,
     What life incognisable of ours may be
       That turns our light to darkness deep as death.

     Priests and the soulless serfs of priests may swarm
       With vulturous acclamation, loud in lies,
     About his dust while yet his dust is warm
       Who mocked as sunlight mocks their base blind eyes,

     Their godless ghost of godhead, false and foul
       As fear his dam or hell his throne: but we,
     Scarce hearing, heed no carrion church-wolf's howl:
       The corpse be theirs to mock; the soul is free.

     Free as ere yet its earthly day was done
       It lived above the coil about us curled:
     A soul whose eyes were keener than the sun,
       A soul whose wings were wider than the world.

     We, sons of east and west, ringed round with dreams,
       Bound fast with visions, girt about with fears,
     Live, trust, and think by chance, while shadow seems
       Light, and the wind that wrecks a hand that steers.

     He, whose full soul held east and west in poise,
       Weighed man with man, and creed of man's with creed,
     And age with age, their triumphs and their toys,
       And found what faith may read not and may read.

     Scorn deep and strong as death and life, that lit
       With fire the smile at lies and dreams outworn
     Wherewith he smote them, showed sublime in it
       The splendour and the steadfastness of scorn.

     What loftier heaven, what lordlier air, what space
       Illimitable, insuperable, infinite,
     Now to that strong-winged soul yields ampler place
       Than passing darkness yields to passing light,

     No dream, no faith can tell us: hope and fear,
       Whose tongues were loud of old as children's, now
     From babbling fall to silence: change is here,
       And death; dark furrows drawn by time's dark plough.

     Still sunward here on earth its flight was bent,
       Even since the man within the child began
     To yearn and kindle with superb intent
       And trust in time to magnify the man.

     Still toward the old garden of the Sun, whose fruit
       The honey-heavy lips of Sophocles
     Desired and sang, wherein the unwithering root
       Sprang of all growths that thought brings forth and sees

     Incarnate, bright with bloom or dense with leaf
       Far-shadowing, deep as depth of dawn or night:
     And all were parcel of the garnered sheaf
       His strenuous spirit bound and stored aright.

     And eastward now, and ever toward the dawn,
       If death's deep veil by life's bright hand be rent,
     We see, as through the shadow of death withdrawn,
       The imperious soul's indomitable ascent.

     But not the soul whose labour knew not end--
       But not the swordsman's hand, the crested head--
     The royal heart we mourn, the faultless friend,
       Burton--a name that lives till fame be dead.