Songs Before Sunrise


Algernon Charles Swinburne

BETWEEN the wave-ridge and the strand
I let you forth in sight of land,
    Songs that with storm-crossed wings and eyes
    Strain eastward till the darkness dies;
Let signs and beacons fall or stand,
    And stars and balefires set and rise;
Ye, till some lordlier lyric hand
    Weave the beloved brows their crown,
    At the beloved feet lie down.

O, whatsoever of life or light
Love hath to give you, what of might
    Or heart or hope is yours to live,
    I charge you take in trust to give
For very love’s sake, in whose sight,
    Through poise of hours alternative
And seasons plumed with light or night,
    Ye live and move and have your breath
    To sing with on the ridge of death.

I charge you faint not all night through
For love’s sake that was breathed on you
    To be to you as wings and feet
    For travel, and as blood to heat
And sense of spirit to renew
    And bloom of fragrance to keep sweet
And fire of purpose to keep true
    The life, if life in such things be,
    That I would give you forth of me.

Out where the breath of war may bear,
Out in the rank moist reddened air
    That sounds and smells of death, and hath
    No light but death’s upon its path
Seen through the black wind’s tangled hair,
    I send you past the wild time’s wrath
To find his face who bade you bear
    Fruit of his seed to faith and love,
    That he may take the heart thereof.

By day or night, by sea or street,
Fly till ye find and clasp his feet
    And kiss as worshippers who bring
    Too much love on their lips to sing,
But with hushed heads accept and greet
    The presence of some heavenlier thing
In the near air; so may ye meet
    His eyes, and droop not utterly
    For shame’s sake at the light you see.

Not utterly struck spiritless
For shame’s sake and unworthiness
    Of these poor forceless hands that come
    Empty, these lips that should be dumb,
This love whose seal can but impress
    These weak word-offerings wearisome
Whose blessings have not strength to bless
    Nor lightnings fire to burn up aught
    Nor smite with thunders of their thought.

One thought they have, even love; one light,
Truth, that keeps clear the sun by night;
    One chord, of faith as of a lyre;
    One heat, of hope as of a fire;
One heart, one music, and one might,
    One flame, one altar, and one choir;
And one man’s living head in sight
    Who said, when all time’s sea was foam,
    “Let there be Rome”—and there was Rome.

As a star set in space for token
Like a live word of God’s mouth spoken,
    Visible sound, light audible,
    In the great darkness thick as hell
A stanchless flame of love unsloken,
    A sign to conquer and compel,
A law to stand in heaven unbroken
    Whereby the sun shines, and wherethrough
    Time’s eldest empires are made new;

So rose up on our generations
That light of the most ancient nations,
    Law, life, and light, on the world’s way,
    The very God of very day,
The sun-god; from their star-like stations
    Far down the night in disarray
Fled, crowned with fires of tribulations,
    The suns of sunless years, whose light
    And life and law were of the night.

The naked kingdoms quenched and stark
Drave with their dead things down the dark,
    Helmless; their whole world, throne by throne,
    Fell, and its whole heart turned to stone,
Hopeless; their hands that touched our ark
    Withered; and lo, aloft, alone,
On time’s white waters man’s one bark,
    Where the red sundawn’s open eye
    Lit the soft gulf of low green sky.

So for a season piloted
It sailed the sunlight, and struck red
    With fire of dawn reverberate
    The wan face of incumbent fate
That paused half pitying overhead
    And almost had foregone the freight
Of those dark hours the next day bred
    For shame, and almost had forsworn
    Service of night for love of morn.

Then broke the whole night in one blow,
Thundering; then all hell with one throe
    Heaved, and brought forth beneath the stroke
    Death; and all dead things moved and woke
That the dawn’s arrows had brought low,
    At the great sound of night that broke
Thundering, and all the old world-wide woe;
    And under night’s loud-sounding dome
    Men sought her, and she was not Rome.

Still with blind hands and robes blood-wet
Night hangs on heaven, reluctant yet,
    With black blood dripping from her eyes 1
    On the soiled lintels of the skies,
With brows and lips that thirst and threat,
    Heart-sick with fear lest the sun rise,
And aching with her fires that set,
    And shuddering ere dawn bursts her bars,
    Burns out with all her beaten stars.

In this black wind of war they fly
Now, ere that hour be in the sky
    That brings back hope, and memory back,
    And light and law to lands that lack;
That spiritual sweet hour whereby
    The bloody-handed night and black
Shall be cast out of heaven to die;
    Kingdom by kingdom, crown by crown,
    The fires of darkness are blown down.

Yet heavy, grievous yet the weight
Sits on us of imperfect fate.
    From wounds of other days and deeds
    Still this day’s breathing body bleeds;
Still kings for fear and slaves for hate
    Sow lives of men on earth like seeds
In the red soil they saturate;
    And we, with faces eastward set,
    Stand sightless of the morning yet.

And many for pure sorrow’s sake
Look back and stretch back hands to take
    Gifts of night’s giving, ease and sleep,
    Flowers of night’s grafting, strong to steep
The soul in dreams it will not break,
    Songs of soft hours that sigh and sweep
Its lifted eyelids nigh to wake
    With subtle plumes and lulling breath
    That soothe its weariness to death.

And many, called of hope and pride,
Fall ere the sunrise from our side.
    Fresh lights and rumours of fresh fames
    That shift and veer by night like flames,
Shouts and blown trumpets, ghosts that glide
    Calling, and hail them by dead names,
Fears, angers, memories, dreams divide
    Spirit from spirit, and wear out
    Strong hearts of men with hope and doubt.

Till time beget and sorrow bear
The soul-sick eyeless child despair,
    That comes among us, mad and blind,
    With counsels of a broken mind,
Tales of times dead and woes that were,
    And, prophesying against mankind,
Shakes out the horror of her hair
    To take the sunlight with its coils
    And hold the living soul in toils.

By many ways of death and moods
Souls pass into their servitudes.
    Their young wings weaken, plume by plume
    Drops, and their eyelids gather gloom
And close against man’s frauds and feuds,
    And their tongues call they know not whom
To help in their vicissitudes;
    For many slaveries are, but one
    Liberty, single as the sun.

One light, one law, that burns up strife,
And one sufficiency of life.
    Self-stablished, the sufficing soul
    Hears the loud wheels of changes roll,
Sees against man man bare the knife,
    Sees the world severed, and is whole;
Sees force take dowerless fraud to wife,
    And fear from fraud’s incestuous bed
    Crawl forth and smite his father dead:

Sees death made drunk with war, sees time
Weave many-coloured crime with crime,
    State overthrown on ruining state,
    And dares not be disconsolate.
Only the soul hath feet to climb,
    Only the soul hath room to wait,
Hath brows and eyes to hold sublime
    Above all evil and all good,
    All strength and all decrepitude.

She only, she since earth began,
The many-minded soul of man,
    From one incognizable root
    That bears such divers-coloured fruit,
Hath ruled for blessing or for ban
    The flight of seasons and pursuit;
She regent, she republican,
    With wide and equal eyes and wings
    Broods on things born and dying things.

Even now for love or doubt of us
The hour intense and hazardous
    Hangs high with pinions vibrating
    Whereto the light and darkness cling,
Dividing the dim season thus,
    And shakes from one ambiguous wing
Shadow, and one is luminous,
    And day falls from it; so the past
    Torments the future to the last.

And we that cannot hear or see
The sounds and lights of liberty,
    The witness of the naked God
    That treads on burning hours unshod
With instant feet unwounded; we
    That can trace only where he trod
By fire in heaven or storm at sea,
    Not know the very present whole
    And naked nature of the soul;

We that see wars and woes and kings,
And portents of enormous things,
    Empires, and agonies, and slaves,
    And whole flame of town-swallowing graves;
That hear the harsh hours clap sharp wings
    Above the roar of ranks like waves,
From wreck to wreck as the world swings;
    Know but that men there are who see
    And hear things other far than we.

By the light sitting on their brows,
The fire wherewith their presence glows,
    The music falling with their feet,
    The sweet sense of a spirit sweet
That with their speech or motion grows
    And breathes and burns men’s hearts with heat;
By these signs there is none but knows
    Men who have life and grace to give,
    Men who have seen the soul and live.

By the strength sleeping in their eyes,
The lips whereon their sorrow lies
    Smiling, the lines of tears unshed,
    The large divine look of one dead
That speaks out of the breathless skies
    In silence, when the light is shed
Upon man’s soul of memories;
    The supreme look that sets love free,
    The look of stars and of the sea;

By the strong patient godhead seen
Implicit in their mortal mien,
    The conscience of a God held still
    And thunders ruled by their own will
And fast-bound fires that might burn clean
    This worldly air that foul things fill,
And the afterglow of what has been,
    That, passing, shows us without word
    What they have seen, what they have heard,

By all these keen and burning signs
The spirit knows them and divines.
    In bonds, in banishment, in grief,
    Scoffed at and scourged with unbelief,
Foiled with false trusts and thwart designs,
    Stripped of green days and hopes in leaf,
Their mere bare body of glory shines
    Higher, and man gazing surelier sees
    What light, what comfort is of these.

So I now gazing; till the sense
Being set on fire of confidence
    Strains itself sunward, feels out far
    Beyond the bright and morning star,
Beyond the extreme wave’s refluence,
    To where the fierce first sunbeams are
Whose fire intolerant and intense
    As birthpangs whence day burns to be
    Parts breathless heaven from breathing sea.

I see not, know not, and am blest,
Master, who know that thou knowest,
    Dear lord and leader, at whose hand
    The first days and the last days stand,
With scars and crowns on head and breast,
    That fought for love of the sweet land
Or shall fight in her latter quest;
    All the days armed and girt and crowned
    Whose glories ring thy glory round.

Thou sawest, when all the world was blind,
The light that should be of mankind,
    The very day that was to be;
    And how shalt thou not sometime see
Thy city perfect to thy mind
    Stand face to living face with thee,
And no miscrowned man’s head behind;
    The hearth of man, the human home,
    The central flame that shall be Rome?

As one that ere a June day rise
Makes seaward for the dawn, and tries
    The water with delighted limbs
    That taste the sweet dark sea, and swims
Right eastward under strengthening skies,
    And sees the gradual rippling rims
Of waves whence day breaks blossom-wise
    Take fire ere light peer well above,
    And laughs from all his heart with love;

And softlier swimming with raised head
Feels the full flower of morning shed
    And fluent sunrise round him rolled
    That laps and laves his body bold
With fluctuant heaven in water’s stead,
    And urgent through the growing gold
Strikes, and sees all the spray flash red,
    And his soul takes the sun, and yearns
    For joy wherewith the sea’s heart burns;

So the soul seeking through the dark
Heavenward, a dove without an ark,
    Transcends the unnavigable sea
    Of years that wear out memory;
So calls, a sunward-singing lark,
    In the ear of souls that should be free;
So points them toward the sun for mark
    Who steer not for the stress of waves,
    And seek strange helmsmen, and are slaves.

For if the swimmer’s eastward eye
Must see no sunrise—must put by
    The hope that lifted him and led
    Once, to have light about his head,
To see beneath the clear low sky
    The green foam-whitened wave wax red
And all the morning’s banner fly—
    Then, as earth’s helpless hopes go down,
    Let earth’s self in the dark tides drown.

Yea, if no morning must behold
Man, other than were they now cold,
    And other deeds than past deeds done,
    Nor any near or far-off sun
Salute him risen and sunlike-souled,
    Free, boundless, fearless, perfect, one,
Let man’s world die like worlds of old,
    And here in heaven’s sight only be
    The sole sun on the worldless sea.

1.    AEsch. Cho. 1058.    [back]

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