Tristram of Lyonesse and Other Poems

The Statue of Victor Hugo

Algernon Charles Swinburne


SINCE in Athens God stood plain for adoration,
    Since the sun beheld his likeness reared in stone,
Since the bronze or gold of human consecration
    Gave to Greece her guardian’s form and feature shown,
Never hand of sculptor, never heart of nation,
    Found so glorious aim in all these ages flown
As is theirs who rear for all time’s acclamation
    Here the likeness of our mightiest and their own.



Theirs and ours and all men’s living who behold him
    Crowned with garlands multiform and manifold;
Praise and thanksgiving of all mankind enfold him
    Who for all men casts abroad his gifts of gold.
With the gods of song have all men’s tongues enrolled him,
    With the helpful gods have all men’s hearts enrolled:
Ours he is who love him, ours whose hearts’ hearts hold him
    Fast as his the trust that hearts like his may hold.



He, the heart most high, the spirit on earth most blameless,
    Takes in charge all spirits, holds all hearts in trust:
As the sea-wind’s on the sea his ways are tameless,
    As the laws that steer the world his works are just.
All most noble feel him nobler, all most shameless
    Feel his wrath and scorn make pale their pride and lust:
All most poor and lowliest, all whose wrongs were nameless,
    Feel his word of comfort raise them from the dust



Pride of place and lust of empire bloody-fruited
    Knew the blasting of his breath on leaf and fruit:
Now the hand that smote the death-tree now disrooted
    Plants the refuge-tree that has man’s hope for root
Ah, but we by whom his darkness was saluted,
    How shall now all we that see his day salute?
How should love not seem by love’s own speech confuted,
    Song before the sovereign singer not be mute?



With what worship, by what blessing, in what measure,
    May we sing of him, salute him, or adore,
With what hymn for praise, what thanksgiving for pleasure,
    Who had given us more than heaven, and gives us more?
Heaven’s whole treasury, filled up full with night’s whole treasure,
    Holds not so divine or deep a starry store
As the soul supreme that deals forth worlds at leisure
    Clothed with light and darkness, dense with flower and ore.



Song had touched the bourn: fresh verses overflow it,
    Loud and radiant, waves on waves on waves that throng;
Still the tide grows, and the sea-mark still below it
    Sinks and shifts and rises, changed and swept along.
Rose it like a rock? the waters overthrow it,
    And another stands beyond them sheer and strong:
Goal by goal pays down its prize, and yields its poet
    Tribute claimed of triumph, palm achieved of song.



Since his hand that holds the keys of fear and wonder
    Opened on the high priest’s dreaming eyes a door
Whence the lights of heaven and hell above and under
    Shone, and smote the face that men bow down before,
Thrice again one singer’s note had cloven in sunder
    Night, who blows again not one blast now but four,
And the fourfold heaven is kindled with his thunder,
    And the stars about his forehead are fourscore.



From the deep soul’s depths where alway love abounded
    First had risen a song with healing on its wings
Whence the dews of mercy raining balms unbounded
    Shed their last compassion even on sceptred things.1
Even on heads that like a curse the crown surrounded
    Fell his crowning pity, soft as cleansing springs;
And the sweet last note his wrath relenting sounded
    Bade men’s hearts be melted not for slaves but kings.



Next, that faith might strengthen fear and love embolden,
    On the creeds of priests a scourge of sunbeams fell:
And its flash made bare the deeps of heaven, beholden
    Not of men that cry, Lord, Lord, from church or cell.2
Hope as young as dawn from night obscure and olden
    Rose again, such power abides in truth’s one spell:
Night, if dawn it be that touches her, grows golden;
    Tears, if such as angels weep, extinguish hell.



Through the blind loud mills of barren blear-eyed learning
    Where in dust and darkness children’s foreheads bow,
While men’s labour, vain as wind or water turning
    Wheels and sails of dreams, makes life a leafless bough,
Fell the light of scorn and pity touched with yearning,
    Next, from words that shone as heaven’s own kindling brow.3
Stars were these as watch-fires on the world’s waste burning,
    Stars that fade not in the fourfold sunrise now.4



Now the voice that faints not till all wrongs be wroken
    Sounds as might the sun’s song from the morning’s breast,
All the seals of silence sealed of night are broken,
    All the winds that bear the fourfold word are blest.
All the keen fierce east flames forth one fiery token;
    All the north is loud with life that knows not rest,
All the south with song as though the stars had spoken;
    All the judgment-fire of sunset scathes the west.



Sound of pæan, roll of chanted panegyric,
    Though by Pindar’s mouth song’s trumpet spake forth praise,
March of warrior songs in Pythian mood or Pyrrhic,
    Though the blast were blown by lips of ancient days,
Ring not clearer than the clarion of satiric
    Song whose breath sweeps bare the plague-infected ways
Till the world be pure as heaven is for the lyric
    Sun to rise up clothed with radiant sounds as rays.



Clear across the cloud-rack fluctuant and erratic
    As the strong star smiles that lets no mourner mourn,
Hymned alike from lips of Lesbian choirs or Attic
    Once at evensong and morning newly born,
Clear and sure above the changes of dramatic
    Tide and current, soft with love and keen with scorn,
Smiles the strong sweet soul of maidenhood, ecstatic
    And inviolate as the red glad mouth of morn.



Pure and passionate as dawn, whose apparition
    Thrills with fire from heaven the wheels of hours that whirl,
Rose and passed her radiance in serene transition
    From his eyes who sought a grain and found a pearl.
But the food by cunning hope for vain fruition
    Lightly stolen away from keeping of a churl
Left the bitterness of death and hope’s perdition
    On the lip that scorn was wont for shame to curl.5



Over waves that darken round the wave-worn rover
    Rang his clarion higher than winds cried round the ship,
Rose a pageant of set suns and storms blown over,
    Hands that held life’s guerdons fast or let them slip.
But no tongue may tell, no thanksgiving discover,
    Half the heaven of blessing, soft with clouds that drip,
Keen with beams that kindle, dear as love to lover,
    Opening by the spell’s strength on his lyric lip.



By that spell the soul transfigured and dilated
    Puts forth wings that widen, breathes a brightening air,
Feeds on light and drinks of music, whence elated
    All her sense grows godlike, seeing all depths made bare,
All the mists wherein before she sat belated
    Shrink, till now the sunlight knows not if they were;
All this earth transformed is Eden recreated,
    With the breath of heaven remurmuring in her hair.



Sweeter far than aught of sweet that April nurses
    Deep in dew-dropt woodland folded fast and furled
Breathes the fragrant song whose burning dawn disperses
    Darkness, like the surge of armies backward hurled,
Even as though the touch of spring’s own hand, that pierces
    Earth with life’s delight, had hidden in the impearled
Golden bells and buds and petals of his verses
    All the breath of all the flowers in all the world.



But the soul therein, the light that our souls follow,
    Fires and fills the song with more of prophet’s pride,
More of life than all the gulfs of death may swallow,
    More of flame than all the might of night may hide.
Though the whole dark age were loud and void and hollow,
    Strength of trust were here, and help for all souls tried,
And a token from the flight of that strange swallow6
    Whose migration still is toward the wintry side.



Never came such token for divine solution
    From the oraculous live darkness whence of yore
Ancient faith sought word of help and retribution,
    Truth to lighten doubt, a sign to go before.
Never so baptismal waters of ablution
    Bathed the brows of exile on so stern a shore,
Where the lightnings of the sea of revolution
    Flashed across them ere its thunders yet might roar.



By the lightning’s light of present revelation
    Shown, with epic thunder as from skies that frown,
Clothed in darkness as of darkling expiation,
    Rose a vision of dead stars and suns gone down,
Whence of old fierce fire devoured the star-struck nation,
    Till its wrath and woe lit red the raging town,
Now made glorious with his statue’s crowning station,
    Where may never gleam again a viler crown.



King, with time for throne and all the years for pages,
    He shall reign though all thrones else be over-hurled,
Served of souls that have his living words for wages,
    Crowned of heaven each dawn that leaves his brows impearled;
Girt about with robes unrent of storm that rages,
    Robes not wrought with hands, from no loom’s weft unfurled;
All the praise of all earth’s tongues in all earth’s ages,
    All the love of all men’s hearts in all the world.



Yet what hand shall carve the soul or cast the spirit,
    Mould the face of fame, bid glory’s feature glow?
Who bequeath for eyes of ages hence to inherit
    Him, the Master, whom love knows not if it know?
Scarcely perfect praise of men man’s work might merit,
    Scarcely bid such aim to perfect stature grow,
Were his hand the hand of Phidias who shall rear it,
    And his soul the very soul of Angelo.



Michael, awful angel of the world’s last session,
    Once on earth, like him, with fire of suffering tried,
Thine it were, if man’s it were, without transgression,
    Thine alone, to take this toil upon thy pride.
Thine, whose heart was great against the world’s oppression,
    Even as his whose word is lamp and staff and guide:
Advocate for man, untired of intercession,
    Pleads his voice for slaves whose lords his voice defied.



Earth, with all the kings and thralls on earth, below it,
    Heaven alone, with all the worlds in heaven, above,
Let his likeness rise for suns and stars to know it,
    High for men to worship, plain for men to love:
Brow that braved the tides which fain would overflow it,
    Lip that gave the challenge, hand that flung the glove;
Comforter and prophet, Paraclete and poet,
    Soul whose emblems are an eagle and a dove.



Sun, that hast not seen a loftier head wax hoary,
    Earth, which hast not shown the sun a nobler birth,
Time, that hast not on thy scroll denied and gory
    One man’s name writ brighter in its whole wide girth,
Witness, till the final years fulfil their story,
    Till the stars break off the music of their mirth,
What among the sons of men was this man’s glory,
    What the vesture of his soul revealed on earth.

1.    La Pitié Suprême. - 1879    [back]

2.    Religions et Religion. - 1880    [back]

3.    L’Ane. - 1880.    [back]

4.    Les Quatre Vents de L’Esprit.
                I. Le Livre satirique.
                II. Le Livre dramatique.
                III. Le Livre lyrigue.
                IV. Le Livre épique.

                                1881.    [back]

5.    Les Deux Trouvailles de Gallus.
                I. Margarita, comédie.
                II. Esca, drame.

6.    Je suis une hirondelle étrange, car j’émigre,
                Du côté de l’hiver.
                                Le Livre Lyrique liii.    [back]

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