Poems and Ballads

To Victor Hugo

Algernon Charles Swinburne

        IN the fair days when God
        By man as godlike trod,
And each alike was Greek, alike was free,
        God’s lightning spared, they said,
        Alone the happier head
Whose laurels screened it; fruitless grace for thee,
    To whom the high gods gave of right
Their thunders and their laurels and their light.

        Sunbeams and bays before
        Our master’s servants wore,
For these Apollo left in all men’s lands;
        But far from these ere now
        And watched with jealous brow
Lay the blind lightnings shut between God’s hands,
    And only loosed on slaves and kings
The terror of the tempest of their wings.

        Born in those younger years
        That shone with storms of spears
And shook in the wind blown from a dead world’s pyre,
        When by her back-blown hair
        Napoleon caught the fair
And fierce Republic with her feet of fire,
        And stayed with iron words and hands
Her flight, and freedom in a thousand lands:

        Thou sawest the tides of things
        Close over heads of kings,
And thine hand felt the thunder, and to thee
        Laurels and lightnings were
        As sunbeams and soft air
Mixed each in other, or as mist with sea
        Mixed, or as memory with desire,
Or the lute’s pulses with the louder lyre.

        For thee man’s spirit stood
        Disrobed of flesh and blood,
And bare the heart of the most secret hours;
        And to thine hand more tame
        Than birds in winter came
High hopes and unknown flying forms of powers,
        And from thy table fed, and sang
Till with the tune men’s ears took fire and rang.

        Even all men’s eyes and ears
        With fiery sound and tears
Waxed hot, and cheeks caught flame and eyelids light,
        At those high songs of thine
        That stung the sense like wine,
Or fell more soft than dew or snow by night,
        Or wailed as in some flooded cave
Sobs the strong broken spirit of a wave.

        But we, our master, we
        Whose hearts, uplift to thee,
Ache with the pulse of thy remembered song,
        We ask not nor await
        From the clenched hands of fate,
As thou, remission of the world’s old wrong;
        Respite we ask not, nor release;
Freedom a man may have, he shall not peace.

        Though thy most fiery hope
        Storm heaven, to set wide ope
The all-sought-for gate whence God or Chance debars
        All feet of men, all eyes—
        The old night resumes her skies,
Her hollow hiding-place of clouds and stars,
        Where nought save these is sure in sight;
And, paven with death, our days are roofed with night.

        One thing we can; to be
        Awhile, as men may, free;
But not by hope or pleasure the most stern
        Goddess, most awful-eyed,
        Sits, but on either side
Sit sorrow and the wrath of hearts that burn,
        Sad faith that cannot hope or fear,
And memory grey with many a flowerless year.

        Not that in stranger’s wise
        I lift not loving eyes
To the fair foster-mother France, that gave
        Beyond the pale fleet foam
        Help to my sires and home,
Whose great sweet breast could shelter those and save
        Whom from her nursing breasts and hands
Their land cast forth of old on gentler lands.

        Not without thoughts that ache
        For theirs and for thy sake,
I, born of exiles, hail thy banished head;
        I whose young song took flight
        Toward the great heat and light
On me a child from thy far splendour shed,
        From thine high place of soul and song,
Which, fallen on eyes yet feeble, made them strong.

        Ah, not with lessening love
        For memories born hereof,
I look to that sweet mother-land, and see
        The old fields and fair full streams,
        And skies, but fled like dreams
The feet of freedom and the thought of thee;
        And all between the skies and graves
The mirth of mockers and the shame of slaves.

        She, killed with noisome air,
        Even she! and still so fair,
Who said “Let there be freedom,” and there was
        Freedom; and as a lance
        The fiery eyes of France
Touched the world’s sleep and as a sleep made pass
        Forth of men’s heavier ears and eyes
Smitten with fire and thunder from new skies.

        Are they men’s friends indeed
        Who watch them weep and bleed?
Because thou hast loved us, shall the gods love thee?
        Thou, first of men and friend,
        Seest thou, even thou, the end?
Thou knowest what hath been, knowest thou what shall be?
        Evils may pass and hopes endure;
But fate is dim, and all the gods obscure.

        O nursed in airs apart,
        O poet highest of heart,
Hast thou seen time, who hast seen so many things?
        Are not the years more wise,
        More sad than keenest eyes,
The years with soundless feet and sounding wings?
        Passing we hear them not, but past
The clamour of them thrills us, and their blast.

        Thou art chief of us, and lord;
        Thy song is as a sword
Keen-edged and scented in the blade from flowers;
        Thou art lord and king; but we
        Lift younger eyes, and see
Less of high hope, less light on wandering hours;
        Hours that have borne men down so long,
Seen the right fail, and watched uplift the wrong.

        But thine imperial soul,
        As years and ruins roll
To the same end, and all things and all dreams
        With the same wreck and roar
        Drift on the dim same shore,
Still in the bitter foam and brackish streams
        Tracks the fresh water-spring to be
And sudden sweeter fountains in the sea.

        As once the high God bound
        With many a rivet round
Man’s saviour, and with iron nailed him through,
        At the wild end of things,
        Where even his own bird’s wings
Flagged, whence the sea shone like a drop of dew,
        From Caucasus beheld below
Past fathoms of unfathomable snow;

        So the strong God, the chance
        Central of circumstance,
Still shows him exile who will not be slave;
        All thy great fame and thee
        Girt by the dim strait sea
With multitudinous walls of wandering wave;
        Shows us our greatest from his throne
Fate-stricken, and rejected of his own.

        Yea, he is strong, thou say’st,
        A mystery many-faced,
The wild beasts know him and the wild birds flee;
        The blind night sees him, death
        Shrinks beaten at his breath,
And his right hand is heavy on the sea:
        We know he hath made us, and is king;
We know not if he care for anything.

        Thus much, no more, we know;
        He bade what is be so,
Bade light be and bade night be, one by one;
        Bade hope and fear, bade ill
        And good redeem and kill,
Till all men be aweary of the sun
        And his world burn in its own flame
And bear no witness longer of his name.

        Yet though all this be thus,
        Be those men praised of us
Who have loved and wrought and sorrowed and not sinned
        For fame or fear or gold,
        Nor waxed for winter cold,
Nor changed for changes of the worldly wind;
        Praised above men of men be these,
Till this one world and work we know shall cease.

        Yea, one thing more than this,
        We know that one thing is,
The splendour of a spirit without blame,
        That not the labouring years
        Blind-born, nor any fears,
Nor men nor any gods can tire or tame;
        But purer power with fiery breath
Fills, and exalts above the gulfs of death.

        Praised above men be thou,
        Whose laurel-laden brow,
Made for the morning, droops not in the night;
        Praised and beloved, that none
        Of all thy great things done
Flies higher than thy most equal spirit’s flight;
        Praised, that nor doubt nor hope could bend
Earth’s loftiest head, found upright to the end.

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