Songs Before Sunrise


Algernon Charles Swinburne


IT IS an hour before the hour of dawn.
    Set in mine hand my staff and leave me here
    Outside the hollow house that blind men fear,
More blind than I who live on life withdrawn
    And feel on eyes that see not but foresee
    The shadow of death which clothes Antigone.

Here lay her living body that here lies
    Dead, if man living know what thing is death,
    If life be all made up of blood and breath,
And no sense be save as of ears and eyes.
    But heart there is not, tongue there is not found,
    To think or sing what verge hath life or bound.

In the beginning when the powers that made
    The young child man a little loved him, seeing
    His joy of life and fair face of his being,
And bland and laughing with the man-child played,
    As friends they saw on our divine one day
    King Cadmus take to queen Harmonia.

The strength of soul that builds up as with hands
    Walls spiritual and towers and towns of thought
    Which only fate, not force, can bring to nought,
Took then to wife the light of all men’s lands,
    War’s child and love’s, most sweet and wise and strong,
    Order of things and rule and guiding song.

It was long since: yea, even the sun that saw
    Remembers hardly what was, nor how long.
    And now the wise heart of the worldly song
Is perished, and the holy hand of law
    Can set no tune on time, nor help again
    The power of thought to build up life for men.

Yea, surely are they now transformed or dead,
    And sleep below this world, where no sun warms,
    Or move about it now in formless forms
Incognizable, and all their lordship fled;
    And where they stood up singing crawl and hiss,
    With fangs that kill behind their lips that kiss.

Yet though her marriage-garment, seeming fair,
    Was dyed in sin and woven of jealousy
    To turn their seed to poison, time shall see
The gods reissue from them, and repair
    Their broken stamp of godhead, and again
    Thought and wise love sing words of law to men.

I, Tiresias the prophet, seeing in Thebes
    Much evil, and the misery of men’s hands
    Who sow with fruitless wheat the stones and sands,
With fruitful thorns the fallows and warm glebes,
    Bade their hands hold lest worse hap came to pass;
    But which of you had heed of Tiresias?

I am as Time’s self in mine own wearied mind,
    Whom the strong heavy-footed years have led
    From night to night and dead men unto dead,
And from the blind hope to the memory blind;
    For each man’s life is woven, as Time’s life is,
    Of blind young hopes and old blind memories.

I am a soul outside of death and birth.
    I see before me and afterward I see,
    O child, O corpse, the live dead face of thee,
Whose life and death are one thing upon earth
    Where day kills night and night again kills day
    And dies; but where is that Harmonia?

O all-beholden light not seen of me,
    Air, and warm winds that under the sun’s eye
    Stretch your strong wings at morning; and thou, sky,
Whose hollow circle engirdling earth and sea
    All night the set stars limit, and all day
    The moving sun remeasures; ye, I say,

Ye heights of hills, and thou Dircean spring
    Inviolable, and ye towers that saw cast down
    Seven kings keen-sighted toward your seven-faced town
And quenched the red seed of one sightless king;
    And thou, for death less dreadful than for birth,
    Whose wild leaves hide the horror of the earth,

O mountain whereon gods made chase of kings,
    Cithæron, thou that sawest on Pentheus dead
    Fangs of a mother fasten and wax red
And satiate with a son thy swollen springs,
    And heardst her cry fright all thine eyries’ nests
    Who gave death suck at sanguine-suckling breasts;

Yea, and a grief more grievous, without name,
    A curse too grievous for the name of grief,
    Thou sawest, and heardst the rumour scare belief
Even unto death and madness, when the flame
    Was lit whose ashes dropped about the pyre
    That of two brethren made one sundering fire;

O bitter nurse, that on thine hard bare knees
    Rear’dst for his fate the bloody-footed child
    Whose hands should be more bloodily defiled
And the old blind feet walk wearier ways than these,
    Whose seed, brought forth in darkness unto doom,
    Should break as fire out of his mother’s womb;

I bear you witness as ye bear to me,
    Time, day, night, sun, stars, life, death, air, sea, earth,
    And ye that round the human house of birth
Watch with veiled heads and weaponed hands, and see
    Good things and evil, strengthless yet and dumb,
    Sit in the clouds with cloudlike hours to come;

Ye forces without form and viewless powers
    That have the keys of all our years in hold,
    That prophesy too late with tongues of gold,
In a strange speech whose words are perished hours,
    I witness to you what good things ye give
    As ye to me what evil while I live.

What should I do to blame you, what to praise,
    For floral hours and hours funereal?
    What should I do to curse or bless at all
For winter-woven or summer-coloured days?
    Curse he that will and bless you whoso can,
    I have no common part in you with man.

I hear a springing water, whose quick sound
    Makes softer the soft sunless patient air,
    And the wind’s hand is laid on my thin hair
Light as a lover’s, and the grasses round
    Have odours in them of green bloom and rain
    Sweet as the kiss wherewith sleep kisses pain.

I hear the low sound of the spring of time
    Still beating as the low live throb of blood,
    And where its waters gather head and flood
I hear change moving on them, and the chime
    Across them of reverberate wings of hours
    Sounding, and feel the future air of flowers.

The wind of change is soft as snow, and sweet
    The sense thereof as roses in the sun,
    The faint wind springing with the springs that run,
The dim sweet smell of flowering hopes, and heat
    Of unbeholden sunrise; yet how long
    I know not, till the morning put forth song.

I prophesy of life, who live with death;
    Of joy, being sad; of sunlight, who am blind;
    Of man, whose ways are alien from mankind
And his lips are not parted with man’s breath;
    I am a word out of the speechless years,
    The tongue of time, that no man sleeps who hears.

I stand a shadow across the door of doom,
    Athwart the lintel of death’s house, and wait;
    Nor quick nor dead, nor flexible by fate,
Nor quite of earth nor wholly of the tomb;
    A voice, a vision, light as fire or air,
    Driven between days that shall be and that were.

I prophesy, with feet upon a grave,
    Of death cast out and life devouring death
    As flame doth wood and stubble with a breath;
Of freedom, though all manhood were one slave;
    Of truth, though all the world were liar; of love,
    That time nor hate can raze the witness of.

Life that was given for love’s sake and his law’s
    Their powers have no more power on; they divide
    Spoils wrung from lust or wrath of man or pride,
And keen oblivion without pity or pause
    Sets them on fire and scatters them on air
    Like ashes shaken from a suppliant’s hair.

But life they lay no hand on; life once given
    No force of theirs hath competence to take;
    Life that was given for some divine thing’s sake,
To mix the bitterness of earth with heaven,
    Light with man’s night, and music with his breath,
    Dies not, but makes its living food of death.

I have seen this, who live where men are not,
    In the high starless air of fruitful night
    On that serenest and obscurest height
Where dead and unborn things are one in thought
    And whence the live unconquerable springs
    Feed full of force the torrents of new things.

I have seen this, who saw long since, being man,
    As now I know not if indeed I be,
    The fair bare body of Wisdom, good to see
And evil, whence my light and night began;
    Light on the goal and darkness on the way,
    Light all through night and darkness all through day.

Mother, that by that Pegasean spring 1
    Didst fold round in thine arms thy blinded son,
    Weeping “O holiest, what thing hast thou done,
What, to my child? woe’s me that see the thing!
    Is this thy love to me-ward, and hereof
    Must I take sample how the gods can love?

“O child, thou hast seen indeed, poor child of mine,
    The breasts and flanks of Pallas bare in sight,
    But never shalt see more the dear sun’s light;
O Helicon, how great a pay is thine
    For some poor antelopes and wild-deer dead,
    My child’s eyes hast thou taken in their stead—”

Mother, thou knewest not what she had to give,
    Thy goddess, though then angered, for mine eyes;
    Fame and foreknowledge, and to be most wise,
And centuries of high-thoughted life to live,
    And in mine hand this guiding staff to be
    As eyesight to the feet of men that see.

Perchance I shall not die at all, nor pass
    The general door and lintel of men dead;
    Yet even the very tongue of wisdom said
What grace should come with death to Tiresias,
    What special honour that God’s hand accord
    Who gathers all men’s nations as their lord.

And sometimes when the secret eye of thought
    Is changed with obscuration, and the sense
    Aches with long pain of hollow prescience,
And fiery foresight with foresuffering bought
    Seems even to infect my spirit and consume,
    Hunger and thirst come on me for the tomb.

I could be fain to drink my death and sleep,
    And no more wrapped about with bitter dreams
    Talk with the stars and with the winds and streams
And with the inevitable years, and weep;
    For how should he who communes with the years
    Be sometime not a living spring of tears?

O child, that guided of thine only will
    Didst set thy maiden foot against the gate
    To strike it open ere thine hour of fate,
Antigone, men say not thou didst ill,
    For love’s sake and the reverence of his awe
    Divinely dying, slain by mortal law;

For love is awful as immortal death.
    And through thee surely hath thy brother won
    Rest, out of sight of our world-weary sun,
And in the dead land where ye ghosts draw breath
    A royal place and honour; so wast thou
    Happy, though earth have hold of thee too now.

So hast thou life and name inviolable
    And joy it may be, sacred and severe,
    Joy secret-souled beyond all hope or fear,
A monumental joy wherein to dwell
    Secluse and silent, a selected state,
    Serene possession of thy proper fate.

Thou art not dead as these are dead who live
    Full of blind years, a sorrow-shaken kind,
    Nor as these are am I the prophet blind;
They have not life that have not heart to give
    Life, nor have eyesight who lack heart to see
    When to be not is better than to be.

O ye whom time but bears with for a span,
    How long will ye be blind and dead, how long
    Make your own souls part of your own soul’s wrong?
Son of the word of the most high gods, man,
    Why wilt thou make thine hour of light and breath
    Emptier of all but shame than very death?

Fool, wilt thou live for ever? though thou care
    With all thine heart for life to keep it fast,
    Shall not thine hand forego it at the last?
Lo, thy sure hour shall take thee by the hair
    Sleeping, or when thou knowest not, or wouldst fly;
    And as men died much mightier shalt thou die.

Yea, they are dead, men much more worth than thou;
    The savour of heroic lives that were,
    Is it not mixed into thy common air?
The sense of them is shed about thee now:
    Feel not thy brows a wind blowing from far?
    Aches not thy forehead with a future star?

The light that thou may’st make out of thy name
    Is in the wind of this same hour that drives,
    Blown within reach but once of all men’s lives;
And he that puts forth hand upon the flame
    Shall have it for a garland on his head
    To sign him for a king among the dead.

But these men that the lessening years behold,
    Who sit the most part without flame or crown,
    And brawl and sleep and wear their life-days down
With joys and griefs ignobler than of old,
    And care not if the better day shall be—
    Are these or art thou dead, Antigone?



As when one wakes out of a waning dream
    And sees with instant eyes the naked thought
    Whereof the vision as a web was wrought,
I saw beneath a heaven of cloud and gleam,
    Ere yet the heart of the young sun waxed brave,
    One like a prophet standing by a grave.

In the hoar heaven was hardly beam or breath,
    And all the coloured hills and fields were grey,
    And the wind wandered seeking for the day,
And wailed as though he had found her done to death
    And this grey hour had built to bury her
    The hollow twilight for a sepulchre.

But in my soul I saw as in a glass
    A pale and living body full of grace
    There lying, and over it the prophet’s face
Fixed; and the face was not of Tiresias,
    For such a starry fire was in his eyes
    As though their light it was that made the skies.

Such eyes should God’s have been when very love
    Looked forth of them and set the sun aflame,
    And such his lips that called the light by name
And bade the morning forth at sound thereof;
    His face was sad and masterful as fate,
    And like a star’s his look compassionate.

Like a star’s gazed on of sad eyes so long
    It seems to yearn with pity, and all its fire
    As a man’s heart to tremble with desire
And heave as though the light would bring forth song;
    Yet from his face flashed lightning on the land,
    And like the thunder-bearer’s was his hand.

The steepness of strange stairs had tired his feet,
    And his lips yet seemed sick of that salt bread
    Wherewith the lips of banishment are fed;
But nothing was there in the world so sweet
    As the most bitter love, like God’s own grace,
    Wherewith he gazed on that fair buried face.

Grief and glad pride and passion and sharp shame,
    Wrath and remembrance, faith and hope and hate
    And pitiless pity of days degenerate,
Were in his eyes as an incorporate flame
    That burned about her, and the heart thereof
    And central flower was very fire of love.

But all about her grave wherein she slept
    Were noises of the wild wind-footed years
    Whose footprints flying were full of blood and tears,
Shrieks as of Maenads on their hills that leapt
    And yelled as beasts of ravin, and their meat
    Was the rent flesh of their own sons to eat:

And fiery shadows passing with strange cries,
    And Sphinx-like shapes about the ruined lands,
    And the red reek of parricidal hands
And intermixture of incestuous eyes,
    And light as of that self-divided flame
    Which made an end of the Cadmean name.

And I beheld again, and lo the grave,
    And the bright body laid therein as dead,
    And the same shadow across another head
That bowed down silent on that sleeping slave
    Who was the lady of empire from her birth
    And light of all the kingdoms of the earth.

Within the compass of the watcher’s hand
    All strengths of other men and divers powers
    Were held at ease and gathered up as flowers;
His heart was as the heart of his whole land,
    And at his feet as natural servants lay
    Twilight and dawn and night and labouring day.

He was most awful of the sons of God.
    Even now men seeing seemed at his lips to see
    The trumpet of the judgment that should be,
And in his right hand terror for a rod,
    And in the breath that made the mountains bow
    The horned fire of Moses on his brow.

The strong wind of the coming of the Lord
    Had blown as flame upon him, and brought down
    On his bare head from heaven fire for a crown,
And fire was girt upon him as a sword
    To smite and lighten, and on what ways he trod
    There fell from him the shadow of a God.

Pale, with the whole world’s judgment in his eyes,
    He stood and saw the grief and shame endure
    That he, though highest of angels might not cure,
And the same sins done under the same skies,
    And the same slaves to the same tyrants thrown,
    And fain he would have slept, and fain been stone.

But with unslumbering eyes he watched the sleep
    That sealed her sense whose eyes were suns of old;
    And the night shut and opened, and behold,
The same grave where those prophets came to weep,
    But she that lay therein had moved and stirred,
    And where those twain had watched her stood a third.

The tripled rhyme that closed in Paradise
    With Love’s name sealing up its starry speech—
    The tripled might of hand that found in reach
All crowns beheld far off of all men’s eyes,
    Song, colour, carven wonders of live stone—
    These were not, but the very soul alone.

The living spirit, the good gift of grace,
    The faith which takes of its own blood to give
    That the dead veins of buried hope may live,
Came on her sleeping, face to naked face,
    And from a soul more sweet than all the south
    Breathed love upon her sealed and breathless mouth.

Between her lips the breath was blown as fire,
    And through her flushed veins leapt the liquid life,
    And with sore passion and ambiguous strife
The new birth rent her and the new desire,
    The will to live, the competence to be,
    The sense to hearken and the soul to see.

And the third prophet standing by her grave
    Stretched forth his hand and touched her, and her eyes
    Opened as sudden suns in heaven might rise,
And her soul caught from his the faith to save;
    Faith above creeds, faith beyond records, born
    Of the pure, naked, fruitful, awful morn.

For in the daybreak now that night was dead
    The light, the shadow, the delight, the pain,
    The purpose and the passion of those twain,
Seemed gathered on that third prophetic head,
    And all their crowns were as one crown, and one
    His face with her face in the living sun.

For even with that communion of their eyes
    His whole soul passed into her and made her strong;
    And all the sounds and shows of shame and wrong,
The hand that slays, the lip that mocks and lies,
    Temples and thrones that yet men seem to see—
    Are these dead or art thou dead, Italy?

1.    Call. Lav. Pall. 105-112.    [back]

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