Fiction > Harvard Classics > Pierre Corneille > Polyeucte
Pierre Corneille (1606–1684).  Polyeucte.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.

  PAUL.  Cares—clouded and confused—oppress, obscure
In changeful forms, my eye, my heart, my mind:
My soul finds room for every guest save one;
Fair hope has flown,—no star can pierce my night:
Each tyrant rages ’gainst opposing foe        5
In deadly fight—yet brings to light no friend:
In travail sore hope comes not to the birth—
Fear hydra-headed terror still begets;—
All fancies grim I see, and straight embrace,
At hope I clutch, who still eludes my grasp;        10
Her rainbow hues adored are but a frame
That serve by contrast to make fear more dark.
Severus haunts me—oh, I know his love,
Yet hopeless love must mate with jealousy,—
While Polyeucte, who has won what he has lost,        15
Can meet no rival with an equal eye.
The fruit of rivalry is ever hate
And envy; both must still engender strife:
One sees that rival hand has grasped his prize,
The other yearns for prize himself has missed.        20
Weak reason naught, when headlong passion reigns,
For valour seeks a sword, and love—revenge.
One fears to see the prize he gained impaired,
The other would that wrested prize regain;
While patience, duty, conscience, vail their heads        25
’Fore obstinate defence and fierce attack.
Such steeds no charioteer controls—for they
Mistake both curb and reign for maddening whip
Ah! what a base, unworthy fear is mine!
How ill I read these fair, these noble souls,        30
Whose virtue must all common snares o’erleap!
Their gold unstained by dross or mean alloy!
As generous foes so will they—must they meet!
Yet are they rivals—this the thought that kills!
Not even here—at home—is Polyeucte safe,        35
The eagle wings of Rome reach over all.
Oh, if my father bow to Roman might,
If he repent the choice that he hath made,—
At this one thought hope’s flame leaps up to die!
Or—if new-born—dies ere she see the light.        40
Hope but deceived,—my fear alone I trust,
Heaven grant such confidence be false—be vain!

Nay, let me know the worst! What, girl!—no word?
The rites are o’er? What hast thou seen—what heard?        45
They met in amity?—In peace they part?
  STRAT.  Alas! Alas!
  PAUL.        Nay, soothe my aching heart!
I would have comfort,—but this face of woe—
A quarrel?        50
  STRAT.  Polyeucte—Nearchus—go—
The Christians——
  PAUL.        What of them?
  STRAT.        Ah, how to speak—
  PAUL.  They on my father would their vengeance wreak?        55
  STRAT.  Oh, fear whate’er thou wilt—that fear too small!
  PAUL.  The Christians rise?
  STRAT.  Oh, would that this were all!
Thy dream, Pauline, is true; Polyeucte is——
  PAUL.  Dead?        60
  STRAT.  Ah, no, he lives—yet every hope is fled;
That courage once so high, that noble name
Sunk in the mire of everlasting shame!
As monster foul—his every breath a blight;
The foe of Heaven, of Jove, of all our race,        65
His kisses poison, and his love—disgrace!
Wretch, coward, miscreant, steeped in infamy,
O worse than every name!—a Christian he!
  PAUL.  Nay, that one word’s enough! There needed not abuse.
  STRAT.  My words fit well their guilt;—with evil make no truce.        70
  PAUL.  If he be Nazarene—he must an outcast be!
But insult to my lord is insult unto me!
  STRAT.  Think only that he hails the Cross, the badge of shame.
  PAUL.  My plighted faith, my troth, my duty still the same!
  STRAT.  When twined about thy breast, the hideous serpent slay!        75
Who mocks the Gods on high will his own wife betray!
  PAUL.  If he be false, yet I will still be true,
The ties that bind me I will ne’er undo:
Let fate—Severus—passion—all combine
Against him!—I am his, and he is mine.        80
Yes, mine to guide, lead, win, forgive, and save!
I seek his honour tho’ he court the grave.
Let Polyeucte be Christ’s slave!—For woe, for weal,
He is my lord; the bond I owe I seal;
I fear my father,—all his vengeance, dread.        85
  STRAT.  Fierce burns his rage o’er that devoted head;—
Yet embers of old love still faintly glow,
And through his wrath some weak compassion show;
’Gainst Polyeucte biting words alone he speaks—
But on Nearchus fullest vengeance wreaks!        90
  PAUL.  Nearchus lured him on?
  STRAT.        The tempter he;
Such friendship leads to death, or infamy.
Oh, curséd friend, who, in dear love’s despite,
Has torn him from thine arms—his neophyte!        95
He dragged him to the front;—baptized, annealed—
He fights for Christ!—The secret is revealed.
  PAUL.  Which I would know—and straightway had thy blame!
  STRAT.  Ah! I foresaw not this—their deed of shame!
  PAUL.  Ere dull despair o’ermaster all my fears,        100
Oh, let me gauge the worth of woman’s tears!
For, if the daughter lose, the wife may gain,—
Or Felix may relent, if Polyeucte mock my pain;
If both are adamant unto my prayer,
Then—then alone—take counsel from despair!        105
How passed the temple sacrifice? Hide naught, my friend, tell all!
  STRAT.  The horror and the sacrilege must I, perforce, recall?
To say the words, to think the thoughts, seems blasphemy and shame;
Yet will I tell their infamy,—their deed without a name.
To silence hushed, the people knelt, and turned them to the East;        110
Then impious Polyeucte and his friend mock sacrifice and priest.
They every holy name invoked jeer with unbridled tongue,
To laughter vile the incense rose—’tis thus our hymn was sung;
Both loud and deep the murmurs rang, and Felix’ face grew pale,
Then Polyeucte mad defiance hurls, while all the people quail.        115
‘Vain are your gods of wood and stone!’ his voice was stern and high—
‘Vain every rite, prayer, sacrifice’ so ran his blasphemy.
‘Your Jupiter is parricide, adulterer, demon, knave,
‘He cannot listen to your cry, not his to bless or save.
‘One God—Jehovah—rules alone, supreme o’er earth and heaven,        120
‘And ye are His—yes, only His—to Him your prayers be given!
‘He is our source, our life, our end,—no other god adore,
‘To Him alone all prayer is due, then serve Him evermore!
‘Who kneels before a meaner shrine, by devil’s power enticed,
‘Denies his Maker and his King, denies the Saviour Christ.        125
‘He is our source, our guide, our end, our prophet, priest and King;
‘’Twas He that nerved Severus’ arm,—His praise let Decius sing.
‘Jehovah rules the battle-field ye call the field of Mars,
‘He only grants a glorious peace, ’tis He guides all our wars.
‘He casts the mighty from his seat, He doth the proud abase,—        130
‘They only peace and blessing know who love and seek His face.
‘His sword alone is strong to strike, His shield our only guard.
‘He will His bleeding saints avenge, He is their sure reward.
‘In vain to Jove and feeble Mars your full libations pour—
‘Oh, kneel before the might ye spurn, the God ye mock—adore!’        135
Then Polyeucte the shrine o’erthrows, the holy vessels breaks,
Nor wrath of Jove, nor Felix’ ire, his fatal purpose shakes.
Foredoomed by Fate, the Furies’ prey—they rush, they rend, they tear,
The vessels all to fragments fly—all prone the offerings fair;
And on the front of awful Jove they set their impious feet,        140
And order fair to chaos turn, and thus their work complete.
Our hallowed mysteries disturbed, our temple dear profaned,
Mad flight and tumult dire let loose, proclaim a God disdained.
Thus pallid fear broods over all, presaging wrath to come,
While Felix—but I mark his step!—’tis he shall speak the doom.        145
  PAUL.  How threatening, how dark his mien! How lightning-fraught his
eye! Where wrath and grief, revenge and pain, do strive for mastery!

  FELIX.  O insolence undreamed!—Before my very eyes!—
Before the people’s gaze! It is too much!—he dies!
  PAUL.  O father!—on my knees! (kneels). Unsay that word!        150
  FELIX.  Nearchus’ doom I speak,—not his, thy lord.
Though all unworthy he to be my son,
Yet still he bears the name that he hath won;
Nor crime of his nor wrath of mine shall ever move
Thy father’s heart to hate the man thou crown’st with love!        155
  PAUL.  Ne’er vainly have I sued for pity from my sire!
  FELIX.  And yet meet food were he for righteous ire!
To recount an act so fell my feeble words too weak,
But thou has heard the tale my lips refuse to speak
From her, thy maiden; she hath told thee all.        160
  PAUL.  Nearchus goaded—planned—and he shall fall!
  FELIX.  So taught by torture of his vilest friend,
Shall Polyeucte mark of guilt the certain end,
When of the frenzied race he sees the goal,
The dread of torture shall subdue his soul!        165
Who mocked the thought of death, when death he views,
Will choose an easier mate—and rightly choose.
That shadowy guest, that doth his soul entice,
Once master, glues all ardour into ice,
And that proud heart, which never meekness, knew,        170
When face to face with Death—will learn to sue!
  PAUL.  What! Thinkest thou his soul can ever blench?
  FELIX.  Death’s mighty flood must every furnace quench!
  PAUL.  It might! It may!—I know such things can be!
A Polyeucte changed—debased—forsworn I see!        175
O, changeful Fortune! changeless Polyeucte move,
And grant a boon denied by father’s love!
  FELIX.  My love too plain—myself too weakly kind,
Let him repent and he shall pardon find;
Nearchus’ sin is his,—and yet the grace        180
He shall not win, thy Polyeucte may embrace!
My duty—to a father’s love betrayed—
Hath of thy sire a fond accomplice made;
A healing balm I bring for all thy fears,
I look for thanks, and lo—thou giv’st me tears!        185
  PAUL.  I give no thanks—no cause for thanks I find;
I know the Christian temper—know their mind,
They can blaspheme, but ah, they cannot lie!
They know not how to yield—but they can die!
  FELIX.  As bird in hand, he holds his pardon still.        190
  PAUL.  The bird escapes, when ’tis the owner’s will.
  FELIX.  He death escapes—if so he do elect.
  PAUL.  He death embraces—as doth all his sect.
Is ’t thus a father pleads for his own son?
  FELIX.  Who wills his death is by himself undone.        195
  PAUL.  He cannot see!
  FELIX.        Because he chooses night.
Who loves the darkness hateth still the light.
  PAUL.  O, by the Gods—
  FELIX.        Nay, daughter, save thy breath;        200
Spurned—outraged—’tis the Gods demand his death.
  PAUL.  They hear our prayers—
  FELIX.        Nay, then let Polyeucte pray!
  PAUL.  Since Decius gives thee power,—that word unsay!
  FELIX.  He gives me power, Pauline, to do his will        205
Against his foes—’gainst all who work him ill.
  PAUL.  Is Polyeucte his foe?
  FELIX.        All Christians rebels are.
  PAUL.  Thy son shall plead more loud than policy or war.
For mine is thine; O father, save thine own—        210
  FELIX.  The son who is a traitor I disown!
For treason is a crime without redress,
’Gainst which all else sinks into nothingness.
  PAUL.  Too great thy rigour!
  FELIX.        Yet more great his guilt.        215
  PAUL.  Too true my dream! Must his dear blood be spilt?
With Polyeucte, I too—thy child—shall fall!
  FELIX.  The Gods—the Emperor—rule over all.
  PAUL.  O hear our dying supplication—hear!
  FELIX.  Not Jove alone, but Decius I fear:—        220
But why anticipate a doom so sad?
Shall this—his blindness—make thy Polyeucte mad?
Fresh Christian zeal remains not always new,
The sight of death compels a saner view.
  PAUL.  O, if thou lov’st him still, all hope forsake!        225
In one day can he two conversions make?
Not this the Christians’ mould: they never change;
His heart is fixed—past power of man to estrange.
This is no poison quaffed all unawares,
What martyrs do and dare—that Polyeucte dares;        230
He saw the lure by which he was enticed,
He thinks the universe well lost for Christ.
I know the breed; I know their courage high,
They love the cross,—so, for the cross, they die.
We see two stakes of wood, the felon’s shame,        235
They see a halo round one matchless Name.
To powers of earth, and hell, and torture blind,
In death, for Him they love, they rapture find.
They joy in agony,—our gain their loss,
To die for Christ they count the world but dross:        240
Our rack their crown, our pain their highest pleasure,
And in the world’s contempt they find their treasure.
Their cherished heritage is—martyrdom!
  FELIX.  Let then this heir into his kingdom come!
No more!—        245
  PAUL.        O father!

  FELIX.        Albin, is it done?
  ALBIN.  It is,—Nearchus’ frantic race is run!
  FELIX.  And with what eye saw Polyeucte the sight?
  ALBIN.  With envious eye,—as one who sees a light        250
That lures him, moth-like, to devouring flame.
His heart is fixed, his mind is still the same.
  PAUL.  ’Tis as I said—oh, father, yet once more—
If thou hast ever loved me,—I implore!
Let filial duty and obedience plead        255
For his dear life! To my last prayer give heed!
  FELIX.  Too much thou lovest an unworthy lord!
  PAUL.  Thou gavest him my hand, ’twas at thy word
I gave both love and duty; what I give
I take not back; oh, Polyeucte must live!        260
For his dear sake I quenched another flame
Most pure. Is he my lord alone in name?
O, by my blind and swift obedience paid
To thy command—be thy hard words unsaid!
I gave thee all a daughter had to give,        265
Grant, father, this one prayer—Let Polyeucte live!
By thy stern power, which now I only fear,
Make thou that power benignant, honoured, dear!
Thou gav’st that gift unsought,—that gift restore!
I claim it at the giver’s hand once more!        270
  FELIX.  Importunate! Although my heart is soft,
It is not wax,—and these entreaties oft
Repeated waste thy breath, and vex mine ear,
For man is deaf to what he will not hear.
I am the master! This let all men know,        275
And if thou force that note thou’lt find ’tis so.
Prepare to see thy curséd Christian fool,
Do thou caress when I have scourged the mule,—
Go! vex no more a loving father’s ear,
From Polyeucte’s self win what thou hold’st so dear.        280
  PAUL.  In pity!——
  FELIX.        Leave me, leave me here alone!——
Say more—my goaded heart will turn to stone;
Vex me no more—I will not be denied!
Go, save thy madman from his suicide!  [Exit PAULINE.        285
How met Nearchus death?
  ALBIN.        The fiend abhorred
He hailed,—embraced: ‘For Christ!’ his latest word;
No sigh, no tear,—he passed without amaze
Adown the narrow vale with upward gaze.        290
  FELIX.  And he—his friend?
  ALBIN.        Is, as I said, unmoved
He looks on death but as a friend beloved,
He clasped the scaffold as a guide most sure,
And, in his prison, he can still endure.        295
  FELIX.  Oh, wretched that I am!
  ALBIN.        All pity thee.
  FELIX.  With reason greater than they know. Ah, me!
Thought surges upon thought, and has its will,
Care, gnawing upon care, my soul must kill;        300
Love—hate—fear—pain: I am of each the prey,
I grope for light, but never find the day!—
Oh, what I suffer thou canst not conceive,
Each passion rages, but can ne’er relieve;
For I have noble thoughts that die still-born,        305
And I have thoughts so base my soul I scorn.
I love the foolish wretch who is my son,
I hate the folly which hath all undone;
I mourn his death,—yet, if I Polyeucte save,
I see of all my hopes the cruel grave!        310
’Gainst Gods and Emperor too sore the strife,
For my renown I fear,—fear for my life.
I must myself undo to save my son,
For, should I spare him, then am I undone!
  ALBIN.  Decius a father is, and must excuse        315
A father’s love—oh, he will not refuse!
  FELIX.  His edict is most clear:—‘All Christians are my foes.’
The higher be their rank the more the evil grows.
If birth and state be high, their crime shows more notorious,
If he who shield be great, his fall the more inglorious;        320
And if I give Nearchus to the flame
Yet stoop to shield my own—thrice damned my name!
  ALBIN.  If by thy fiat he cannot escape the grave,
Implore of Decius’ grace the life thou canst not save.
  FELIX.  So would Severus work my ruin quite—        325
I fear his power, his wrath,—for might is right—
If crime with punishment I do not mate.
How high soe’er, worth what it may, I fear his hate,
For he is man, and feels as man, and I
Once spurned his suit with base indignity.        330
Yes, he at Decius’ ear would work may woe,
He loves Pauline, thus Polyeucte is his foe:
All weapons possible to love and war,
And those who let them rust but laggards are.
I fear—and fear both give our vision scope—        335
E’en now he cherisheth a tender hope;
He sees his rival prostrate in the dust,
So, as a man he hopes—because he must.
Can dark despair to love and hope give place
To save the guilty from deserved disgrace?        340
And were his worth so matchless, so divine,
As to forbear all ill to me and mine—
Still I must own the base, the coward hope,
’Gainst which my strength is all too weak to cope,
That hope whose phoenix ashes yet enthrall        345
The wretch who rises but once more to fall;
Ambition is my master, iron Fate,
I feel, obey, adore thee, while I hate!
Polyeucte was once my guard, my pride, my shield,
Yet can I, by Severus, weapons wield,        350
Should he my daughter wed, more tried, more true:
What wills Severus—that will Decius do.
Upheld by him, e’en Fortune I defy—
And yet I shrink!—for them, thrice base were I!
  ALBIN.  Perish the word! It ne’er was made for thee,        355
But wilt thou deal just meed to treachery?
  FELIX.  I go to Polyeucte’s cell,—though my poor breath
Should there be spent in vain to avert his death;
Then, then my fated child her strength shall try.
  ALBIN.  What wilt thou do if both he still defy?        360
  FELIX.  O, press me not in agony so great!
To thee alone I turn—resistless Fate!


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