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

  FELIX.  Caught in Severus’ net thy Felix see!
He hates and holds me—oh, the misery!
  ALBIN.  I see a generous man, who cries, ‘Forgive,
Let Pauline smile once more—let Polyeucte live!’
  FELIX.  His soul thou canst not read—tho’ noble heart he feigns.        5
The father he abhors,—the daughter he disdains!
What Polyeucte won he sought: his suit denied,
Severus sues no more,—I know his pride.
His words, his prayers, his threats for Polyeucte plead,
His tongue says, ‘Listen, or be lost indeed!’        10
Unskilled the fowler who his snare reveals:
If at the bait I snatch—my doom is sealed:
Too plain, too coarse, this web for any fly—
Shall I this spider hail in my fatuity?
His wrath is wrath arranged, his generous fire is nursed,        15
That I, at Decius’ hand, may meet the doom accurst,
If I should pardon grant—that grace my crime would be,
For he the spoil would reap of my credulity.
No simpleton am I, each promise to believe,
Words—oaths—are but the tools wherewith all men deceive;        20
Too oft escaped am I to be so lightly caught;
I know that words are wind. I know that wind is naught.
The trapper shall be trapped,—the biter shall be bit,
Unravelled is the web that he, poor fool, hath knit!
  ALBIN.  Jove! What a plague to thee is this mistrust!        25
  FELIX.  Nay, those at court must fence; their weapons never rust,
If once thou yield the clue to thread the maze,
The sequence is most plain—the man betrayed betrays;
Severus, and his gifts, alike I fear!
If Polyeucte still to reason close his ear,        30
Severus’ love is hate—his peace is strife—
First law of nature this, ‘Preserve thy life!’
  ALBIN.  Ah, let Pauline at least thy grace obtain!
  FELIX.  If Decius grace withhold, my pardon vain!
And—far from saving this rebellious son—        35
Behold us all alike entrapped, undone!
  ALBIN.  Severus’ promise—
  FELIX.        He can never keep!
For Decius’ rage and hatred never sleep:
If for that sect abhorred Severus plead,        40
He trebles loss—so are we lost indeed!
One only way is ours,—that way I try:
(To GUARDS)  Bring Polyeucte and if he still defy,
Self-doomed, insensate, this my proffered grace,
He shall the death he wooes forthwith embrace!        45
  ALBIN.  Ah, this is stern!
  FELIX.        ’Tis stern, ’tis just—as fate;
When justice drags a halting foot, too late,
She is not justice—for the vengeful mob
(Whose hearts for Polyeucte ne’er cease to throb),        50
Usurps her place, and, spurning curb and rein,
The felon crowns, and all our work is vain.
My sceptre trembles, and all insecure
Totters my crown,—a prey for every boor.
Then, swift, Severus hears the welcome news,        55
The jaundiced mind of Decius to abuse.
Shall I, the rabble’s lord, obey the rabble’s will?
  ALBIN.  Who ill in all around foresees,—but doubles ill.
Each prop thou hast is but a sword to pierce;
If Polyeucte hold their heart, the people fierce        60
Will gather fiercer courage from despair.
  FELIX.  Death settles all; they’ll find no helper there,
And if—without a bead—the body should rebel,
Convulsive throes I mock, and nerveless fury quell.
Whate’er ensues the Emperor must approve,        65
I shall have done my part, and win his love.
Here comes the man

        I still must try to save;
If he repent—’tis well! If not—the grave!
(To POLYEUCTE)  Is life still hateful? Doth death still allure?        70
Is earth still naught? Do heavenly joys endure?
Doth Christ still counsel thee to hate thy wife;—
To sheathe thy sword,—to cast away thy life?
  POLY.  I never hated life, or wooed a grave,
To life I am a servant—not a slave.        75
Here service free I give upon this earth below,—
For higher service changed when to His Home I go.
Eternal life is this: to tread the path He trod;
To Him your body yield! Then trust your soul to God!
  FELIX.  Yes, trust to an abyss of depth unknown!        80
  POLY.  No, trust to Holy Cross! That Cross my own!
  FELIX.  The steep ascent, my son, I too would climb,
Yes, I would Christian be,—but—give me time,—
By Jove! I’ll tread thy path! This my desire.
Else at thy hand the judge may me require!        85
  POLY.  Nay, laugh not, Felix! He thy Judge will be,
No refuge there for impious blasphemy!
Nor kings nor clowns can ’scape His righteous ire,
His slaughtered Saints of thee will He require!
  FELIX.  I’ll slay no more;—by Hercules I swear!        90
So I a Christian crown perchance may wear;
I will protect the flock!
  POLY.        Nay, rather be
A goad, a scourge, for their felicity!
Let suffering purify each Christian soul,        95
Cross, rack, and flame but lead them to their goal;
What here they lose—in Heaven an hundredfold they find.
Be cruel,—persecute!—and so alone be kind!
My words thou canst not read; thine eyes are blinded here,
Wait the unveiling There! Then understand and fear!        100
  FELIX.  Nay, nay, in truth I would a Christian be!
  POLY.  In thy hard heart alone a bar I see.
  FELIX.  (whispering).  This Roman knight——
  POLY.  (aloud).        Severus, thou wouldst say.
  FELIX.  Once let him sail, I will no more delay,        105
For this I anger feign;—let him depart!
  POLY.  ’Tis thus thou wouldst reveal a Christian heart?
To idols dumb—to Pagans blind, thy sugared poison bear,
Christ’s servants quaff another cup, sure refuge from despair.
  FELIX.  What is this deadly draught that thou wouldst drain?        110
I’ll drink thy wine.—Till then, from death refrain!
  POLY.  To swine no more my holy pearls I cast,
Faith,—faith—not reason, shall see light at last;
Soon—when I see my God—yes, face to face,
I will implore that Felix may find grace.        115
  FELIX.  O dearest son, thy loss were death to me!
  POLY.  This loss can be repaired—the remedy
Find in Severus; he will take my place;
By Decius honoured he will not disgrace
Thy house: my death will an advantage win        120
For thee, for her, for me.—The work begin!
  FELIX.  Such my reward! Yes, insult is the child
Of injury. The grace I grant, reviled,
Shall turn to swift revenge. The gods defied
May do their will and speed the suicide!        125
  POLY.  I thought the gods were dead, but they revive
With human passion; Felix, do not strive
Against thy nature; lay aside thy ruth;
Who loves a lie can never follow truth.
  FELIX.  I humoured madness, but the mood is o’er,        130
I am myself again; I did implore,—
’Twas vain; the dark abyss that yawns for thee
May hold thee now, tomb to thy constancy.
The hope I cherished—fondled—now is flown
Severus will be king, and I o’erthrown;—        135
Shall I the gods by incense pacify?
Or by thy death? for thou, at last, must die!
  POLY.  Incense might but incense; I cannot tell:

  PAUL.  That word broke from thee like a knell;        140
Who seeks my doom to-day? Thou—or my sire?
Who fires the brand? Who lights the funeral pyre?
My father should, by nature, be my friend,
And lover’s heart to love an ear should lend.
Who here is mine ally, and who my foe?        145
Who has a heart to feel?—this would I know.
  FELIX.  Nay, to thy lord appeal.  [PAULINE turns to POLYEUCTE
  POLY.        Severus wed!
  PAUL.  Ah, this is outrage! Rather strike me dead!
  POLY.  Oh, dearer than myself to me thy weal!        150
My love would never wound, it seeks to heal.
I see thee wrestle with thy deep distress
Alone—unless Severus bring redress;
His merit, that once gained by maiden heart,
Hath still that worth when I from thee must part,—        155
Once loved—and loving still—his honour grows.
  PAUL.  Thy wife’s true heart another treatment owes:
O base reproach! For this I crushed for thee
My former love: that I disdained might be?
This my reward for dearest victory won,—        160
I did that love undo—to be myself undone!
Resolve, faith, abnegation, all were vain,
For thy return is outrage heaped on pain.
Oh, sunk in tomb of shame, most vile, most mean,
Come back to life—to honour—to Pauline!  [Holds out her arms.        165
To learn from her that loyalty and faith
Religion are:—and all beside but death!
Once more Alcestis wrestles with the tomb,
Arise, arise from thy enthralling doom!
And if my invocation feeble be,        170
Regard the tears—the sighs,—shed—breathed for thee!
Love is too weak a word—I thee adore!
  POLY.  Once have I said—yet now I say once more—
‘Live with Severus, or—with Polyeucte die!’
Thy tears are mine, and thy pure constancy        175
I share: But—I am soldier of the Cross!
Take up thine own, and count all gain but loss!
Pauline—no more!  (To FELIX.)  Thy slumbering wrath rewake!
Thy fates and furies wait! Their vengeance slake!
  PAUL.  His life is saved! These fetters all undo!—        180
For justice never yet a madman slew;
And he is mad,—but, father, thou art sane,
And thou, his father, must his friend remain.
A father cannot less than father be,
Oh, be to him what thou hast been to me!        185
But cast upon thy child a kinder eye,—
Slay him?—Then know that I am doomed to die!
But even if justly done to death were he,
The sentence wrong that, with him, slayeth me.
For double death would double wrong present,        190
And slay the guilty with the innocent.
’Twas thou didst link us closely hand in hand,
‘To live in bliss together’ thy command.
Oh, shall the will that both our lives did bless
Doom both these lives to death—to nothingness?        195
When lips are sealed to lips, and heart to heart,
’Tis tyranny, not law, such love to part.
Oh, not a tyrant, but a father be,
Forgive,—give back—restore my love to me!
  FELIX.  Dear child, thy father is thy father still,        200
Nothing hath parted us, and nothing will.
My heart is tender, and it beats for thee:
Against this madman let us joinéd be.
O wretched man, hast thou no eyes to see, no heart to feel?
Thy guilt, thy crime, I would efface, thy pardon I would seal,        205
For thee my daughter cannot die—say, must she die with thee?
A victim to the only sin which ne’er can pardoned be.
O sight most strange! Here at thy knees as suppliant I sue!  [FELIX kneels.
The evil that thyself hast wrought—that ill thyself undo!
  POLY.  Arise, old man, from knees unused to bend,        210
Or to another ear petition send!
This artifice befits nor me nor thee,
To beg of one twice threatened!—Mockery!
First, by thy hand Nearchus felt the flame,
Then love, forsooth, thy plea—(profanéd name!)        215
The path of Christian neophyte hast thou trod,
And, in God’s name, hast mocked Almighty God!
Earth, heaven, and hell in turn have been thy tool,
And him thou hast traduced thou wouldst befool!
Go,—bully—flatterer—liar!—Every part        220
Thou playest, while delay doth break my heart!
Enough of dallying! While thou dost dissolve
Thy feeble soul in doubt, hear my resolve:
The God who made me—Him will I adore;
He holds my plighted faith,—and evermore        225
He works salvation for his ransomed race—
Who gave His Son to death that we might life embrace;
And this—Christ’s sacrifice—continued day be day,
The Christ reveals and pleads—The Life—The Truth—The Way!
No more His mysteries to self-stopped ears        230
Will I disclose—(he heedeth not nor hears.)  [Pointing to FELIX.
Pray then to these thy gods of wood and stone,—
To gods who every deed of crime enthrone,
Who boast their malice, and their foul incest,
Vaunt theft and murder—all that we detest.        235
This, their example,—Pagan—follow thou!
To Pluto bend, to Aphrodite bow!
For this I broke their altars, rased their shrine,—
Yea, for those crimes that thou dost call divine!
And what I did, that would I do once more        240
Before Severus—Decius,—nay, before
The eyes of all men;—so would I proclaim
One God alone adored,—one Holiest Name!
  FELIX.  At last my bounties yield to wrath most stern, most just.
Die! or the gods adore!        245
  POLY.        A Christian I!
  FELIX.        Thou must
Adore the gods I say! Adore, or die!
  POLY.  I am a Christian.
  FELIX.        This is thy reply?        250
Ye Guards, do my behest—prepare the knife!
  PAUL.  Where goes he?
  FELIX.        To his death!
  POLY.        Ah, no to life!
(To PAULINE.)  Remember me! Farewell, Pauline, farewell!        255
  PAUL.  Nay, I will follow thee—to heaven or hell!
  FELIX.  Begone! For all our ills this one redress!  [Exeunt PAULINE, POLYEUCTE and GUARDS.

O task ungrateful to my gentle mind!
Well did he say, ‘Be cruel to be kind!’
The people I defy, ah, let them rage!        260
Severus may in war of words engage.
Yes, I have saved myself—I mean the State,
To wilful man there comes relentless fate;
My conscience pure of all reproach,—for I
Have lied and stormed to shake his constancy.        265
To give his hot young blood due time to cool
I played the coward—nay, I played the fool!
Why did he thus assail the gods and me
With insult, and with horrid blasphemy?
But interest helped me, and resentment too.        270
Else had I found my duty hard to do!
  ALBIN.  Soon mayst thou this thy dear-bought victory rue,
For thou hast done what thou canst ne’er undo!
Unworthy deed for Roman knight! ah, me!  [Aside.
I would that I could add, ‘unworthy thee!’        275
  FELIX.  Manlius and Brutus both a son have slain,
And neither did thereby his glory stain;
The part that is diseased—that part we bleed,
So is the State from knaves and caitiffs freed.
  ALBIN.  Revenge and pressing peril thee unman,        280
Else—couldst thou bless a deed all men must ban?
When she, thy widowed daughter, comes—the air
Of heaven will echo to her deep despair!
  FELIX.  Thou dost remind me she with Polyeucte went—
I know not with what mind, with what intent:        285
But her despair awakes my fond alarm,
Go, Albin, go, and guard my child from harm!
She might the execution of the law
Impede: I would not that his death she saw.
Try to console her—Go! what dost thou fear?        290

  ALBIN.  I need not go, for ah—Pauline is here!
  PAUL.  Tyrant, why leave thy butchery half done?
Come, slay thy daughter, thou hast slain thy son!
For, hear!—His villainy—or worth—is mine!
Why stay thy hand while I my neck incline?        295
Thy sword in me shall find a kindred food,
I too am new baptized, baptized in blood!
These drops that fell from off the murderous knife,
Have made the martyr’s widow a true wife.
I see!—I feel!—I know! My darkest night        300
Is o’er—to break in purest heavenly light.
I too, at last, am Christ’s: that word says all,
Those hands were pierced for me—I hear His call:
Death—lovely death—thy beckoning hand I hail!
Oh, help my passage, or thy schemes may fail!        305
Dread Decius! Fear Severus! Fear thy fall!
Oh, speed me to my lord—my love—my all!
My husband calls me to his happier land—
See!—there Nearchus at his side doth stand!
Lead me to these—the gods by thee confest,        310
Some shrines spared Polyeucte, I will break the rest!
There, there the gods thou fearest I will brave,
Oh, bare thy knife!—no other gift I crave.
Thou hast my master been: another Lord
Claims my obedience now; yes, raise thy sword!        315
Revolt is holy when for Christ we fight,—
My day has dawned, the day that knows no night!
Once more I cry—‘Christ only has my heart!’
Thy bliss and mine secure! Let me depart!
Keep thou thy kingdom! Safe its treasure hold!        320
My kingdom there—with Christ—within the fold!

  SEV.  Unnatural sire, whose craft leads to the grave,
The slaves of fear themselves alone enslave.
Yes, Polyeucte is slain, and slain by thee,—
A sacrifice to greed and treachery.        325
I offered rescue from the opening tomb,
Base doubts enthralled thee, didst seal his doom;
I prayed, I threatened, thou wouldst not believe,
Deceiver thou, so must all men deceive.
Thou thoughtst me coward, liar—thou shalt see        330
All oaths Severus swears fulfilled shall be.
Poor moth! I might have saved thee—nay, I planned to save,
Thy perfidy the torch that marks thee for the grave.
Drench earth in blood,—for Jove pour forth malignant zeal,
The strokes that thou hast dealt redoubled shalt thou feel!        335
I go: the storm shall break o’er this devoted land,
From Jove the bolt?—maybe—but I direct his hand.
  FELIX.  Why lags that hand? A willing victim I,
I choose to suffer for my perfidy;
My doubts, my fears unworthy, all I own,        340
I have offended—let my death atone.
Take thou my honours, their poor lustre thine,
I kneel before another, nobler shrine.
The Power that moved me, groping through the night
Of wrong and darkness, wafts me to The Light!        345
I slew thee, Polyeucte, but thy pardoning hand
Shall guide thy murderer to the better land!
He prays for me, and by his sacrifice,
New-born upon his ashes I arise.
(To PAULINE.)  Raised by his death from out the grave of sin,        350
Thou tread’st the path thy father shall begin;
By me his martyr-crown, as all my bliss
By him. His Christ is mine, and I am his;
O, blessed Christian vengeance! All my loss
Is turned to gain by the redeeming Cross!        355
Now, Pauline, am I thine, a Christian I,
That Death gives life by which alike we die!
(To SEVERUS.)  Then slay us both! Behold a willing prey!
  PAUL.  (To FELIX.)  Yes, mine for ever now! Hail, glorious day,
That sees earth’s loss transformed to endless gain!        360
  FELIX.  The gain, the glory, Christ’s! By Him we reign.
  SEV.  Now am I dumb, some miracle is here;
Their courage and their faith must I revere;
We slay them; yet, like Cadmus’ seed, new-born
They sprout afresh, and laugh our scythe to scorn.        365
We give them cord and flame, they torture hail;
Friends fail them, but themselves they never fail.
We mow them down, fresh nurslings to unbare,
What moves the seed lies hid, but it is there.
They bless the world, though by the world accurst,        370
Their shield am I—let Decius do his worst.
I yet may own their power, though now my will
That each to his own gods be faithful still,
Let each still search for truth, and truth adore.
(To FELIX.)  A Christian thou? Then fear my wrath no more,        375
Thy sect I cherish; this their awful cult
Severus will protect, but ne’er insult.
Keep thou thy power from Roman sword secure,
So long as loyalty with faith endure;
I swear it: ay, the Emperor shall learn        380
The guiltless from the traitor to discern;
His persecution baseless as his fear.
  FELIX.  Severus—thou who hast the hearing ear,—
Freeman of Rome—God’s Spirit grant thee grace
To be Christ’s Freeman, and behold His face:        385
To these—Christ’s martyrs—earth’s last rites be given,
Earth, guard their ashes as a trust for Heaven!
Earth hides their dust. When envious time is o’er,
That dust shall wake to life for evermore!


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