Verse > Anthologies > > Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. > The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse
Arthur Quiller-Couch, comp.  The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.  1922.
To Victor Hugo
By Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909)
    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        5
Whose laurels screen’d 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,        10
For these Apollo left in all men’s lands;
    But far from these ere now
    And watch’d with jealous brow
Lay the blind lightnings shut between God’s hands,
    And only loosed on slaves and kings        15
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        20
    Napoleon caught the fair
And fierce Republic with her feet of fire,
    And stay’d with iron words and hands
Her flight, and freedom in a thousand lands:
    Thou sawest the tides of things        25
    Close over heads of kings,
And thine hand felt the thunder, and to thee
    Laurels and lightnings were
    As sunbeams and soft air
Mix’d each in other, or as mist with sea        30
    Mix’d, 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;        35
    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.        40
    Even all men’s eyes and ears
    With fiery sound and tears
Wax’d hot, and cheeks caught flame and eyelid light,
    At those high songs of thine
    That stung the sense like wine,        45
Or fell more soft than dew or snow by night,
    Or wail’d as in some flooded cave
Sobs the strong broken spirit of a wave.
    But we, our Master, we
    Whose hearts uplift to thee,        50
Ache with the pulse of thy remember’d song,
    We ask not nor await
    From the clench’d hands of fate,
As thou, remission of the world’s old wrong;
    Respite we ask not, nor release;        55
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—        60
    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 roof’d with night.
    One thing we can; to be        65
    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,        70
    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        75
    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.        80
    Not without thoughts that ache
    For theirs and for thy sake,
I, born of exiles, hail thy banish’d head;
    I whose young song took flight
    Toward the great heat and light        85
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,        90
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        95
The mirth of mockers and the shame of slaves.
    She, kill’d with noisome air,
    Even she! and still so fair,
Who said ‘Let there be freedom,’ and there was
    Freedom; and as a lance        100
    The fiery eyes of France
Touch’d 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        105
    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?        110
    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?        115
    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.        120
    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        125
Less of high hope, less light on wandering hours;
    Hours that have borne men down so long,
Seen the right fail, and watch’d uplift the wrong.
    But thine imperial soul,
    As years and ruins roll        130
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        135
And sudden sweeter fountains in the sea.
    As once the high God bound
    With many a rivet round
Man’s saviour, and with iron nail’d him through,
    At the wild end of things,        140
    Where even his own bird’s wings
Flagg’d, whence the sea shone like a drop of dew,
    From Caucasus beheld below
Past fathoms of unfathomable snow;
    So the strong God, the chance        145
    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;        150
    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;        155
    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.        160
    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,        165
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        170
Who have loved and wrought and sorrow’d and not sinn’d
    For fame or fear or gold,
    Nor wax’d for winter cold,
Nor changed for changes of the worldly wind;
    Praised above men of men be these,        175
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        180
    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,        185
    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;        190
    Praised, that nor doubt nor hope could bend
Earth’s loftiest head, found upright to the end.

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