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John Keats (1795–1821). The Poetical Works of John Keats. 1884.

37. Lamia

Part II

LOVE in a hut, with water and a crust,

Is—Love, forgive us!—cinders, ashes, dust;

Love in a palace is perhaps at last

More grievous torment than a hermit’s fast:—

That is a doubtful tale from faery land,

Hard for the non-elect to understand.

Had Lycius liv’d to hand his story down,

He might have given the moral a fresh frown,

Or clench’d it quite: but too short was their bliss

To breed distrust and hate, that make the soft voice hiss.

Besides, there, nightly, with terrific glare,

Love, jealous grown of so complete a pair,

Hover’d and buzz’d his wings, with fearful roar,

Above the lintel of their chamber door,

And down the passage cast a glow upon the floor.

For all this came a ruin: side by side

They were enthroned, in the even tide,

Upon a couch, near to a curtaining

Whose airy texture, from a golden string,

Floated into the room, and let appear

Unveil’d the summer heaven, blue and clear,

Betwixt two marble shafts:—there they reposed,

Where use had made it sweet, with eyelids closed,

Saving a tythe which love still open kept,

That they might see each other while they almost slept;

When from the slope side of a suburb hill,

Deafening the swallow’s twitter, came a thrill

Of trumpets—Lycius started—the sounds fled,

But left a thought, a buzzing in his head.

For the first time, since first he harbour’d in

That purple-lined palace of sweet sin,

His spirit pass’d beyond its golden bourn

Into the noisy world almost forsworn.

The lady, ever watchful, penetrant,

Saw this with pain, so arguing a want

Of something more, more than her empery

Of joys; and she began to moan and sigh

Because he mused beyond her, knowing well

That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell.

“Why do you sigh, fair creature?” whisper’d he:

“Why do you think?” return’d she tenderly:

“You have deserted me;—where am I now?

“Not in your heart while care weighs on your brow:

“No, no, you have dismiss’d me; and I go

“From your breast houseless: ay, it must be so.”

He answer’d, bending to her open eyes,

Where he was mirror’d small in paradise,

“My silver planet, both of eve and morn!

“Why will you plead yourself so sad forlorn,

“While I am striving how to fill my heart

“With deeper crimson, and a double smart?

“How to entangle, trammel up and snare

“Your soul in mine, and labyrinth you there

“Like the hid scent in an unbudded rose?

“Ay, a sweet kiss—you see your mighty woes.

“My thoughts! shall I unveil them? Listen then!

“What mortal hath a prize, that other men

“May be confounded and abash’d withal,

“But lets it sometimes pace abroad majestical,

“And triumph, as in thee I should rejoice

“Amid the hoarse alarm of Corinth’s voice.

“Let my foes choke, and my friends shout afar,

“While through the thronged streets your bridal car

“Wheels round its dazzling spokes.”—The lady’s cheek

Trembled; she nothing said, but, pale and meek,

Arose and knelt before him, wept a rain

Of sorrows at his words; at last with pain

Beseeching him, the while his hand she wrung,

To change his purpose. He thereat was stung,

Perverse, with stronger fancy to reclaim

Her wild and timid nature to his aim:

Besides, for all his love, in self despite,

Against his better self, he took delight

Luxurious in her sorrows, soft and new.

His passion, cruel grown, took on a hue

Fierce and sanguineous as ’twas possible

In one whose brow had no dark veins to swell.

Fine was the mitigated fury, like

Apollo’s presence when in act to strike

The serpent—Ha, the serpent! certes, she

Was none. She burnt, she lov’d the tyranny,

And, all subdued, consented to the hour

When to the bridal he should lead his paramour.

Whispering in midnight silence, said the youth,

“Sure some sweet name thou hast, though, by my truth,

“I have not ask’d it, ever thinking thee

“Not mortal, but of heavenly progeny,

“As still I do. Hast any mortal name,

“Fit appellation for this dazzling frame?

“Or friends or kinsfolk on the citied earth,

“To share our marriage feast and nuptial mirth?”

“I have no friends,” said Lamia, “no, not one;

“My presence in wide Corinth hardly known:

“My parents’ bones are in their dusty urns

“Sepulchred, where no kindled incense burns,

“Seeing all their luckless race are dead, save me,

“And I neglect the holy rite for thee.

“Even as you list invite your many guests;

“But if, as now it seems, your vision rests

“With any pleasure on me, do not bid

“Old Apollonius—from him keep me hid.”

Lycius, perplex’d at words so blind and blank,

Made close inquiry; from whose touch she shrank,

Feigning a sleep; and he to the dull shade

Of deep sleep in a moment was betray’d.

It was the custom then to bring away

The bride from home at blushing shut of day,

Veil’d, in a chariot, heralded along

By strewn flowers, torches, and a marriage song,

With other pageants: but this fair unknown

Had not a friend. So being left alone,

(Lycius was gone to summon all his kin)

And knowing surely she could never win

His foolish heart from its mad pompousness,

She set herself, high-thoughted, how to dress

The misery in fit magnificence.

She did so, but ’tis doubtful how and whence

Came, and who were her subtle servitors.

About the halls, and to and from the doors,

There was a noise of wings, till in short space

The glowing banquet-room shone with wide-arched grace.

A haunting music, sole perhaps and lone

Supportress of the faery-roof, made moan

Throughout, as fearful the whole charm might fade.

Fresh carved cedar, mimicking a glade

Of palm and plantain, met from either side,

High in the midst, in honour of the bride:

Two palms and then two plantains, and so on,

From either side their stems branch’d one to one

All down the aisled place; and beneath all

There ran a stream of lamps straight on from wall to wall.

So canopied, lay an untasted feast

Teeming with odours. Lamia, regal drest,

Silently paced about, and as she went,

In pale contented sort of discontent,

Mission’d her viewless servants to enrich

The fretted splendour of each nook and niche.

Between the tree-stems, marbled plain at first,

Came jasper pannels; then, anon, there burst

Forth creeping imagery of slighter trees,

And with the larger wove in small intricacies.

Approving all, she faded at self-will,

And shut the chamber up, close, hush’d and still,

Complete and ready for the revels rude,

When dreadful guests would come to spoil her solitude.

The day appear’d, and all the gossip rout.

O senseless Lycius! Madman! wherefore flout

The silent-blessing fate, warm cloister’d hours,

And show to common eyes these secret bowers?

The herd approach’d; each guest, with busy brain,

Arriving at the portal, gaz’d amain,

And enter’d marveling: for they knew the street,

Remember’d it from childhood all complete

Without a gap, yet ne’er before had seen

That royal porch, that high-built fair demesne;

So in they hurried all, maz’d, curious and keen:

Save one, who look’d thereon with eye severe,

And with calm-planted steps walk’d in austere;

’Twas Apollonius: something too he laugh’d,

As though some knotty problem, that had daft

His patient thought, had now begun to thaw,

And solve and melt:—’twas just as he foresaw.

He met within the murmurous vestibule

His young disciple. “’Tis no common rule,

“Lycius,” said he, “for uninvited guest

“To force himself upon you, and infest

“With an unbidden presence the bright throng

“Of younger friends; yet must I do this wrong,

“And you forgive me.” Lycius blush’d, and led

The old man through the inner doors broad-spread;

With reconciling words and courteous mien

Turning into sweet milk the sophist’s spleen.

Of wealthy lustre was the banquet-room,

Fill’d with pervading brilliance and perfume:

Before each lucid pannel fuming stood

A censer fed with myrrh and spiced wood,

Each by a sacred tripod held aloft,

Whose slender feet wide-swerv’d upon the soft

Wool-woofed carpets: fifty wreaths of smoke

From fifty censers their light voyage took

To the high roof, still mimick’d as they rose

Along the mirror’d walls by twin-clouds odorous.

Twelve sphered tables, by silk seats insphered,

High as the level of a man’s breast rear’d

On libbard’s paws, upheld the heavy gold

Of cups and goblets, and the store thrice told

Of Ceres’ horn, and, in huge vessels, wine

Came from the gloomy tun with merry shine.

Thus loaded with a feast the tables stood,

Each shrining in the midst the image of a God.

When in an antichamber every guest

Had felt the cold full sponge to pleasure press’d,

By minist’ring slaves, upon his hands and feet,

And fragrant oils with ceremony meet

Pour’d on his hair, they all mov’d to the feast

In white robes, and themselves in order placed

Around the silken couches, wondering

Whence all this mighty cost and blaze of wealth could spring.

Soft went the music the soft air along,

While fluent Greek a vowel’d undersong

Kept up among the guests discoursing low

At first, for scarcely was the wine at flow;

But when the happy vintage touch’d their brains,

Louder they talk, and louder come the strains

Of powerful instruments:—the gorgeous dyes,

The space, the splendour of the draperies,

The roof of awful richness, nectarous cheer,

Beautiful slaves, and Lamia’s self, appear,

Now, when the wine has done its rosy deed,

And every soul from human trammels freed,

No more so strange; for merry wine, sweet wine,

Will make Elysian shades not too fair, too divine.

Soon was God Bacchus at meridian height;

Flush’d were their cheeks, and bright eyes double bright:

Garlands of every green, and every scent

From vales deflower’d, or forest-trees branch rent,

In baskets of bright osier’d gold were brought

High as the handles heap’d, to suit the thought

Of every guest; that each, as he did please,

Might fancy-fit his brows, silk-pillow’d at his ease.

What wreath for Lamia? What for Lycius?

What for the sage, old Apollonius?

Upon her aching forehead be there hung

The leaves of willow and of adder’s tongue;

And for the youth, quick, let us strip for him

The thyrsus, that his watching eyes may swim

Into forgetfulness; and, for the sage,

Let spear-grass and the spiteful thistle wage

War on his temples. Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—

Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

By her glad Lycius sitting, in chief place,

Scarce saw in all the room another face,

Till, checking his love trance, a cup he took

Full brimm’d, and opposite sent forth a look

’Cross the broad table, to beseech a glance

From his old teacher’s wrinkled countenance,

And pledge him. The bald-head philosopher

Had fix’d his eye, without a twinkle or stir

Full on the alarmed beauty of the bride,

Brow-beating her fair form, and troubling her sweet pride.

Lycius then press’d her hand, with devout touch,

As pale it lay upon the rosy couch:

’Twas icy, and the cold ran through his veins;

Then sudden it grew hot, and all the pains

Of an unnatural heat shot to his heart.

“Lamia, what means this? Wherefore dost thou start?

“Know’st thou that man?” Poor Lamia answer’d not.

He gaz’d into her eyes, and not a jot

Own’d they the lovelorn piteous appeal:

More, more he gaz’d: his human senses reel:

Some hungry spell that loveliness absorbs;

There was no recognition in those orbs.

“Lamia!” he cried—and no soft-toned reply.

The many heard, and the loud revelry

Grew hush; the stately music no more breathes;

The myrtle sicken’d in a thousand wreaths.

By faint degrees, voice, lute, and pleasure ceased;

A deadly silence step by step increased,

Until it seem’d a horrid presence there,

And not a man but felt the terror in his hair.

“Lamia!” he shriek’d; and nothing but the shriek

With its sad echo did the silence break.

“Begone, foul dream!” he cried, gazing again

In the bride’s face, where now no azure vein

Wander’d on fair-spaced temples; no soft bloom

Misted the cheek; no passion to illume

The deep-recessed vision:—all was blight;

Lamia, no longer fair, there sat a deadly white.

“Shut, shut those juggling eyes, thou ruthless man!

“Turn them aside, wretch! or the righteous ban

“Of all the Gods, whose dreadful images

“Here represent their shadowy presences,

“May pierce them on the sudden with the thorn

“Of painful blindness; leaving thee forlorn,

“In trembling dotage to the feeblest fright

“Of conscience, for their long offended might,

“For all thine impious proud-heart sophistries,

“Unlawful magic, and enticing lies.

“Corinthians! look upon that gray-beard wretch!

“Mark how, possess’d, his lashless eyelids stretch

“Around his demon eyes! Corinthians, see!

“My sweet bride withers at their potency.”

“Fool!” said the sophist, in an under-tone

Gruff with contempt; which a death-nighing moan

From Lycius answer’d, as heart-struck and lost,

He sank supine beside the aching ghost.

“Fool! Fool!” repeated he, while his eyes still

Relented not, nor mov’d; “from every ill

“Of life have I preserv’d thee to this day,

“And shall I see thee made a serpent’s prey?

Then Lamia breath’d death breath; the sophist’s eye,

Like a sharp spear, went through her utterly,

Keen, cruel, perceant, stinging: she, as well

As her weak hand could any meaning tell,

Motion’d him to be silent; vainly so,

He look’d and look’d again a level—No!

“A Serpent!” echoed he; no sooner said,

Than with a frightful scream she vanished:

And Lycius’ arms were empty of delight,

As were his limbs of life, from that same night.

On the high couch he lay!—his friends came round—

Supported him—no pulse, or breath they found,

And, in its marriage robe, the heavy body wound.