Selections from the American poets
William Cullen Bryant
SCENE FROM "MIRIAM."
[Euphas, a young Roman and a Christian, appears before Piso, a persecutor of the Christians at Rome, to demand the liberation of his father Thraseno, who is in prison on account of his faith. He informs him that Paulus, the son of Piso, who had become enamoured of Miriam, the sister of Euphas, is in the hands of the Christians, and proposes to give him up in exchange for Thraseno. The dialogue thus proceeds:Page 307
Would that among them—
Where is the sorceress? I fain would see
The beauty that hath witch'd Rome's noblest youth.
Hers is a face thou never wilt behold.
On her—on her shall fall my worst revenge;
And I will know what foul and magic arts —
[Miriam glides in. A pause.
Beautiful shadow! in this hour of wrath,
What dost thou here? In life thou wert too meek,
Too gentle for a lover stern as I.
And, since I saw thee last, my days have been
Deep steep'd in sin and blood! What seekest thou?
I have grown old in strife, and hast thou come,
With thy dark eyes and their soul-searching glance,
To look me into peace? It cannot be.
Go back, fair spirit, to thine own dim realms!
He whose young love thou didst reject on earth,
May tremble at this visitation strange,
But never can know peace or virtue more!
Thou wert a Christian, and a Christian dog
Did win thy precious love. I have good cause
To hate and scorn the whole detested race;
And till I meet that man, whom most of all
My soul abhors, will I go on and slay!
Fade, vanish, shadow bright! In vain that look!
That sweet, sad look! My lot is cast in blood!
Oh, say not so!
The voice that won me first!
Oh, what a tide of recollections rush
Upon my drowning soul! my own wild love —
Thy scorn—the long, long days of blood and guilt
That since have left their footprints on my fate!
The daily, dark nights of fever'd agony,
When, mid the strife and struggling of my' dreams,
The gods sent thee at times to hover round,
Bringing the mem'ry of those peaceful days
When I beheld thee first! But never yet
Before my waking eyes hast thou appear'dPage 308
Distinct and visible as now! Spirit!
What wouldst thou have?
Oh, man of guilt and wo!
Thine own dark phantasies are busy now,
Lending unearthly seeming to a thing
Of earth, as thou art!
How! Art thou not she?
I know that face! I never yet beheld
One like to it among earth's loveliest.
Why dost thou wear that semblance, if thou art
A thing of mortal mould? Oh, better meet
The wailing ghosts of those whose blood doth clog
My midnight dreams, than that half-pitying eye!
Thou art a wretched man! and I do feel
Pity ev'n for the suff'ring guilt hath brought.
But from the quiet grave I have not come,
Nor from the shadowy confines of the world
Where spirits dwell, to haunt thy midnight hour.
The disimbodied should be passionless,
And wear not eyes that swim in earth-born tears,
As mine do now! Look up, thou conscience-struck!
Off! off! She touch'd me with her damp, cold hand!
But 'twas a hand of flesh and blood! Away!
Come thou not near me till I study thee.
Why are thine eyes so fix'd and wild? thy lips
Convulsed and ghastly white? Thine own dark sins,
Vexing thy soul, have clad me in a form
Thou dar'st not look upon —I know not why.
But I must speak to thee. Mid thy remorse,
And the unwonted terrors of thy soul,
I must be heard, for God hath sent me here.
Who, who hath sent thee here?
Thou art of earth!
I see the rose-tint on thy pallid cheek,
Which was not there at first; it kindles fast!Page 309
Say on. Although I dare not meet that eye,
I hear thee.
He hath given me strength,
And led me safely through the broad lone streets,
Ev'n at the midnight hour! My heart sunk not;
My noiseless foot paced on unfaltering
Through the long colonnades, where stood aloft
Pale gods and goddesses on either hand,
Bending their sightless eyes on me! by cool founts,
Waking with ceaseless plash the midnight air!
Through moonlit squares, where, ever and anon,
Flash'd from some dusky nook the red torchlight,
Flung on my path by passing reveller.
And He hath brought me here before thy face;
And it was He who smote thee even now
With a strange, nameless fear.
Girl! name it not.
I deem'd I look'd on one whose bright young face
First glanced upon me mid the shining leaves
Of a green bower in sunny Palestine,
In my youth's prime! I knew the dust,
The grave's corroding dust, had soil'd
That spotless brow long since. A shadow fell
Upon the soul that never yet knew fear.
But it is past. Earth holds not what I dread;
And what the gods did make me am I now.
What seekest thou?
Ha! is this so!
Now, by the gods!—Bar, bar the gates, ye slaves!
If they escape me now—Why this is good!
I had not dream'd of hap so glorious.
His sister! she that beguiled my son!
Thou art her image; and the mystery
Confounds my purposes. Take other form,
Foul sorceress, and I will baffle thee!
I have no other form than this God gave;
And he already hath stretch'd forth his hand,
And touch'd it for the grave.
It is most strange.
Is not the air around her full of spells?
Give me the son thou hast seduced!
Thy son hath seen me, loved me, and hath won
A heart too prone to worship noble things,
Although of earth; and he, alas! was earth's!
I strove, I pray'd in vain! In all things else
I might have stirr'd his soul's best purposes.
But for the pure and cheering faith of Christ,
There was no entrance in that iron soul.
And I—amid such hopes, despair arose,
And laid a with'ring hand upon my heart.
I feel it yet! We parted! Ay, this night
We met to meet no more.
Euphas, thou wert wroth
When there was little cause; I loved thee more.
Thy very frowns in such a holy cause
Were beautiful. The scorn of virtuous youth,
Looking on fancied sin, is noble.
Well,thou mayst, for it hath wrought his pardon.
That he had loved thee would have been a sin
Too full of degradation—infamy,
Had not these cold and aged eyes themselves
Beheld thee in thy loveliness! And yet, bold girl!
Think not thy Jewish beauty is the spell
That works on one grown old in deeds of blood.
I have look'd calmly on when eyes as brightPage 311
Were drown'd in tears of bitter agony,
When forms as full of grace and pride, perchance,
Were writhing in the sharpness of their pain,
And cheeks as fair were mangled—
I tremble not.
He spake of pardon for his guiltless son,
And that includeth life for those I love.
What need I more?
Let us go hence. Piso!
Bid thou thy myrmidons unbar the gates,
That shut our friends from light and air.
My haughty boy, for we have much to say
Ere you two pretty birds go free. Chafe not!
Ye are caged close, and can but flutter here
Till I am satisfied.
How! hast thou changed—
Detain us if thou wilt. But look—
There, through yon western arch! the moon sinks low.
The mists already tinge her orb with blood.
Methinks I feel the breeze of morn ev'n now.
Know'st thou the hour?
I do: but one thing more
I fain would know; for, after this wild night,
Let me no more behold you. Why didst thou,
Bold, dark-hair'd boy, wear in those pleading eyes,
When thou didst name thy boon, an earnest look
That fell familiar on my soul? And thou,
The lofty, calm, and oh! most beautiful!
Why are not only that soul-searching glance,
But ev'n thy features and thy silver voice
So like to hers I loved long years ago,
Beneath Judea's palms! Whence do ye come?
For me, I bear my own dear mother's brow;
Her eye, her form, her very voice are mine.
So, in his tears, my father oft hath said.
We lived beneath Judea's shady palms
Until that saintlike mother faded, droop'd,
And died. Then hither came we o'er the waves,
And till this night have worshipp'd faithfully
The one, true, living God, in secret peace.
Thou art her child! I could not harm thee now.
Oh, wonderful! that things so long forgot—
A love I thought so crush'd and trodden down,
Ev'n by the iron tread of passion wild—
Ambition, pride, and, worst of all, revenge—
Revenge, that hath shed seas of Christian blood!
To think this heart was once so waxen soft,
And then congeal'd so hard, that naught of all
Which hath been since could ever have the pow'r
To wear away the image of that girl—
That fair young Christian girl! 'Twas a wild love!
But I was young, a soldier in strange lands,
And she, in very gentleness, said nay
So timidly, I hoped—until, ye gods!
She loved another! Yet I slew him not!
I fled! Oh, had I met him since!
Ye shall go forth in joy —
And take with you yon pris'ners. Send my son,
Him whom she did not bear—home to these arms,
And go ye out of Rome with all your train.
I will shed blood no more; for I have known
What sort of peace deep-glutted vengeance brings.
My son is brave, but of a gentler mind
Than I have been. His eyes shall never more
Be grieved with sight of sinless blood pour'd forth
From tortured veins. Go forth, ye gentle two!
Children of her who might perhaps have pour'd
Her own meek spirit o'er my nature stern,
Since the bare image of her buried charms,Page 313
Soft gleaming from your youthful brows, hath pow'r
To stir my spirit thus! But go ye forth!
Ye leave an alter'd and a milder man
Than him ye sought. Tell Paulus this,
To quicken his young steps.
Now may the peace
That follows just and worthy deeds be thine!
And may deep truths be born, mid thy remorse,
In the recesses of thy soul, to make
That soul ev'n yet a shrine of holiness.
Take ye my well-known ring—and here—the list—
Ay, this is it, methinks: show these—Great gods!
A name, at which he points with stiff'ning hand,
And eyeballs full of wrath! Alas! alas!
I guess too well. My brother, droop thou not.
His life: but not alone
The life so dear to us; for he hath friends
Sharing his fetters and his final doom.
Did I not know it, girl?
Now, by the gods! had I not been entranced,
I sooner had conjectured this. Foul name!
Thus do I tear thee out—and even thus
Rend with my teeth. Oh rage! she wedded him,
And ever since that hated name hath been
The voice of serpents in mine ear! But now—
Why go ye not? Here is your list! and all,Page 314
Ay, every one whose name is here set down
Will my good guard release to you!
Ay, maid! but ye are his
Whom I do hate! That chord is broken now—
Its music hush'd! Is she not in her grave,
And he within my grasp?
Fled all; a moonbeam brief
Upon a stormy sea. That magic name
Hath roused the wild, loud winds again. Begone
Save whom ye may.
No! let him die,
So that I have my long-deferr'd revenge!
Thy lip grows pale! Art thou not answer'd now?
Be it so.
He can but rend me where I stand. And here,
Living or dying, will I raise my voice
In a firm hope! The God that brought me here
Is round me in the silent air. On me
Falleth the influence of an unseen Eye!
And, in the strength of secret, earnest pray'r,
This awful consciousness doth nerve my frame.
Thou man of evil and ungovern'd soul!
My father thou mayst slay! Flames will not fallPage 315
From heaven to scorch and wither thee! The earth
Will ope not underneath thy feet! and peace,
Mock, hollow, seeming peace, may shadow still
Thy home and hearth! But deep within thy breast
A fierce, consuming fire shall ever dwell.
Each night shall ope a gulf of horrid dreams
To swallow up thy soul. The livelong day
That soul shall yearn for peace and quietness,
As the hart panteth for the water brooks,
And know that even in death is no repose!
And this shall be thy life! Then a dark hour
Will surely come—
Nay, one thing more
Thou knowest not. There is on all this earth—
Full as it is of young and gentle hearts—
One man alone that loves a wretch like thee:
And he, thou sayst, must die! All other eyes
Do greet thee with a cold or wrathful look,
Or, in the baseness of their fear, shun thine;
And he whose loving glance alone spake peace,
Thou sayst must die in youth! Thou know'st not yet
The deep and bitter sense of loneliness,
The throes and achings of a childless heart,
Which yet will all be thine! Thou know'st not yet
What 'tis to wander mid thy spacious halls,
And find them desolate! wildly to start
From thy deep musings at the distant sound
Of voice or step like his, and sink back sick—
Ay! sick at heart—with dark remembrances!
When, in his bright and joyous infancy,
His laughing eyes amid thick curls sought thine,
And his soft arms were twined around thy neck,
And his twin rosebud lips just lisp'd thy name—
Yet feel in agony 'tis but a dream!
Thou know'st not yet what 'tis to lead the van
Of armies hurrying on to victory,
Yet, in the pomp and glory of that hour,Page 316
Sadly to miss the well-known snowy plume,
Whereon thine eyes were ever proudly fix'd
In battle-field! to sit, at deep midnight,
Alone within thy tent, all shuddering,
When, as the curtain'd door lets in the breeze,
Thy fancy conjures up the gleaming arms
And bright young hero-face of him who once
Had been most welcome there! and, worst of all—
It is enough! The gift of prophecy
Is on thee, maid! A pow'r that is not thine
Looks out from that dilated, awful form—
Those eyes, deep-flashing with unearthly light—
And stills my soul. My Paulus must not die!
And yet, to give up thus the boon—
A boon of blood? To him, the good old man,
Death is not terrible, but only seems
A dark, short passage to a land of light,
Where, mid high ecstasy, he shall behold
Th' unshrouded glories of his Maker's face,
And learn all mysteries, and gaze at last
Upon th' ascended Prince, and never more
Know grief or pain, or part from those he loves!
Yet will his blood cry loudly from the dust,
And bring deep vengeance on his murderer!
My Paulus must not die! Let me revolve—
Maiden! thy words have sunk into my soul;
Yet would I ponder ere I thus lay down
A purpose cherish'd in my inmost heart,
That which hath been my dream by night, by day
My life's sole aim. Have I not deeply sworn,
Long years ere thou wert born, that, should the gods
E'er give him to my rage—and yet I pause?
Shall Christian vipers sting mine only son,
And I not crush them into nothingness?
Am I so pinion'd, vain, and powerless?
Work, busy brain! thy cunning must not fail.