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The beating of her heart was heard to till
Roused by the shock, he started from his trance—
While daylight held
Through tangled swamps and deep precipitous dells,
Startling with careless step the moon-light snake,
He fled. Red morning dawned upon his flight,
Shedding the mockery of its vital hues
Upon his cheek of death. He wandered on,
Till vast Aornos, seen from Petra's steep,
Hung o'er the low horizon like a cloud;
Through Balk, and where the desolated tombs
Of Parthian kings scatter to every wind
Their wasting dust, wildly he wandered on,
Day after day, a weary waste of hours,
Bearing within his life the brooding care
That ever fed on its decaying flame.
And now his limbs were lean; his scattered hair,
Sered by the autumn of strange suffering,
Sung dirges in the wind; his listless hand
Hung like dead bone within its withered skin;
Life, and the lustre that consumed it, shone
As in a furnace burning secretly
From his dark eyes alone. The cottagers,
Who ministered with human charity
His human wants, beheld with wondering awe
Their fleeting visitant. The mountaineer,
Encountering on some dizzy precipice
That spectral form, deemed that the Spirit of wind
With lightning eyes, and eager breath, and feet
Disturbing not the drifted snow, had paused
In his career: the infant would conceal
His troubled visage in his mother's robe
In terror at the glare of those wild eyes,
To remember their strange light in many a dream
Of after times; but youthful maidens, taught
By nature, would interpret half the woe
That wasted him, would call him with false names
Brother, and friend, would press his pallid hand
At parting, and watch, dim through tears, the path
Of his departure from their father's door.
At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore He paused, a wide and melancholy waste Of putrid marshes. A strong impulse urged His steps to the sea-shore. A swan was there, Beside a sluggish stream among the reeds. It rose as he approached, and with strong wings Scaling the upward sky, bent its bright course High over the immeasurable main. His eyes pursued its flight:—" Thou hast a home, Beautiful bird! thou voyagest to thine home, Where thy sweet mate will twine her downy neck With thine, and welcome thy return with eyes Bright in the lustre of their own fond joy. And what am I that I should linger here, With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes, Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven That echoes not my thoughts?" A gloomy smile Of desperate hope wrinkled his quivering lips. For sleep, he knew, kept most relentlessly Its precious charge, and silent death exposed, Faithless perhaps as sleep, a shadowy lure, With doubtful smile mocking its own strange charms.
Startled by his own thoughts, he looked around: There was no fair fiend near him, not a sight Or sound of awe but in his own deep mind. A little shallop floating near the shore Caught the impatient wandering of his gaze. It had been long abandoned, for its sides Gaped wide with many a rift, and its frail joints
Swayed with the undulations of the tide.
A restless impulse urged him to embark
And meet Tone Death on the drear ocean's waste;
For well he knew that mighty Shadow loves
The slimy caverns of the populous deep.
The day was fair and sunny: Bea and sky
As one that in a silver vision floats
Obedient to the sweep of odorous winds
Upon resplendent clouds, so rapidly
Along the dark and ruffled waters fled
The straining boat.—A whirlwind swept it on,
With fierce gusts and precipitating force,
Through the white ridges of the chafed sea.
The waves arose. Higher and higher still
Their fierce necks writhed beneath the tempest's
scourge Like serpents struggling in a vulture's grasp. Calm and rejoicing in the fearful war Of wave running on wave, and blast on blast Descending, and black flood on whirlpool driven With dark obliterating course, he sate: As if their genii were the ministers Appointed to conduct him to the light Of those beloved eyes, the Poet sate Holding the steady helm. Evening came on, The beams of sunset hung their rainbow hues High 'mid the shifting domes of sheeted spray That canopied his path o'er the waste deep; Twilight, ascending slowly from the east, Entwined in duskier wreaths her braided locks O'er the fair front and radiant eyes of day; Night followed, clad with stars. On every side More horribly the multitudinous streams Of ocean's mountainous waste to mutual war Rushed in dark tumult thundering, as to mock The calm and spangled sky. The little boat Still fled before the storm; still fled, like foam Down the steep cataract of a wintry river; Now pausing on the edge of the riven wave; Now leaving far behind the bursting mass That fell, convulsing ocean. Safely fled— As if that frail and wasted human form Had been an elemental god.
At midnight The moon arose: and lo t the ethereal cliffs Of Caucasus, whose icy summits shone Among the stars like sunlight, and around Whose caverned base the whirlpools and the waves, Bursting and eddying irresistibly, Rage and resound for ever.—Who shall save T— The boat fled on,—the boiling torrent drove,— The crags closed round with black and jagged arms, The shattered mountain overhung the sea, And faster still, beyond all human speed, Suspended on the sweep of the smooth wave, The little boat was driven. A cavern there Yawned, and amid its slant and winding depths Ingulfed the rushing sea. The boat fled on With unrelaxing speed. "Vision and Love!" The Poet cried aloud, " I have beheld
The path of thy departure. Sleep and death
The boat pursued
The boat moved slowly. Where the mountain,
The noonday sun
Most solemn domes within, and far below,
To some more lovely mystery. Through the dell,
Hither the Poet came. His eyes beheld
Obedient to the light
That overhung its quietness.—" 0 stream!
Beside the grassy shore
stemmed The struggling brook : tall spires of windlestrae Threw their thin shadows down the rugged slope, And nought but gnarled roots of ancient pines Branchless and blasted, clenched with grasping roots The unwilling soil. A gradual change was here, Yet ghastly. For, as fast years flow away, The smooth brow gathers, and the hair grows thin And white ; and where irradiate dewy eyes Had shone, gleam stony orbs: so from his steps Bright flowers departed, and the beautiful shade Of the green groves, with all their odorous winds And musical motions. Calm, he still pursued The stream, that with a larger volume now Rolled through the labyrinthine dell; and there Fretted a path through its descending curves With its wintry speed. On every side now rose Rocks, which, in unimaginable forms, Lifted their black and barren pinnacles In the light of evening, and its precipice Obscuring the ravine, disclosed above, 'Mid toppling stones,black gulfs,andyawning caves, Whose windings gave ten thousand various tongues To the loud stream. Lo! where the pass expands Its stony jaws, the abrupt mountain breaks, And seems, with its accumulated crags, To overhang the world: for wide expand Beneath the wan stars and descending moon Islanded seas, blue mountains, mighty streams, Dim tracks and vast, robed in the lustrous gloom Of leaden-coloured even, and fiery hills Mingling their flames with twilight, on the verge Of the remote horizon. The near scene, In naked and severe simplicity, Made contrast with the universe. A pine, Rock-rooted, stretched athwart the vacancy Its swinging boughs, to each inconstant blast Yielding one only response, at each pause, In most familiar cadence, with the howl The thunder and the hiss of homeless streams Mingling its solemn song, whilst the broad river, Foaming and hurrying o'er its rugged path,
Fell into that immeasurable void,
The dim and horned moon hung low, and poured
A sea of lustre on the horizon's verge
That overflowed its mountains. Yellow mist
Filled the unbounded atmosphere, and drank
Wan moonlight even to fulness: not a star
Shone, not a sound was heard ; the very winds,
Danger's grim playmates, on that precipice
Slept, clasped in his embrace.—0, storm of death!
Whose sightless speed divides this sullen night:
And thou, colossal Skeleton, that, still
Guiding its irresistible career
In thy devastating omnipotence,
Art king of this frail world, from the red field
Of slaughter, from the reeking hospital,
The patriot's sacred couch, the snowy bed
Of innocence, the scaffold and the throne,
A mighty voice invokes thee. Ruin calls
His brother Death. A rare and regal prey
He hath prepared, prowling around the world;
Glutted with which thou may'st repose, and men
Go to their graves like flowers or creeping worms,
Nor ever more offer at thy dark shrine
The unheeded tribute of a broken heart.
When on the threshold of the green recess The wanderer's footsteps fell, he knew that death Was on him. Yet a little, ere it fled, Did he resign his high and holy soul To images of the majestic past, That paused within his passive being now, Like winds that bear sweetmusic, when they breathe Through some dim latticed chamber. He did place His pale lean hand upon the rugged trunk Of the old pine. Upon an ivied stone Reclined his languid head, his limbs did rest, Diffused and motionless, on the smooth brink
Of that obscurest chasm ;—and thus he lay,
Surrendering to their final impulses
The hovering powers of life. Hope and despair,
The torturers, slept: no mortal pain or fear
Marred his repose, the influxes of sense,
And his own being unalloyed by pain,
Yet feebler and more feeble, calmly fed
The stream of thought, till he lay breathing there
At peace, and faintly smiling:—his last sight
Was the great moon, which o'er the western line
Of the wide world her mighty horn suspended,
With whose dun beams inwoven darkness seemed
To mingle. Now upon the jagged hills
It rests, and still as the divided frame
Of the vast meteor sunk, the Poet's blood,
That ever beat in mystic sympathy
With nature's ebb and flow, grew feebler still:
And when two lessening points of light alone
Gleamed through the darkness, the alternate gasp
Of his faint respiration scarce did stir
The stagnate night:—till the minutest ray
Was quenched, the pulse yet lingered in his heart.
It paused—it fluttered. But when heaven remained
Utterly black, the murky shades involved
An image, silent, cold, and motionless,
As their own voiceless earth and vacant air.
Even as a vapour fed with golden beams
That ministered on sunlight, ere the west
Eclipses it, was now that wondrous frame—
No sense, no motion, no divinity—
A fragile lute, on whose harmonious strings
The breath of heaven did wander—a bright stream
Once fed with many-voiced waves—a dream
Of youth, which night and time have quenched for
ever, Still, dark, and dry, and unrcmembered now.
O, for Medea's wondrous alchymy, Which wheresoe'er it fell made the earth gleam With bright flowers, and the wintry boughs exhale From vernal blooms fresh fragrance I O, that God, Profuse of poisons, would concede the chalice Which but one living man has drained, who now, Vessel of deathless wrath, a slave that feels No proud exemption in the blighting curse He bears, over the world wanders for ever, Lone as incarnate death I O, that the dream Of dark magician in his visioned cave, Raking the cinders of a crucible For life and power, even when his feeble hand Shakes in its last decay, were the true law Of this so lovely world! But thou art fled Like some frail exhalation, which the dawn Robes in its golden beams,—ah! thou hast fled! The brave, the gentle, and the beautiful, The child of grace and genius. Heartless things Are done and said i' the world, and many worms And beasts and men live on, and mighty Earth From sea and mountain, city and wilderness, In vesper low or joyous orison, Lifts still its solemn voice :—but thou art fled— Thou canst no longer know or love the Bhapes Of this phantasmal scene, who have to thee Been pnrest ministers, who are, alas I Now thou art not. Upon those pallid lips So sweet even in their silence, on those eyes That image sleep in death, upon that form Yet safe from the worm's outrage, let no tear Be shed—not even in thought. Nor, when those hues Are gone, and those divinest lineaments,
Worn by the senseless wind, shall live alone
It is a woe " too deep for tears," when all Is reft at once, when some surpassing Spirit, Whose light adorned the world around it, leaves Those who remain behind nor sobs nor groans, The passionate tumult of a clinging hope; But pale despair and cold tranquillity, Nature's vast frame, the web of human things, i Birth and the grave, that are not as they were.
NOTE ON ALASTOR. BY THE EDITOR.
"Ai.Astor" is written in a very different tone from " Queen Mab." In the latter, Shelley poured out all the cherished speculations of his youth—all the irrepressible emotions of sympathy, censure, and hope, to which the present suffering, and what he considers the proper destiny of his fellow-creatures, gave birth. "Alastor," on the contrary, contains an individual interest only. A very few years, with their attendant events, had checked the ardour of Shelley's hopes, though he still thought them well grounded, and that to advance their fulfilment was the noblest task man could achieve.
This is neither the time nor place to speak of the misfortunes that chequered his life. It will be sufficient to say, that in all he did, he at the time of doing it believed himself justified to his own conscience; while the various ills of poverty and loss of friends brought home to him the sad realities of life. Physical suffering had also considerable influence in causing him to turn his eyes inward ; inclining him rather to brood over the thoughts and emotions of his own soul, than to glance abroad, and to make, as in " Queen Mab," the whole universe the object and subject of his song. In the spring of 1815, an eminent physician pronounced that he was dying rapidly of a consumption ; abscesses were formed on his lungs, and he suffered acute spasms. Suddenly a complete change took place; and though through life he was a martyr to pain and debility, every symptom of pulmonary disease vanished. His nerves, which nature had formed sensitive to an unexampled degree, were rendered still more susceptible by the state of his health.
As soon as the peace of 1814 had opened the Continent, he went abroad. He visited some of the more magnificent scenes of Switzerland, and returned to England from Lucerne, by the Reuss
and the Rhine. This river navigation enchanted him. In his favourite poem of "Thalaba," his imagination had been excited by a description of such a voyage. In the summer of 1815, after a tour along the southern coast of Devonshire and a visit to Clifton, he rented a house on Bishopgate Heath, on the borders of Windsor Forest, where he enjoyed several months of comparative health and tranquil happiness. The later summer months were warm and dry. Accompanied by a few friends, he visited the source of the Thames, making the voyage in a wherry from Windsor to Crichlade. His beautiful stanzas in the churchyard of Lechlade were written on that occasion. "Alastor" was composed on his return. He spent his days under the oak-shades of Windsor Great Park; and the magnificent woodland was a fitting study to inspire the various descriptions of forest scenery we find in the poem.
None of Shelley's poems is more characteristic than this. The solemn spirit that reigns throughout, the worship of the majesty of nature, the broodings of a poet's heart in solitude—the mingling of the exulting joy which the various aspect of the visible universe inspires, with the sad and struggling pangs which human passion imparts, give a touching interest to the whole. The death which he had often contemplated during the last months as certain and near, he here represented in such colours as had, in his lonely musings, soothed his soul to peace. The versification sustains the solemn spirit which breathes throughout, it is peculiarly melodious. The poem ought rather to be considered didactic than narrative: it was the out-pouring of his own emotions, embodied in the purest form he could conceive, painted in the ideal hues which his brilliant imagination inspired, and softened by the recent anticipation of death.