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Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.

Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems

Empedocles on Etna. Act I. Scene I

[First published 1852. Fragments reprinted 1853, ’54, ’55, ’57. Reprinted in complete form as below 1867.]

  • PAUSANIAS, a Physician
  • CALLICLES, a young Harp-player.

  • The Scene of the Poem is on Mount Etna; at first in the forest region, afterwards on the summit of the mountain.


    A Pass in the forest region of Etna. Morning

    (Alone, resting on a rock by the path)
    THE MULES, I think, will not be here this hour.

    They feel the cool wet turf under their feet

    By the stream-side, after the dusty lanes

    In which they have toil’d all night from Catana,

    And scarcely will they budge a yard. O Pan!

    How gracious is the mountain at this hour!

    A thousand times have I been here alone

    Or with the revellers from the mountain towns,

    But never on so fair a morn;—the sun

    Is shining on the brilliant mountain crests,

    And on the highest pines: but further down

    Here in the valley is in shade; the sward

    Is dark, and on the stream the mist still hangs;

    One sees one’s foot-prints crush’d in the wet grass,

    One’s breath curls in the air; and on these pines

    That climb from the stream’s edge, the long grey tufts.

    Which the goats love, are jewell’d thick with dew.

    Here will I stay till the slow litter comes.

    I have my harp too—that is well.—Apollo!

    What mortal could be sick or sorry here?

    I know not in what mind Empedocles,

    Whose mules I follow’d, may be coming up,

    But if, as most men say, he is half mad

    With exile, and with brooding on his wrongs,

    Pausanias, his sage friend, who mounts with him,

    Could scarce have lighted on a lovelier cure.

    The mules must be below, far down. I hear

    Their tinkling bells, mix’d with the song of birds,

    Rise faintly to me—now it stops!—Who’s here?

    Pausanias! and on foot? alone?

    And thou, then?

    I left thee supping with Peisianax,

    With thy head full of wine, and thy hair crown’d,

    Touching thy harp as the whim came on thee,

    And prais’d and spoil’d by master and by guests

    Almost as much as the new dancing girl.

    Why hast thou follow’d us?

    The night was hot,

    And the least past its prime; so we slipp’d out,

    Some of us, to the portico to breathe;—

    Peisianax, thou know’st, drinks late;—and then,

    As I was lifting my soil’d garland off,

    I saw the mules and litter in the court,

    And in the litter sate Empedocles;

    Thou, too, wert with him. Straightway I sped home;

    I saddled my white mule, and all night long

    Through the cool lovely country follow’d you,

    Pass’d you a little since as morning dawn’d,

    And have this hour sate by the torrent here,

    Till the slow mules should climb in sight again.

    And now?

    And now, back to the town with speed!

    Crouch in the wood first, till the mules have pass’d;

    They do but halt, they will be here anon.

    Thou must be viewless to Empedocles;

    Save mine, he must not meet a human eye.

    One of his moods is on him that thou know’st.

    I think, thou would’st not vex him.

    No—and yet

    I would fain stay and help thee tend him; once

    He knew me well, and would oft notice me.

    And still, I know not how, he draws me to him,

    And I could watch him with his proud sad face,

    His flowing locks and gold-encircled brow

    And kingly gait, for ever; such a spell

    In his severe looks, such a majesty

    As drew of old the people after him,

    In Agrigentum and Olympia,

    When his star reign’d, before his banishment,

    Is potent still on me in his decline.

    But oh, Pausanias, he is changed of late!

    There is a settled trouble in his air

    Admits no momentary brightening now;

    And when he comes among his friends at feasts,

    ’Tis as an orphan among prosperous boys.

    Thou know’st of old he loved this harp of mine,

    When first he sojourn’d with Peisianax;

    He is now always moody, and I fear him.

    But I would serve him, soothe him, if I could,

    Dared one but try.

    Thou wert a kind child ever.

    He loves thee, but he must not see thee now.

    Thou hast indeed a rare touch on thy harp,

    He loves that in thee, too; there was a time

    (But that is pass’d) he would have paid thy strain

    With music to have drawn the stars from heaven.

    He has his harp and laurel with him still,

    But he has laid the use of music by,

    And all which might relax his settled gloom.

    Yet thou may’st try thy playing if thou wilt,

    But thou must keep unseen; follow us on,

    But at a distance; in these solitudes,

    In this clear mountain air, a voice will rise,

    Though from afar, distinctly; it may soothe him.

    Play when we halt, and, when the evening comes

    And I must leave him (for his pleasure is

    To be left musing these soft nights alone

    In the high unfrequented mountain spots),

    Then watch him, for he ranges swift and far,

    Sometimes to Etna’s top, and to the cone;

    But hide thee in the rocks a great way down,

    And try thy noblest strains, my Callicles,

    With the sweet night to help thy harmony.

    Thou wilt earn my thanks sure, and perhaps his.

    More than a day and night, Pausanias,

    Of this fair summer weather, on these hills,

    Would I bestow to help Empedocles.

    That needs no thanks; one is far better here

    Than in the broiling city in these heats.

    But tell me, how hast thou persuaded him

    In this his present fierce, man-hating mood,

    To bring thee out with him alone on Etna?

    Thou hast heard all men speaking of Pantheia,

    The woman who at Agrigentum lay

    Thirty long days in a cold trance of death,

    And whom Empedocles call’d back to life.

    Thou art too young to note it, but his power

    Swells with the swelling evil of this time,

    And holds men mute to see where it will rise.

    He could stay swift diseases in old days,

    Chain madmen by the music of his lyre,

    Cleanse to sweet airs the breath of poisonous streams,

    And in the mountain chinks inter the winds.

    This he could do of old; but now, since all

    Clouds and grows daily worse in Sicily,

    Since broils tear us in twain, since this new swarm

    Of sophists has got empire in our schools

    Where he was paramount, since he is banish’d,

    And lives a lonely man in triple gloom,

    He grasps the very reins of life and death.

    I ask’d him of Pantheia yesterday,

    When we were gather’d with Peisianax,

    And he made answer, I should come at night

    On Etna here, and be alone with him,

    And he would tell me, as his old, tried friend,

    Who still was faithful, what might profit me;

    That is, the secret of this miracle.

    Bah! Thou a doctor? Thou art superstitious.

    Simple Pausanias, ’twas no miracle!

    Pantheia, for I know her kinsmen well,

    Was subject to these trances from a girl.

    Empedocles would say so, did he deign;

    But he still lets the people, whom he scorns,

    Gape and cry wizard at him, if they list.

    But thou, thou art no company for him;

    Thou art as cross, as soured as himself.

    Thou hast some wrong from thine own citizens,

    And then thy friend is banish’d, and on that,

    Straightway thou fallest to arraign the times,

    As if the sky was impious not to fall.

    The sophists are no enemies of his;

    I hear, Gorgias, their chief, speaks nobly of him,

    As of his gifted master and once friend.

    He is too scornful, too high-wrought, too bitter.

    ’Tis not the times, ’tis not the sophists vex him;

    There is some root of suffering in himself,

    Some secret and unfollow’d vein of woe,

    Which makes the time look black and sad to him.

    Pester him not in this his sombre mood

    With questionings about an idle tale,

    But lead him through the lovely mountain paths,

    And keep his mind from preying on itself,

    And talk to him of things at hand and common,

    Not miracles; thou art a learned man,

    But credulous of fables as a girl.

    And thou, a boy whose tongue outruns his knowledge,

    And on whose lightness blame is thrown away.

    Enough of this! I see the litter wind

    Up by the torrent-side, under the pines.

    I must rejoin Empedocles. Do thou

    Crouch in the brush-wood till the mules have pass’d;

    Then play thy kind part well. Farewell till night!