Home  »  The Poems of Matthew Arnold  »  Empedocles on Etna. Act I. Scene II

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

Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems

Empedocles on Etna. Act I. Scene II

Noon.A Glen on the highest skirts of the woody region of Etna


The noon is hot; when we have cross’d the stream

We shall have left the woody tract, and come

Upon the open shoulder of the hill.

See how the giant spires of yellow bloom

Of the sun-loving gentian, in the heat,

Are shining on those naked slopes like flame!

Let us rest here; and now, Empedocles,

Pantheia’s history.[A harp-note below is heard.

Hark! what sound was that

Rose from below? If it were possible,

And we were not so far from human haunt,

I should have said that some one touch’d a harp.

Hark! there again!

’Tis the boy Callicles,

The sweetest harp-player in Catana,

He is for ever coming on these hills,

In summer, to all country festivals,

With a gay revelling band; he breaks from them

Sometimes, and wanders far among the glens.

But heed him not, he will not mount to us;

I spoke with him this morning. Once more, therefore,

Instruct me of Pantheia’s story, Master,

As I have pray’d thee.

That? and to what end?

It is enough that all men speak of it.

But I will also say, that when the Gods

Visit us as they do with sign and plague,

To know those spells of time that stay their hand

Were to live free from terror.

Spells? Mistrust them.

Mind is the spell which governs earth and heaven.

Man has a mind with which to plan his safety;

Know that, and help thyself.

But thy own words?

‘The wit and counsel of man was never clear,

Troubles confuse the little wit he has.’

Mind is a light which the Gods mock us with,

To lead those false who trust it.[The harp sounds again

Hist! once more!

Listen, Pausanias!—Aye, ’tis Callicles!

I know those notes among a thousand. Hark!

[Sings unseen, from below.
The track winds down to the clear stream,

To cross the sparkling shallows; there

The cattle love to gather, on their way

To the high mountain pastures, and to stay,

Till the rough cow-herds drive them past,

Knee-deep in the cool ford; for ’tis the last

Of all the woody, high, well-water’d dells

On Etna; and the beam

Of noon is broken there by chestnut boughs

Down its steep verdant sides; the air

Is freshen’d by the leaping stream, which throws

Eternal showers of spray on the moss’d roots

Of trees, and veins of turf, and long dark shoots

Of ivy-plants, and fragrant hanging bells

Of hyacinths, and on late anemonies,

That muffle its wet banks; but glade,

And stream, and sward, and chestnut trees,

End here; Etna beyond, in the broad glare

Of the hot noon, without a shade,

Slope behind slope, up to the peak, lies bare;

The peak, round which the white clouds play.

In such a glen, on such a day,

On Pelion, on the grassy ground,

Chiron, the aged Centaur, lay,

The young Achilles standing by.

The Centaur taught him to explore

The mountains; where the glens are dry,

And the tired Centaurs come to rest,

And where the soaking springs abound,

And the straight ashes grow for spears,

And where the hill-goats come to feed,

And the sea-eagles build their nest.

He show’d him Phthia far away,

And said: O boy, I taught this lore

To Peleus, in long distant years!

He told him of the Gods, the stars,

The tides;—and then of mortal wars,

And of the life which heroes lead

Before they reach the Elysian place

And rest in the immortal mead;

And all the wisdom of his race.

[The music below ceases, and EMPEDOCLES speaks, accompanying himself in a solemn manner on his harp.

The out-spread world to span

A cord the Gods first slung,

And then the soul of man

There, like a mirror, hung,

And bade the winds through space impel the gusty toy.

Hither and thither spins

The wind-borne mirroring soul,

A thousand glimpses wins,

And never sees a whole;

Looks once, and drives elsewhere, and leaves its last employ.

The Gods laugh in their sleeve

To watch man doubt and fear,

Who knows not what to believe

Since he sees nothing clear,

And dares stamp nothing false where he finds nothing sure.

Is this, Pausanias, so?

And can our souls not strive,

But with the winds must go,

And hurry where they drive?

Is Fate indeed so strong, man’s strength indeed so poor?

I will not judge! that man,

Howbeit, I judge as lost,

Whose mind allows a plan

Which would degrade it most;

And he treats doubt the best who tries to see least ill.

Be not, then, fear’s blind slave!

Thou art my friend; to thee,

All knowledge that I have,

All skill I wield, are free;

Ask not the latest news of the last miracle,

Ask not what days and nights

In trance Pantheia lay,

But ask how thou such sights

May’st see without dismay;

Ask what most helps when known, thou son of Anchitus!

What? hate, and awe, and shame

Fill thee to see our world;

Thou feelest thy soul’s frame

Shaken and rudely hurl’d.

What? life and time go hard with thee too, as with us;

Thy citizens, ’tis said,

Envy thee and oppress,

Thy goodness no men aid,

All strive to make it less;

Tyranny, pride, and lust fill Sicily’s abodes;

Heaven is with earth at strife,

Signs make thy soul afraid,

The dead return to life,

Rivers are dried, winds stay’d;

Scarce can one think in calm, so threatening are the Gods;

And we feel, day and night,

The burden of ourselves—

Well, then, the wiser wight

In his own bosom delves,

And asks what ails him so, and gets what cure he can.

The sophist sneers: Fool, take

Thy pleasure, right or wrong!

The pious wail: Forsake

A world these sophists throng!

Be neither saint nor sophist-led, but be a man.

These hundred doctors try

To preach thee to their school.

We have the truth! they cry,

And yet their oracle,

Trumpet it as they will, is but the same as thine.

Once read thy own breast right,

And thou hast done with fears!

Man gets no other light,

Search he a thousand years.

Sink in thyself! there ask what ails thee, at that shrine!

What makes thee struggle and rave?

Why are men ill at ease?—

’Tis that the lot they have

Fails their own will to please;

For man would make no murmuring, were his will obey’d.

And why is it, that still

Man with his lot thus fights?—

’Tis that he makes this will

The measure of his rights,

And believes Nature outraged if his will’s gainsaid.

Couldst thou, Pausanias, learn

How deep a fault is this!

Couldst thou but once discern

Thou hast no right to bliss,

No title from the Gods to welfare and repose;

Then thou wouldst look less mazed

Whene’er from bliss debarr’d,

Nor think the Gods were crazed

When thy own lot went hard.

But we are all the same—the fools of our own woes!

For, from the first faint morn

Of life, the thirst for bliss

Deep in man’s heart is born;

And, sceptic as he is,

He fails not to judge clear if this be quench’d or no.

Nor is that thirst to blame!

Man errs not that he deems

His welfare his true aim,

He errs because he dreams

The world does but exist that welfare to bestow.

We mortals are no kings

For each of whom to sway

A new-made world up-springs

Meant merely for his play;

No, we are strangers here; the world is from of old.

In vain our pent wills fret,

And would the world subdue.

Limits we did not set

Condition all we do;

Born into life we are, and life must be our mould.

Born into life—man grows

Forth from his parents’ stem,

And blends their bloods, as those

Of theirs are blent in them;

So each new man strikes root into a far fore-time.

Born into life—we bring

A bias with us hero,

And, when here, each new thing

Affects us we come near;

To tunes we did not call our being must keep chime.

Born into life—in vain,

Opinions, those or these,

Unalter’d to retain

The obstinate mind decrees;

Experience, like a sea, soaks all-effacing in.

Born into life—who lists

May what is false hold dear,

And for himself make mists

Through which to see less clear;

The world is what it is, for all our dust and din.

Born into life—’tis we,

And not the world, are new.

Our cry for bliss, our plea,

Others have urged it too;

Our wants have all been felt, our errors made before.

No eye could be too sound

To observe a world so vast,

No patience too profound

To sort what’s here amass’d;

How man may here best live no care too great to explore.

But we—as some rude guest

Would change, where’er he roam,

The manners there profess’d

To those he brings from home—

We mark not the world’s course, but would have it take ours.

The world’s course proves the terms

On which man wins content;

Reason the proof confirms;

We spurn it, and invent

A false course for the world, and for ourselves, false powers.

Riches we wish to get,

Yet remain spendthrifts still;

We would have health, and yet

Still use our bodies ill;

Bafflers of our own prayers, from youth to life’s last scenes.

We would have inward peace,

Yet will not look within;

We would have misery cease,

Yet will not cease from sin;

We want all pleasant ends, but will use no harsh means;

We do not what we ought,

What we ought not, we do,

And lean upon the thought

That chance will bring us through;

But our own acts, for good or ill, are mightier powers.

Yet, even when man forsakes

All sin,—is just, is pure,

Abandons all which makes

His welfare insecure—

Other existences there are, that clash with ours.

Like us, the lightning fires

Love to have scope and play;

The stream, like us, desires

An unimpeded way;

Like us, the Libyan wind delights to roam at large.

Streams will not curb their pride

The just man not to entomb,

Nor lightnings go aside

To leave his virtues room;

Nor is that wind less rough which blows a good man’s barge.

Nature, with equal mind,

Sees all her sons at play;

Sees man control the wind,

The wind sweep man away;

Allows the proudly-riding and the founder’d bark.

And, lastly, though of ours

No weakness spoil our lot,

Though the non-human powers

Of Nature harm us not,

The ill-deeds of other men make often our life dark.

What were the wise man’s plan?—

Through this sharp, toil-set life,

To fight as best he can,

And win what’s won by strife.

But we an easier way to cheat our pains have found.

Scratch’d by a fall, with moans

As children of weak age

Lend life to the dumb stones

Whereon to vent their rage,

And bend their little fists, and rate the senseless ground;

So, loath to suffer mute,

We, peopling the void air,

Make Gods to whom to impute

The ills we ought to bear;

With God and Fate to rail at, suffering easily.

Yet grant—as sense long miss’d

Things that are now perceiv’d,

And much may still exist

Which is not yet believ’d—

Grant that the world were full of Gods we cannot see;

All things the world which fill

Of but one stuff are spun,

That we who rail are still,

With what we rail at, one;

One with the o’er-labour’d Power that through the breadth and length

Of earth, and air, and sea,

In men, and plants, and stones,

Hath toil perpetually,

And struggles, pants, and moans;

Fain would do all things well, but sometimes fails in strength.

And patiently exact

This universal God

Alike to any act

Proceeds at any nod,

And quietly declaims the cursings of himself.

This is not what man hates,

Yet he can curse but this.

Harsh Gods and hostile Fates

Are dreams! this only is;

Is everywhere; sustains the wise, the foolish elf.

Nor only, in the intent

To attach blame elsewhere,

Do we at will invent

Stern Powers who make their care

To embitter human life, malignant Deities;

But, next, we would reverse

The scheme ourselves have spun,

And what we made to curse

We now would lean upon,

And feign kind Gods who perfect what man vainly tries.

Look, the world tempts our eye,

And we would know it all!

We map the starry sky,

We mine this earthen ball,

We measure the sea-tides, we number the sea-sands;

We scrutinize the dates

Of long-past human things,

The bounds of effac’d states,

The lines of deceas’d kings;

We search out dead men’s words, and works of dead men’s hands;

We shut our eyes, and muse

How our own minds are made,

What springs of thought they use,

How righten’d, how betray’d;

And spend our wit to name what most employ unnam’d;

But still, as we proceed,

The mass swells more and more

Of volumes yet to read,

Of secrets yet to explore.

Our hair grows grey, our eyes are dimm’d, our heat is tamed.

We rest our faculties,

And thus address the Gods:

‘True science if there is,

It stays in your abodes;

Man’s measures cannot mete the immeasurable All;

‘You only can take in

The world’s immense design,

Our desperate search was sin,

Which henceforth we resign,

Sure only that your mind sees all things which befall!’

Fools! that in man’s brief term

He cannot all things view,

Affords no ground to affirm

That there are Gods who do!

Nor does being weary prove that he has where to rest!

Again: our youthful blood

Claims rapture as its right;

The world, a rolling flood

Of newness and delight,

Draws in the enamour’d gazer to its shining breast;

Pleasure to our hot grasp

Gives flowers after flowers,

With passionate warmth we clasp

Hand after hand in ours;

Nor do we soon perceive how fast our youth is spent.

At once our eyes grow clear;

We see in blank dismay

Year posting after year,

Sense after sense decay;

Our shivering heart is mined by secret discontent;

Yet still, in spite of truth,

In spite of hopes entomb’d,

That longing of our youth

Burns ever unconsum’d,

Still hungrier for delight as delights grow more rare.

We pause; we hush our heart,

And then address the Gods:

‘The world hath fail’d to impart

The joy our youth forbodes,

Fail’d to fill up the void which in our breasts we bear.

‘Changefull till now, we still

Look’d on to something new;

Let us, with changeless will,

Henceforth look on to you,

To find with you the joy we in vain here require!’

Fools! that so often here

Happiness mock’d our prayer,

I think, might make us fear

A like event elsewhere!

Make us, not fly to dreams, but moderate desire!

And yet, for those who know

Themselves, who wisely take

Their way through life, and bow

To what they cannot break,

Why should I say that life need yield but moderate bliss?

Shall we, with temper spoil’d,

Health sapp’d by living ill,

And judgement all embroil’d

By sadness and self-will,

Shall we judge what for man is not true bliss or is?

Is it so small a thing

To have enjoy’d the sun,

To have lived light in the spring,

To have loved, to have thought, to have done;

To have advanc’d true friends, and beat down baffling foes;

That we must feign a bliss

Of doubtful future date,

And, while we dream on this,

Lose all our present state,

And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

Not much, I know, you prize

What pleasures may be had,

Who look on life with eyes

Estrang’d, like mine, and sad;

And yet the village churl feels the truth more than you,

Who’s loath to leave this life

Which to him little yield;

His hard-task’d sunburnt wife,

His often-labour’d fields,

The boors with whom he talk’d, the country spots he knew.

But thou, because thou hear’st

Men scoff at Heaven and Fate,

Because the Gods thou fear’st

Fail to make blest thy state,

Tremblest, and wilt not dare to trust the joys there are.

I say: Fear not! Life still

Leaves human effort scope.

But, since life teems with ill,

Nurse no extravagant hope;

Because thou must not dream, thou need’st not then despair!

[A long pause. At the end of it the notes of a harp below are again heard, and CALLICLES sings:
Far, far from here,

The Adriatic breaks in a warm bay

Among the green Illyrian hills; and there

The sunshine in the happy glens is fair,

And by the sea, and in the brakes.

The grass is cool, the sea-side air

Buoyant and fresh, the mountain flowers

As virginal and sweet as ours.

And there, they say, two bright and aged snakes,

Who once were Cadmus and Harmonia,

Bask in the glens or on the warm sea-shore,

In breathless quiet, after all their ills.

Nor do they see their country, nor the place

Where the Sphinx lived among the frowning hills,

Nor the unhappy palace of their race,

Nor Thebes, nor the Ismenus, any more.

There those two live, far in the Illyrian brakes.

They had stay’d long enough to see,

In Thebes, the billow of calamity

Over their own dear children roll’d,

Curse upon curse, pang upon pang,

For years, they sitting helpless in their home,

A grey old man and woman; yet of old

The Gods had to their marriage come,

And at the banquet all the Muses sang.

Therefore they did not end their days

In sight of blood; but were rapt, far away,

To where the west wind plays,

And murmurs of the Adriatic come

To those untrodden mountain lawns; and there

Placed safely in changed forms, the Pair

Wholly forget their first sad life, and home,

And all that Theban woe, and stray

For ever through the glens, placid and dumb.

That was my harp-player again!—where is he?

Down by the stream?

Yes, Master, in the wood.

He ever loved the Theban story well!

But the day wears. Go now, Pausanias,

For I must be alone. Leave me one mule;

Take down with thee the rest to Catana.

And for young Callicles, thank him from me;

Tell him I never fail’d to love his lyre:

But he must follow me no more to-night.

Thou wilt return to-morrow to the city?

Either to-morrow or some other day,

In the sure revolutions of the world,

Good friend, I shall revisit Catana.

I have seen many cities in my time

Till my eyes ache with the long spectacle,

And I shall doubtless see them all again;

Thou know’st me for a wanderer from of old.

Meanwhile, stay me not now. Farewell, Pausanias!

[He departs on his way up the mountain.

I dare not urge him further; he must go.

But he is strangely wrought!—I will speed back

And bring Peisianax to him from the city;

His counsel could once soothe him. But, Apollo!

How his brow lighten’d as the music rose!

Callicles must wait here, and play to him;

I saw him through the chestnuts far below,

Just since, down at the stream.—Ho! Callicles!

[He descends, calling.