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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 II

Evening.The Summit of Etna


On this charr’d, blacken’d, melancholy waste,

Crown’d by the awful peak, Etna’s great mouth,

Round which the sullen vapour rolls—alone!

Pausanias is far hence, and that is well,

For I must henceforth speak no more with man.

He has his lesson too, and that debt’s paid;

And the good, learned, friendly, quiet man,

May bravelier front his life, and in himself

Find henceforth energy and heart; but I,

The weary man, the banish’d citizen—

Whose banishment is not his greatest ill,

Whose weariness no energy can reach,

And for whose hurt courage is not the cure—

What should I do with life and living more?

No, thou art come too late, Empedocles!

And the world hath the day, and must break thee,

Not thou the world. With men thou canst not live,

Their thoughts, their ways, their wishes, are not thine;

And being lonely thou art miserable,

For something has impair’d thy spirit’s strength,

And dried its self-sufficing fount of joy.

Thou canst not live with men nor with thyself—

Oh sage! oh sage!—Take then the one way left;

And turn thee to the elements, thy friends,

Thy well-tried friends, thy willing ministers,

And say:—Ye servants, hear Empedocles,

Who asks this final service at your hands!

Before the sophist brood hath overlaid

The last spark of man’s consciousness with words—

Ere quite the being of man, ere quite the world

Be disarray’d of their divinity—

Before the soul lose all her solemn joys,

And awe be dead, and hope impossible,

And the soul’s deep eternal night come on,

Receive me, hide me, quench me, take me home!

[He advances to the edge of the crater. Smoke and fire break forth with a loud noise, and CALLICLES is heard below singing:

The lyre’s voice is lovely everywhere!

In the court of Gods, in the city of men,

And in the lonely rock-strewn mountain glen,

In the still mountain air.

Only to Typho it sounds hatefully!

To Typho only, the rebel o’erthrown,

Through whose heart Etna drives her roots of stone,

To imbed them in the sea.

Wherefore dost thou groan so loud?

Wherefore do thy nostrils flash,

Through the dark night, suddenly,

Typho, such red jets of flame?—

Is thy tortur’d heart still proud?

Is thy fire-scath’d arm still rash?

Still alert thy stone-crush’d frame?

Doth thy fierce soul still deplore

The ancient rout by the Cilician hills,

And that curst treachery on the Mount of Gore?

Do thy bloodshot eyes still see

The fight that crown’d thy ills,

Thy last defeat in this Sicilian sea?

Hast thou sworn, in thy sad lair,

Where erst the strong sea-currents suck’d thee down,

Never to cease to writhe, and try to sleep,

Letting the sea-stream wander through thy hair?

That thy groans, like thunder deep,

Begin to roll, and almost drown

The sweet notes, whose lulling spell

Gods and the race of mortals love so well,

When through thy caves thou hearest music swell?

But an awful pleasure bland

Spreading o’er the Thunderer’s face,

When the sound climbs near his seat,

The Olympian council sees;

As he lets his lax right hand,

Which the lightnings doth embrace,

Sink upon his mighty knees.

And the eagle, at the beck

Of the appeasing gracious harmony,

Droops all his sheeny, brown, deep-feather’d neck,

Nestling nearer to Jove’s feet;

While o’er his sovereign eye

The curtains of the blue films slowly meet,

And the white Olympus peaks

Rosily brighten, and the sooth’d Gods smile

At one another from their golden chairs,

And no one round the charmèd circle speaks.

Only the loved Hebe bears

The cup about, whose draughts beguile

Pain and care, with a dark store

Of fresh-pull’d violets wreath’d and nodding o’er;

And her flush’d feet glow on the marble floor.

He fables, yet speaks truth.

The brave impetuous heart yields everywhere

To the subtle, contriving head;

Great qualities are trodden down,

And littleness united

Is become invincible.

These rumblings are not Typho’s groans, I know!

These angry smoke-bursts

Are not the passionate breath

Of the mountain-crush’d, tortur’d, intractable Titan king!

But over all the world

What suffering is there not seen

Of plainness oppress’d by cunning,

As the well-counsell’d Zeus oppress’d

The self-helping son of earth!

What anguish of greatness

Rail’d and hunted from the world,

Because its simplicity rebukes

This envious, miserable age!

I am weary of it!—

Lie there, ye ensigns

Of my unloved pre-eminence

In an age like this!

Among a people of children,

Who throng’d me in their cities,

Who worshipp’d me in their houses,

And ask’d, not wisdom,

But drugs to charm with,

But spells to mutter—

All the fool’s-armoury of magic!—Lie there,

My golden circlet!

My purple robe!

CALLICLES (from below)
As the sky-brightening south-wind clears the day,

And makes the mass’d clouds roll,

The music of the lyre blows away

The clouds that wrap the soul.

Oh, that Fate had let me see

That triumph of the sweet persuasive lyre!

That famous, final victory

When jealous Pan with Marsyas did conspire!

When, from far Parnassus’ side,

Young Apollo, all the pride

Of the Phrygian flutes to tame,

To the Phrygian highlands came!

Where the long green reed-beds sway

In the rippled waters grey

Of that solitary lake

Where Maeander’s springs are born;

Where the ridg’d pine-wooded roots

Of Messogis westward break

Mounting westward, high and higher.

There was held the famous strife;

There the Phrygian brought his flutes,

And Apollo brought his lyre;

And, when now the westering sun

Touch’d the hills, the strife was done,

And the attentive Muses said:

‘Marsyas! thou art vanquishèd.’

Then Apollo’s minister

Hang’d upon a branching fir

Marsyas, that unhappy Faun,

And began to whet his knife.

But the Maenads, who were there,

Left their friend, and with robes flowing

In the wind, and loose dark hair

O’er their polish’d bosoms blowing,

Each her ribbon’d tambourine

Flinging on the mountain sod,

With a lovely frighten’d mien

Came about the youthful God.

But he turn’d his beauteous face

Haughtily another way,

From the grassy sun-warm’d place,

Where in proud repose he lay,

With one arm over his head,

Watching how the whetting sped.

But aloof, on the lake strand,

Did the young Olympus stand,

Weeping at his master’s end;

For the Faun had been his friend.

For he taught him how to sing,

And he taught him flute-playing.

Many a morning had they gone

To the glimmering mountain lakes,

And had torn up by the roots

The tall crested water-reeds

With long plumes, and soft brown seeds,

And had carved them into flutes,

Sitting on a tabled stone

Where the shoreward ripple breaks.

And he taught him how to please

The red-snooded Phrygian girls,

Whom the summer evening sees

Flashing in the dance’s whirls

Underneath the starlit trees

In the mountain villages.

Therefore now Olympus stands,

At his master’s piteous cries

Pressing fast with both his hands

His white garment to his eyes,

Not to see Apollo’s scorn;

Ah, poor Faun, poor Faun! ah, poor Faun!

And lie thou there,

My laurel bough!

Scornful Apollo’s ensign, lie thou there!

Though thou hast been my shade in the world’s heat—

Though I have loved thee, lived in honouring thee—

Yet lie thou there,

My laurel bough!

I am weary of thee!

I am weary of the solitude

Where he who bears thee must abide!

Of the rocks of Parnassus,

Of the gorge of Delphi,

Of the moonlit peaks, and the caves.

Thou guardest them, Apollo!

Over the grave of the slain Pytho,

Though young, intolerably severe;

Thou keepest aloof the profane,

But the solitude oppresses thy votary!

The jars of men reach him not in thy valley—

But can life reach him?

Thou fencest him from the multitude—

Who will fence him from himself?

He hears nothing but the cry of the torrents

And the beating of his own heart.

The air is thin, the veins swell—

The temples tighten and throb there—

Air! air!

Take thy bough; set me free from my solitude!

I have been enough alone!

Where shall thy votary fly then? back to men?—

But they will gladly welcome him once more,

And help him to unbend his too tense thought,

And rid him of the presence of himself,

And keep their friendly chatter at his ear,

And haunt him, till the absence from himself,

That other torment, grow unbearable;

And he will fly to solitude again,

And he will find its air too keen for him,

And so change back; and many thousand times

Be miserably bandied to and fro

Like a sea-wave, betwixt the world and thee,

Thou young, implacable God! and only death

Shall cut his oscillations short, and so

Bring him to poise. There is no other way.

And yet what days were those, Parmenides!

When we were young, when we could number friends

In all the Italian cities like ourselves,

When with elated hearts we join’d your train,

Ye Sun-born Virgins! on the road of truth.

Then we could still enjoy, then neither thought

Nor outward things were clos’d and dead to us,

But we receiv’d the shock of mighty thoughts

On simple minds with a pure natural joy;

And if the sacred load oppress’d our brain,

We had the power to feel the pressure eased,

The brow unbound, the thoughts flow free again,

In the delightful commerce of the world.

We had not lost our balance then, nor grown

Thought’s slaves, and dead to every natural joy!

The smallest thing could give us pleasure then!

The sports of the country people,

A flute-note from the woods

Sunset over the sea;

Seed-time and harvest,

The reapers in the corn,

The vinedresser in his vineyard,

The village-girl at her wheel!

Fullness of life and power of feeling, ye

Are for the happy, for the souls at ease,

Who dwell on a firm basis of content!—

But he, who has outliv’d his prosperous days,

But he, whose youth fell on a different world

From that on which his exiled age is thrown,

Whose mind was fed on other food, was train’d

By other rules than are in vogue to-day,

Whose habit of thought is fix’d, who will not change,

But in a world he loves not must subsist

In ceaseless opposition, be the guard

Of his own breast, fetter’d to what he guards,

That the world win no mastery over him;

Who has no friend, no fellow left, not one;

Who has no minute’s breathing space allow’d

To nurse his dwindling faculty of joy—

Joy and the outward world must die to him,

As they are dead to me!

[A long pause, during which EMPEDOCLES remains motionless, plunged in thought. The night deepens. He moves forward and gazes round him, and proceeds:

And you, ye stars,

Who slowly begin to marshal,

As of old, in the fields of heaven,

Your distant, melancholy lines!

Have you, too, survived yourselves?

Are you, too, what I fear to become?

You, too, once lived!

You too moved joyfully

Among august companions

In an older world, peopled by Gods,

In a mightier order,

The radiant, rejoicing, intelligent Sons of Heaven!

But now, you kindle

Your lonely, cold-shining lights,

Unwilling lingerers

In the heavenly wilderness,

For a younger, ignoble world;

And renew, by necessity,

Night after night your courses,

In echoing unnear’d silence,

Above a race you know not.

Uncaring and undelighted,

Without friend and without home;

Weary like us, though not

Weary with our weariness.

No, no, ye stars! there is no death with you,

No languor, no decay! Languor and death,

They are with me, not you! ye are alive!

Ye and the pure dark ether where ye ride

Brilliant above me! And thou, fiery world,

That sapp’st the vitals of this terrible mount

Upon whose charr’d and quaking crust I stand,

Thou, too, brimmest with life!—the sea of cloud

That heaves its white and billowy vapours up

To moat this isle of ashes from the world,

Lives!—and that other fainter sea, far down,

O’er whose lit floor a road of moonbeams leads

To Etna’s Liparëan sister-fires

And the long dusky line of Italy—

That mild and luminous floor of waters lives,

With held-in joy swelling its heart!—I only,

Whose spring of hope is dried, whose spirit has fail’d—

I, who have not, like these, in solitude

Maintain’d courage and force, and in myself

Nursed an immortal vigour—I alone

Am dead to life and joy; therefore I read

In all things my own deadness.

[A long silence. He continues:

Oh that I could glow like this mountain!

Oh that my heart bounded with the swell of the sea!

Oh that my soul were full of lights as the stars!

Oh that it brooded over the world like the air!

But no, this heart will glow no more! thou art

A living man no more, Empedocles!

Nothing but a devouring flame of thought—

But a naked, eternally restless mind!

[After a pause:

To the elements it came from

Everything will return.

Our bodies to earth,

Our blood to water,

Heat to fire,

Breath to air.

They were well born, they will be well entomb’d!

But mind?…

And we might gladly share the fruitful stir

Down in our mother earth’s miraculous womb!

Well might it be

With what roll’d of us in the stormy main!

We might have joy, blent with the all-bathing air,

Or with the nimble radiant life of fire!

But mind—but thought—

If these have been the master part of us—

Where will they find their parent element?

What will receive them, who will call them home?

But we shall still be in them, and they in us,

And we shall be the strangers of the world,

And they will be our lords, as they are now;

And keep us prisoners of our consciousness,

And never let us clasp and feel the All

But through their forms, and modes, and stifling veils.

And we shall be unsatisfied as now,

And we shall feel the agony of thirst,

The ineffable longing for the life of life

Baffled for ever: and still thought and mind

Will hurry us with them on their homeless march,

Over the unallied unopening earth,

Over the unrecognizing sea; while air

Will blow us fiercely back to sea and earth,

And fire repel us from its living waves.

And then we shall unwillingly return

Back to this meadow of calamity,

This uncongenial place, this human life;

And in our individual human state

Go through the sad probation all again,

To see if we will poise our life at last,

To see if we will now at last be true

To our own only true, deep-buried selves,

Being one with which we are one with the whole world;

Or whether we will once more fall away

Into some bondage of the flesh or mind,

Some slough of sense, or some fantastic maze

Forg’d by the imperious lonely thinking-power.

And each succeeding age in which we are born

Will have more peril for us than the last;

Will goad our senses with a sharper spur,

Will fret our minds to an intenser play,

Will make ourselves harder to be discern’d.

And we shall struggle awhile, gasp and rebel;

And we shall fly for refuge to past times,

Their soul of unworn youth, their breath of greatness;

And the reality will pluck us back,

Knead us in its hot hand, and change our nature.

And we shall feel our powers of effort flag,

And rally them for one last fight, and fail;

And we shall sink in the impossible strife,

And be astray for ever.
Slave of sense

I have in no wise been; but slave of thought?—

And who can say:—I have been always free,

Lived ever in the light of my own soul?—

I cannot! I have lived in wrath and gloom,

Fierce, disputations, ever at war with man,

Far from my own soul, far from warmth and light.

But I have not grown easy in these bonds—

But I have not denied what bonds these were!

Yea, I take myself to witness,

That I have loved no darkness,

Sophisticated no truth,

Nursed no delusion,

Allow’d no fear!

And therefore, O ye elements, I know—

Ye know it too—it hath been granted me

Not to die wholly, not to be all enslav’d.

I feel it in this hour! The numbing cloud

Mounts off my soul; I feel it, I breathe free!

Is it but for a moment?

Ah! boil up, ye vapours!

Leap and roar, thou sea of fire!

My soul glows to meet you.

Ere it flag, ere the mists

Of despondency and gloom

Rush over it again,

Receive me! Save me![He plunges into the crater.

CALLICLES (from below)
Through the black, rushing smoke-bursts,

Thick breaks the red flame;

All Etna heaves fiercely

Her forest-cloth’d frame.

Not here, O Apollo!

Are haunts meet for thee.

But, where Helicon breaks down

In cliff to the sea,

Where the moon-silver’d inlets

Send far their light voice

Up the still vale of Thisbe,

O speed, and rejoice!

On the sward at the cliff-top

Lie strewn the white flocks;

On the cliff-side the pigeons

Roost deep in the rocks.

In the moonlight the shepherds,

Soft lull’d by the rills,

Lie wrapt in their blankets,

Asleep on the hills.

—What forms are these coming

So white through the gloom?

What garments out-glistening

The gold-flower’d broom?

What sweet-breathing presence

Out-perfumes the thyme?

What voices enrapture

The night’s balmy prime?—

’Tis Apollo comes leading

His choir, the Nine.

—The leader is fairest,

But all are divine.

They are lost in the hollows!

They stream up again!

What seeks on this mountain

The glorified train?—

They bathe on this mountain,

In the spring by their road;

Then on to Olympus,

Their endless abode!

—Whose praise do they mention?

Of what is it told?—

What will be for ever;

What was from of old.

First hymn they the Father

Of all things; and then

The rest of immortals,

The action of men.

The day in his hotness,

The strife with the palm;

The night in her silence,

The stars in their calm.