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Lord Byron (1788–1824). Poetry of Byron. 1881.

II. Descriptive and Narrative

Alp and Francesca

(Siege of Corinth, Stanzas 16–21.)

STILL by the shore Alp mutely mused,

And woo’d the freshness Night diffused.

There shrinks no ebb in that tideless sea,

Which changeless rolls eternally;

So that wildest of waves, in their angriest mood,

Scarce break on the bounds of the land for a rood;

And the powerless moon beholds them flow,

Heedless if she come or go:

Calm or high, in main or bay,

On their course she hath no sway.

The rock unworn its base doth bare,

And looks o’er the surf, but it comes not there;

And the fringe of the foam may be seen below,

On the line that it left long ages ago:

A smooth short space of yellow sand

Between it and the greener land.

He wander’d on, along the beach,

Till within the range of a carbine’s reach

Of the leaguer’d wall; but they saw him not,

Or how could he ’scape from the hostile shot?

Did traitors lurk in the Christian’s hold?

Were their hands grown stiff, or their hearts wax’d cold?

I know not, in sooth; but from yonder wall

There flash’d no fire, and there hiss’d no ball,

Though he stood beneath the bastion’s frown,

That flank’d the sea-ward gate of the town;

Though he heard the sound, and could almost tell

The sullen words of the sentinel,

As his measured step on the stone below

Clank’d as he paced it to and fro;

And he saw the lean dogs beneath the wall

Hold o’er the dead their carnival,

Gorging and growling o’er carcass and limb;

They were too busy to bark at him!

From a Tartar’s skull they had stripp’d the flesh,

As ye peel the fig when its fruit is fresh;

And their white tusks crunch’d o’er the whiter skull,

As it slipp’d through their jaws, when their edge grew dull,

As they lazily mumbled the bones of the dead,

When they scarce could rise from the spot where they fed;

So well had they broken a lingering fast

With those who had fallen for that night’s repast.

And Alp knew, by the turbans that roll’d on the sand,

The foremost of these were the best of his band:

Crimson and green were the shawls of their wear,

And each scalp had a single long tuft of hair,

All the rest was shaven and bare.

The scalps were in the wild dog’s maw,

The hair was tangled round his jaw.

But close by the shore, on the edge of the gulf,

There sate a vulture flapping a wolf,

Who had stolen from the hills, but kept away,

Scared by the dogs, from the human prey;

But he seized on his share of a steed that lay,

Pick’d by the birds, on the sands of the bay.

Alp turn’d him from the sickening sight

Never had shaken his nerves in fight;

But he better could brook to behold the dying,

Deep in the tide of their warm blood lying,

Scorch’d with the death-thirst, and writhing in vain,

Than the perishing dead who are past all pain.

There is something of pride in the perilous hour,

Whate’er be the shape in which death may lower;

For Fame is there to say who bleeds,

And Honour’s eye on daring deeds,

But when all is past, it is humbling to tread

O’er the weltering field of the tombless dead,

And see worms of the earth, and fowls of the air,

Beasts of the forest, all gathering there;

All regarding man as their prey,

All rejoicing in his decay.

There is a temple in ruin stands,

Fashion’d by long forgotten hands;

Two or three columns, and many a stone,

Marble and granite, with grass o’ergrown!

Out upon Time! it will leave no more

Of the things to come than the things before!

Out upon Time! who for ever will leave

But enough of the past for the future to grieve

O’er that which hath been, and o’er that which must be:

What we have seen, our sons shall see;

Remnants of things that have pass’d away,

Fragments of stone, rear’d by creatures of clay!

He sate him down at a pillar’s base,

And pass’d his hand athwart his face;

Like one in dreary musing mood,

Declining was his attitude;

His head was drooping on his breast,

Fever’d, throbbing, and oppress’d;

And o’er his brow, so downward bent,

Oft his beating fingers went,

Hurriedly, as you may see

Your own run over the ivory key,

Ere the measured tone is taken

By the chords you would awaken.

There he sate all heavily,

As he heard the night-wind sigh.

Was it the wind, through some hollow stone,

Sent that soft and tender moan?

He lifted his head, and he look’d on the sea,

But it was unrippled as glass may be;

He look’d on the long grass—it waved not a blade;

How was that gentle sound convey’d?

He look’d to the banners—each flag lay still,

So did the leaves on Cithæron’s hill,

And he felt not a breath come over his cheek;

What did that sudden sound bespeak?

He turn’d to the left—is he sure of sight?

There sate a lady, youthful and bright!

He started up with more of fear

Than if an armed foe were near.

“God of my fathers! what is here?

Who art thou, and wherefore sent

So near a hostile armament?”

His trembling hands refused to sign

The cross he deem’d no more divine:

He had resumed it in that hour,

But conscience wrung away the power.

He gazed, he saw: he knew the face

Of beauty, and the form of grace;

It was Francesca by his side,

The maid who might have been his bride!

The rose was yet upon her cheek,

But mellow’d with a tenderer streak:

Where was the play of her soft lips fled?

Gone was the smile that enliven’d their red.

The ocean’s calm within their view,

Beside her eye had less of blue;

But like that cold wave it stood still,

And its glance, though clear, was chill.

Around her form a thin robe twining,

Nought conceal’d her bosom shining;

Through the parting of her hair,

Floating darkly downward there,

Her rounded arm show’d white and bare:

And ere yet she made reply,

Once she raised her hand on high;

It was so wan, and transparent of hue,

You might have seen the moon shine through.

“I come from my rest to him I love best,

That I may be happy, and he may be bless’d.

I have pass’d the guards, the gate, the wall;

Sought thee in safety through foes and all.

’Tis said the lion will turn and flee

From a maid in the pride of her purity;

And the Power on high, that can shield the good

Thus from the tyrant of the wood,

Hath extended its mercy to guard me as well

From the hands of the leaguering infidel.

I come—and if I come in vain,

Never, oh never, we meet again!

Thou hast done a fearful deed

In falling away from thy father’s creed:

But dash that turban to earth, and sign

The sign of the cross, and for ever be mind;

Wring the black drop from thy heart,

And to-morrow unites us no more to part.”

“And where should our bridal couch be spread?

In the midst of the dying and the dead?

For to-morrow we give to the slaughter and flame

The sons and the shrines of the Christian name.

None, save thou and thine, I’ve sworn,

Shall be left upon the morn:

But thee will I bear to a lovely spot,

Where our hands shall be join’d, and our sorrow forgot.

There thou yet shalt be my bride,

When once again I’ve quelled the pride

Of Venice; and her hated race

Have felt the arm they would debase

Scourge with a whip of scorpions those

Whom vice and envy made my foes.”

Upon his hand she laid her own—

Light was the touch, but it thrill’d to the bone,

And shot a chillness to his heart,

Which fix’d him beyond the power to start.

Though slight, was that grasp so mortal cold,

He could not loose him from its hold;

But never did clasp of one so dear

Strike on the pulse with such feeling of fear,

As those thin fingers, long and white,

Froze through his blood by their touch that night.

The feverish glow of his brow was gone,

And his heart sank so still that it felt like stone,

As he look’d on the face, and beheld its hue,

So deeply changed from what he knew:

Fair but faint—without the ray

Of mind, that made each feature play

Like sparking waves on a sunny day;

And her motionless lips lay still as death,

And her words came forth without her breath,

And there rose not a heave o’er her bosom’s swell,

And there seem’d not a pulse in her veins to dwell.

Though her eye shone out, yet the lids were fix’d,

And the glance that it gave was wild and unmix’d

With aught of change, as the eyes may seem

Of the restless who walk in a troubled dream;

Like the figures on arras, that gloomily glare,

Stirr’d by the breath of the wintry air,

So seen by the dying lamp’s fitful light,

Lifeless, but life-like, and awful to sight;

As they seem, through the dimness, about to come down

From the shadowy wall where their images frown;

Fearfully flitting to and fro,

As the gusts on the tapestry come and go.

“If not for love of me be given

Thus much, then, for the love of heaven—

Again I say—that turban tear

From off thy faithless brow, and swear

Thine injured country’s sons to spare,

Or thou art lost; and never shalt see—

Not earth—that’s past—but heaven or me.

If this thou dost accord, albeit

A heavy doom ’tis thine to meet,

That doom shall half absolve thy sin,

And mercy’s gate may receive thee within:

But pause one moment more, and take

The curse of Him thou didst forsake;

And look once more to heaven, and see

Its love for ever shut from thee.

There is a light cloud by the moon—

’Tis passing, and will pass full soon—

If, by the time its vapoury sail

Hath ceased her shaded orb to veil,

Thy heart within thee is not changed,

Then God and man are both avenged;

Dark will thy doom be, darker still

Thine immortality of ill.”

Alp look’d to heaven, and saw on high

The sign she spake of in the sky;

But his heart was swollen, and turn’d aside

By deep interminable pride.

This first false passion of his breast

Roll’d like a torrent o’er the rest.

He sue for mercy! He dismay’d

By wild words of a timid maid!

He, wrong’d by Venice, vow to save

Her sons, devoted to the grave!

No—though that cloud were thunder’s worst,

And charged to crush him—let it burst!

He look’d upon it earnestly,

Without an accent of reply;

He watch’d it passing; it is flown;

Full on his eye the clear moon shone,

And thus he spake—“Whate’er my fate,

I am no changeling—’tis too late:

The reed in storms may bow and quiver,

Then rise again; the tree must shiver.

What Venice made me, I must be,

Her foe in all, save love to thee:

But thou art safe: oh, fly with me!”

He turn’d, but she is gone!

Nothing is there but the column stone.

Hath she sunk in the earth, or melted in air?

He saw not—he knew not—but nothing is there.