Previous Contents Index Next

The Revolt of Islam

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

Canto First

     WHEN the last hope of trampled France had failed
     Like a brief dream of unremaining glory,
     From visions of despair I rose, and scaled
     The peak of an aërial promontory,
     Whose caverned base with the vexed surge was hoary;
     And saw the golden dawn break forth, and waken
     Each cloud and every wave:--but transitory
     The calm; for sudden, the firm earth was shaken,
   As if by the last wreck its frame were overtaken.

     So as I stood, one blast of muttering thunder
     Burst in far peals along the waveless deep,
     When, gathering fast, around, above and under,
     Long trains of tremulous mist began to creep,
     Until their complicating lines did steep
     The orient sun in shadow:--not a sound
     Was heard; one horrible repose did keep
     The forests and the floods, and all around
   Darkness more dread than night was poured upon the ground.

     Hark! 't is the rushing of a wind that sweeps
     Earth and the ocean. See! the lightnings yawn,
     Deluging Heaven with fire, and the lashed deeps
     Glitter and boil beneath! it rages on,
     One mighty stream, whirlwind and waves upthrown,
     Lightning, and hail, and darkness eddying by!
     There is a pause--the sea-birds, that were gone
     Into their caves to shriek, come forth to spy
   What calm has fall'n on earth, what light is in the sky.

     For, where the irresistible storm had cloven
     That fearful darkness, the blue sky was seen,
     Fretted with many a fair cloud interwoven
     Most delicately, and the ocean green,
     Beneath that opening spot of blue serene,
     Quivered like burning emerald; calm was spread
     On all below; but far on high, between
     Earth and the upper air, the vast clouds fled,
   Countless and swift as leaves on autumn's tempest shed.

     For ever as the war became more fierce
     Between the whirlwinds and the rack on high,
     That spot grew more serene; blue light did pierce
     The woof of those white clouds, which seemed to lie
     Far, deep and motionless; while through the sky
     The pallid semicircle of the moon
     Passed on, in slow and moving majesty;
     Its upper horn arrayed in mists, which soon,
   But slowly, fled, like dew beneath the beams of noon.

     I could not choose but gaze; a fascination
     Dwelt in that moon, and sky, and clouds, which drew
     My fancy thither, and in expectation
     Of what I knew not, I remained. The hue
     Of the white moon, amid that heaven so blue
     Suddenly stained with shadow did appear;
     A speck, a cloud, a shape, approaching grew,
     Like a great ship in the sun's sinking sphere
   Beheld afar at sea, and swift it came anear.

     Even like a bark, which from a chasm of mountains,
     Dark, vast and overhanging, on a river
     Which there collects the strength of all its fountains,
     Comes forth, whilst with the speed its frame doth quiver,
     Sails, oars and stream, tending to one endeavor;
     So, from that chasm of light a wingèd Form
     On all the winds of heaven approaching ever
     Floated, dilating as it came; the storm
   Pursued it with fierce blasts, and lightnings swift and warm.

     A course precipitous, of dizzy speed,
     Suspending thought and breath; a monstrous sight!
     For in the air do I behold indeed
     An Eagle and a Serpent wreathed in fight:--
     And now, relaxing its impetuous flight,
     Before the aërial rock on which I stood,
     The Eagle, hovering, wheeled to left and right,
     And hung with lingering wings over the flood,
   And startled with its yells the wide air's solitude.

     A shaft of light upon its wings descended,
     And every golden feather gleamed therein--
     Feather and scale inextricably blended.
     The Serpent's mailed and many-colored skin
     Shone through the plumes its coils were twined within
     By many a swollen and knotted fold, and high
     And far, the neck receding lithe and thin,
     Sustained a crested head, which warily
   Shifted and glanced before the Eagle's steadfast eye.

     Around, around, in ceaseless circles wheeling
     With clang of wings and scream, the Eagle sailed
     Incessantly--sometimes on high concealing
     Its lessening orbs, sometimes as if it failed,
     Drooped through the air; and still it shrieked and wailed,
     And casting back its eager head, with beak
     And talon unremittingly assailed
     The wreathèd Serpent, who did ever seek
   Upon his enemy's heart a mortal wound to wreak.

     What life, what power, was kindled and arose
     Within the sphere of that appalling fray!
     For, from the encounter of those wondrous foes,
     A vapor like the sea's suspended spray
     Hung gathered; in the void air, far away,
     Floated the shattered plumes; bright scales did leap,
     Where'er the Eagle's talons made their way,
     Like sparks into the darkness;--as they sweep,
   Blood stains the snowy foam of the tumultuous deep.

     Swift chances in that combat--many a check,
     And many a change, a dark and wild turmoil!
     Sometimes the Snake around his enemy's neck
     Locked in stiff rings his adamantine coil,
     Until the Eagle, faint with pain and toil,
     Remitted his strong flight, and near the sea
     Languidly fluttered, hopeless so to foil
     His adversary, who then reared on high
   His red and burning crest, radiant with victory.

     Then on the white edge of the bursting surge,
     Where they had sunk together, would the Snake
     Relax his suffocating grasp, and scourge
     The wind with his wild writhings; for, to break
     That chain of torment, the vast bird would shake
     The strength of his unconquerable wings
     As in despair, and with his sinewy neck
     Dissolve in sudden shock those linkèd rings--
   Then soar, as swift as smoke from a volcano springs.

     Wile baffled wile, and strength encountered strength,
     Thus long, but unprevailing. The event
     Of that portentous fight appeared at length.
     Until the lamp of day was almost spent
     It had endured, when lifeless, stark and rent,
     Hung high that mighty Serpent, and at last
     Fell to the sea, while o'er the continent
     With clang of wings and scream the Eagle passed,
   Heavily borne away on the exhausted blast.

     And with it fled the tempest, so that ocean
     And earth and sky shone through the atmosphere;
     Only, 't was strange to see the red commotion
     Of waves like mountains o'er the sinking sphere
     Of sunset sweep, and their fierce roar to hear
     Amid the calm; down the steep path I wound
     To the sea-shore--the evening was most clear
     And beautiful, and there the sea I found
   Calm as a cradled child in dreamless slumber bound.

     There was a Woman, beautiful as morning,
     Sitting beneath the rocks upon the sand
     Of the waste sea--fair as one flower adorning
     An icy wilderness; each delicate hand
     Lay crossed upon her bosom, and the band
     Of her dark hair had fall'n, and so she sate
     Looking upon the waves; on the bare strand
     Upon the sea-mark a small boat did wait,
   Fair as herself, like Love by Hope left desolate.

     It seemed that this fair Shape had looked upon
     That unimaginable fight, and now
     That her sweet eyes were weary of the sun,
     As brightly it illustrated her woe;
     For in the tears, which silently to flow
     Paused not, its lustre hung: she, watching aye
     The foam-wreaths which the faint tide wove below
     Upon the spangled sands, groaned heavily,
   And after every groan looked up over the sea.

     And when she saw the wounded Serpent make
     His path between the waves, her lips grew pale,
     Parted and quivered; the tears ceased to break
     From her immovable eyes; no voice of wail
     Escaped her; but she rose, and on the gale
     Loosening her star-bright robe and shadowy hair,
     Poured forth her voice; the caverns of the vale
     That opened to the ocean, caught it there,
   And filled with silver sounds the overflowing air.

     She spake in language whose strange melody
     Might not belong to earth. I heard alone
     What made its music more melodious be,
     The pity and the love of every tone;
     But to the Snake those accents sweet were known
     His native tongue and hers; nor did he beat
     The hoar spray idly then, but winding on
     Through the green shadows of the waves that meet
   Near to the shore, did pause beside her snowy feet.

     Then on the sands the Woman sate again,
     And wept and clasped her hands, and, all between,
     Renewed the unintelligible strain
     Of her melodious voice and eloquent mien;
     And she unveiled her bosom, and the green
     And glancing shadows of the sea did play
     O'er its marmoreal depth--one moment seen,
     For ere the next, the Serpent did obey
   Her voice, and, coiled in rest, in her embrace it lay.

     Then she arose, and smiled on me with eyes
     Serene yet sorrowing, like that planet fair,
     While yet the daylight lingereth in the skies,
     Which cleaves with arrowy beams the dark-red air,
     And said: 'To grieve is wise, but the despair
     Was weak and vain which led thee here from sleep.
     This shalt thou know, and more, if thou dost dare
     With me and with this Serpent, o'er the deep,
   A voyage divine and strange, companionship to keep.'

     Her voice was like the wildest, saddest tone,
     Yet sweet, of some loved voice heard long ago.
     I wept. `Shall this fair woman all alone
     Over the sea with that fierce Serpent go?
     His head is on her heart, and who can know
     How soon he may devour his feeble prey?--'
     Such were my thoughts, when the tide 'gan to flow;
     And that strange boat like the moon's shade did sway
   Amid reflected stars that in the waters lay.

     A boat of rare device, which had no sail
     But its own curvèd prow of thin moonstone,
     Wrought like a web of texture fine and frail,
     To catch those gentlest winds which are not known
     To breathe, but by the steady speed alone
     With which it cleaves the sparkling sea; and now
     We are embarked--the mountains hang and frown
     Over the starry deep that gleams below
   A vast and dim expanse, as o'er the waves we go.

     And as we sailed, a strange and awful tale
     That Woman told, like such mysterious dream
     As makes the slumberer's cheek with wonder pale!
     'T was midnight, and around, a shoreless stream,
     Wide ocean rolled, when that majestic theme
     Shrined in her heart found utterance, and she bent
     Her looks on mine; those eyes a kindling beam
     Of love divine into my spirit sent,
   And, ere her lips could move, made the air eloquent.

     `Speak not to me, but hear! much shalt thou learn,
     Much must remain unthought, and more untold,
     In the dark Future's ever-flowing urn.
     Know then that from the depth of ages old
     Two Powers o'er mortal things dominion hold,
     Ruling the world with a divided lot,
     Immortal, all-pervading, manifold,
     Twin Genii, equal Gods--when life and thought
   Sprang forth, they burst the womb of inessential Nought.

     `The earliest dweller of the world alone
     Stood on the verge of chaos. Lo! afar
     O'er the wide wild abyss two meteors shone,
     Sprung from the depth of its tempestuous jar--
     A blood-red Comet and the Morning Star
     Mingling their beams in combat. As he stood
     All thoughts within his mind waged mutual war
     In dreadful sympathy--when to the flood
   That fair Star fell, he turned and shed his brother's blood.

     `Thus Evil triumphed, and the Spirit of Evil,
     One Power of many shapes which none may know,
     One Shape of many names; the Fiend did revel
     In victory, reigning o'er a world of woe,
     For the new race of man went to and fro,
     Famished and homeless, loathed and loathing, wild,
     And hating good--for his immortal foe,
     He changed from starry shape, beauteous and mild,
   To a dire Snake, with man and beast unreconciled.

     `The darkness lingering o'er the dawn of things
     Was Evil's breath and life; this made him strong
     To soar aloft with overshadowing wings;
     And the great Spirit of Good did creep among
     The nations of mankind, and every tongue
     Cursed and blasphemed him as he passed; for none
     Knew good from evil, though their names were hung
     In mockery o'er the fane where many a groan,
   As King, and Lord, and God, the conquering Fiend did own.

     `The Fiend, whose name was Legion: Death, Decay,
     Earthquake and Blight, and Want, and Madness pale,
     Wingèd and wan diseases, an array
     Numerous as leaves that strew the autumnal gale;
     Poison, a snake in flowers, beneath the veil
     Of food and mirth, hiding his mortal head;
     And, without whom all these might nought avail,
     Fear, Hatred, Faith and Tyranny, who spread
   Those subtle nets which snare the living and the dead.

     `His spirit is their power, and they his slaves
     In air, and light, and thought, and language dwell;
     And keep their state from palaces to graves,
     In all resorts of men--invisible,
     But when, in ebon mirror, Nightmare fell,
     To tyrant or impostor bids them rise,
     Black wingèd demon-forms--whom, from the hell,
     His reign and dwelling beneath nether skies,
   He loosens to their dark and blasting ministries.

     `In the world's youth his empire was as firm
     As its foundations. Soon the Spirit of Good,
     Though in the likeness of a loathsome worm,
     Sprang from the billows of the formless flood,
     Which shrank and fled; and with that Fiend of blood
     Renewed the doubtful war. Thrones then first shook,
     And earth's immense and trampled multitude
     In hope on their own powers began to look,
   And Fear, the demon pale, his sanguine shrine forsook.

     `Then Greece arose, and to its bards and sages,
     In dream, the golden-pinioned Genii came,
     Even where they slept amid the night of ages,
     Steeping their hearts in the divinest flame
     Which thy breath kindled, Power of holiest name!
     And oft in cycles since, when darkness gave
     New weapons to thy foe, their sunlike fame
     Upon the combat shone--a light to save,
   Like Paradise spread forth beyond the shadowy grave.

     `Such is this conflict--when mankind doth strive
     With its oppressors in a strife of blood,
     Or when free thoughts, like lightnings, are alive,
     And in each bosom of the multitude
     Justice and truth with custom's hydra brood
     Wage silent war; when priests and kings dissemble
     In smiles or frowns their fierce disquietude,
     When round pure hearts a host of hopes assemble,
   The Snake and Eagle meet--the world's foundations tremble!

     `Thou hast beheld that fight--when to thy home
     Thou dost return, steep not its hearth in tears;
     Though thou mayst hear that earth is now become
     The tyrant's garbage, which to his compeers,
     The vile reward of their dishonored years,
     He will dividing give. The victor Fiend
     Omnipotent of yore, now quails, and fears
     His triumph dearly won, which soon will lend
   An impulse swift and sure to his approaching end.

     `List, stranger, list! mine is an human form
     Like that thou wearest--touch me--shrink not now!
     My hand thou feel'st is not a ghost's, but warm
     With human blood. 'T was many years ago,
     Since first my thirsting soul aspired to know
     The secrets of this wondrous world, when deep
     My heart was pierced with sympathy for woe
     Which could not be mine own, and thought did keep
   In dream unnatural watch beside an infant's sleep.

     `Woe could not be mine own, since far from men
     I dwelt, a free and happy orphan child,
     By the sea-shore, in a deep mountain glen;
     And near the waves and through the forests wild
     I roamed, to storm and darkness reconciled;
     For I was calm while tempest shook the sky,
     But when the breathless heavens in beauty smiled,
     I wept sweet tears, yet too tumultuously
   For peace, and clasped my hands aloft in ecstasy.

     `These were forebodings of my fate. Before
     A woman's heart beat in my virgin breast,
     It had been nurtured in divinest lore;
     A dying poet gave me books, and blessed
     With wild but holy talk the sweet unrest
     In which I watched him as he died away;
     A youth with hoary hair, a fleeting guest
     Of our lone mountains; and this lore did sway
   My spirit like a storm, contending there alway.

     `Thus the dark tale which history doth unfold
     I knew, but not, methinks, as others know,
     For they weep not; and Wisdom had unrolled
     The clouds which hide the gulf of mortal woe;
     To few can she that warning vision show;
     For I loved all things with intense devotion,
     So that when Hope's deep source in fullest flow,
     Like earthquake did uplift the stagnant ocean
   Of human thoughts, mine shook beneath the wide emotion.

     `When first the living blood through all these veins
     Kindled a thought in sense, great France sprang forth,
     And seized, as if to break, the ponderous chains
     Which bind in woe the nations of the earth.
     I saw, and started from my cottage hearth;
     And to the clouds and waves in tameless gladness
     Shrieked, till they caught immeasurable mirth,
     And laughed in light and music: soon sweet madness
   Was poured upon my heart, a soft and thrilling sadness.

     `Deep slumber fell on me:--my dreams were fire,
     Soft and delightful thoughts did rest and hover
     Like shadows o'er my brain; and strange desire,
     The tempest of a passion, raging over
     My tranquil soul, its depths with light did cover,
     Which passed; and calm, and darkness, sweeter far,
     Came--then I loved; but not a human lover!
     For when I rose from sleep, the Morning Star
   Shone through the woodbine wreaths which round my casement were.

     `'Twas like an eye which seemed to smile on me.
     I watched, till by the sun made pale it sank
     Under the billows of the heaving sea;
     But from its beams deep love my spirit drank,
     And to my brain the boundless world now shrank
     Into one thought--one image--yes, forever!
     Even like the dayspring, poured on vapors dank,
     The beams of that one Star did shoot and quiver
   Through my benighted mind--and were extinguished never.

     `The day passed thus. At night, methought, in dream
     A shape of speechless beauty did appear;
     It stood like light on a careering stream
     Of golden clouds which shook the atmosphere;
     A wingèd youth, his radiant brow did wear
     The Morning Star; a wild dissolving bliss
     Over my frame he breathed, approaching near,
     And bent his eyes of kindling tenderness
   Near mine, and on my lips impressed a lingering kiss,

     `And said: "A Spirit loves thee, mortal maiden;
     How wilt thou prove thy worth?" Then joy and sleep
     Together fled; my soul was deeply laden,
     And to the shore I went to muse and weep;
     But as I moved, over my heart did creep
     A joy less soft, but more profound and strong
     Than my sweet dream; and it forbade to keep
     The path of the sea-shore; that Spirit's tongue
   Seemed whispering in my heart, and bore my steps along.

     `How, to that vast and peopled city led,
     Which was a field of holy warfare then,
     I walked among the dying and the dead,
     And shared in fearless deeds with evil men,
     Calm as an angel in the dragon's den;
     How I braved death for liberty and truth,
     And spurned at peace, and power, and fame; and when
     Those hopes had lost the glory of their youth,
   How sadly I returned--might move the hearer's ruth.

     `Warm tears throng fast! the tale may not be said.
     Know then that, when this grief had been subdued,
     I was not left, like others, cold and dead;
     The Spirit whom I loved in solitude
     Sustained his child; the tempest-shaken wood,
     The waves, the fountains, and the hush of night--
     These were his voice, and well I understood
     His smile divine, when the calm sea was bright
   With silent stars, and Heaven was breathless with delight.

     `In lonely glens, amid the roar of rivers,
     When the dim nights were moonless, have I known
     Joys which no tongue can tell; my pale lip quivers
     When thought revisits them:--know thou alone,
     That, after many wondrous years were flown,
     I was awakened by a shriek of woe;
     And over me a mystic robe was thrown
     By viewless hands, and a bright Star did glow
   Before my steps--the Snake then met his mortal foe.'

     `Thou fearest not then the Serpent on thy heart?'
     `Fear it!' she said, with brief and passionate cry,
     And spake no more. That silence made me start--
     I looked, and we were sailing pleasantly,
     Swift as a cloud between the sea and sky,
     Beneath the rising moon seen far away,
     Mountains of ice, like sapphire, piled on high,
     Hemming the horizon round, in silence lay
   On the still waters--these we did approach alway.

     And swift and swifter grew the vessel's motion,
     So that a dizzy trance fell on my brain,--
     Wild music woke me; we had passed the ocean
     Which girds the pole, Nature's remotest reign;
     And we glode fast o'er a pellucid plain
     Of waters, azure with the noontide day.
     Ethereal mountains shone around; a Fane
     Stood in the midst, girt by green isles which lay
   On the blue sunny deep, resplendent far away.

     It was a Temple, such as mortal hand
     Has never built, nor ecstasy, nor dream
     Reared in the cities of enchanted land;
     'T was likest Heaven, ere yet day's purple stream
     Ebbs o'er the western forest, while the gleam
     Of the unrisen moon among the clouds
     Is gathering--when with many a golden beam
     The thronging constellations rush in crowds,
   Paving with fire the sky and the marmoreal floods.

     Like what may be conceived of this vast dome,
     When from the depths which thought can seldom pierce
     Genius beholds it rise, his native home,
     Girt by the deserts of the Universe;
     Yet, nor in painting's light, or mightier verse,
     Or sculpture's marble language can invest
     That shape to mortal sense--such glooms immerse
     That incommunicable sight, and rest
   Upon the laboring brain and over-burdened breast.

     Winding among the lawny islands fair,
     Whose blosmy forests starred the shadowy deep,
     The wingless boat paused where an ivory stair
     Its fretwork in the crystal sea did steep,
     Encircling that vast Fane's aërial heap.
     We disembarked, and through a portal wide
     We passed, whose roof of moonstone carved did keep
     A glimmering o'er the forms on every side,
   Sculptures like life and thought, immovable, deep-eyed.

     We came to a vast hall, whose glorious roof
     Was diamond which had drunk the lightning's sheen
     In darkness and now poured it through the woof
     Of spell-inwoven clouds hung there to screen
     Its blinding splendor--through such veil was seen
     That work of subtlest power, divine and rare;
     Orb above orb, with starry shapes between,
     And hornèd moons, and meteors strange and fair,
   On night-black columns poised--one hollow hemisphere!

     Ten thousand columns in that quivering light
     Distinct, between whose shafts wound far away
     The long and labyrinthine aisles, more bright
     With their own radiance than the Heaven of Day;
     And on the jasper walls around there lay
     Paintings, the poesy of mightiest thought,
     Which did the Spirit's history display;
     A tale of passionate change, divinely taught,
   Which, in their wingèd dance, unconscious Genii wrought.

     Beneath there sate on many a sapphire throne
     The Great who had departed from mankind,
     A mighty Senate;--some, whose white hair shone
     Like mountain snow, mild, beautiful and blind;
     Some, female forms, whose gestures beamed with mind;
     And ardent youths, and children bright and fair;
     And some had lyres whose strings were intertwined
     With pale and clinging flames, which ever there
   Waked faint yet thrilling sounds that pierced the crystal air.

     One seat was vacant in the midst, a throne,
     Reared on a pyramid like sculptured flame,
     Distinct with circling steps which rested on
     Their own deep fire. Soon as the Woman came
     Into that hall, she shrieked the Spirit's name
     And fell; and vanished slowly from the sight.
     Darkness arose from her dissolving frame,--
     Which, gathering, filled that dome of woven light,
   Blotting its spherèd stars with supernatural night.

     Then first two glittering lights were seen to glide
     In circles on the amethystine floor,
     Small serpent eyes trailing from side to side,
     Like meteors on a river's grassy shore;
     They round each other rolled, dilating more
     And more--then rose, commingling into one,
     One clear and mighty planet hanging o'er
     A cloud of deepest shadow which was thrown
   Athwart the glowing steps and the crystalline throne.

     The cloud which rested on that cone of flame
     Was cloven; beneath the planet sate a Form,
     Fairer than tongue can speak or thought may frame,
     The radiance of whose limbs rose-like and warm
     Flowed forth, and did with softest light inform
     The shadowy dome, the sculptures and the state
     Of those assembled shapes--with clinging charm
     Sinking upon their hearts and mine. He sate
   Majestic yet most mild, calm yet compassionate.

     Wonder and joy a passing faintness threw
     Over my brow--a hand supported me,
     Whose touch was magic strength; an eye of blue
     Looked into mine, like moonlight, soothingly;
     And a voice said, `Thou must a listener be
     This day; two mighty Spirits now return,
     Like birds of calm, from the world's raging sea;
     They pour fresh light from Hope's immortal urn;
   A tale of human power--despair not--list and learn!

     I looked, and lo! one stood forth eloquently.
     His eyes were dark and deep, and the clear brow
     Which shadowed them was like the morning sky,
     The cloudless Heaven of Spring, when in their flow
     Through the bright air the soft winds as they blow
     Wake the green world; his gestures did obey
     The oracular mind that made his features glow,
     And where his curvèd lips half open lay,
   Passion's divinest stream had made impetuous way.

     Beneath the darkness of his outspread hair
     He stood thus beautiful; but there was One
     Who sate beside him like his shadow there,
     And held his hand--far lovelier; she was known
     To be thus fair by the few lines alone
     Which through her floating locks and gathered cloak,
     Glances of soul-dissolving glory, shone;
     None else beheld her eyes--in him they woke
   Memories which found a tongue, as thus he silence broke.