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The Revolt of Islam

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

Canto Fourth

     THE old man took the oars, and soon the bark
     Smote on the beach beside a tower of stone.
     It was a crumbling heap whose portal dark
     With blooming ivy-trails was overgrown;
     Upon whose floor the spangling sands were strown,
     And rarest sea-shells, which the eternal flood,
     Slave to the mother of the months, had thrown
     Within the walls of that gray tower, which stood
   A changeling of man's art nursed amid Nature's brood.

     When the old man his boat had anchorèd,
     He wound me in his arms with tender care,
     And very few but kindly words he said,
     And bore me through the tower adown a stair,
     Whose smooth descent some ceaseless step to wear
     For many a year had fallen. We came at last
     To a small chamber which with mosses rare
     Was tapestried, where me his soft hands placed
   Upon a couch of grass and oak-leaves interlaced.

     The moon was darting through the lattices
     Its yellow light, warm as the beams of day--
     So warm that to admit the dewy breeze
     The old man opened them; the moonlight lay
     Upon a lake whose waters wove their play
     Even to the threshold of that lonely home;
     Within was seen in the dim wavering ray
     The antique sculptured roof, and many a tome
   Whose lore had made that sage all that he had become.

     The rock-built barrier of the sea was passed
     And I was on the margin of a lake,
     A lonely lake, amid the forests vast
     And snowy mountains. Did my spirit wake
     From sleep as many-colored as the snake
     That girds eternity? in life and truth
     Might not my heart its cravings ever slake?
     Was Cythna then a dream, and all my youth,
   And all its hopes and fears, and all its joy and ruth?

     Thus madness came again,--a milder madness,
     Which darkened nought but time's unquiet flow
     With supernatural shades of clinging sadness;
     That gentle Hermit, in my helpless woe,
     By my sick couch was busy to and fro,
     Like a strong spirit ministrant of good;
     When I was healed, he led me forth to show
     The wonders of his sylvan solitude,
   And we together sate by that isle-fretted flood.

     He knew his soothing words to weave with skill
     From all my madness told; like mine own heart,
     Of Cythna would he question me, until
     That thrilling name had ceased to make me start,
     From his familiar lips; it was not art,
     Of wisdom and of justice when he spoke--
     When 'mid soft looks of pity, there would dart
     A glance as keen as is the lightning's stroke
   When it doth rive the knots of some ancestral oak.

     Thus slowly from my brain the darkness rolled;
     My thoughts their due array did reassume
     Through the enchantments of that Hermit old.
     Then I bethought me of the glorious doom
     Of those who sternly struggle to relume
     The lamp of Hope o'er man's bewildered lot;
     And, sitting by the waters, in the gloom
     Of eve, to that friend's heart I told my thought--
   That heart which had grown old, but had corrupted not.

     That hoary man had spent his livelong age
     In converse with the dead who leave the stamp
     Of ever-burning thoughts on many a page,
     When they are gone into the senseless damp
     Of graves; his spirit thus became a lamp
     Of splendor, like to those on which it fed;
     Through peopled haunts, the City and the Camp,
     Deep thirst for knowledge had his footsteps led,
   And all the ways of men among mankind he read.

     But custom maketh blind and obdurate
     The loftiest hearts; he had beheld the woe
     In which mankind was bound, but deemed that fate
     Which made them abject would preserve them so;
     And in such faith, some steadfast joy to know,
     He sought this cell; but when fame went abroad
     That one in Argolis did undergo
     Torture for liberty, and that the crowd
   High truths from gifted lips had heard and understood,

     And that the multitude was gathering wide,--
     His spirit leaped within his aged frame;
     In lonely peace he could no more abide,
     But to the land on which the victor's flame
     Had fed, my native land, the Hermit came;
     Each heart was there a shield, and every tongue
     Was as a sword of truth--young Laon's name
     Rallied their secret hopes, though tyrants sung
   Hymns of triumphant joy our scattered tribes among.

     He came to the lone column on the rock,
     And with his sweet and mighty eloquence
     The hearts of those who watched it did unlock,
     And made them melt in tears of penitence.
     They gave him entrance free to bear me thence.
     `Since this,' the old man said, `seven years are spent,
     While slowly truth on thy benighted sense
     Has crept; the hope which wildered it has lent,
   Meanwhile, to me the power of a sublime intent.

     `Yes, from the records of my youthful state,
     And from the lore of bards and sages old,
     From whatsoe'er my wakened thoughts create
     Out of the hopes of thine aspirings bold,
     Have I collected language to unfold
     Truth to my countrymen; from shore to shore
     Doctrines of human power my words have told;
     They have been heard, and men aspire to more
   Than they have ever gained or ever lost of yore.

     `In secret chambers parents read, and weep,
     My writings to their babes, no longer blind;
     And young men gather when their tyrants sleep,
     And vows of faith each to the other bind;
     And marriageable maidens, who have pined
     With love till life seemed melting through their look,
     A warmer zeal, a nobler hope, now find;
     And every bosom thus is rapt and shook,
   Like autumn's myriad leaves in one swoln mountain brook.

     `The tyrants of the Golden City tremble
     At voices which are heard about the streets;
     The ministers of fraud can scarce dissemble
     The lies of their own heart, but when one meets
     Another at the shrine, he inly weets,
     Though he says nothing, that the truth is known;
     Murderers are pale upon the judgment-seats,
     And gold grows vile even to the wealthy crone,
   And laughter fills the Fane, and curses shake the Throne.

     `Kind thoughts, and mighty hopes, and gentle deeds
     Abound; for fearless love, and the pure law
     Of mild equality and peace, succeeds
     To faiths which long have held the world in awe,
     Bloody, and false, and cold. As whirlpools draw
     All wrecks of Ocean to their chasm, the sway
     Of thy strong genius, Laon, which foresaw
     This hope, compels all spirits to obey,
   Which round thy secret strength now throng in wide array.

     `For I have been thy passive instrument'--
     (As thus the old man spake, his countenance
     Gleamed on me like a spirit's)--'thou hast lent
     To me, to all, the power to advance
     Towards this unforeseen deliverance
     From our ancestral chains--ay, thou didst rear
     That lamp of hope on high, which time nor chance
     Nor change may not extinguish, and my share
   Of good was o'er the world its gathered beams to bear.

     `But I, alas! am both unknown and old,
     And though the woof of wisdom I know well
     To dye in hues of language, I am cold
     In seeming, and the hopes which inly dwell
     My manners note that I did long repel;
     But Laon's name to the tumultuous throng
     Were like the star whose beams the waves compel
     And tempests, and his soul-subduing tongue
   Were as a lance to quell the mailèd crest of wrong.

     `Perchance blood need not flow; if thou at length
     Wouldst rise, perchance the very slaves would spare
     Their brethren and themselves; great is the strength
     Of words--for lately did a maiden fair,
     Who from her childhood has been taught to bear
     The Tyrant's heaviest yoke, arise, and make
     Her sex the law of truth and freedom hear,
     And with these quiet words--"for thine own sake
   I prithee spare me,"--did with ruth so take

     `All hearts that even the torturer, who had bound
     Her meek calm frame, ere it was yet impaled,
     Loosened her weeping then; nor could be found
     One human hand to harm her. Unassailed
     Therefore she walks through the great City, veiled
     In virtue's adamantine eloquence,
     'Gainst scorn and death and pain thus trebly mailed,
     And blending in the smiles of that defence
   The serpent and the dove, wisdom and innocence.

     `The wild-eyed women throng around her path;
     From their luxurious dungeons, from the dust
     Of meaner thralls, from the oppressor's wrath,
     Or the caresses of his sated lust,
     They congregate; in her they put their trust.
     The tyrants send their armèd slaves to quell
     Her power; they, even like a thunder-gust
     Caught by some forest, bend beneath the spell
   Of that young maiden's speech, and to their chiefs rebel.

     `Thus she doth equal laws and justice teach
     To woman, outraged and polluted long;
     Gathering the sweetest fruit in human reach
     For those fair hands now free, while armèd wrong
     Trembles before her look, though it be strong;
     Thousands thus dwell beside her, virgins bright
     And matrons with their babes, a stately throng!
     Lovers renew the vows which they did plight
   In early faith, and hearts long parted now unite;

     `And homeless orphans find a home near her,
     And those poor victims of the proud, no less,
     Fair wrecks, on whom the smiling world with stir
     Thrusts the redemption of its wickedness.
     In squalid huts, and in its palaces,
     Sits Lust alone, while o'er the land is borne
     Her voice, whose awful sweetness doth repress
     All evil; and her foes relenting turn,
   And cast the vote of love in hope's abandoned urn.

     `So in the populous City, a young maiden
     Has baffled Havoc of the prey which he
     Marks as his own, whene'er with chains o'erladen
     Men make them arms to hurl down tyranny,--
     False arbiter between the bound and free;
     And o'er the land, in hamlets and in towns
     The multitudes collect tumultuously,
     And throng in arms; but tyranny disowns
   Their claim, and gathers strength around its trembling thrones.

     `Blood soon, although unwillingly, to shed
     The free cannot forbear. The Queen of Slaves,
     The hood-winked Angel of the blind and dead,
     Custom, with iron mace points to the graves
     Where her own standard desolately waves
     Over the dust of Prophets and of Kings.
     Many yet stand in her array--"she paves
     Her path with human hearts," and o'er it flings
   The wildering gloom of her immeasurable wings.

     `There is a plain beneath the City's wall,
     Bounded by misty mountains, wide and vast;
     Millions there lift at Freedom's thrilling call
     Ten thousand standards wide; they load the blast
     Which bears one sound of many voices past,
     And startles on his throne their sceptred foe;
     He sits amid his idle pomp aghast,
     And that his power hath passed away, doth know--
   Why pause the victor swords to seal his overthrow?

     `The Tyrant's guards resistance yet maintain,
     Fearless, and fierce, and hard as beasts of blood;
     They stand a speck amid the peopled plain;
     Carnage and ruin have been made their food
     From infancy; ill has become their good,
     And for its hateful sake their will has wove
     The chains which eat their hearts. The multitude,
     Surrounding them, with words of human love
   Seek from their own decay their stubborn minds to move.

     `Over the land is felt a sudden pause,
     As night and day those ruthless bands around
     The watch of love is kept--a trance which awes
     The thoughts of men with hope; as when the sound
     Of whirlwind, whose fierce blasts the waves and clouds confound,
     Dies suddenly, the mariner in fear
     Feels silence sink upon his heart--thus bound
     The conquerors pause; and oh! may freemen ne'er
   Clasp the relentless knees of Dread, the murderer!

     `If blood be shed, 't is but a change and choice
     Of bonds--from slavery to cowardice,--
     A wretched fall! Uplift thy charmèd voice,
     Pour on those evil men the love that lies
     Hovering within those spirit-soothing eyes!
     Arise, my friend, farewell!'--As thus he spake,
     From the green earth lightly I did arise,
     As one out of dim dreams that doth awake,
   And looked upon the depth of that reposing lake.

     I saw my countenance reflected there;--
     And then my youth fell on me like a wind
     Descending on still waters. My thin hair
     Was prematurely gray; my face was lined
     With channels, such as suffering leaves behind,
     Not age; my brow was pale, but in my cheek
     And lips a flush of gnawing fire did find
     Their food and dwelling; though mine eyes might speak
   A subtle mind and strong within a frame thus weak.

     And though their lustre now was spent and faded,
     Yet in my hollow looks and withered mien
     The likeness of a shape for which was braided
     The brightest woof of genius still was seen--
     One who, methought, had gone from the world's scene,
     And left it vacant--'t was her lover's face--
     It might resemble her--it once had been
     The mirror of her thoughts, and still the grace
   Which her mind's shadow cast left there a lingering trace.

     What then was I? She slumbered with the dead.
     Glory and joy and peace had come and gone.
     Doth the cloud perish when the beams are fled
     Which steeped its skirts in gold? or, dark and lone,
     Doth it not through the paths of night unknown,
     On outspread wings of its own wind upborne,
     Pour rain upon the earth? the stars are shown,
     When the cold moon sharpens her silver horn
   Under the sea, and make the wide night not forlorn.

     Strengthened in heart, yet sad, that aged man
     I left, with interchange of looks and tears
     And lingering speech, and to the Camp began
     My war. O'er many a mountain-chain which rears
     Its hundred crests aloft my spirit bears
     My frame, o'er many a dale and many a moor;
     And gaily now meseems serene earth wears
     The blosmy spring's star-bright investiture,--
   A vision which aught sad from sadness might allure.

     My powers revived within me, and I went,
     As one whom winds waft o'er the bending grass,
     Through many a vale of that broad continent.
     At night when I reposed, fair dreams did pass
     Before my pillow; my own Cythna was,
     Not like a child of death, among them ever;
     When I arose from rest, a woful mass
     That gentlest sleep seemed from my life to sever,
   As if the light of youth were not withdrawn forever.

     Aye as I went, that maiden who had reared
     The torch of Truth afar, of whose high deeds
     The Hermit in his pilgrimage had heard,
     Haunted my thoughts. Ah, Hope its sickness feeds
     With whatsoe'er it finds, or flowers or weeds!
     Could she be Cythna? Was that corpse a shade
     Such as self-torturing thought from madness breeds?
     Why was this hope not torture? Yet it made
   A light around my step which would not ever fade.