Percy Shelley: Poems

Prince Athanase: Part 1

There was a youth, who, as with toil and travel,

Had grown quite weak and gray before his time;

Nor any could the restless griefs unravel

Which burned within him, withering up his prime

And goading him, like fiends, from land to land. _5

Not his the load of any secret crime,

For nought of ill his heart could understand,

But pity and wild sorrow for the same;--

Not his the thirst for glory or command,

Baffled with blast of hope-consuming shame; _10

Nor evil joys which fire the vulgar breast,

And quench in speedy smoke its feeble flame,

Had left within his soul their dark unrest:

Nor what religion fables of the grave

Feared he,--Philosophy's accepted guest. _15

For none than he a purer heart could have,

Or that loved good more for itself alone;

Of nought in heaven or earth was he the slave.

What sorrow, strange, and shadowy, and unknown,

Sent him, a hopeless wanderer, through mankind?-- _20

If with a human sadness he did groan,

He had a gentle yet aspiring mind;

Just, innocent, with varied learning fed;

And such a glorious consolation find

In others' joy, when all their own is dead: _25

He loved, and laboured for his kind in grief,

And yet, unlike all others, it is said

That from such toil he never found relief.

Although a child of fortune and of power,

Of an ancestral name the orphan chief, _30

His soul had wedded Wisdom, and her dower

Is love and justice, clothed in which he sate

Apart from men, as in a lonely tower,

Pitying the tumult of their dark estate.--

Yet even in youth did he not e'er abuse _35

The strength of wealth or thought, to consecrate

Those false opinions which the harsh rich use

To blind the world they famish for their pride;

Nor did he hold from any man his dues,

But, like a steward in honest dealings tried, _40

With those who toiled and wept, the poor and wise,

His riches and his cares he did divide.

Fearless he was, and scorning all disguise,

What he dared do or think, though men might start,

He spoke with mild yet unaverted eyes; _45

Liberal he was of soul, and frank of heart,

And to his many friends--all loved him well--

Whate'er he knew or felt he would impart,

If words he found those inmost thoughts to tell;

If not, he smiled or wept; and his weak foes _50

He neither spurned nor hated--though with fell

And mortal hate their thousand voices rose,

They passed like aimless arrows from his ear--

Nor did his heart or mind its portal close

To those, or them, or any, whom life's sphere _55

May comprehend within its wide array.

What sadness made that vernal spirit sere?--

He knew not. Though his life, day after day,

Was failing like an unreplenished stream,

Though in his eyes a cloud and burthen lay, _60

Through which his soul, like Vesper's serene beam

Piercing the chasms of ever rising clouds,

Shone, softly burning; though his lips did seem

Like reeds which quiver in impetuous floods;

And through his sleep, and o'er each waking hour, _65

Thoughts after thoughts, unresting multitudes,

Were driven within him by some secret power,

Which bade them blaze, and live, and roll afar,

Like lights and sounds, from haunted tower to tower

O'er castled mountains borne, when tempest's war _70

Is levied by the night-contending winds,

And the pale dalesmen watch with eager ear;--

Though such were in his spirit, as the fiends

Which wake and feed an everliving woe,--

What was this grief, which ne'er in other minds _75

A mirror found,--he knew not--none could know;

But on whoe'er might question him he turned

The light of his frank eyes, as if to show

He knew not of the grief within that burned,

But asked forbearance with a mournful look; _80

Or spoke in words from which none ever learned

The cause of his disquietude; or shook

With spasms of silent passion; or turned pale:

So that his friends soon rarely undertook

To stir his secret pain without avail;-- _85

For all who knew and loved him then perceived

That there was drawn an adamantine veil

Between his heart and mind,--both unrelieved

Wrought in his brain and bosom separate strife.

Some said that he was mad, others believed _90

That memories of an antenatal life

Made this, where now he dwelt, a penal hell;

And others said that such mysterious grief

From God's displeasure, like a darkness, fell

On souls like his, which owned no higher law _95

Than love; love calm, steadfast, invincible

By mortal fear or supernatural awe;

And others,--''Tis the shadow of a dream

Which the veiled eye of Memory never saw,

'But through the soul's abyss, like some dark stream _100

Through shattered mines and caverns underground,

Rolls, shaking its foundations; and no beam

'Of joy may rise, but it is quenched and drowned

In the dim whirlpools of this dream obscure;

Soon its exhausted waters will have found _105

'A lair of rest beneath thy spirit pure,

O Athanase!--in one so good and great,

Evil or tumult cannot long endure.

So spake they: idly of another's state

Babbling vain words and fond philosophy; _110

This was their consolation; such debate

Men held with one another; nor did he,

Like one who labours with a human woe,

Decline this talk: as if its theme might be

Another, not himself, he to and fro _115

Questioned and canvassed it with subtlest wit;

And none but those who loved him best could know

That which he knew not, how it galled and bit

His weary mind, this converse vain and cold;

For like an eyeless nightmare grief did sit _120

Upon his being; a snake which fold by fold

Pressed out the life of life, a clinging fiend

Which clenched him if he stirred with deadlier hold;--

And so his grief remained--let it remain--untold. [1]