Percy Shelley: Poems

The Cenci: Act 3

SCENE 3.1:




Reach me that handkerchief!--My brain is hurt;

My eyes are full of blood; just wipe them for me...

I see but indistinctly...


My sweet child,

You have no wound; 'tis only a cold dew

That starts from your dear brow.--Alas! Alas! _5

What has befallen?


How comes this hair undone?

Its wandering strings must be what blind me so,

And yet I tied it fast.--Oh, horrible!

The pavement sinks under my feet! The walls

Spin round! I see a woman weeping there, _10

And standing calm and motionless, whilst I

Slide giddily as the world reels...My God!

The beautiful blue heaven is flecked with blood!

The sunshine on the floor is black! The air

Is changed to vapours such as the dead breathe _15

In charnel pits! Pah! I am choked! There creeps

A clinging, black, contaminating mist

About me...'tis substantial, heavy, thick,

I cannot pluck it from me, for it glues

My fingers and my limbs to one another, _20

And eats into my sinews, and dissolves

My flesh to a pollution, poisoning

The subtle, pure, and inmost spirit of life!

My God! I never knew what the mad felt

Before; for I am mad beyond all doubt! _25


No, I am dead! These putrefying limbs

Shut round and sepulchre the panting soul

Which would burst forth into the wandering air!


What hideous thought was that I had even now?

'Tis gone; and yet its burthen remains here _30

O'er these dull eyes...upon this weary heart!

O, world! O, life! O, day! O, misery!


What ails thee, my poor child? She answers not:

Her spirit apprehends the sense of pain,

But not its cause; suffering has dried away _35

The source from which it sprung...


Like Parricide...

Misery has killed its father: yet its father

Never like mine...O, God! What thing am I?


My dearest child, what has your father done?


Who art thou, questioner? I have no father. _40


She is the madhouse nurse who tends on me,

It is a piteous office.


Do you know

I thought I was that wretched Beatrice

Men speak of, whom her father sometimes hales

From hall to hall by the entangled hair; _45

At others, pens up naked in damp cells

Where scaly reptiles crawl, and starves her there,

Till she will eat strange flesh. This woful story

So did I overact in my sick dreams,

That I imagined...no, it cannot be! _50

Horrible things have been in this wide world,

Prodigious mixtures, and confusions strange

Of good and ill; and worse have been conceived

Than ever there was found a heart to do.

But never fancy imaged such a deed _55



Who art thou? Swear to me, ere I die

With fearful expectation, that indeed

Thou art not what thou seemest...Mother!



My sweet child, know you...


Yet speak it not:

For then if this be truth, that other too _60

Must be a truth, a firm enduring truth,

Linked with each lasting circumstance of life,

Never to change, never to pass away.

Why so it is. This is the Cenci Palace;

Thou art Lucretia; I am Beatrice. _65

I have talked some wild words, but will no more.

Mother, come near me: from this point of time,

I am...



Alas! What has befallen thee, child?

What has thy father done?


What have I done?

Am I not innocent? Is it my crime _70

That one with white hair, and imperious brow,

Who tortured me from my forgotten years,

As parents only dare, should call himself

My father, yet should be!--Oh, what am I?

What name, what place, what memory shall be mine? _75

What retrospects, outliving even despair?


He is a violent tyrant, surely, child:

We know that death alone can make us free;

His death or ours. But what can he have done

Of deadlier outrage or worse injury? _80

Thou art unlike thyself; thine eyes shoot forth

A wandering and strange spirit. Speak to me,

Unlock those pallid hands whose fingers twine

With one another.


'Tis the restless life

Tortured within them. If I try to speak, _85

I shall go mad. Ay, something must be done;

What, yet I know not...something which shall make

The thing that I have suffered but a shadow

In the dread lightning which avenges it;

Brief, rapid, irreversible, destroying _90

The consequence of what it cannot cure.

Some such thing is to be endured or done:

When I know what, I shall be still and calm,

And never anything will move me more.

But now!--O blood, which art my father's blood, _95

Circling through these contaminated veins,

If thou, poured forth on the polluted earth,

Could wash away the crime, and punishment

By which I suffer...no, that cannot be!

Many might doubt there were a God above _100

Who sees and permits evil, and so die:

That faith no agony shall obscure in me.


It must indeed have been some bitter wrong;

Yet what, I dare not guess. Oh, my lost child,

Hide not in proud impenetrable grief _105

Thy sufferings from my fear.


I hide them not.

What are the words which yon would have me speak?

I, who can feign no image in my mind

Of that which has transformed me: I, whose thought

Is like a ghost shrouded and folded up _110

In its own formless horror: of all words,

That minister to mortal intercourse,

Which wouldst thou hear? For there is none to tell

My misery: if another ever knew

Aught like to it, she died as I will die, _115

And left it, as I must, without a name.

Death, Death! Our law and our religion call thee

A punishment and a reward...Oh, which

Have I deserved?


The peace of innocence;

Till in your season you be called to heaven. _120

Whate'er you may have suffered, you have done

No evil. Death must be the punishment

Of crime, or the reward of trampling down

The thorns which God has strewed upon the path

Which leads to immortality.


Ay, death... _125

The punishment of crime. I pray thee, God,

Let me not be bewildered while I judge.

If I must live day after day, and keep

These limbs, the unworthy temple of Thy spirit,

As a foul den from which what Thou abhorrest _130

May mock Thee, unavenged...it shall not be!

Self-murder...no, that might be no escape,

For Thy decree yawns like a Hell between

Our will and it:--O! In this mortal world

There is no vindication and no law _135

Which can adjudge and execute the doom

Of that through which I suffer.



Welcome, Friend!

I have to tell you that, since last we met,

I have endured a wrong so great and strange,

That neither life nor death can give me rest. _140

Ask me not what it is, for there are deeds

Which have no form, sufferings which have no tongue.


_140 nor edition 1821; or editions 1819, 1839 (1st).


And what is he who has thus injured you?


The man they call my father: a dread name.


It cannot be...


What it can be, or not, _145

Forbear to think. It is, and it has been;

Advise me how it shall not be again.

I thought to die; but a religious awe

Restrains me, and the dread lest death itself

Might be no refuge from the consciousness _150

Of what is yet unexpiated. Oh, speak!


Accuse him of the deed, and let the law

Avenge thee.


Oh, ice-hearted counsellor!

If I could find a word that might make known

The crime of my destroyer; and that done, _155

My tongue should like a knife tear out the secret

Which cankers my heart's core; ay, lay all bare,

So that my unpolluted fame should be

With vilest gossips a stale mouthed story;

A mock, a byword, an astonishment:-- _160

If this were done, which never shall be done,

Think of the offender's gold, his dreaded hate,

And the strange horror of the accuser's tale,

Baffling belief, and overpowering speech;

Scarce whispered, unimaginable, wrapped _165

In hideous hints...Oh, most assured redress!


You will endure it then?



It seems your counsel is small profit.



All must be suddenly resolved and done.

What is this undistinguishable mist _170

Of thoughts, which rise, like shadow after shadow,

Darkening each other?


Should the offender live?

Triumph in his misdeed? and make, by use,

His crime, whate'er it is, dreadful no doubt,

Thine element; until thou mayest become _175

Utterly lost; subdued even to the hue

Of that which thou permittest?


Mighty death!

Thou double-visaged shadow! Only judge!

Rightfullest arbiter!



If the lightning

Of God has e'er descended to avenge... _180


Blaspheme not! His high Providence commits

Its glory on this earth, and their own wrongs

Into the hands of men; if they neglect

To punish crime...


But if one, like this wretch,

Should mock, with gold, opinion, law, and power? _185

If there be no appeal to that which makes

The guiltiest tremble? If because our wrongs,

For that they are unnatural, strange and monstrous,

Exceed all measure of belief? O God!

If, for the very reasons which should make _190

Redress most swift and sure, our injurer triumphs?

And we, the victims, bear worse punishment

Than that appointed for their torturer?


Think not

But that there is redress where there is wrong,

So we be bold enough to seize it.


How? _195

If there were any way to make all sure,

I know not...but I think it might be good



Why, his late outrage to Beatrice;

For it is such, as I but faintly guess,

As makes remorse dishonour, and leaves her _200

Only one duty, how she may avenge:

You, but one refuge from ills ill endured;

Me, but one counsel...


For we cannot hope

That aid, or retribution, or resource

Will arise thence, where every other one _205

Might find them with less need.





Peace, Orsino!

And, honoured Lady, while I speak, I pray,

That you put off, as garments overworn,

Forbearance and respect, remorse and fear,

And all the fit restraints of daily life, _210

Which have been borne from childhood, but which now

Would be a mockery to my holier plea.

As I have said, I have endured a wrong,

Which, though it be expressionless, is such

As asks atonement; both for what is past, _215

And lest I be reserved, day after day,

To load with crimes an overburthened soul,

And be...what ye can dream not. I have prayed

To God, and I have talked with my own heart,

And have unravelled my entangled will, _220

And have at length determined what is right.

Art thou my friend, Orsino? False or true?

Pledge thy salvation ere I speak.


I swear

To dedicate my cunning, and my strength,

My silence, and whatever else is mine, _225

To thy commands.


You think we should devise

His death?


And execute what is devised,

And suddenly. We must be brief and bold.


And yet most cautious.


For the jealous laws

Would punish us with death and infamy _230

For that which it became themselves to do.


Be cautious as ye may, but prompt. Orsino,

What are the means?


I know two dull, fierce outlaws,

Who think man's spirit as a worm's, and they

Would trample out, for any slight caprice, _235

The meanest or the noblest life. This mood

Is marketable here in Rome. They sell

What we now want.


To-morrow before dawn,

Cenci will take us to that lonely rock,

Petrella, in the Apulian Apennines. _240

If he arrive there...


He must not arrive.


Will it be dark before you reach the tower?


The sun will scarce be set.


But I remember

Two miles on this side of the fort, the road

Crosses a deep ravine; 'tis rough and narrow, _245

And winds with short turns down the precipice;

And in its depth there is a mighty rock,

Which has, from unimaginable years,

Sustained itself with terror and with toil

Over a gulf, and with the agony _250

With which it clings seems slowly coming down;

Even as a wretched soul hour after hour,

Clings to the mass of life; yet, clinging, leans;

And leaning, makes more dark the dread abyss

In which it fears to fall: beneath this crag _255

Huge as despair, as if in weariness,

The melancholy mountain yawns...below,

You hear but see not an impetuous torrent

Raging among the caverns, and a bridge

Crosses the chasm; and high above there grow, _260

With intersecting trunks, from crag to crag,

Cedars, and yews, and pines; whose tangled hair

Is matted in one solid roof of shade

By the dark ivy's twine. At noonday here

'Tis twilight, and at sunset blackest night. _265


Before you reach that bridge make some excuse

For spurring on your mules, or loitering



What sound is that?


Hark! No, it cannot be a servant's step

It must be Cenci, unexpectedly _270

Returned...Make some excuse for being here.


That step we hear approach must never pass

The bridge of which we spoke.



What shall I do?

Cenci must find me here, and I must bear

The imperious inquisition of his looks _275

As to what brought me hither: let me mask

Mine own in some inane and vacant smile.


How! Have you ventured hither? Know you then

That Cenci is from home?


_278 hither edition 1821; thither edition 1819.


I sought him here;

And now must wait till he returns.


Great God! _280

Weigh you the danger of this rashness?



Does my destroyer know his danger? We

Are now no more, as once, parent and child,

But man to man; the oppressor to the oppressed;

The slanderer to the slandered; foe to foe: _285

He has cast Nature off, which was his shield,

And Nature casts him off, who is her shame;

And I spurn both. Is it a father's throat

Which I will shake, and say, I ask not gold;

I ask not happy years; nor memories _290

Of tranquil childhood; nor home-sheltered love;

Though all these hast thou torn from me, and more;

But only my fair fame; only one hoard

Of peace, which I thought hidden from thy hate,

Under the penury heaped on me by thee, _295

Or I will...God can understand and pardon,

Why should I speak with man?


Be calm, dear friend.


Well, I will calmly tell you what he did.

This old Francesco Cenci, as you know,

Borrowed the dowry of my wife from me, _300

And then denied the loan; and left me so

In poverty, the which I sought to mend

By holding a poor office in the state.

It had been promised to me, and already

I bought new clothing for my ragged babes, _305

And my wife smiled; and my heart knew repose.

When Cenci's intercession, as I found,

Conferred this office on a wretch, whom thus

He paid for vilest service. I returned

With this ill news, and we sate sad together _310

Solacing our despondency with tears

Of such affection and unbroken faith

As temper life's worst bitterness; when he,

As he is wont, came to upbraid and curse,

Mocking our poverty, and telling us _315

Such was God's scourge for disobedient sons.

And then, that I might strike him dumb with shame,

I spoke of my wife's dowry; but he coined

A brief yet specious tale, how I had wasted

The sum in secret riot; and he saw _320

My wife was touched, and he went smiling forth.

And when I knew the impression he had made,

And felt my wife insult with silent scorn

My ardent truth, and look averse and cold,

I went forth too: but soon returned again; _325

Yet not so soon but that my wife had taught

My children her harsh thoughts, and they all cried,

'Give us clothes, father! Give us better food!

What you in one night squander were enough

For months!' I looked, and saw that home was hell. _330

And to that hell will I return no more

Until mine enemy has rendered up

Atonement, or, as he gave life to me

I will, reversing Nature's law...


Trust me,

The compensation which thou seekest here _335

Will be denied.


Then...Are you not my friend?

Did you not hint at the alternative,

Upon the brink of which you see I stand,

The other day when we conversed together?

My wrongs were then less. That word parricide, _340

Although I am resolved, haunts me like fear.


It must be fear itself, for the bare word

Is hollow mockery. Mark, how wisest God

Draws to one point the threads of a just doom,

So sanctifying it: what you devise _345

Is, as it were, accomplished.


Is he dead?


His grave is ready. Know that since we met

Cenci has done an outrage to his daughter.


What outrage?


That she speaks not, but you may

Conceive such half conjectures as I do, _350

From her fixed paleness, and the lofty grief

Of her stern brow bent on the idle air,

And her severe unmodulated voice,

Drowning both tenderness and dread; and last

From this; that whilst her step-mother and I, _355

Bewildered in our horror, talked together

With obscure hints; both self-misunderstood

And darkly guessing, stumbling, in our talk,

Over the truth, and yet to its revenge,

She interrupted us, and with a look _360

Which told, before she spoke it, he must die:...


It is enough. My doubts are well appeased;

There is a higher reason for the act

Than mine; there is a holier judge than me,

A more unblamed avenger. Beatrice, _365

Who in the gentleness of thy sweet youth

Hast never trodden on a worm, or bruised

A living flower, but thou hast pitied it

With needless tears! Fair sister, thou in whom

Men wondered how such loveliness and wisdom _370

Did not destroy each other! Is there made

Ravage of thee? O, heart, I ask no more

Justification! Shall I wait, Orsino,

Till he return, and stab him at the door?


Not so; some accident might interpose _375

To rescue him from what is now most sure;

And you are unprovided where to fly,

How to excuse or to conceal. Nay, listen:

All is contrived; success is so assured




'Tis my brother's voice! You know me not?


My sister, my lost sister! _380


Lost indeed!

I see Orsino has talked with you, and

That you conjecture things too horrible

To speak, yet far less than the truth. Now, stay not,

He might return: yet kiss me; I shall know _385

That then thou hast consented to his death.

Farewell, farewell! Let piety to God,

Brotherly love, justice and clemency,

And all things that make tender hardest hearts

Make thine hard, brother. Answer not...farewell. _390


SCENE 3.2:




'Tis midnight, and Orsino comes not yet.


What! can the everlasting elements

Feel with a worm like man? If so, the shaft

Of mercy-winged lightning would not fall

On stones and trees. My wife and children sleep: _5

They are now living in unmeaning dreams:

But I must wake, still doubting if that deed

Be just which is most necessary. O,

Thou unreplenished lamp! whose narrow fire

Is shaken by the wind, and on whose edge _10

Devouring darkness hovers! Thou small flame,

Which, as a dying pulse rises and falls,

Still flickerest up and down, how very soon,

Did I not feed thee, wouldst thou fail and be

As thou hadst never been! So wastes and sinks _15

Even now, perhaps, the life that kindled mine:

But that no power can fill with vital oil

That broken lamp of flesh. Ha! 'tis the blood

Which fed these veins that ebbs till all is cold:

It is the form that moulded mine that sinks _20

Into the white and yellow spasms of death:

It is the soul by which mine was arrayed

In God's immortal likeness which now stands

Naked before Heaven's judgement seat!


One! Two!

The hours crawl on; and, when my hairs are white, _25

My son will then perhaps be waiting thus,

Tortured between just hate and vain remorse;

Chiding the tardy messenger of news

Like those which I expect. I almost wish

He be not dead, although my wrongs are great; _30

Yet...'tis Orsino's step...




I am come

To say he has escaped.




And safe

Within Petrella. He passed by the spot

Appointed for the deed an hour too soon.


Are we the fools of such contingencies? _35

And do we waste in blind misgivings thus

The hours when we should act? Then wind and thunder,

Which seemed to howl his knell, is the loud laughter

With which Heaven mocks our weakness! I henceforth

Will ne'er repent of aught designed or done _40

But my repentance.


See, the lamp is out.


If no remorse is ours when the dim air

Has drank this innocent flame, why should we quail

When Cenci's life, that light by which ill spirits

See the worst deeds they prompt, shall sink for ever? _45

No, I am hardened.


Why, what need of this?

Who feared the pale intrusion of remorse

In a just deed? Although our first plan failed,

Doubt not but he will soon be laid to rest.

But light the lamp; let us not talk i' the dark. _50


And yet once quenched I cannot thus relume

My father's life: do you not think his ghost

Might plead that argument with God?


Once gone

You cannot now recall your sister's peace;

Your own extinguished years of youth and hope; _55

Nor your wife's bitter words; nor all the taunts

Which, from the prosperous, weak misfortune takes;

Nor your dead mother; nor...


O, speak no more!

I am resolved, although this very hand

Must quench the life that animated it. _60


There is no need of that. Listen: you know

Olimpio, the castellan of Petrella

In old Colonna's time; him whom your father

Degraded from his post? And Marzio,

That desperate wretch, whom he deprived last year _65

Of a reward of blood, well earned and due?


I knew Olimpio; and they say he hated

Old Cenci so, that in his silent rage

His lips grew white only to see him pass.

Of Marzio I know nothing.


Marzio's hate _70

Matches Olimpio's. I have sent these men,

But in your name, and as at your request,

To talk with Beatrice and Lucretia.


Only to talk?


The moments which even now

Pass onward to to-morrow's midnight hour _75

May memorize their flight with death: ere then

They must have talked, and may perhaps have done,

And made an end...


Listen! What sound is that?


The house-dog moans, and the beams crack: nought else.


It is my wife complaining in her sleep: _80

I doubt not she is saying bitter things

Of me; and all my children round her dreaming

That I deny them sustenance.


Whilst he

Who truly took it from them, and who fills

Their hungry rest with bitterness, now sleeps _85

Lapped in bad pleasures, and triumphantly

Mocks thee in visions of successful hate

Too like the truth of day.


If e'er he wakes

Again, I will not trust to hireling hands...


Why, that were well. I must be gone; good-night. _90

When next we meet--may all be done!


_91 may all be done!

Giacomo: And all edition 1821;

Giacomo: May all be done, and all edition 1819.


And all

Forgotten: Oh, that I had never been!