Percy Shelley: Poems

The Cenci: Act 2

SCENE 2.1:




Weep not, my gentle boy; he struck but me

Who have borne deeper wrongs. In truth, if he

Had killed me, he had done a kinder deed.

O God Almighty, do Thou look upon us,

We have no other friend but only Thee! _5

Yet weep not; though I love you as my own,

I am not your true mother.


Oh, more, more,

Than ever mother was to any child,

That have you been to me! Had he not been

My father, do you think that I should weep! _10


Alas! Poor boy, what else couldst thou have done?



Did he pass this way? Have you seen him, brother?

Ah, no! that is his step upon the stairs;

'Tis nearer now; his hand is on the door;

Mother, if I to thee have ever been _15

A duteous child, now save me! Thou, great God,

Whose image upon earth a father is,

Dost thou indeed abandon me? He comes;

The door is opening now; I see his face;

He frowns on others, but he smiles on me, _20

Even as he did after the feast last night.


Almighty God, how merciful Thou art!

'Tis but Orsino's servant.--Well, what news?


My master bids me say, the Holy Father

Has sent back your petition thus unopened. _25


And he demands at what hour 'twere secure

To visit you again?


At the Ave Mary.


So, daughter, our last hope has failed. Ah me!

How pale you look; you tremble, and you stand

Wrapped in some fixed and fearful meditation, _30

As if one thought were over strong for you:

Your eyes have a chill glare; O, dearest child!

Are you gone mad? If not, pray speak to me.


You see I am not mad: I speak to you.


You talked of something that your father did _35

After that dreadful feast? Could it be worse

Than when he smiled, and cried, 'My sons are dead!'

And every one looked in his neighbour's face

To see if others were as white as he?

At the first word he spoke I felt the blood _40

Rush to my heart, and fell into a trance;

And when it passed I sat all weak and wild;

Whilst you alone stood up, and with strong words

Checked his unnatural pride; and I could see

The devil was rebuked that lives in him. _45

Until this hour thus you have ever stood

Between us and your father's moody wrath

Like a protecting presence; your firm mind

Has been our only refuge and defence:

What can have thus subdued it? What can now _50

Have given you that cold melancholy look,

Succeeding to your unaccustomed fear?


What is it that you say? I was just thinking

'Twere better not to struggle any more.

Men, like my father, have been dark and bloody, _55

Yet never--Oh! Before worse comes of it

'Twere wise to die: it ends in that at last.


Oh, talk not so, dear child! Tell me at once

What did your father do or say to you?

He stayed not after that accursed feast _60

One moment in your chamber.--Speak to me.


Oh, sister, sister, prithee, speak to us!


It was one word, Mother, one little word;

One look, one smile.


Oh! He has trampled me

Under his feet, and made the blood stream down _65

My pallid cheeks. And he has given us all

Ditch-water, and the fever-stricken flesh

Of buffaloes, and bade us eat or starve,

And we have eaten.--He has made me look

On my beloved Bernardo, when the rust _70

Of heavy chains has gangrened his sweet limbs,

And I have never yet despaired--but now!

What could I say?


Ah, no! 'tis nothing new.

The sufferings we all share have made me wild:

He only struck and cursed me as he passed; _75

He said, he looked, he did;--nothing at all

Beyond his wont, yet it disordered me.

Alas! I am forgetful of my duty,

I should preserve my senses for your sake.


Nay, Beatrice; have courage, my sweet girl. _80

If any one despairs it should be I

Who loved him once, and now must live with him

Till God in pity call for him or me.

For you may, like your sister, find some husband,

And smile, years hence, with children round your knees; _85

Whilst I, then dead, and all this hideous coil

Shall be remembered only as a dream.


Talk not to me, dear lady, of a husband.

Did you not nurse me when my mother died?

Did you not shield me and that dearest boy? _90

And had we any other friend but you

In infancy, with gentle words and looks,

To win our father not to murder us?

And shall I now desert you? May the ghost

Of my dead Mother plead against my soul _95

If I abandon her who filled the place

She left, with more, even, than a mother's love!


And I am of my sister's mind. Indeed

I would not leave you in this wretchedness,

Even though the Pope should make me free to live _100

In some blithe place, like others of my age,

With sports, and delicate food, and the fresh air.

Oh, never think that I will leave you, Mother!


My dear, dear children!



What! Beatrice here!

Come hither!


Nay, hide not your face, 'tis fair; _105

Look up! Why, yesternight you dared to look

With disobedient insolence upon me,

Bending a stern and an inquiring brow

On what I meant; whilst I then sought to hide

That which I came to tell you--but in vain. _110


Oh, that the earth would gape! Hide me, O God!


Then it was I whose inarticulate words

Fell from my lips, and who with tottering steps

Fled from your presence, as you now from mine.

Stay, I command you--from this day and hour _115

Never again, I think, with fearless eye,

And brow superior, and unaltered cheek,

And that lip made for tenderness or scorn,

Shalt thou strike dumb the meanest of mankind;

Me least of all. Now get thee to thy chamber! _120

Thou too, loathed image of thy cursed mother,


Thy milky, meek face makes me sick with hate!



So much has passed between us as must make

Me bold, her fearful.--'Tis an awful thing

To touch such mischief as I now conceive: _125

So men sit shivering on the dewy bank,

And try the chill stream with their feet; once in...

How the delighted spirit pants for joy!


O husband! Pray forgive poor Beatrice.

She meant not any ill.


Nor you perhaps? _130

Nor that young imp, whom you have taught by rote

Parricide with his alphabet? Nor Giacomo?

Nor those two most unnatural sons, who stirred

Enmity up against me with the Pope?

Whom in one night merciful God cut off: _135

Innocent lambs! They thought not any ill.

You were not here conspiring? You said nothing

Of how I might be dungeoned as a madman;

Or be condemned to death for some offence,

And you would be the witnesses?--This failing, _140

How just it were to hire assassins, or

Put sudden poison in my evening drink?

Or smother me when overcome by wine?

Seeing we had no other judge but God,

And He had sentenced me, and there were none _145

But you to be the executioners

Of His decree enregistered in heaven?

Oh, no! You said not this?


So help me God,

I never thought the things you charge me with!


If you dare to speak that wicked lie again _150

I'll kill you. What! It was not by your counsel

That Beatrice disturbed the feast last night?

You did not hope to stir some enemies

Against me, and escape, and laugh to scorn

What every nerve of you now trembles at? _155

You judged that men were bolder than they are;

Few dare to stand between their grave and me.


Look not so dreadfully! By my salvation

I knew not aught that Beatrice designed;

Nor do I think she designed any thing _160

Until she heard you talk of her dead brothers.


Blaspheming liar! You are damned for this!

But I will take you where you may persuade

The stones you tread on to deliver you:

For men shall there be none but those who dare _165

All things--not question that which I command.

On Wednesday next I shall set out: you know

That savage rock, the Castle of Petrella:

'Tis safely walled, and moated round about:

Its dungeons underground, and its thick towers _170

Never told tales; though they have heard and seen

What might make dumb things speak.--Why do you linger?

Make speediest preparation for the journey!


The all-beholding sun yet shines; I hear

A busy stir of men about the streets; _175

I see the bright sky through the window panes:

It is a garish, broad, and peering day;

Loud, light, suspicious, full of eyes and ears,

And every little corner, nook, and hole

Is penetrated with the insolent light. _180

Come darkness! Yet, what is the day to me?

And wherefore should I wish for night, who do

A deed which shall confound both night and day?

'Tis she shall grope through a bewildering mist

Of horror: if there be a sun in heaven _185

She shall not dare to look upon its beams;

Nor feel its warmth. Let her then wish for night;

The act I think shall soon extinguish all

For me: I bear a darker deadlier gloom

Than the earth's shade, or interlunar air, _190

Or constellations quenched in murkiest cloud,

In which I walk secure and unbeheld

Towards my purpose.--Would that it were done!


SCENE 2.2:




There is an obsolete and doubtful law

By which you might obtain a bare provision

Of food and clothing--


Nothing more? Alas!

Bare must be the provision which strict law

Awards, and aged, sullen avarice pays. _5

Why did my father not apprentice me

To some mechanic trade? I should have then

Been trained in no highborn necessities

Which I could meet not by my daily toil.

The eldest son of a rich nobleman _10

Is heir to all his incapacities;

He has wide wants, and narrow powers. If you,

Cardinal Camillo, were reduced at once

From thrice-driven beds of down, and delicate food,

An hundred servants, and six palaces, _15

To that which nature doth indeed require?--


Nay, there is reason in your plea; 'twere hard.


'Tis hard for a firm man to bear: but I

Have a dear wife, a lady of high birth,

Whose dowry in ill hour I lent my father _20

Without a bond or witness to the deed:

And children, who inherit her fine senses,

The fairest creatures in this breathing world;

And she and they reproach me not. Cardinal,

Do you not think the Pope would interpose _25

And stretch authority beyond the law?


Though your peculiar case is hard, I know

The Pope will not divert the course of law.

After that impious feast the other night

I spoke with him, and urged him then to check _30

Your father's cruel hand; he frowned and said,

'Children are disobedient, and they sting

Their fathers' hearts to madness and despair,

Requiting years of care with contumely.

I pity the Count Cenci from my heart; _35

His outraged love perhaps awakened hate,

And thus he is exasperated to ill.

In the great war between the old and young

I, who have white hairs and a tottering body,

Will keep at least blameless neutrality.' _40


You, my good Lord Orsino, heard those words.


What words?


Alas, repeat them not again!

There then is no redress for me, at least

None but that which I may achieve myself,

Since I am driven to the brink.--But, say, _45

My innocent sister and my only brother

Are dying underneath my father's eye.

The memorable torturers of this land,

Galeaz Visconti, Borgia, Ezzelin,

Never inflicted on their meanest slave _50

What these endure; shall they have no protection?


Why, if they would petition to the Pope

I see not how he could refuse it--yet

He holds it of most dangerous example

In aught to weaken the paternal power, _55

Being, as 'twere, the shadow of his own.

I pray you now excuse me. I have business

That will not bear delay.



But you, Orsino,

Have the petition: wherefore not present it?


I have presented it, and backed it with _60

My earnest prayers, and urgent interest;

It was returned unanswered. I doubt not

But that the strange and execrable deeds

Alleged in it--in truth they might well baffle

Any belief--have turned the Pope's displeasure _65

Upon the accusers from the criminal:

So I should guess from what Camillo said.


My friend, that palace-walking devil Gold

Has whispered silence to his Holiness:

And we are left, as scorpions ringed with fire. _70

What should we do but strike ourselves to death?

For he who is our murderous persecutor

Is shielded by a father's holy name,

Or I would--



What? Fear not to speak your thought.

Words are but holy as the deeds they cover: _75

A priest who has forsworn the God he serves;

A judge who makes Truth weep at his decree;

A friend who should weave counsel, as I now,

But as the mantle of some selfish guile;

A father who is all a tyrant seems, _80

Were the profaner for his sacred name.


_77 makes Truth edition 1821; makes the truth editions 1819, 1839.


Ask me not what I think; the unwilling brain

Feigns often what it would not; and we trust

Imagination with such fantasies

As the tongue dares not fashion into words, _85

Which have no words, their horror makes them dim

To the mind's eye.--My heart denies itself

To think what you demand.


But a friend's bosom

Is as the inmost cave of our own mind

Where we sit shut from the wide gaze of day, _90

And from the all-communicating air.

You look what I suspected--


Spare me now!

I am as one lost in a midnight wood,

Who dares not ask some harmless passenger

The path across the wilderness, lest he, _95

As my thoughts are, should be--a murderer.

I know you are my friend, and all I dare

Speak to my soul that will I trust with thee.

But now my heart is heavy, and would take

Lone counsel from a night of sleepless care. _100

Pardon me, that I say farewell--farewell!

I would that to my own suspected self

I could address a word so full of peace.


Farewell!--Be your thoughts better or more bold.


I had disposed the Cardinal Camillo _105

To feed his hope with cold encouragement:

It fortunately serves my close designs

That 'tis a trick of this same family

To analyse their own and other minds.

Such self-anatomy shall teach the will _110

Dangerous secrets: for it tempts our powers,

Knowing what must be thought, and may be done.

Into the depth of darkest purposes:

So Cenci fell into the pit; even I,

Since Beatrice unveiled me to myself, _115

And made me shrink from what I cannot shun,

Show a poor figure to my own esteem,

To which I grow half reconciled. I'll do

As little mischief as I can; that thought

Shall fee the accuser conscience.


Now what harm _120

If Cenci should be murdered?--Yet, if murdered,

Wherefore by me? And what if I could take

The profit, yet omit the sin and peril

In such an action? Of all earthly things

I fear a man whose blows outspeed his words _125

And such is Cenci: and while Cenci lives

His daughter's dowry were a secret grave

If a priest wins her.--Oh, fair Beatrice!

Would that I loved thee not, or loving thee,

Could but despise danger and gold and all _130

That frowns between my wish and its effect.

Or smiles beyond it! There is no escape...

Her bright form kneels beside me at the altar,

And follows me to the resort of men,

And fills my slumber with tumultuous dreams, _135

So when I wake my blood seems liquid fire;

And if I strike my damp and dizzy head

My hot palm scorches it: her very name,

But spoken by a stranger, makes my heart

Sicken and pant; and thus unprofitably _140

I clasp the phantom of unfelt delights

Till weak imagination half possesses

The self-created shadow. Yet much longer

Will I not nurse this life of feverous hours:

From the unravelled hopes of Giacomo _145

I must work out my own dear purposes.

I see, as from a tower, the end of all:

Her father dead; her brother bound to me

By a dark secret, surer than the grave;

Her mother scared and unexpostulating _150

From the dread manner of her wish achieved;

And she!--Once more take courage, my faint heart;

What dares a friendless maiden matched with thee?

I have such foresight as assures success:

Some unbeheld divinity doth ever, _155

When dread events are near, stir up men's minds

To black suggestions; and he prospers best,

Not who becomes the instrument of ill,

But who can flatter the dark spirit, that makes

Its empire and its prey of other hearts _160

Till it become his slave...as I will do.