1818
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Revolt of Islam. Canto Eighth.

The Revolt of Islam; a Poem, in Twelve Cantos. By Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Percy Bysshe Shelley


David Macbeth Moir: "It was an unhappy attempt to blend poetry with metaphysics; — unhappy, as in it the former has been almost sacrificed to the latter, and much fine thought and imagery thus literally entombed. He is anything but lucid or happy in the management of the plot or the arrangement of the incidents; but where it escapes from its so-called philosophy, which, when comprehensible, is utterly weak and worthless, the poem exhibits various passages remarkable for high imaginative passionate earnestness, or picturesque beauty; while some of its narrative portions are of almost equal excellence, as the early loves of Laon and Cythna — the portrait of the tyrant Othman sitting alone, with the little child in his palace hall — and the river voyage, towards the conclusion of the last canto" Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 225.



"I sate beside the steersman then, and gazing,
Upon the west, cried, 'Spread the sails! behold!
The sinking moon is like a watch-tower blazing
Over the mountains yet; — the City of Gold
Yon Cape alone does from the sight withhold;
The stream is fleet — the north breathes steadily
Beneath the stars, they tremble with the cold!
Ye cannot rest upon the dreary sea!—
Haste, haste to the warm home of happier destiny!'

"The Mariners obeyed — the Captain stood
Aloof, and whispering to the Pilot, said,
'Alas, alas! I fear we are pursued
By wicked ghosts: a Phantom of the Dead,
The night before we sailed, came to my bed
In dream, like that!' — The Pilot then replied,
'It cannot be — she is a human Maid—
Her low voice makes you weep — she is some bride,
Or daughter of high birth — she can be nought beside.'

"We past the islets, borne by wind and stream,
And as we sailed, the Mariners came near
And thronged around to listen; — in the gleam
Of the pale moon I stood, as one whom fear
May not attaint, and my calm voice did rear;
'Ye all are human — yon broad moon gives light
To millions who the self-same likeness wear,
Even while I speak — beneath this very night,
Their thoughts flow on like ours, in sadness or delight.

"'What dream ye? Your own hands have built an home,
Even for yourselves on a beloved shore:
For some, fond eyes are pining till they come,
How they will greet him when his toils are o'er,
And laughing babes rush from the well-known door!
Is this your care? ye toil for your own good—
Ye feel and think — has some immortal power
Such purposes? or in a human mood,
Dream ye that God thus builds for man in solitude?

"'What then is God? ye mock yourselves, and give
A human heart to what ye cannot know:
As if the cause of life could think and live!
'Twere as if man's own works should feel, and shew
The hopes, and fears, and thoughts from which they flow,
And he be like to them. Lo! Plague is free
To waste, Blight, Poison, Earthquake, Hail, and Snow,
Disease, and Want, and worse Necessity
Of hate and ill, and Pride, and Fear, and Tyranny.

"'What then is God? Some moon-struck sophist stood
Watching the shade from his own soul upthrown
Fill Heaven and darken Earth, and in such mood
The Form he saw and worshipped was his own,
His likeness in the world's vast mirror shewn;
And 'twere an innocent dream, but that a faith
Nursed by fear's dew of poison, grows thereon,
And that men say, God has appointed Death
On all who scorn his will to wreak immortal wrath.

"'Men say they have seen God, and heard from God,
Or known from others who have known such things,
And that his will is all our law, a rod
To scourge us into slaves — that Priests and Kings,
Custom, domestic sway, aye, all that brings
Man's free-born soul beneath the oppressor's heel,
Are his strong ministers, and that the stings
Of death will make the wise his vengeance feel,
Tho' truth and virtue arm their hearts with tenfold steel.

"'And it is said, that God will punish wrong;
Yes, add despair to crime, and pain to pain!
And his red hell's undying snakes among
Will bind the wretch on whom he fixed a stain,
Which, like a plague, a burthen, and a bane,
Clung to him while he lived; — for love and hate,
Virtue and vice, they say, are difference vain—
The will of strength is right — this human state
Tyrants, that they may rule, with lies thus desolate.

"'Alas, what strength? opinion is more frail
Than yon dim cloud now fading on the moon
Even while we gaze, tho' it awhile avail
To hide the orb of truth — and every throne
Of Earth or Heaven, tho' shadow, rests thereon,
One shape of many names: — for this ye plough
The barren waves of ocean, hence each one
Is slave or tyrant; all betray and bow,
Command, or kill, or fear, or wreak, or suffer woe.

"'Its names are each a sign which maketh holy
All power — aye, the ghost, the dream, the shade
Of power, — lust, falsehood, hate, and pride, and folly;
The pattern whence all fraud and wrong is made,
A law to which mankind has been betrayed;
And human love, is as the name well known
Of a dear mother, whom the murderer laid
In bloody grave, and into darkness thrown,
Gathered her wildered babes around him as his own.

"'O Love! who to the hearts of wandering men
Art as the calm to Ocean's weary waves!
Justice, or truth, or joy! those only can
From slavery and religion's labyrinth caves
Guide us, as one clear star the seaman saves,
To give to all an equal share of good,
To track the steps of Freedom tho' thro' graves
She pass, to suffer all in patient mood,
To weep for crime tho' stained with thy friend's dearest blood.

"'To feel the peace of self-contentment's lot,
To own all sympathies, and outrage none,
And in the inmost bowers of sense and thought,
Until life's sunny day is quite gone down,
To sit and smile with Joy, or, not alone,
To kiss salt tears from the worn cheek of Woe;
To live, as if to love and live were one,—
This is not faith or law, nor those who bow
To thrones on Heaven or Earth, such destiny may know.

"'But children near their parents tremble now,
Because they must obey — one rules another,
For it is said God rules both high and low,
And man is made the captive of his brother,
And Hate is throned on high with Fear his mother,
Above the Highest — and those fountain-cells,
Whence love yet flowed when faith had choked all other,
Are darkened — Woman, as the bond-slave, dwells
Of man, a slave; and life is poisoned in its wells.

"'Man seeks for gold in mines, that he may weave
A lasting chain for his own slavery;—
In fear and restless care that he may live
He toils for others, who must ever be
The joyless thralls of like captivity;
He murders, for his chiefs delight in ruin;
He builds the altar, that its idol's fee
May be his very blood; he is pursuing
O, blind and willing wretch! his own obscure undoing.

"'Woman! — she is his slave, she has become
A thing I weep to speak — the child of scorn,
The outcast of a desolated home,
Falsehood, and fear, and toil, like waves have worn
Channels upon her cheek, which smiles adorn,
As calm decks the false Ocean: — well ye know
What Woman is, for none of Woman born,
Can choose but drain the bitter dregs of woe,
Which ever from the oppressed to the oppressors flow.

"'This need not be; ye might arise, and will
That gold should lose its power, and thrones their glory;
That love, which none may bind, be free to fill
The world, like light; and evil faith, grown hoary
With crime, be quenched and die. — Yon promontory
Even now eclipses the descending moon!—
Dungeons and palaces are transitory—
High temples fade like vapour — Man alone
Remains, whose will has power when all beside is gone.

"'Let all be free and equal! — from your hearts
I feel an echo; thro' my inmost frame
Like sweetest sound, seeking its mate, it darts—
Whence come ye, friends? alas, I cannot name
All that I read of sorrow, toil, and shame,
On your worn faces; as in legends old
Which make immortal the disastrous fame
Of conquerors and impostors false and bold,
The discord of your hearts, I in your looks behold.

"'Whence come ye, friends? from pouring human blood
Forth on the earth? or bring ye steel and gold,
That Kings may dupe and slay the multitude?
Or from the famished poor, pale, weak, and cold,
Bear ye the earnings of their toil? unfold!
Speak! are your hands in slaughter's sanguine hue
Stained freshly? have your hearts in guile grown old?
Know yourselves thus! ye shall be pure as dew,
And I will be a friend and sister unto you.

"'Disguise it not — we have one human heart—
All mortal thoughts confess a common home:
Blush not for what may to thyself impart
Stains of inevitable crime: the doom
Is this, which has, or may, or must become
Thine, and all humankind's. Ye are the spoil
Which Time thus marks for the devouring tomb,
Thou and thy thoughts and they, and all the toil
Wherewith ye twine the rings of life's perpetual coil.

"'Disguise it not — ye blush for what ye hate,
And Enmity is sister unto Shame;
Look on your mind — it is the book of fate—
Ah! it is dark with many a blazoned name
Of misery — all are mirrors of the same;
But the dark fiend who with his iron pen
Dipped in scorn's fiery poison, makes his fame
Enduring there, would o'er the heads of men
Pass harmless, if they scorned to make their hearts his den.

"'Yes, it is Hate, that shapeless fiendly thing
Of many names, all evil, some divine,
Whom self-contempt arms with a mortal sting;
Which, when the heart it's snaky folds intwine
Is wasted quite, and when it doth repine
To gorge such bitter prey, on all beside
It turns with ninefold rage, as with its twine
When Amphisbaena some fair bird has tied,
Soon o'er the putrid mass he threats on every side.

"'Reproach not thine own soul, but know thyself,
Nor hate another's crime, nor loathe thine own.
It is the dark idolatry of self,
Which, when our thoughts and actions once are gone,
Demands that man should weep, and bleed, and groan;
O vacant expiation! be at rest.—
The past is Death's, the future is thine own;
And love and joy can make the foulest breast
A paradise of flowers, where peace might build her nest.

"'Speak thou! whence come ye?' — A Youth made reply,
'Wearily, wearily o'er the boundless deep
We sail; — thou readest well the misery
Told in these faded eyes, but much doth sleep
Within, which there the poor heart loves to keep,
Or dare not write on the dishonoured brow;
Even from our childhood have we learned to steep
The bread of slavery in the tears of woe,
And never dreamed of hope or refuge until now.

"'Yes — I must speak — my secret should have perished
Even with the heart it wasted, as a brand
Fades in the dying flame whose life it cherished,
But that no human bosom can withstand
Thee, wondrous Lady, and the mild command
Of thy keen eyes: — yes, we are wretched slaves,
Who from their wonted loves and native land
Are reft, and bear o'er the dividing waves
The unregarded prey of calm and happy graves.

"'We drag afar from pastoral vales the fairest
Among the daughters of those mountains lone,
We drag them there, where all things best and rarest
Are stained and trampled: — years have come and gone
Since, like the ship which bears me, I have known
No thought; — but now the eyes of one dear Maid
On mine with light of mutual love have shone—
She is my life, — I am but as the shade
Of her, — a smoke sent up from ashes, soon to fade.

"'Fore she must perish in the Tyrant's hall—
Alas, alas!' — He ceased, and by the sail
Sate cowering — but his sobs were heard by all,
And still before the ocean and the gale
The ship fled fast till the stars 'gan to fail,
And round me gathered with mute countenance,
The Seamen gazed, the Pilot, worn and pale
With toil, the Captain with grey locks, whose glance
Met mine in restless awe — they stood as in a trance.

"'Recede not! pause not now! thou art grown old,
But Hope will make thee young, for Hope and Youth
Are children of one mother, even Love — behold!
The eternal stars gaze on us! — is the truth
Within your soul? care for your own, or ruth
For others' sufferings? do ye thirst to bear
A heart which not the serpent Custom's tooth
May violate? — be free! and even here,
Swear to be firm till death!' they cried, 'We swear! we swear!'

"The very darkness shook, as with a blast
Of subterranean thunder at the cry;
The hollow shore its thousand echoes cast
Into the night, as if the sea, and sky,
And earth, rejoiced with new-born liberty,
For in that name they swore! Bolts were undrawn,
And on the deck, with unaccustomed eye
The captives gazing stood, and every one
Shrank as the inconstant torch upon her countenance shone.

"They were earth's purest children, young and fair,
With eyes the shrines of unawakened thought,
And brows as bright as spring or morning, ere
Dark time had there its evil legend wrought
In characters of cloud which wither not.—
The change was like a dream to them; but soon
They knew the glory of their altered lot,
In the bright wisdom of youth's breathless noon,
Sweet talk, and smiles, and sighs, all bosoms did attune.

"But one was mute, her cheeks and lips most fair,
Changing their hue like lilies newly blown,
Beneath a bright acacia's shadowy hair,
Waved by the wind amid the sunny noon,
Shewed that her soul was quivering; and full soon
That Youth arose, and breathlessly did look
On her and me, as for some speechless boon:
I smiled, and both their hands in mine I took,
And felt a soft delight from what their spirits shook.

[Works, ed. H. Buxton Forman (1882) 1:232-43]

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