31 Spenserians: a mysterious inmate lies concealed in a marble palace guarded by an enormous serpent — whose unblinking eyes weep at the sweet music of the silver swan circling in the moat. The lush and shadowy manner of Thomas Hood's fairy tale recalls Spenser less than it anticipates Tennyson. The poem was originally published without a signature.
George Gilfillan: "we find in Hood's more elaborate poetical pieces no effective story, none that can bear the weight of his subtle and beautiful imagery. The rich blossoms and pods of the peaflower tree are there, but the strong distinct stick of support is wanting. This defect is fatal not only to long poems but to all save the shortest; it reduces them instantly to the rank of rhymed essays; and a rhymed essay, with most people, is the same thing with a rhapsody. Even dreams require a nexus, a nisus, a nodus, a point, a purpose. Death is but a tame shadow without the scythe. The want of a purpose in any clear, definite, impressive form has neutralised the effect of many poems besides Hood's — some of Tennyson's, and one entire class of Shelley's — whose "Triumph of Life" and "Witch of Atlas" rank with "Lycus" and the "Midnight Fairies" — being, like them, beautiful, diffuse, vague; and, like them, perpetually promising to bring forth solid fruit, but yielding at length leaves and blossoms only" Second Gallery of Literary Portraits (1850) 106-07.
Oliver Elton: "Reading Thomas Hood's (1788-1845) poems of pure imagination and summer fantasy, one might think at moments that his master, Keats, has risen from the dead, and was speaking once more. 'Hero and Leander,' with 'The Two Swans,' doubtless owed as much to Spenser and the young-eyed Elizabethans as to their last and greatest disciple. In 'The Two Swans' the stanza and its whole tune and movement are Spenserian, while the 'gentle girl and boy,' and the 'serpent-sorrow' that oppressed them, and the release of these 'victims of old Enchantment's love or hate,' are lovely after-coinages in Keats's own fashion; just as the verses on 'Ruth' ('She stood breast high amid the corn'), and the Ode, 'Autumn' ('Where are the songs of summer?'), are modulations on some single phrase of Keats's making. But the rich, heavy imagery of 'The Two Swans,' and the whole conduct of the tale — as of an oppressive dream at last relieved — have a kind of romantic beauty for which Hood is no man's debtor; and there is none of that bent towards over-neat lyric epigram, or towards forced and overstrained luridness, which elsewhere in his verse deters us" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:286-87.
Immortal Imogen, crown'd queen above
The lilies of thy sex, vouchsafe to hear
A fairy dream in honour of true love—
True above ills, and frailty, and all fear—
Perchance a shadow of his own career
Whose youth was darkly prison'd and long-twin'd
By serpent-sorrow, till white Love drew near,
And sweetly sang him free, and round his mind
A bright horizon threw, wherein no grief may wind.
I saw a tower builded on a lake,
Mock'd by its inverse shadow, dark and deep—
That seem'd a still intenser night to make,
Wherein the quiet waters sank to sleep,—
And, whatsoe'er was prison'd in that keep,
A monstrous Snake was warden: — round and round
In sable ringlets I beheld him creep
Blackest amid black shadows, to the ground,
Whilst his enormous head the topmost turret crown'd.
From whence he shot fierce light against the stars,
Making the pale moon paler with affright;
And with his ruby eye out-threaten'd Mars—
That blazed in the mid-heavens, hot and bright—
Nor slept, nor wink'd, but with a steadfast spite
Watch'd their wan looks and tremblings in the skies;
And that he might not slumber in the night,
The curtain-lids were pluck'd from his large eyes,
So he might never drowse, but watch his secret prize.
Prince or princess in dismal durance pent,
Victims of old Enchantment's love or hate,
Their lives must all in painful sighs be spent,
Watching the lonely waters soon and late,
And clouds that pass and leave them to their fate,
Or company their grief with heavy tears:—
Meanwhile that Hope can spy no golden gate
For sweet escapement, but in darksome fears
They weep and pine away as if immortal years.
No gentle bird with gold upon its wing
Will perch upon the grate — the gentle bird
Is safe in leafy dell, and will not bring
Freedom's sweet key-note and commission-word
Learn'd of a fairy's lips, for pity stirr'd—
Lest while he trembling sings, untimely guest!
Watch'd by that cruel snake and darkly heard,
He leave a widow on her lonely nest,
To press in silent grief the darlings of her breast.
No gallant knight, adventurous, in his bark
Will seek the fruitful perils of the place,
To rouse with dipping oar the waters dark
That bear that serpent-image on their face.
And Love, brave Love! though he attempt the base,
Nerved to his loyal death, he may not win
His captive lady from the strict embrace
Of that foul serpent, clasping her within
His sable folds — like Eve enthrall'd by the old Sin.
But there is none — no knight in panoply,
Nor Love, intrench'd in his strong steely coat:
No little speck — no sail — no helper nigh,
No sign — no whispering — no plash of boat:—
The distant shores show dimly and remote,
Made of a deeper mist, — serene and grey,—
And slow and mute the cloudy shadows float
Over the gloomy wave, and pass away,
Chased by the silver beams that on their marges play.
And bright and silvery the willows sleep
Over the shady verge — no mad winds tease
Their hoary heads; but quietly they weep
Their sprinkling leaves — half fountains and half trees:
There lilies be — and fairer than all these,
A solitary Swan her breast of snow
Launches against the wave that seems to freeze
Into a chaste reflection, still below
Twin-shadow of herself wherever she may go.
And forth she paddles in the very noon
Of solemn midnight like an elfin thing,
Charm'd into being by the argent moon—
Whose silver light for love of her fair wing
Goes with her in the shade, still worshipping
Her dainty plumage: — all around her grew
A radiant circlet, like a fairy ring;
And all behind, a tiny little clue
Of light, to guide her back across the waters blue.
And sure she is no meaner than a fay,
Redeem'd from sleepy death, for beauty's sake,
By old ordainment: — silent as she lay,
Touch'd by a moonlight wand I saw her wake,
And cut her leafy slough, and so forsake
The verdant prison of her lily peers,
That slept amidst the stars upon the lake—
A breathing shape — restored to human fears,
And new-born love and grief — self-conscious of her tears.
And now she clasps her wings around her heart,
And near that lonely isle begins to glide
Pale as her fears, and oft-times with a start
Turns her impatient head from side to side
In universal terrors — all too wide
To watch; and often to that marble keep
Upturns her pearly eyes, as if she spied
Some foe, and crouches in the shadows steep
That in the gloomy wave go diving fathoms deep.
And well she may, to spy that fearful thing
All down the dusky walls in circlets wound;
Alas! for what rare prize, with many a ring
Girding the marble casket round and round?
His folded tail, lost in the gloom profound,
Terribly darkeneth the rocky base;
But on the top his monstrous head is crown'd
With prickly spears, and on his doubtful face
Gleam his unwearied eyes, red watchers of the place.
Alas! of the hot fires that nightly fall,
No one will scorch him in those orbs of spite,
So he may never see beneath the wall
That timid little creature, all too bright,
That stretches her fair neck, slender and white,
Invoking the pale moon, and vainly tries
Her throbbing throat, as if to charm the night
With song — but, hush — it perishes in sighs,
And there will be no dirge sad-swelling though she dies!
She droops — she sinks — she leans upon the lake,
Fainting again into a lifeless flower;
But soon the chilly springs anoint and wake
Her spirit from its death, and with new power
She sheds her stifled sorrows in a shower
Of tender song, timed to her falling tears—
That wins the shady summit of that tower,
And, trembling all the sweeter for its fears,
Fills with imploring moan that cruel monster's ears.
And, lo! the scaly beast is all deprest,
Subdued like Argus by the might of sound—
What time Apollo his sweet lute addrest
To magic converse with the air, and bound
The many monster eyes, all slumber-drown'd:—
So on the turret-top that watchful Snake
Pillows his giant head, and lists profound,
As if his wrathful spite would never wake,
Charm'd into sudden sleep for Love and Beauty's sake!
His prickly crest lies prone upon his crown,
And thirsty lip from lip disparted flies,
To drink that dainty flood of music down—
His scaly throat is big with pent-up sighs—
And whilst his hollow ear entranced lies,
His looks for envy of the charmed sense
Are fain to listen, till his steadfast eyes,
Stung into pain by their own impotence,
Distil enormous tears into the lake immense.
Oh, tuneful swan! oh, melancholy bird!
Sweet was that midnight miracle of song,
Rich with ripe sorrow, needful of no word
To tell of pain, and love, and love's deep wrong—
Hinting a piteous tale — perchance how long
Thy unknown tears were mingled with the lake,
What time disguised thy leafy mates among—
And no eye knew what human love and ache
Dwelt in those dewy leaves, and heart so nigh to break.
Therefore no poet will ungently touch
The water-lily, on whose eyelids dew
Trembles like tears; but ever hold it such
As human pain may wander through and through,
Turning the pale leaf paler in its hue—
Wherein life dwells, transfigured, not entomb'd,
By magic spells. Alas! who ever knew
Sorrow in all its shapes, leafy and plumed,
Or in gross husks of brutes eternally inhumed?
And now the winged song has scaled the height
Of that dark dwelling, builded for despair,
And soon a little casement flashing bright
Widens self-open'd into the cool air—
That music like a bird may enter there
And soothe the captive in his stony cage;
For there is nought of grief, or painful care,
But plaintive song may happily engage
From sense of its own ill, and tenderly assuage.
And forth into the light, small and remote,
A creature, like the fair son of a king,
Draws to the lattice in his jewell'd coat
Against the silver moonlight glistening,
And leans upon his white hand listening
To that sweet music that with tenderer tone
Salutes him, wondering what kindly thing
Is come to soothe him with so tuneful moan,
Singing beneath the walls as if for him alone!
And while he listens, the mysterious song,
Woven with timid particles of speech,
Twines into passionate words that grieve along
The melancholy notes, and softly teach
The secrets of true love, — that trembling reach
His earnest ear, and through the shadows dun
He missions-like replies, and each to each
Their silver voices mingle into one,
Like blended streams that make one music as they run.
"Ah! Love, my hope is swooning in my heart,—
Ay, sweet, my cage is strong and hung full high—
Alas! our lips are held so far apart,
Thy words come faint, — they have so far to fly!—
If I may only shun that serpent-eye,—
Ah me! that serpent-eye doth never sleep;—
Then, nearer thee, Love's martyr, I will die!—
Alas, alas! that word has made me weep!
For pity's sake remain safe in thy marble keep!
"My marble keep! it is my marble tomb—
Nay, sweet! but thou hast there thy living breath—
Aye to expend in sighs for this hard doom;—
But I will come to thee and sing beneath,
And nightly so beguile this serpent wreath;—
Nay, I will find a path from these despairs.
Ah, needs then thou must tread the back of death,
Making his stony ribs thy stony stairs.—
Behold his ruby eye, how fearfully it glares!"
Full sudden at these words, the princely youth
Leaps on the scaly back that slumbers, still
Unconscious of his foot, yet not for ruth,
But numb'd to dulness by the fairy skill
Of that sweet music (all more wild and shrill
For intense fear) that charm'd him as he lay—
Meanwhile the lover nerves his desperate will,
Held some short throbs by natural dismay,
Then down, down the serpent-track begins his darksome way.
Now dimly seen — now toiling out of sight,
Eclipsed and cover'd by the envious wall;
Now fair and spangled in the sudden light,
And clinging with wide arms for fear of fall;
Now dark and shelter'd by a kindly pall
Of dusky shadow from his wakeful foe;
Slowly he winds adown — dimly and small,
Watch'd by the gentle Swan that sings below,
Her hope increasing, still, the larger he doth grow.
But nine times nine the serpent folds embrace
The marble walls about — which he must tread
Before his anxious foot may touch the base:
Long is the dreary path, and must be sped!
But Love, that holds the mastery of dread,
Braces his spirit, and with constant toil
He wins his way, and now, with arms outspread
Impatient plunges from the last long coil:
So may all gentle Love ungentle Malice foil.
The song is hush'd, the charm is all complete,
And two fair Swans are swimming on the lake:
But scarce their tender bills have time to meet,
When fiercely drops adown that cruel Snake—
His steely scales a fearful rustling make,
Like autumn leaves that tremble and foretell
The sable storm; — the plumy lovers quake—
And feel the troubled waters pant and swell,
Heaved by the giant bulk of their pursuer fell.
His jaws, wide yawning like the gates of Death,
Hiss horrible pursuit — his red eyes glare
The waters into blood — his eager breath
Grows hot upon their plumes: — now, minstrel fair!
She drops her ring into the waves, and there
It widens all around, a fairy ring
Wrought of the silver light — the fearful pair
Swim in the very midst, and pant and cling
The closer for their fears, and tremble wing to wing.
Bending their course over the pale grey lake,
Against the pallid East, wherein light play'd
In tender flushes, still the baffled Snake
Circled them round continually, and bay'd
Hoarsely and loud, forbidden to invade
The sanctuary ring — his sable mail
Roll'd darkly through the flood, and writhed and made
A shining track over the waters pale,
Lash'd into boiling foam by his enormous tail.
And so they sail'd into the distance dim,
Into the very distance — small and white,
Like snowy blossoms of the spring that swim
Over the brooklets — follow'd by the spite
Of that huge Serpent, that with wild affright
Worried them on their course, and sore annoy,
Till on the grassy marge I saw them 'light,
And change, anon, a gentle girl and boy,
Lock'd in embrace of sweet unutterable joy!
Then came the Morn, and with her pearly showers
Wept on them, like a mother, in whose eyes
Tears are no grief; and from his rosy bowers
The Oriental sun began to rise,
Chasing the darksome shadows from the skies;
Wherewith that sable Serpent far away
Fled, like a part of night — delicious sighs
From waking blossoms purified the day,
And little birds were singing sweetly from each spray.