[Composed at Bishopsgate Heath, near Windsor Park, 1815 (autumn); published, as the title-piece of a slender volume containing other poems (see "Biographical List", by Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, London, 1816 (March). Reprinted--the first edition being sold out--amongst the "Posthumous Poems", 1824. Sources of the text are (1) the editio princeps, 1816; (2) "Posthumous Poems", 1824; (3) "Poetical Works", 1839, editions 1st and 2nd. For (2) and (3) Mrs. Shelley is responsible.]
The poem entitled "Alastor" may be considered as allegorical of one of the most interesting situations of the human mind. It represents a youth of uncorrupted feelings and adventurous genius led forth by an imagination inflamed and purified through familiarity with all that is excellent and majestic, to the contemplation of the universe. He drinks deep of the fountains of knowledge, and is still insatiate. The magnificence and beauty of the external world sinks profoundly into the frame of his conceptions, and affords to their modifications at variety not to be exhausted. so long as it is possible for his desires to point towards objects thus infinite and unmeasured, he is joyous, and tranquil, and self-possessed. But the period arrives when these objects cease to suffice.
His mind is at length suddenly awakened and thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself. He images to himself the Being whom he loves. Conversant with speculations of the sublimest and most perfect natures, the vision in which he embodies his own imaginations unites all of wonderful, or wise, or beautiful, which the poet, the philosopher, or the lover could depicture. The intellectual faculties, the imagination, the functions of sense, have their respective requisitions on the sympathy of corresponding powers in other human beings. The Poet is represented as uniting these requisitions, and attaching them to a single image. He seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception. Blasted by his disappointment, he descends to an untimely grave.
The picture is not barren of instruction to actual men. The Poet's self-centred seclusion was avenged by the furies of an irresistible passion pursuing him to speedy ruin. But that Power which strikes the luminaries of the world with sudden darkness and extinction, by awakening them to too exquisite a perception of its influences, dooms to a slow and poisonous decay those manner spirits that dare to abjure its dominion. Their destiny is more abject and inglorious as their delinquency is more contemptible and pernicious. They who, deluded by no generous error, instigated by no sacred thirst of doubtful knowledge, duped by no illustrious superstition, loving nothing on this earth, and cherishing no hopes beyond, yet keep aloof from sympathies with their kind, rejoicing neither in human joy nor mourning with human grief; these, and such as they, have their apportioned curse. They languish, because none feel with them their common nature. They are morally dead. They are neither friends, nor lovers, nor fathers, nor citizens of the world, nor benefactors of their country. Among those who attempt to exist without human sympathy, the pure and tender-hearted perish through the intensity and passion of their search after its communities, when the vacancy of their spirit suddenly makes itself felt. All else, selfish, blind, and torpid, are those unforeseeing multitudes who constitute, together with their own, the lasting misery and loneliness of the world. Those who love not their fellow-beings live unfruitful lives, and prepare for their old age a miserable grave.
'The good die first,
And those whose hearts are dry as summer dust,
Burn to the socket!'
December 14, 1815.
ALASTOR: OR, THE SPIRIT OF SOLITUDE.
Earth, Ocean, Air, beloved brotherhood! If our great Mother has imbued my soul With aught of natural piety to feel Your love, and recompense the boon with mine; If dewy morn, and odorous noon, and even, 5 With sunset and its gorgeous ministers, And solemn midnight's tingling silentness; If autumn's hollow sighs in the sere wood, And winter robing with pure snow and crowns Of starry ice the grey grass and bare boughs; 10 If spring's voluptuous pantings when she breathes Her first sweet kisses, have been dear to me; If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast I consciously have injured, but still loved And cherished these my kindred; then forgive 15 This boast, beloved brethren, and withdraw No portion of your wonted favour now! Mother of this unfathomable world! Favour my solemn song, for I have loved Thee ever, and thee only; I have watched 20 Thy shadow, and the darkness of thy steps, And my heart ever gazes on the depth Of thy deep mysteries. I have made my bed In charnels and on coffins, where black death Keeps record of the trophies won from thee, 25 Hoping to still these obstinate questionings Of thee and thine, by forcing some lone ghost, Thy messenger, to render up the tale Of what we are. In lone and silent hours, When night makes a weird sound of its own stillness, 30 Like an inspired and desperate alchymist Staking his very life on some dark hope, Have I mixed awful talk and asking looks With my most innocent love, until strange tears, Uniting with those breathless kisses, made 35 Such magic as compels the charmed night To render up thy charge:...and, though ne'er yet Thou hast unveiled thy inmost sanctuary, Enough from incommunicable dream, And twilight phantasms, and deep noon-day thought, 40 Has shone within me, that serenely now And moveless, as a long-forgotten lyre Suspended in the solitary dome Of some mysterious and deserted fane, I wait thy breath, Great Parent, that my strain 45 May modulate with murmurs of the air, And motions of the forests and the sea, And voice of living beings, and woven hymns Of night and day, and the deep heart of man. There was a Poet whose untimely tomb 50 No human hands with pious reverence reared, But the charmed eddies of autumnal winds Built o'er his mouldering bones a pyramid Of mouldering leaves in the waste wilderness:-- A lovely youth,--no mourning maiden decked 55 With weeping flowers, or votive cypress wreath, The lone couch of his everlasting sleep:-- Gentle, and brave, and generous,--no lorn bard Breathed o'er his dark fate one melodious sigh: He lived, he died, he sung in solitude. 60 Strangers have wept to hear his passionate notes, And virgins, as unknown he passed, have pined And wasted for fond love of his wild eyes. The fire of those soft orbs has ceased to burn, And Silence, too enamoured of that voice, 65 Locks its mute music in her rugged cell. By solemn vision, and bright silver dream His infancy was nurtured. Every sight And sound from the vast earth and ambient air, Sent to his heart its choicest impulses. 70 The fountains of divine philosophy Fled not his thirsting lips, and all of great, Or good, or lovely, which the sacred past In truth or fable consecrates, he felt And knew. When early youth had passed, he left 75 His cold fireside and alienated home To seek strange truths in undiscovered lands. Many a wide waste and tangled wilderness Has lured his fearless steps; and he has bought With his sweet voice and eyes, from savage men, 80 His rest and food. Nature's most secret steps He like her shadow has pursued, where'er The red volcano overcanopies Its fields of snow and pinnacles of ice With burning smoke, or where bitumen lakes 85 On black bare pointed islets ever beat With sluggish surge, or where the secret caves, Rugged and dark, winding among the springs Of fire and poison, inaccessible To avarice or pride, their starry domes 90 Of diamond and of gold expand above Numberless and immeasurable halls, Frequent with crystal column, and clear shrines Of pearl, and thrones radiant with chrysolite. Nor had that scene of ampler majesty 95 Than gems or gold, the varying roof of heaven And the green earth lost in his heart its claims To love and wonder; he would linger long In lonesome vales, making the wild his home, Until the doves and squirrels would partake 100 From his innocuous hand his bloodless food, Lured by the gentle meaning of his looks, And the wild antelope, that starts whene'er The dry leaf rustles in the brake, suspend Her timid steps, to gaze upon a form More graceful than her own. 105 His wandering step, Obedient to high thoughts, has visited The awful ruins of the days of old: Athens, and Tyre, and Balbec, and the waste Where stood Jerusalem, the fallen towers 110 Of Babylon, the eternal pyramids, Memphis and Thebes, and whatsoe'er of strange, Sculptured on alabaster obelisk, Or jasper tomb, or mutilated sphynx, Dark Aethiopia in her desert hills 115 Conceals. Among the ruined temples there, Stupendous columns, and wild images Of more than man, where marble daemons watch The Zodiac's brazen mystery, and dead men Hang their mute thoughts on the mute walls around, 120 He lingered, poring on memorials Of the world's youth: through the long burning day Gazed on those speechless shapes; nor, when the moon Filled the mysterious halls with floating shades Suspended he that task, but ever gazed 125 And gazed, till meaning on his vacant mind Flashed like strong inspiration, and he saw The thrilling secrets of the birth of time. Meanwhile an Arab maiden brought his food, Her daily portion, from her father's tent, 130 And spread her matting for his couch, and stole From duties and repose to tend his steps, Enamoured, yet not daring for deep awe To speak her love:--and watched his nightly sleep, Sleepless herself, to gaze upon his lips 135 Parted in slumber, whence the regular breath Of innocent dreams arose; then, when red morn Made paler the pale moon, to her cold home Wildered, and wan, and panting, she returned. The Poet, wandering on, through Arabie, 140 And Persia, and the wild Carmanian waste, And o'er the aerial mountains which pour down Indus and Oxus from their icy caves, In joy and exultation held his way; Till in the vale of Cashmire, far within 145 Its loneliest dell, where odorous plants entwine Beneath the hollow rocks a natural bower, Beside a sparkling rivulet he stretched His languid limbs. A vision on his sleep There came, a dream of hopes that never yet 150 Had flushed his cheek. He dreamed a veiled maid Sate near him, talking in low solemn tones. Her voice was like the voice of his own soul Heard in the calm of thought; its music long, Like woven sounds of streams and breezes, held 155 His inmost sense suspended in its web Of many-coloured woof and shifting hues. Knowledge and truth and virtue were her theme, And lofty hopes of divine liberty, Thoughts the most dear to him, and poesy, 160 Herself a poet. Soon the solemn mood Of her pure mind kindled through all her frame A permeating fire; wild numbers then She raised, with voice stifled in tremulous sobs Subdued by its own pathos; her fair hands 165 Were bare alone, sweeping from some strange harp Strange symphony, and in their branching veins The eloquent blood told an ineffable tale. The beating of her heart was heard to fill The pauses of her music, and her breath 170 Tumultuously accorded with those fits Of intermitted song. Sudden she rose, As if her heart impatiently endured Its bursting burthen: at the sound he turned, And saw by the warm light of their own life 175 Her glowing limbs beneath the sinuous veil Of woven wind, her outspread arms now bare, Her dark locks floating in the breath of night, Her beamy bending eyes, her parted lips Outstretched, and pale, and quivering eagerly. 180 His strong heart sunk and sickened with excess Of love. He reared his shuddering limbs and quelled His gasping breath, and spread his arms to meet Her panting bosom:...she drew back a while, Then, yielding to the irresistible joy, 185 With frantic gesture and short breathless cry Folded his frame in her dissolving arms. Now blackness veiled his dizzy eyes, and night Involved and swallowed up the vision; sleep, Like a dark flood suspended in its course, 190 Rolled back its impulse on his vacant brain. Roused by the shock he started from his trance-- The cold white light of morning, the blue moon Low in the west, the clear and garish hills, The distinct valley and the vacant woods, 195 Spread round him where he stood. Whither have fled The hues of heaven that canopied his bower Of yesternight? The sounds that soothed his sleep, The mystery and the majesty of Earth, The joy, the exultation? His wan eyes 200 Gaze on the empty scene as vacantly As ocean's moon looks on the moon in heaven. The spirit of sweet human love has sent A vision to the sleep of him who spurned Her choicest gifts. He eagerly pursues 205 Beyond the realms of dream that fleeting shade; He overleaps the bounds. Alas! Alas! Were limbs, and breath, and being intertwined Thus treacherously? Lost, lost, for ever lost In the wide pathless desert of dim sleep, 210 That beautiful shape! Does the dark gate of death Conduct to thy mysterious paradise, O Sleep? Does the bright arch of rainbow clouds And pendent mountains seen in the calm lake, Lead only to a black and watery depth, 215 While death's blue vault, with loathliest vapours hung, Where every shade which the foul grave exhales Hides its dead eye from the detested day, Conducts, O Sleep, to thy delightful realms? This doubt with sudden tide flowed on his heart; 220 The insatiate hope which it awakened, stung His brain even like despair. While daylight held The sky, the Poet kept mute conference With his still soul. At night the passion came, Like the fierce fiend of a distempered dream, 225 And shook him from his rest, and led him forth Into the darkness.--As an eagle, grasped In folds of the green serpent, feels her breast Burn with the poison, and precipitates Through night and day, tempest, and calm, and cloud, 230 Frantic with dizzying anguish, her blind flight O'er the wide aery wilderness: thus driven By the bright shadow of that lovely dream, Beneath the cold glare of the desolate night, Through tangled swamps and deep precipitous dells, 235 Startling with careless step the moonlight snake, He fled. Red morning dawned upon his flight, Shedding the mockery of its vital hues Upon his cheek of death. He wandered on Till vast Aornos seen from Petra's steep 240 Hung o'er the low horizon like a cloud; Through Balk, and where the desolated tombs Of Parthian kings scatter to every wind Their wasting dust, wildly he wandered on, Day after day a weary waste of hours, 245 Bearing within his life the brooding care That ever fed on its decaying flame. And now his limbs were lean; his scattered hair, Sered by the autumn of strange suffering Sung dirges in the wind; his listless hand 250 Hung like dead bone within its withered skin; Life, and the lustre that consumed it, shone As in a furnace burning secretly From his dark eyes alone. The cottagers, Who ministered with human charity 255 His human wants, beheld with wondering awe Their fleeting visitant. The mountaineer, Encountering on some dizzy precipice That spectral form, deemed that the Spirit of wind With lightning eyes, and eager breath, and feet 260 Disturbing not the drifted snow, had paused In its career: the infant would conceal His troubled visage in his mother's robe In terror at the glare of those wild eyes, To remember their strange light in many a dream 265 Of after-times; but youthful maidens, taught By nature, would interpret half the woe That wasted him, would call him with false names Brother and friend, would press his pallid hand At parting, and watch, dim through tears, the path 270 Of his departure from their father's door. At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore He paused, a wide and melancholy waste Of putrid marshes. A strong impulse urged His steps to the sea-shore. A swan was there, 275 Beside a sluggish stream among the reeds. It rose as he approached, and, with strong wings Scaling the upward sky, bent its bright course High over the immeasurable main. His eyes pursued its flight:--'Thou hast a home, 280 Beautiful bird; thou voyagest to thine home, Where thy sweet mate will twine her downy neck With thine, and welcome thy return with eyes Bright in the lustre of their own fond joy. And what am I that I should linger here, 285 With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes, Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven That echoes not my thoughts?' A gloomy smile 290 Of desperate hope wrinkled his quivering lips. For sleep, he knew, kept most relentlessly Its precious charge, and silent death exposed, Faithless perhaps as sleep, a shadowy lure, With doubtful smile mocking its own strange charms. 295 Startled by his own thoughts he looked around. There was no fair fiend near him, not a sight Or sound of awe but in his own deep mind. A little shallop floating near the shore Caught the impatient wandering of his gaze. 300 It had been long abandoned, for its sides Gaped wide with many a rift, and its frail joints Swayed with the undulations of the tide. A restless impulse urged him to embark And meet lone Death on the drear ocean's waste; 305 For well he knew that mighty Shadow loves The slimy caverns of the populous deep. The day was fair and sunny; sea and sky Drank its inspiring radiance, and the wind Swept strongly from the shore, blackening the waves. 310 Following his eager soul, the wanderer Leaped in the boat, he spread his cloak aloft On the bare mast, and took his lonely seat, And felt the boat speed o'er the tranquil sea Like a torn cloud before the hurricane. 315 As one that in a silver vision floats Obedient to the sweep of odorous winds Upon resplendent clouds, so rapidly Along the dark and ruffled waters fled The straining boat.--A whirlwind swept it on, 320 With fierce gusts and precipitating force, Through the white ridges of the chafed sea. The waves arose. Higher and higher still Their fierce necks writhed beneath the tempest's scourge Like serpents struggling in a vulture's grasp. 325 Calm and rejoicing in the fearful war Of wave ruining on wave, and blast on blast Descending, and black flood on whirlpool driven With dark obliterating course, he sate: As if their genii were the ministers 330 Appointed to conduct him to the light Of those beloved eyes, the Poet sate, Holding the steady helm. Evening came on, The beams of sunset hung their rainbow hues High 'mid the shifting domes of sheeted spray 335 That canopied his path o'er the waste deep; Twilight, ascending slowly from the east, Entwined in duskier wreaths her braided locks O'er the fair front and radiant eyes of day; Night followed, clad with stars. On every side 340 More horribly the multitudinous streams Of ocean's mountainous waste to mutual war Rushed in dark tumult thundering, as to mock The calm and spangled sky. The little boat Still fled before the storm; still fled, like foam 345 Down the steep cataract of a wintry river; Now pausing on the edge of the riven wave; Now leaving far behind the bursting mass That fell, convulsing ocean: safely fled-- As if that frail and wasted human form, 350 Had been an elemental god. At midnight The moon arose; and lo! the ethereal cliffs Of Caucasus, whose icy summits shone Among the stars like sunlight, and around Whose caverned base the whirlpools and the waves 355 Bursting and eddying irresistibly Rage and resound forever.--Who shall save?-- The boat fled on,--the boiling torrent drove,-- The crags closed round with black and jagged arms, The shattered mountain overhung the sea, 360 And faster still, beyond all human speed, Suspended on the sweep of the smooth wave, The little boat was driven. A cavern there Yawned, and amid its slant and winding depths Ingulfed the rushing sea. The boat fled on 365 With unrelaxing speed.--'Vision and Love!' The Poet cried aloud, 'I have beheld The path of thy departure. Sleep and death Shall not divide us long.' The boat pursued The windings of the cavern. Daylight shone 370 At length upon that gloomy river's flow; Now, where the fiercest war among the waves Is calm, on the unfathomable stream The boat moved slowly. Where the mountain, riven, Exposed those black depths to the azure sky, 375 Ere yet the flood's enormous volume fell Even to the base of Caucasus, with sound That shook the everlasting rocks, the mass Filled with one whirlpool all that ample chasm: Stair above stair the eddying waters rose, 380 Circling immeasurably fast, and laved With alternating dash the gnarled roots Of mighty trees, that stretched their giant arms In darkness over it. I' the midst was left, Reflecting, yet distorting every cloud, 385 A pool of treacherous and tremendous calm. Seized by the sway of the ascending stream, With dizzy swiftness, round, and round, and round, Ridge after ridge the straining boat arose, Till on the verge of the extremest curve, 390 Where, through an opening of the rocky bank, The waters overflow, and a smooth spot Of glassy quiet mid those battling tides Is left, the boat paused shuddering.--Shall it sink Down the abyss? Shall the reverting stress 395 Of that resistless gulf embosom it? Now shall it fall?--A wandering stream of wind, Breathed from the west, has caught the expanded sail, And, lo! with gentle motion, between banks Of mossy slope, and on a placid stream, 400 Beneath a woven grove it sails, and, hark! The ghastly torrent mingles its far roar, With the breeze murmuring in the musical woods. Where the embowering trees recede, and leave A little space of green expanse, the cove 405 Is closed by meeting banks, whose yellow flowers For ever gaze on their own drooping eyes, Reflected in the crystal calm. The wave Of the boat's motion marred their pensive task, Which naught but vagrant bird, or wanton wind, 410 Or falling spear-grass, or their own decay Had e'er disturbed before. The Poet longed To deck with their bright hues his withered hair, But on his heart its solitude returned, And he forbore. Not the strong impulse hid 415 In those flushed cheeks, bent eyes, and shadowy frame Had yet performed its ministry: it hung Upon his life, as lightning in a cloud Gleams, hovering ere it vanish, ere the floods Of night close over it. The noonday sun 420 Now shone upon the forest, one vast mass Of mingling shade, whose brown magnificence A narrow vale embosoms. There, huge caves, Scooped in the dark base of their aery rocks, Mocking its moans, respond and roar for ever. 425 The meeting boughs and implicated leaves Wove twilight o'er the Poet's path, as led By love, or dream, or god, or mightier Death, He sought in Nature's dearest haunt some bank, Her cradle, and his sepulchre. More dark 430 And dark the shades accumulate. The oak, Expanding its immense and knotty arms, Embraces the light beech. The pyramids Of the tall cedar overarching frame Most solemn domes within, and far below, 435 Like clouds suspended in an emerald sky, The ash and the acacia floating hang Tremulous and pale. Like restless serpents, clothed In rainbow and in fire, the parasites, Starred with ten thousand blossoms, flow around 440 The grey trunks, and, as gamesome infants' eyes, With gentle meanings, and most innocent wiles, Fold their beams round the hearts of those that love, These twine their tendrils with the wedded boughs Uniting their close union; the woven leaves 445 Make net-work of the dark blue light of day, And the night's noontide clearness, mutable As shapes in the weird clouds. Soft mossy lawns Beneath these canopies extend their swells, Fragrant with perfumed herbs, and eyed with blooms 450 Minute yet beautiful. One darkest glen Sends from its woods of musk-rose, twined with jasmine, A soul-dissolving odour to invite To some more lovely mystery. Through the dell, Silence and Twilight here, twin-sisters, keep 455 Their noonday watch, and sail among the shades, Like vaporous shapes half-seen; beyond, a well, Dark, gleaming, and of most translucent wave, Images all the woven boughs above, And each depending leaf, and every speck 460 Of azure sky, darting between their chasms; Nor aught else in the liquid mirror laves Its portraiture, but some inconstant star Between one foliaged lattice twinkling fair, Or painted bird, sleeping beneath the moon, 465 Or gorgeous insect floating motionless, Unconscious of the day, ere yet his wings Have spread their glories to the gaze of noon. Hither the Poet came. His eyes beheld Their own wan light through the reflected lines 470 Of his thin hair, distinct in the dark depth Of that still fountain; as the human heart, Gazing in dreams over the gloomy grave, Sees its own treacherous likeness there. He heard The motion of the leaves, the grass that sprung 475 Startled and glanced and trembled even to feel An unaccustomed presence, and the sound Of the sweet brook that from the secret springs Of that dark fountain rose. A Spirit seemed To stand beside him--clothed in no bright robes 480 Of shadowy silver or enshrining light, Borrowed from aught the visible world affords Of grace, or majesty, or mystery;-- But, undulating woods, and silent well, And leaping rivulet, and evening gloom 485 Now deepening the dark shades, for speech assuming, Held commune with him, as if he and it Were all that was,--only...when his regard Was raised by intense pensiveness,...two eyes, Two starry eyes, hung in the gloom of thought, 490 And seemed with their serene and azure smiles To beckon him. Obedient to the light That shone within his soul, he went, pursuing The windings of the dell.--The rivulet, Wanton and wild, through many a green ravine 495 Beneath the forest flowed. Sometimes it fell Among the moss with hollow harmony Dark and profound. Now on the polished stones It danced; like childhood laughing as it went: Then, through the plain in tranquil wanderings crept, 500 Reflecting every herb and drooping bud That overhung its quietness.--'O stream! Whose source is inaccessibly profound, Whither do thy mysterious waters tend? Thou imagest my life. Thy darksome stillness, 505 Thy dazzling waves, thy loud and hollow gulfs, Thy searchless fountain, and invisible course Have each their type in me; and the wide sky. And measureless ocean may declare as soon What oozy cavern or what wandering cloud 510 Contains thy waters, as the universe Tell where these living thoughts reside, when stretched Upon thy flowers my bloodless limbs shall waste I' the passing wind!' Beside the grassy shore Of the small stream he went; he did impress 515 On the green moss his tremulous step, that caught Strong shuddering from his burning limbs. As one Roused by some joyous madness from the couch Of fever, he did move; yet, not like him, Forgetful of the grave, where, when the flame 520 Of his frail exultation shall be spent, He must descend. With rapid steps he went Beneath the shade of trees, beside the flow Of the wild babbling rivulet; and now The forest's solemn canopies were changed 525 For the uniform and lightsome evening sky. Grey rocks did peep from the spare moss, and stemmed The struggling brook; tall spires of windlestrae Threw their thin shadows down the rugged slope, And nought but gnarled roots of ancient pines 530 Branchless and blasted, clenched with grasping roots The unwilling soil. A gradual change was here, Yet ghastly. For, as fast years flow away, The smooth brow gathers, and the hair grows thin And white, and where irradiate dewy eyes 535 Had shone, gleam stony orbs:--so from his steps Bright flowers departed, and the beautiful shade Of the green groves, with all their odorous winds And musical motions. Calm, he still pursued The stream, that with a larger volume now 540 Rolled through the labyrinthine dell; and there Fretted a path through its descending curves With its wintry speed. On every side now rose Rocks, which, in unimaginable forms, Lifted their black and barren pinnacles 545 In the light of evening, and its precipice Obscuring the ravine, disclosed above, Mid toppling stones, black gulfs and yawning caves, Whose windings gave ten thousand various tongues To the loud stream. Lo! where the pass expands 550 Its stony jaws, the abrupt mountain breaks, And seems, with its accumulated crags, To overhang the world: for wide expand Beneath the wan stars and descending moon Islanded seas, blue mountains, mighty streams, 555 Dim tracts and vast, robed in the lustrous gloom Of leaden-coloured even, and fiery hills Mingling their flames with twilight, on the verge Of the remote horizon. The near scene, In naked and severe simplicity, 560 Made contrast with the universe. A pine, Rock-rooted, stretched athwart the vacancy Its swinging boughs, to each inconstant blast Yielding one only response, at each pause In most familiar cadence, with the howl 565 The thunder and the hiss of homeless streams Mingling its solemn song, whilst the broad river Foaming and hurrying o'er its rugged path, Fell into that immeasurable void Scattering its waters to the passing winds. 570 Yet the grey precipice and solemn pine And torrent were not all;--one silent nook Was there. Even on the edge of that vast mountain, Upheld by knotty roots and fallen rocks, It overlooked in its serenity 575 The dark earth, and the bending vault of stars. It was a tranquil spot, that seemed to smile Even in the lap of horror. Ivy clasped The fissured stones with its entwining arms, And did embower with leaves for ever green, 580 And berries dark, the smooth and even space Of its inviolated floor, and here The children of the autumnal whirlwind bore, In wanton sport, those bright leaves, whose decay, Red, yellow, or ethereally pale, 585 Rivals the pride of summer. 'Tis the haunt Of every gentle wind, whose breath can teach The wilds to love tranquillity. One step, One human step alone, has ever broken The stillness of its solitude:--one voice 590 Alone inspired its echoes;--even that voice Which hither came, floating among the winds, And led the loveliest among human forms To make their wild haunts the depository Of all the grace and beauty that endued 595 Its motions, render up its majesty, Scatter its music on the unfeeling storm, And to the damp leaves and blue cavern mould, Nurses of rainbow flowers and branching moss, Commit the colours of that varying cheek, 600 That snowy breast, those dark and drooping eyes. The dim and horned moon hung low, and poured A sea of lustre on the horizon's verge That overflowed its mountains. Yellow mist Filled the unbounded atmosphere, and drank 605 Wan moonlight even to fulness; not a star Shone, not a sound was heard; the very winds, Danger's grim playmates, on that precipice Slept, clasped in his embrace.--O, storm of death! Whose sightless speed divides this sullen night: 610 And thou, colossal Skeleton, that, still Guiding its irresistible career In thy devastating omnipotence, Art king of this frail world, from the red field Of slaughter, from the reeking hospital, 615 The patriot's sacred couch, the snowy bed Of innocence, the scaffold and the throne, A mighty voice invokes thee. Ruin calls His brother Death. A rare and regal prey He hath prepared, prowling around the world; 620 Glutted with which thou mayst repose, and men Go to their graves like flowers or creeping worms, Nor ever more offer at thy dark shrine The unheeded tribute of a broken heart. When on the threshold of the green recess 625 The wanderer's footsteps fell, he knew that death Was on him. Yet a little, ere it fled, Did he resign his high and holy soul To images of the majestic past, That paused within his passive being now, 630 Like winds that bear sweet music, when they breathe Through some dim latticed chamber. He did place His pale lean hand upon the rugged trunk Of the old pine. Upon an ivied stone Reclined his languid head, his limbs did rest, 635 Diffused and motionless, on the smooth brink Of that obscurest chasm;--and thus he lay, Surrendering to their final impulses The hovering powers of life. Hope and despair, The torturers, slept; no mortal pain or fear 640 Marred his repose; the influxes of sense, And his own being unalloyed by pain, Yet feebler and more feeble, calmly fed The stream of thought, till he lay breathing there At peace, and faintly smiling:--his last sight 645 Was the great moon, which o'er the western line Of the wide world her mighty horn suspended, With whose dun beams inwoven darkness seemed To mingle. Now upon the jagged hills It rests; and still as the divided frame 650 Of the vast meteor sunk, the Poet's blood, That ever beat in mystic sympathy With nature's ebb and flow, grew feebler still: And when two lessening points of light alone Gleamed through the darkness, the alternate gasp 655 Of his faint respiration scarce did stir The stagnate night:--till the minutest ray Was quenched, the pulse yet lingered in his heart. It paused--it fluttered. But when heaven remained Utterly black, the murky shades involved 660 An image, silent, cold, and motionless, As their own voiceless earth and vacant air. Even as a vapour fed with golden beams That ministered on sunlight, ere the west Eclipses it, was now that wondrous frame-- 665 No sense, no motion, no divinity-- A fragile lute, on whose harmonious strings The breath of heaven did wander--a bright stream Once fed with many-voiced waves--a dream Of youth, which night and time have quenched for ever, 670 Still, dark, and dry, and unremembered now. Oh, for Medea's wondrous alchemy, Which wheresoe'er it fell made the earth gleam With bright flowers, and the wintry boughs exhale From vernal blooms fresh fragrance! O, that God, 675 Profuse of poisons, would concede the chalice Which but one living man has drained, who now, Vessel of deathless wrath, a slave that feels No proud exemption in the blighting curse He bears, over the world wanders for ever, 680 Lone as incarnate death! O, that the dream Of dark magician in his visioned cave, Raking the cinders of a crucible For life and power, even when his feeble hand Shakes in its last decay, were the true law 685 Of this so lovely world! But thou art fled, Like some frail exhalation; which the dawn Robes in its golden beams,--ah! thou hast fled! The brave, the gentle and the beautiful, The child of grace and genius. Heartless things 690 Are done and said i' the world, and many worms And beasts and men live on, and mighty Earth From sea and mountain, city and wilderness, In vesper low or joyous orison, Lifts still its solemn voice:--but thou art fled-- 695 Thou canst no longer know or love the shapes Of this phantasmal scene, who have to thee Been purest ministers, who are, alas! Now thou art not. Upon those pallid lips So sweet even in their silence, on those eyes 700 That image sleep in death, upon that form Yet safe from the worm's outrage, let no tear Be shed--not even in thought. Nor, when those hues Are gone, and those divinest lineaments, Worn by the senseless wind, shall live alone 705 In the frail pauses of this simple strain, Let not high verse, mourning the memory Of that which is no more, or painting's woe Or sculpture, speak in feeble imagery Their own cold powers. Art and eloquence, 710 And all the shows o' the world are frail and vain To weep a loss that turns their lights to shade. It is a woe "too deep for tears," when all Is reft at once, when some surpassing Spirit, Whose light adorned the world around it, leaves 715 Those who remain behind, not sobs or groans, The passionate tumult of a clinging hope; But pale despair and cold tranquillity, Nature's vast frame, the web of human things, Birth and the grave, that are not as they were. 720
219 Conduct edition 1816. See "Editor's Notes".
530 roots edition 1816: query stumps or trunks. See "Editor's Notes".
NOTE ON ALASTOR, BY MRS. SHELLEY:
"Alastor" is written in a very different tone from "Queen Mab". In the latter, Shelley poured out all the cherished speculations of his youth--all the irrepressible emotions of sympathy, censure, and hope, to which the present suffering, and what he considers the proper destiny of his fellow-creatures, gave birth. "Alastor", on the contrary, contains an individual interest only. A very few years, with their attendant events, had checked the ardour of Shelley's hopes, though he still thought them well-grounded, and that to advance their fulfilment was the noblest task man could achieve.
This is neither the time nor place to speak of the misfortunes that chequered his life. It will be sufficient to say that, in all he did, he at the time of doing it believed himself justified to his own conscience; while the various ills of poverty and loss of friends brought home to him the sad realities of life. Physical suffering had also considerable influence in causing him to turn his eyes inward; inclining him rather to brood over the thoughts and emotions of his own soul than to glance abroad, and to make, as in "Queen Mab", the whole universe the object and subject of his song. In the Spring of 1815, an eminent physician pronounced that he was dying rapidly of a consumption; abscesses were formed on his lungs, and he suffered acute spasms. Suddenly a complete change took place; and though through life he was a martyr to pain and debility, every symptom of pulmonary disease vanished. His nerves, which nature had formed sensitive to an unexampled degree, were rendered still more susceptible by the state of his health.
As soon as the peace of 1814 had opened the Continent, he went abroad. He visited some of the more magnificent scenes of Switzerland, and returned to England from Lucerne, by the Reuss and the Rhine. This river-navigation enchanted him. In his favourite poem of "Thalaba", his imagination had been excited by a description of such a voyage. In the summer of 1815, after a tour along the southern coast of Devonshire and a visit to Clifton, he rented a house on Bishopgate Heath, on the borders of Windsor Forest, where he enjoyed several months of comparative health and tranquil happiness. The later summer months were warm and dry. Accompanied by a few friends, he visited the source of the Thames, making a voyage in a wherry from Windsor to Crichlade. His beautiful stanzas in the churchyard of Lechlade were written on that occasion. "Alastor" was composed on his return. He spent his days under the oak-shades of Windsor Great Park; and the magnificent woodland was a fitting study to inspire the various descriptions of forest scenery we find in the poem.
None of Shelley's poems is more characteristic than this. The solemn spirit that reigns throughout, the worship of the majesty of nature, the broodings of a poet's heart in solitude--the mingling of the exulting joy which the various aspects of the visible universe inspires with the sad and struggling pangs which human passion imparts--give a touching interest to the whole. The death which he had often contemplated during the last months as certain and near he here represented in such colours as had, in his lonely musings, soothed his soul to peace. The versification sustains the solemn spirit which breathes throughout: it is peculiarly melodious. The poem ought rather to be considered didactic than narrative: it was the outpouring of his own emotions, embodied in the purest form he could conceive, painted in the ideal hues which his brilliant imagination inspired, and softened by the recent anticipation of death.