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For Nero's coming, nor the gods with ease
Gain thrones in heaven; and if the Thunderer
Prevailed not till the giants' war was done,
We plain no more, ye gods! for such a boon
All wickedness be welcome and all crime;
Thronged with our dead be dire Pharsalia's fields,
Be Punic ghosts avenged by Roman blood;
Add, Caesar, to these ills the Mutin toils;
Perusia's dearth; on Munda's final field
The shock of battle joined; let Leucas' Cape
Shatter the routed navies; servile hands
Unsheath the sword on fiery Etna's slopes:
Still Rome is gainer by the civil war.
Thou, Caesar, art her prize. When thou shalt choose,
Thy watch relieved, to seek at length the stars,
All heaven rejoicing; and shalt hold a throne,
Or else elect to govern Phoebus' car
And light a subject world that shall not dread
To owe her brightness to a different Sun;
All shall concede thy right: do what thou wilt,
Select thy Godhead, and the central clime
Whence thou shalt rule the world with power divine.
And yet the Northern or the Southern Pole
We pray thee, choose not; but in rays direct
Vouchsafe thy radiance to thy city Rome.
Press thou on either side, the universe
Should lose its equipoise: take thou the midst,
And weight the scales, and let that part of heaven
Where Caesar sits be evermore serene
And smile upon us with unclouded blue.
Then may all men lay down their arms, and peace
Through all the nations reign, and shut the gates
That close the temple of the God of War.
Be thou my help, to me e'en now divine!
Let Delphi's steep her own Apollo guard,
And Nysa keep her Bacchus, uninvoked.
Rome is my subject and my muse art thou!
First of such deeds I purpose to unfold
The causes task immense what drove to arms
A maddened nation and from all the world
Struck peace away.
By envious fate's decrees
Abide not long the mightiest lords of earth;
Too great the burden, great shall be the fall.
Thus Rome o'ergrew her strength. So when that hour,
The last in all the centuries, shall sound
The world's disruption, all things shall revert
To that primaeval chaos, stars on stars
Shall crash; and fiery meteors from the sky
Plunge in the ocean. Earth shall then no more
Front with her bulwark the encroaching sea:
The moon, indignant at her path oblique,
Shall drive her chariot 'gainst her brother Sun
And claim the day for hers; and discord huge
Shall rend the spheres asunder. On themselves
The great are dashed: such end the gods have set
To height of power: nor ever Fortune shares
With other lands the weapons of her spite
Against a nation lord of land and sea.
Thou, Rome, degraded, sold, the common prey
Of triple despots, of a tyrant rule
Partnered as ne'er before-thyself art cause
Of all the ills. Ye chiefs, with greed of power
Blind, leagued for evil, is your force conjoined
To hold the world in common as your prize?
So long as Sea on Earth and Earth on Air
Lean for support while Titan runs his course,
And night with day divides an equal sphere,
No king shall brook his fellow, nor shall rule
Endure a rival. Search no foreign lands:
These walls are proof that in their infant days
A hamlet, not the world, was prize enough
To cause the shedding of a brothers blood.
Concord, on discord based, brief time endured,
Unwelcome to the rivals; and alone
Crassus delayed the advent of the war.
Like to the slender neck that separates
The seas of Graecia: should it be engulfed
Then would th' Ionian and Aegean mains
Break each on other1: thus when Crassus fell,
Who held apart the chiefs, in piteous death,
And stained Assyria's plains with Latian blood,
Defeat in Parthia loosed the war in Rome.
More in that victory than ye thought was won,
Ye sons of Arsaces; your conquered foes
Took at your hands the rage of civil strife.
By sword the realm is parted; and the state
Supreme o'er earth and sea, wide as the world,
Could not find space for two.2 For Julia bore,
Cut off by fate unpitying,3 the bond
Of that ill-omened marriage and the pledge
Of blood united, to the shades below.
Hadst thou but longer stayed, it had been thine
To keep the parent and the spouse apart,
Strike sword from grasp and join the threatening hands;
As Sabine matrons in the days of old
Joined in the midst the bridegroom and the sire.
With thee all trust was buried, and the chiefs
Could give their courage vent, and rushed to war.
Lest newer glories triumphs past obscure,
Late conquered Gaul the bays from pirates won,
This, Magnus, is thy fear; thy roll of fame,
Of glorious deeds accomplished for the state
Allows no equal; nor will Caesar's pride
A prior rival in his triumphs brook;
Which had the right 'twere impious to enquire;
Each for his cause can vouch a judge supreme;
The victor, heaven: the vanquished, Cato, thee.4
Nor were they like to like: the one in years
Now verging towards decay, in times of peace
Had unlearned war; but thirsting for applause
Gave to the people much, and proud of fame
His former glory cared not to renew,
But joyed in plaudits of the theatre,5
His gift to Rome: his triumphs in the past,
Himself the shadow of a mighty name.
As when some oak, in fruitful field sublime,6
Adorned with venerable spoils, and gifts
Of bygone leaders, by its weight to earth
With feeble roots still clings; its naked arms
And hollow trunk, though leafless, give a shade;
And though condemned beneath the tempest's shock
To speedy fall, amid the sturdier trees
In sacred grandeur rules the forest still.
No such repute had Caesar won, nor fame;
But energy was his that could not rest-
The only shame he knew was not to win.
Keen and unvanquished,7 where revenge or hope
Might call, resistless would he strike the blow
With sword unpitying: every victory won
Reaped to the full; the favour of the gods
Pressed to the utmost; all that stayed his course
Aimed at the summit of power, was thrust aside:
Triumph his joy, though ruin marked his track.
As parts the clouds a bolt by winds compelled,
With crack of riven air and crash of worlds,
And veils the light of day, and on mankind,
Blasting their vision with its flames oblique,
Sheds deadly fright; then turning to its home,
Nought but the air opposing, through its path
Spreads havoc, and collects its scattered fires.
1 See a similar passage in the final scene of Ben Jonson's ' Catiline.' The cutting of the Isthmus of Corinth was proposed in Nero's reign, and actually commenced in his presence; but abandoned because it was asserted that the level of the water in the Corinthian Gulf was higher than that in the Saronic Gulf, so that, if the canal were cut, the island of AEgina would be submerged. Merivale's 'Roman Empire,' chapter lv.
3 This had taken place in B.C. 54, about five years before the action of the poem opens.
4 This famous line was quoted by Lamartine when addressing the French Assembly in 1848. He was advocating, against the interests of his own party (which in the Assembly was all-powerful), that the President of the Republic should be chosen by the nation, and not by the Assembly; and he ended by saying that if the course he advocated was disastrous to himself, “'Victrix causa Diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.'”
5 “'Plausuque sui gaudere theatri.'” Quoted by Mr. Pitt, in his speech on the address in 1783, on the occasion of peace being made with France, Spain, and America; in allusion to Mr. Sheridan. The latter replied, 'If ever I again engage in the compositions he alludes to, I may be tempted to an act of presumption-to attempt an improvement on one of Ben Jonson's best characters-the character of the Angry Boy in the "Alchymist."'
6 Mr. Canning, in his speech on the vote for the Windsor Establishment, said of King George III., 'Scathed by Heaven's lightning, but consecrated as much as blasted by the blow, he yet exhibited to the awe and veneration of mankind a mighty monument of strength and majesty in decay. He stood like the oak of the poet stripped of that luxuriant foliage and spreading those denuded arms which had afforded shelter to successive generations: “et trunco non frondibus efficit umbram”.'
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