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Between the western belt and that which bounds1
The furthest east, midway Parnassus rears
His double summit:2 to the Bromian god
And Paean consecrate, to whom conjoined
The Theban band leads up the Delphic feast
On each third year. This mountain, when the sea
Poured o'er the earth her billows, rose alone,
By loftiest peak scarce master of the waves,
Parting the crest of waters from the stars.
There, to avenge his mother, from her home
Chased by the angered goddess while as yet
She bore him quick within her, Paean came
(When Themis ruled the tripods and the spot)3
And with unpractised darts the Python slew.
But when he saw how from the yawning cave
A godlike knowledge breathed, and all the air
Was full of voices murmured from the depths,
He took the shrine and filled the deep recess;
Henceforth a prophet. Which of all the gods
Has left heaven's light in this dark cave to hide?
What spirit that knows the secrets of the world
And things to come, here condescends to dwell,
Divine, omnipotent? bear the touch of man,
And at his bidding deigns to lift the veil?
Perchance he sings the fates; perchance his song,
Once sung, is fate. Haply some part of Jove
Sent here to rule the earth with mystic power,
Balanced upon the void immense of air,
Sounds through the caves, and in its flight returns
To that high home of thunder whence it came.
Caught in a virgin's breast, this deity
Strikes on the human spirit: then a voice
Sounds from her breast, as when the lofty peak
Of Etna boils, forced by compelling flames,
Or as Typheus on Campania's shore
Frets 'neath the pile of huge Inarime.4
Though free to all that ask, denied to none,
No human passion lurks within the voice
That heralds forth the god; no whispered vow,
No evil prayer prevails; none favour gain:
Of things unchangeable the song divine;
Yet loves the just. When men have left their homes
To seek another, it has turned their steps
Aright, as with the Tyrians;5 and raised
The hearts of men to war, as prove the waves
Of Salamis:6 when earth refused her fruits
Or plague has filled the air, this voice benign
Has given fresh hope and pointed to the end.
No gift from heaven's high gods so great as this
Our centuries have lost, since Delphi's shrine
Has silent stood, and kings forbade the gods7
To speak the future, fearing for their fates.
Nor does the priestess sorrow that the voice
Is heard no longer; and the silent fane
To her is happiness; for whatever breast
Contains the deity, its shattered frame
Surges with frenzy, and the soul divine
Shakes the frail breath that with the god receives,
As prize or punishment, untimely death.
These tripods Appius seeks, unmoved for years,
These soundless caverned rocks, in quest to learn
Hesperia's destinies. At his command
To loose the sacred gateways and permit
The prophetess to enter to the god,
The keeper calls Phemonoe;8 whose steps
Round the Castalian fount and in the grove
Were wandering careless; her he bids to pass
The portals. But the priestess feared to tread
The awful threshold, and with vain deceits
Sought to dissuade the chieftain from his zeal
To learn the future. ' What this hope,' she cried,
Roman, that moves thy breast to know the fates?
'Long has Parnassus and its silent cleft
'Stifled the god; perhaps the breath divine
'Has left its ancient gorge and through the world
'Wanders in devious paths; or else the fane,
'Consumed to ashes by barbarian 9 fire,
'Closed up the deep recess and choked the path
'Of Phoebus; or the ancient Sibyl's books
'Disclosed enough of fate, and thus the gods
'Decreed to close the oracle; or else
'Since wicked steps are banished from the fane,
'In this our impious age the god finds none
'Whom he may answer.' But the maiden's guile
Was known, for though she would deny the gods
Her fears approved them. On her front she binds
A twisted fillet, while a shining wreath
Of Phocian laurels crowns the locks that flow
Upon her shoulders. Hesitating yet,
The priest compelled her, and she passed within.
But horror filled her of the holiest depths
From which the mystic oracle proceeds;
And resting near the doors, in breast unmoved
She dares invent the god in words confused,
Which proved no mind possessed with fire divine;
By such false chant less injuring the chief
Than faith in Phoebus and the sacred fane.
No burst of words with tremor in their tones,
No voice re-echoing through the spacious vault
Proclaimed the deity, no bristling locks
Shook off the laurel chaplet; but the grove
Unshaken, and the summits of the shrine,
Gave proof she shunned the god. The Roman knew
The tripods yet were idle, and in rage,
'Wretch,' he exclaimed, 'to us and to the gods,
'Whose presence thou pretendest, thou shalt pay
'The punishment; unless thou enter the recess,
'And cease to speak in phrases of thine own
Of this vast conflict, of a world by war
'Convulsed and shaken.' Then by fear compelled,
At length the priestess sought the furthest depths,
And stayed beside the tripods; and there came
Into her unaccustomed breast the god,
Breathed from the living rock for centuries
Untouched; nor ever with a mightier power
Did Paean's inspiration seize the frame
Of Delphic priestess; his pervading touch
Expelled the mortal, and her former mind,
And made her wholly his. In maddened trance
She whirled throughout the cave, her locks erect
With horror, and the fillets of the god
Dashed to the ground; her steps unguided turned
To this side and to that; the tripods fell
O'erturned; within her seethed the mighty fire
Of angry Phoebus; nor with whip alone
He urged her onwards, but with curb restrained;
Nor was it given her by the god to speak
All that she knew; for into one vast mass 10
All time was gathered, and her panting chest
Groaned 'neath the centuries. In order long
All things lay bare: the future yet unveiled
Struggled for light; each fate required a voice;
The compass of the seas, Creation's birth,
Creation's death, the number of the sands,
All these she knew. Thus on a former day
The prophetess upon the Cuman shore,11
Disdaining that her frenzy should be slave
To other nations, from the boundless threads
Chose out with pride of hand the fates of Rome.
E'en so Phemonoe, for a time oppressed
With fates unnumbered, laboured ere she found,
Beneath such mighty destinies concealed,
Thine, Appius, who alone hadst sought the god
In land Castalian; then from foaming lips
First rushed the madness forth, and murmurs loud
Uttered with panting breath and blent with groans;
Till through the spacious vault a voice at length
Broke from the virgin conquered by the god:
'From this great struggle thou, O Roman, free
'Escap'st the threats of war : alive, in peace,
'Thou shalt possess the hollow in the coast
'Of vast Euboea.' Thus she spake, no more.
Ye mystic tripods, guardians of the fates
And Paean, thou, from whom no day is hid
By heaven's high rulers, Master of the truth,
Why fear'st thou to reveal the deaths of kings,
Rome's murdered princes, and the latest doom
Of her great Empire tottering to its fall,
And all the bloodshed of that western land?
Were yet the stars in doubt on Magnus' fate
Not yet decreed, and did the gods yet shrink
From that, the greatest crime? Or wert thou dumb
That Fortune's sword for civil strife might wreak
Just vengeance, and a Brutus' arm once more
Strike down the tyrant?
From the temple doors
Rushed forth the prophetess in frenzy driven,
Not all her knowledge uttered; and her eyes,
Still troubled by the god who reigned within,
Or filled with wild affright, or fired with rage
Gaze on the wide expanse: still works her face
Convulsive; on her cheeks a crimson blush
With ghastly pallor blent, though not of fear.
Her weary heart throbs ever; and as seas
Boom swollen by northern winds, she finds in sighs,
All inarticulate, relief. But while
She hastes from that dread light in which she saw
The fates, to common day, lo! on her path
The darkness fell. Then by a Stygian draught
Of the forgetful river, Phoebus snatched
Back from her soul his secrets; and she fell
Yet hardly living. Nor did Appius dread
Approaching death, but by dark oracles
Baffled, while yet the Empire of the world
Hung in the balance, sought his promised realm
In Chalcis of Euboea. Yet to escape
All ills of earth, the crash of war-what god
Can give thee such a boon, but death alone?
For on the solitary shore a grave
Awaits thee, where Carystos' marble crags12
Draw in the passage of the sea, and where
The fane of Rhamnus rises to the gods13
Who hate the proud, and where the ocean strait
Boils in swift whirlpools, and Euripus draws
Deceitful in his tides, a bane to ships,
Chalcidian vessels to bleak Aulis' shore.
1 See Book IV., 82.
“'Thus far hath one of steep Parnassus' brows
Sufficed me: henceforth there is need of both,
For my remaining enterprise.'
”Dante, 'Paradise,' i., 16 (Cary.)
3 Themis, the goddess of law, was in possession of the Delphic oracle, previous to Apollo. (AEsch., 'Eumenides,' line 2.)
5 The Tyrians consulted the oracle in consequence of the earthquakes which vexed their country (Book III., line 255), and were told to found colonies.
6 See Herodotus, Book VII., 140-143. The reference is to the answer given by the oracle to the Athenians that their wooden walls would keep them safe; which Themistocles interpreted as meaning their fleet.
7 Cicero, on the contrary, suggests that the reason why the oracles ceased was this, that men became less credulous. ('De Div.,' ii., 57.) Lecky, 'History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne,' vol. i., p. 368.
8 This name is one of those given to the Cumaean Sibyl mentioned at line 216. She was said to have been the daughter of Apollo.
9 Probably by the Gauls under Brennus, B.C. 279.
10 These lines form the Latin motto prefixed to Shelley's poem, 'The Demon of the World.'
11 Referring to the visit of AEneas to the Sibyl. (Virgil, 'AEneid,' vi., 70, &c.)
12 Appius was seized with fever as soon as he reached the spot; and there he died and was buried, thus fulfilling the oracle.
13 That is, Nemesis.
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