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Why fertile thus in death the pestilent air
Of Libya, what poison in her soil
Her several nature mixed, my care to know
Has not availed: but from the days of old
A fabled story has deceived the world.
Far on her limits, where the burning shore
Admits the ocean fervid from the sun
Plunged in its waters, lay Medusa's fields
Untilled; nor forests shaded, nor the plough
Furrowed the soil, which by its mistress' gaze
Was hardened into stone: Phorcus, her sire.
Malevolent nature from her body first
Drew forth these noisome pests; first from her jaws
Issued the sibilant rattle of serpent tongues;
Clustered around her head the poisonous brood
Like to a woman's hair, wreathed on her neck
Which gloried in their touch; their glittering heads
Advanced towards her; and her tresses kempt
Dripped down with viper's venom. This alone
Thou hast, accursed one, which men can see
Unharmed; for who upon that gaping mouth
Looked and could dread? Whom suffered she to die
Who saw her face? He rushed upon his fate
And ere he feared was stricken to the death.
Perished the limbs while living, and the soul
Grew stiff and stark ere yet it fled the frame.
Men have been frenzied by the Furies' locks,
Not killed; and Cerberus at Orpheus' song
Ceased from his hissing, and Alcides saw
The Hydra ere he slew. This monster born
Brought horror with her birth upon her sire
Phorcus, in second order God of Waves,
And upon Ceto and the Gorgon brood,1
Her sisters. She could treat the sea and sky
With deadly calm unknown, and from the world
Bid cease the soil. Borne down by instant weight
Fowls fell from air, and beasts were fixed in stone.
Whole Ethiop tribes who tilled the neighbouring lands
Rigid in marble stood. The Gorgon sight
No creature bore and even her serpents turned
Back from her visage. Atlas in his place
Beside the Western columns, by her look
Was turned to granite; and when Phlegra's brood
Gigantic, serpent-tailed, were feared of heaven,
She made them mountains, and the Gorgon head
Borne on Athena's bosom closed the war.
Here born of Danae and the golden shower,
Floating on wings Parrhasian, by the god
Arcadian given, author of the lyre
And wrestling art, came Perseus, swooping down
From heaven. Cyllenian Harpe 2 did he bear
Still crimson from another monster slain,
The guardian of the heifer loved by Jove.
This to her winged brother Pallas lent
Price of the monster's head: by her command
He sought the limits of the Libyan land,
Poised o'er Medusa's realm, with head averse
Towards the rising sun: a burnished shield
Of yellow brass upon his other arm,
Her gift, her bore: in which she bade him see
The fatal face unscathed. Nor yet in sleep
Lay all the monster, for such total rest
To her were death-so fated: serpent locks
In vigilant watch, some reaching forth defend
Her head, while others lay upon her face
And slumbering eyes. Then hero Perseus shook
Though turned averse; trembled his dexter hand:
But Pallas held, and the descending blade
Shore the broad neck whence sprang the viper brood.
What visage bore the Gorgon as the steel
Thus reft her life! what poison from her throat
Breathed! from her eyes what venom of death distilled!
The goddess dared not look, and Perseus' face
Had frozen, averse, had not Athena veiled
With coils of writhing snakes the features dead.
Then with the Gorgon head the hero flew
Uplifted on his wings and sought the sky.
Shorter had been his voyage through the midst
Of Europe's cities; but Athena bade
To spare her peoples and their fruitful lands;
For who when such an airy courser passed
Had not looked up to heaven? Western winds
Now sped his pinions, and he took his course
O'er Libya's regions, from the stars and suns
Veiled by no culture. Phoebus' nearer track
There burns the soil, and loftiest on the sky3
There falls the night, to shade the wandering moon,
If e'er forgetful of her course oblique,
Straight through the stars, nor bending to the North
Nor to the South, she hastens. Yet that earth,
In nothing fertile, void of fruitful yield,
Drank in the poison of Medusa's blood,
Dripping in dreadful dews upon the soil,
And in the crumbling sands by heat matured.
Where first within the dust the venom germ 4
Took life, an asp was reared of turgid neck
And sleep compelling: thick the poison drop
That was his making, in no fang of snake
More closely pressed. Greedy of warmth it seeks
No frozen world itself, nor haunts the sands
Beyond the Nile; yet has our thirst of gain
No shame nor limit, and this Libyan death,
This fatal pest we purchase for our own.
Haemorrhois huge spreads out his scaly coils,
Who suffers not his hapless victims' blood
To stay within their veins. Chersydros sprang
To life, to dwell within the doubtful marsh
Where land nor sea prevails. A cloud of spray
Marked fell Chelyder's track: and Cenchris rose
Straight gliding to his prey, his belly tinged
With various spots unnumbered, more than those
Which paint the Theban marble; horned snakes
With spines contorted: like to torrid sand
Ammodytes, of hue invisible:
Sole of all serpents Scytale to shed
In vernal frosts his slough; and thirsty Dipsas;
Dread Amphisbaena with his double head
Tapering; and Natrix who in bubbling fount
Fuses his venom. Greedy Prester swells
His foaming jaws; Pareas, head erect
Furrows with tail alone his sandy path;
Swift Jaculus there, and Seps whose poisonous juice
Makes liquid bone and flesh: and there upreared
His regal head, and frighted from his track
With sibilant terror all the subject swarm,
Baneful ere darts his poison, Basilisk 5
In sands deserted king. Ye serpents too
Who in all other regions harmless glide
Adored as gods, and bright with golden scales,
Are deadly here: for Afric air inhaled
Bestows malignant gift, as poised on wings
Whole herds of kine ye follow, and with coils
Encircling close, crush in the mighty bull.
Nor does the elephant in his giant bulk,
Nor aught, find safety; and ye need no fang
Nor poison, to compel the fatal end.
3 The idea seems to be that the earth, bulging at the equator, casts its shadow highest on the sky: and that the moon becomes eclipsed by it whenever she follows a straight path instead of an oblique one, which may happen from her forgetfulness (Mr. Haskins's note).
4 This catalogue of snakes is alluded to in Dante's 'Inferno,' 24.
“I saw a crowd within
Of serpents terrible, so strange of shape
And hideous that remembrance in my veins
Yet shrinks the vital current. Of her sands
Let Libya vaunt no more: if Jaculus,
Pareas, and Chelyder be her brood,
Cenchris and Amphisbaena, plagues so dire
Or in such numbers swarming ne'er she showed.
” - Cary. See also Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' Book X., 520-530.
“All my being,
Like him whom the Numidian Seps did thaw
Into a dew with poison, is dissolved,
Sinking through its foundations.
”Shelley, ' Prometheus Unbound,' Act iii., Scene i.
5 The glance of the eye of the basilisk or cockatrice was supposed to be deadly.
See King Richard III, Act i, Scene 2:
Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine.
Would they were basilisks, to strike thee dead!
” The word is also used for a big cannon (' 1 King Henry IV.,' Act ii., Scent 3).
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