Lord Byron: “Lara” 3/3
Excerpt, “The Life and Works of Lord Byron: Notes and Illustrations.” John Murray, London: 1833.
The Death of Lara
Throughout that clime the feudal chiefs had gain’d
Such sway, their infant monarch hardly reign’d;
Now was the hour for faction’s rebel growth,
The serfs contemn’d the one, and hated both:
They waited but a leader, and they found
One to their cause inseparably bound;
By circumstance compell’d to plunge again,
In self-defence, amidst the strife of men.
Cut off by some mysterious fate from those
Whom birth and nature meant not for his foes,
Had Lara from that night, to him accurst,
Prepared to meet, but not alone, the worst:
Some reason urged, whate’er it was, to shun
Inquiry into deeds at distance done;
By mingling with his own the cause of all,
E’en if he fail’d, he still delay’d his fall.
The sullen calm that long his bosom kept,
The storm that once had spent itself and slept,
Roused by events that seem’d foredoom’d to urge
His gloomy fortunes to their utmost verge,
Burst forth, and made him all he once had been,
And is again; he only changed the scene.
Light care had he for life, and less for fame,
But not less fitted for the desperate game:
He deem’d himself mark’d out for others’ hate,
And mock’d at ruin, so they shared his fate.
What cared he for the freedom of the crowd?
He raised the humble but to bend the proud.
He had hoped quiet in his sullen lair,
But man and destiny beset him there:
Inured to hunters, he was found at bay;
And they must kill, they cannot snare the prey.
Stern, unambitious, silent he had been
Henceforth a calm spectator of life’s scene;
But dragg’d again upon the arena, stood
A leader not unequal to the feud;
In voice — mien — gesture — savage nature spoke,
And from his eye the gladiator broke.
What boots the oft-repeated tale of strife,
The feast of vultures, and the waste of life?
The varying fortune of each separate field,
The fierce that vanquish, and the faint that yield?
The smoking ruin, and the crumbled wall?
In this the struggle was the same with all;
Save that distemper’d passions lent their force
In bitterness that banish’d all remorse.
None sued, for Mercy know her cry was vain,
The captive died upon the battle-slain:
In either cause, one rage alone possess’d
The empire of the alternate victor’s breast;
And they that smote for freedom or for sway,
Deem’d few were slain, while more remain’d to slay.
It was too late to check the wasting brand,
And Desolation reap’d the famish’d land;
The torch was lighted, and the flame was spread,
And Carnage smiled upon her daily bread.
Fresh with the nerve the new-born impulse strung,
The first success to Lara’s numbers clung:
But that vain victory hath ruin’d all;
They form no longer to their leader’s call:
In blind confusion on the foe they press,
And think to snatch is to secure success.
The lust of booty, and the thirst of hate,
Lure on the broken brigands to their fate:
In vain he doth whate’er a chief may do,
To check the headlong fury of that crew,
In vain their stubborn ardour he would tame,
The hand that kindles cannot quench the flame.
The wary foe alone hath turn’d their mood,
And shewn their rashness to that erring brood:
The feign’d retreat, the nightly ambuscade,
The daily harass, and the fight delay’d,
The long privation of the hoped supply,
The tentless rest beneath the humid sky,
The stubborn wall that mocks the leaguer’s art,
And palls the patience of his baffled heart,
Of these they had not deem’d: the battle-day
They could encounter as a veteran may;
But more preferr’d the fury of the strife,
And present death, to hourly suffering life:
And famine wrings, and fever sweeps away
His numbers melting fast from their array;
Intemperate triumph fades to discontent,
And Lara’s soul alone seems still unbent:
But few remain to aid his voice and hand,
And thousands dwindled to a scanty band:
Desperate, though few, the last and best remain’d
To mourn the discipline they late disdain’d.
One hope survives, the frontier is not far,
And thence they may escape from native war;
And bear within them to the neighbouring state
An exile’s sorrows, or an outlaw’s hate:
Hard is the task their fatherland to quit,
But harder still to perish or submit.
It is resolved — they march — consenting Night
Guides with her star their dim and torchless flight;
Already they perceive its tranquil beam
Sleep on the surface of the barrier stream;
Already they descry — Is yon the bank?
Away! ’tis lined with many a hostile rank.
Return or fly! — What glitters in the rear?
‘Tis Otho’s banner — the pursuer’s spear!
Are those the shepherds’ fires upon the height?
Alas! they blaze too widely for the flight:
Cut off from hope, and compass’d in the toil,
Less blood, perchance, hath bought a richer spoil!
A moment’s pause — ’tis but to breathe their band
Or shall they onward press, or here withstand?
It matters little — if they charge the foes
Who by their border-stream their march oppose,
Some few, perchance, may break and pass the line,
However link’d to baffle such design.
“The charge be ours! to wait for their assault
Were fate well worthy of a coward’s halt.”
Forth flies each sabre, rein’d is every steed,
And the next word shall scarce outstrip the deed:
In the next tone of Lara’s gathering breath
How many shall but hear the voice of death!
His blade is bared — in him there is an air
As deep, but far too tranquil for despair;
A something of indifference more than then
Becomes the bravest, if they feel for men.
He turn’d his eye on Kaled, ever near,
And still too faithful to betray one fear;
Perchance ’twas but the moon’s dim twilight threw
Along his aspect an unwonted hue
Of mournful paleness, whose deep tint express’d
The truth, and not the terror of his breast.
This Lara mark’d, and laid his hand on his:
It trembled not in such an hour as this;
His lip was silent, scarcely beat his heart,
His eye alone proclaim’d —
“We will not part!
Thy band may perish, or thy friends may flee,
Farewell to life, but not adieu to thee!”
The word hath pass’d his lips, and onward driven,
Pours the link’d band through ranks asunder riven;
Well has each steed obey’d the armed heel,
And flash the scimitars, and rings the steel;
Outnumber’d, not outbraved, they still oppose
Despair to daring, and a front to foes;
And blood is mingled with the dashing stream,
Which runs all redly till the morning beam.
Commanding, aiding, animating all,
Where foe appear’d to press, or friend to fall,
Cheers Lara’s voice, and waves or strikes his steel,
Inspiring hope himself had ceased to feel.
None fled, for well they knew that flight were vain,
But those that waver turn to smite again,
While yet they find the firmest of the foe
Recoil before their leader’s look and blow;
Now girt with numbers, now almost alone,
He foils their ranks, or reunites his own;
Himself he spared not — once they seem’d to fly —
Now was the time, he waved his hand on high,
And shook — Why sudden droops that plumed crest?
The shaft is sped — the arrow’s in his breast!
That fatal gesture left the unguarded side,
And Death hath stricken down yon arm of pride.
The word of triumph fainted from his tongue;
That hand, so raised, how droopingly it hung!
But yet the sword instinctively retains,
Though from its fellow shrink the falling reins;
These Kaled snatches: dizzy with the blow,
And senseless bending o’er his saddle-bow
Perceives not Lara that his anxious page
Beguiles his charger from the combat’s rage:
Meantime his followers charge and charge again;
Too mix’d the slayers now to heed the slain!
Day glimmers on the dying and the dead,
The cloven cuirass, and the helmless head;
The war-horse masterless is on the earth,
And that last gasp hath burst his bloody girth:
And near, yet quivering with what life remain’d,
The heel that urged him, and the hand that rein’d:
And some too near that rolling torrent lie,
Whose waters mock the lip of those that die;
That panting thirst which scorches in the breath
Of those that die the soldier’s fiery death,
In vain impels the burning mouth to crave
One drop — the last — to cool it for the grave;
With feeble and convulsive effort swept
Their limbs along the crimson’d turf have crept:
The faint remains of life such struggles waste,
But yet they reach the stream, and bend to taste:
They feel its freshness, and almost partake —
Why pause? — No further thirst have they to slake —
It is unquench’d, and yet they feel it not —
It was an agony — but now forgot!
Beneath a lime, remoter from the scene,
Where but for him that strife had never been,
A breathing but devoted warrior lay:
‘Twas Lara bleeding fast from life away.
His follower once, and now his only guide,
Kneels Kaled watchful o’er his welling side,
And with his scarf would stanch the tides that rush
With each convulsion in a blacker gush;
And then, as his faint breathing waxes low,
In feebler, not less fatal tricklings flow:
He scarce can speak, but motions him ’tis vain,
And merely adds another throb to pain.
He clasps the hand that pang which would assuage,
And sadly smiles his thanks to that dark page,
Who nothing fears, nor feels, nor heeds, nor sees,
Save that damp brow which rests upon his knees;
Save that pale aspect, where the eye, though dim,
Held all the light that shone on earth for him.
The foe arrives, who long had search’d the field,
Their triumph nought till Lara too should yield;
They would remove him, but they see ’twere vain,
And he regards them with a calm disdain,
That rose to reconcile him with his fate,
And that escape to death from living hate:
And Otho comes, and leaping from his steed,
Looks on the bleeding foe that made him bleed,
And questions of his state; he answers not,
Scarce glances on him as on one forgot,
And turns to Kaled: — each remaining word,
They understood not, if distinctly heard;
His dying tones are in that other tongue,
To which some strange remembrance wildly clung.
They spake of other scenes, but what — is known
To Kaled, whom their meaning reach’d alone;
And he replied, though faintly, to their sound,
While gazed the rest in dumb amazement round:
They seem’d even then — that twain — unto the last
To half forget the present in the past;
To share between themselves some separate fate,
Whose darkness none beside should penetrate.
Their words though faint were many — from the tone
Their import those who heard could judge alone;
From this, you might have deem’d young Kaled’s death
More near than Lara’s by his voice and breath,
So sad, so deep, and hesitating broke
The accents his scarce-moving pale lips spoke;
But Lara’s voice, though low, at first was clear
And calm, till murmuring death gasp’d hoarsely near:
But from his visage little could we guess,
So unrepentant, dark, and passionless,
Save that when struggling nearer to his last,
Upon that page his eye was kindly cast;
And once, as Kaled’s answering accents ceased,
Rose Lara’s hand, and pointed to the East:
Whether (as then the breaking sun from high
Roll’d back the clouds) the morrow caught his eye,
Or that ’twas chance, or some remember’d scene
That raised his arm to point where such had been,
Scarce Kaled seem’d to know, but turn’d away,
As if his heart abhorr’d that coming day,
And shrunk his glance before that morning light
To look on Lara’s brow — where all grew night.
Yet sense seem’d left, though better were its loss;
For when one near display’d the absolving cross,
And proffer’d to his touch the holy bead,
Of which his parting soul might own the need,
He look’d upon it with an eye profane,
And smiled — Heaven pardon! if ’twere with disdain;
And Kaled, though he spoke not, nor withdrew
From Lara’s face his fix’d despairing view,
With brow repulsive, and with gesture swift,
Flung back the hand which held the sacred gift,
As if such but disturb’d the expiring man,
Nor seem’d to know his life but then began,
The life immortal infinite, secure,
To all for whom that cross hath made it sure!
But gasping heaved the breath that Lara drew,
And dull the film along his dim eye grew;
His limbs stretch’d fluttering, and his head droop’d o’er
The weak yet still untiring knee that bore:
He press’d the hand he held upon his heart —
It beats no more, but Kaled will not part
With the cold grasp, but feels, and feels in vain,
For that faint throb which answers not again.
“It beats!” — Away, thou dreamer! he is gone —
It once was Lara which thou look’st upon.
He gazed, as if not yet had pass’d away
The haughty spirit of that humble clay;
And those around have roused him from his trance,
But cannot tear from thence his fixed glance;
And when in raising him from where he bore
Within his arms the form that felt no more,
He saw the head his breast would still sustain,
Roll down like earth to earth upon the plain;
He did not dash himself thereby, nor tear
The glossy tendrils of his raven hair,
But strove to stand and gaze, but reel’d and fell,
Scarce breathing more than that he loved so well.
Than that he lov’d! Oh! never yet beneath
The breast of man such trusty love may breathe!
That trying moment hath at once reveal’d
The secret long and yet but half conceal’d;
In baring to revive that lifeless breast,
Its grief seem’d ended, but the sex confess’d;
And life return’d, and Kaled felt no shame —
What now to her was Womanhood or Fame?
And Lara sleeps not where his fathers sleep,
But where he died his grave was dug as deep;
Nor is his mortal slumber less profound,
Though priest nor bless’d, nor marble deck’d the mound;
And he was mourn’d by one whose quiet grief,
Less loud, outlasts a people’s for their chief.
Vain was all question ask’d her of the past,
And vain e’en menace — silent to the last;
She told nor whence nor why she left behind
Her all for one who seem’d but little kind.
Why did she love him? Curious fool! — be still —
Is human love the growth of human will?
To her he might be gentleness; the stern
Have deeper thoughts than your dull eyes discern,
And when they love, your smilers guess not how
Beats the strong heart, though less the lips avow.
They were not common links that form’d the chain
That bound to Lara Kaled’s heart and brain;
But that wild tale she brook’d not to unfold,
And seal’d is now each lip that could have told.
They laid him in the earth, and on his breast,
Besides the wound that sent his soul to rest,
They found the scattered dints of many a scar
Which were not planted there in recent war:
Where’er had pass’d his summer years of life,
It seems they vanish’d in a land of strife;
But all unknown his glory or his guilt,
These only told that somewhere blood was spilt.
And Ezzelin, who might have spoke the past,
Return’d no more — that night appear’d his last.
Upon that night (a peasant’s is the tale)
A Serf that cross’d the intervening vale,
When Cynthia’s light almost gave way to morn,
And nearly veil’d in mist her waning horn;
A Serf, that rose betimes to thread the wood,
And hew the bough that bought his children’s food,
Pass’d by the river that divides the plain
Of Otho’s lands and Lara’s broad domain:
He heard a tramp — a horse and horseman broke
From out the wood — before him was a cloak
Wrapt round some burthen at his saddle-bow,
Bent was his head, and hidden was his brow.
Roused by the sudden sight at such a time,
And some foreboding that it might be crime,
Himself unheeded watch’d the stranger’s course,
Who reach’d the river, bounded from his horse,
And lifting thence the burthen which he bore,
Heaved up the bank, and dash’d it from the shore,
Then paused, and look’d, and turn’d, and seem’d to watch,
And still another hurried glance would snatch,
And follow with his step the stream that flow’d,
As if even yet too much its surface show’d:
At once he started, stoop’d, around him strewn
The winter floods had scatter’d heaps of stone;
Of these the heaviest thence he gather’d there,
And slung them with a more than common care.
Meantime the Serf had crept to where unseen
Himself might safely mark what this might mean.
He caught a glimpse, as of a floating breast,
And something glitter’d starlike on the vest,
But ere he well could mark the buoyant trunk,
A massy fragment smote it, and it sunk:
It rose again, but indistinct to view,
And left the waters of a purple hue,
Then deeply disappear’d: the horseman gazed
Till ebb’d the latest eddy it had raised;
Then turning, vaulted on his pawing steed,
And instant spurr’d him into panting speed.
His face was mask’d — the features of the dead,
If dead it were, escaped the observer’s dread;
But if in sooth a star its bosom bore,
Such is the badge that knighthood ever wore,
And such ’tis known Sir Ezzelin had worn
Upon the night that led to such a morn.
If thus he perish’d, Heaven receive his soul!
His undiscover’d limbs to ocean roll;
And charity upon the hope would dwell
It was not Lara’s hand by which he fell.
And Kaled — Lara — Ezzelin, are gone,
Alike without their monumental stone!
The first, all efforts vainly strove to wean
From lingering where her chieftain’s blood had been.
Grief had so tamed a spirit once too proud,
Her tears were few, her wailing never loud;
But furious would you tear her from the spot
Where yet she scarce believed that he was not,
Her eye shot forth with all the living fire
That haunts the tigress in her whelpless ire;
But left to waste her weary moments there,
She talk’d all idly unto shapes of air,
Such as the busy brain of Sorrow paints,
And woos to listen to her fond complaints;
And she would sit beneath the very tree,
Where lay his drooping head upon her knee;
And in that posture where she saw him fall,
His words, his looks, his dying grasp recall;
And she had shorn, but saved her raven hair,
And oft would snatch it from her bosom there,
And fold and press it gently to the ground,
As if she stanch’d anew some phantom’s wound.
Herself would question, and for him reply;
Then rising, start, and beckon him to fly
From some imagined spectre in pursuit;
Then seat her down upon some linden’s root,
And hide her visage with her meagre hand,
Or trace strange characters along the sand. —
This could not last — she lies by him she loved;
Her tale untold — her truth too dearly proved.