From “The Poems and Ballads of Schiller” translated from the German of Friedrich Schiller by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, the last London edition, 1866.
Translator’s Note: In this poem presented to the reader, Schiller designed, as he wrote to Goethe, to depict the old Christian chivalry — half knightly, half monastic. The attempt is strikingly successful. Indeed, “The Fight of the Dragon” appears to me the most spirited and nervous of all Schiller’s narrative poems, with the single exception of “The Diver” … yet its philosophical conception is at once more profound…
THE FIGHT WITH THE DRAGON
Why run so fast the hurtling crowd
Down the long streets, roaring loud?
Is Rhodes on fire? — more fast the strong,
Wedg’d close and closer, storms along.
High o’er the train, he seems to lead,
Behold a knight on warlike Steed!
Behind is dragged a wondrous load;
Beneath what monster groans the road?
With wide jaws like the Crocodile,
In shape a Dragon to the sight,
All eyes in wonder gaze the while —
Now on the Monster, now on the Knight.
A thousand voices shout in glee,
“This is the Dragon, come and see
That did on herd and herdsman feast,
And this the Knight who slew the beast.
Before him, in that dreadful strife,
Has many a champion ventured life,
But ne’er returned to mortal sight —
All honor to the victor Knight!”
So to the Convent Cloister all
The gathering crowd swept clamorous on;
In haste convened within the hall,
Sate the vowed Knighthood of St. John.
Before the noble Master there,
The young Knight came with modest air;
The roaring crowd filled all the space
Beyond the rails that fenced the dais;
The Victor took the word, and spake,
“The duty knights with knighthood take
Is done; and, slain beneath my hand,
Lies the Devourer of the land.
Safe is the traveler from today,
And safe the grazing herds repose,
Safe to the shrine of grace, his way
Along the rocks the pilgrims goes!”
Stern look’d the Master. “Thou hast done,”
He said, “a hero’s deed, my son.
By valor knights are famous made;
A valiant soul thou hast display’d.
But to the knight, whose holier sword
Is vow’d to fight for Christ our Lord,
Who wears His cross — say, what is still
The first great law he must fulfill?”
All round grew pale; – with downcast head
Replied the vicar of the day.
“To him who wears the cross,” he said,
“The first great law is ,,, to obey!”
“And yet that duty, son,” replied
The chief, “methinks thou hast denied;
And in the encounter which our law
Forbade, hast dared thou sword to draw.”
“Master, when all is told, decide,”
With steadfast tone, the knight replied:
“For I that law’s true sense and will
But sought devoutly to fulfill.
Not blindly, with presumptuous heart.
Against the monster I did go;
But hoped, by stratagem and art,
To wrest the victory from the foe.
“Five of our order, whose renown
Flashed gem-like, in Religion’s crown,
Fell, rashly prodigal of life;
‘Twas then thy law forbade the strife.
Yet gloom was in my heart — desire
To share the conflict gnawed like fire:
In the still visions of the night,
Panting, I fought the fancied flight;
And when the morrow glimmering came,
With tales of ravage fleshly done,
Indignant grief and fiery shame,
Seized on me … and Resolve begun.
“And thus my inward musing ran —
What graces youth and honors man?
How lived the great in days of old,
Whose fame to time by bards is told.
Up to the gods’ renown and bliss
Raised by the blinded Heatheness?
By deeds that prove the Hero’s worth,
They cleared from monster broods the earth,
They sought the lion in his den,
They battled with the Minotaur,
Nor grudged to shed their blood for men,
And save from death one victim more.
“‘Is but the Saracen to feel
(Has he such worth?) — the Christian steel?
Are we to idols only brave?
Or is our mission earth to save —
From every ill, and every harm,
Freed by the Christian’s stalwart arm?
Yet wisdom must his valor lead,
And sage device should force precede.’
Thus oft I mused, and went alone
The fell Devourer’s tracks to spy;
I saw — and light upon me shone,
And ‘Found, O Victory!” was my cry!
“Then, Prince, I sought thee with the prayer
To breathe once more my native air;
The license given — the ocean past —
I reached the shores of home at last,
Scarce hail’d the old belov’d land,
Than huge, beneath the artist’s hand,
To each well-mark’d dread feature true,
The Dragon’s monster-model grew,
The dwarf’d, deformed limbs upbore,
The lengthened body’s ponderous load;
The scales the impervious surface wore,
Like links of burnish’d harness, glow’d.
“Far stretch’d the grisly neck; and fell
As are the gaping gates of hell,
You might the horrent jaws survey,
Wide oped, as if to snatch their prey.
The black mouth’s gloomy deeps disclose
Grim fangs that threat in bristling rows,
The tongue a sword-pointed seeming —
The deep small eyes in sparkles gleaming.
Where the vast body ends, succeed
The serpent spires around it roll’d —
As if the rider and the steed
Alike in dreadful coils to fold.
“All to the hideous life was true,
Ev’n to the gray and ghastly hue;
It stood half dragon and half snake,
As if spawn’d forth from a poisonous lake.
And now began the mimic chase:
Two dogs I chose of noblest race,
That, fleet and fierce, ne’er turn’d before
The headlong rush of forest bore;
I train’d them on the shape to spring,
As if on a living foe to fly
With fastening teeth to rend, and spring;
And rous’d their rage with cheering cry.
“And where their gripe the best assails
The belly, left unsheath’d in scales,
I taught the dexterous hounds to hang,
And find the spot to fix the fang;
While I, with lance and mail’d garb,
Launch’d on the beast mine Arab barb.
From purest race that Arab came;
His fire my hand and voice inflame:
Beneath the sharp spur bounding fierce,
He fronts the beast in full career —
And there, as if the hide to pierce,
By turns I couch and hurl the spear.
“Though when the monster first it eyed,
It chomp’d the bit and swerved aside,
Snorted and rear’d … and even they,
The fierce hounds, shrank with startled bay;
I ceased not, till, by custom bold,
After three tedious moons were told,
Both barb and hounds were train’d — nay, more,
Fierce for the fight, then left the shore!
Three days have fleeted since I press’d
(Return’d at length) this welcome soil,
Nor once would lay my limbs to rest,
Till wrought the glorious crowning toil.
“It burn’d my heart within to know,
New ravage done by that great foe.
The bones of herdsmen, bleach’d and bare,
Lay round the hell-worm’s swampy lair;
Stung, on the sudden I depart,
Nor counsel take but from my heart;
And so my squires I call’d in speed,
Spring lightly on my proven steed,
Take my two gallant hounds, and by
Lone secret pathways gayly go,
To see, unmark’d by human eye,
In its own deathful hold, the foe.
“Thou know’st the chapel glimmering o’er,
The mountain rock, from ridges hoar,
Aloft, it overlooks the isle,
Bold was the soul that built the pile.
Humble and mean, the sacred house,
Contains a shrine miraculous —
Mother and Child, to whom of old
Came the Three Kings, we there behold.
By three times thirty steps must climb,
The pilgrim to that steep abode,
To feel, in sudden strength sublime
Renewed, the Saviour’s neighborhood.
“Yawns wide within that holy steep,
A mighty cavern dark and deep,
Damp with the marsh dews, dim and dun,
And never lit by heavenly sun;
And there by night and there by day,
The worm unguest and greeding lay,
Ever at watch, in darkness screen’d
Under God’s house, like Hell’s own fiend.
And when along that path of woe
The pilgrim came, upon the way,
Forth from the ambush rushed the foe
And down, devouring, dragg’d the prey.
“I stood upon that rocky hight,
Ere yet I dar’d the dreadful fight,
Before the Infant Christ within,
I knelt and purg’d my heart from sin,
The mantle white on holy ground,
Above my coat of mail I bound.
In my right hand I grasp’d my spear,
Then downward strode with conscious clear,
There to my squires I gave the heed,
To wait in refuge safe behind;
Nimbly I vaulted on my steed,
And unto God my soul consign’d.
“The level plain before me lay,
Started the hounds with sudden bay,
Aghast the frightened charger slanting,
Refused the rein and, trembled, panting.
For curling there, in coiled fold,
The Unutterable Beast behold,
Lazily basting in the sun!
Forth sprang the dogs. The fight’s begun!
But back the hounds, recoiling fast
Before the jaws expanded fly.
Scared by the reeking poison-blast
And the howl’d dismal jackal cry.
“But quickly cheered, again they go,
And fasten fiercely on the foe. —
While full against the monster’s hide,
I launch the speer — it slants aside
As harmless on the woven scale
As slender reed on coat of mail.
And ere I could renew the stroke,
From rein and rule the charger broke —
That basilisk eye had spell’d the steed
It felt the poisonous charnel breath,
Forsaken in my dreadest need,
Hope vanish’d, and I looked on Death.
“But light and quick to earth I leapt;
Swift from the sheath my falchion swept;
Swift on that rock-like mail it plied,
The rock-like mail the sword defied:
The monster lash’d its mighty coil;
Down hurl’d, behold me on the soil.
O’er me the jaw’s dark cavern hangs —
I feel the snap of those dark fangs,
When lo! the dogs — the flesh is found;
The scaleless parts their fury gain!
And the fell monster, writhing round,
Howls its immeasurable pain.
“No time to foil its fastening foes —
Light, as it writhed, I sprang, and rose;
The bare unguarded place explor’d,
And to the hilt I plunged the sword —
Up from the vitals sprang the blood,
Black-bubbling spouted forth the flood.
Then down it bore me in its fall;
Buried beneath that giant ball,
In dizzy swoon upon the ground
I lay; — till sense returns once more —
I see my squires that stand around,
And the dead dragon in its gore.”
Then burst forward from every eager breast
The loud applause, so long suppressed.
Scarcely the knight those words had spoken,
Then, on the vaulted rafters broken,
Times ten re-echoing and ascending,
Came the vast shout of thousands blending;
As loud, the knights their voices raise,
“His brows be crowned with wreaths of bays!”
The crowd, in pomp, would lead him round,
From street to street his deed proclaim —
When the Grand Master sternly frown’d.
And calling silence, silence came.
And thus he spoke: “With valiant hand
Thou from the pest hast purged the land.
Let crowds their idol hail; in thee
A foe our Order can but see!
Thy breast has cherish’d to its bane
A worm more fell than Dragon slain —
The snake that poisons hearts within,
And breeds dissension, strife and sin.
That worm is WILL, superb and vain.
Which spurns at all restraints that bind —
Which sacred order rends in twain —
‘Tis that which doth destroy mankind.
“The Turk from valor gains renown;
Obedience is the Christian’s crown —
There, where from heaven descending, trod
In humblest guise the Savior God,
Our fathers on that holy ground,
Did first this knightly Order found,
That heaviest duty to fulfill,
By which we conquer strong self-will.
Our law thy thirst of glory broke —
Vain-glorious — from my sight depart.
Not he who scorns the Savior’s yoke
Should wear His cross upon the breast.”
Then burst the angry roar of all,
As with a tempest shook the hall;
The noble Brethren pled for grace —
Mute stood the youth, with downward face;
Laid by the robe and sacred band,
And meekly kissed the Master’s hand,
And went — the Master mark’d him part —
“Return,” he cried, “and to my heart;
The harder part of Christ is won:
Hero, take this cross — meet prize for thee —
Thou hast battled with thyself, my son,
And conquered — through Humility.
In “The Fight of the Dragon” is expressed the moral of that humility which consists in self-conquest — even merit may lead to vain-glory — and after vanquishing the fiercest enemies without, man has still to contend with his worst foe — the pride or disobedience of the heart. “Every one,” as a recent critic remarked, “has more or less his own ‘fight with the Dragon’ — his own double victory (with and without) to achieve.” The origin of this poem is to be found in the annals of the Knights of Malta, and the details may be seen in Vertot’s History. The date assigned to the conquest of the Dragon is 1342. Helion de Villeneuve was the name of the Grand Master — that of the Knight, Dieu-Donne de Gozon. Thevenot still declares that the head of the monster (to whatever species it truly belonged), or its effigies was still placed over one of the gates of the city in his time. Dieu-Donne succeeded De Villeneuve as Grand Master, and on his gravestone were inscribed the words, “Draconis Exstinctor.” EBL, 1866