Henry James Pye
Alfred. Book IV.
ARGUMENT. Success of Oddune, Earl of Devon, against a new Danish Armament from Ireland.—Irish join Oddune.—Measures of Alfred to profit from the turn of Fortune.—Alfred's difficulties, and extraordinary Adventure to obviate them.—Relief of the Queen Elsitha.—Fortunate junction of Donald, and the Scotish Troops, with Alfred.—Assistance from Wales.
And now the westering sun's declining ray,
Shot faintly forth the fading light of day,
Shed o'er the waving trees a golden gleam,
And the high mountains tinged with mellower beam;
When, near the rock, emerging from the wood,
Clad in refulgent arms, a warrior stood.—
As firmly stood the king, his ready sword
Shone in his hand, a safeguard to its lord.
When thus the bard.—'Your threats of war forbear;—
With pious reverence breathe this hallow'd air.
No arms of mortal temper triumph here,
Heaven's mighty aid, protects Heaven's chosen seer.'
'I come,' the stranger said, 'from fields of fame,
A Saxon born, and Aribert my name.
I come from Devon's shores, where Devon's lord
Waves o'er the prostrate Dane the British sword.—
Freedom might yet revisit Britain's coast,
Did Alfred live to lead her victor host.'
'He lives,' the prophet cries, 'lo, here he stands!
Alfred! preserved from Denmark's conquering bands;
Preserved from scenes where England's warriors yield,
And all the bleeding woes of Wilton's field;
From the pursuit of Treason's fiend-like train,
From warring tempests, and a dangerous main.
Preserved by Heaven, in this propitious hour,
To save his country from the oppressor's power.'
'O, moment of delight!' the youth replies;
'Again the Genius of the land shall rise;
Again shall Albion's dauntless warriors fight
For Glory's guerdon, in their monarch's sight.—
I will not Expectation's ear delay;
Short be my tale, though glorious was the day.—
By Hubba led, from Erin's subject coast,
In barks unnumber'd, came the invading host,
For, o'er each breezy hill and fertile plain,
There spread the tyrant empire of the Dane.
Shut up in Kenwith's towers, the indignant Earl
Saw Rapine wide its harpy vengeance hurl:
Saw, far as Fear could throw her trembling eye,
The region round one smoking ruin lie;
Circling the fortress, with insulting boast,
The stern invader draws his numerous host.
From the embattled summit's craggy brow
We mock awhile his idle rage below.—
Short was our triumph,—soon the warrior's breast
Shrunk from the toil, by famine dire oppress'd.
The exulting Danes, by fancied victory crown'd,
With bitter taunts their prey devoted wound.
‘Perish by want, or fall beneath our swords,
‘Or kneel,’ they cry, ‘submissive, to your lords.’
Silent, and sad, we stand.—Our gallant chief
Heaves the deep groan of mingled rage and grief;
Points to the scene of ruin, stretch'd afar,
Adds not a word, but gives the sign for war.
Not with more fury down the rock's steep side,
Rolls the wide cataract its thundering tide,
Than Devon's hardy sons resistless pour'd
War's fiery torrent on the barbarous horde.
Hosts following hosts, in vain our band engage,
With giant sinews, and with lion rage;
Through their thinn'd files our arms despairing force,
While piles of carnage mark our crimson course.
Hubba, in vain, his scatter'd ranks unites,
Prone, on the plain, the ensanguined dust he bites.
And that famed standard which the accursed loom
Of hags malignant wove in midnight gloom,
The sable raven, weiard art imbues
With drops distill'd from Hell's unwholesome dews,
Which often o'er the enthusiast troops had hung,
And, 'mid the foe, infernal horror flung;
For, in the magic folds, terrific glare
Pale Fear, and shameful Flight, and black Despair;
Torn, and defaced, amid the victor bands,
A monument of rescued freedom stands.
'Yet Erin's sons their banners still display,
Firm stand their squadrons, and dispute the day.—
Connel, the gallant chief, whose arms, of yore,
From the fierce Pict the spoils of conquest bore,
I mark'd conspicuous 'mid the warlike band,
Elate, and graced with ensigns of command.
With social voice, my ancient friend I sought,
And, in mild speech, with gentle chidings fraught,
I shew'd of broken faith the foul disgrace,
And base submission to an alien race;
Shew'd how it dimm'd Ierne's wonted fame,
Sullied the former honours of her name,
To aid the inroad of a foreign brood,
Of spoil rapacious, prodigal of blood.
Rising in warmth, of Alfred's deeds I told,
And Albion's friendly force, in days of old.—
I saw the glow of shame ingenuous rise,
Paint the flush'd cheek, and bend to earth the eyes.—
‘Enough, my friend! thy warning voice,’ he cried,
‘Shall bring Ierne's sons to Alfred's side.
‘Easy their hearts, in Honour's cause, to gain,
‘Manly and kind a brave and artless train.’
Instant along the line, from man to man,
With lightning speed, the generous impulse ran,
Each long'd to draw, on Albion's side, his sword,
Each vow'd destruction on the Danish horde;
Whose baleful sway had warp'd their kindred band,
And 'gainst a brother aim'd a brother's hand.
'At once the spears, with hostile arm address'd,
In stern defiance, at the opposing breast,
Lift high their steely points, and social join'd,
The mingling ensigns wanton in the wind.
'By recent victory warm'd, and Erin's aid,
Now plans of bold emprize the chief essay'd:
At his command, to Wessex' southmost shore
I go, the wasted region to explore,
If haply still some valiant breasts remain,
To arm, and vindicate their suffering reign;
When lo, the guidance of protecting Heaven,
More than a host in Alfred's name has given.'
'Bless'd omen! hail!' exclaims the seer divine,
'O, hail, of happier fate the unerring sign!
Alfred, to thee a pledge the Immortal Power
Gives, of approaching Glory's radiant hour.
As the event of this auspicious day
Fulfils the promise of my closing lay,
So shall each wondrous scene my verse foretold,
Its gorgeous tints, in lapse of time, unfold,
And mighty ages, as they roll along,
Shall spread thy name, shall realize my song.
Go forth, my Prince, at Fame's, at Duty's call,
Before thy sword shall Rage and Treachery fall;
Thy victor march, while favouring angels guide,
And Heaven approving, thunders on thy side.'
Confirming what the Bard prophetic spoke,
O'er the blue vault the distant thunder broke;
With awe and pleasure mix'd, the monarch heard,
And, 'rapt, his silent orisons preferr'd.
Down through the gloomy shade, along the stream,
Whose silver waves, in the dim twilight gleam,
To Athelney the king his course directs,
Where anxious love his wish'd return expects,
Whence many an eager look, at setting day,
Thrown o'er the waters, chides his tedious stay.
The night in council, and in slumber, worn,
Soon as the ruddy streaks of rising morn
Glow in the east, toward Kenwith's rescued towers
They march, to join victorious Oddune's powers.
With hasty step the exulting band advance,
Wave high the plumed crest, and shake the lance;
For little reck they now the baffled Dane,
His vanquish'd numbers scatter'd o'er the plain,
Eager the war with Albion's foes to wage,
Fired by reviving hope, and stung with generous rage.
Onward they move, o'er many a barren field,
Her stores where Plenty once was wont to yield;
Alas! neglected lay the weedy soil,
Untouch'd by ploughs, or aught of human toil,
'Mid empty cotes, and ruin'd hamlets round,
The stagnant marsh usurps the uncultured ground.
Touch'd with the scene, now Pity melts in tears,
Now the stern arm avenging Valour rears.
When, with meridian force, the orb of day
Hung high in Heaven's blue vault his sultry ray,
In pleasing prospect to the warriors' eyes,
The embattled heights of trophied Kenwick rise.
Here, proudly waving in the noontide beam,
Triumphant Oddune's Saxon banners stream;
There, on each painted fold, and blazon'd shield,
A golden harp shines on an azure field.
Meanwhile, in Kenwith's towers, the chiefs debate
Of Albion's better hopes, and happier fate;
Doubtful if Fortune, to her sea-girt shore,
Would Freedom's sway, and Concord's smiles, restore,
Or that her wayward fancy but beguiles
Their sanguine wish, with transitory smiles.
When lo, the warder's bugle loudly calls
The attentive warriors to the topmost walls,
Whence, far advancing o'er the extended glade,
They see a band in radiant arms array'd.
Speeding before the rest, a knightly train,
Spurring their fiery steeds, devour the plain.
And now the floating pennons meet their eyes,
Where, in bright fold, the Saxon courser flies.
Of friendly greeting now the shouts they hear,
And Alfred! Alfred! pierces every ear;
Now, lighting from his steed, before his bands,
Full in their sight their long-lost monarch stands.
Eager, as clustering bees on sounding wing
Pour from their hive around their idol king,
So crowd the impatient Saxons round their lord,
To life, to liberty, to arms, restored.
With generous transport godlike Alfred press'd
The happy victor to his grateful breast,
Nor did he grasp with cold or thankless hand,
The gallant leader of Ierne's band.
'Friends, brothers of the war,' the hero cried,
'Of these freed plains the bulwark and the pride,
Though, by your arms, to fame, to virtue true,
Much has been done, yet much remains to do.—
From those far borders where pellucid Tweed
Laves, with his silver stream, Northumbria's mead,
To where Sabrina's virgin waves divide
The neighbouring confines with their amber tide.
O'er all the breezy hills and fruitful plains,
The ruthless foe in power tyrannic reigns,
While, in sad exile from their native home,
Wretched, and bare, the houseless wanderers roam;
Or to the earth bent down in servile awe,
Receive, from cruel lords, oppressive law.—
Yet when they see our prosperous ensigns fly,
Hear our victorious shouts ascend the sky,
While England's and Ierne's sons unite,
To wage the war in England's monarch's right,
Soon shall rekindling Valour's embers burn,
The slave be free, the fugitive return.
'Where Druid Coitmaur spreads its leafy zone,
Now by the Saxon name of Selwood known,
To the steep site where, o'er the vale below,
Ægbryhta rears aloft the rocky brow,
Shape we our course, while, with inspiring sound,
Returning Freedom swells her pæan round.'
Not slow the generous train the path to tread,
Where Fame and Duty call'd, and Alfred led.
Soon on Ægbryhta's steep, 'mid Selwood's shade,
Flow'd Alfred's banner to the wind display'd.
Not in the midnight storm (no starry ray
To guide his vessel through the watery way,)
Feels the chill'd mariner more keen delight,
When the bright Pharos blazes to the sight,
Than Albion's sons now feel, to view on high,
This loadstar shine, of peace and victory.
By recent sufferings fired, the indignant train,
Who dragg'd inglorious Slavery's galling chain,
Or, from their home, to wilds and forests driven,
Beneath the inclement cope of Albion's heaven,
Croud, with impatient ardour, to efface
By manly hardihood, their late disgrace;
Prompt to avenge their own, their country's woes,
On the crush'd helmets of their vanquish'd foes.
All who can grasp a sword, for fight prepare,
While age and woman bend in fervent prayer.
From tongue to tongue the animating sound,
Was wafted to remotest Albion's bound,
That Alfred lived again, to dare the fight,
Undaunted champion of his country's right.
From Somerton's wide meads and verdant hills,
Where the rich vat the milky current fills;
From Wilton's champaigns wide, and chalky bourns,
Her slaughter'd sons where weeping Albion mourns;
From fair Berrochia's hills, and uplands green,
Of Saxon conquest late the splendid scene;
Berrochia—deck'd with rural pride her plains,
Lovely and chaste her maids, and brave her swains,
By royal favour graced, her fostering earth
The trophied seat of godlike Alfred's birth,
Her regions still by royal footsteps trod,
Of heroes, and of kings, the loved abode.—
From mild Hantona's soft and genial air,
Her spreading forests, and her pastures fair,
Save, on her southmost borders, where the main
Affords a refuge to the flying train,
All round the monarch crowd in loyal swarms,
Breathing revenge, and sheath'd in threatening arms.
Even from sad Mercia's subjugated seat,
Of Perfidy and Shame the dire retreat,
The gallant Leofric leads a generous few,
True to their banish'd prince, to England true;
Even from the chalky bourn of Cantium's shore,
To Alfred's aid, the favouring billows bore
Bertie, whose daring sires, in search of fame,
To Albion's coasts, from far Boruscia came,
What time his hardy warriors Hengist led
From Elba's brink to Thames' redundant bed;
Whose daring sons 'gainst Norman William stood,
Their Saxon rights maintaining with their blood.—
His trusty bow each manly yeoman draws,
Or bares his shining brand in Freedom's cause;
Freedom, resounds from each determined voice,
Freedom, the first, and death, the second choice.—
Proud of his subjects' faith, the warrior King
Stands forth, encircled by the attentive ring,
While long repeated shouts of rapture prove
That bless'd, unsullied crown, a people's love,
Emerging from Affliction's pale disguise,
His form majestic, to their gazing eyes
Shone, in terrific vengeance awful dress'd,
And all the English Hero stood confess'd.
But soon the dignity of sovereign sway
To Kindness' milder attributes gave way;
Alfred, surrounded by his gallant bands,
A long-lost parent 'mid his children stands,
Who hail, with Transport's tributary tear,
The man they love, the monarch they revere!
Yet, 'mid the squadrons spreading o'er the plain,
Looking for Caledonia's sons in vain,
In mournful tint pourtray'd, his fancy draws,
Blooming in youth, and warm in Virtue's cause,
The brave and generous Donald's hapless doom,
His warlike fire quench'd in a watery tomb;
From his full eye the tears of sorrow start,
And sighs of sever'd friendship swell his heart.
Remorseless War! and harsh Adversity!
Rude and severe instructors though ye be,
Yet, by the precepts of your rugged school,
Imperial greatness learns itself to rule;
'Tis your unflattering mirror that displays
A faithful image to the monarch's gaze.
In Fortune's prosperous hour the silken tribe,
Whose venal reverence hopes of favour bribe,
The sons of selfish Luxury and Guile,
Bask in the sunshine of the royal smile;
But let Misfortune's iron tempest beat,
The insect minions from the storm retreat.
Then Truth and Honour round the insulted throne,
Stand—Loyalty's impenetrable zone,
Unconquer'd guardians of their monarch's cause,
Palladium of their country's rights and laws.—
True Friendship thrives in war's unkindly soil,
Nurtur'd by mutual cares, and mutual toil.
Stern Independence there,—too proud to stand,
Obsequious bowing, 'mid the courtier band—
Flames in the foreward of the embattled field,
His bleeding breast his honour'd sovereign's shield.
And modest Diffidence, whose dazzled eye
Shrinks from the glance of scepter'd majesty,
On the refulgent glare of mail-clad foes
The eagle-look of bold defiance throws;
Presses before him in the battle's strife,
And ransoms, with his own, his monarch's life.
Then, while to union common dangers draw,
Lost in the soldier's love, the subject's awe,
O'er the respect that true allegiance feels,
The kindlier hue of warm affection steals,
And as their tints the social passions blend,
The sword that serves the prince, protects the friend.
Now burning to avenge his country's woes,
On scenes of war his thoughts the hero throws.
Guthrum the strong, of northern kings the heir,
To martial toil inured, and martial care,
Whose giant arm, in War's destructive field,
Scatter'd the files, and made the mighty yield;
Whose veteran skill the storm of fight could guide,
Check its wild rage, or loose its furious tide,
Proud, cruel, fierce, now held the sceptre-sword,
O'er conquer'd Albion, delegated lord.—
Alfred, revolving deep, what future fate
On Albion's persecuted shores must wait,
Should all her foes their scatter'd force combine,
Ruled by one chief, and bent on one design,
With firm demeanour, but with anxious breast,
Thus the brave leaders of his host address'd.
'Strong are our ruthless foes, their station strong,
And warlike skill informs their numerous throng;
Urged by rude force alone, we know too well
How fierce the tempest of their battle fell.—
What now their power, when temperate Valour leads,
And Wisdom guides the blow that Fury speeds?
Flush'd with success, while every bosom glows,
Secure of victory o'er vanquish'd foes;
And the slight 'vantage of the present hour,
Inflames their rage, nor aught impairs their power.
Not ours, with thoughtless confidence, to dare
The venturous shock of such unequal war,
Or, on the hazard of one doubtful day,
Throw the last remnant of our hope away.—
No—let some generous warrior, in whose breast
High courage beats, by prudence calm repress'd,
Unshock'd by peril, unsurprised by change,
Keen to observe, and skilful to arrange,—
If such there be,—with bold, yet wary eye,
The latent station of the foe descry;
Seek, in the guarded camp, the adverse band,
And trace each scheme by hostile cunning plann'd.
His life to fame a people's shouts shall call,
A people's tears immortalize his fall.'
The monarch ceased.—Around, in doubtful mood,
Irresolute and mute, the warriors stood.—
When thus again the King:—'I must not blame
The deep suspense that damps your generous flame.
As to my conduct, by the award of Heaven,
Of Albion's fate the sacred charge is given;
As me it most concerns of all mankind,
That Albion's sons enthrall'd, deliverance find;
As all the joys this bosom e'er can feel
Are solely center'd in my country's weal,—
Mine be the enterprize—'tis mine to go,
And search the secret councils of the foe.
As, to his ranks, this arm your march must guide,
Be, by these eyes, his warlike plans descried.
Following the line which Fame, which Duty draws,
I here devote me to my Country's cause,
Resolved to execute the perilous deed,
To live her guardian, or her martyr bleed.'
He paused.—A murmur spread through all the train,
When thus his words their rising zeal restrain:
'Fix'd as the will of Fate, my purposed course,
I deem him not my friend who checks its force.'
Sudden he quits the band, to thought resign'd,
The venturous scheme revolving in his mind.
In meditation deep, as through the shade,
Devious, his undirected footsteps stray'd,
Straight, from a distant harp, the warbling note,
Across the impervious forest, seem'd to float.
As, through the darkling mist, a transient beam
Of setting day oft throws a golden gleam,
So, o'er the pensive gloom that wrap'd his soul,
A sudden ray of consolation stole.
Well was he skill'd the song sublime to raise,
Or steep the impassion'd soul in melting lays.
Fair Leothete, of Gallia's dames the pride,
Led to his father's couch, a blooming bride,
Oft to his youthful fancy would unfold,
What ancient bards of Anglia's chiefs had told,
What time brave Hengist, from the Cimbrian shore,
To Britain's drooping sons their succour bore;
Hence caught his infant breast the mingled flame,
Of Heaven-descended song, and martial fame,
And, 'mid the toils of empire, still his mind
Had arts of peace, with deeds of prowess join'd.
'This be my guard,' reflecting, Alfred cried;
'This, through the adverse camp, my steps shall guide,
The sternest bosom, and the rudest arm,
Their savage aim forego, if music charm.'
Through the thick covert of the tangled wood
His listening ear the leading sound pursued,
Till, opening sudden on a verdant glade,
Stretch'd on the turf, he saw the minstrel laid;
Edwin, whose youthful ear, 'mid mountains hoar,
Had learn'd, of Cambrian bards, the tuneful lore,
And, high Plinlimmon's echoing rocks among,
Drunk the bold strains of Thaliessin's song.
From him the monarch ask'd the sacred lyre,
The minstrel's mystic wreath, and loose attire.
In this array, by danger unappal'd,
Onward he moves where Albion's safety call'd;
Yet, cautious of the perils that might rise
Round his lone march, and mar his bold emprise,
From scatter'd squadrons of the adverse power,
Who, bent on spoil, the bordering regions scour,
Brave Ethelwood, and a selected few,
Chiefs of tried virtue, resolute and true,
His course from midnight wanderers to defend,
Array'd in arms, their monarch's steps attend.
Through many a bosky dell their way they keep,
To the green foot of high Æcglea's steep.
When thus the King:—'Here, friends, your task is done,
What else remains to act, I act alone.
Should, from the hostile camp, some vagrant eye
Your plume-crown'd helms and gleaming arms descry,
Inglorious death our lot, or shameful thrall,
England's last hope extinguish'd in our fall.
'For two successive days, beneath this bourn
Conceal'd, with caution wait your friend's return.
If these elapse, conclude your Alfred lost,
The station quit, and seek my faithful host;
There, with our valiant peers, and Erin's chief,
Explore the means of succour and relief:
Either with desperate arm resolve to dare
Again, the bold uncertainty of war;
Or if, alas, fair Albion's shores must bow
Beneath the insults of a cruel foe,
Let him not boast o'er Albion's sons to reign,
But only sway a waste unpeopled plain.
Or verdant Erin's sea-encircled lands
Shall yield a refuge to your exiled bands,
Or Scotia's heights, indented by the wave,
Or Cambria's mountain-rocks your powers may save;
As erst, to Britain's native sons, their seat
Gave, from our conquering sires, a safe retreat;
So may they to their ancient foes afford
A sure asylum from the Danish sword.'
He said, and warmly press'd each friendly hand,
Assumed his minstrel garb, and left the band.
Now, unmolested by the scouts, he pass'd,
For o'er the bard a sacred shield is cast,
Graced, and revered, even by the fiercest throng,
In conscious safety moves the man of song.
By wasted fields and ruin'd farms he hies,
Till, full in sight, the Danish tents arise;
There, fearless mingling with the hostile train,
He pours sweet Melody's enchanting strain;
Entranced, around the listening Pagans stand,
And transient rapture soothes the savage band,
While, with attentive look, amid his foes
A soldier's eye the royal minstrel throws,
Surveys the trenches' depth, the turf-raised bar,
And, as he warbles, meditates the war.
Amid the banquet's glee proud Guthrum heard
The strain melodious of the scepter'd bard.
Summon'd to grace the royal tent he stands,
And sweeps the thrilling strings with skilful hands.
His ardent mind, as struggling passions fire,
Indignant thus to prostitute his lyre,
He pour'd such fervid energy of song,
As roused the fierceness of the boisterous throng:
For fancied fights the tipsy rout prepare,
And grasp imagined arms, and beat the empty air.
Till, as the fumes of foul debauch arise,
With limbs enervate, and with swimming eyes,
To feverish rest the reeling train retire,
And drown in sleep the visionary fire.
With joyful look the wary hero view'd
Stern Vigilance, by long success, subdued;
Saw daring Courage turn'd to frantic heat,
And Victory prepare her own defeat;
But, as along the noisy camp he pass'd,
Listening to Riot's roar in every blast,
Startled with horror and amaze, he hears
The whisper'd sound of 'Alfred!' strike his ears.
Instant he turns, alarm'd—his warlike hand
The useless harp quits for the shining brand,
When thus the voice—'My King! my master! say,
What fiend has tempted here thy dangerous way,
'Mid scenes where ruthless Hate and envious Strife,
Lurk, in dread ambush, for thy sacred life?
O, fly this fatal place, weak all disguise
To hide thy well-known form from Treason's eyes.
Many are here, like me, of Saxon race,
The servile ministers of foul Disgrace,
Prompt to betray, for Treachery's base reward,
That prince whose life my dying arm would guard.'
Soon as these accents reach'd the monarch's ear,
'Edgar!' he cried, 'my faithful Edgar here?
Edgar, to whom, on that destructive day,
Which tore my every hope and joy away,
Elsitha, and my infant son, I gave,
From death, or insult worse than death, to save.
Torture no words can paint, my bosom rives.'—
'She lives, my prince! my friend! Elsitha lives.'
Oft Death's pale image in the battle's storm
Had met the hero in its direst form,
Nor did he e'er in ghastlier shape appear,
Than, when in Edgar's voice, a traitor near,
Show'd him a fate that Valour might appal,
Slain in disguise, unhonour'd in his fall.
Yet, in those scenes, to Duty's claims resign'd,
Nor doubt, nor terror, shook his mighty mind.
Amid distress and danger firm he stood,
As Albion's cliffs defy the stormy flood,
Frown on the raging surf with haughty brow,
And view the idle breakers chafe below.
That mind, nor danger nor distress could tame,
In every hour, and every scene, the same,
Tumultuous trembled at Elsitha's name.
Now, that she lived, was wild impetuous joy;
Now fears and doubts the springing hope destroy.
For she the woes of slavery might prove,
Disgraceful chains, or more disgraceful love.
'Rescued from death, from shame,' the youth exclaims,
'The first and fairest of our English dames,
Deep, in a cloister's holy shelter veil'd,
In safety rests from human search conceal'd,
Where, in pellucid current, Avon laves
The irriguous meadows with her silver waves.—
Precarious safety! for the victor Dane
Awes, with surrounding hosts, the neighbouring plain;
No mansion sacred, no retreat secure,
If plunder tempt, or beauty's charms allure.'
The warrior heard—at once his throbbing breast,
A thousand joys, a thousand fears possess'd.
The glowing image of Elsitha's charms,
With rapturous hope the lover's bosom warms;
The baneful thoughts of former pain subside,
Lost in wild Extacy's tumultuous tide.—
Now torturing Fancy paints the sacred fane,
Forced by the unbridled fury of the Dane,
While Indignation's fiery currents roll,
And all the warrior rushes on his soul.
'My friend! my better genius, come!' he cries,
The avenging hero flashing from his eyes;
'Alone, unfriended, though I seem to stand,
Arms, grasp'd by Faith and Valour, are at hand,
Soldiers resolved to conquer or to fall,
Their succouring force if outraged Virtue call.'
Through the still camp, in sleep lethargic bound,
They pass, and reach, unseen, the turf-raised mound;
Unseen, they guard the pass, for slumbers deep,
In death-like rest, the drunken warders steep.
Through the thick shade they bend their silent way,
Where Ethelwood, and England's warriors lay:
With joy and gratitude they saw restored,
Crown'd with success, and safe, their much-loved lord.
With kind and friendly zeal the faithful train
Heap the full board, and spread the couch in vain;
No thought has he of hunger or of rest,
While fair Elsitha's image fills his breast;
Even with diminish'd lustre Glory shined,
And love, with England, shared the monarch's mind.
Not the wild blaze by feverish passion blown,
For chaste Affection's pure unsullied throne,
Is Alfred's breast, whence those true virtues spring,
Which form a people's friend, a patriot king.
With all their leader's wrongs enflamed, the band,
Elate in arms, a radiant phalanx stand.
By Edgar guided, through the waning night,
Through the first orient streaks of dawning light,
Onward they press,—but when the mounting ray
Profusely pour'd the golden flood of day,
Cautious, and wary, of the neighbouring foe,
Beneath the shade their wearied limbs they throw:
But soon as Eve distills her balmy dew,
Again the chiefs their silent march renew,
Till, urging on the sable noon of night,
As the bright stream reflects a feeble light,
On its green edge, by contrast dim, display'd,
The holy turrets rise in glimmering shade.—
Sudden they halt—when, with terrific clang
Of martial shouts, the echoing arches rang;
Blazes with sudden light the solemn pile,
And torches glide along each fretted ile.
With female shrieks the vaulted roofs resound,
By the loud bell's tremendous pealing drown'd.
The notes of horror strike the valiant train,
Thrill in their ears, and harrow every vein.
Not so their chief—at once his active mind,
In passion cool, each circumstance combined.—
That one neglected moment might destroy
The treasury of all his promised joy
He saw—and bade the clarion's warlike breath
Swell the vindictive strain of war and death;
Through every cell the martial thunder broke,
To each astonish'd Dane defiance spoke.—
Rushing before his troops, with ardent breast,
Full on the foe the gallant Alfred press'd.
The clouds of grief that o'er his exiled head,
So long their melancholy shadow spread,
Now vanish to the winds—he sees once more,
Opposed in arms, the invaders of his shore,
Clad in his people's spoils, and red with Albion's gore.
Amid the ranks, with whirlwind speed he drives,
Unnumber'd breasts the sword of vengeance rives.
Now rushing on, the Saxon troops pursue
The daring line their leader's faulchion drew.
Before the gathering storm the oppressive band,
Already scatter'd by the monarch's hand,
With broken ranks recede, and, vanquish'd, yield
To Alfred, and to England's sons, the field!
The holy inmates of the lone abode,
Virgins, and matrons, consecrate to God,
As with pure zeal, for this unlook'd for aid,
The grateful orison of thanks they paid;
The intrepid warrior bless'd, whose arm was given
To guard the hallow'd votaries of Heaven.
But who the agonies of bliss can paint
When Alfred clasp'd again his widow'd saint!
Clasp'd her, with transport, to a breast adored,
To life, to love, to happiness restored;
Rescued from savage insults, rude alarms,
To joy and safety, by a husband's arms,
The first, sole, passion of her opening youth,
Mirror of constancy, and soul of truth;
Dreadful in fight as Heaven's red bolts of death,
Gentle in peace as May's ambrosial breath;
For whom her brightest laurels Conquest wove,
Twined with the myrtle wreaths of nuptial love.—
Could one condemn'd, alas! to weep in vain,
Virtues he ne'er must hope to meet again,
Behold, for him reversed, the general doom,
And love connubial rescued from the tomb;
As fond Admetus clasp'd Alcestes' charms,
As Eleonora bless'd her Edward's arms,
His mind, to Fancy's eye, might picture well,
Transports which few have felt, which none can tell.
And now his arms his smiling infant press'd,
Now drew his blushing consort to his breast;
From her soft eyes, which chasten'd fondness speak,
A lucid tear steals down her lovely cheek;
So the mild sun-beam of the vernal hour,
Oft watry shines through April's crystal shower.
He read the enquiring thought that tear express'd,
And thus in accent bland his queen address'd.
'Of many a valiant chief, since last we met,
Glory's bright beams in shades of death are set.
Even he, my dear ally, of Mercia's line,
Than brother more, Elsitha, since he's thine,
Burthred, from native Albion wandering far,
The sacrifice of Treason and of War,
On distant shores has breathed the expiring sigh,
No friend to tend his couch, or close his eye.'
'O witness, Heaven!' the royal Dame replied,
'To thee I speak, my husband, and my pride,
That, thus again to thy dear arms restored,
Saved and protected by thy victor sword,
This bosom swells alone with Rapture's sigh,
No tears but those of Transport fill this eye;
Bowing, in gratitude, for favours given,
Shall this weak mind arraign the will of Heaven?'
Here stopp'd her faultering voice, while copious flow
The mingled tides of Pleasure and of Woe.
For while she raised her eye in praise, the tear
Of anxious diffidence still trembled there,
Till her loved consort, with affection true,
Kiss'd, from its lovely source, the pearly dew.—
By mutual fondness every doubt allay'd,
And years of pain in one short moment paid.
When thus brave Ethelwood—'My warning voice
Breaks on this happy scene against my choice—
Short is, alas! the insidious calm;—around
Soon shall again the storm of conflict sound,
Soon the returning foe, in morning's hour,
O'er this retreat his numerous bands will pour.
A troop in arms, so valiant, and so near,
Will wake, at once, his vengeance and his fear.
Toward Selwood's shade, and high Ægbryhta's bourn,
To meet your friends and brave allies, return,
Who many an anxious look impatient fling,
Far o'er the horizon's verge, to seek their king.'
The Monarch heard, and Glory's kindling flame
Shot, with redoubled ardour, through his frame.
When selfish passion clouds the warrior's breast,
Dim shine her mouldering flames, by sloth depress'd,
But from chaste Love, and faithful Beauty's arms,
With heighten'd radiance blaze her heavenly charms.
Instant he gives the sign;—in bright array
The troops obedient measure back their way;
Not as when wild Dismay, and pallid Fear,
Hang on the vanquish'd squadron's flying rear.
With slow and steady foostep they recede,
Yet in retreat look back to Victory's meed,
With eager hope of future conflict burn,
And lingering go, more dreadful to return.—
Now, as in pleasing prospect, to their eyes
The tented summits of Ægbryhta rise,
Wondering they see, upon the aerial brow,
Cambria's and Caledonia's banners flow.
Young Donald's bands, saved from the waves and wind,
On Cambria's coast, by Mervin's warriors join'd,
Mervin, who ruled Dimeta's western plains,
The princely leader of Silurian swains,
March'd, with united squadrons, to his aid,
Their ensigns each in friendly folds display'd.
Here, crown'd with recent conquest, to the skies
The snow-white steed in Saxon banners flies,
There Cambria's griffin, on the azure field,
In snaky volumes writhes around the shield;
And Scotia's lion, proud, erect, and bold,
Rears high his irritable crest in gold.
Gold too her harp, and strung with silver wire,
Erin her arms displays with kindred fire,
And Britain's sister isles in Alfred's cause conspire.
Proud of his native chiefs and brave allies,
In Alfred's breast new hopes of victory rise.
Sincere he clasps, in Friendship's warm embrace,
The warlike chief of each congenial race;
But when he saw the Scotish prince restored,
Donald, whose timeless doom he oft deplored;
Donald, who urged with more than friendly zeal,
Scotia's free sons to arm for England's weal;
Donald, whom oft his pensive thought would form,
Floating, a corse, before the enfuriate storm,
His hoary locks while wretched Gregor tore,
Devoting Alfred's cause, and England's shore,
With love unfeign'd, and gratitude, he press'd
A rescued brother to his throbbing breast,
Anxious to learn what potent arm could save
Him and his gallant warriors from the wave.
When thus the Prince:—'Forced by the billowy roar,
With dreadful impulse, on the craggy shore,
Where rose abrupt the mountain from the tide,
The wild wave dashing on its rugged side,
Onward we rush'd to fate;—when in our sight,
Shewn by the lurid tempest's forked light,
Flash'd sudden gleam of hope,—beneath the brow
Whence high Dimeta's glittering turrets show,
There opes a spacious bay, where Milver's steep
Guards the still harbour from the howling deep,
In peaceful calm, there gently heaves the main,
And round, the angry whirlwind raves in vain.
Keneth, whose watchful eyes the advantage mark,
Steers, through the severing rocks, his shatter'd bark,
The flaming torch then rears aloft, to guide
Our labouring vessals through the placid tide.
The wave-worn bands assembling on the coast,
As anxious we survey our scatter'd host,
That ship alone our sorrowing eyes deplore,
Which royal Alfred through the surges bore.—
What empty rites of funeral woe we paid
To thee, my friend; the generous Cambrian's aid;
And how, when Fame declared that Albion's lord,
From the dire storm to Albion's fields restored,
Waved high the crest, and shook the avenging sword,
By valiant Mervin join'd, from Milver's bay,
To join the bold emprize we sped our way,
Some fitter time shall show—these hours demand
The leader's counsel, and the soldier's hand.'
The generous King now to his consort's charms
Courteous presents his new compeers in arms.
With manly firmness, and with martial tread,
Advancing, Mervin bows his helmed head.
Connal avows himself chaste Beauty's knight,
Her slave in peace, her champion in the fight.
In doubtful awe young Donald's steps advance,
And as his eye, abash'd, with sidelong glance
Caught fair Elsitha's form, with glowing hue,
Low on the ground, a downcast look he threw,
While, in Confusion's blushing tint array'd,
His faultering voice his inward thoughts betray'd.
In royal Burthred's hospitable court,
Of valour and of wit the famed resort,
Ere Scandinavia's sons, with felon sway,
Swept every polish'd charm of life away;
Where many a chief, to win Elsitha's eye,
The manly skill display'd of chivalry,
As once, in friendly sojourn, Donald staid,
He view'd, with passion'd eye, the royal maid;
Though but a stripling, fated then to prove
The inevitable tyranny of Love.
Vain were his vows, his fond pretensions vain,
Nor vows nor prayers her favouring smile could gain;
Already valiant Alfred's courteous art,
Had fix'd his image in her virgin heart,
While deeds of generous worth and high renown,
Virtue's true meed, and laurell'd Glory's crown,
Recorded by a people's general voice,
Fire her pure breast, and consecrate her choice.
Leaving the Mercian court, he sought to foil
His hopeless love, by hardihood and toil;
Till well, he deem'd, that time and absence join'd,
Had chaced the soft invader from his mind.
For when his sire led back from Erin's coast,
By Triumph graced, the Caledonian host,
Drinking each warlike tale with greedy ears,
He burns to emulate the deeds he hears,
Secure that Love had lost his faded flame,
Quench'd in the brighter blaze of martial fame.
Even when he learn'd from Alfred's dreadful tale,
What perils dire his hapless queen assail,
Though in her cause to arm he eager sought,
Fame only edged his sword, he fondly thought.
Love, so he vainly deem'd, had wing'd his flight,
And Fame and Friendship charm'd him to the fight;
For friendship still remain'd when passion fell,
And still he wish'd the fair Elsitha well;
Her image bright, yet cold as Dian's ray,
Through toil and hardship led his venturous way;
Around his bark when roar'd the wintry storm,
Mild Friendship cheer'd him in Elsitha's form;
Elsitha's friendship, like the leading star,
Guided his footsteps through the paths of war.
But as the dew, which oft, at early dawn,
In wintry whiteness, clothes the summer lawn,
Melts, when the orb of day new gilds the plain,
And verdure reassumes its genial reign;
So, from the lustre of Elsitha's eye,
The cold resolves of frozen friendship fly;
The vainly smother'd passion stands confess'd,
And all the lover glows in Donald's breast.
Yet to his heart he shudders to declare,
The thoughts his reason reads indignant there.
On Virtue's solid rock his conduct placed,
By Duty guarded, and by Honour graced,
O'er him the fiery floods of passion roll,
Consume his frame, but ruffle not his soul.
Hence, though his mind her steady seat maintains,
A subtle poison steals through all his veins;
While, in his languid eye, his sorrows speak,
And tear Health's ruddy blossoms from his cheek.
So o'er the early bloom of opening spring,
When Eurus harshly waves the ungenial wing,
Though, rooted deep, the vigorous plant defies
The chilling blasts of unpropitious skies,
Yet the green germs that bursting first appear,
The vernal prelude of the youthful year,
Shrink from the breeze—and Maia's gentle hours
Mourn the bare spray despoil'd of leaves and flowers.
Henry James Pye's Other Poems
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Comments about this poem (Alfred. Book IV. by Henry James Pye )
(March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963)
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