Henry James Pye (20 February 1745 – 11 August 1813 / London, England)
Alfred. Book V.
ARGUMENT. Episode of Ceolph and Emmeline—March of the Army.—Battle of Eddington.
'Mid Selwood's sylvan walks, with martial care,
The king arrays his valiant troops for war.—
As when autumnal vapours dimly rise,
And load, with future storms, the misty skies,
From the surrounding hills and bordering main
The gathering clouds condense, then break in rain;
So, from each green retreat and bowering shade,
The eager warriors crowd to Alfred's aid.
Dark, on the plain, the thick battalion stands,
To burst, tempestuous, on the adverse bands.
As o'er the tented field the squadrons spread,
Stretch'd on the turf the hardy soldier's bed;
While the strong mound, and warder's careful eyes,
Protect the midnight camp from quick surprise,
A voice, in hollow murmurs from the plain,
Attracts the notice of the wakeful train.
'Soldiers! who prowling wide in ceaseless round,
Trace the fenced circuit of the embattled mound,
To Alfred's tent a wandering warrior bring,
Who knows what much concerns your martial king.'
From guard to guard the words in whispers pass'd,
And reach'd the monarch's watchful ear at last;
For on the leader's eye the ambrosial dews
Of balmy slumber scanty drops diffuse.—
Convey'd with caution through the silent bands,
Before the royal tent the stranger stands.—
'Warrior!' the monarch cries; 'whate'er thy birth,
Or Briton born, or rear'd on foreign earth,
Freely thy wish disclose, secure to find,
For pain, and care, a sympathizing mind,
Train'd in Misfortune's rugged school, I know,
A man myself, to pity human woe.'
'Yes, thou may'st pity those,' he stern replied,
'By error plunged in dark Misfortune's tide,
Even to thy proudest foe may'st mercy give,
Spare the fallen head, and bid the suppliant live;
But he, whose traitor heart, by Envy fired
Against his Prince, his Country, has conspired;
Who, to avenge Ambition's baffled aim,
Gave up his native land to sword and flame,
Can hope no guerdon from the brave and good,
But rage repaid by rage, and blood by blood;
Mercy in vain the suppliant's grief may feel,
When public Justice lifts her sacred steel.
Should generous Alfred feel a wretch's woe,
The patriot King must crush his country's foe.
Strike then a breast, whose arteries swell to pour,
To injured Albion's wrongs, a crimson shower,
And, to the manes of thy slaughter'd host,
Send tidings of revenge by Ceolph's ghost.'
He paused—and, as the traitor stood confess'd,
Alternate passions shook the monarch's breast:
Now, tugging at his heart, vindictive ire
Breathes through his heaving form a fatal fire,
While myriads of his bravest warriors slain,
Whose limbs, unburied, strew'd the empurpled plain,
While cries of infancy, and groans of age,
Unhappy victims of apostate rage,
Sit on his sword, and urge the instant blow
Of rigid justice on the treacherous foe.
And now the conscious dignity that leads
The undaunted soldier to heroic deeds,
Aware, though injured right the stroke demand,
That blood, thus shed, must stain the warrior's hand,
Who grasps a sword that never yet had sped
Its force resistless on a prostrate head,
Arrests his arm, by cruel wrongs though strung,
And checks the blow that o'er the victim hung.
Ceolph at once perceived the generous strife,
And thus pursued his tale.—'This forfeit life
Think not I wish to save—to carry hence
A conscience deeply stain'd by foul offence.—
Each avenue to fame and virtue cross'd,
A name dishonour'd, and a daughter lost;
A daughter, by a ruffian's venom'd breath
Condemn'd, alas! to horrors worse than death,
Can Ceolph, wretched Ceolph, wish to live?—
No!—all that he can ask, or thou canst give,
Are means of vengeance.—Set me once again
In the red vaward of the embattled plain.—
I seek not glory—from her radiant roll,
Envy's malicious demons snatch'd my soul;—
But let me hunt, amid the toils of fight,
The fiend who dragg'd me down from Virtue's height.
Perhaps this arm, amid the battle's roar,
With slaughter flush'd, and steep'd in Danish gore,
Through the protective shield and threatening dart,
May reach the foul abode of Oswald's heart:
Then shall, in peace, this tortured spirit fly,
Whose only wish is vengeance, and to die.
'O, Alfred!—coward tears! why dim my sight,
Where dire revenge should glare with lurid light?
O, Alfred! let thine ear my wrongs receive,
Pity that wretch even Mercy can't forgive.
'Short are the joys malignant passions yield.—
Scarce were the horrors cold of Wilton's field,
When, Envy's sanguinary frenzy o'er,
The pangs of conscious guilt my bosom tore.
I saw my pride had urged Destruction's band,
To sate their vengeance on my native land;
Saw Rapine, Lust, and Murder's furious brood,
Their footsteps drench in carnage and in blood;
Saw Innocence and Beauty plead, in vain,
To the wild license of a cruel train,
Who, scorning sweet Endearment's 'suasive breath,
The shrieking virgin woo with threats of death.
Vainly I strove, with ineffectual aim,
To damp wild Devastation's spreading flame;
They mock'd the worthless friend by Envy made,
And scorn'd the soldier who his Prince betray'd.—
Lives there a horde so rude as not to know
The ills from violated faith that flow?
As not to hate the wretch who arms the hand
Of foreign vengeance, 'gainst his native land?
Despised by those my treason fail'd to gain,
Reviled and hated by my feudal train,
Whom my base arts had lured, from virtuous fame,
To scenes of insult, misery, and shame,
Still was I doom'd by righteous Heaven to know
The biting anguish of a nearer woe.—
My Emmeline!—unbend that brow severe,
O, curse the traitor, but the parent hear!
My Emmeline—sweet as the opening rose,
Pure as the gale o'er violet banks that blows,
Attracted Oswald's eye; a chief allied
To Guthrum's line, his mate in power and pride.
The wretch whose specious breath, with fiend-like art,
Blew the dire embers lurking in my heart,
Raised to gigantic shape my fancied wrong,
And drew my recreant soul to Denmark's throng.
Of me he ask'd the maid,—my anxious thought
Saw his design with foul dishonour fraught.
With feign'd respect I strove to soothe his pride,
And undervalued what my fears denied.
Sullen he stalk'd away, nor deign'd reply;
I mark'd his lowering brow and fiery eye;
Full well I knew how, in the impatient heart,
Rankles of disappointed hope the smart.
Short the suspense—the hand of lawless power
Tore my sad daughter from her peaceful bower.
In vain to Guthrum's feet I suppliant came,
The sword of Justice in my cause to claim.
While tears, and prayers, and threats, alternate strove,
As the wild gust of veering passion drove.
Alas! a traitor's tears unpitied flow,
And weak the threats of a dishonour'd foe.
Then late Remorse, with all a Fury's tongue,
In my stunn'd ears ‘Woe to the vanquish'd,’ rung.
'Contemn'd, neglected, as an outcast vile
I pass'd, unnoticed, by the warder's file.—
Alfred, to thee I come!—on thy decree
Thy faithless vassal's fate depending see;
Give me, 'tis all I ask, with pitying breath,
The means of vengeance, or the stroke of death.'
'O, far from me,' replies the King, 'to tread,
Remoreseles, on repentant Misery's head,
Draw heavier vengeance from the thundering cloud,
And break the wretched heart that Heaven has bow'd.
Backward to trace Rebellion's path be thine,
To aid returning Virtue's effort mine.
Even now the troops, impatient of delay,
Chide night's slow march, and pant for rising day;
Already neigh their steeds, their banners fly,
While shouts, and shrill-toned clarions rend the sky.
Frowning through tears, indignant Mercia's host
Burn to avenge their prince, their leader, lost.
Now youthful Leofric guides them to the plain,
Breathing defiance 'gainst the treacherous Dane.
Amid their ranks the award of battle wait,
And vindicate an injured rival's fate.
Redeem, by manly vengeance on the foe,
The stroke that laid unhappy Burthred low.
Who, forced by fate, new climates to explore,
A wretched wanderer, sought the Italian shore;
Where, sunk by toil and grief, imperial Rome
Rear'd, o'er his sainted head, the hallow'd tomb.'
'And is he fall'n?—the virtuous and the brave!—
Sleeps Burthred?—sleeps he in a foreign grave?—
O, glorious martyr in thy country's cause!
O'er thee no veil of shame Reflection draws.—
With indignation o'er my recreant head
While every friend to patriot faith shall tread,
With grief eternal o'er thy sacred bier
Shall injured Albion shed the votive tear.
Yes!—in the foremost ranks of war I'll stand,
And point the path to thy avenging band,
First of thy squadron will I dare the plain,
Lead them o'er streams of blood, and hills of slain;
Dread as the baleful meteor of the night,
My sword shall guide them through the thickest fight:
No plated buckler's ample fold I need,
To guard a wretched breast resolved to bleed.
Yet, when returning from the fatal field,
Borne, a pale corse, upon the soldier's shield,
Even Ceolph shall be pardon'd when they tell
How brave he fought, how penitent he fell.'
Now in the east the morn's gray banner floats,
Loud breathe the inspiring clarion's martial notes.
The impatient warriors instant at the sound,
Spread, in refulgent phalanx, o'er the ground.—
Again the clarion blows—in bright array
The dazzling columns win their winding way.
As now the mountain's airy brow they scale,
Pace the smooth plain, or thrid the woodland dale,
From their refulgent helms, and glittering shields,
A flood of radiant glory gilds the fields.
From morn's first orient blush, till dewy eve,
Nor food nor rest the ardent host relieve.
But when, in rising Luna's silver beam,
The towering summits of Æcglea gleam,
The warriors' limbs, forespent with constant toil,
In needful slumber press the grassy soil,
Their march renewing with the morning light,
New strung their nerves, and panting for the fight.
Passing the borders of the forest drear,
A shriek of female anguish pierced the ear,
And, starting from the shade, a figure wan,
With piteous plaint arrests the wondering van.
Loose flow'd her careless robe, her streaming hair
Floated, in ruffled tangles, to the air,
And on her livid cheek and haggard eye,
Throned in imperial state, sat misery.
With voice by weeping choked, convulsed her breast,
The woe-lorn form the passing host address'd.
'O, see before you, humbled to the dust,
A victim sad of cruelty and lust.—
When in the battle's doubtful shock ye join,
Think of the horrors of a fate like mine;
The curses of a violated maid
Shall nerve each arm, shall sharpen every blade.
For me—conceal'd my lineage and my name—
Ah, once my country's glory! now its shame!—
One only way remains from deep disgrace
To clear the offspring of a noble race.'—
She ceased—and instant in her struggling breast
Her fatal poniard sheath'd, and sunk to rest.
Half petrified around the warriors stand,
When, sudden darting from the astonish'd band,
Rush'd Ceolph forth—and as his eye survey'd
The breathless reliques of the murder'd maid,
'My Emmeline!'—with frantic tone, he cried,
Then sunk in death-like torpor by her side.—
Now starting from the trance,—his maniac eye
Fix'd on the pale remains that bleeding lie.—
From the pierced heart he drew the reeking blade,
With frantic look the ensanguined point survey'd,
While from his eye-balls darts, with horrid glare,
The enfuriate wildness of supreme despair.—
The impulse checking, ere he gave the wound,
Furious he dash'd the weapon to the ground,
And, clasping to his breast, with frenzied force,
The mangled bosom of the beauteous corse,
'O, injured Emmeline!—O, ill-starr'd maid!
Sad victim of a father's crimes;' he said,
'Awhile this loath'd existence I endure,
To make the deadly blow of vengeance sure.
Ye ruthless ministers of hell! I come,
The author of my own and Oswald's doom!'
While grief and rage in every bosom strove,
Breathing revenge, the generous warriors move.
Conceal'd by forests deep, whose ample shade
Spread gloom impervious o'er the twilight glade,
Through many a silvan glen the silent throng,
Unseen, unheard, vindictive march along,
Till, issuing on the plain, the verdant height
Of Eddington breaks sudden on their sight;
Conspicuous waving on whose breezy brow,
Proud Scandinavia's threatening banners flow,
Wide spreads the dread array, with ruddy gleam
Their bright arms glittering in the evening beam.
Fired at the view, instinctive ardour runs
Through every band of Britain's mingled sons;
On England's plains the flash of foreign arms
By Conquest crown'd, the coldest bosom warms;
While the brave leader of the British name,
With kindling accents fans the rising flame.
'My faithful subjects, and my brave allies,
All equal heirs of Albion's fostering skies,
Nor peace, nor liberty, can Britain know,
But from the fall of yon injurious foe.
The paths through yon embattled barrier lie,
That lead to freedom and to victory.—
On civil strife what horrid ills await,
Of foreign servitude the grievous state,
No words of mine need paint—for lo! it stood,
Drawn in the red charactery of blood
Full in your sight—what time the hapless maid,
Sad victim! fell, self-murder'd, on the glade.—
Is there a father, lover, husband, here,
Holds female charms, and female honour dear?
Let indignation urge each fatal blow,
With more than mortal vengeance on the foe.
Is there a warrior, 'mid this valiant train,
Who mourns a parent, son, or brother slain?
O, let him speak the sorrows of his breast
In strokes of thunder on the Danish crest.
If there be one, by guilty wiles misled,
Who 'gainst his native land his force has sped,
O, let him expiate now the dire disgrace,
By tenfold vengeance on yon hostile race;
And, in the blood of Scandinavia's horde,
Wash off the stain from his polluted sword.
'And ye from Cambria's hills who join our band,
From Caledonia's rocks, and Erin's strand,
Generous and brave compeers! O, now be shewn
The only strife that future times shall own.
A glorious strife of Britain's isles the pride,
The friendly contest ne'er may time decide;
Eternal be the conflict which shall fight,
First in their monarch's, and their country's right!'
Though now, in mellower tint, the orb of day
Sheds o'er the hostile camp a golden ray,
Yet each bold leader of the associate bands
The expected sign of instant war demands;
But Alfred checks their zeal, till morning's light,
Dispelling all the vapoury shades of night,
Shall pour new ardour through the warrior's breast,
Gay, as the laughing hour, and fresh from rest.
Long was the march, and all the rugged way
Through thorny brakes, and tangled thickets lay.
Conscious that soft repose their limbs require,
The prudent chief restrains their generous fire;
For though, when high the flames of battle rise,
Valour's impatient fury strength supplies;
Firm and unfailing sinews must sustain
The lengthen'd labours of the bloody plain.
But while the soldiers, on the tented ground,
The sweets of slumber and reflection found,
The balmy cordial of refreshing rest
Ne'er soothed to peace the princely leader's breast.
Now through the silent camp his footsteps steal,
To wake the wearied centry's drooping zeal;
Now anxious on his sleepless couch reclined,
He calls forth all the treasures of his mind,
His thoughts the various forms of battle weigh,
And plan the conflict of the coming day.
Though each resource of martial art he tried,
Not on his skill alone the chief relied;
Not on his host, though every bosom, fired
With patriot zeal, a patriot soul inspired.
Not always in the lists of life belong
The wreaths of conquest to the swift and strong;
A Power beyond the span of human souls,
The wisest plans of erring man controuls.
To that tremendous Power, whose awful will
Swells the loud storm, bids the wild roar be still,
Fires the red bolt, or moulds the crystal hail,
Or breathes soft fragrance in the vernal gale;—
Who, o'er the wretched outcast's houseless head,
His adamantine shield can favouring spread;
The cause forlorn of suffering Virtue own,
Or hurl Oppression from his guilty throne;
To that dread Power he bows, with heart sincere,
'And, fearing Heaven, despises earthly fear.'
Nor was exempt from nearer, humbler grief,
The pious votary and the royal chief.
Too oft of selfish pride the poisonous taint,
Rankling, infects the patriot and the saint.
Not Alfred such—his generous feelings prove
Each charity of friendship and of love;
From warm benevolence each germ that sprung,
With shoot congenial, round his bosom clung:
And that divine ambition fill'd his mind
Which grasps the happiness of human kind.
Soon as the harbinger of morn, on high
Beat Heaven's blue vault, and caroll'd through the sky;
When now the first pale streaks of rising day
Oped, on the steaming hills, their eyelids gray,
Collected from the tents, the impatient band,
Waiting the word, in listening silence stand.
Then, as his eye along the embattled van,
Fill'd with the pleasing hope of conquest, ran,
A pensive languor in the monarch's breast
Damp'd fame's keen ardour, and that hope repress'd.—
Full many a youth, in manhood's prime, he knew,
Who now the balmy breath of morning drew,
Would, ere the dewy shades of eve descend,
On Earth's cold breast a lifeless corse extend:
O'er them, of Glory's amaranthine flowers,
Their country's hands shall shed perennial showers,
Secure alike of honour's purest meed,
For her who conquer, or for her who bleed.—
And now before the warrior's melting eyes,
The peerless beauties of Elsitha rise,—
While round him float the clarion's loud alarms,
He clasps the lovely matron in his arms;
With manly fondness chides her anxious cares,
Or sportive mocks the sorrows that he shares,
Nor quits the endearing fold with tearless eye,
Though war's vindictive clangor rends the sky.—
When threatening round the fearless warrior's head,
The rising thunders of the battle spread,
When clouds of iron-tempest o'er him lower,
And pour unnumber'd deaths in arrowy shower,
Unmoved he stands, in zeal heroic warm,
A breathing bulwark 'gainst the furious storm;
As the firm-rooted oak the tempest braves,
As the steep cliff defies the angry waves;
But the soft magic of Affection's tear
Wakes in the bravest heart a transient fear:
Though love, heroic ardour may inspire,
Its object weeping damps the hero's fire;
O'er Valour's cheek, Affliction's moisture steals,
A chief he combats, but a man he feels.
From fair Elsitha's chaste, and fond embrace,
The monarch speeds, to join the warrior race.
Darting his eye along the radiant files,
The firm array he views, with cheerful smiles;
Breathes bold resolve through every soldier's breast,
And ardent zeal by discipline repress'd.
Sudden the ensigns move.—As in the vale,
When from the irriguous marsh the dews exhale,
The floating mists from eve's dank breath that spread,
In whitening volume, o'er the level mead,
Appearing, through the glimmering shades of night,
A waste of waters to the traveller's sight,
At morn roll up the mountain steep, and crown,
With clouds of dim expanse, the upland down;
So, from the hollows of the winding dale,
Slow, the ascent the British warriors scale;
So, wide extended on the breezy height,
Tremendous frown the threatening clouds of fight,
Where the wan twilight of the opening dawn
Shews, throng'd with hostile spears, the aërial lawn.
Loud blows the clarion shrill!—with thundering sound
Roars the tremendous peal of battle round.
Full in the front the English archers stand,
The bent bow drawing home with sinewy hand,
Scarcely the shining barbs the tough yew clear,
The ductile nerve stretch'd to the bowman's ear.
Not from the foe by sheltering ranks conceal'd,
Boldly they dare the foreward of the field;
With deadly point the levell'd arrows shine,
Pierce the cuirass, and check the close-wedged line:
Here Caledonia's hardy mountaineers
Lift the broad targe, there mark her lowland spears;
While Cambria's and Ierne's warriors brave,
With lighter arms, the war's destructive wave;
Spread o'er their agile limbs the osier shield,
The shorten'd sword, and biting pole-axe wield;
Strike, with swift aim, the desultory blow,
And tire, with varied shock, the wavering foe.
Clad in rich panoply, each high-born knight
Impels his barbed courser to the fight;
The burnish'd arms a bright refulgence shed,
White waves the plumage o'er the helmed head;
And on the ample shield, and blazon'd crest,
Shines, of each chief, the known device impress'd.
Swift as the rapid bird of Summer flies,
Cleaving, with agile wing, the tepid skies,
The warlike squadrons on the spur advance,
With seat unshaken, and protended lance.—
Ampler in numbers, Denmark's sons oppose
The dreadful onset of their rushing foes:
With lowering front the northern warriors stand,
In deep array, a firm, and fearless band:
And, as where Scandinavia's mountains rear
The accumulated snows of many a year,
The enormous masses undissolved remain,
And summer suns roll over them in vain;
So the unshaken squadrons, firm, defy
The lightnings of the war that round them fly.—
Loud blows the brazen tube's inspiring breath,
With shouts of triumph mix'd, and groans of death;
With horrid shock the infuriate hosts engage,
And Slaughter stalks around with fiend-like rage.
Fierce Ceolph views the field with fiery eye,
And marks where haughty Oswald's banners fly:
Then swift and dreadful, as the whirlwind's force
Speeds o'er the ruin'd fields its fatal course,
Through all the horrors of the raging fray
He cuts, with furious arm, his eager way;
Before the Danish chief his circling train,
Their spears and sheltering shields oppose in vain;
Breathless and bleeding, onward still he press'd
Through groves of iron pointed at his breast;
'Gainst Oswald's heart his rapid sword he drives,
The thundering stroke the solid corslet rives;
Prone falls the injurious tyrant on the ground,
His life-blood streaming from the fatal wound;
Pierced by a thousand spears, on earth laid low,
The expiring victor spurns his prostrate foe;
O'er the warm corse in fatal triumph lies,
And, sated with revenge, exulting dies!
Around the banners of their bleeding lords,
With shock impetuous, close the adverse hordes,
Each squadron emulous to bear away
The blazon'd trophies of the doubtful fray.
While here the war in equal balance hung,
And loud the peal of death terrific rung,
With happier fortune Albion's force was sped
His veteran bands where royal Alfred led.
There, like a torrent, o'er the yielding Dane,
With force resistless, pour the Saxon train,
For every soldier, in his monarch's sight,
With all a hero's ardour dared the fight.
The rising shout of triumph Guthrum hears,
His chiefs receding from the English spears,
Then gathers round him all his scatter'd force,
Points to the spot, and urges on their course;
The increasing numbers, by his summons drawn,
In swift career pour o'er the dusty lawn.
As on the deep, when driving winds afar,
Swell the blue surge, and rouse the billowy war,
The wary mariner the ocean sees
Scowling and black before the approaching breeze;
As o'er the champaign wide the dark clouds sail,
The ripen'd harvest waving in the gale;
So watchful Alfred saw, condensed and strong,
The threatening storm of battle sweep along;
His scatter'd files, by instant order closed,
To the fierce foe a steady front opposed:
In vain the troops, by rage impetuous arm'd,
In numbers strong, by recent conquest warm'd,
Press round on every side—with eagle glance
Alfred beholds the intrepid band advance.
The furious onset checks with martial care,
And stems the fiery deluge of the war,
While swifter than his eye his fatal sword
Strikes from his courser many a Danish lord.
The troops, dismay'd, behold their chieftains bleed,
Turn in amaze, and from the fight recede;
Indignant Guthrum views the recreant train,
And chides them to the front of war in vain.
'Dastards!' he cries, 'is this your vaunted boast?—
Flies from a single sword your coward host?
Mine be the task to wipe away your shame,
And vindicate the sullied Danish name.'
He said, and stung at once by rage and grief,
Impels his courser toward the British chief;
With sinewy arm, and rising to the blow,
His ponderous spear he aims against his foe;
Opposed, the king his shield oblique extends,
On the wide orb the thundering stroke descends,
But, from the polish'd surface sidelong cast,
The steely point with erring fury pass'd;—
Not innocent of blood—for Mercia's pride,
Leofric the brave, who fought by Alfred's side,
Leofric of youthful bloom, and royal race,
From Burthred sprung, and Ellen's chaste embrace,
Who braved the combat, urged by generous fire,
Pious avenger of his exiled sire,
Received the lance, and life its purple showers,
Down his white vest and shining armour, pours;
His nerveless arm forsakes the useless rein,
And low he sinks, war's victim, on the plain.
In Alfred's breast the fires of vengeance rise,
Red glows his cheek, and ardent flash his eyes.
'Gainst Guthrum's heart, the ample shield above,
His weighty spear the royal Briton drove;
But from the corslet's plated scales rebounds
The blunted weapon, nor the bosom wounds;
By the strong fury of the ponderous stroke
Shiver'd, the strong-grain'd ash to atoms broke,
And the stunn'd warrior, tottering with the force,
Stoop'd from the blow, and scarce retain'd his horse;
On rush'd the hero, shining in his hand
The broad refulgence of his threatening brand;
Full on the Danish crest the blow descends,
Beneath the mighty shock the warrior bends,
Though the proved helm the trenchant steel disarms,
Prone on the dust he falls, with clanging arms;
Then o'er the extended chief as Alfred stood,
Soon had he paid the forfeit price of blood,
Or, led in triumph by the victor's side,
Changed, for a captive's chains, a tyrant's pride;
When generous Hardiknute rush'd through the strife,
And ransom'd, with his own, his monarch's life.
Quitting his courser, while the attending horde
Placed on the steed their bruised and vanquish'd lord,
Opposed to Alfred's sword, he dauntless stands
A rampire to the chief of Denmark's bands,
Victim of true allegiance' generous call,
By Alfred's arm ennobled in his fall.
Now to the close-fenced camp, with needful care,
Their wounded prince the Danish chieftains bear.
Mix'd with the flying rout, the Saxon horse,
With bleeding warriors, mark their fatal course;
Give to vindictive rage the loosen'd rein,
And the wide field with hostile carnage stain.
Different the scene where, o'er the extended field,
The Danish squadrons to the auxiliars yield;
In swift pursuit the ranks their order lose,
The turning foes again their columns close;
And while of ebbing fight the refluent course,
Checks, in its mid career, the victor's force,
Increasing numbers from the encampment near,
Hang on his scatter'd flank, and sever'd rear:
Press'd on each side, Scotia's bold sons in vain
The rising labours of the war sustain;
Fierce as the Danes in loose array, advance,
Useless the ample targe, and lengthen'd lance,
While Cambria's and Ierne's warriors pour
Of feathery darts an ineffectual shower:
Not like the shaft sent from the English bow,
The corslet riving with resistless blow,
As the dread fury of the thunder's stroke
Shivers, with fearful shock, the mountain oak;
The missile reed that lightly flies along,
Thrown from the cross-bow, or the sounding thong,
Bounds, with vain effort, from the temper'd mail,
As from the rocky cliff the pelting hail.
Around the field, as with attentive gaze,
Alfred the fortune of the day surveys,
He marks where Caledonia's banner flows
At distance, circled by a cloud of foes;
With eagle swiftness o'er the crimson'd glade,
He leads his victor squadrons to their aid,
The chase forsaking of a flying foe,
To rush where bold resistance deals the blow.
More pleased the shock of adverse hosts to dare,
And the proud wreath from Valour's helmet tear,
Than snatch a trophy from a yielding crowd,
Unbought by peril, and unstain'd by blood.
The cautious Danes behold the approaching storm,
Close their loose files, and firm their battle form.
Swift as the arrow from the elastic yew,
To youthful Donald's aid, the hero flew,
With sudden shock he breaks the opposing bands,
And by his side an aid terrific stands,
His guardian shield extends, and scatters far,
With godlike arm, the threatening ranks of war.
As lightning swift around his faulchion flies,
At every stroke a Danish warrior dies.
In vain fresh numbers to the fight succeed,
Trembling they fly, or combating, they bleed.
Brave Donald, fired by emulative pride,
Spurs on his steed, contending by his side:
Such emulation as the generous feel,
Such contest as is roused by warlike zeal;
Which only in the virtuous bosom glow,
Nor jealous hatred raise, nor envy know:
The active springs that Donald's bosom move,
Are steady friendship and unsullied love.
Friendship that, fearless, in the battle's strife,
Would sacrifice his own for Alfred's life;
Love, that no hope of selfish bliss would buy
With one sad tear from chaste Elsitha's eye.
Press'd and confused, recede the Danish bands,
To where their camp a rampired fortress stands.—
It chanced that wintry rains, with constant force,
Through the resisting mound had worn a course;
This the proud race, of strength and courage vain,
Unheeding pass, or, heeding, they disdain,
But 'scaped not Alfred's wary search, when round
The midnight camp he raised the minstrel's sound;
Hither his arm the storm of battle guides—
Loud roar, of closing fight, the straiten'd tides.
When Hinguar, brother of the imperious lord,
Hubba, who fell by valiant Oddune's sword,
Against the King, with spear protended, flies
Swift, and unheeded by the monarch's eyes.
Young Donald saw, and met his subtle foe,
His shield presenting to the threat'ning blow.
Passing the buckler, on the prince's breast
Lights the fell stroke, with skilful arm address'd,
Rives, with dire force, the plated corselet's joint,
And drinks his vital blood with fatal point;
On his wan cheek the rose of beauty dies,
And swimming vapours dim his closing eyes;
Drops from his hand his unavailing sword,
And his sad train receive their dying lord.
''Tis past,' he cried, 'the toil of war is o'er,
This heart, at Glory's call must beat no more;
Yet, ruthless tyrant of the darksome grave,
Thy form terrific ne'er alarms the brave!
But, O! my friends, a father's grief control,
Speak comfort to his agonizing soul.
Tell him, though swift his Donald's earthly race,
Yet not inglorious was its short-lived space;
One hour of Fame more lasting trophies rears,
Than wait on coward Sloth's protracted years.
Mature he dies, who dies when Glory calls,
Who falls with honour ne'er untimely falls,
Graced in my obsequies, since Alfred's tear
Will shed its kindly dew o'er Donald's bier.
O, glorious prince! my leader and my friend,
On me the eye of virtuous pity bend;
In me, extended on this fatal plain,
You see, alas! a wretched rival slain.—
Start not—for though, in youthful fancy warm,
My heart drank love from chaste Elsitha's form,
Yet was that more than angel form enshrined
With sanctimonious reverence in my mind.
No pilgrim e'er, with toil and watching faint,
Paid purer homage to his patron saint.—
A flame, from aught of grosser passion free,
Dying, I boast, and dying boast to thee,
O, should thy virtuous consort deign to throw,
On Donald's fate, one drop of pitying woe,
Tell her I glorious fell, in battle's pride,
Stemming her Alfred's foes, and by his side.—
And, ah! with Kindness' lenient balm, assuage
My father's grief, and smooth the couch of age.
Childless, unfriended,—should Rebellion raise
Its bloody storms to cloud his closing days,
My dying breath points out, in Alfred's care,
His people's guardian, and his Donald's heir.'
He ceased, and as along the lucid rill,
When wintry Eurus shoots his arrows chill,
The icy rigour spreads with stiffening force,
Dims its clear surface, and arrests its course;
So through his veins Death's freezing languor steals,
And the closed eye a leaden slumber seals;
Aloft his spirit mounts the viewless wind,
And leaves his form a lifeless corse behind.
Around their bleeding prince, the mournful band
Of Caledonian heroes weeping stand;—
While o'er his youthful charge, who breathless lies,
As England's monarch hangs with pensive eyes,
To his swoll'n bosom Fancy's tablets bring
A groaning country, and a childless King;
And sad Reflection in its mirror shows,
Alfred the source of Caledonia's woes,
Shows, for his life, the life of Donald paid,
A great, a glorious, but a dreadful aid.
But soon the rising tempest of the field
Bids useless grief to bold exertion yield;
For Scandinavia's sons once more engage,
Renew the fight, and closer combat wage.
They mark'd confusion mid the conquering host,
And Valour hoped to win what Flight had lost.
O'er their thrice-vanquish'd foes they thought again
To spread the horrors of Oppression's reign.
They deem'd that race by mightier force dismay'd,
Whom Guile had sever'd, and whom Fraud betray'd;
Nor knew, when join'd beneath their legal lord,
How dread, of Albion's sons, the avenging sword.
'Enough of woe,' exclaims the royal chief,
'The soldier's sword should speak the soldier's grief.
See, of yon baffled host, the last essay,
The 'vantage valour gain'd to tear away.
Ye native bands! the boon of parent Heaven!
Ye brothers of the war, by Donald given!
Dear, as my brave, my dying friend's bequest,
Dear, for your inborn worth, to Alfred's breast,
Joint heirs of Britain's injured shores, combine
To vindicate, with me, the British line.'
They hear—and, dreadful as the wintry gale,
Their congregated powers the foe assail,
Who peering o'er the field, in loose array,
Yet strive to turn the fortune of the day.
In haughty guise, exulting, mid the rest,
Known by his gilded arms, and waving crest,
Proud of his recent act, stern Hinguar stood,
His pointed javelin red with Donald's blood.
Soon as the King the insulting chief descries,
Dread flames vindictive valour from his eyes;
Through the thick press, and all the rage of fight,
He seeks, with ceaseless course, the Danish knight.
Intrepid, Hinguar views the foe advance,
Grasps his broad shield, and shakes his threat'ning lance.
Then, proudly, thus:—'Chief of a vanquish'd race,
Scaped from defeat, by fraud, and foul disgrace,
The hour of vengeance comes;—Your tribe again
Shall crouch beneath the rod of Denmark's reign.
Struck by this arm, lo! youthful Donald paid
His worthless life to Hubba's angry shade.
Base and unequal vengeance! to destroy,
For an illustrious chief, a beardless boy.
But Alfred! thou, shalt tread the dreary coast
Of Hela's black abode, a wandering ghost.'
Scorning reply, against the vaunting foe
The indignant Briton drives the avenging blow;
Nor shield, nor corselet, stay the javelin's force,
Through the strong mail it speeds its deadly course:
Low on the earth the injurious boaster lies,
And cursing adverse Heaven, remorseless dies.
Fired by the example of the godlike man,
Redoubled ardour through the squadrons ran.
Dreadful in grief, brave Caledonia's band,
With beating bosom, and with eager hand,
In threat'ning phalanx 'gainst the foe advance,
The fate of Donald pointing every lance.
Here Oddune's mail-clad foot, in firm array,
Force, through the waves of war, their steady way.
Swift and resistless, as the whirlwind's course,
There thunder by their side the Mercian horse.—
Lost each brave leader of the warlike Dane,
Forced from the fight, or breathless on the plain;
The floating ranks, confused, and crowded, yield,
And measure back, in faint retire, the field.
As the strong mole, by labour rear'd to brave
The stormy inroad of the mountain wave,
Though firm, through many a circling year, it stood,
A steady barrier 'gainst the encroaching flood,
If sapp'd by chance, or time's revolving hour,
Dread, through the flaw, the rushing waters pour,
Ride o'er the deluged lands in wasteful sway,
And sweep the labours of an age away.
Such, and so fierce, through Denmark's wavering force,
The impetuous Britons urge their furious course.—
The line is forced—nor camp nor trenches show
A safe asylum to the astonish'd foe.
Wild in dismay, across the extended plain,
They fly with bloody spur, and sounding rein.
Decisive Victory o'er Alfred's head,
With chearing shout, her crimson pennons spread.
Eager and fierce the conquering bands pursue,
O'er hill, and dale, the desultory crew,
Till Night her sable curtains wide display'd,
And wrap'd the vanquish'd rout in welcome shade.
Comments about this poem (Alfred. Book V. by Henry James Pye )
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