Alfred Austin

(30 May 1835 – 2 June 1913 / Headingley)

Sisyphus - Poem by Alfred Austin

Midway his upward unavailing course
Sate Sisyphus, his back against his load,
Halting a moment from that task of doom.
Adown his swollen cheeks ran streams of sweat
Dripping from thick-drenched locks; and watery beads
Gathered and stood on his stupendous limbs.
The sinews of his arm, like gnarled knots
On hollow bark of legendary oak,
Credentials of incalculable years,
Bulged up, and in his horny hands outspread
Upon his wrinkled knees, the arching veins
Glittered like tempered steel. His stertorous breath
Moaned like to bellows in cyclopean forge,
Wherewith in smithy subterranean
Against the Gods rebellious demigods
Fashion their molten ineffectual bolts.

But when, asudden, swift on angry flash,
Rumbled imperious thunder overhead,
At the commanding mandate, Sisyphus,
Bulkily rising, straightened limbs relaxed,
And turned him yet again unto his task,
Mumbling the while habitual lament.

``Why was I chosen for this hateful task,
Fantastically futile, which the Gods
Lay on their victim, for their own disport?
Rather a thousand times upon the wheel
Would I, Ixion-like, be racked, or lift
The tantalising gourd-cup to my lips.
I was no wickeder than they, and I
Founded Ephyra in a stony land,
Raised monolithic temples to the Gods,
And made the name of Corinth glorious from
Peloponnesus unto Attica.
Was it a crime to be Ulysses' sire
By sportive Anticlea ere she wed
Laertes, bringing him a Royal heir?
Yearning for whom, when Circe and her lures
From Ithaca withheld his bark, she died.
If such to me imputed be a crime,
Then all the Gods are bestial criminals,
Lustful, adulterous, meretricious Gods.
What more was my offence? Was it because
I from the clustered sister-Pleiades
Lured Merope to earth to share my love,
Not an ephemeral, but strong-nuptialled love?
Whereat the Gods, envying a mortal's joy,
Darkened her light in Heaven, and vengefully
In me infused her immortality,
That I might strain for ever at the task
Of aiding upward downward-destined world.

``If mortals were but once by doom allowed
To limit their ambition, and abide
On some material or majestic height!
But onward, upward, ever are they urged
By the half-God within their blood to pass
Beyond the flaming barriers of the world,
Where the inexorable sentries stand
To drive them back, and me, unwilling drudge,
Forced downward by the weight I upward rolled.
When to the very pinnacle of Art,
Majestically lovely, for restrained,
Hellenic minds from barbarous gropings towered,
The beast in mortals sensuously craved
For craft more carnal, Goddesses undraped
In marble, to such use recalcitrant,
Satyrs and fauns, licentious comedy,
Provocative of laughter or of lust,
Dethroning the Ideal for the Real.
When the stern Roman on the world imposed
By forceful dominance the Reign of Law,
Then did the East with tribute undermine
The male-won Empire, and barbarian hordes
Rent the Imperial marble from its limbs,
And revelled in the wreck of its decline.

``O, but now! now! now!
Heavier the load, weightier than ever yet,
For men, infatuated, now conceive,
Eliminating Spirit, they will find
In matter immaterialised the germ,
Fountain, and origin of all that moves.
But behind Fate there is another Fate,
And yet another, undiscoverable.
Yet Man, again illusioned, presses on,
Fondling the fancy he will shortly pierce
Unto the generating source of things,
The Atom atomless: whereat the Gods
Shake with ironic laughter, since themselves
Know it not, neither do they seek to know,
Aware, above them there are other Gods,
May-be one sole impenetrable God,
Never created, never dying, One
With the unbounded Universe, Himself
The soul and substance of Eternity.
That is my one last hope, that He will free
My body from this pagan servitude,
And with omnipotent mercifulness merge
My Being into His!''


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Poem Submitted: Thursday, April 8, 2010



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