Thomas Bailey Aldrich
The Last Caesar - Poem by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Now there was one who came in later days
To play at Emperor: in the dead of night
Stole crown and sceptre, and stood forth to light
In sudden purple. The dawn's straggling rays
Showed Paris fettered, murmuring in amaze,
With red hands at her throat--a piteous sight.
Then the new Cæsar, stricken with affright
At his own daring, shrunk from public gaze
In the Elysée, and had lost the day
But that around him flocked his birds of prey,
Sharp-beaked, voracious, hungry for the deed.
'Twixt hope and fear beheld great Cæsar hang!
Meanwhile, methinks, a ghostly laughter rang
Through the rotunda of the Invalides.
What if the boulevards, at set of sun,
Reddened, but not with the sunset's kindly glow?
What if from quai and square the murmured woe
Swept heavenward, pleadingly? The prize was won,
A kingling made and Liberty undone.
No Emperor, this, like him awhile ago,
But his Name's shadow; that one struck the blow
Himself, the street-sweeping gun!
This was a man of tortuous heart and brain,
So warped he knew not his own point of view--
The master of a dark, mysterious smile.
And there he plotted, by the storied Seine
And in the fairy gardens of St. Cloud,
The Sphinx that puzzled Europe, for awhile.
I see him as men saw him once--a face
Of true Napoleon pallor; round the eyes
The wrinkled care; mustache spread pinion-wise,
Pointing his smile with odd sardonic grace
As wearily he turns him in his place,
And bends before the hoarse Parisian cries--
Then vanishes, with glitter of gold-lace
And trumpets blaring to the patient skies.
Not thus he vanished later! On his path
The Furies waited for the hour and man,
Foreknowing that they waited not in vain.
Then fell the day, o day of dreadful wrath!
Bow-down in shame, O crimson-girt Sedan!
Weep fair Alsace! weep, loveliest Lorainne!
So mused I, sitting underneath the trees
In that old garden of the Tuileries,
Watching the dust of twilight sifting down
Through chestnut boughs just touched with autumn's brown--
Not twilight yet, but that illusive bloom
Which holds before the deep-edged shadows come;
For still the garden stood in golden mist,
Still, like a river of golden amethyst,
The Seine slipt through its pans of fretted stone,
And, near the grille that once fenced in a throne,
The fountains still unbraided to the day
The unsubstantial silver of their spray.
A spot to dream in, love in, waste one's hours!
Temples and palaces, and gilded towers,
And fairy terraces!--and yet, and yet
Here in her woe came Marie Antoinette,
Came sweet Corday, Du Barry with shrill cry,
Not learning from her betters how to die!
Here, while the nations watched with bated breath,
Was held the saturnalia of Red Death!
For where that slim Egyptian shaft uplifts
Its point to catch the dawn's and sunset's drifts
Of various gold, the busy Headsman stood. . . .
Place de la Concorde--no, the Place of Blood!
And all so peaceful now, one cannot bring
Imagination to accept the thing.
Lies, all of it! some dreamer's wild romance--
High-hearted, witty, laughter-loving France!
In whose brain was it that the legend grew
Of Mænads shrieking in this avenue,
Of watch-fires burning, Famine standing guard,
Of long-speared Uhlans in that palace-yard!
What ruder sound this soft air ever smote
Than a bird's twitter, or a bugle's note?
What darker crimson ever splashed these walks
Than that of rose-leaves dropping from the stalks?
And yet--what means that charred and broken wall,
That sculptured marble, splintered, like to fall,
Looming among the trees there? . . . And you say
This happened, as it were, but yesterday?
And here the commune stretched a barricade,
And there the final desperate stand was made?
Such things have been? How all things change and fade!
How little lasts in this brave world below!
Love dies; hate cools; the Cæsars come and go;
Gaunt Hunger fattens, and the weak grow strong.
Even Republics are not here for long!
Ah, who can tell what hour may bring the doom,
The lighted torch, the tocsin's heavy boom!
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