We climbed beyond the utmost habitings
Of Theban shepherds, passed Asopus’ springs,
And struck into the land of rock on dim
Cithaeron — Pentheus, and, attending him,
I, and the Stranger who should guide our way.
Then first in a green dell we stopped, and lay,
Lips dumb and feet unmoving, warily
Watching, to be unseen and yet to see.
A narrow glen it was, by crags o’ertowered,
Torn through by tossing waters, and there lowered
A shadow of great pines over it. And there
The Maenad maidens sate; in toil they were,
Busily glad. Some with an ivy chain
Tricked a worn wand to toss its locks again;
Some, wild in joyance, like young steeds set free,
Made answering songs of mystic melody.
But my poor master saw not the great band
Before him. “Stranger,” cried he, “where we stand
Mine eyes can reach not these false saints of thine.
Mount we the bank, or some high-shouldered pine,
And I shall see their follies clear!” At that
There came a marvel. For the Stranger straight
Touched a great pine-tree’s high and heavenward crown,
And lower, lower, lower, urged it down
To the herbless floor. Round like a bending bow,
Or slow wheel’s rim a joiner forces to,
So in those hands that tough and mountain stem
Bowed slow — oh, strength not mortal dwelt in them!–
To the very earth. And there he sat the King,
And slowly, lest it cast him in its spring,
Let back the young and straining tree, till high
It towered again amid the towering sky;
And Pentheus in the branches! Well, I ween,
He saw the Maenads then, and well was seen!
For scarce was he aloft, when suddenly
There was no Stranger any more with me,
But out of Heaven a Voice — oh, what voice else? —
‘Twas He that called! “Behold, O damsels,
I bring ye him who turneth to despite
Both me and ye, and darkeneth my great Light.
‘Tis yours to avenge!” So spake he, and there came
‘Twixt earth and sky a pillar of high flame.
And silence took the air, and no leaf stirred
In all the forest dell. Thou hadst not heard
In that vast silence any wild thing’s cry.
And up they sprang; but with bewildered eye,
Agaze and listening, scarce yet hearing true.
Then came the Voice again. And when they knew
Their God’s clear call, old Cadmus’ royal brood,
Up, like wild pigeons startled in a wood,
On flying feet they came, his mother blind,
Agave, and her sisters, and behind
All the wild crowd, more deeply maddened then,
Through the angry rocks and torrent-tossing glen,
Until they spied him in the dark pine-tree:
Then climbed a crag hard by and furiously
Some sought to stone him, some their wands would fling
Lance-wise aloft, in cruel targeting.
But none could strike. The height o’ertopped their rage,
And there he clung, unscathed, as in a cage
Caught. And of all their strife no end was found.
Then, “Hither,” cried Agave; “stand we round
And grip the stem, my Wild Ones, till we take
This climbing cat-o’-the-mount! He shall not make
A tale of God’s high dances!” Out then shone
Arm upon arm, past count, and closed upon
The pine, and gripped; and the ground gave, and down
It reeled. And that high sitter from the crown
Of the green pine-top, with a shrieking cry
Fell, as his mind grew clear, and there hard by
Was horror visible. ‘Twas his mother stood
O’er him, first priestess of those rites of blood.
He tore the coif, and from his head away
Flung it, that she might know him, and not slay
To her own misery. He touched the wild
Cheek, crying: “Mother, it is I, thy child,
Thy Pentheus, born thee in Echion’s hall!
Have mercy, Mother! Let it not befall
Through sin of mine, that thou should’st slay thy son!”
But she, with lips a-foam and eyes that run
Like leaping fire, with thoughts that ne’er should be
On earth, possessed by Bacchios utterly,
Stays not nor hears. Round his left arm she put
Both hands, set hard against his side her foot,
Drew . . . and the shoulder severed! — Not by might
Of arm, but easily, as the God made light
Her hand’s essay. And at the other side
Was Ino rending; and the torn flesh cried,
And on Autonie pressed, and all the crowd
Of ravening arms. Yea, all the air was loud
With groans that faded into sobbing breath,
Dim shrieks, and joy, and triumph-cries of death.
And here was borne a severed arm, and there
A hunter’s booted foot; white bones lay bare
With rending; and swift hands ensanguinèd
Tossed as in sport the flesh of Pentheus dead.
His body lies afar. The precipice
Hath part, and parts in many an interstice
Lurk of the tangled woodland — no light quest
To find. And, ah, the head! Of all the rest,
His mother hath it, pierced upon a wand,
As one might pierce a lion’s, and through the land,
Leaving her sisters in their dancing place,
Bears it on high! Yea, to these walls her face
Was set, exulting in her deed of blood,
Calling upon her Bromios, her God,
Her Comrade, Fellow-Render of the Prey,
Her All-Victorious, to whom this day
She bears in triumph . . . her own broken heart!
For me, after that sight, I will depart
Before Agave comes. — Oh, to fulfill
God’s laws, and have no thought beyond His will,
Is man’s best treasure. Aye, and wisdom true,
Methinks, for things of dust to cleave unto!
The Bacchae, Messenger