Selected Poems

by Frederick George Scott


 

DION

Syracuse B. C. 353


 

Pray youths, what urgent business claims our ear
On this high feast when all keep holiday?
Already do the gay-decked barges move
Across the harbour to the sacred grove,
And shouts and music reach us even here,

5
Where through the balustrades the dancing sea
Marbles this chamber with reflected lights.
What! Is it treason? Ye have come to slay?
I read your purpose right. The palace guards
Have been secured, and all retreat cut off,

10
And I am at your mercy. It is well.
So often have I met death face to face,
His eyes now wear the welcome of a friend’s.
Is it for hate of Dion, or for gold,
Ye come to stain your honour with my blood?

15
And think ye I shall kneel and fawn on you,
And cry for mercy with a woman’s shrieks,
Though me, like some old lion in his den,
Fate, stratagems, not ye, have tracked to death?
The lion is old, but all his teeth are sound.

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What! Ye would seize me? There, I shake you off.
Ye did not deem these withered arms so strong
That ye five cubs could thus be kept at bay,
Despite your claws and fury and fierce barks.
But I am Dion—Dion, Plato’s friend—

25
And I have faced the rain of human blood, [Page 111]
The lightning of the sword-strokes on my helm,
The thunder of on-rushing cavalry,
When ye were sucking babies at the breast.
And think ye I am one whom ye can slay
30
By throttling, as an outcast slays her child,
Pinching the life out of its tiny throat?
Not this shall be my death, for I am royal,
And I must royally die. Go, fetch a sword,
And I shall wed it nobly like a king.
35

I brought you manhood with my conquering arm,
I offered Syracuse a way to fame.
I could have made our city reign as queen,
With her dominion founded in the sea,
Cemented with wise bands of equal laws,
40
A constitution wrought by sober minds,
Expanding with its growth; yet ye would not,
But mewed and babbled, cried and sulked again,
Like children that will quarrel for a coin
And yet its value know not. I am king,
45
Beyond this honour, if it honour be
To sit enthroned above so base a herd,—
A king of mine own self. My thoughts are matched
With those of gods, I have no kin with you.
Go publish my last words when I am dead,
50
And sting the city’s heart with them. Say, “Thus,
O men of Syracuse, thus Dion spake,
Falling upon the threshold of his death,
With face turned back, eyes fixed, and cheek unblanched,
For one last moment, at the braying mob,
55
Ere into dark he passed to meet his peers, [Page 112]
The gods and heroes of the nether world.”
Yea, tell the foolish rabble, “Dion sends
His love and duty as a warrior should,
Unto the sweet earth of his native town,
60
Soon to be watered with his warmest blood.
He loved her pleasant streets, her golden air,
The circle of her hills, her sapphire sea,
And he loved once, and loved unto his death,
The poor, half-brutal thing her mob became
65
Under the heel of tyrants; had he not,
He might have finished out his course of days
And died among the pillows on his bed.
But he so loved his Syracuse that she,
Grown sick of his great heart, let out its red
70
Upon the pebbles of her streets, and cried,
‘Mine own hands slew him, for he loved too much.’

“Too much, ay, at her piteous call he came
And gripped the tyrant’s heel upon your neck,
And overthrew him, bidding you uprise.
75
And when your silly fathers feared his strength,
And set their murderous snares around his path,
The sword he drew for her, for her he sheathed,
Disdaining, as a warrior, to be wroth
At the snake’s use of its recovered power
80
To sting the breast that warmed it back to life;
And he whose word could then have crushed the town
Into a shapeless ruin at his feet,
Led off to Leontini all his men,
Who, had ye slain him, would upon the ground
85
Have heaped your bodies for his funeral pyre; [Page 113]
And who, with eyes that cursed her very stones,
Left Syracuse unharmed, at his command.
Yet on the morrow in your new distress,
Ye were not loath to send with craven haste
90
Your weeping envoys fawning at his feet
And crying, ‘Come and save us; oh, forget,
Great Dion, how we wronged thee; come again,
Yet this once more, and save our Syracuse.’

“There are no depths in ocean, earth or sky
95
So deep as Dion’s pride; there is no force
Commensurate with the scorn which curled his lip
In detestation of the fickle world,
Before he plunged for ever down death’s gulf.
So proud was he that he despised success,
100
His manhood was the crown his spirit wore.
His stern heart felt no pulse of arrogant joy
When charging foremost on the routed ranks
Of Dionysius in precipitous flight;
Nor when, as conqueror, up the city’s hill
105
The wild mob bore him with their loud acclaims,
And women from the house-roofs hailed him king,
Shrilling his praises out to the great deep.
But he was proud, as might some god be proud,
At his self-conquest, when for mercy sued
110
False Heracleides, whose perfidious plot
To overthrow him well-nigh wrought your doom.
Ye saw the traitor kneel, ye heard his words,
How his swift tongue did hide the poisoned fangs.
But when all voices clamoured, ‘Let him die,’ [Page 114]
115
The one most wronged obeyed that inner voice
Which bade him spare a fallen enemy,
And, stooping down, he raised and pardoned him,
Well knowing, as ye, the baseness of the man,
But being too great for meanness like revenge.
120
“Had Dion not been proud, O Syracuse,
He might have told such tale of woes endured
As would, like some moist south-wind after frost,
Have made your very walls and porticoes
Run down with tears of silent sympathy.
125
Ye thought that day he read to you unmoved
The letter that his own son wrote to him
In his young blood, sobbed out with broken cries,
While Dionysius pressed the red-hot irons
Against the boy’s slim back, that he was stone,
130
Inhuman, or, if human, weak like you,
And would with treason buy him from his chains.
Nay, but ye knew not how his father’s heart
Burnt with the fury of the molten sun,
And how the ashes of his being choked
135
The steadfast voice which cried, ‘I will not yield,
I will not wrong my blood with treachery
To what is right—the gods deliver him.’

“’Twas well ye marked him not that other day
When he broke first into the citadel
140
Deserted by the tyrant, and there found,
Whiter, more stone-like than the marble shaft,
’Gainst which she crouched from him in speechless fear,
His wife, his long-lost Arete, and went
And drew her white hands from her face and said, [Page 115]
145
‘My wife, my own, thy Dion comes again,
And his great love doth wash thy body clean
From sins forced on thee, which were not thine own.’
For as she rose and clung about his neck,
Panting and quivering like a hunted fawn,
150
She downward bent her face in guileless shame
And told him, with her cheek against his breast,
How through those years of captive misery
She, like a priestess, had in secret shrine
Of wedded heart kept ever bright and pure
155
The vestal flame of her great love for him.
’Twas well ye marked not, Syracusan men,
How unlike stone was Dion then, how fell
His woman’s tears upon her woman’s hair.
’Twas well ye heard not what his heart pulsed out,
160
Without one word, into her tight-pressed ear,
Else might ye and your wives have called him weak,
When ye had seen that inner self laid bare
Which he forsook to serve his native land.”

A strong tree which has braved a thousand storms
165
May totter in the wind which brings its fall,
So now methinks my pride in dying down
When thus I talk, before my funeral,
Of all the love, hate, duty, self-restraint,
Ingratitude and anguish, which have graved
170
And scarred old Dion as he is to-day,
With all his years gone by and all his deeds. [Page 116]

And now, eternal Gods, I come to you
Through death, with calm, irrevocable tread.
Farewell, life’s toilsome warfare. Like a king,
175
Great Gods, receive me into bliss or woe,
Whiche’er your land affordeth; set my throne
Among the company of those who strove
To mount by inner conquest, not by blood;
And who accept and quaff with equal mind
180
Pleasure or pain, defeat or victory.
I care not to be highest, only peer
Of all the great who are ingathered there;
If needs my rank be blazoned on my throne,
Inscribe it, “Dion, Tyrant of Himself.”
185

Ha! ye have found a sword; ’tis well, for now
I shall lie down to sleep as solider should,
Wounded in front, and by a soldier’s blade.
O Syracuse, I though to carve a rock
Rough and unhewn into a perfect shape;
190
But, lo! ’twas only clay wherewith I wrought,
And every wind and rain did melt you down
Into the common mud which tyrants love
To smooth into an easy path to power.

Here youths, I do not flinch; behold my breast,
195
Shaggy, like front of lion, streaked with grey.
It is your glory to anticipate
Time’s tardy slaughter. Come, which will be great
And first to make himself a name and steep
His weakling hands in Dion’s royal blood?
200
Pray you be quick! I do not fear the pain,
But would quit life. Here is my naked heart; [Page 117]
It knocks against the edges of this rib,
But yet not faster than its wont. Come youths,
Put the sword here and drive it quickly home,
205
And fix your eyes upon me as I fall,
And mark ye well the grandeur of my death.
For nothing but the red flood bursting forth,
No cry, no groan, no movement of the face,
Shall tell you that ye have not slain a god,
210
Then draw the blade out, blunted where it met
The tempered edge of my self-mastering will,
And bear the crimsoned trophy through the streets,
And show it to the wondering citizens;
That men may know and tell in aftertimes
215
How Dion lived and died for Syracuse. [Page 118]