Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, EPISTLES ON THE CHARACTER AND CONDITION OF WOMEN: 3, by LUCY AIKEN

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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

First Line: Ye heaven-taught bards, who first for human woe
Last Line: Thou, my calm friend, thou moralize the rest.
Alternate Author Name(s): Aikin, Lucy
Subject(s): Martyrs; Rome, Italy; Women's Rights; Feminism

YE heaven-taught bards, who first for human woe
Bade human tears to melting numbers flow;
Ye godlike sages, who with plastic hand
Moulded rude man, and arts and cities planned;
Ye holy patriots, whose protecting name
Still lives, and issuing from the trump of fame
Fans sacred Freedom's everlasting flame,
All hail! -- by you sublimed, the expanding heart
First learned the bliss its blessings to impart;
The fierce barbarian checked his headlong course,
And bent to Wisdom's hand his yielded force;
Each loftier Virtue bowed to meet the brave,
And clasped, a freeman, whom she scorned, a slave;
And smiling round, the daughter, mother, wife,
Fed the dear charities of social life.
Bright as the welcome orb that wakes to chase
The polar Night from Earth's reviving face --
(Grim Power that shakes the meteor from his hair,
While shaggy prowlers in the fitful glare
Roam with rude yells along the mountains drear,
Ravening and yet undisciplined to fear)
Behold, my friend, with pleased and anxious gaze
Fair Reason's day-star light her gradual blaze;
Pant up the steepness of her high career,
And win by toil the empire of the sphere;
While with slow hand the ungenial shades withdrawn,
Vapours and tempests struggle with the dawn.
Mark the last hour of Ilium, -- work divine!
Sunk her proud towers, and sunk each holy shrine:
Slaughter has done his work: the manly brave
Sighed as they fell, despairing of a grave.
Yet, weep not them! behold yon captive train;
Houseless and bound they strew the smoking plain;
Matrons and maids, gray sires and babes are there,
Shrill wails and frantic screams, deep groans and dumb despair.
Hark! 'tis the lost Andromache that shrieks,
Her loose locks rent, and bruised her bleeding cheeks:
Home the proud victor bears his beauteous prize;
For death, for death she sues with fruitless cries.
Ah! might she wait that kind, that last release,
And drain the dregs of bitterness in peace!
But no; -- she bears the vengeful brand of strife,
Fires the loose rover, stings the jealous wife
What scorn, what rage, the wretched captive waits,
Envied and hated for the love she hates!
The rest, a mingled, nameless, feeble throng,
The savage squadrons drive with taunts along,
Destined to whirl with pain the slavish mill;
Bear ponderous logs, and sparkling goblets fill
To hostile Gods; explore the distant spring,
And faint with heat the cooling burthen bring;
In housewife tasks the midnight hours employ,
And lave those feet that spurned the dust of Troy.
These were the days, while yet the scourge and chain
Quivered and clanked in wild War's demon train,
When Honour first his calm firm phalanx ranged;
Fury to Valour, men to heroes changed:
And mark! emerging from the gulf of night,
What towering phantom strikes our wondering sight?
Fierce with strange joy she stands, the battle won,
Elate and tearless over her slaughtered son.
"He died for Sparta, died unknown to fear,
His wounds all honest, and his shield his bier;
And shall I weep?" Stern daughters of the brave,
Thus maids and matrons hailed the Spartan's grave;
By turns they caught, they lit, the hero-flame,
And scorned the Woman's for the Patriot's name;
Unmoved, unconquered, bowed to fate's decree,
And taught in chains the lesson -- to be free. 1
Souls of gigantic mould, they fill our gaze
With pigmy wonder and despairing praise: --
Thus when, 'mid western wilds, the delver's toil
Reared the huge mammoth from the quaking soil,
Columbia's swains in mute amazement eyed
And heaved the monstrous frame from side to side;
Saw bones on bones in mouldering ruin lie,
And owned the relics of a world gone by: --
Yet self-same clay our limbs of frailty formed,
And hearts like ours those dreadless bosoms warmed;
But war, and blood, and Danger's gorgon face,
Froze into stone the unconquerable race.
Graced by the sword, the chisel, and the pen,
Athens! illustrious seat of far-famed men,
Receive my homage! Hark! what shouts arise
As Phryne gilds the pomp of sacrifice!
To Beauty's Queen the graceful dance they twine,
Trill the warm hymn, and dress the flowery shrine;
Priestess of love she fills the eager gaze,
And fires and shares the worship that she pays.
Haste, sculptor, haste! that form, that heavenly face
Catch ere they fade, and fix the mortal grace;
Phryne in gold shall deck the sacred fane,
And Pallas' virgin image frown in vain. 2
Rise, bright Aspasia, too! thy tainted name
Sails down secure through infamy to fame;
Statesmen and bards and heroes bend the knee,
Nor blushes Socrates to learn of thee.
Thy wives, proud Athens! fettered and debased,
Listlessly duteous, negatively chaste,
O vapid summary of a slavish lot!
They sew and spin, they die and are forgot.
Cease, headlong Muse! resign the dangerous theme,
Perish the glory that defies esteem!
Inspire thy trump at Virtue's call alone,
And blush to blazon whom She scorns to own.
Mark where seven hills uprear yon stately scene,
And reedy Tiber lingering winds between:
Ah mournful view! ah check to human pride!
There Glory's ghost and Empire's phantom glide:
Shrunk art thou, mighty Rome; the ivy crawls,
The vineyard flaunts, within thy spacious walls;
Still, still, Destruction plies his iron mace,
And fanes and arches totter to their base:
Thy sons -- O traitors to their fathers' fame!
O last of men, and Romans but in name!
See where they creep with still and listless tread,
While cowls, not helmets, veil the inglorious head.
If then, sad partner of her country's shame,
To nobler promptings deaf, the Latian dame
Nor honour's law nor nuptial faith can bind,
Vagrant and light of eye, of air, of mind, --
Whom now a vile gallant's obsequious cares
Engage, now mass, processions, penance, prayers, --
Think not 'twas always thus: -- what generous view,
What noble aim that noble men pursue,
Has never woman shared? As over the plain
The sun-drawn shadow tracks the wandering swain,
Treads in his footsteps, counterfeits his gait,
Erect or stooping, eager or sedate;
Courses before, behind, in mimic race,
Turns as he turns, and hunts him pace by pace; --
Thus, to the sex when milder laws ordain
A lighter fetter and a longer chain,
Since freedom, fame, and lettered life began,
Has faithful woman tracked the course of man.
Strains his firm step for Glory's dazzling height,
Panting she follows with a proud delight;
Led by the sage, with pausing foot she roves
By classic fountains and religious groves;
In Pleasure's path if strays her treacherous guide,
By fate compelled, she deviates at his side, --
Yet seeks with tardier tread the downward way,
Averted eyes, and timorous, faint delay.
In mystic fable thus, together trod
The dire Bellona and the Warrior God;
The golden Archer and chaste Huntress' queen
With deaths alternate strewed the sickening scene;
And Jove-born Pallas shared the Thunderer's state,
The shield of horror and the nod of fate.
The indignant Muse from yon polluted ground
Shall chase the vampire forms that flit around;
Restore the scene with one commanding glance;
Awake old Rome, and bid her shades advance:
A sad but glorious pageant! -- First are borne
Her sculptured deities, and seem to mourn;
Dian and Vesta, powers of awful mien,
And in her purer garb the Paphian Queen;
Here smiles the Appeaser of the angry spouse,
There distaffed Pallas knits her thoughtful brows;
Imperial Juno rears her head on high,
Unspotted guardian of the nuptial tie.
See then advance with wild disordered charms
The matron Sabines -- prize of lawless arms --
Such as they rushed athwart the clanging fight,
Bold in their fears and strong in nature's right:
Each lifts her babe; the babe, 'mid vengeful strife,
Lisps to his grandsire for his father's life;
The vanquished grandsire clasps the blooming boy;
Rage sinks in tears, in smiles, in shouting joy;
Peace joins their hands, Love mingles race with race,
And Woman triumphs in the wide embrace.
I see her rise, the chaste polluted fair,
And claim the death of honour in despair.
Rome's Saviour wakes -- "By that ennobled shade,
By this pure blood, and by this reeking blade,
Vengeance I swear!" -- Heaven blessed the generous rage
That lit the splendours of a brightening age;
The patriot spark from dying honour springs,
And female virtue buys -- the flight of Kings.
And who are they that lead yon suppliant train?
Mother and wife, when Latium's fertile plain
Fierce Volscians trod, the rebel's armed hate
They soothed, and soothing saved the tottering state:
Rome crowned the sex -- a high and graceful meed --
And bade yon temple consecrate the deed.
Hail! who thy sons to Glory's altar led,
And boldly called her lightnings on their head:
What though they fell? the pure ethereal flame.
Touched but the life, and spared the nobler fame.
Lift thy proud head, and proudly tell their tale;
Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, hail!
See there the ghost of noble Portia glide,
Cato to lead, and Brutus at her side!
Souls have no sex; sublimed by Virtue's lore
Alike they scorn the earth and try to soar;
Buoyant alike on daring wing they rise
As Emulation nerves them for the skies.
See Pætus' wife, by strong affection manned,
Taste the sharp steel and give it to his hand:
But what avails? On Rome's exhausted soil
Nor patriots' fattening blood, nor heroes' toil,
One plant, one stem, of generous growth may rear
To grace the dark December of her year.
Whelmed in the flood of vice, one putrid heap,
Rank, sex, age, race, are hurried to the deep;
Low-bending sycophant and upstart knave,
Athlete and mime, loose dame and minion slave.
Wild in the frighted rear the crowds recoil,
Urged by the barbarous brood of war and spoil;
Nearer and nearer yet, with harpy rush
They sweep; they pounce, they violate, they crush;
Flap their triumphant wings over grovelling Rome,
And roost in Glory's desolated home.
Scared at the portent, see the phantom train
Veil their wreathed brows; then, rising in disdain,
With thunders borne upon the howling wind,
Leave Rome and all her infamy behind.
Is frighted Virtue then for ever fled
To veil in heaven her scorned and houseless head,
While Vice and Misery lord it here below
Over God's waste scene of bliss and beauty? No!
Virtue, pure essence mingled with the whole,
Its subtle, viewless, all-inspiring soul, --
Virtue, the mental world's pervading fire,
Unquenched remains, or nature must expire.
Now fresh and strong in renovated rays
She flings on eastern hills the glorious blaze;
Now, wrapt in richer lustre, slopes her beams
Tranquil and sweet along the western streams;
Now, with faint twinkling of a single star,
She greets the guideless pilgrim from afar;
And red with anger now, a dreadful form,
She glares in lightning through the howling storm.
From Juda's rocks the sacred light expands,
And beams and broadens into distant lands;
Heaven's thunder speaks, the mighty bolt is hurled;
Pride, bite the dust! and quake, thou guilty world!
But, O ye weak, beneath a master's rod
Trembling and prostrate, own a helping God!
Ardent in faith, through bonds and toil and loss
Bear the glad tidings, triumph in the cross!
Away with woman's fears! proud man shall own
As proud a mate on Virtue's loftiest throne;
On to the death in joy -- for Jesus' sake
Writhed on the rack, or blackening at the stake,
Scorn the vain splendours of the world below,
And soar to bliss that only martyrs know!6
Now comrades, equals, in the toilsome strife,
Partners of glory and coheirs of life,
See sex to sex with port sublimer turn,
And steadier flames and holier ardours burn;
At God's pure altar pledged, the nuptial band
Turns to a lifelong vow, and dreads no severing hand;
Even death, they deem, (once sped the second blow
That social lays the sad survivor low,
Shrowds the dissolving forms in kindred gloom,
Mingles in dust and marries in the tomb,)
With stronger, purer, closer ties shall bind
The blest communion of the immortal mind,
Free the winged soul to larger bliss above,
And ope the heaven of everlasting love.
O faith, O hope divine! ordained to flow
A stream of comfort through the vales of woe!
Rise, mystic dove! explore on venturous wing
The wastes of winter and the wilds of spring;
Bear back thine olive from the emerging strand,
Restore the virtues, and redeem the land:
Rebel no more, again repentant man
Shall own, shall bless, the mighty Maker's plan;
Heaven's warmest beam salute his second birth,
And one wide Eden round the peopled earth.
Vain hope! the wretch, or slave or tyrant born,
Who looked with terror up, or down with scorn,
Untaught to hope in that all-seeing mind
Unbounded love with boundless power combined,
Self-judged, self-doomed, a timorous outcast trod,
Nor dared to claim a father in his God:
Hence, Superstition, spleenful, doting, blind,
Thy mystic horrors shake his palsied mind;
Hence, as thy baleful spells in misty gloom
Wrap the fair earth and dim her orient bloom,
'Wildered, the maniac eyes a fancied waste,
And starves 'mid banquets that he dares not taste.
The yawning cloister shows its living grave,
Receives the trembler, and confirms him -- slave.
And thee, O woman, formed with smiling mien
To temper man, and gild the social scene, --
Bid home-born blessings, home-born virtues rise,
And light the sunbeam in a husband's eyes, --
Thy dearest bliss the sound of infant mirth,
His heart thy chief inheritance on earth, --
Thee too, as fades around heaven's blessed light,
And age to age rolls on a darker night,
With steely gripe the exulting hag invades,
And drags relentless to her sullen shades:
O hear the sighs that break the sluggish air
Mixed with the convent hymn, the convent prayer,
The languid lip-devotion of despair!
But never could cloister rule or midnight bell,
Penance, or fast, in dank and lonesome cell,
Break the mind's spring, or stupefy to rest
The master-passion of an ardent breast.
In that dim cell the rapt Theresa lies
Ingulft and lost in speechless ecstasies;
All-powerful Love has lit the holy flame,
The fewel altered, but the fire the same.7
Her fearful nuns see dark-browed Clara school,
And tight and tighter strain her rigid rule:
Claims not the Thirst of Sway his lion's part
Even in that pale ascetic's bloodless heart?
Hail, lofty Catharine, visionary maid!
Carest by princes, by a pope obeyed;
Nor blush to own, though dead to all below,
A brave ambition and a patriot glow.
But cease! of amorous worship, bigot pride,
Distorted virtue, talent misapplied,
No more: -- with anxious heart and straining mind
Long have I scanned the annals of the kind;
Here let me pause, overwearied and opprest;
Thou, my calm friend, thou moralize the rest.

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