« PreviousContinue »
OPENING OF THE POEM-OFFER OF LEONIDAS TO
DEVOTE HIMSELF FOR HIS COUNTRY.
The virtuous Spartan, who resign'd his life
To save his country at th’ Etæan straits,
Thermopyle, when all the peopled east
In arms with Xerxes fill’d the Grecian plains,
O Muse, record! The Hellespont they pass’d,
O'erpow'ring Thrace. The dreadful tidings swift
To Corinth flew. Her Isthmus was the seat
Of Grecian council. Alpheus thence returns
To Lacedemon. In assembly full
He finds the Spartan people with their kings;
Their kings, who boast an origin divine,
From Hercules descended. They the sons
Of Lacedemon had conven'd, to learn
The sacred mandates of th' immortal gods,
That morn expected from the Delphian dome.
But Alpheus sudden their attention drew,
And thus address'd them: For immediate war,
My countrymen, prepare. Barbarian tents
Already fill the trembling bounds of Thrace.
The Isthmian council hath decreed to guard
Thermopylæ, the Locrian gate of Greece.
Here Alpheus paus’d. Leutychides, who shar'd
With great Leonidas the sway, uprose
And spake. Ye citizens of Sparta, hear.
Why from her bosom should Laconia send
Her valiant race to wage' a distant war
Beyond the Isthmus? There the gods have plac'd
Our native barrier. In this favour'd land,
Which Pelops govern'd, us of Doric blood
That Isthmus inaccessible secures.
There let our standards rest. Your solid strength,
If once you scatter in defence of states
Remote and feeble, you betray your own,
And merit Jove's derision. With assent
The Spartans heard. Leonidas replied:
O most ungen'rous counsel! Most unwise !
Shall we, confining to that Isthmian fence
Our efforts, leave beyond it ev'ry state
Disown'd, expos’d? Shall Athens, while her fleets
Unceasing watch th' innumerable foes,
And trust th' impending dangers of the field
To Sparta's well-known valour, shall she hear,
That to barbarian violence we leave
Her unprotected walls? Her hoary sires,
Her helpless matrons, and their infant race,
To servitude and shame? Her guardian gods
Will yet preserve them. Neptune o'er his main,
With Pallas, pow'r of wisdom, at their helms,
Will soon transport them to a happier clime,
Safe from insulting foes, from false allies,
And Eleutherian Jove will bless their flight.
Then shall we feel the unresisted force
Of Persia's navy, deluging our plains
With inexhausted numbers. Half the Greeks,
By us betray'd to bondage, will support
A Persian lord, and lift th' avenging spear
For our destruction. But, my friends, reject
Such mean, such dang'rous counsels, which would
Your long-establish'd honours, and assist
The proud invader. O eternal king
Of gods and mortals, elevate our minds !
Each low and partial passion thence expel !
Greece is our gen’ral mother. All must join
In her defence, or, sep’rate, each must fall.
This said, authority and shame control'd
The mute assembly. Agis too appear'd.
He from the Delphian cavern was return'd,
Where, taught by Phæbus on Parnassian cliffs,
The Pythian maid unfolded Heav'n's decrees.
He came; but discontent and grief o'ercast
His anxious brow. Reluctant was his tongue,
Yet seem'd full charg'd to speak. Religious dread
Each heart relax'd. On ev'ry visage hung
Sad expectation. Not a whisper told
The silent fear. Intensely all were fix?d,
All still as death, to hear the solemn tale.
As o'er the western waves, when ev'ry storm
Is hush'd within its cavern, and a breeze,
Soft-breathing, lightly with its wings along
The slacken'd cordage glides, the sailor's ear
Perceives no sound throughout the vast expanse;
None, but the murmurs of the sliding prow,
Which slowly parts the smooth and yielding main :
So through the wide and listening crowd no sound,
No voice, but thine, 0 Agis, broke the air !
While thus the issue of thy awful charge
Thy lips deliver'd. Spartans, in your name
I went to Delphi. I inquir'd the doom
Of Lacedemon from th' impending war,
When in these words the deity replied:
Inhabitants of Sparta, Persia's arms “ Shall lay your proud and ancient seat in dust; “ Unless a king, from Hercules deriv'd, “ Cause Lacedemon for his death to mourn.
As when the hand of Perseus had disclos'd The snakes of dire Medusa, all who view'd The Gorgon features were congeal'd to stone, With ghastly eyeballs on the hero bent, And horror, living in their marble form; Thus with amazement rooted, where they stood, In speechless terror frozen, on their kings The Spartans gaz'd: but soon their anxious looks All on the great Leonidas unite, Long known his country's refuge. He alone Remains unshaken. Rising, he displays His godlike presence. Dignity and grace Adorn his frame, where manly beauty joins With strength Herculean. On his aspect shine Sublimest virtue, and desire of fame, Where justice gives the laurel, in his eye The inextinguishable spark, which fires The souls of patriots; while his brow supports Undaunted valour, and contempt of death. Serene he cast his looks around, and spake :
Why this astonishment on ev'ry face, Ye men of Sparta ? Does the name of death Create this fear and wonder? O my friends, Why do we labour through the arduous paths, Which lead to virtue ? Fruitless were the toil, Above the reach of human feet were plac'd The distant summit, if the fear of death Could intercept our passage. But a frown Of unavailing terror he assumes, To shake the firmness of a mind, which knows That, wanting virtue, life is pain and woe, That, wanting liberty, ev'n virtue mourns, And looks around for happiness in vain. Then speak, 0 Sparta, and demand my life! My heart, exulting, answers to thy call, And smiles on glorious fate. To live with fame, The gods allow to many; but to die With equal lustre is a blessing, Jove Among the choicest of his boons reserves, Which but on few his sparing hand bestows.
Salvation thus to Sparta he proclaim'd. Joy, wrapt awhile in admiration, paus'd, Suspending praise; nor praise at last resounds In high acclaim to rend the arch of heav'n: A reverential murmur breathes applause. So were the pupils of Lycurgus train'd To bridle nature. Public fear was dumb Before their senate, ephori, and kings, Nor exultation into clamour broke. Amidst them rose Dieneces, and thus :