Apostasy

A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Et Judas m'a dit: Traître!
- Victor Hugo

I
Truths change with time, and terms with truth. To-day
A statesman worships union, and to-night
Disunion. Shame to have sinned against the light
Confounds not but impels his tongue to unsay
What yestereve he swore. Should fear make way
For treason? honour change her livery? fright
Clasp hands with interest? wrong pledge faith with right?
Religion, mercy, conscience, answer, Yea.
To veer is not to veer: when votes are weighed,
The numerous tongue approves him renegade
Who cannot change his banner: he that can
Sits crowned with wreaths of praise too pure to fade.
Truth smiles applause on treason's poisonous plan:
And Cleon is an honourable man.

II
Pure faith, fond hope, sweet love, with God for guide,
Move now the men whose blameless error cast
In prison (ah, but love condones the past!)
Their subject knaves that were, their lords that ride
Now laughing on their necks, and now bestride
Their vassal backs in triumph. Faith stands fast
Though fear haul down the flag that crowned her mast
And hope and love proclaim that truth has lied.
Turn, turn, and turn, so bids the still small voice,
The changeless voice of honour. He that stands
Where all his life he stood, with bribeless hands,
With tongue unhired to mourn, reprove, rejoice,
Curse, bless, forswear, and swear again, and lie,
Stands proven apostate in the apostate's eye.

III
Fraud shrinks from faith: at sight of swans, the raven
Chides blackness, and the snake recoils aghast
In fear of poison when a bird flies past.
Thersites brands Achilles as a craven;
The shoal fed full with shipwreck blames the haven
For murderous lust of lives devoured, and vast
Desire of doom whose feast is mercy's fast:
And Bacon sees the traitor's mark engraven
Full on the front of Essex. Grief and shame
Obscure the chaste and sunlike spirit of Oates
At thought of Russell's treason; and the name
Of Milton sickens with superb disgust
The heaving heart of Waller. Wisdom dotes,
If wisdom turns not tail and licks not dust.

IV
The sole sweet land found fit to wed the sea,
With reptile rebels at her heel of old,
Set hard her heel upon them, and controlled
The cowering poisonous peril. How should she
Cower, and resign her trust of empire? Free
As winds and waters live the loyal-souled
And true-born sons that love her: nay, the bold
Base knaves who curse her name have leave to be
The loud-tongued liars they are. For she, beyond
All woful years that bid men's hearts despond,
Sees yet the likeness of her ancient fame
Burn from the heavenward heights of history, hears
Not Leicester's name but Sidney's, faith's, not fear's,
Not Gladstone's now but only Gordon's name.

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