In Sepulcretis

A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne

‘Vidistis ipso rapere de rogo cœnam.’
- Catullus, LIX. 3.

‘To publish even one line of an author which he himself has not intended for the public at large, especially letters which are addressed to private persons, is to commit a despicable act of felony.’
- Heine.

I.
It is not then enough that men who give
The best gifts given of man to man should feel,
Alive, a snake’s head ever at their heel:
Small hurt the worms may do them while they live,
Such hurt as scorn for scorn’s sake may forgive.
But now, when death and fame have set one seal
On tombs whereat Love, Grief, and Glory kneel,
Men sift all secrets, in their critic sieve,
Of graves wherein the dust of death might shrink
To know what tongues defile the dead man’s name
With loathsome love, and praise that stings like shame.
Rest once was theirs, who had crossed the mortal brink:
No rest, no reverence now: dull fools undress
Death’s holiest shrine, life’s veriest nakedness.

II.
A man was born, sang, suffered, loved, and died.
Men scorned him living: let us praise him dead.
His life was brief and bitter, gently led
And proudly, but with pure and blameless pride.
He wrought no wrong toward any; satisfied
With love and labour, whence our souls are fed
With largesse yet of living wine and bread.
Come, let us praise him: here is nought to hide.
Make bare the poor dead secrets of his heart,
Strip the stark-naked soul, that all may peer,
Spy, smirk, sniff, snap, snort, snivel, snarl, and sneer:
Let none so sad, let none so sacred part
Lie still for pity, rest unstirred for shame,
But all be scanned of all men. This is fame.

III.
‘Now, what a thing it is to be an ass!’1
If one, that strutted up the brawling streets
As foreman of the flock whose concourse greets
Men’s ears with bray more dissonant than brass,
Would change from blame to praise as coarse and crass
His natural note, and learn the fawning feats
Of lapdogs, who but knows what luck he meets?
But all in vain old fable holds her glass.
Mocked and reviled by men of poisonous breath,
A great man dies: but one thing worst was spared,
Not all his heart by their base hands lay bared.
One comes to crown with praise the dust of death;
And lo, through him this worst is brought to pass.
Now, what a thing it is to be an ass!

IV.
Shame, such as never yet dealt heavier stroke
On heads more shameful, fall on theirs through whom
Dead men may keep inviolate not their tomb,
But all its depths these ravenous grave-worms choke
And yet what waste of wrath were this, to invoke
Shame on the shameless? Even their twin-born doom,
Their native air of life, a carrion fume,
Their natural breath of love, a noisome smoke,
The bread they break, the cup whereof they drink,
The record whose remembrance damns their name,
Smells, tastes, and sounds of nothing but of shame.
If thankfulness nor pity bids them think
What work is this of theirs, and pause betimes,
Not Shakespeare’s grave would scare them off with rhymes.

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