The Question

A poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Shall England consummate the crime
That binds the murderer's hand, and leaves
No surety for the trust of thieves?
Time pleads against it, truth and time,
And pity frowns and grieves.
The hoary henchman of the gang
Lifts hands that never dew nor rain
May cleanse from Gordon's blood again,
Appealing: pity's tenderest pang
Thrills his pure heart with pain.
Grand helmsman of the clamorous crew,
The good grey recreant quakes and weeps
To think that crime no longer creeps
Safe toward its end: that murderers too
May die when mercy sleeps.
While all the lives were innocent
That slaughter drank, and laughed with rage,
Bland virtue sighed, "A former age
Taught murder: souls long discontent
Can aught save blood assuage?
"You blame not Russian hands that smite
By fierce and secret ways the power
That leaves not life one chainless hour;
Have these than they less natural right
To claim life's natural dower?
"The dower that freedom brings the slave
She weds, is vengeance: why should we,
Whom equal laws acclaim as free,
Think shame, if men too blindly brave
Steal, murder, skulk, and flee?
"At kings they strike in Russia: there
Men take their life in hand who slay
Kings: these, that have not heart to lay
Hand save on girls whose ravaged hair
Is made the patriot's prey,
"These, whom the sight of old men slain
Makes bold to bid their children die,
Starved, if they hold not peace, nor lie,
Claim loftier praise: could others deign
To stand in shame so high?
"Could others deign to dare such deeds
As holiest Ireland hallows? Nay,
But justice then makes plain our way:
Be laws burnt up like burning weeds
That vex the face of day.
"Shall bloodmongers be held of us
Blood-guilty? Hands reached out for gold
Whereon blood rusts not yet, we hold
Bloodless and blameless: ever thus
Have good men held of old.
"Fair Freedom, fledged and imped with lies,
Takes flight by night where murder lurks,
And broods on murderous ways and works,
Yet seems not hideous in our eyes
As Austrians or as Turks.
"Be it ours to undo a woful past,
To bid the bells of concord chime,
To break the bonds of suffering crime,
Slack now, that some would make more fast:
Such teaching comes of time."
So pleads the gentlest heart that lives,
Whose pity, pitiless for all
Whom darkling terror holds in thrall,
Toward none save miscreants yearns, and gives
Alms of warm tears and gall.
Hear, England, and obey: for he
Who claims thy trust again to-day
Is he who left thy sons a prey
To shame whence only death sets free:
Hear, England, and obey.
Thy spoils he gave to deck the Dutch;
Thy noblest pride, most pure, most brave,
To death forlorn and sure he gave;
Nor now requires he overmuch
Who bids thee dig thy grave.
Dig deep the grave of shame, wherein
Thy fame, thy commonweal, must lie;
Put thought of aught save terror by;
To strike and slay the slayer is sin;
And Murder must not die.
Bind fast the true man; loose the thief;
Shamed were the land, the laws accursed,
Were guilt, not innocence, amerced;
And dark the wrong and sore the grief,
Were tyrants too coerced.
The fiercest cowards that ever skulked,
The cowardliest hounds that ever lapped
Blood, if their horde be tracked and trapped,
And justice claim their lives for mulct,
Gnash teeth that flashed and snapped.
Bow down for fear, then, England: bow,
Lest worse befall thee yet; and swear
That nought save pity, conscience, care
For truth and mercy, moves thee now
To call foul falsehood fair.
So shalt thou live in shame, and hear
The lips of all men laugh thee dead;
The wide world's mockery round thy head
Shriek like a storm-wind: and a bier
Shall be thine honour's bed.

Reader Comments

Tell us what you think of 'The Question' by Algernon Charles Swinburne

comments powered by Disqus

Home | Search | About this website | Contact | Privacy Policy