The Victim

A poem by Alfred Tennyson


A plague upon the people fell,
A famine after laid them low;
Then thorpe and byre arose in fire,
For on them brake the sudden foe;
So thick they died the people cried,
‘The Gods are moved against the land.’
The Priest in horror about his altar
To Thor and Odin lifted a hand:
‘Help us from famine
And plague and strife!
What would you have of us?
Human life?
Were it our nearest,
Were it our dearest,–
Answer, O answer!–
We give you his life.’


But still the foeman spoil’d and burn’d,
And cattle died, and deer in wood,
And bird in air, and fishes turn’d
And whiten’d all the rolling flood;
And dead men lay all over the way,
Or down in a furrow scathed with flame;
And ever and aye the Priesthood moan’d,
Till at last it seem’d that an answer came:
‘The King is happy
In child and wife;
Take you his dearest,
Give us a life.’


The Priest went out by heath and hill;
The King was hunting in the wild;
They found the mother sitting still;
She cast her arms about the child.
The child was only eight summers old,
His beauty still with his years increased,
His face was ruddy, his hair was gold;
He seem’d a victim due to the priest.
The Priest beheld him,
And cried with joy,
‘The Gods have answer’d;
We give them the boy.’


The King return’d from out the wild,
He bore but little game in hand;
The mother said, ‘They have taken the child
To spill his blood and heal the land.
The land is sick, the people diseased,
And blight and famine on all the lea;
The holy Gods, they must be appeased,
So I pray you tell the truth to me.
They have taken our son,
They will have his life.
Is he your dearest?
Or I, the wife?’


The King bent low, with hand on brow,
He stay’d his arms upon his knee:
‘O wife, what use to answer now?
For now the Priest has judged for me.’
The King was shaken with holy fear;
‘The Gods,’ he said, ‘would have chosen well;
Yet both are near, and both are dear,
And which the dearest I cannot tell!’
But the Priest was happy,
His victim won:
‘We have his dearest,
His only son!’


The rites prepared, the victim bared,
The knife uprising toward the blow,
To the altar-stone she sprang alone:
‘Me, not my darling, no!’
He caught her away with a sudden cry;
Suddenly from him brake his wife,
And shrieking, ‘I am his dearest, I–
I am his dearest!’ rush’d on the knife.
And the Priest was happy:
‘O Father Odin,
We give you a life.
Which was his nearest?
Who was his dearest?
The Gods have answer’d;
We give them the wife!’

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