The Pleasures of Imagination - The Third Book - Poem

A poem by Mark Akenside

What tongue then may explain the various fate
Which reigns o'er earth? or who to mortal eyes
Illustrate this perplexing labyrinth
Of joy and woe through which the feet of man
Are doom'd to wander? That eternal mind
From passions, wants and envy far estrang'd,
Who built the spacious universe, and deck'd
Each part so richly with whate'er pertains
To life, to health, to pleasure; why bade he
The viper Evil, creeping in, pollute
The goodly scene, and with insidious rage,
While the poor inmate looks around and smiles,
Dart her fell sting with poison to his soul?
Hard is the question, and from ancient days
Hath still oppress'd with care the sage's thought;
Hath drawn forth accents from the poet's lyre
Too sad, too deeply plaintive: nor did e'er.
Those chiefs of human kind, from whom the light
Of heavenly truth first gleam'd on barbarous lands,
Forget this dreadful secret when they told
What wonderous things had to their favor'd eyes
And ears on cloudy mountain been reveal'd,
Or in deep cave by nymph or power divine,
Portentous oft and wild. Yet one I know,
Could I the speech of lawgivers assume,
One old and splendid tale I would record
With which the Muse of Solon in sweet strains
Adorn'd this theme profound, and render'd all
Its darkness, all its terrors, bright as noon,
Or gentle as the golden star of eve.
Who knows not Solon? last, and wisest far,
Of those whom Greece triumphant in the height
Of glory, styl'd her fathers? him whose voice
Through Athens hush'd the storm of civil wrath;
Taught envious want and cruel wealth to join
In friendship; and, with sweet compulsion, tam'd
Minerva's eager people to his laws,
Which their own goddess in his breast inspir'd?

'Twas now the time when his heroic task
Seem'd but perform'd in vain: when sooth'd by years
Of flattering service, the fond multitude
Hung with their sudden counsels on the breath
Of great Pisistratus: that chief renown'd,
Whom Hermes and the Idalian queen had train'd
Even from his birth to every powerful art
Of pleasing and persuading: from whose lips
Flow'd eloquence which like the vows of love
Could steal away suspicion from the hearts
Of all who listen'd. Thus from day to day
He won the general suffrage, and beheld
Each rival overshadow'd and depress'd
Beneath his ampler state: yet oft complain'd,
As one less kindly treated, who had hop'd
To merit favor, but submits perforce
To find another's services preferr'd,
Nor yet relaxeth aught of faith or zeal.
Then tales were scatter'd of his envious foes,
Of snares that watch'd his fame, of daggers aim'd
Against his life. At last with trembling limbs,
His hair diffus'd and wild, his garments loose,
And stain'd with blood from self-inflicted wounds,
He burst into the public place, as there,
There only, were his refuge; and declar'd
In broken words, with sighs of deep regret,
The mortal danger he had scarce repell'd.
Fir'd with his tragic tale, the indignant croud,
To guard his steps, forthwith a menial band,
Array'd beneath his eye for deeds of war,
Decree. O still too liberal of their trust,
And oft betray'd by over-grateful love,
The generous people! Now behold him fenc'd
By mercenary weapons, like a king,
Forth issuing from the city gate at eve
To seek his rural mansion, and with pomp
Crouding the public road. the swain stops short,
And sighs: the officious townsmen stand at gaze
And shrinking give the sullen pageant room.
Yet not the less obsequious was his brow;
Nor less profuse of courteous words his tongue,
Of gracious gifts his hand: the while by stealth,
Like a small torrent fed with evening showers,
His train increas'd. till, at that fatal time
Just as the public eye, with doubt and shame
Startled, began to question what it saw,
Swift as the sound of earthquakes rush'd a voice
Through Athens, that Pisistratus had fill'd
The rocky citadel with hostile arms,
Had barr'd the steep ascent, and sate within
Amid his hirelings, meditating death
To all whose stubborn necks his yoke refus'd.
Where then was Solon? After ten long years
Of absence, full of haste from foreign shores
The sage, the lawgiver had now arriv'd:
Arriv'd, alas, to see that Athens, that
Fair temple rais'd by him and sacred call'd
To liberty and concord, now profan'd
By savage hate, or sunk into a den
Of slaves who crouch beneath the master's scourge,
And deprecate his wrath and court his chains.
Yet did not the wise patriot's grief impede
His virtuous will, nor was his heart inclin'd
One moment with such woman-like distress
To view the transient storms of civil war,
As thence to yield his country and her hopes
To all-devouring bondage. His bright helm,
Even while the traitor's impious act is told,
He buckles on his hoary head: he girds
With mail his stooping breast: the shield, the spear
He snatcheth; and with swift indignant strides
The assembled people seeks: proclaims aloud
It was no time for counsel: in their spears
Lay all their prudence now: the tyrant yet
Was not so firmly seated on his throne,
But that one shock of their united force
Would dash him from the summit of his pride
Headlong and groveling in the dust. What else
Can re-assert the lost Athenian name
So cheaply to the laughter of the world
Betray'd; by guile beneath an infant's faith
So mock'd and scorn'd? Away then: freedom now
And safety, dwell not but with fame in arms:
Myself will shew you where their mansion lies,
And through the walks of danger or of death
Conduct you to them. While he spake, through all
Their crouded ranks his quick sagacious eye
He darted; where no cheerful voice was heard
Of social daring; no stretch'd arm was seen
Hastening their common task: but pale mistrust
Wrinkled each brow: they shook their heads, and down
Their slack hands hung: cold sighs and whisper'd doubts
From breath to breath stole round. The sage mean time
Look'd speechless on, while his big bosom heav'd
Struggling with shame and sorrow: till at last
A tear broke forth; and, O immortal shades,
O Theseus, he exclaim'd, o Codrus, where,
Where are ye now? behold for what ye toil'd
Through life? behold for whom ye chose to die.
No more he added; but with lonely steps
Weary and slow, his silver beard depress'd,
And his stern eyes bent heedless on the ground,
Back to his silent dwelling he repair'd.
There o'er the gate, his armor, as a man
Whom from the service of the war his chief
Dismisseth after no inglorious toil,
He fix'd in general view. One wishful look
He sent, unconscious, toward the public place
At parting: then beneath his quiet roof
Without a word, without a sigh, retir'd.

Scarce had the morrow's sun his golden rays
From sweet Hymettus darted o'er the fanes
Of Cecrops to the Salaminian shores,
When, lo, on Solon's threshold met the feet
Of four Athenians by the same sad care
Conducted all: than whom the state beheld
None nobler. First came Megacles, the son
Of great Alcmaeon, whom the Lydian king
The mild, unhappy Crœsus, in his days
Of glory had with costly gifts adorn'd,
Fair vessels, splendid garments, tinctur'd webs
And heaps of treasur'd gold beyond the lot
Of many sovrans; thus requiting well
That hospitable favor which erewhile
Alcmaeon to his messengers had shewn,
Whom he with offerings worthy of the God
Sent from his throne in Sardis to revere
Apollo's Delphic shrine. With Megacles
Approach'd his son, whom Agarista bore,
The virtuous child of Clisthenes whose hand
Of Grecian scepters the most ancient far
In Sicyon sway'd: but greater fame he drew
From arms control'd by justice, from the love
Of the wise Muses, and the unenvied wreath
Which glad Olympia gave. For thither once
His warlike steeds the hero led, and there
Contended through the tumult of the course
With skillful wheels. Then victor at the goal,
Amid the applauses of assembled Greece,
High on his car he stood and wav'd his arm.
Silence insu'd: when strait the herald's voice
Was heard, inviting every Grecian youth,
Whom Clisthenes content might call his son,
To visit, ere twice thirty days were pass'd,
The towers of Sicyon. there the chief decreed,
Within the circuit of the following year,
To join at Hymen's altar, hand in hand
With his fair daughter, him among the guests
Whom worthiest he should deem. Forthwith from all
The bounds of Greece the ambitious wooers came:
From rich Hesperia; from the Illyrian shore
Where Epidamnus over Adria's surge
Looks on the setting sun; from those brave tribes
Chaonian or Molossian whom the race
Of great Achilles governs, glorying still
In Troy o'erthrown; from rough Etolia, nurse
Of men who first among the Greeks threw off
The yoke of kings, to commerce and to arms
Devoted; from Thessalia's fertile meads,
Where flows Penéus near the lofty walls
Of Cranon old; from strong Eretria, queen
Of all Euboean cities, who, sublime
On the steep margin of Euripus, views
Across the tide the Marathonian plain,
Not yet the haunt of glory. Athens too,
Minerva's care, among her graceful sons
Found equal lovers for the princely maid:
Nor was proud Argos wanting; nor the domes
Of sacred Elis; nor the Arcadian groves
That overshade Alphéus, echoing oft
Some shepherd's song. But through the illustrious band
Was none who might with Megacles compare
In all the honors of unblemish'd youth.
His was the beauteous bride: and now their son
Young Clisthenes, betimes, at Solon's gate
Stood anxious; leaning forward on the arm
Of his great sire, with earnest eyes that ask'd
When the slow hinge would turn, with restless feet,
And cheeks now pale, now glowing: for his heart
Throbb'd, full of bursting passions, anger, grief
With scorn imbitter'd, by the generous boy
Scarce understood, but which, like noble seeds,
Are destin'd for his country and himself
In riper years to bring forth fruits divine
Of liberty and glory. Next appear'd
Two brave companions whom one mother bore
To different lords; but whom the better ties
Of firm esteem and friendship render'd more
Than brothers: first Miltiades, who drew
From godlike Eacus his ancient line;
That Eacus whose unimpeach'd renown
For sanctity and justice won the lyre
Of elder bards to celebrate him thron'd
In Hades o'er the dead, where his decrees
The guilty soul within the burning gates
Of Tartarus compel, or send the good
To inhabit with eternal health and peace
The valleys of Elysium. From a stem
So sacred, ne'er could worthier scyon spring
Than this Miltiades; whose aid erelong
The chiefs of Thrace, already on their ways
Sent by the inspir'd foreknowing maid who sits
Upon the Delphic tripod, shall implore
To wield their sceptre, and the rural wealth
Of fruitful Chersonesus to protect
With arms and laws. But, nothing careful now
Save for his injur'd country, here he stands
In deep solicitude with Cymon join'd:
Unconscious both what widely-different lots
Await them, taught by nature as they are
To know one common good, one common ill.
For Cimon not his valor, not his birth
Deriv'd from Codrus, not a thousand gifts
Dealt round him with a wise, benignant hand,
No, not the Olympic olive by himself
From his own brow transferr'd to sooth the mind
Of this Pisistratus, can long preserve
From the fell envy of the tyrant's sons,
And their assassin dagger. But if death
Obscure upon his gentle steps attend,
Yet fate an ample recompense prepares
In his victorious son, that other great
Miltiades, who o'er the very throne
Of glory shall with Time's assiduous hand
In adamantine characters ingrave
The name of Athens; and, by freedom arm'd
'Gainst the gigantic pride of Asia's king,
Shall all the achievements of the heroes old
Surmount, of Hercules, of all who sail'd
From Thessaly with Jason, all who fought
For empire or for fame at Thebes or Troy.

Such were the patriots who within the porch
Of Solon had assembled. But the gate
Now opens, and across the ample floor
Strait they proceed into an open space
Bright with the beams of morn: a verdant spot,
Where stands a rural altar, pil'd with sods
Cut from the grassy turf and girt with wreaths
Of branching palm. Here Solon's self they found
Clad in a robe of purple pure, and deck'd
With leaves of olive on his reverend brow.
He bow'd before the altar, and o'er cakes
Of barley from two earthen vessels pour'd
Of honey and of milk a plenteous stream;
Calling meantime the Muses to accept
His simple offering, by no victim ting'd
With blood, nor sullied by destroying fire,
But such as for himself Apollo claims
In his own Delos, where his favorite haunt
Is thence the Altar of the Pious nam'd.
Unseen the guests drew near, and silent view'd
That worship; till the hero priest his eye
Turn'd toward a seat on which prepar'd there lay
A branch of laurel. Then his friends confess'd
Before him stood. Backward his step he drew,
As loth that care or tumult should approach
Those early rites divine: but soon their looks,
So anxious, and their hands, held forth with such
Desponding gesture, bring him on perforce
To speak to their affliction. Are ye come,
He cried, to mourn with me this common shame?
Or ask ye some new effort which may break
Our fetters? Know then, of the public cause
Not for yon traitor's cunning or his might
Do I despair: nor could I wish from Jove
Aught dearer, than at this late hour of life,
As once by laws, so now by strenuous arms,
From impious violation to assert
The rights our fathers left us. But, alas!
What arms? or who shall wield them? Ye beheld
The Athenian people. Many bitter days
Must pass, and many wounds from cruel pride
Be felt, ere yet their partial hearts find room
For just resentment, or their hands indure
To smite this tyrant brood, so near to all
Their hopes, so oft admir'd, so long belov'd.
That time will come, however. Be it yours
To watch its fair approach, and urge it on
With honest prudence: me it ill beseems
Again to supplicate the unwilling croud
To rescue from a vile deceiver's hold
That envied power which once with eager zeal
They offer'd to myself; nor can I plunge
In counsels deep and various, nor prepare
For distant wars, thus faltering as I tread
On life's last verge, erelong to join the shades
Of Minos and Lycurgus. But behold
What care imploys me now. My vows I pay
To the sweet Muses, teachers of my youth
And solace of my age. If right I deem
Of the still voice that whispers at my heart,
The immortal sisters have not quite withdrawn
Their old harmonious influence. Let your tongues
With sacred silence favor what I speak,
And haply shall my faithful lips be taught
To unfold celestial counsels, which may arm
As with impenetrable steel your breasts
For the long strife before you, and repel
The darts of adverse fate. He said, and snatch'd
The laurel bough, and sate in silence down,
Fix'd, wrapp'd in solemn musing, full before
The sun, who now from all his radiant orb
Drove the gray clouds, and pour'd his genial light
Upon the breast of Solon. Solon rais'd
Aloft the leafy rod, and thus began.

Ye beauteous offspring of Olympian Jove
And Memory divine, Pierian maids,
Hear me, propitious. In the morn of life,
When hope shone bright and all the prospect smil'd,
To your sequester'd mansion oft my steps
Were turn'd, o Muses, and within your gate
My offerings paid. Ye taught me then with strains
Of flowing harmony to soften war's
Dire voice, or in fair colors, that might charm
The public eye, to clothe the form austere
Of civil counsel. Now my feeble age
Neglected, and supplanted of the hope
On which it lean'd, yet sinks not, but to you,
To your mild wisdom flies, refuge belov'd
Of solitude and silence. Ye can teach
The visions of my bed whate'er the gods
In the rude ages of the world inspir'd,
Or the first heroes acted: ye can make
The morning light more gladsome to my sense
Than ever it appear'd to active youth
Pursuing careless pleasure: ye can give
To this long leisure, these unheeded hours,
A labor as sublime, as when the sons
Of Athens throng'd and speechless round me stood
To hear pronounc'd for all their future deeds
The bounds of right and wrong. Celestial powers,
I feel that ye are near me: and behold,
To meet your energy divine, I bring
A high and sacred theme; not less than those
Which to the eternal custody of fame
Your lips intrusted, when of old ye deign'd
With Orpheus or with Homer to frequent
The groves of Heamus or the Chian shore.

Ye know, harmonious maids, (for what of all
My various life was e'er from you estrang'd?)
Oft hath my solitary song to you
Reveal'd that duteous pride which turn'd my steps
To willing exile; earnest to withdraw
From envy and the disappointed thirst
Of lucre, lest the bold familiar strife,
Which in the eye of Athens they upheld
Against her legislator, should impair
With trivial doubt the reverence of his laws.
To Egypt therefore through the Aegean isles
My course I steer'd, and by the banks of Nile
Dwelt in Canopus. Thence the hallow'd domes
Of Sas, and the rites to Isis paid,
I sought, and in her temple's silent courts,
Through many changing moons, attentive heard
The venerable Sonchis, while his tongue
At morn or midnight the deep story told
Of her who represents whate'er has been,
Or is, or shall be; whose mysterious veil
No mortal hand hath ever yet remov'd.
By him exhorted, southward to the walls
Of On I pass'd, the city of the sun,
The ever-youthful god. 'Twas there amid
His priests and sages, who the live-long night
Watch the dread movements of the starry sphere,
Or who in wondrous fables half disclose
The secrets of the elements, 'twas there
That great Psenophis taught my raptur'd ears
The fame of old Atlantis, of her chiefs,
And her pure laws, the first which earth obey'd.
Deep in my bosom sunk the noble tale;
And often, while I listen'd, did my mind
Foretell with what delight her own free lyre
Should sometime for an Attic audience raise
Anew that lofty scene, and from their tombs
Call forth those ancient demigods to speak.
Of justice and the hidden providence
That walks among mankind. But yet meantime
The mystic pomp of Ammon's gloomy sons
Became less pleasing. With contempt I gaz'd
On that tame garb and those unvarying paths
To which the double yoke of king and priest
Had cramp'd the sullen race. At last with hymns
Invoking our own Pallas and the gods
Of cheerful Greece, a glad farewell I gave
To Egypt, and before the southern wind
Spread my full sails. What climes I then survey'd,
What fortunes I encounter'd in the realm
Of Crœsus or upon the Cyprian shore,
The Muse, who prompts my bosom, doth not now
Consent that I reveal. But when at length
Ten times the sun returning from the south
Had strow'd with flowers the verdant earth and fill'd
The groves with music, pleas'd I then beheld
The term of those long errors drawing nigh.
Nor yet, I said, will I sit down within
The walls of Athens, till my feet have trod
The Cretan soil, have pierc'd those reverend haunts
Whence law and civil concord issued forth
As from their ancient home, and still to Greece
Their wisest, loftiest discipline proclaim.
Strait where Amnisus, mart of wealthy ships,
Appears beneath fam'd Cnossus and her towers
Like the fair handmaid of a stately queen,
I check'd my prow, and thence with eager steps
The city of Minos enter'd. O ye gods,
Who taught the leaders of the simpler time
By written words to curb the untoward will
Of mortals, how within that generous isle
Have ye the triumphs of your power display'd
Munificent! Those splendid merchants, lords
Of traffic and the sea, with what delight
I saw them at their public meal, like sons
Of the same household, join the plainer sort
Whose wealth was only freedom! whence to these
Vile envy, and to those fantastic pride,
Alike was strange; but noble concord still
Cherish'd the strength untam'd, the rustic faith,
Of their first fathers. Then the growing race,
How pleasing to behold them in their schools,
Their sports, their labors, ever plac'd within,
O shade of Minos, thy controlling eye!
Here was a docile band in tuneful tones
Thy laws pronouncing, or with lofty hymns
Praising the bounteous gods, or, to preserve
Their country's heroes from oblivious night,
Resounding what the Muse inspir'd of old;
There, on the verge of manhood, others met,
In heavy armor through the heats of noon
To march, the rugged mountains height to climb
With measur'd swiftness, from the hard-bent bow
To send resistless arrows to their mark,
Or for the fame of prowess to contend,
Now wrestling, now with fists and staves oppos'd,
Now with the biting falchion, and the fence
Of brazen shields; while still the warbling flute
Presided o'er the combat, breathing strains
Grave, solemn, soft; and changing headlong spite
To thoughtful resolution cool and clear.
Such I beheld those islanders renown'd,
So tutor'd from their birth to meet in war
Each bold invader, and in peace to guard
That living flame of reverence for their laws
Which nor the storms of fortune, nor the flood
Of foreign wealth diffus'd o'er all the land,
Could quench or slacken. First of human names
In every Cretan's heart was Minos still;
And holiest far, of what the sun surveys
Through his whole course, were those primeval seats
Which with religious footsteps he had taught
Their sires to approach; the wild Dictean cave
Where Jove was born; the ever-verdant meads
Of Ida, and the spacious grotto, where
His active youth he pass'd, and where his throne
Yet stands mysterious; whither Minos came
Each ninth returning year, the king of gods
And mortals there in secret to consult
On justice, and the tables of his law
To inscribe anew. Oft also with like zeal
Great Rhea's mansion from the Cnossian gates
Men visit; nor less oft the antique fane
Built on that sacred spot, along the banks
Of shady Theron, where benignant Jove
And his majestic consort join'd their hands
And spoke their nuptial vows. Alas, 'twas there
That the dire fame of Athens sunk in bonds
I first receiv'd; what time an annual feast
Had summon'd all the genial country round,
By sacrifice and pomp to bring to mind
That first great spousal; while the inamor'd youths
And virgins, with the priest before the shrine,
Observe the same pure ritual and invoke
The same glad omens. There, among the croud
Of strangers from those naval cities drawn
Which deck, like gems, the island's northern shore,
A merchant of Aegina I descried,
My ancient host. but, forward as I sprung
To meet him, he, with dark dejected brow,
Stopp'd half-averse; and, O Athenian guest,
He said, art thou in Crete; these joyful rites
Partaking? Know thy laws are blotted out:
Thy country kneels before a tyrant's throne.
He added names of men, with hostile deeds
Disastrous; which obscure and indistinct
I heard: for, while he spake, my heart grew cold
And my eyes dim: the altars and their train
No more were present to me: how I far'd,
Or whither turn'd, I know not; nor recall
Aught of those moments other than the sense
Of one who struggles in oppressive sleep
And, from the toils of some distressful dream
To break away, with palpitating heart,
Weak limbs, and temples bath'd in death-like dew,
Makes many a painful effort. When at last
The sun and nature's face again appear'd,
Not far I found me; where the public path,
Winding through cypress groves and swelling meads,
From Cnossus to the cave of Jove ascends.
Heedless I follow'd on; till soon the skirts
Of Ida rose before me, and the vault
Wide-opening pierc'd the mountain's rocky side.
Entering within the threshold, on the ground
I flung me, sad, faint, over-worn with toil.

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