A poem by Nathaniel Parker Willis

There stood an unsold captive in the mart,
A gray-haired and majestical old man,
Chained to a pillar. It was almost night,
And the last seller from the place had gone,
And not a sound was heard but of a dog
Crunching beneath the stall a refuse bone,
Or the dull echo from the pavement rung.
As the faint captive changed his weary feet.
He had stood there since morning, and had borne
From every eye in Athens the cold gaze
Of curious scorn. The Jew had taunted him
For an Olynthian slave. The buyer came
And roughly struck his palm upon his breast,
And touched his unhealed wounds, and with a sneer
Passed on; and when, with weariness o’er-spent,
He bowed his head in a forgetful sleep,
The inhuman soldier smote him, and, with threats
Of torture to his children, summoned back
The ebbing blood into his pallid face.

’T was evening, and the half-descended sun
Tipped with a golden fire the many domes
Of Athens, and a yellow atmosphere
Lay rich and dusky in the shaded street
Through which the captive gazed. He had borne up
With a stout heart that long and weary day,
Haughtily patient of his many wrongs,
But now he was alone, and from his nerves
The needless strength departed, and he leaned
Prone on his massy chain, and let his thoughts
Throng on him as they would. Unmarked of him
Parrhasius at the nearest pillar stood,
Gazing upon his grief. The Athenian’s cheek
Flushed as he measured with a painter’s eye
The moving picture. The abandoned limbs,
Stained with the oozing blood, were laced with veins
Swollen to purple fulness; the gray hair,
Thin and disordered, hung about his eyes;
And as a thought of wilder bitterness
Rose in his memory, his lips grew white,
And the fast workings of his bloodless face
Told what a tooth of fire was at his heart.

The golden light into the painter’s room
Streamed richly, and the hidden colors stole
From the dark pictures radiantly forth,
And in the soft and dewy atmosphere
Like forms and landscapes magical they lay.
The walls were hung with armor, and about
In the dim corners stood the sculptured forms
Of Cytheris, and Dian, and stern Jove,
And from the casement soberly away
Fell the grotesque long shadows, full and true,
And like a veil of filmy mellowness,
The lint-specks floated in the twilight air.
Parrhasius stood, gazing forgetfully
Upon his canvas. There Prometheus lay,
Chained to the cold rocks of Mount Caucasus,
The vulture at his vitals, and the links
Of the lame Lemnian festering in his flesh;
And, as the painter’s mind felt through the dim,
Rapt mystery, and plucked the shadows forth
With its far reaching fancy, and with form
And color clad them, his fine, earnest eye
Flashed with a passionate fire, and the quick curl
Of his thin nostril, and his quivering lip
Were like the winged god’s, breathing from his flight.

“Bring me the captive now!
My hand feels skilful, and the shadows lift
From my waked spirit airily and swift,
And I could paint the bow
Upon the bended heavens, around me play
Colors of such divinity to-day.

“Ha! bind him on his back!
Look! as Prometheus in my picture here!
Quick, or he faints! stand with the cordial near!
Now, bend him to the rack!
Press down the poisoned links into his flesh!
And tear agape that healing wound afresh!

“So, let him writhe! How long
Will he live thus? Quick, my good pencil, now!
What a fine agony works upon his brow!
Ha! gray-haired, and so strong!
How fearfully he stifles that short moan!
Gods! if I could but paint a dying groan!

“‘Pity’ thee! So I do!
I pity the dumb victim at the altar,
But does the robed priest for his pity falter?
I’d rack thee though I knew
A thousand lives were perishing in thine,
What were ten thousand to a fame like mine?

“‘Hereafter!’ Ay, hereafter!
A whip to keep a coward to his track!
What gave Death ever from his kingdom back
To check the skeptic’s laughter?
Come from the grave to-morrow with that story,
And I may take some softer path to glory.

“No, no, old man! we die
Even as the flowers, and we shall breathe away
Our life upon the chance wind, even as they!
Strain well thy fainting eye,
For when that bloodshot quivering is o’er,
The light of heaven will never reach thee more.

“Yet there’s a deathless name!
A spirit that the smothering vault shall spurn,
And like a steadfast planet mount and burn;
And though its crown of flame
Consumed my brain to ashes as it shone,
By all the fiery stars! I’d bind it on!

“Ay, though it bid me rifle
My heart’s last fount for its insatiate thirst,
Though every life-strung nerve be maddened first,
Though it should bid me stifle
The yearning in my throat for my sweet child,
And taunt its mother till my brain went wild,

“All, I would do it all,
Sooner than die, like a dull worm, to rot,
Thrust foully into earth to be forgot!
Oh heavens! but I appall
Your heart, old man! forgive, ha! on your lives
Let him not faint! rack him till he revives!

“Vain, vain, give o’er! His eye
Glazes apace. He does not feel you now,
Stand back! I’ll paint the death-dew on his brow!
Gods! if he do not die
But for one moment, one, till I eclipse
Conception with the scorn of those calm lips!

“Shivering! Hark! he mutters
Brokenly now, that was a difficult breath,
Another? Wilt thou never come, oh Death!
Look! how his temple flutters!
Is his heart still? Aha! lift up his head!
He shudders, gasps, Jove help him! so, he’s dead.”

How like a mounting devil in the heart
Rules the unreined ambition! Let it once
But play the monarch, and its haughty brow
Glows with a beauty that bewilders thought
And unthrones peace forever. Putting on
The very pomp of Lucifer, it turns
The heart to ashes, and with not a spring
Left in the bosom for the spirit’s lip,
We look upon our splendor and forget
The thirst of which we perish! Yet hath life
Many a falser idol. There are hopes
Promising well; and love-touched dreams for some;
And passions, many a wild one; and fair schemes
For gold and pleasure, yet will only this
Balk not the soul, Ambition, only, gives,
Even of bitterness, a beaker full!
Friendship is but a slow-awaking dream,
Troubled at best; Love is a lamp unseen,
Burning to waste, or, if its light is found,
Nursed for an idle hour, then idly broken;
Gain is a grovelling care, and Folly tires,
And Quiet is a hunger never fed;
And from Love’s very bosom, and from Gain,
Or Folly, or a Friend, or from Repose,
From all but keen Ambition, will the soul
Snatch the first moment of forgetfulness
To wander like a restless child away.
Oh, if there were not better hopes than these,
Were there no palm beyond a feverish fame,
If the proud wealth flung back upon the heart
Must canker in its coffers, if the links
Falsehood hath broken will unite no more,
If the deep yearning love, that hath not found
Its like in the cold world, must waste in tears,
If truth and fervor and devotedness,
Finding no worthy altar, must return
And die of their own fulness, if beyond
The grave there is no heaven in whose wide air
The spirit may find room, and in the love
Of whose bright habitants the lavish heart
May spend itself, what thrice-mocked fools are we!

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