A King's Pleasure Now Yours

January 22, 2021

Pierre Corneille

Pierre Corneille (1606–1684).  Polyeucte

The classic plays of French literature are produced to-day precisely as when they were given for the resplendent kings they were written to please. We are fortunate to have in English, excellent translations of these noble plays.


SHALL woman’s dream of terror hurl the dart?
Oh, feeble weapon ’gainst so great a heart!
Must courage proved a thousand times in arms
Bow to a peril forged by vain alarms?

  POLY.  I know that dreams are born to fade away,
And melt in air before the light of day;
I know that misty vapours of the night
Dissolve and fly before the morning bright.
The dream is naught—but the dear dreamer—all!
She has my soul, Nearchus, fast in thrall;
Who holds the marriage torch—august, divine,
Bids me to her sweet voice my will resign.
She fears my death—tho’ baseless this her fright,
Pauline is wrung with fear—by day—by night;
My road to duty hampered by her fears,
How can I go when all undried her tears?
Her terror I disown—and all alarms,
Yet pity holds me in her loving arms:
No bolts or bars imprison,—yet her sighs
My fetters are—my conquerors, her eyes!
Say, kind Nearchus, is the cause you press
Such as to make me deaf to her distress?
The bonds I slacken I would not unloose—
Nothing I yield—yet grant a timely truce.

  NEAR.  How grant you know not what? Are you assured
Of constancy?—as one who has endured?
God claims your soul for Him!—Now! Now! To-day!
The fruit to-morrow yields—oh, who shall say?
Our God is just, but do His grace and power
Descend on recreants with equal shower?
On darkened souls His flame of light He turns,
Yet flame neglected soon but faintly burns,
And dying embers fade to ashes cold
If we the heart His spirit wooes withhold.
Great Heaven retains the fire no longer sought,
While ashes turn to dust, and dust to naught.
His holy baptism He bids thee seek,—
Neglect the call, and the desire grows weak.
Ah! whilst from woman’s breast thou heedst the sighs,
The flame first flickers, then, untended—dies!

  POLY.  You know me ill,—’tis mine, that holy fire,
Fed, not extinguished, by unslaked desire
Her tears—I view them with a lover’s eye;
And yet your Christ is mine—a Christian I!
The healing, cleansing flood o’er me shall flow,
I would efface the stain from birth I owe;
I would be pure—my sealed eyes would see!
The birthright Adam lost restored to me—
This, this, the unfading crown! For this I yearn,
For that exhaustless fount I thirst, I burn.
Then, since my heart is true, Nearchus, say—
Shall I not grant to pity this delay?

  NEAR.  So doth the ghostly foe our souls abuse,
And all beyond his force he gains by ruse;
He hates the purpose fast he cannot foil,—
Then he retreats—retreats but to recoil!
In endless barricade obstruction piles,—
To-day ’tis tears impede, to-morrow—smiles!
And this poor dream—his coinage of the night—
Gives place to other lures, all falsely bright:
All tricks he knows and uses—threats and prayers—
Attacks in parley—as the Parthian dares.
In chain unheeded weakest link must fail,
So fortress yet unwon he’ll mount and scale.
O break his bonds! Let feeble woman weep!
The heart that God has touched ’tis God must keep!
Who looks behind to dally with his choice
When Heaven demands—obeys another voice!

  POLY.  Who loves thy Christ—say, must he love no other?

  NEAR.  He may—he must! ’Tis Christ says, “Love thy brother,’
Yet on the altar of the Heavenly King
No rival place, no alien incense fling!
Through Him—by Him—for him—all goodness know!
’Tis from the source alone each stream must flow.
To please Him, wife, and wealth, and rank, and state
Must be forsaken—strait the heavenly gate.
Poor silly sheep! afar you err and stray
From Him who is The Life, The Truth, The Way!
My grief chokes utterance! I see your fate,
As round the fold the hungry wolves of hate
Closer and fiercer rage: from sword and flame
One shelter for His flock—one only Name!
The Cross alone our victor over fears,
Not this thy strength,—thy plea—a woman’s tears!

  POLY.  I know thy heart! It is mine own—the tear
My pity drops hath ne’er a taint of fear!
Who dreads not torture, yet—to give relief
To her he loves, perforce must ease her grief!
If Heaven should claim my life, my death, my all,—
Then Heaven will give the strength to heed the call.
The shepherd guides me surely to the fold,
There, safe with Him, ’tis He will make me bold!

  NEAR.  Be bold! O come!

  POLY.          Yes, let thy faith be mine!
There—at his feet—do I my life resign
If but Pauline—my love—would give consent!
Else heaven were hell, and home but banishment!

  NEAR.  Come!—to return. Thrice welcome to her sight,
To see thee safe will double her delight:
As the pierced cloud unveils a brighter sun,—
So is her joy enhanced—thy glory won!
O come, they wait!

  POLY.        Appease her fear! Ah, this
Alone will give her rest—her lover bliss.
She comes!

  NEAR.        Then fly!

  POLY.        I cannot!

  NEAR.        To deny
Would yield thine enemy the victory!
He loves to kill, and knows his deadliest dart
Finds friend within the fort—thy traitor heart!


  POLY.  I needs must go, Pauline! My love, good-bye!
I go but to return—for thine am I!

  PAUL.  Oh, why this haste to leave a loving wife?
Doth honour call?—or fear’st thou for thy life?

  POLY.  For more, a thousandfold!

  PAUL.        Great Gods above!

  POLY.  Thou hast my heart! Let this content thy love!

  PAUL.  You love and yet you leave me. What am I?
Not mine to solve the dreary mystery!

  POLY.  I love thee more than self—than life—than fame—

  PAUL.  There is something that thou dar’st not name.
Oh, on my knees I supplicate, I pray,
Remove my darkness!—turn my night to day!

  POLY.  Oh, dreams are naught!

  PAUL.        Yet, when they tell of thee,
I needs must listen, for I love! Ah, me!

  POLY.  Take courage, dear one, ’tis but for an hour,
Thy love must draw me back, for love hath power
O’er all in earth and heaven. My soul’s delight,
I can no more! My only safety-flight!  [Exeunt POLYEUCTE and NEARCHUS.

  PAUL.  Yes, go, despise my prayer—my agony;
Go, ruthless—meet thy fate—forewarned by me;
Chase thy pursuer, herald thine own doom;
Go, kiss the murderer’s hand, and hail the tomb!
Ah, Stratonice! for our boasted power
As sovereigns o’er man’s heart! Poor regents of an hour!
Faint, helpless, moonbeam-light was all I gave,
The sun breaks forth—his queen becomes his slave!
Wooed? Yes; as other queens I held my court—
Won—but to lose my crown, and be the sport
Of proud, absorbing and imperious man!

  STRAT.  Ah, man does what he wills—we, what we can;
He loves thee, lady!

  PAUL.        Love should mate with trusts;
He leaves me!

  STRAT.        Lady, ’tis because he must!
He loves thee with a love will never die,
Then, if he leave thee, reason not the why:
Give him thy trust! Oh, thou shalt have reward,
For thee he hides the secret! Let him guard
Thy life beloved—in fullest liberty.
The wife who wholly trusts alone in free!
One heart for thee and him—one purpose sure,
Yet this heart beats to dare—and to endure.
The wife’s true heart must o’er the peril sigh
Which meets his heart moved but to purpose high;
Thy pain his pain, but not his terror thine:
He is Armenian, thou of Roman line.
We, of Armenia, mock thy dreams to scorn,
For they are born of night, as truth of morn;
While Romans hold that dreams are heaven-sent,
And spring from Jove for man’s admonishment.

  PAUL.  Though this thy faith—if thou my dream shouldst hear—
My grief must needs be thine, thy fear my fear,
And, that the horror thou may’st fully prove,
Know that I—his dear wife—did once another love!
Nay, start not, shrink not, ’tis no tale of shame,
For though in other years the heavenly flame
Descended, kindled, scorched—it left me pure—
With courage to resign—with strength to endure.
He touched my heart, but never stained the soul
That gained this hardest conquest—self-control.
At Rome—where I was born—a soldier’s eye
Marked this poor face, from which must Polyeucte fly;
Severus was his name:—Ah! memory
May spare love linked with death a tear, a sigh!

  STRAT.  Say, is it he who, at the risk of life,
Saved Decius from his foes and endless strife?
Who, dying, dealt to Persia stroke of death,
And shouted ‘Victory!’ with his latest breath?
His whitening bones, amid the nameless brave,
Lie still unfound, unknown, without a grave;
Unburied lies his dust amid the slain,
While Decius rears an empty urn in vain!

  PAUL.  Alas! ’tis he; all Rome attests his worth,—
Hide not his memory, kindly Mother Earth!
’Tis but his memory that I adore—
The past is past—and I can say no more.
All gifts save one had he—yes, Fortune held her hand,
And I, as Fortune’s slave, obeyed my sire’s command.

  STRAT.  Ah! I must wish that love the day had won!

  PAUL.  Which duty lost—then had I been undone;
Though duty gave, yet duty healed, my pain;
Yet say not that my love was weak or vain!
Our tears fell fast, yet ne’er bore our distress
The fatal fruit of strife and bitterness.
Then, then, I left my hero, hope and Rome,
And, far from him, I found another home;
While he, in his despair, sought sure relief
In death, the only end to life’s long grief!
You know the rest:—you know that Polyeucte’s eye
Was caught,—his fancy pleased; his wife am I.
Once more by counsel of my father led,
To Armenia’s greatest noble am I wed;
Ambition, prudence, policy his guide
Yet only duty made Pauline his bride;
Love might have bound me to Severus’ heart,
Had duty not enforced a sterner part.
Yes, let these fears attest, all trembling for his life,
That I am his for aye—his faithful, loving wife.

  STRAT.  Thy new love true and tender as the old:—
But this thy dream? No more thy tale withhold!

  PAUL.  Last night I saw Severus: but his eye
With anger blazed; his port was proud and high,
No suppliant he—no feeble, formless shade,
With dim, averted eye; no sword had made
My hero lifeless ghost. Nor wound, nor scar
Marked death his only conqueror in war.
Nor spoil of death, nor memory’s child was he,
His mien triumphant, full of majesty!
So might victorious Caesar near his home
To claim the key to every heart in Rome!
He spoke: in nameless awe I heard his voice,—
‘Give love, that is my due, to him—thy choice,—
But know, oh faithless one, ere day expires,
All vain these tears for him thy heart desires!’
Anon a Christian band (an impious horde),
With shameful cross in hand, attest his word;
They vouch Severus’ truth—and, to complete
My doom, hurl Polyeucte beneath his feet!
I cried, ‘O father, timely succour bear!’
He heard, he came, my grief was now despair!
He drew his dagger—plunged it in the breast
Of him, my husband, late his honoured guest!
Relief came but from agony supreme—
I shrieked—I writhed—I woke—it was a dream!
And yet my dream is true!

  STRAT.        ’Tis true your dream is sad,
But now you are awake, ’tis but a dream you had!
For horror’s prey in darkness of the night
Is but our reason’s sport in morning light.
How can you dread a shade? How a fond father fear,
Who as a son regards the man you hold so dear?
To phantom of the night no credence yield;
For him and you he chose thy strength and shield.

  PAUL.  You say his words: at all my fears he smiles,
But I must dread these Christians and their wiles!
I dread their vengeance, wreaked upon my lord,
For Christian blood my father has outpoured!

  STRAT.  Their sect is impious, mad, absurd and vain,
Their rites repulsive, as their cult profane.
Deride their altar, their weak frenzy ban,
Yet do they war with gods and not with man!
Relentless wills our law that they must die:
Their joy—endurance; death—their ecstasy;
Judged—by decree, the foes of human race,
Meekly their heads they bow—to court disgrace!

  PAUL.  My father comes—oh, peace!


FELIX.        Nay, peace is flown!
Thy dream begets dull fears, till now unknown;
In part this dream is true, and for the rest——

  PAUL.  By what new fear, say, is thy heart opprest?

  FELIX.  Severus lives!

  PAUL.        Ah! this no cause for fear!

  FELIX.  At Decius’ court, he, held in honour dear,
Risked life to save his Emperor from his foes,
’Tis to his saviour Decius honour shows!

  PAUL.  Thus fickle Fortune bows her head to fate,
And pays the honour due, though all too late!

  FELIX.  He comes! Is near——

  PAUL.        The gods——

  FELIX.        Do all things well.

  PAUL.  My dream fulfilled! But how? O father, tell!

  FELIX.  Let Albin speak, who saw him face to face
With tribe of courtiers; all to him give place;
Unscathed in battle, all extol his fame,
Unstained, undimmed, his glory, life and name!

  ALBIN.  You know the issue of that glorious fight:
The crowning glory his—who, in despite
Of danger sore to life and liberty,
Became a slave to set his Emperor free:
Rome gave her honours to Severus’ shade,
Whilst he, her ransomer, in a dungeon stayed.
His death they mourned above ten thousand slain,
While Persia held him—yes, their tears were vain,
But not in vain his noble sacrifice!
The king released him: Rome grudged not the price;
No Persian bribe could tempt him from his home.
When Decius cried—‘Fight once again for Rome!’
Again he fights—he leads—all others hope resign;
But from despair’s deep breast he plucks a star benign,
This—hope’s fair fruit, contentment, plenty, ease,
Brings joy from grief, to crown a lasting peace.
The Emperor holds him as his dearest friend,
And doth Severus to Armenia send—
To offer up to Mars, and mighty Jove,
’Mid feast and sacrifice, his thanks and love.

  FELIX.  Ah, Fortune, turn thy wheel, else I misfortune meet!

  ALBIN.  This news I learn’d from one of great Severus’ suite:
Thence, swiftly here, the tale to tell I sped.

  FELIX.  He who once vainly wooed, hopes now to wed.
The sacrifice, the offering, all are feigned,
All but the suit, which lightly I disdained.

  PAUL.  Yes, this may be, for ah! he loved me well!

  FELIX.  What room for hope? Such wrath is child of hell.
Before his righteous ire I shrink, I cower;
Revenge I dread—and vengeance linked with power
Unnerves me quite.

  PAUL.        Fear not, his soul is great.

  FELIX.  Thy comfort, oh my daughter, comes too late.
The thought to crush me down, to turn my heart to stone,
This, that I prized not worth for worth’s dear sake alone!
Too well, Pauline, thou hast thy sire obeyed;
Thy heart was fond, but duty love betrayed.
How surely thy revolt had safety won!
’Tis thine obedience leaves us all undone.
In thee, in thee alone, one hope remains,
Love held him fast, relax not thou love’s chains.
O Love, my sometime foe, forgive, be mine ally,
And let the dart that slew now bring the remedy!

  PAUL.  Forbid it, Heaven! One good yet mine,—my will,
The dart that wounded has the power to kill.
One lesson woman learns—her feebleness;
Shame is the only grief without redress.
The traitor heart shall still a prisoner be;
For freedom were disgrace to thee and me!
I will not see him!

  FELIX.        But one word! Be kind!

  PAUL.  I will not, for I love!—and love is blind.
Before his kingly eye my soul to unveil
Were shame and failure: and I will not fail:
I will not see him!

  FELIX.        One word more—‘Obey!’
Wouldst thou thy father and his weal betray?

  PAUL.  I yield! Come woe!—come shame!—come every ill!
My father thou!—and I thy daughter still!

  FELIX.  I know thee pure.

  PAUL.        And pure I will remain,
But, crushed and bruised, the flower no guilt shall stain.
I fear the combat that I may not fly,—
Hard-won the fight, and dear the victory.
Here, love, my curse! Here, dearest friend, my foe!
Yet will I arm me! Father, I would go
To steel my heart—all weapons to embrace!

  FELIX.  I too will go, the conqueror’s march to grace!
Restore thy strength, ere yet it be too late,
And know that in thy hands thou hold’st our fate!

  PAUL.  Go, broken heart, to probe thy wound; cut deep and do not spare!
Herself—the crowning sacrifice—the victim shall prepare!

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