Gold or Glory?

November 04, 2014

Pierre Corneille

Pierre Corneille (1606–1684). Polyeucte.
Vol. 26, pp. 87-97 of The Harvard Classics

Polyeucte, an Armenian noble, wanted to become a Christian. If he were baptized, he would have to give up his high position, his wealth and his pagan wife. Was the heavenly crown worth this sacrifice?

Act II


  SEV.  Let Felix bow to Jove and incense pour,—
I seek a dearer shrine, for I adore
Nor Jove, nor Mars, nor Fortune—but Pauline.
This fruit now ripening late my hand would glean:
You know, my friend, the god who wings my way,—
You know the only goddess I obey:
What reck the gods on high our sacrifice and prayer?
An earthly worship mine, sole refuge from despair!

  FABIAN.  Ah! You may see her——

  SEV.        Blesséd be thy tongue!
O magic word, that turns my grief to song!
Yet, if she now forget each fair, fond vow?
She loved me once,—but does she love me now?
On that sweet face shall I but trouble see—
Who hope for love undimmed, for ecstasy?
Great Decius gives her hand, but if her heart
Be mine no more—than let vain hope depart!
This mandate binds her father only; she
Shall give no captive hand—her heart is free:
No promise wrung, no king’s command be mine to claim,
Her love the boon I crave; all else an empty name!

  FABIAN.  Yes,—you may—see her—see her—this you may—

  SEV.  Thy speech is halting—odious thy delay!
She loves no more? I grope! O give me light!

  FABIAN.  O see her not, for painful were the sight!
In Rome each matron’s kind! In Rome all maids are fair!
Let lips meet other lips—seek for caresses there!
No stately Claudia will refuse—no Julia proud disdain;
A hero captures every heart, from Antioch to Spain!

  SEV.  To wed a queen—an empress—were only loss and shame;
One heart for me—Pauline’s! One boast—that dearest name!
Her love was virgin gold! O ne’er shall baser metal ring
From mine, who live her name to bless! her peerless praise to sing!
O, words are naught, till that I see her face,—
Then doubly naught till I my love embrace.
In every war my hope was placed in death,
Her name upon my lips at every breath:
My rank, my fame, now hers and hers alone,
What is not hers, hers only—I disown!

  FABIAN.  Once more, oh see her not, ’twere for thy peace!

  SEV.  Thy meaning, knave, or let this babble cease!
Say, was she cold? My love! My only life!

  FABIAN.  No—but—my lord——

  SEV.  Say on!

  FABIAN.        Another’s wife!

  SEV.  (Reels.)  Help!—No, I will not blench—ah, say you lie!
If this be true!—ye gods—can I be I?

  FABIAN.  No, thou art changed. Where is thy courage fled?

  SEV.  I know not, Fabian. Lost! Gone! Vanished! Dead!
I thought my strength was oak—’tis but a reed!
Pauline is wed, then am I lost indeed!
Hope hid beyond the cloud, yet still fond hope was there:
But now all hope is dead, lives only black despair!
Pauline another’s wife?

  FABIAN.        Yes, Polyeucte is her lord.
He came, he saw, he conquered thine adored.

  SEV.  Her choice is not unworthy—his a name
Illustrious, from a line of kings he came—
Cold comfort for a wound no cure can heal!
My cause is lost,—foredoomed without appeal!
Malignant Jove, to drag me back to-day!
Relentless Fate, to quench hope’s dawning ray!
Take back your gifts! One boon alone I crave,
That only boon to none denied—the grave.
Yet would I see her, breathe one last good-bye,
Would hear once more that voice before I die!
My latest breath would still my homage pay,—
That memory mine, when lost to realms of day.

  FABIAN.  Yet think, my lord——

  SEV.        Oh, I have thought of all;
What worser ill can dull despair befall?
She will not see me?

  FABIAN.        Yes, my lord, but——

  SEV.        Cease!

  FABIAN.  ’Twill but enhance the grief I would appease.

  SEV.  For hopeless ill, good friend, I seek no cure.
Who welcomes death can life’s short pain endure!

  FABIAN.  O lost indeed, if round her fatal light you hover!—
The lover, losing all, speaks hardly like a lover!
While passion still is lord—the passion—swept is slave—
From this last bitterness would I Severus save!

  SEV.  That word, my friend, unsay; tho’ grief this bosom tear,
The hand that wounds I kiss—love vanquishes despair;
Fate only, not Pauline, the foe that I accuse,
No plighted faith she breaks who did this hand refuse.
Duty—her father—Fate—these willed, she but obeyed;
Not hers the woe, the strife that envious Ate made!
Untimely, Fortune’s shower must drown me, not revive;
Too lavish and too late her fatal gifts arrive.
The golden apple falls, the gold is turned to dross:
When Fate at Fortune mocks, all gain is only loss!

  FABIAN.  Yes, I will go to tell her thou hast drained
To the last drop the cup that Fate ordained.
She knows thee hero, but she feared that pain
Might prove thee also man—by passion slain.
She feared Despair, who gains the victory
O’er other men, might e’en thy master be!

  SEV.  Peace! Peace! She comes!

  FABIAN.        To thine own self be true!

  SEV.  Nay! True to her! Shall I her life undo?
She loves the Armenian!


        PAUL.  Yes, that debt I pay,
Hard-wrung, acquitted,—his my love alway!
Who has my hand, he holds—shall hold—my heart!
Truth is my guide,—let sophistry depart!
Had Fate been kind, then had Pauline been thine,
Heart, faith and duty, linked with bliss divine.
In vain had fickle Fortune barred the way,
Want had been wealth with thee, my guide, my stay,
And poverty had fallen from the wings
Of soaring love, who mocks the wealth of kings!
Not mine to choose, for he—my father’s choice—
Must needs be mine; yes, when I heard his voice,
Duty must echo be: if thou couldst cast
Before my feet an emperor’s crown,—a past
By worth and glory lit—beloved, adored—
Yet at my father’s word, ‘Not this thy lord;
Take one despised—nay, loathed—to share thy bed,’—
Him, and not thee, beloved, would I wed.
Duty, obedience, must have been the part
Of me, who own their sway, e’en with a broken heart!

  SEV.  O happy thou! O easy remedy!
One poor faint sigh cures love’s infirmity!
Thy heart thy tool, o’er every passion queen,
Beyond all change and chance thou sit’st serene!
In easy flow can pass thy love new-born
From cold indifference to colder scorn;
Such resolution is the equal mate
Of god or monster, love, aversion, hate.
This fine-spun adamant Ithuriel’s spear
Could never pierce: for other stuff is here!  [Points to himself.
No faint ‘Alas!’ no swift-repented sigh
Can heal the cureless wound from which I die.
Sure, reason finds that love his easy prey
With Lethe aye at hand to point the way;
With ordered fires like thine, I too could smother
A heart in leash, find solace in another.
Too fair, too dear—from whom the Fates me sever!
Thou hast no heart to give—thou lov’dst me never!

  PAUL.  Too plain, Severus, I my torture show,—
Tho’ flame leap up no more, the embers glow;
Far other speech and voice, and mien were mine,
Could I forget that once thou call’dst me thine!
Tho’ reason rules, yes, gains the mastery—
No queen benignant, but a tyrant she!
Oh, if I conquer—if the strife I gain,
Yet memory for aye is linked with pain!
I feel the charm that binds me still to thee;
If duty great, yet great thy worth to me:
I see thee still the same, who waked the fire
Which waked in me ineffable desire.
Begirt by crown of everlasting fame
Thou art more glorious—yet art still the same.
I know thy valour’s worth,—well hast thou justified
That bounding hope of mine, though fruitage was denied,
Yet this same fate which did our union ban
Hath made me, fated—wed another man.
Let Duty still be queen! Yea, let her break
The heart she pierces, yet can never shake.
The virtue, once thy pride in days gone by—
Doth that same worth now merit blasphemy?
Bewail her bitter fruit—but praised be
The rights that triumph over thee and me!

  SEV.  Forgive, Pauline, forgive; ah! grief hath made me blind
To all but grief’s excess, and fortune most unkind.
Forgive that I mistook—nay, treated as a crime—
Thy constancy of soul, unequalled and sublime;
In pity for my life forlorn, my peace denied,
Ah! show thyself less fair,—one least perfection hide!
Let some alloy be seen, some saving weakness left,
Take pity on a heart of thee and Heaven bereft!
One faintest flaw reveal, to give my soul relief!
Else, how to bear the love that only mates with grief?

  PAUL.  Alas! the rents in armour donned and proved
Too well my fight proclaim; yes, I have loved;
The traitor sigh, the tear unbid, attest
The combat fierce—the warrior sore distrest.
Say, who can stanch these wounds, that armour mend?
Thou who hast pierced, thou, thou alone defend!
Ah, if thou honourest my victory—
Depart, that thou may’st still defender be!
So dry the tears that, to my shame, still flow—
So quench the fire would work my overthrow!
Yes, go, my only friend, with me combine
To end my torture, for thy pain is mine!

  SEV.  This last poor drop of comfort may not be?

  PAUL.  The cup is poisoned both for me and thee!

  SEV.  The flower is gone—I cherish but the root!

  PAUL.  Untimely blossom bears a fated fruit!

  SEV.  My grief be mine! Let memory remain!

  PAUL.  That grief might hope beget, so leave a stain!

  SEV.  Not mine to stain what Heaven hath made so pure!
For me one offering left: ’tis this: Endure!
Thy glory shall be mine, my load I bear,
So, spotless, thou thy peerless crown shalt wear!
Farewell, my love, farewell; I go to prove my faith,
To bless, to save thy life, so will I mate with death!
If prostrate from the blow, there yet remains of life
Enough to summon death, and end the piteous strife!

  PAUL.  My grief, too deep for voice, shall silent be,
There, in my chamber, will I pray for thee!
When thou art gone, great Heaven shall hear my cry;
Grief’s fruit for thee be hope—death—immortality!

  SEV.  Now with my loss alone let Fate contented be.
May Heaven shower bliss and peace on Polyeucte and thee!

  PAUL.  Stern Fate obeyed, end, Death, his agony,
And Jove receive my hero—to the sky!

  SEV.  Thou wast my heaven!

  PAUL.        My father I obeyed—

  SEV.  O victim pure, obedient, undismayed!
Pauline—too fair—too dear—I can no more!

  PAUL.  So must I say—depart—where I adore!  [Exit SEVERUS.

  STRAT.  Yes, it is hard—most sad—behold my tears!
But now, at least, there is no cause for fears:
Thy dream is but a dream—is naught, is vain;
Severus pardons. Gone that cause for pain!

  PAUL.  Oh, if from pity start thy easy tear,
Add not that other woe—forgotten fear!
Ah! let me breathe, some respite give from trouble,
Those fears, half-dead, thou dost revive, redouble!

  STRAT.  What dost thou dread?

  PAUL.        Heaven—hell—earth—empty air!
All, all is food for dread to my despair,
As thou unveil’st, begirt in lurid light,
The pallid ghost that slew me in the night!

  STRAT.  Severus he by name, yet noble in his heart!

  PAUL.  Ah, Polyeucte bathed in blood! Depart! depart!

  STRAT.  For Polyeucte’s welfare did Severus pray!

  PAUL.  Yes, yes, his heart is great; be that my stay!
Yet, tho’ his truth, his faith, well-proved be,
Most baleful is his presence here to me;
Yea, tho’ he would all ill for me undo—
Yet he hath power, he loves—he came to woo.


  POLY.  The source of tears is dry, oh, weep no more,
Thy grief lay down, thy fearful heart restore!
Let night’s dark dream with superstition die,
The dream is past, for here in life am I!

  PAUL.  The day is young, and oh, the day is long,—
And half the dream is true, and Fate is strong;
Severus have I seen, who thought him dead!

  POLY.  I know it! Let no tear for this be shed!
Secure with thee am I! Tho’ great the knight,
Thy father will command to do me right;
The general is a man of honour,—he
Would ne’er that honour dim by treachery!
He comes in amity, our friend, our guest;
To greet his worth and valour now my quest.

  PAUL.  Radiant he came, who left me hopeless, sad,
But he will come no more,—this grace I had.

  POLY.  What? Thinkest thou that I can jealous be?

  PAUL.  An outrage this on him, on thee, on me!
He came in peace, who all my peace hath marred.
Who would run safely, every step must guard;
The wife who danger courts but courts her fall—
My husband, aid me!—I would tell thee all!
His worth, his charm, do my weak hearth enflame—
A traitor here! And he is aye the same!
If I should gaze, and long—’gainst virtue, honour, sense,
The citadel I yield, and mine my own defence!
I know my virtues sure, and fair my fame,
But struggle is defeat,—and combat shame!

  POLY.  Oh, true thy shield, thy victory is won,
He only who has lost thee is undone;
His noble grief the cost of all my bliss,
Ah, Cleopatra’s pearl was naught to this!
The more my faults I see, the more thy truth I learn,
The more do I admire——


  CLEON.        My lord, the altars burn
With holy fire. The victim they prepare;
On thee alone they wait, our rites to share.

  POLY.  Go, we do follow thee!

  PAUL.        I cannot go;
Severus flies my sight; to him I owe
My absence—not, alas! to him alone!
Go thou, and oh, remember he is great;
In his sole hands Severus holds thy fate!

  POLY.  A foe so great, so noble, is a friend,
Oh, not from him the lance that Heaven will send!  [Exeunt PAULINE, STRATONICE andCLEON.

  NEAR.  Where go’st thou?

  POLY.        To the temple is the call.

  NEAR.  What! Wouldst thou mingle in their heathen brawl?
Thou art a Christian, and canst thou forget?

  POLY.  Canst thou, who fore mine eyes the cross didst set?

  NEAR.  Not mine their gods!

  POLY.        He calls me! I must go!

  NEAR.  I fly their altars!

  POLY.        I would overthrow!
Not mine to fly a worship I disown,
By me Jehovah, King of kings, be known!
Not mine to tremble as I kiss the rod!
I conquer by the Cross, I fight for God!
Thou wouldst abstain! For me another course—
From Heaven the call, and Heaven will give the force!
What! Yield to evil! His Cross on my brow!
His freemen we! O fight, Nearchus, now!
For us our Lord was scourged, pierced, tortured, slain!
For us He bled! Say, has He died in vain?

  NEAR.  Let timely moderation temper zeal!

  POLY.  His—His alone am I! His woe my weal!

  NEAR.  In love with death?

  POLY.        For Him I love I die!
He died for me! So death is victory!

  NEAR.  Thy flesh is weak!

  POLY.        Yet He will make me bold!

  NEAR.  And if thou waver?

  POLY.        He will me uphold!

  NEAR.  To tempt the Lord thy God were an offence.

  POLY.  He is my shield—hence! cursed tempter, hence!

  NEAR.  In time of need the faith must be confessed.

  POLY.  The offering grudged is sacrifice unblessed.

  NEAR.  Seek thou the death thine own self-will prepares!

  POLY.  A crown I seek, which every martyr shares!

  NEAR.  A life of duty well that crown can win.

  POLY.  The purest life on earth is stained with sin.
Why yield to time and chance what death assures?
Death but the gate of life that aye endures.
If I be His—let me be His alone!
The faith that soars shall full fruition own;
Who trusts, yet fears and doubts, his faith is dead!

  NEAR.  Not death the Christian’s prayer, but daily bread.
Live to protect the flock, so sore oppressed.

  POLY.  Example be their friend, most sure, most blessed!

  NEAR.  Thou woo’st thy death!

  POLY.        Is this poor life so dear?

  NEAR.  Ah, I must own my heart is slave to fear.
The rack! The cross! I might my Lord disown!

  POLY.  From Him our help, our strength, from Him alone!
Who fears denial does at heart deny;
Who doubts the power of faith makes faith a lie!

  NEAR.  Who leans upon a reed shall find distress.

  POLY.  His staff will guide, support my feebleness.
Thou wert my staff, to show the Truth, the Way,
Must I now urge thee to the realms of day?
Thou fearest death?

  NEAR.        The Christ once feared to die!

  POLY.  Yet drained the bitter cup of agony!
The way that thou hast shown—that way He trod;
His way be ours to lead man’s soul to God—
For heathen shrine—to rear His altar fair,—
The deathless hope alone can kill despair!
Thou said’st: ‘If Him thou wilt for pattern take,
Then leave wife, wealth, home, all for His dear sake!’
Alas, that love of thine, now weak and poor,
Glows yet within my breast—and shall endure;
Ah, must the dawn of this my perfect day
Find thy full light beclouded, dimmed, astray?

  NEAR.  Baptismal waters yet bedew thy brow;
The grace that once was mine, that grace hast thou.
No worldly thought has checked the flow, no guilty act has stained;
Thy wings are strong, while mine are weak; thy love is fresh, unfeigned,—
To these, thy heights, I cannot soar, held down by sense and sin,
How can I storm the citadel?—the traitor lurks within!
Forsake me not, my God! Thy spirit pour!
Oh, make me true to Him whom I adore!
With Thee I rise,—the flesh, the world, defy,
Thou, who hast died for me, for Thee I die!
Yes, I will go! With heaven-born zeal I burn
I will be free,—all Satan’s lures I spurn;
Death, torture, outrage, these will I embrace,
To nerve my heart and arm, Heaven grant me grace!

  POLY.  On eagle wings of faith and hope ascend!
I hail my master—recognise my friend;
The old faith wanes,—we light her funeral pyre,
Her ashes fall before our holy fire;
Come, trample under foot the gods that men have wrought;
The rotten, helpless staff is broke, is gone—is naught.
Their darkness felt they own, but let them see the light!
Their gods of stone, of clay, but vampires of the night!
Their dust shall turn to dust,—shall moulder with the sod,
Ours for His name to fight:—the issue is with God.

  NEAR.  The cause is just, is true—O coward heart, be still!
I lived to doubt His word—I die to His Will!

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