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The Witch of the Alps

by George Gordon Byron, 1881

(Manfred, Act ii. .)

A lower Valley in the Alps.—A Cataract.


IT is not noon—the sunbow’s rays still arch
The torrent with the many hues of heaven,
And roll the sheeted silver’s waving column
O’er the crag’s headlong perpendicular,
And fling its lines of foaming light along,
And to and fro, like the pale courser’s tail,
The Giant steed, to be bestrode by Death,
As told in the Apocalypse. No eyes
But mine now drink this sight of loveliness;
I should be sole in this sweet solitude,
And with the Spirit of the place divide
The homage of these waters.—I will call her.
[MANFRED takes some of the water into the palm of his hand, and flings it into the air, muttering the adjuration. After a pause, the WITCH OF THE ALPS rises beneath the arch of the sunbow of the torrent.

Beautiful Spirit! with thy hair of light,
And dazzling eyes of glory, in whose form
The charms of earth’s least mortal daughters grow
To an unearthly stature, in an essence
Of purer elements; while the hues of youth,—
Carnation’d like a sleeping infant’s cheek,
Rock’d by the beating of her mother’s heart,
Or the rose tints, which summer’s twilight leaves
Upon the lofty glacier’s virgin snow,
The blush of earth embracing with her heaven,—
Tinge thy celestial aspect, and make tame
The beauties of the sunbow which bends o’er thee.
Beautiful Spirit! in thy calm clear brow,
Wherein is glass’d serenity of soul,
Which of itself shows immortality,
I read that thou wilt pardon to a Son
Of Earth, whom the abstruser powers permit
At times to commune with them—if that he
Avail him of his spells—to call thee thus,
And gaze on thee a moment.
  Witch.                    Son of Earth!
I know thee, and the powers which give thee power;
I know thee for a man of many thoughts,
And deeds of good and ill, extreme in both,
Fatal and fated in thy sufferings.
I have expected this—what would’st thou with me?
  Man.  To look upon thy beauty—nothing further.
The face of the earth hath madden’d me, and I
Take refuge in her mysteries, and pierce
To the abodes of those who govern her—
But they can nothing aid me. I have sought
From them what they could not bestow, and now
I search no further.
  Witch.  What could be the quest
Which is not in the power of the most powerful,
The rulers of the invisible?
  Man.                    A boon;
But why should I repeat it? ’twere in vain.
  Witch.  I know not that; let thy lips utter it.
  Man.  Well, though it torture me, ’tis but the same;
My pang shall find a voice. From my youth upwards
My spirit walk’d not with the souls of men,
Nor look’d upon the earth with human eyes;
The thirst of their ambition was not mine,
The aim of their existence was not mine;
My joys, my griefs, my passions, and my powers,
Made me a stranger; though I wore the form,
I had no sympathy with breathing flesh,
Nor midst the creatures of clay that girded me
Was there but one who——but of her anon.
I said with men, and with the thoughts of men,
I held but slight communion; but instead,
My joy was in the Wilderness, to breathe
The difficult air of the iced mountain’s top,
Where the birds dare not build, nor insect’s wing
Flit o’er the herbless granite; or to plunge
Into the torrent, and to roll along
On the swift whirl of the new breaking wave
Of river-stream, or ocean, in their flow.
In these my early strength exulted; or
To follow through the night the moving moon,
The stars and their development; or catch
The dazzling lightnings till my eyes grew dim;
Or to look, list’ning, on the scatter’d leaves,
While Autumn winds were at their evening song.
These were my pastimes, and to be alone;
For if the beings, of whom I was one,—
Hating to be so,—cross’d me in my path,
I felt myself degraded back to them,
And was all clay again. And then I dived,
In my lone wanderings, to the caves of death,
Searching its cause in its effect; and drew
From wither’d bones, and skulls, and heap’d up dust,
Conclusions most forbidden. Then I pass’d
The nights of years in sciences untaught,
Save in the old time; and with time and toil,
And terrible ordeal, and such penance
As in itself hath power upon the air,
And spirits that do compass air and earth,
Space, and the peopled infinite, I made
Mine eyes familiar with Eternity,
Such as, before me, did the Magi, and
He who from out their fountain-dwellings raised
Eros and Anteros, at Gadara,
As I do thee;—and with my knowledge grew
The thirst of knowledge, and the power and joy
Of this most bright intelligence, until—
  Witch.  Proceed.
  Man.                Oh! I but thus prolong’d my words,
Boasting these idle attributes, because
As I approach the core of my heart’s grief—
But to my task. I have not named to thee
Father or mother, mistress, friend, or being,
With whom I wore the chain of human ties;
If I had such, they seem’d not such to me—
Yet there was one——
  Witch.                    Spare not thyself—proceed.
  Man.  She was like me in lineaments—her eyes,
Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone
Even of her voice, they said were like to mine;
But soften’d all, and temper’d into beauty;
She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,
The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind
To comprehend the universe: nor these
Alone, but with them gentler powers than mine,
Pity, and smiles, and tears—which I had not;
And tenderness—but that I had for her;
Humility—and that I never had.
Her faults were mine—her virtues were her own—
I loved her, and destroy’d her!
  Witch.                        With thy hand?
  Man.  Not with my hand, but heart—which broke her heart—
It gazed on mine, and wither’d. I have shed
Blood, but not hers—and yet her blood was shed—
I saw—and could not stanch it.
  Witch.                        And for this—
A being of the race thou dost despise,
The order which thine own would rise above,
Mingling with us and ours, thou dost forego
The gifts of our great knowledge, and shrink’st back
To recreant mortality——Away!
  Man.  Daughter of Air! I tell thee, since that hour—
But words are breath—look on me in my sleep,
Or watch my watchings—Come and sit by me!
My solitude is solitude no more,
But peopled with the Furies;—I have gnash’d
My teeth in darkness till returning morn,
Then cursed myself till sunset;—I have pray’d
For madness as a blessing—’tis denied me.
I have affronted death—but in the war
Of elements the waters shrunk from me,
And fatal things pass’d harmless—the cold hand
Of an all-pitiless demon held me back,
Back by a single hair, which would not break.
In fantasy, imagination, all
The affluence of my soul—which one day was
A Crœsus in creation—I plunged deep,
But, like an ebbing wave, it dash’d me back
Into the gulf of my unfathom’d thought.
I plunged amidst mankind—Forgetfulness
I sought in all, save where ’tis to be found,
And that I have to learn;—my sciences,
My long-pursued and superhuman art,
Is mortal here—I dwell in my despair—
And live—and live for ever.
  Witch.                        It may be
That I can aid thee.
  Man.                    To do this thy power
Must wake the dead, or lay me low with them.
Do so—in any shape—in any hour—
With any torture—so it be the last.
  Witch.  That is not in my province; but if thou
Wilt swear obedience to my will, and do
My bidding, it may help thee to thy wishes.
  Man.  I will not swear—Obey! and whom? the spirits
Whose presence I command, and be the slave
Of those who served me—Never!
  Witch.                            Is this all?
Hast thou no gentler answer?—Yet bethink thee,
And pause ere thou rejectest.
  Man.                        I have said it.
  Witch.  Enough!—I may retire then—say!
  Man.                            Retire!
[The WITCH disappears.

  Man. (alone.)  We are the fools of time and terror: Days
Steal on us and steal from us; yet we live,
Loathing our life, and dreading still to die.
In all the days of this detested yoke—
This vital weight upon the struggling heart,
Which sinks with sorrow, or beats quick with pain,
Or joy that ends in agony or faintness—
In all the days of past and future, for
In life there is no present, we can number
How few—how less than few—wherein the soul
Forbears to pant for death, and yet draws back
As from a stream in winter, though the chill
Be but a moment’s. I have one resource
Still in my science—I can call the dead,
And ask them what it is we dread to be:
The sternest answer can but be the Grave,
And that is nothing;—if they answer not—
The buried Prophet answered to the Hag
Of Endor; and the Spartan Monarch drew
From the Byzantine maid’s unsleeping spirit
An answer and his destiny—he slew
That which he loved, unknowing what he slew,
And died unpardon’d—though he call’d in aid
The Phyxian Jove, and in Phigalia roused
The Arcadian Evocators to compel
The indignant shadow to depose her wrath,
Or fix her term of vengeance—she replied
In words of dubious import, but fulfill’d.
If I had never lived, that which I love
Had still been living; had I never loved,
That which I love would still be beautiful—
Happy and giving happiness. What is she?
What is she now?—a sufferer for my sins—
A thing I dare not think upon—or nothing.
Within few hours I shall not call in vain—
Yet in this hour I dread the thing I dare:
Until this hour I never shrunk to gaze
On spirit, good or evil—now I tremble,
And feel a strange cold thaw upon my heart.
But I can act even what I most abhor,
And champion human fears.—The night approaches.

Published in Poetry of Byron

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