Excerpts from a poem written by Roy Campbell, based on an opera of the same name. I admit I am arrested by it for reasons entirely unrelated to the opera, which I have never seen. I’ve never read a poem so visceral, as if charged by blood. It’s transfixing and horrifying all at once.
Helpless, condemned, yet still for mercy croaking
Like a trussed rooster swinging by the claws,
They hoisted him: they racked his joints asunder;
They lashed his belly to a thing of thunder–
A tameless brute, with hate and terror smoking,
That never felt the bit between its jaws.
So when his last vain struggle had subsided,
His gleeful butchers wearied of the fun:
Looping the knots about his thighs and back,
With lewd guffaws they heard his sinews crack,
And laughed to see his lips with foam divided,
His eyes too glazed with blood to know the sun.
A whip cracked, they were gone: alone they followed
The endless plain: the long day volleyed past
With only the white clouds above them speeding
And the grey steppe into itself receding,
Where each horizon, by vaster swallowed,
Repeated but the bareness of the last.
Out of his trance he wakened: on they flew:
The blood ran thumping down into his brain:
With skull a-dangle, facing to the sky
That like a great black wind went howling by,
Foaming, he strove to gnash the tethers through
That screwed his flesh into a knot of pain.
To him the earth and sky were drunken things–
Bucked from his senses, jolted to and fro,
He only saw them reeling hugely past,
As sees a sailor soaring at the mast,
Who retches as his sickening orbit swings
The sea above him and the sky below.
Into his swelling veins and open scars
The python cords bit deeper than before,
And the great beast, to feel their sharpened sting,
Looping his body in a thunderous sling
As if to jolt his burden to the stars,
Recoiled, and reared, and plunged ahead once more.
Now the dark sky with gathering ravens hums:
And vultures, sweeping down on his despair,
Struck at the loose and lolling head thereunder
The flying coffin sped, the hearse of thunder,
Whose hoof-beats with the roll of muffled drums
Led on the black processions of the air.
The fourth sun saw the great black wings descending
Where crashed in blood and spume the charger lay:
From the snapped cords a shapeless bundle falls–
Scarce human now, like a cut worm he crawls
Still with a shattered arm his face defending
As inch by inch he drags himself away.
Who’d give a penny for that strip of leather?
Go, set him flapping in a field of wheat,
Or take him as a pull-through for your gun,
Or hang him up to kipper in the sun,
Or leave him here, a strop to hone the weather
And whet the edges of the wind and sleet.
Who on that brow foresees the gems aglow?
Who, in that shriveled hand, the sword that swings
Wide as a moonbeam through the farthest regions,
To crop the blood-red harvest of the legions,
Making amends to every cheated crow
And feasting vultures on the fat of kings.
Left for the passing rabble to admire,
He fights for breath, he chokes, and rolls his eyes:
They mime his agonies with loud guffaws,
They pelt him from the place with muddy paws,
Nor do they hear the sudden snort of fire
To which the tether snaps, the great wings rise…
Vertiginously through the heavens rearing,
Plunging through chasms of eternal pain,
Splendours and horrors open on his view,
And wingèd fiends like fiercer kites pursue,
With hateful patience at his side careering,
To hook their claws of iron on his brain.
With their green eyes his solitude is starlit,
That lamp the dark and lurk in every brier:
He sinks obscure into the night of sorrow
To rise again, refulgent on the morrow,
With eagles for his ensigns, and the scarlet
Horizon for his Rubicon of fire.
Out of his pain, perhaps, some god-like thing,
Is born. A god has touched him, though with whips:
We only know that, hooted from our walls,
He hurtles on his way, he reels, he falls,
And staggers up to find himself a king
With truth a silver trumpet at his lips.