“…the mythic fancies / Sung beside her in her youth.”

March 20, 2008

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote the following poem, inspired both by a legend and an account of Plutarch. In them, the ancient gods of Greece swooned and died at the hour of the crucifixion. The pagan landscape, lost Arcadia, was left silent and empty at the hour “when One in Sion / Hung for love’s sake on a cross.”

I don’t know why these sorts of things disappear from the web, but this one is usually hard to find. Herewith, then, Browning’s poem.  Sorry for the length.


Gods of Hellas, gods of Hellas,
Can ye listen in your silence?
Can your mystic voices tell us
Where ye hide? In floating islands,
With a wind that evermore
Keeps you out of sight of shore?
Pan, Pan is dead.


In what revels are ye sunken,
In old Aethiopia?
Have the Pygmies made you drunken,
bathing in mandragora
Your divine pale lips that shiver
Like the lotus in the river?
Pan, Pan is dead.


Do ye sit there still in slumber,
In gigantic Alpine rows?
The black poppies out of number
Nodding, dripping from your brows
To the red lees of your wine,
And so kept alive and fine?
Pan, Pan is dead.


Or lie crushed your stagnant courses
Where the silver spheres roll on,
Stung to life by centric forces
Thrown like rays out from the sun?
While the smoke of your old altars
In the shroud that round you welters?
Great Pan is dead.


“Gods of Hellas, Gods of Hellas,”
said the old Hellenic tongue!
Said the hero-oaths as well as
Poets sings the sweetest sung!
Have ye grown deaf in a day!
Can you speak not yea or nay?
Since Pan is dead?


Do ye leave your rivers flowing
All alone, O Naiades,
While your drenched locks dry slow in
This cold feeble sun and breeze?
Not a word the Naiads say,
Though the rivers run for ay.
For Pan is dead.


From the gloaming of the oak-wood,
O ye Dryads, could ye flee?
At the rushing thunderstroke, would
No sob tremble through the tree?
Not a word the Dryads say,
Though the forests wave for ay.
For Pan is dead.


Have ye left the mountain places
Oreads wild, for other tryst?
Shall we see no sudden faces
Strike a glory through the mist?
Not a sound the silence thrills
Of the everlasting hills.
Pan, Pan is dead.


O twelve gods of Plato’s vision,
Crowned to starry wanderings, –
With your chariots in procession,
And your silver clash of wings!
Very pale ye seem to rise
Ghosts of Grecian deities –
Now Pan is dead.


Jove, the right hand is unloaded,
Whence the thunder did prevail,
While in idiocy of godhead
Thou art staring the stars pale!
And thine eagle, blind and old,
Roughs his feathers in the cold.
Pan, Pan is dead.


Where, O Juno, is the glory
Of thy regal look and tread?
Will they lay forevermore thee,
On thy dim, straight, golden bed?
Will thy queendom all lie hid
Meekly, under either lid?
Pan, Pan is dead.


Ha, Apollo! floats his golden
Hair all mist-like where he stands,
While the Muses hang enfolding
Knee and foot with faint wild hands?
‘Neath the clanging of thy bow,
Niobe looked lost as though!
Pan, Pan is dead.


Shall the casque with its brown iron,
Pallas’ broad blue eyes, eclipse,
And no hero take inspiring
From the god-Greek of her lips?
‘Neath her olive dost thou sit
Mars the mighty, cursing it?
Pan, Pan is dead.


Bacchus, Bacchus! on the panther
He swoons, – bound with his own vines;
And his Maenads slowly saunter,
Head aside, among the pines,
While they murmur dreamingly,
“Evohe – ah – Evohe – !”
Ah, Pan is dead.


Neptune lies beside his trident,
Dull and senseless as a stone;
And old Pluto deaf and silent
Is cast out into the sun:
Ceres smileth stern thereat
“We all now are desolate –
Now Pan is dead.”


Aphrodite! dead and driven
As thy native foam thou art;
With the cestus long done heaving
On the white calm of thine heart!
Ai Adonis at that shriek
Not a tear runs down her cheek –
Pan, Pan is dead.


And the Loves, we used to know from
One another, huddled lie,
Frore as taken in a snow-storm,
Close beside her tenderly, –
As if each had weakly tried
Once to kiss her as he died.
Pan, Pan is dead.


What, and Hermes? Time enthralleth
All thy cunning, Hermes, thus, –
And the ivy blindly crawleth
Round thy brave caduceus?
Hast thou no new message for us,
Fall of thunder and Jove-glories?
Nay, Pan is dead.


Crown’ed Cybele’s great turret
Rocks and crumbles on her head;
Roar the lions of her chariot
Toward the wilderness, unfed,
Scornful children are not mute
“Mother, mother, walk afoot
Since Pan is dead.”


In the fiery-hearted centre
Of the solemn universe,
Ancient Vesta, – who could enter
To consume thee with this curse?
Drop thy grey chin on thy knee
O thy palsied Mystery
For Pan is dead.


Gods, we vainly do adjure you, –
Ye return no voice nor sign!
Not a votary could secure you
Even a grave for your Divine!
Not a grave to show thereby
Here these old grey gods do lie
Since Pan is dead.


Even that Greece who took your wages
Calls the obolus outworn;
And the hoarse deep-throated ages
Laugh your godships unto scorn;
And the poets do disclaim you
Or grow colder if they name you –
And Pan is dead.


Gods bereav-ed, gods belated,
With your purples rent asunder!
Gods discrowned and desecrated,
Disinherited of thunder!
Now the goats may climb and crop
The soft grass on Ida’s top –
Now, Pan is dead.


Calm, of old, the bark went onward,
When a cry more loud than wind
Rose up, deepened, and swept sunward,
From the pil-ed Dark behind;
And the sun shrank and grew pale,
Breathed against by the great wail –
“Pan, Pan is dead.”


And the rowers from the benches
Fell – each shuddering on his face –
While departing Influences
Struck a cold back through the place;
And the shadow of the ship
Reeled along the passive deep –
“Pan, Pan is dead.”


And that dismal cry rose slowly
And sank slowly through the air,
Full of spirit’s melancholy
And eternity’s despair!
And they heard the words it said –

‘Twas the hour when One in Sion
Hung for love’s sake on a cross;
When his brow was chill with dying,
And his soul was faint with loss;
When his priestly blood dropped downward
And his kingly eyes looked throneward –
Then, Pan was dead.


By the love He stood alone in
His sole Godhead rose complete,
And the false gods fell down moaning,
Each from off his golden seat;
All the false gods with a cry
Rendered up their deity –
Pan, Pan was dead.


Wailing wide across the islands,
They rent, vest-like, their Divine!
And a darkness and a silence
Quenched the light in every shrine;
And Dodona’s oak swang lonely
Henceforth, to the tempest only,
Pan, Pan was dead.


Pythia staggered – feeling o’er her,
Her lost god’s forsaking look;
Straight her eyeballs filmed with horror,
And her crispy fillets shook,
And her lips gasped through their foam
For a word that did not come.
Pan, Pan was dead.


Oh ye vain false gods of Hellas,
Ye are silent evermore!
And I dash down this old chalice,
Whence libations ran of yore.
See, the wine crawls in the dust,
Wormlike, as your glories must,
Since Pan is dead.


Get to dust, as common mortals,
By a common doom and track!
Let no Schiller from the portals
Of that Hades call you back,
Or instruct us to weep all
At your antique funeral.
Pan, Pan is dead.


By your beauty, which confesses
Some chief Beauty conquering you, –
By our grand heroic guesses,
Through your falsehood, at the True, –
We will weep not..! earth shall roll
Heir to each god’s aureole –
And Pan is dead.


Earth outgrows the mythic fancies
Sung beside her in her youth;
And those debonair romances
Sound but dull beside the truth.
Phoebus chariot-course is run:
Look up, poets, to the sun!
Pan, Pan is dead.


Christ hath sent us down the angels;
And the whole earth and the skies
Are illumined by altar-candles
Lit for bless-ed mysteries;
And a Priest’s hand, through creation,
Waveth calm and consecration –
And Pan is dead.


Truth is fair: should we forgo it?
Can we sigh right for a wrong?
God himself is the best Poet.
And the Real is His song.
Sing his truth our fair and full,
And secure his beautiful.
Let Pan be dead.


Truth is large. Our aspiration
Scarce embraces half we be:
Shame, to stand in His creation,
And doubt truth’s sufficiency! –
To think God’s song unexcelling
The poor tales of our own telling –
When Pan is dead.


What is true and just and honest,
What is lovely, what is pure –
All of praise that hath admonisht,
All of virtue, shall endure, –
These are themes for poet’s uses,
Stirring nobler than the Muses,
Ere Pan was dead.


O brave poets, keep back nothing,
Nor mix falsehood with the whole:
Look up Godward, speak the truth in
Worthy song from earnest soul!
Hold in high poetic duty,
Truest Truth the fairest Beauty.
Pan, Pan is dead.


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