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Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)

Faustine


Ave Faustina Imperatrix, morituri te salutant.

              1Lean back, and get some minutes' peace;
              2    Let your head lean
              3Back to the shoulder with its fleece
              4    Of locks, Faustine.

              5The shapely silver shoulder stoops,
              6    Weighed over clean
              7With state of splendid hair that droops
              8    Each side, Faustine.

              9Let me go over your good gifts
            10    That crown you queen;
            11A queen whose kingdom ebbs and shifts
            12    Each week, Faustine.

            13Bright heavy brows well gathered up:
            14    White gloss and sheen;
            15Carved lips that make my lips a cup
            16    To drink, Faustine,

            17Wine and rank poison, milk and blood,
            18    Being mixed therein
            19Since first the devil threw dice with God
            20    For you, Faustine.

            21Your naked new-born soul, their stake,
            22    Stood blind between;
            23God said "let him that wins her take
            24    And keep Faustine."

            25But this time Satan throve, no doubt;
            26    Long since, I ween,
            27God's part in you was battered out;
            28    Long since, Faustine.

            29The die rang sideways as it fell,
            30    Rang cracked and thin,
            31Like a man's laughter heard in hell
            32    Far down, Faustine,

            33A shadow of laughter like a sigh,
            34    Dead sorrow's kin;
            35So rang, thrown down, the devil's die
            36    That won Faustine.

            37A suckling of his breed you were,
            38    One hard to wean;
            39But God, who lost you, left you fair,
            40    We see, Faustine.

            41You have the face that suits a woman
            42    For her soul's screen --
            43The sort of beauty that's called human
            44    In hell, Faustine.

            45You could do all things but be good
            46    Or chaste of mien;
            47And that you would not if you could,
            48    We know, Faustine.

            49Even he who cast seven devils out
            50    Of Magdalene
            51Could hardly do as much, I doubt,
            52    For you, Faustine.

            53Did Satan make you to spite God?
            54    Or did God mean
            55To scourge with scorpions for a rod
            56    Our sins, Faustine?

            57I know what queen at first you were,
            58    As though I had seen
            59Red gold and black imperious hair
            60    Twice crown Faustine.

            61As if your fed sarcophagus
            62    Spared flesh and skin,
            63You come back face to face with us,
            64    The same Faustine.

            65She loved the games men played with death,
            66    Where death must win;
            67As though the slain man's blood and breath
            68    Revived Faustine.

            69Nets caught the pike, pikes tore the net;
            70    Lithe limbs and lean
            71From drained-out pores dripped thick red sweat
            72    To soothe Faustine.

            73She drank the steaming drift and dust
            74    Blown off the scene;
            75Blood could not ease the bitter lust
            76    That galled Faustine.

            77All round the foul fat furrows reeked,
            78    Where blood sank in;
            79The circus splashed and seethed and shrieked
            80    All round Faustine.

            81But these are gone now: years entomb
            82    The dust and din;
            83Yea, even the bath's fierce reek and fume
            84    That slew Faustine.

            85Was life worth living then? and now
            86    Is life worth sin?
            87Where are the imperial years? and how
            88    Are you Faustine?

            89Your soul forgot her joys, forgot
            90    Her times of teen;
            91Yea, this life likewise will you not
            92    Forget, Faustine?

            93For in the time we know not of
            94    Did fate begin
            95Weaving the web of days that wove
            96    Your doom, Faustine.

            97The threads were wet with wine, and all
            98    Were smooth to spin;
            99They wove you like a Bacchanal,
          100    The first Faustine.

          101And Bacchus cast your mates and you
          102    Wild grapes to glean;
          103Your flower-like lips were dashed with dew
          104    From his, Faustine.

          105Your drenched loose hands were stretched to hold
          106    The vine's wet green,
          107Long ere they coined in Roman gold
          108    Your face, Faustine.

          109Then after change of soaring feather
          110    And winnowing fin,
          111You woke in weeks of feverish weather,
          112    A new Faustine.

          113A star upon your birthday burned,
          114    Whose fierce serene
          115Red pulseless planet never yearned
          116    In heaven, Faustine.

          117Stray breaths of Sapphic song that blew
          118    Through Mitylene
          119Shook the fierce quivering blood in you
          120    By night, Faustine.

          121The shameless nameless love that makes
          122    Hell's iron gin
          123Shut on you like a trap that breaks
          124    The soul, Faustine.

          125And when your veins were void and dead,
          126    What ghosts unclean
          127Swarmed round the straitened barren bed
          128    That hid Faustine?

          129What sterile growths of sexless root
          130    Or epicene?
          131What flower of kisses without fruit
          132    Of love, Faustine?

          133What adders came to shed their coats?
          134    What coiled obscene
          135Small serpents with soft stretching throats
          136    Caressed Faustine?

          137But the time came of famished hours,
          138    Maimed loves and mean,
          139This ghastly thin-faced time of ours,
          140    To spoil Faustine.

          141You seem a thing that hinges hold,
          142    A love-machine
          143With clockwork joints of supple gold --
          144    No more, Faustine.

          145Not godless, for you serve one God,
          146    The Lampsacene,
          147Who metes the gardens with his rod;
          148    Your lord, Faustine.

          149If one should love you with real love
          150    (Such things have been,
          151Things your fair face knows nothing of,
          152    It seems, Faustine);

          153That clear hair heavily bound back,
          154    The lights wherein
          155Shift from dead blue to burnt-up black;
          156    Your throat, Faustine,

          157Strong, heavy, throwing out the face
          158    And hard bright chin
          159And shameful scornful lips that grace
          160    Their shame, Faustine,

          161Curled lips, long since half kissed away,
          162    Still sweet and keen;
          163You'd give him -- poison shall we say?
          164    Or what, Faustine?

Notes

1] A version of the traditional greeting to the Emperor extended by gladiators entering the amphitheatre: "Hail, Faustina the Empress, they who are about to die salute you."
Swinburne responded to venemous reviews of this and other poems in his first volume of verse. His Notes on Poems and Reviews (London: John Camden Hotten, 1866) is edited in Complete Works by Sir Edmond Gosse and Thomas James Wise, Prose Works, Vol. VI (London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1926): 353-73. Of "Faustine," Swinburne has the following to say:

I have heard that even the little poem of `Faustine' has been to some readers a thing to make the scalp creep and the blood freeze. It was issued with no such intent. Nor do I remember that any man's voice or heel was lifted against it when it first appeared, a new-born and virgin poem, in the Spectator newspaper for 1862. Virtue, it would seem, has shot up surprisingly in the space of four years or less -- a rank and rapid growth, barren of blossom and rotten of root. `Faustine' is the reverie of a man gazing on the bitter and vicious loveliness of a face as common and as cheap as the morality of reviewers, and dreaming of past lives in which this fair face may have held a nobler or fitter station; the imperial profile may have been Faustina's, the thirsty lips a Mænad's, when first she learnt to drink blood or wine, to waste the loves and ruin the lives of men; through Greece and again through Rome she may have passed with the same face which now comes before us dishonoured and discrowned. Whatever of merit or demerit there may be in the verses, the idea that gives them such life as they have is simple enough; the transmigration of a single soul, doomed as though by accident from the first to all evil and no good, through many ages and forms, but clad always in the same type of fleshly beauty. The chance which suggested to me this poem was one which may happen any day to any man -- the sudden sight of a living face which recalled the well-known likeness of another dead for centuries: in this instance, the noble and faultless type of the elder Faustina, as seen in coin and bust. Out of that casual glimpse and sudden recollection these verses sprang and grew.

Of the poem in which I have attempted once more to embody the legend of Venus and her knight, I need say only that my first aim was to rehandle the old story in a new fashion. To me it seemed that the tragedy began with the knight's return to Venus -- began at the point where hitherto it had seemed to leave off. The immortal agony of a man lost after all repentance -- cast down from fearful hope into fearless despair -- believing in Christ and bound to Venus -- desirous of penitential pain, and damned to joyless pleasure -- this, in my eyes, was the kernel and nucleus of a myth comparable only to that of the foolish virgins and bearing the same burden. The tragic touch of the story is this: that the knight who has renounced Christ believes in him; the lover who has embraced Venus disbelieves in her. Vainly and in despair would he make the best of that which is the worst -- vainly remonstrate with God, and argue on the side he would fain desert. Once accept or admit the least admixture of pagan worship, or of modern thought, and the whole story collapses into froth and smoke. It was not till my poem was completed that I received from the hands of its author the admirable pamphlet of Charles Baudelaire on Wagner's Tannhäuser. If any one desires to see, expressed in better words than I can command, the conception of the mediæval Venus which it was my aim to put into verse, let him turn to the magnificient passage in which M. Baudelaire describes the fallen goddess, grown diabolic among ages that would not accept her as divine. In another point, as I then found, I concur with the great musician and his great panegyrist. I have made Venus the one love of her knight's whole life, as Mary Stuart of Chastelard's; I have sent him, poet and soldier, fresh to her fierce embrace. Thus only both legend and symbol appear to me noble and significant. Light loves and harmless errors must not touch the elect of heaven or of hell. The queen of evil, the lady of lust, will endure no rival but God; and when the vicar of God rejects him, to her only can he return to abide the day of judgment in weariness and sorrow and fear. (364-66)


4] Faustine: made of the stuff of Faust, the scholar in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus tempted by Mephistopheles to sell his soul for knowledge, power, and earthly pleasures.

49] Jesus, exorcising the prostitute Magdalene of her sin.

61] sarcophagus: stone coffin (literally, `flesh-eating stone').

90] teen: suffering.

99] Bacchanal: worshipper of Bacchus (101), god of wine.

117] Sapphic: of Sappho, an ancient Greek female poet of love.

118] Mitylene: Lesbos.

122] gin: device, engine.

130] epicene: characterized by the traits of both sexes.

146] The Lampsacene: one from Lampsacus, a city of Mysia on the Hellespont (Lamsaki in modern times).


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Swinburne's Collected Poetical Works, 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1924): I, 106-12.
First publication date: 31 May 1862
Publication date note: Spectator (May 31, 1862): 606-07. Poems and Ballads (1866): 122-29.
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO (1999).
Recent editing: 2:2002/5/2

Rhyme: abab


Other poems by Algernon Charles Swinburne