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Poem by James Clerk Maxwell



Bleak was the pathway and barren the mountain,
As the traveller passed on his wearisome way,
Sealed by the frost was each murmuring fountain,
And the sun shone through mist with a blood-coloured ray.
But neither the road nor the danger together,
Could alter his purpose, nor yet the rough weather;
So on went the wayfarer through the thick heather,
Till he came to the cave where the dread witches stay.


Hewn from the rock was that cavern so dreary,
And the entrance by bushes was hid from the sight,
But he found his way in, and with travelling weary,
With joy he beheld in the darkness a light.
And in a recess of that wonderful dwelling,
He heard the strange song of the witch wildly swelling,
In magical numbers unceasingly telling
The fortunes of kingdoms, the issue of fight.


Up rose the witch as the traveller entered,
"Welcome," she said, "and what news from the king;
And why to inquire of me thus has he ventured,
When he knows that the answer destruction will bring?
Sit here and attend." Then her pale visage turning
To where the dim lamp in the darkness was burning,
She took up a book of her magical learning,
And prepared in prophetical numbers to sing.


Now she is seated, the curtain is oer her,
The god is upon her; attend then and hear!
The vapour is rising in volumes before her,
And forms of the future in darkness appear.
Hark, now the god inspiration is bringing,
Tis not her voice through the cavern is ringing;
No, for the song her familiar is singing,
And these were the words of the maddening seer.


"Slave of the monarch, return to thy master,
Whisper these words in Nathalocus ear;
Tell him, from me, that Old Time can fly faster
Than he is aware, for his death hour is near;
Tell hint his fate with the mystery due it,
But let him not know of the hand that shall do it;"
"Tell me, vile witch, or I swear thou shalt rue it!"
"Thou art the murderer," answered the seer.


"Am I a dog that Id do such an action!"
Answered the chief as in anger he rose,
"Would I, ungrateful, be head of a faction,
And call myself one of Nathalocus foes?"
"No more," said the witch, "the enchantment is ended,
I brave not the wrath of the demon offended,
Whatever thy fate, tis not now to be mended."
So the stranger returned through the thick-driving snows.


High from his eyrie the eagle was screaming,
Pale sheeted spectres stalked over the heath;
Bright in his minds eye a dagger was gleaming,
Waiting the moment to spring from its sheath.
Hoarse croaked the raven that eastward was flying;
Well did he know of the king that was dying;
Down in the river the Kelpie was sighing,
Mourning the king in the water beneath.


His mind was confused with this terrible warning,
Horrible spectres were with him by night;
Still in his sorrow he wished for the morning,
Cursing the day when he first saw the light.
He said in his raving, "The day that she bore me,
Would that my mother in pieces had tore me;
See there is Nathalocus body before me;
Hence, ye vain shadows, depart from my sight!"


And when from the palace the king sent to meet him,
To ask what response from the witch he might bear;
When the messengerthought that the stranger would greet him,
He answered by nought but a meaningless stare.
On his face was a smile, but it was not of gladness,
For all was within inconsolable sadness.
And aye in his eye was the fixt glare of madness,-
"In the king's private chamber, Ill answer him there."


"Tell me, my sovereign, have I been unruly;
Have I been ever found out of my place;
Have not I followed thee faithfully, truly,
Though danger and death stared me full in the face?
Have I been seen from the enemy flying,
Have I been wanting in danger most trying?
Oh, if I have, judge me worthy of dying,
Let me be covered with shame and disgrace!


"Couldst thou imagine that I should betray thee,
I whom thy bounty with friendship has blessed?
But the witch gave for answer that my hand should slay thee,
Tis this that for long has deprived me of rest,
Ever since then have my slumbers been broken,
But true are the words that the prophet has spoken,
Nathalocus, now receive this as a token,"
So saying the dagger he plunged in his breast.

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell's other poems:
  1. Numa Pompilius
  2. In Memory of Edward Wilson, Who Repented of what was in his Mind to Write after Section
  3. On St. David's Day
  4. An Onset
  5. Answer To Tait

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