The Witch of Atlas

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Before those cruel twins whom at one birth      Incestuous Change bore to her father Time, Error and Truth, had hunted from the earth      All those bright natures which adorned its prime, And left us nothing to believe in, worth      The pains of putting into learn*d rhyme, A Lady Witch there lived on Atlas mountain Within a cavern by a secret fountain. Her mother was one of the Atlantides.      The all-beholding Sun had ne'er beholden In his wide voyage o'er continents and seas      So fair a creature, as she lay enfolden In the warm shadow of her loveliness;      He kissed her with his beams, and made all golden The chamber of gray rock in which she lay. She, in that dream of joy, dissolved away. 'Tis said she first was changed into a vapor;      And then into a cloud,--such clouds as flit (Like splendor-winged moths about a taper)      Round the red west when the Sun dies in it; And then into a meteor, such as caper      On hill-tops when the Moon is in a fit; Then into one of those mysterious stars Which hide themselves between the Earth and Mars. Ten times the Mother of the Months had ben      Her bow beside the folding-star, and bidden With that bright sign the billows to indent      The sea-deserted sand--(like children chidden, At her command they ever came and went)--      Since in that cave a dewy splendor hidden Took shape and motion. With the living form Of this embodied Power the cave grew warm. A lovely Lady garmented in light      From her own beauty: deep her eyes as are Two openings of unfathomable night      Seen through a temple's cloven roof; her hair Dark; the dim brain whirls dizzy with delight,      Picturing her form. Her soft smiles shone afar; And her low voice was heard like love, and drew All living things towards this wonder new. And first the spotted cameleopard came;      And then the wise and fearless elephant; Then the sly serpent, in the golden flame      Of his own volumes intervolved. All gaunt And sanguine beasts her gentle looks made tame,--      They drank before her at her sacred fount; And every beast of beating heart grew bold, Such gentleness and power even to behold. The brinded lioness led forth her young,      That she might teach them how they should forego Their inborn thirst of death; the pard unstrung      His sinews at her feet, and sought to know, With looks whose motions spoke without a tongue,      How he might be as gentle as the doe. The magic circle of her voice and eyes All savage natures did imparadise. And old Silenus, shaking a green stick      Of lilies, and the Wood-gods in a crew, Came blithe as in the olive-copses thick      Cicade are, drunk with the noonday dew; And Dryope and Faunus followed quick,      Teazing the God to sing them something new; Till in this cave they found the Lady lone, Sitting upon a seat of emerald stone. And universal Pan, 'tis said, was there.      And, though none saw him,--through the adamant Of the deep mountains, through the trackless air,      And through those living spirits like a want,-- He passed out of his everlasting lair      Where the quick heart of the great world doth pant, And felt that wondrous Lady all alone,-- And she felt him upon her emerald throne. And every Nymph of stream and spreading tree,      And every Shepherdess of Ocean's flocks Who drives her white waves over the green sea,      And Ocean with the brine on his grey locks, And quaint Priapus with his company,--      All came, much wondering how the enwombed rocks Could have brought forth so beautiful a birth: Her love subdued their wonder and their mirth. The herdsmen and the mountain-maidens came,      And the rude kings of pastoral Garamant-- Their spirits shook within them, as a flame      Stirred by the air under a cavern gaunt: Pygmies and Polyphemes, by many a name,      Centaurs and Satyrs, and such shapes as haunt Wet clefts,--and lumps neither alive nor dead, Dog-headed, bosom-eyed, and bird-footed. For she was beautiful. Her beauty made      The bright world dim, and everything beside Seemed like the fleeting image of a shade.      No thought of living spirit could abide (Which to her looks had ever been betrayed)      On any object in the world so wide, On any hope within the circling skies,-- But on her form, and in her inmost eyes. Which when the Lady knew; she took her spindle,      And twined three threads of fleecy mist, and three Long lines of light, such as the dawn may kindle      The clouds and waves and mountains with, and she As many starbeams, ere their lamps could dwindle      In the belated moon, wound skilfully; And with these threads a subtle veil she wove-- A shadow for the splendour of her love. The deep recesses of her odorous dwelling      Were stored with magic treasures:--sounds of air Which had the power all spirits of compelling,      Folded in cells of crystal silence there; Such as we hear in youth, and think the feeling      will never die--yet, ere we are aware, The feeling and the sound are fled and gone And the regret they leave remains alone. And there lay Visions swift and sweet and quaint,      Each in its thin sheath like a chrysalis;-- Some eager to burst forth; some weak and faint      With the soft burden of intensest bliss It is their work to bear to many a saint      Whose heart adores the shrine which holiest is, Even Love's; and others, white, green, grey, and black, And of all shapes:--and each was at her beck. And odours in a kind of aviary      Of ever-blooming Eden-trees she kept, Clipped in a floating net a love-sick Fairy      Had woven from dew-beams while the moon yet slept. As bats at the wired window of a dairy,      They beat their vans; and each was an adept-- When loosed and missioned, making wings of winds-- To stir sweet thoughts or sad in destined minds. And liquors clear and sweet, whose healthful might      Could medicine the sick soul to happy sleep, And change eternal death into a night      Of glorious dreams--or, if eyes needs must weep, Could make their tears all wonder and delight--      She in her crystal phials did closely keep: If men could drink of those clear phials, 'tis said The living were not envied of the dead. Her cave was stored with scrolls of strange device,      The works of some Saturnian Archimage, Which taught the expiations at whose price      Men from the Gods might win that happy age Too lightly lost, redeeming native vice,--      And which might quench the earth-consuming rage Of gold and blood, till men should live and move Harmonious as the sacred stars above:-- And how all things that seem untameable,      Not to be checked and not to be confined, Obey the spells of Wisdom's wizard skill;      Time, earth, and fire, the ocean and the wind, And all their shapes, and man's imperial will;--      And other scrolls whose writings did unbind The inmost lore of love--let the profane Tremble to ask what secrets they contain. And wondrous works of substances unknown,      To which the enchantment of her Father's power Had changed those ragged blocks of savage stone,      Were heaped in the recesses of her bower; Carved lamps and chalices, and phials which shone      In their own golden beams--each like a flower Out of whose depth a firefly shakes his light Under a cypress in a starless night. At first she lived alone in this wild home,      And her own thoughts were each a minister, Clothing themselves or with the ocean-foam,      Or with the wind, or with the speed of fire, To work whatever purposes might come      Into her mind: such power her mighty Sire Had girt them with, whether to fly or run Through all the regions which he shines upon. The Ocean-nymphs and Hamadryades,      Oreads, and Naiads with long weedy locks, Offered to do her bidding through the seas,      Under the earth, and in the hollow rocks, And far beneath the matted roots of trees,      And in the gnarled heart of stubborn oaks; So they might live for ever in the light Of her sweet presence--each a satellite. "This may not be," the Wizard Maid replied.      "The fountains where the Naiades bedew Their shining hair at length are drained and dried;      The solid oaks forget their strength, and strew Their latest leaf upon the mountains wide;      The boundless ocean like a drop of dew Will be consumed; the stubborn centre must Be scattered like a cloud of summer dust. "And ye, with them, will perish one by one.      If I must sigh to think that this shall be, If I must weep when the surviving Sun      Shall smile on your decay--oh ask not me To love you till your little race is run;      I cannot die as ye must.--Over me Your leaves shall glance--the streams in which ye dwell Shall be my paths henceforth; and so farewell." She spoke and wept. The dark and azure well      Sparkled beneath the shower of her bright tears, And every little circlet where they fell      Flung to the cavern-roof inconstant spheres And intertangled lines of light. A knell      Of sobbing voices came upon her ears From those departing forms, o'er the serene Of the white streams and of the forest green. All day the Wizard Lady sat aloof;      Spelling out scrolls of dread antiquity Under the cavern's fountain-lighted roof;      Or broidering the pictured poesy Of some high tale upon her growing woof,      Which the sweet splendor of her smiles could dye In hues outshining heaven--and ever she Added some grace to the wrought poesy:-- While on her hearth lay blazing many a piece      Of sandal-wood, rare gums, and cinnamon. Men scarcely know how beautiful fire is;      Each flame of it is as a precious stone Dissolved in ever-moving light, and this      Belongs to each and all who gaze thereon.' The Witch beheld it not, for in her hand She held a woof that dimmed the burning brand. This Lady never slept, but lay in trance      All night within the fountain--as in sleep. Its emerald crags glowed in her beauty's glance:      Through the green splendour of the water deep She saw the constellations reel and dance      Like fireflies--and withal did ever keep The tenor of her contemplations calm, With open eyes, closed feet, and folded palm. And, when the whirlwinds and the clouds descended      From the white pinnacles of that cold hill, She passed at dewfall to a space extended,      Where, in a lawn of flowering asphodel Amid a wood of pines and cedars blended,      There yawned an inextinguishable well Of crimson fire, full even to the brim, And overflowing all the margin trim:-- Within the which she lay when the fierce war      Of wintry winds shook that innocuous liquor, In many a mimic moon and bearded star,      O'er woods and lawns. The serpent heard it flicker In sleep, and, dreaming still, he crept afar.      And, when the windless snow descended thicker Than autumn-leaves, she watched it as it came Melt on the surface of the level flame. She had a boat which some say Vulcan wrought      For Venus, as the chariot of her star; But it was found too feeble to be fraught      With all the ardours in that sphere which are, And so she sold it, and Apollo bought      And gave it to this daughter: from a car, Changed to the fairest and the lightest boat Which ever upon mortal stream did float. And others say that, when but three hours old,      The firstborn Love out of his cradle leapt, And clove dun chaos with his wings of gold,      And, like a horticultural adept, Stole a strange seed, and wrapped it up in mould,      And sowed it in his mother's star, and kept Watering it all the summer with sweet dew, And with his wings fanning it as it grew. The plant grew strong and green--the snowy flower      Fell, and the long and gourd-like fruit began To turn the light and dew by inward power      To its own substance: woven tracery ran Of light firm texture, ribbed and branching, o'er      The solid rind, like a leaf's veined fan,-- Of which Love scooped this boat, and with soft motion Piloted it round the circumfluous ocean. This boat she moored upon her fount, and lit      A living spirit within all its frame, Breathing the soul of swiftness into it.      Couched on the fountain--like a panther tame (One of the twain at Evan's feet that sit,      Or as on Vesta's sceptre a swift flame, Or on blind Homer's heart a winged thought-- In joyous expectation lay the boat. Then by strange art she kneaded fire and snow      Together, tempering the repugnant mass With liquid love--all things together grow      Through which the harmony of love can pass; And a fair Shape out of her hands did flow--      A living image which did far surpass In beauty that bright shape of vital stone Which drew the heart out of Pygmalion. A sexless thing it was, and in its growth      It seemed to have developed no defect Of either sex, yet all the grace of both.      In gentleness and strength its limbs were decked; The bosom lightly swelled with its full youth;      The countenance was such as might select Some artist that his skill should never die, lmaging forth such perfect purity. From its smooth shoulders hung two rapid wings      Fit to have borne it to the seventh sphere, Tipped with the speed of liquid lightenings,      Dyed in the ardours of the atmosphere. She led her creature to the boiling springs      Where the light boat was moored, and said "Sit here," And pointed to the prow, and took her seat Beside the rudder with opposing feet. And down the streams which clove those mountains vast,      Around their inland islets, and amid The panther-peopled forests (whose shade cast      Darkness and odors, and a pleasure hid In melancholy gloom) the pinnace passed;      By many a star-surrounded pyramid Of icy crag cleaving the purple sky, And caverns yawning round unfathomably. The silver noon into that winding dell,      With slanted gleam athwart the forest-tops, Tempered like golden evening, feebly fell;      A green and glowing light, like that which drops From folded lilies in which glow-worms dwell      When Earth over her face Night's mantle wraps; Between the severed mountains lay on high, Over the stream, a narrow rift of sky. And, ever as she went, the Image lay      With folded wings and unawakened eyes; And o'er its gentle countenance did play      The busy dreams, as thick as summer flies, Chasing the rapid smiles that would not stay,      And drinking the warm tears, and the sweet sighs Inhaling, which with busy murmur vain They has aroused from that full heart and brain. And ever down the prone vale, like a cloud      Upon a stream of wind, the pinnace went: Now lingering on the pools, in which abode      The calm and darkness of the deep content In which they paused; now o'er the shallow road      Of white and dancing waters, all besprent With sand and polished pebbles:--mortal boat In such a shallow rapid could not float. And down the earthquaking cataracts, which shivcr      Their snow-like waters into golden air, Or under chasms unfathomable ever      Sepulchre them, till in their rage they tear A subterranean portal for the river,      It fled. The circling sunbows did upbear Its fall down the hoar precipice of spray, Lighting it far upon its lampless way. And, when the Wizard Lady would ascend      The labyrinths of some many-winding vale Which to the inmost mountain upward tend,      She called "Hermaphroditus!"--and the pale And heavy hue which slumber could extend      Over its lips and eyes, as on the gale A rapid shadow from a slope of grass, Into the darkness of the stream did pass And it unfurled its heaven-coloured pinions;      With stars of fire spotting the stream below, And from above into the Sun's dominions      Flinging a glory like the golden glow In which Spring clothes her emerald-winged minions,      All interwoven with fine feathery snow, And moonlight splendour of intensest rime With which frost paints the pines in winter-time. And then it winnowed the elysian air      Which ever hung about that Lady bright, With its etherial vans: and, speeding there,      Like a star up the torrent of the night, Or a swift eagle in the morning glare      Breasting the whirlwind with impetuous flight, The pinnace, oared by those enchanted wings, Clove the fierce streams towards their upper springs. The water flashed,--like sunlight, by the prow      Of a noon-wandering meteor flung to heaven; The still air seemed as if its waves did flow      In tempest down the mountains; loosely driven, The Lady's radiant hair streamed to and fro;      Beneath, the billows, having vainly striven Indignant and impetuous, roared to feel The swift and steady motion of the keel. Or, when the weary moon was in the wane,      Or in the noon of interlunar night, The Lady Witch in visions could not chain      Her spirit; but sailed forth under the light Of shooting stars, and bade extend amain      Its storm-outspeeding wings the Hermaphrodite; She to the austral waters took her way, Beyond the fabulous Thamondocana. Where, like a meadow which no scythe has shaven,      Which rain could never bend or whirlblast shake, With the antarctic constellations paven,      Canopus and his crew, lay the austral lake-- There she would build herself a windless haven      Out of the clouds whose moving turrets make The bastions of the storm, when through the sky The spirits of the tempest thundered by:-- A haven beneath whose translucent floor      The tremulous stars sparkled unfathomably; And around which the solid vapours hoar,      Based on the level waters, to the sky Lifted their dreadful crags, and, like a shore      Of wintry mountains, inaccessibly Hemmed-in with rifts and precipices grey, And hanging crags, many a cove and bay. And, whilst the outer lake beneath the lash      Of the wind's scourge foamed like a wounded thing And the incessant hail with stony clash      Ploughed up the waters, and the flagging wing Of the roused cormorant in the lightningflash      Looked like the wreck of some wind-wandering Fragment of inky thunder-smoke--this haven Was as a gem to copy heaven engraven. On which that Lady played her many pranks,      Circling the image of a shooting star (Even as a tiger on Hydaspes' banks      Outspeeds the antelopes which speediest are) In her light boat; and many quips and cranks      She played upon the water; till the car Of the late moon, like a sick matron wan, To journey from the misty east began. And then she called out of the hollow turrets      Of those high clouds, white, golden, and vermilion, The armies of her ministering spirits.      In mighty legions million after million They came, each troop emblazoning its merits      On meteor flags; and many a proud pavilion Of the intertexture of the atmosphere They pitched upon the plain of the calm mere. They framed the imperial tent of their great Queen      Of woven exhalations, underlaid With lambent lightning-fire, as may be seen      A dome of thin and open ivory inlaid With crimson silk. Cressets from the serene      Hung there, and on the water for her tread A tapestry of fleece-like mist was strewn, Dyed in the beams of the ascending moon. And on a throne o'erlaid with starlight, caught      Upon those wandering isles of aery dew Which highest shoals of mountain shipwreck not,      She sate, and heard all that had happened new Between the earth and moon since they had brought      The last intelligence: and now she grew Pale as that moon lost in the watery night, And now she wept, and now she laughed outright. These were tame pleasures.--She would often climb      The steepest ladder of the crudded rack Up to some beaked cape of cloud sublime,      And like Arion on the dolphin's back Ride singing through the shoreless air. Oft-time,      Following the serpent lightning's winding track, She ran upon the platforms of the wind, And laughed to hear the fireballs roar behid. And sometimes to those streams of upper air      Which whirl the earth in its diurnal round She would ascend, and win the Spirits there      To let her join their chorus. Mortals found That on those days the sky was calm and fair,      And mystic snatches of harmonious sound Wandered upon the earth where'er she passed, And happy thoughts of hope, too sweet to last. But her choice sport was, in the hours of sleep,      To glide adown old Nilus, where he threads Egypt and Ethiopia from the steep      Of utmost Axume until he spreads, Like a calm flock of silver-fleeced sheep,      His waters on the plain,--and crested heads Of cities and proud temples gleam amid, And many a vapour-belted pyramid:-- By MÏris and the Mareotid lakes,      Strewn with faint blooms like bridal-chamber floors, Where naked boys bridling tame water-snakes,      Or charioteering ghastly alligators, Had left on the sweet waters mighty wakes      Of those huge forms;--within the brazen doors Of the Great Labyrinth slept both boy and beast, Tired with the pomp of their Osirian feast. And where within the surface of the river      The shadows of the massy temples lie, And never are erased, but tremble ever      Like things which every cloud can doom to die,-- Through lotus-paven canals, and wheresoever      The works of man pierced that serenest sky With tombs and towers and fanes,--'twas her delight To wander in the shadow of the night. With motion like the spirit of that wind      Whose soft step deepens slumber, her light feet Passed through the peopled haunts of humankind,      Scattering sweet visions from her presence sweet,-- Through fane and palace-court, and labyrinth mined      With many a dark and subterranean street Under the Nile; through chambers high and deep She passed, observing mortals in their sleep. A pleasure sweet doubtless it was to see      Mortals subdued in all the shapes of sleep. Here lay two sister-twins in infancy;      There a lone youth who in his dreams did weep; Within, two lovers linked innocently      In their loose locks which over both did creep Like ivy from one stem; and there lay calm Old age with snow-bright hair and folded palm. But other troubled forms of sleep she saw,      Not to be mirrored in a holy song,-- Distortions foul of supernatural awe,      And pale imaginings of visioned wrong, And all the code of Custom's lawless law      Written upon the brows of old and young. "This," said the Wizard Maiden, "is the strife Which stirs the liquid surface of man's life." And little did the sight disturb her soul.      We, the weak mariners of that wide lake, Where'er its shores extend or billows roll,      Our course unpiloted and starless make O'er its wild surface to an unknown goal;      But she in the calm depths her way could take, Where in bright bowers immortal forms abide Beneath the weltering of the restless tide. And she saw princes couched under the glow      Of sunlike gems; and round each temple-court In dormitories ranged, row after row,      She saw the priests asleep,--all of one sort, For all were educated to be so.      The peasants in their huts, and in the port The sailors she saw cradled on the waves, And the dead lulled within their dreamless graves. And all the forms in which those spirits lay      Were to her sight like the diaphanous Veils in which those sweet ladies oft array      Their delicate limbs who would conceal from us Only their scorn of all concealment: they      Move in the light of their own beauty thus. But these and all now lay with sleep upon them, And little thought a Witch was looking on them. She all those human figures breathing there      Beheld as living spirits. To her eyes The naked beauty of the soul lay bare,      And often through a rude and worn disguise She saw the inner form most bright and fair:      And then she had a charm of strange device, Which, murmured on mute lips with tender tone, Could make that spirit mingle with her own. Alas! Aurora, what wouldst thou have given      For such a charm, when Tithon became grey-- Or how much, Venus, of thy silver heaven      Wouldst thou have yielded, ere Proserpina Had half (oh why not all?) the debt forgiven      Which dear Adonis had been doomed to pay-- To any witch who would have taught you it The Heliad doth not know its value yet. 'Tis said in after times her spirit free      Knew what love was, and felt itself alone. But holy Dian could not chaster be      Before she stooped to kiss Endymion Than now this Lady,--like a sexless bee,      Tasting all blossoms and confined to none: Among those mortal forms the Wizard Maiden Passed with an eye serene and heart unladen. To those she saw most beautiful she gave      Strange panacea in a crystal bowl. They drank in their deep sleep of that sweet wave,      And lived thenceforward as if some control, Mightier than life, were in them; and the grave      Of such, when death oppressed the weary soul, Was as a green and overarching bower Lit by the gems of many a starry flower. For, on the night when they were buried, she      Restored the embalmer's ruining, and shook The light out of the funeral-lamps, to be      A mimic day within that deathy nook; And she unwound the woven imagery      Of second childhood's swaddling-bands, and took The coffin, its last cradle, from its niche, And threw it with contempt into a ditch, And there the body lay, age after age,      Mute, breathing, beating, warm, and undecaying, Like one asleep in a green hermitage,--      With gentle smiles about its eyelids playing, And living in its dreams beyond the rage      Of death or life; while they were still arraying In liveries ever new the rapid, blind, And fleeting generations of mankind. And she would write strange dreams upon the brain      Of those who were less beautiful, and make All harsh and crooked purposes more vain      Than in the desert is the serpent's wake Which the sand covers. All his evil gain      The miser, in such dreams, would rise and shake Into a beggar's lap; the lying scribe Would his own lies betray without a bribe. The priests would write an explanation full,      Translating hieroglyphics into Greek, How the God Apis really was a bull,      And nothing more; and bid the herald stick The same against the temple-doors, and pull      The old cant down: they licensed all to speak Whate'er they thought of hawks and cats and geese, By pastoral letters to each diocese. The king would dress an ape up in his crown      And robes, and seat him on his glorious seat, And on the right hand of the sunlike throne      Would place a gaudy mock-bird to repeat The chatterings of the monkey. Every one      Of the prone courtiers crawled to kiss the feet Of their great emperor when the morning came; And kissed--alas, how many kiss the same! The soldiers dreamed that they were blacksmiths, and      Walked out of quarters in somnambulism; Round the red anvils you might see them stand      Like Cyclopses in Vulcan's sooty abysm, Beating their swords to ploughshares:--in a band      The jailors sent those of the liberal schism Free through the streets of Memphis--much, I wis, To the annoyance of king Amasis. And timid lovers, who had been so coy      They hardly knew whether they loved or not, Would rise out of their rest, and take sweet joy,      To the fulfilment of their inmost thought; And, when next day the maiden and the boy      Met one another, both, like sinners caught, Blushed at the thing which each believed was done Only in fancy--till the tenth moon shone; And then the Witch would let them take no ill;      Of many thousand schemes which lovers find, The Witch found one,--and so they took their fill      Of happiness in marriage warm and kind. Friends who, by practice of some envious skill,      Were torn apart (a wide wound, mind from mind) She did unite again with visions clear Of deep affection and of truth sincere. These were the pranks she played among the cities      Of mortal men. And what she did to Sprites And Gods, entangling them in her sweet ditties,      To do her will, and show their subtle sleights, I will declare another time; for it is      A tale more fit for the weird winter-nights Than for these garish summer-days, when we Scarcely believe much more than we can see.