University of Virginia Library


Full night. The moon has yet to rise;
The air oppresses, and the skies
Reveal beyond the lake afar
One solitary tawny star—
Complexioned so by vapors dim,
Whereof some hang above the brim
And nearer waters of the lake,
Whose bubbling air-beads mount and break
As charged with breath of things alive.
In talk about the Cities Five
Engulfed, on beach they linger late.
And he, the quaffer of the brine,
Puckered with that heart-wizening wine
Of bitterness, among them sate
Upon a camel's skull, late dragged
From forth the wave, the eye-pits slagged
With crusted salt.—“What star is yon?”


And pointed to that single one
Befogged above the sea afar.
“It might be Mars, so red it shines,”
One answered; “duskily it pines
In this strange mist.”—“It is the star
Called Wormwood. Some hearts die in thrall
Of waters which yon star makes gall;”
And, lapsing, turned, and made review
Of what that wickedness might be
Which down on these ill precincts drew
The flood, the fire; put forth new plea,
Which not with Writ might disagree;
Urged that those malefactors stood
Guilty of sins scarce scored as crimes
In any statute known, or code—
Nor now, nor in the former times:
Things hard to prove: decorum's wile,
Malice discreet, judicious guile;
Good done with ill intent—reversed:
Best deeds designed to serve the worst;
And hate which under life's fair hue
Prowls like the shark in sunned Pacific blue.
He paused, and under stress did bow,
Lank hands enlocked across the brow.
“Nay, nay, thou sea,
'Twas not all carnal harlotry,
But sins refined, crimes of the spirit,
Helped earn that doom ye here inherit:
Doom well imposed, though sharp and dread,
In some god's reign, some god long fled.—
Thou gaseous puff of mineral breath
Mephitical; thou swooning flaw
That fann'st me from this pond of death;
Wert thou that venomous small thing
Which tickled with the poisoned straw?
Thou, stronger, but who yet couldst start


Shrinking with sympathetic sting,
While willing the uncompunctious dart!
Ah, ghosts of Sodom, how ye thrill
About me in this peccant air,
Conjuring yet to spare, but spare!
Fie, fie, that didst in formal will
Plot piously the posthumous snare.
And thou, the mud-flow—evil mass
Of surest-footed sluggishness
Swamping the nobler breed—art there?
Moan, Burker of kind heart: all's known
To Him; with thy connivers, moan.—
Sinners—expelled, transmuted souls
Blown in these airs, or whirled in shoals
Of gurgles which your gasps send up,
Or on this crater marge and cup
Slavered in slime, or puffed in stench—
Not ever on the tavern bench
Ye lolled. Few dicers here, few sots,
Few sluggards, and no idiots.
'Tis thou who servedst Mammon's hate
Or greed through forms which holy are—
Black slaver steering by a star,
'Tis thou—and all like thee in state.
Who knew the world, yet varnished it;
Who traded on the coast of crime
Though landing not; who did outwit
Justice, his brother, and the time—
These, chiefly these, to doom submit.
But who the manifold may tell?
And sins there be inscrutable,
Ending there
He shrank, and like an osprey gray
Peered on the wave. His hollow stare
Marked then some smaller bubbles play


In cluster silvery like spray:
“Be these the beads on the wives'-wine,
Tofana-brew?—O fair Medea—
O soft man-eater, furry-fine:
Oh, be thou Jael, be thou Leah—
Unfathomably shallow!—No!
Nearer the core than man can go
Or Science get—nearer the slime
Of nature's rudiments and lime
In chyle before the bone. Thee, thee,
In thee the filmy cell is spun—
The mould thou art of what men be:
Events are all in thee begun—
By thee, through thee!—Undo, undo,
Prithee, undo, and still renew
The fall forever!”
On his throne
He lapsed; and muffled came the moan
How multitudinous in sound,
From Sodom's wave. He glanced around:
They all had left him, one by one.
Was it because he open threw
The inmost to the outward view?
Or did but pain at frenzied thought,
Prompt to avoid him, since but naught
In such case might remonstrance do?
But none there ventured idle plea,
Weak sneer, or fraudful levity.
Two spirits, hovering in remove,
Sad with inefficacious love,
Here sighed debate: “Ah, Zoima, say;
Be it far from me to impute a sin,
But may a sinless nature win
Those deeps he knows?”—“Sin shuns that way;


Sin acts the sin, but flees the thought
That sweeps the abyss that sin has wrought.
Innocent be the heart and true—
Howe'er it feed on bitter bread—
That, venturous through the Evil led,
Moves as along the ocean's bed
Amid the dragon's staring crew.”