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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

878. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, [January 1804] ⁠* 

5.

___

The War

___

At morning their high Priest Ayayaca
Came with our guide, the venerable man
With more especial welcome greeted us,
Deeming us children of another race
Mightier than they, he led us to the Queen.
The fate of war had robbed her of her realm,
Yet with affection & habitual awe,
And old remembrances that gave their love
A deeper & religious character,
Fallen as she was & humbled as they were,
Her faithful people still in all they could
Obeyed Erilyab, she too in her mind
Those recollections cherished, & such thoughts
As tho no hope tempered their bitterness,
Gave to her eye a spirit & a strength
And pride to features, which had borne belike,
Had they been fashioned to a happier fate,
Meaning more gentle & more womanly,
Yet not more worthy of esteem & love
She sate upon the threshold of her hut,
For in the palace where her sires had reigned
The conqueror dwelt, her son was at her side
A boy now near to manhood, by the door.
Stript of its bark, the head & branches lopt
Stood a young tree with many a weapon hung,
Her husbands war-pole & his monument.
These had his quiver mouldered, his stone axe
Had there grown green with moss his bow-string there
Sung as it cut the wind.
She welcomed us
With a proud sorrow in her mien; fresh fruits
Were spread before us, & her gestures said
That when he lived whose hand was wont to wield
Those weapons – that in better days, – that ere
She let the tresses of her widowhood
Grow wild, she could have given to guests like us
A worthier welcome, soon a man approached
Hooded with sable & his half bare limbs
Smeared black; the people at his sight drew round,
The women waild & wept, the children turnd
And hid their faces on their mothers knees

He to the Queen addrest his speech, then look’d
Around the children & laid hands on two,
Of different sexes, but of age alike
Some six years each, they at his touch shriekd out –
But then Lincoya rose & to my feet
Led them, & told me that the conquerors claimd
These innocents for tribute, that the Priest
Would lay them on the altar of his God,
Tear out their little hearts in sacrifice,
Yea with more cursed wickedness, himself
Feed on their flesh! .. I shuddered & my hand
Instinctively unsheathd the holy sword,
He with most passionate & eloquent signs,
Eye-speaking earnestness & quivering lips
Besought me to preserve himself, & those
Who now fell suppliant round me, youths & maids,
Grey-headed men, & mothers with their babes.

I caught the destined victims up, I kissd
Their innocent cheeks, I raised my eyes to heaven,
I calld upon Almighty God to hear
And bless the vow I made; in our own tongue
Was that sworn promise of protection vowd …
Impetuous feeling made me pause for thought,
Heaven heard the vow; the suppliant multitude
Saw what was stirring in my heart; the Priest,
With eye inflamed & rapid answer raisd
His menacing hand, the tone the bitter smile
Interpreting his threat.
Meantime the Queen
With watchful eye & steady countenance
Had listened, now she rose & to the Priest
Addressd her speech, low was her voice & calm
As one who spake with effort to subdue
Sorrow that struggled still; but she spake
Her features kindled to more majesty,
Her eye became more animate, her voice
Rose to the height of feeling; on her son
She calld, & from her Husbands monument
His battle axe she took, & I could see
That as she gave the boy his fathers arm,
She calld his fathers spirit to look on
And bless them to his vengeance!
Silently
The tribe stood listening as Erilyab spake
The very Priest was awed, once he essayd
To answer, his tongue failed him, & his lip
Grew pale & fell, he to his countrymen,
Of rage & shame & wonder full, returnd,
Bearing no victims for their shrine accurst
But tidings that the Homen had cast off
Their vassalage, rous’d to desperate revolt
By men in hue & speech & garments strange,
Who in their folly dared defile the power
Of Aztlan.
When the King of Aztlan heard
The unlooked-for tale, ere yet he rous’d his strength,
Or pitying our rash valour, or belike
Curious to see the men so bravely rash,
He sent to bid me to his court, surprised
I should have given to him no credulous faith,
But fearlessly Erilyab bade me trust
Her honourable foe, unarmd I went,
Lincoya with me to exchange our speech
So as he could; of safety first assured,
For to their damned Idols he had been
A victim doom’d, & from the bloody rites
Flying, been carried captive far away.

From early morning till the midnoon hour
We travelled in the mountains, then a plain
Opened below, & rose upon the sight
Like boundless ocean from a hill-top seen.
A beautiful & populous plain it was,
Fair woods were there & fertilizing streams,
And pastures spreading wide, & villages
In fruitful groves embowred, & stately towns,
And many a single dwelling specking it,
As though for many a year the land had been
The land of peace, below us, where the base
Of the great mountains to the level sloped,
A broad blue lake extended far & wide
Its waters, dark beneath the light of noon,
There Aztlan stood upon the farther shore;
Amid the shade of trees its dwellings rose,
Their level roofs with turrets set around
And battlements all burnished white, that shone
Like silver in the sunshine. I beheld
The imperial city, her far-circling walls,
Her garden groves & stately palaces,
Her temples mountain-size, her thousand roofs,
And when I saw her might & majesty
My mind misgave me then.
We reachd the shore
A floating Islet waited for me there,
The beautiful work of man; I set my foot
Upon green-growing herbs & flowers, & sate
Embowered in odorous shrubs; four long light boats
Yoked to the garden, with accordant song
And dip & dash of oar in harmony,
Bore me across the lake.
Then in a car
Aloft by human bearers was I borne,
And thro the city-gate, & thro long lines
Of marshalled multitudes who throng’d the way,
We reached the palace court; four Priests were there,
Each held a burning censor in his hand,
And strewed the precious gum as I drew nigh,
And held the steaming fragrance forth to me
As I had been a God, they led me in,
Where on his throne the royal Azteca
Coanocotzin sate. ‘Stranger!’ said he,
Welcome, & be this coming to thy weal!
A desperate warfare does thy courage court:
But thou shalt see the people & the power
Whom thy deluded zeal would call to arms,
So may the knowledge make thee timely wise,
The valiant love the valiant. Come with me!’

He said & rose, we went together forth
To the Great Temple, twas a huge square hill
Or rather like an rock it seem’d hewn out,
And squared by patient labour; never yet
Did our forefathers oer their leader fallen
In glorious battle, heap a monument
Of that prodigious bulk, tho every shield
Was laden for his grave, & every hand
Toild unremitting at the willing work
From morn till eve all the long summer day

The ascent was lengthened with provoking art,
By steps that led but to a wearying path
Round the whole structure, then another flight
Another road all round, & thus a third
And yet a fourth before we reached the height.
Lo now!’ Coanoctozin cried, ‘thou seest
The cities of this widely-peopled plain,
And wert thou on yon farthest temple-top
Yet as far on ward wouldst thou see the land
Well-husbanded, like this, & full of men.
They tell me that two floating palaces
Brought thee & all thy people … when I sound
The trumpet of the God, ten cities hear
Its voice, & answer to the call in arms.’

In truth I felt my weakness, & the view
Had wakened no unreasonable fear,
But that a nearer sight had stirrd my blood:
For on the summit where we stood, four Towers
Where piled with human skulls, & all around
Long files of human heads were strung to parch
And blacken {whiten} in the sun. what then I felt
Was more than natural courage, twas a trust
In more than mortal strength, a faith in God,
An inspiration from the Almighty One
Whose Champion then I seemd to be. I cried
Not tho ten cities ten times obeyed
The King of Aztlans bidding, should I fear
The power of man!’
Art thou then more than man?
He answered, & I saw his tawney cheek
Lose its life-colour as the fear arose;
Nor did I undeceive him from that fear,
For sooth I knew not how to answer him,
And therefore let it work, till we had reach’d
The court, no word Coanoctozin spake.
And I too went in silent thoughtfulness,
But then, when save Lincoya, there was no one
To hear our speech, again did he renew
The query. ‘Stranger! art thou more than man
That thou shouldst set the power of man at nought?
Then I replied. ‘two floating Palaces
Bore me & all my people over the seas.
When we departed from our mother land
The moon was newly born, we saw her wax
And wane, & witnessed her new birth again,
And all that while, alike by day & night
We travelled thro the sea, & caught the winds [1] 
And made them bear us forward. We must meet
In battle, if the Homen are not freed
From your accursed tribute, thou & I,
My people & thy countless multitudes,
Your arrows shall fall from us as the xxx hail
Leaps on the rock; & when ye smite with swords
Not blood, but fire shall follow from the stroke,
Yet think not thou that we are more than men!
Our knowledge is our power, & God our strength
God whose almighty will created thee
And me, & all that hath the breath of life,
And Earth & Heaven & yonder glorious sun.
He is our strength, for in his name I speak;
And when I tell thee that thou shall not shed
The life of man in bloody sacrifice,
It is his holy bidding that I speak:
And if thou wilt not listen & obey,
When I shall meet thee in the battle-field
It is his holy cause for which I fight,
And I shall {have} his power to conquer thee!

And thinkest thou our Gods are feeble!’ cried
The King of Aztlan, dost thou deem they lack
Power to defend their altars & to keep
The Kingdom that they {gave} us strength to win?
The Gods of thirty nations have opposed
Their irresistible might, & now lie caged
And fettered at their feet. Such Gods are ours,
That they who serves them are no coward race
Let prove the ample realm they won in arms
And I their Leader am not of the sons
Of the feeble.’ as he spake he reached a mace,
The trunk & knotted root of some young tree,
Such as old Albion & his monster brood
From the oak-forest for their weapons pluck’d,
When father Brute & Corineus set foot
On the White Island first. ‘Lo this my club!
Quoth he,’ & he threw back his robe, & this
The arm that wields it! King Tepolomi The arm that wields it, twas my fathers once,
Erilyabs husband – King Tepolomi
He felt its weight, .. did I not show thee him?
He lights me at my evening banquet!’ There
In very deed, the dead Tepolomi
Stood up against the wall, by devilish art
Preserved & from his black & shrivelled hand
The steady lamp hung down.
My spirit rose
At that abomination. I exclaimed,
Thou art of noble nature, & full fain
Would I in friendship plight my hand with thine
But till that body in the grave be laid,
Till thy polluted altars be made pure,
There is no peace between us, may my God,
Who, tho thou knowest him not is also thine,
And after death will be thy dreadful Judge,
May it please him to visit thee, & shed
His mercy on thy soul! but if thy heart
Be hardened to the proof, come when thou wilt!
I know thy power, & thou shalt then know mine. [2] 

________________

Dear Tom

[rest of MS missing]


Notes

* Address: [partial] – Cove of Cork./ Single.
MS: British Library, Add MS 30927
Unpublished.
Dating note: Letter to Thomas Southey dated 17 February 1804 (Letter 897) contains the next part of Southey’s poem Madoc (1805). Duplicate content to letter to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn dated [c. late December 1803–mid February 1804], The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Two, Letter 877. BACK

[1] At morning...caught the winds: verse written in double columns up to this line, when it is continued in single column. BACK

[2] At morning...know mine: verse written in Edith Southey’s hand. With minor corrections, these lines were published as Madoc (1805), Part 1, Book 6. BACK

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August 2013