The Last Oracle

Original Text: 
Swinburne's Collected Poetical Works, 2 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1924): I, 301-06.
(A.D. 361)
eipate toi basilei, xamai pese daidalos aula.
ouketi PHoibos exei kaluban, ou mantida daphnen,
ou pagan laleousan . apesbeto kai lalon udor.
2    Ages waxed and waned that knew not thee nor thine,
3While the world sought light by night and sought not thy light,
4    Since the sad last pilgrim left thy dark mid shrine.
5Dark the shrine and dumb the fount of song thence welling,
6    Save for words more sad than tears of blood, that said:
7Tell the king, on earth has fallen the glorious dwelling,
8    And the watersprings that spake are quenched and dead.
9Not a cell is left the God, no roof, no cover
10    In his hand the prophet laurel flowers no more.
11And the great king's high sad heart, thy true last lover,
12    Felt thine answer pierce and cleave it to the core.
13        And he bowed down his hopeless head
14            In the drift of the wild world's tide,
15        And dying, Thou hast conquered, he said,
16            Galilean; he said it, and died.
17        And the world that was thine and was ours
18        When the Graces took hands with the Hours
19        Grew cold as a winter wave
20        In the wind from a wide-mouthed grave,
21        As a gulf wide open to swallow
22            The light that the world held dear.
23    O father of all of us, Paian, Apollo,
24            Destroyer and healer, hear!
25Age on age thy mouth was mute, thy face was hidden,
26    And the lips and eyes that loved thee blind and dumb;
27Song forsook their tongues that held thy name forbidden,
28    Light their eyes that saw the strange God's kingdom come.
29Fire for light and hell for heaven and psalms for pæans
30    Filled the clearest eyes and lips most sweet of song,
31When for chant of Greeks the wail of Galileans
32    Made the whole world moan with hymns of wrath and wrong.
33Yea, not yet we see thee, father, as they saw thee,
34    They that worshipped when the world was theirs and thine,
35They whose words had power by thine own power to draw thee
36    Down from heaven till earth seemed more than heaven divine.
37        For the shades are about us that hover
38            When darkness is half withdrawn
39        And the skirts of the dead night cover
40            The face of the live new dawn.
41        For the past is not utterly past
42        Though the word on its lips be the last,
43        And the time be gone by with its creed
44        When men were as beasts that bleed,
45        As sheep or as swine that wallow,
46            In the shambles of faith and of fear.
47        O father of all of us, Paian, Apollo,
48            Destroyer and healer, hear!
49Yet it may be, lord and father, could we know it,
50    We that love thee for our darkness shall have light
51More than ever prophet hailed of old or poet
52    Standing crowned and robed and sovereign in thy sight.
53To the likeness of one God their dreams enthralled thee,
54    Who wast greater than all Gods that waned and grew;
55Son of God the shining son of Time they called thee,
56    Who wast older, O our father, than they knew.
57For no thought of man made Gods to love or honour
58    Ere the song within the silent soul began,
59Nor might earth in dream or deed take heaven upon her
60    Till the word was clothed with speech by lips of man.
61        And the word and the life wast thou,
62            The spirit of man and the breath;
63        And before thee the Gods that bow
64            Take life at thine hands and death.
65        For these are as ghosts that wane,
66        That are gone in an age or twain;
67        Harsh, merciful, passionate, pure,
68        They perish, but thou shalt endure;
69        Be their flight with the swan or the swallow,
70            They pass as the flight of a year.
71        O father of all of us, Paian, Apollo,
72            Destroyer and healer, hear!
73Thou the word, the light, the life, the breath, the glory,
74    Strong to help and heal, to lighten and to slay,
75Thine is all the song of man, the world's whole story;
76    Not of morning and of evening is thy day.
77Old and younger Gods are buried or begotten
78    From uprising to downsetting of thy sun,
79Risen from eastward, fallen to westward and forgotten,
80    And their springs are many, but their end is one.
81Divers births of godheads find one death appointed,
82    As the soul whence each was born makes room for each;
83God by God goes out, discrowned and disanointed,
84    But the soul stands fast that gave them shape and speech.
85        Is the sun yet cast out of heaven?
86            Is the song yet cast out of man?
87        Life that had song for its leaven
88            To quicken the blood that ran
89        Through the veins of the songless years
90        More bitter and cold than tears,
91        Heaven that had thee for its one
92        Light, life, word, witness, O sun,
93        Are they soundless and sightless and hollow,
94            Without eye, without speech, without ear?
95        O father of all of us, Paian, Apollo,
96            Destroyer and healer, hear!
97Time arose and smote thee silent at his warning,
98    Change and darkness fell on men that fell from thee;
99Dark thou satest, veiled with light, behind the morning,
100    Till the soul of man should lift up eyes and see.
101Till the blind mute soul get speech again and eyesight,
102    Man may worship not the light of life within;
103In his sight the stars whose fires grow dark in thy sight
104    Shine as sunbeams on the night of death and sin.
105Time again is risen with mightier word of warning,
106    Change hath blown again a blast of louder breath;
107Clothed with clouds and stars and dreams that melt in morning,
108    Lo, the Gods that ruled by grace of sin and death!
109        They are conquered, they break, they are stricken,
110            Whose might made the whole world pale;
111        They are dust that shall rise not or quicken
112            Though the world for their death's sake wail.
113        As a hound on a wild beast's trace,
114        So time has their godhead in chase;
115        As wolves when the hunt makes head,
116        They are scattered, they fly, they are fled;
117        They are fled beyond hail, beyond hollo,
118            And the cry of the chase, and the cheer.
119        O father of all of us, Paian, Apollo,
120            Destroyer and healer, hear!
121Day by day thy shadow shines in heaven beholden,
122    Even the sun, the shining shadow of thy face:
123King, the ways of heaven before thy feet grow golden;
124    God, the soul of earth is kindled with thy grace.
125In thy lips the speech of man whence Gods were fashioned,
126    In thy soul the thought that makes them and unmakes;
127By thy light and heat incarnate and impassioned,
128    Soul to soul of man gives light for light and takes.
129As they knew thy name of old time could we know it,
130    Healer called of sickness, slayer invoked of wrong,
131Light of eyes that saw thy light, God, king, priest, poet,
132    Song should bring thee back to heal us with thy song.
133        For thy kingdom is past not away,
134            Nor thy power from the place thereof hurled;
135        Out of heaven they shall cast not the day,
136            They shall cast not out song from the world.
137        By the song and the light they give
138        We know thy works that they live;
139        With the gift thou hast given us of speech
140        We praise, we adore, we beseech,
141        We arise at thy bidding and follow,
142            We cry to thee, answer, appear,
143        O father of all of us, Paian, Apollo,
144            Destroyer and healer, hear!


1] Swinburne writes as follows, on February 1, 1876, to John Morley: "... a mention of the subject, which starts from the message sent back (to the effect that there was none) from Delphi to Julian when he sent to consult the oracle the year of his accession, and passes into an invocation of the healing and destroying God of song and of the sun, taken as the type of the `light of thought' and spirit of speech which makes and unmakes gods within the soul that it makes vocal and articulate from age to age; not really therefore sone of Zeus the son of Chronos, but older than all possible gods fashioned by the human spirit out of itself for types of worship" (The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise [London: William Heinemann, 1926]: III, 130). Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
Belgravia (May 1876): 329-32; then Poems and Ballads, 2nd series (1878): 1-9.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1999.