The Life and Death of Jason

7. BOOK VII.

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Jason first sees Medea. The magic potion of Medea.

SO long they sat, until at last the sun
Sank in the sea, and noisy day was done.
Then bade Aeetes light the place, that men
From out the dark might bring the day again;
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Whereon, the scented torches being brought,
As men with shaded eyes the shadows sought,
Turning to Jason, spake the king these words:
DOST thou now wonder, guest, that with sharp swords
And mailed breasts of men I fence myself,
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Not as a pedler guarding his poor pelf,
But as a God shutting the door of heaven?
Behold! O Prince, for threescore years and seven
Have I dwelt here in bliss, nor dare I give
The Fleece to thee, lest I should cease to live;
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Nor dare I quite this treasure to withhold,
Lest to the Gods I seem grown over-bold;
For many a cunning man I have, to tell
Divine foreshowings of the oracle,
And thus they warn me. Therefore shalt thou hear
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What well may fill a hero's heart with fear;
But not from my old lips; that thou mayst have,
Whether thy life thou here wilt spill or save,
At least one joy before thou comest to die:…
Ho ye, bid in my lady presently!
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BUT Jason, wondering what should come of this,
With heart well steeled to suffer woe or bliss,
Sat waiting, while within the music ceased,
But from without a strain rose and increased,
Till shrill and clear it drew anigh the hall,
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But silent at the entry did it fall;
And through the place there was no other sound
But falling of light footsteps on the ground,
For at the door a band of maids was seen,
Who went up towards the dais, a lovely queen
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Being in their midst, who, coming nigh the place
Where the king sat, passed at a gentle pace
Alone before the others to the board,
And said: Aeetes, father, and good lord,
What is it thou wouldst have of me to-night?
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O daughter, said Aeetes, tell aright
Unto this king's son here, who is my guest,
What things he must accomplish, ere his quest
Is finished, who has come this day to seek
The golden fell brought hither by the Greek,
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The son of Athamas, the hapless king,
That he may know at last for what a thing
He left the meadowy land and peaceful stead.
Then she to Jason turned her golden head,
And reaching out her arm, stooped and took up
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From off the board a rich fair-jewelled cup,
And said: O prince, these hard things must ye do:
First, going to their stall, bring out the two
Great brazen bulls, that king Aeetes feeds
On grass of Pontus and strange-nurtured seeds;
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Nor heed what they may do, but take the plough
That in their stall stands ever bright enow,
And on their gleaming necks cast thou the yoke,
And drive them as thou mayst, with cry and stroke,
Through the grey acre of the God of War.
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THEN, when turned up the long straight furrows are,
Take thou the sack that holds the serpent's teeth
Slain by our fathers on the sunless heath;
There sow those evil seeds, and bide thou there
Till they send forth a strange crop nothing fair,
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Which garner thou, if thou canst master Death.
BUT if thereafter still thou drawest breath,
Then shalt thou have the seven keys of the shrine
Wherein the beast's fair golden locks yet shine;
Yet sing thou not the song of triumph then,
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Nor deem thyself the luckiest man of men;
For just within the brazen temple-gates
The guardian of the Fleece for ever waits,…
A fork-tongued dragon, charmed for evermore
To writhe and wallow on the precious floor,
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Sleepless, upon whose skin no steel will bite.
IF then with such an one thou needs must fight,
Or knowest arts to tame him, do thy worst,
Nor, carrying off the prize, shalt thou be curst
By us or any God. But yet, think well
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If these three things be not impossible
To any man; and make a bloodless end
Of this thy quest, and as my father's friend
Well gifted, in few days return in peace,
Lacking for nought, forgetful of the Fleece.
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THEREWITH she made an end; but while she spoke
Came Love unseen, and cast his golden yoke
About them both, and sweeter her voice grew,
And softer ever, as betwixt them flew,
With fluttering wings, the new-born strong desire;
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And when her eyes met his grey eyes, on fire
With that which burned her, then with sweet new shame
Her fair face reddened, and there went and came
Delicious tremors through her. But he said:
A bitter song thou singest, royal maid,
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Unto a sweet tune; yet doubt not that I
To-morrow this so certain death will try;
And dying, may perchance not pass unwept,
And with sweet memories may my name be kept,
That men call Jason of the Minyæ.
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Then said she, trembling: Take, then, this of me,
And drink in token that thy life is passed,
And that thy reckless hand the die has cast.
Therewith she reached the cup to him, but he
Stretched out his hand, and took it joyfully,
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As with the cup he touched her dainty hand,
Nor was she loth awhile with him to stand,
Forgetting all else in that honied pain.
At last she turned, and with head raised again
He drank, and swore for nought to leave that quest
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Till he had reached the worst end or the best;
And down the hall the clustering Minyæ
Shouted for joy his godlike face to see.
But she, departing, made no further sign
Of her desires, but, while with song and wine
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They feasted till the fevered night was late,
Within her bower she sat, made blind by fate.
BUT when all hushed and still the palace grew
She put her gold robes off, and on her drew
A dusky gown, and with a wallet small
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And cutting wood-knife girt herself withal,
And from her dainty chamber softly passed
Through stairs and corridors, until at last
She came down to a gilded watergate,
Which with a golden key she opened straight,
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And swiftly stept into a little boat,
And, pushing off from shore, began to float
Adown the stream, and with her tender hands
And half-bared arms, the wonder of all lands,
Rowed strongly through the starlit gusty night
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As though she knew the watery way aright.
So, from the city streets being gone apace,
Turning the boat's head, did she near a space
Where by the water's edge a thick yew wood
Made a black blot on the dim gleaming flood:
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But when she reached it, dropping either oar
Upon the grassy bank, she leapt ashore,
And to a yew-bough made the boat's head fast.
Then here and there quick glances round she cast
And listened, lest some wanderer should be nigh.
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Then by the river's side she tremblingly
Undid the bands that bound her yellow hair
And let it float about her, and made bare
Her shoulder and right arm, and, kneeling down,
Drew off her shoes, and girded up her gown,
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And in the river washed her silver feet

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And trembling hands; then turned about to meet
The yew-wood's darkness, gross and palpable,
As though she made for some place known full well.
BENEATH her feet the way was rough enow,
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And often would she meet some trunk or bough,
And draw back shrinking, then press on again
With eager steps, not heeding fear or pain;
At last an open space she came unto,
Where the faint glimmering starlight, shining through,
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Showed in the midst a circle of smooth grass,
Through which, from dark to dark, a stream did pass,
And all around was darkness like a wall.
So, kneeling there, she let the wallet fall,
And from it drew a bundle of strange wood
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Wound all about with strings as red as blood;
Then breaking these, into a little pyre
The twigs she built, and swiftly kindling fire,
Set it alight, and with her head bent low
Sat patiently, and watched the red flames grow
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Till it burned bright and lit the dreary place;
Then, leaving it, she went a little space
Into the shadow of the circling trees
With wood-knife drawn, and whiles upon her knees
She dropt, and sweeping the sharp knife around,
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Took up some scarce-seen thing from off the ground
And thrust it in her bosom, and at last
Into the darkness of the trees she passed.
Meanwhile, the new fire burned with clear red flame,
Not wasting aught; but when again she came
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Into its light, within her caught-up gown
Much herbs she had, and on her head a crown
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Of dank night-flowering grasses, known to few.
But, casting down the mystic herbs, she drew
From out her wallet a bowl polished bright,
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Brazen, and wrought with figures black and white,
Which from the stream she filled with water thin,
And, kneeling by the fire, she cast therein
Shreddings of many herbs, and setting it
Amidst the flames, she watched them curl and flit
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About the edges of the blackening brass.
But when strange fumes began therefrom to pass,
And clouds of thick white smoke about her flew,
And dull and wan the smothered bale-fire grew,
Unto her fragrant breast her hand she set,
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And drew therefrom a bag of silken fret,
And into her right palm she gently shook
Three grains of something small that had the look
Of millet seeds, then laid the bag once more
On that sweet hidden place it kissed before.
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And, lifting up her right hand, murmured low:
O THREE-FORMED, Venerable, dost thou know
That I have left to-night my golden bed
On the sharp pavement of thy wood to shed
Blood from my naked feet, and from mine eyes
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Intolerable tears; to pour forth sighs
In the thick darkness, as with footsteps weak
And trembling knees I prowl about to seek
That which I need forsooth, but fear to find?
What wouldest thou, my Lady? art thou blind,
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Or sleepest thou, or dost thou, dread one, see
About me somewhat that misliketh thee?
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What crown but thine is on mine unbound hair,
What jewel on my arms, or have I care
Against the flinty windings of thy wood
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To guard my feet? or have I thought it good
To come before thee with unwashen hands?
And this my raiment: Goddess, from three lands
The fleeces it was woven of were brought
Where deeds of thine in ancient days were wrought,
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Delos, and Argos, and the Carian mead;
Nor was it made, O Goddess, with small heed;
By unshod maidens was the yarn well spun,
And at the moonrise the close web begun,
And finished at the dawning of the light.
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Nought hides me from the unseen eyes of night
But this alone, what dost thou then to me,
That at my need my flame sinks wretchedly,
And all is vain I do? Ah, is it so
That to some other helper I must go
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Better at need; wilt thou then take my part
Once more, and pity my divided heart?
For never was I vowed to thee alone,
Nor didst thou bid me take the tight-drawn zone,
And follow through the twilight of the trees
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The glancing limbs of trim-shod huntresses.
Therefore, look down upon me; and see now,
These grains of what thou knowest I will throw
Upon the flame, and then, if at my need
Thou still wilt help me, help; but if indeed
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I am forsaken of thee utterly,
The naked knees of Venus will I try;
And I may hap ere long to please her well,
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And one more story they may have to tell
Who in the flowery isle her praises sing.
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SO speaking, on the dulled fire did she fling
The unknown grains; but when the Three-formed heard
From out her trembling lips that impious word,
She granted all her asking, though she knew
What evil road Medea hurried to
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Which fainer had she barred from her that night.
So, now again their bale-fire flamed up bright,
The smoke grew thin, and in the brazen bowl
Boiling the mingled herbs did twine and roll,
And with new light Medea's wearied eyes
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Gleamed in the fireshine o'er those mysteries;
And taking a green twig from off the ground,
Therewith she stirred the mess, that cast around
A shower of hissing sparks and vapour white,
Sharp to the taste, and 'wildering to the sight;
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Which when she saw, the vessel off she drew,
As though the ending of her toil she knew,
And cooling for awhile she let it stand,
But at the last therein she laid her hand,
And when she drew it out she thrust the same
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Amidst the fire, but neither coal nor flame
The tender rosy flesh could harm a whit,
Nor was there mark or blemish left on it.
Then did she pour what else the brass might hold
Into a fair gemmed phial wrought of gold,
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Drawn from the mystic wallet, and straightway
She stopped the mouth, and in its place did lay
The well-wrought phial, girding to her side
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The wallet which that precious thing did hide;
Then all the remnants of the herbs she cast
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On to the fire, and straight therefrom there passed
A high white flame, and when that sunk, outright
Her bale-fire died into the voiceless night.
But toward the river did she turn again,
Not heeding the rough ways, nor any pain,
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But running swiftly came unto her boat,
And in the mid-stream soon was she afloat,
Drawn onward toward the town by flood of tide.
NOR heeded she that by the river side
Still lay her golden shoes, a goodly prize
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To some rough fisher in whose sleepy eyes
They first should shine, the while he drew his net
Against the yew wood of the Goddess set.
BUT she, swept onward by the hurrying stream,
Down in the east beheld a doubtful gleam
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That told of dawn, so bent unto the oar
In terror lest her folk should wake before
Her will was wrought; nor failed she now to hear
From neighbouring homesteads shrilly notes and clear
Of waking cocks, and twittering from the sedge
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Of restless birds about the river's edge;
And when she drew between the city walls,
She heard the hollow sound of rare footfalls
From men who needs must wake for that or this
While upon sleepers gathered dreams of bliss,
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Or great distress at ending of the night,
And grey things coloured with the gathering light.
So 'gainst the water-gate soft slid her prow,
And though nigh breathless, scarcely dared she now
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To wait to moor her shallop to the stone,
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Which yet she dared not leave; so this being done,
Swiftly by passages and stairs she ran,
Trembling and pale, though not yet seen by man,
Until to Jason's chamber door she came.
AND there awhile indeed she stayed, for shame
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Rose up against her fear; but mighty love
And the sea-haunting rose-crowned seed of Jove
O'ermastered both; so, trembling, on the pin
She laid her hand, but ere she entered in
She covered up again her shoulder sweet,
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And dropped her dusky raiment o'er her feet;
Then entering soft the dimly-lighted room,
Where with the lamp dawn struggled, through the gloom,
Seeking the prince she peered, who sleeping lay
Upon his gold bed, and abode the day
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Smiling, still clad in arms, and round his sword
His fingers met; then she, with a soft word,
Came nigh him, and from out his slackened hand
With slender rosy fingers drew the brand,
Then kneeling, laid her hand upon his breast,
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And said: O Jason, wake up from thy rest,
Perchance from thy last rest, and speak to me.
Then fell his light sleep from him suddenly,
And on one arm he rose, with hand clenched hard,
And raised aloft his wary head to ward,
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And on this side and that began to stare.
But bringing close to him her visage fair,
She whispered: Smite not, for thou hast no sword,
Speak not above thy breath, for one loud word
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May slay both thee and me. Day grows apace;
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What day thou knowest! Canst thou see my face?
Last night thou didst behold it with such eyes,
That I, Medea, wise among the wise,
The safeguard of my father and his land,
Who have been used with steady eyes to stand
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In awful groves alone with Hecate,
Henceforth must call myself the bond of thee,
The fool of love; speak not, but kiss me then,
Yea, kiss my lips, that not the best of men
Has touched ere thou. Alas, quick comes the day!
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Draw back, but hearken what I have to say,
For every moment do I dread to hear
Thy wakened folk, or our folk drawing near;
Therefore I speak as if with my last breath,
Shameless, beneath the shadowing wings of death,
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That still may let us twain once more to meet,
And snatch from bitter love the bitter sweet
Which some folk gather while they wait to die.
Alas, I loiter, and the day is nigh!
Soothly I came to bring thee more than this,
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The memory of an unasked fruitless kiss
Upon thy death-day, which this day would be
If there were not some little help in me.
Therewith from out her wallet did she draw
The phial, and a crystal without flaw
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Shaped like an apple, scored with words about,
Then said: But now I bid thee have no doubt.
With this now prisoned by these gems and gold
Anoint thine arms and body, and be bold,
Nor fear the fire-breathing bulls one whit,
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Such mighty virtue have I drawn to it,
Whereof I give thee proof Therewith her hand
She thrust into the lamp-flame that did stand
Anigh the bed, and showed it him again
Unscarred by any wound or drawn with pain;
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Then said: Now, when Mars' plain is ploughed at last
And in the furrows those ill seeds are cast,
Take thou this ball in hand and watch the thing;
Then shalt thou see a horrid crop upspring
Of all-armed men therefrom to be thy bane,
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Were I not here to make their fury vain.
Draw not thy sword against them as they rise,
But cast this ball amid them, and their eyes
Shall see no foe but midst the earthborn kin,
And each of other chilly death shall win.
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Now will my father hide his rage at heart,
And praise thee much that thou hast played thy part,
And bid thee to a banquet on this night,
And pray thee wait until to-morrow's light
Before thou triest the Temple of the Fleece.
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Trust not to him, but see that unto Greece
The ship's prow turn, and all be ready there.
And at the banquet let thy men forbear
The maddening wine, and bid them arm them all
For what upon this night may chance to fall.
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But I will get by stealth the keys that hold
The sevenfold locks which guard the Fleece of Gold;
And while we try the Fleece, let thy men steal,
Howso they may, unto thy ready keel,
Thus art thou saved alive with thy desire.
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But what thing will be left to me but fire?

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The fire of fierce despair within my heart,
The while I reap my guerdon for my part,
Curses and torments, and in no long space
Real fire of pine-wood in some rocky place,
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Wreathing around my body greedily,
A dreadful beacon o'er the leaden sea.
BUT Jason drew her to him, and he said:
Nay, by these tender hands and golden head,
That saving things for me have wrought to-night,
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I know not what; by this unseen delight
Of thy fair body, may I rather burn,
Nor may the flame die ever, if I turn
Back to my hollow ship, and leave thee here,
Who in one minute art become so dear,
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Thy limbs so longed for, that at last I know
Why men have been content to suffer woe
Past telling, if the Gods but granted this,
A little while such lips as thine to kiss,
A little while to drink thy longing kind.
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Ah, wilt thou go? The Day is yet but blind
Amid blind sleepers: long it is meseems
That twilight lingers over fading dreams
'Twixt dawn and day. O Prince, she said, I came
To save your life. I cast off fear and shame
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A little while, but fear and shame are here.
The hand thou holdest trembles with my fear,
With shame my cheeks are burning, and the sound
Of mine own voice: but ere this hour comes round,
We twain will be betwixt the dashing oars,
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The ship still making for the Grecian shores.
Farewell till then, though in the lists to-day
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Thyself shalt see me watching out the play.
THEREWITH she drew off from him, and was gone,
And in the chamber Jason left alone,
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Praising the heavenly one, the Queen of Jove,
Pondered upon this unasked gift of love,
And all the changing wonder of his life.
But soon he rose to fit him for the strife,
And ere the sun his orb began to lift
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O'er the dark hills, with fair Medea's gift
He chafed his body and his weed of war,
And round his neck he hung the spell that bore
Death to the earth-born, the fair crystal ball.
Ready and eager then from wall to wall,
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Athwart and endlong clashing did he stride,
Waiting the king's men and the fateful tide.
MEANWHILE, Medea coming to her room
Unseen, lit up the slowly parting gloom
With scented torches: then bound up her hair,
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And stripped the dark gown from her body fair,
And laid it with the brass bowl in a chest,
Where many a day it had been wont to rest,
Brazen and bound with iron, and whose key
No eye but hers had ever happed to see.
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Then wearied, on her bed she cast her down,
And strove to think; but soon the uneasy frown
Faded from off her brow, her lips closed tight
But now, just parted, and her fingers white
Slackened their hold upon the coverlet,
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And o'er her face faint smiles began to flit,
As o'er the summer pool the faint soft air:
So instant and so kind the God was there. Notes Book VII


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