A. E. Housman

The Death of Socrates

Though thou art free no more, though every trace
Of life has faded from thy marble face,
Though all thy gods are fled, and silence reigns
For ever in thy desecrated fanes,
Though all that once were thine – the fair, the brave –
Are sleeping in the darkness of the grave,
Though all the light that lit thy dawn has set –
Greece, in thy ruin thou art lovely yet.
Still from thy heights the city of the free
Looks down upon her ancient slave – the sea,
Stull on thy hills the olive and the vine
Their leafy branches love to intertwine,
Still in the shadow of thy flowery vales
Ceaselessly sing the mournful nightingales,
And round thy shattered altars every tread
Awakes the voices of the deathless dead.
Still thou art lovely, lovely in decay,
With purple hill and rippling azure bay,
And ocean girdling all thy shores with light,
And temples on thy headlands flashing white,
But ah! how changed from what thou wast of yore,
When conquest waved her banners on that shore,
When those blue hills, now sunk in long, long sleep,
Arose like sentinels above the deep;
When myriad navies carried on their train
The terrors of thy arms from main to main,
And glorious freedom beamed upon that brow.
So soiled, so riven, and so wasted now.
But though thy empire in the dust lies dead,
And strength and courage from thy land have fled,
The shades of those who made thee great and fair
Throng every breeze that stirs thy sunny air;
’Twas here the brave three hundred strove so well,
’Twas here Epaminondas fought and fell,
’Twas here that Homer’s hymns of battle rang,
’Twas here ’neath Phidias’ hand those temples sprang,
’Twas here, where yonder columns front the sea,
That Wisdom lingered, Socrates, with thee.
Best of the Grecians, seeking to explore
The realms that never had been searched before,
From which the bravest shrank with bated breath –
The great unknown that follows after death.
Men spoke of plains where happy spirits dwell
Amidst the dreamy fields of Asphodel,
Yet little did they love from life to flee
Into the depths of what they could not see.
They laughed on earth, they banished toil and care,
They loved the sea, the sky, the summer air;
And ere the smiles had faded from their lips
They passed away into the long eclipse,
Like voices on the wandering breezes blown
Now here – now gone – but whither, all unknown.
What wonder then, that men like these should prize
Lightly, the solemn accents of the wise?
What wonder they should turn away and jeer,
And little care his searching words to hear?
What wonder they should better love delight
Than listening to him as he taught the right?
But why should they, for shame, for pity, why?
Condemn the good, the innocent to die?
Yet it is done. The hour is come at last
When all his life of virtue must be past;
At last the chilly hemlock bowl he drains,
The subtle poison shivers through his veins.
His wife clings to him for her last embrace,
His sad disciples watch his shrouded face;
Though death and he are met in deadly strife
Still he speaks on, and still he speaks of life, –
Of endless life, of life beyond the tomb,
Where Socrates, emerged from earthly gloom –
A new-born soul with wings of thought unfurled,
Shall find the threshold of another world.
The sun sinks down into the crimson deep,
The daylight fades away from shore and steep,
The darkening shadows sweep from height to height;
Sudden and swift and silent through the night,
The glories of the unveiled heaven stand bare –
A thousand stars gleam out upon the air.
Far, far away in space, and from each one
Streams glory that makes dark the glorious sun,
For as that sun into the deep descends,
O Socrates, thy mortal being ends.
As yon clear stars shine forth from sky and sea,
There dawns another, brighter life for thee
Where heaven its everlasting fields unfolds,
And streams of knowledge in its valleys holds,
Where melody of joy to earth unknown,
And never-dying gladness is thine own:
Worlds which the flash of daylight can obscure,
(And yet are ever there, serene and pure,)
When day has vanished first appear; how far
More vast, more wonderful than day they are!
And so, a life more wondrous far than this:
A life of unimaginable bliss
Is veiled, till death from off the mortal eye
Has drawn the cloud that covers immortality.
Thy weeping followers on the earth stand dumb
With sorrow; unto them no dawn has come,
On them no lifted veil has shed the light;
With lisping thought, and visionary sight,
They wait in twilight. But the day shall be
When a frail bark shall bear across the sea
One, in the wisdom of whose solemn eyes
A deeper, clearer well of light shall rise,
And on the hill thy feet so oft have trod,
He shall in fulness preach thine Unknown God.

A. E. Housman was a renowned English classical scholar and poet, best known for his evocative collection, A Shropshire Lad. His mastery of language and keen sense of introspection continue to resonate with readers worldwide, solidifying his legacy as a literary luminary of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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