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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton 1803–73

The Cardinal’s Soliloquy


Rich. [reading].“IN silence, and at night, the Conscience feels

That life should soar to nobler ends than Power.”

So sayest thou, sage and sober moralist!

But wert thou tried? Sublime Philosophy,

Thou art the Patriarch’s ladder, reaching heaven,

And bright with beckoning angels—but, alas!

We see thee, like the Patriarch, but in dreams,

By the first step, dull-slumbering on the earth.

I am not happy!—with the Titan’s lust

I woo’d a goddess, and I clasp a cloud.

When I am dust, my name shall, like a star,

Shine through wan space, a glory, and a prophet

Whereby pale seers shall from their aëry towers

Con all the ominous signs, benign or evil,

That make the potent astrologue of kings.

But shall the Future judge me by the ends

That I have wrought, or by the dubious means

Through which the stream of my renown hath run

Into the many-voiced unfathom’d Time?

Foul in its bed lie weeds, and heaps of slime,

And with its waves—when sparkling in the sun,

Ofttimes the secret rivulets that swell

Its might of waters—blend the hues of blood.

Yet are my sins not those of Circumstance,

That all-pervading atmosphere, wherein

Our spirits, like the unsteady lizard, take

The tints that color, and the food that nurtures?

O! ye, whose hour-glass shifts its tranquil sands

In the unvex’d silence of a student’s cell;

Ye, whose untempted hearts have never toss’d

Upon the dark and stormy tides where life

Gives battle to the elements,—and man

Wrestles with man for some slight plank, whose weight

Will bear but one, while round the desperate wretch

The hungry billows roar, and the fierce Fate,

Like some huge monster, dim-seen through the surf,

Waits him who drops;—ye safe and formal men,

Who write the deeds, and with unfeverish hand

Weigh in nice scales the motives of the Great,

Ye cannot know what ye have never tried!

History preserves only the fleshless bones

Of what we are, and by the mocking skull

The would-be wise pretend to guess the features.

Without the roundness and the glow of life

How hideous is the skeleton! Without

The colorings and humanities that clothe

Our errors, the anatomists of schools

Can make our memory hideous.

I have wrought

Great uses out of evil tools, and they

In the time to come may bask beneath the light

Which I have stolen from the angry gods,

And warn their sons against the glorious theft,

Forgetful of the darkness which it broke.

I have shed blood, but I have had no foes

Save those the State had; if my wrath was deadly,

’T is that I felt my country in my veins,

And smote her sons as Brutus smote his own.

And yet I am not happy: blanch’d and sear’d

Before my time; breathing an air of hate,

And seeing daggers in the eyes of men,

And wasting powers that shake the thrones of earth

In contest with the insects; bearding kings

And brav’d by lackies; murder at my bed;

And lone amidst the multitudinous web,

With the dread Three, that are the Fates who hold

The woof and shears—the Monk, the Spy, the Headsman.

And this is power? Alas! I am not happy. [After a pause.

And yet the Nile is fretted by the weeds

Its rising roots not up; but never yet

Did one least barrier by a ripple vex

My onward tide, unswept in sport away.

Am I so ruthless then that I do hate

Them who hate me? Tush, tush! I do not hate;

Nay, I forgive. The Statesman writes the doom,

But the Priest sends the blessing. I forgive them,

But I destroy; forgiveness is mine own,

Destruction is the State’s! For private life,

Scripture the guide—for public, Machiavel.

Would fortune serve me if the Heaven were wroth?

For chance makes half my greatness. I was born

Beneath the aspect of a bright-eyed star,

And my triumphant adamant of soul

Is but the fix’d persuasion of success.

Ah!—here!—that spasm!—again!—How Life and Death

Do wrestle for me momently! And yet

The King looks pale. I shall outlive the King!

And then, thou insolent Austrian—who didst gibe

At the ungainly, gaunt, and daring lover,

Sleeking thy looks to silken Buckingham,

Thou shalt—no matter! I have outliv’d love.

O beautiful, all golden, gentle youth!

Making thy palace in the careless front

And hopeful eye of man, ere yet the soul

Hath lost the memories which (so Plato dream’d)

Breath’d glory from the earlier star it dwelt in—

Oh, for one gale from thine exulting morning,

Stirring amidst the roses, where of old

Love shook the dew-drops from his glancing hair!

Could I recall the past, or had not set

The prodigal treasures of the bankrupt soul

In one slight bark upon the shoreless sea;

The yoked steer, after his day of toil,

Forgets the goad, and rests: to me alike

Or day or night—Ambition has no rest!

Shall I resign? who can resign himself?

For custom is ourself; as drink and food

Become our bone and flesh, the aliments

Nurturing our nobler part, the mind, thoughts, dreams,

Passions, and aims, in the revolving cycle

Of the great alchemy, at length are made

Our mind itself; and yet the sweets of leisure,

An honor’d home far from these base intrigues,

An eyrie on the heaven-kiss’d heights of wisdom.—

[Taking up the book.

Speak to me, moralist!—I ’ll heed thy counsel.