The Complete Poetical Works, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Prince Athanase

A Fragment

The idea Shelley had formed of Prince Athanase was a good deal modelled on “Alastor”. In the first sketch of the poem, he named it “Pandemos and Urania”. Athanase seeks through the world the One whom he may love. He meets, in the ship in which he is embarked, a lady who appears to him to embody his ideal of love and beauty. But she proves to be Pandemos, or the earthly and unworthy Venus; who, after disappointing his cherished dreams and hopes, deserts him. Athanase, crushed by sorrow, pines and dies. ‘On his deathbed, the lady who can really reply to his soul comes and kisses his lips’ (“The Deathbed of Athanase”). The poet describes her [in the words of the final fragment, page 164]. This slender note is all we have to aid our imagination in shaping out the form of the poem, such as its author imagined.

[Mrs. Shelley’s Note.]

Part 1.

There was a youth, who, as with toil and travel,

Had grown quite weak and gray before his time;

Nor any could the restless griefs unravel

Which burned within him, withering up his prime


And goading him, like fiends, from land to land.

Not his the load of any secret crime,

For nought of ill his heart could understand,

But pity and wild sorrow for the same; —

Not his the thirst for glory or command,


Baffled with blast of hope-consuming shame;

Nor evil joys which fire the vulgar breast,

And quench in speedy smoke its feeble flame,

Had left within his soul their dark unrest:

Nor what religion fables of the grave


Feared he — Philosophy’s accepted guest.

For none than he a purer heart could have,

Or that loved good more for itself alone;

Of nought in heaven or earth was he the slave.

What sorrow, strange, and shadowy, and unknown,


Sent him, a hopeless wanderer, through mankind? —

If with a human sadness he did groan,

He had a gentle yet aspiring mind;

Just, innocent, with varied learning fed;

And such a glorious consolation find


In others’ joy, when all their own is dead:

He loved, and laboured for his kind in grief,

And yet, unlike all others, it is said

That from such toil he never found relief.

Although a child of fortune and of power,


Of an ancestral name the orphan chief,

His soul had wedded Wisdom, and her dower

Is love and justice, clothed in which he sate

Apart from men, as in a lonely tower,

Pitying the tumult of their dark estate. —


Yet even in youth did he not e’er abuse

The strength of wealth or thought, to consecrate

Those false opinions which the harsh rich use

To blind the world they famish for their pride;

Nor did he hold from any man his dues,


But, like a steward in honest dealings tried,

With those who toiled and wept, the poor and wise,

His riches and his cares he did divide.

Fearless he was, and scorning all disguise,

What he dared do or think, though men might start,


He spoke with mild yet unaverted eyes;

Liberal he was of soul, and frank of heart,

And to his many friends — all loved him well —

Whate’er he knew or felt he would impart,

If words he found those inmost thoughts to tell;


If not, he smiled or wept; and his weak foes

He neither spurned nor hated — though with fell

And mortal hate their thousand voices rose,

They passed like aimless arrows from his ear —

Nor did his heart or mind its portal close


To those, or them, or any, whom life’s sphere

May comprehend within its wide array.

What sadness made that vernal spirit sere? —

He knew not. Though his life, day after day,

Was failing like an unreplenished stream,


Though in his eyes a cloud and burthen lay,

Through which his soul, like Vesper’s serene beam

Piercing the chasms of ever rising clouds,

Shone, softly burning; though his lips did seem

Like reeds which quiver in impetuous floods;


And through his sleep, and o’er each waking hour,

Thoughts after thoughts, unresting multitudes,

Were driven within him by some secret power,

Which bade them blaze, and live, and roll afar,

Like lights and sounds, from haunted tower to tower


O’er castled mountains borne, when tempest’s war

Is levied by the night-contending winds,

And the pale dalesmen watch with eager ear; —

Though such were in his spirit, as the fiends

Which wake and feed an everliving woe —


What was this grief, which ne’er in other minds

A mirror found — he knew not — none could know;

But on whoe’er might question him he turned

The light of his frank eyes, as if to show

He knew not of the grief within that burned,


But asked forbearance with a mournful look;

Or spoke in words from which none ever learned

The cause of his disquietude; or shook

With spasms of silent passion; or turned pale:

So that his friends soon rarely undertook


To stir his secret pain without avail; —

For all who knew and loved him then perceived

That there was drawn an adamantine veil

Between his heart and mind — both unrelieved

Wrought in his brain and bosom separate strife.


Some said that he was mad, others believed

That memories of an antenatal life

Made this, where now he dwelt, a penal hell;

And others said that such mysterious grief

From God’s displeasure, like a darkness, fell


On souls like his, which owned no higher law

Than love; love calm, steadfast, invincible

By mortal fear or supernatural awe;

And others — ’’Tis the shadow of a dream

Which the veiled eye of Memory never saw,


‘But through the soul’s abyss, like some dark stream

Through shattered mines and caverns underground,

Rolls, shaking its foundations; and no beam

‘Of joy may rise, but it is quenched and drowned

In the dim whirlpools of this dream obscure;


Soon its exhausted waters will have found

‘A lair of rest beneath thy spirit pure,

O Athanase! — in one so good and great,

Evil or tumult cannot long endure.

So spake they: idly of another’s state


Babbling vain words and fond philosophy;

This was their consolation; such debate

Men held with one another; nor did he,

Like one who labours with a human woe,

Decline this talk: as if its theme might be


Another, not himself, he to and fro

Questioned and canvassed it with subtlest wit;

And none but those who loved him best could know

That which he knew not, how it galled and bit

His weary mind, this converse vain and cold;


For like an eyeless nightmare grief did sit

Upon his being; a snake which fold by fold

Pressed out the life of life, a clinging fiend

Which clenched him if he stirred with deadlier hold; —

And so his grief remained — let it remain — untold. [1]

Part 2.

Fragment 1.


Prince Athanase had one beloved friend,

An old, old man, with hair of silver white,

And lips where heavenly smiles would hang and blend

With his wise words; and eyes whose arrowy light

Shone like the reflex of a thousand minds.


He was the last whom superstition’s blight

Had spared in Greece — the blight that cramps and blinds —

And in his olive bower at Oenoe

Had sate from earliest youth. Like one who finds

A fertile island in the barren sea,


One mariner who has survived his mates

Many a drear month in a great ship — so he

With soul-sustaining songs, and sweet debates

Of ancient lore, there fed his lonely being:—

‘The mind becomes that which it contemplates,’—


And thus Zonoras, by for ever seeing

Their bright creations, grew like wisest men;

And when he heard the crash of nations fleeing

A bloodier power than ruled thy ruins then,

O sacred Hellas! many weary years


He wandered, till the path of Laian’s glen

Was grass-grown — and the unremembered tears

Were dry in Laian for their honoured chief,

Who fell in Byzant, pierced by Moslem spears:—

And as the lady looked with faithful grief


From her high lattice o’er the rugged path,

Where she once saw that horseman toil, with brief

And blighting hope, who with the news of death

Struck body and soul as with a mortal blight,

She saw between the chestnuts, far beneath,


An old man toiling up, a weary wight;

And soon within her hospitable hall

She saw his white hairs glittering in the light

Of the wood fire, and round his shoulders fall;

And his wan visage and his withered mien,


Yet calm and gentle and majestical.

And Athanase, her child, who must have been

Then three years old, sate opposite and gazed

In patient silence.

Fragment 2.

Such was Zonoras; and as daylight finds


One amaranth glittering on the path of frost,

When autumn nights have nipped all weaker kinds,

Thus through his age, dark, cold, and tempest-tossed,

Shone truth upon Zonoras; and he filled

From fountains pure, nigh overgrown and lost,


The spirit of Prince Athanase, a child,

With soul-sustaining songs of ancient lore

And philosophic wisdom, clear and mild.

And sweet and subtle talk they evermore,

The pupil and the master, shared; until,


Sharing that undiminishable store,

The youth, as shadows on a grassy hill

Outrun the winds that chase them, soon outran

His teacher, and did teach with native skill

Strange truths and new to that experienced man;


Still they were friends, as few have ever been

Who mark the extremes of life’s discordant span.

So in the caverns of the forest green,

Or on the rocks of echoing ocean hoar,

Zonoras and Prince Athanase were seen


By summer woodmen; and when winter’s roar

Sounded o’er earth and sea its blast of war,

The Balearic fisher, driven from shore,

Hanging upon the peaked wave afar,

Then saw their lamp from Laian’s turret gleam,


Piercing the stormy darkness, like a star

Which pours beyond the sea one steadfast beam,

Whilst all the constellations of the sky

Seemed reeling through the storm . . . They did but seem —

For, lo! the wintry clouds are all gone by,


And bright Arcturus through yon pines is glowing,

And far o’er southern waves, immovably

Belted Orion hangs — warm light is flowing

From the young moon into the sunset’s chasm. —

‘O, summer eve! with power divine, bestowing


‘On thine own bird the sweet enthusiasm

Which overflows in notes of liquid gladness,

Filling the sky like light! How many a spasm

‘Of fevered brains, oppressed with grief and madness,

Were lulled by thee, delightful nightingale —


And these soft waves, murmuring a gentle sadness —

‘And the far sighings of yon piny dale

Made vocal by some wind we feel not here. —

I bear alone what nothing may avail

‘To lighten — a strange load!’— No human ear


Heard this lament; but o’er the visage wan

Of Athanase, a ruffling atmosphere

Of dark emotion, a swift shadow, ran,

Like wind upon some forest-bosomed lake,

Glassy and dark. — And that divine old man


Beheld his mystic friend’s whole being shake,

Even where its inmost depths were gloomiest —

And with a calm and measured voice he spake,

And, with a soft and equal pressure, pressed

That cold lean hand:—‘Dost thou remember yet


When the curved moon then lingering in the west

‘Paused, in yon waves her mighty horns to wet,

How in those beams we walked, half resting on the sea?

’Tis just one year — sure thou dost not forget —

‘Then Plato’s words of light in thee and me


Lingered like moonlight in the moonless east,

For we had just then read — thy memory

‘Is faithful now — the story of the feast;

And Agathon and Diotima seemed

From death and dark forgetfulness released . . . ’

Fragment 3.

And when the old man saw that on the green


Leaves of his opening . . . a blight had lighted

He said: ‘My friend, one grief alone can wean

A gentle mind from all that once delighted:—

Thou lovest, and thy secret heart is laden


With feelings which should not be unrequited.’

And Athanase . . . then smiled, as one o’erladen

With iron chains might smile to talk (?) of bands

Twined round her lover’s neck by some blithe maiden,

And said . . .

Fragment 4.


’Twas at the season when the Earth upsprings

From slumber, as a sphered angel’s child,

Shadowing its eyes with green and golden wings,

Stands up before its mother bright and mild,

Of whose soft voice the air expectant seems —


So stood before the sun, which shone and smiled

To see it rise thus joyous from its dreams,

The fresh and radiant Earth. The hoary grove

Waxed green — and flowers burst forth like starry beams; —

The grass in the warm sun did start and move,


And sea-buds burst under the waves serene:—

How many a one, though none be near to love,

Loves then the shade of his own soul, half seen

In any mirror — or the spring’s young minions,

The winged leaves amid the copses green; —


How many a spirit then puts on the pinions

Of fancy, and outstrips the lagging blast,

And his own steps — and over wide dominions

Sweeps in his dream-drawn chariot, far and fast,

More fleet than storms — the wide world shrinks below,


When winter and despondency are past.

Fragment 5.

’Twas at this season that Prince Athanase

Passed the white Alps — those eagle-baffling mountains

Slept in their shrouds of snow; — beside the ways

The waterfalls were voiceless — for their fountains


Were changed to mines of sunless crystal now,

Or by the curdling winds — like brazen wings

Which clanged along the mountain’s marble brow —

Warped into adamantine fretwork, hung

And filled with frozen light the chasms below.


Vexed by the blast, the great pines groaned and swung

Under their load of [snow]—

. . .

. . .

Such as the eagle sees, when he dives down


From the gray deserts of wide air, [beheld]

[Prince] Athanase; and o’er his mien (?) was thrown

The shadow of that scene, field after field,

Purple and dim and wide . . .

Fragment 6.

Thou art the wine whose drunkenness is all


We can desire, O Love! and happy souls,

Ere from thy vine the leaves of autumn fall,

Catch thee, and feed from their o’erflowing bowls

Thousands who thirst for thine ambrosial dew; —

Thou art the radiance which where ocean rolls


Investeth it; and when the heavens are blue

Thou fillest them; and when the earth is fair

The shadow of thy moving wings imbue

Its deserts and its mountains, till they wear

Beauty like some light robe; — thou ever soarest


Among the towers of men, and as soft air

In spring, which moves the unawakened forest,

Clothing with leaves its branches bare and bleak,

Thou floatest among men; and aye implorest

That which from thee they should implore:— the weak


Alone kneel to thee, offering up the hearts

The strong have broken — yet where shall any seek

A garment whom thou clothest not? the darts

Of the keen winter storm, barbed with frost,

Which, from the everlasting snow that parts


The Alps from Heaven, pierce some traveller lost

In the wide waved interminable snow

Ungarmented, . . .

Another Fragment (A)

Yes, often when the eyes are cold and dry,

And the lips calm, the Spirit weeps within


Tears bitterer than the blood of agony

Trembling in drops on the discoloured skin

Of those who love their kind and therefore perish

In ghastly torture — a sweet medicine

Of peace and sleep are tears, and quietly


Them soothe from whose uplifted eyes they fall

But . . .

Another Fragment (B)

Her hair was brown, her sphered eyes were brown,

And in their dark and liquid moisture swam,

Like the dim orb of the eclipsed moon;


Yet when the spirit flashed beneath, there came

The light from them, as when tears of delight

Double the western planet’s serene flame.

[Written at Marlow in 1817, towards the close of the year; first published in “Posthumous Poems”, 1824. Part 1 is dated by Mrs. Shelley, ‘December, 1817,’ the remainder, ‘Marlow, 1817.’ The verses were probably rehandled in Italy during the following year. Sources of the text are (1) “Posthumous Poems”, 1824; (2) “Poetical Works” 1839, editions 1st and 2nd; (3) a much-tortured draft amongst the Bodleian manuscripts, collated by Mr. C.D. Locock. For (1) and (2) Mrs. Shelley is responsible. Our text (enlarged by about thirty lines fro the Bodleian manuscript) follows for the most part the “Poetical Works”, 1839; verbal exceptions are pointed out in the footnotes. See also the Editor’s Notes at the end of this volume, and Mr. Locock’s “Examination of Shelley Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library”, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903.]

_19 strange edition 1839; deep edition 1824.

_74 feed an Bodleian manuscript; feed on editions 1824, 1839.

_124 [1. The Author was pursuing a fuller development of the ideal character of Athanase, when it struck him that in an attempt at extreme refinement and analysis, his conceptions might be betrayed into the assuming a morbid character. The reader will judge whether he is a loser or gainer by this diffidence. [Shelley’s Note.] Footnote diffidence cj. Rossetti (1878); difference editions 1824, 1839.]

_154 beneath editions 1824, 1839; between Bodleian manuscript.

_165 One Bodleian manuscript edition 1839; An edition 1824.

_167 Thus thro’ Bodleian manuscript (?) edition 1839; Thus had edition 1824.

_173 talk they edition 1824, Bodleian manuscript; talk now edition 1839.

_175 that edition 1839; the edition 1824.

_182 So edition 1839; And edition 1824.

_183 Or on Bodleian manuscript; Or by editions 1824, 1839.

_199 eve Bodleian manuscript edition 1839; night edition 1824.

_212 emotion, a swift editions 1824, 1839; emotion with swift Bodleian manuscript.

_250 under edition 1824, Bodleian manuscript; beneath edition 1839.

_256 outstrips editions 1824, 1839; outrides Bodleian manuscript.

_259 Exulting, while the wide Bodleian manuscript.

_262 mountains editions 1824, 1839; crags Bodleian manuscript.

_264 fountains editions 1824, 1839; springs Bodleian manuscript.

_269 chasms Bodleian manuscript; chasm editions 1824, 1839.

_283 thine Bodleian manuscript; thy editions 1824, 1839.

_285 Investeth Bodleian manuscript; Investest editions 1824, 1839.

_289 light Bodleian manuscript; bright editions 1824, 1839.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00