Translated from the Polish by Florence Noyes, edited by George Rapall Noyes. Oxford and London. Oxford University Press. 1927. 282 pages. Hardcover. Excerpts published by permission of Oxford University Press.
The hero of the drama, Iridion, is a Greek of the third century after Christ. His father, Amphilochus, seeing Hellas trampled upon and degraded by the Romans, forms a far-reaching plan of revenge. Feeling his own lack of strength . . . he marries Grimhilda, priestess of Odin. Their son, he trusts, will unite Greek intellect with the fresh strength of the German races. Into this son, Iridion, Amphilochus instils the purpose of wreaking vengeance upon Rome. . . . Iridion's plan is [to] reduce Rome to ashes and wreck Roman power, trusting that a free Greece may rise from the chaos. In his plan he is supported by the old Numidian, Masinissa, who is really Satan, the spirit of evil. . . . For success, however, Iridion needs the aid of the oppressed Christians, who dwell in the Catacombs. . . But the Christians are true to their religion of love and non-resistance; guided by their bishop, Victor, they desert Iridion at the crisis.
. . . .
Iridion fails, but Masinissa consoles him. If Iridion will sell his soul to him, he promises that he will lull him to sleep for ages, and will then arouse him to see Rome crushed and ruined. Iridion accepts the terms, and is awakened by Masinissa in 1835 [the year Iridion was written]. Masinissa claims his soul, but . . . Iridion is saved, conditionally, by the prayers of the angel Cornelia and by his own love of Greece. The voice of Christ bids him depart to the North, to the 'land of graves and crosses', that is, to Poland. There he must work in the spirit of love, not hatred, seeking not glory for himself, but only the good of those new brethren entrusted to him.
There are men who have lived but whose labors upon earth have been largely in vain; whose brains seethed with naught but wild dreams, but whose hearts suffered and yearned and sacrificed all things and at the last could only break in the iron hands of necessity, having won naught from fate by their prayers, having accomplished nothing for their brothers. They have descended to the grave covered with shame and disgrace; many men have cursed them; they have been holy through feeling, mighty in valor; their error has been merely that they failed to judge well their strength, their resources, the time itself, in a word the whole mechanism and mathematics of life.
Such men belong to poetry, body and soul. Politics will say little or nothing of them; history more; poetry most, perhaps the whole truth. And through all the ages there have been such heroes of misfortune, crowned with no victory, inglorious, resting at last in nameless graves, who have had a premonition of the distant dawn, but who have perished because they lived rather in their premonition, in their yearning, than in the reality of earthly facts. From a mass of such heroic hearts are composed layers of earth on which later will bloom the flower of serene days.
Iridion is a personification of this mass. But, though he is poetic truth, he is not philosophic truth. The mighty advances of the human race come not through vengeance, but through love, through the long toil of the spirit. The body must writhe, thirst for blood, wield the sword and the spear, for short are its days; the Spirit may think, pray, and love, for it has ages before it. The body, when it once falls, will never rise again; the Spirit is poured forth from hearts that have broken into hearts that still beat, and in them it finisheds the journey that it has undertaken.
So in the pagan half of my poem, in the sensuous, youthful, heroic, poetic half, the body seethes; vengeance seethes as the sole thought; iron, fire, and destruction follow it. But fire burns out, iron snaps, destruction knows not what to do in its own chaos; the laugh of Satan echoes over the scene. All is dark and bitter. The noblest aims perish unrealized; fire and iron are too weak to carry them to a conclusion.
In the second part, the Christian, philosophical Conclusion, salvation follows. . . a moral lesson also follows, an admonition that one must labor with the spirit, in order to be raised again from the toil of ages. What is that toil of ages? It is the toil of the Spirit, holy, grievous, and long, but the only genuine toil. . .
Masinissa is . . . . the Satan of all ages and societies, eternally struggling, eternally defeated, dissolving into mist, yet having his hellish, criminal, malicious moments. . . . In ancient times, the true Satan, who inexorably impels men to evil and causes them to commit crimes, is not Pluto, but Fate, ruling over all things--the general rule, reason, the iron, icy will, the irresistible anathema brooding over the universe. . . Over Fate towers the Divine Providence, which at times breaks and crushes it.
IRIDION. Answer me in this last hour, Masinissa, thou who hast led me astray, thou who hast promised me so much, thou on whose bosom my head has rested in sleep when I was a child, thou who standest above me at this moment as though thou wert the ruler of the world. Tell me quickly, is Christ the lord of heaven and earth?
MASINISSA. As an immortal enemy to an immortal enemy! Today He rules over the ancient heaven and over the decrepit earth, but there are immensities where His name has been blotted out, as mine has been wiped off from the heavens. There are worlds of infinite youth, laboring in pain and in chaos, suns without brightness, future gods in fetters, seas unnamed up to this time swelling eternally toward happy shores! But He has already become weary, He has already taken His seat upon the throne and said, 'I am'--and drooped His head! I deny Him not --I see Him--mine eyes, wounded by His brightness, turn away toward the darkness, toward my hopes! From them shall come the victory! Choose! . . . Forsake me not as base men have forsaken thee. (He snatches him up from the ground.) Stand above this precipice and gaze toward the city of thine hatred! Dost thou know who shall wrest it from the hands of thy brothers, when, according to the prophecy of Grimhilda, they shall come to plow up Italy into furrows of blood and fields of ashes? Dost thou know who shall grasp in the air the purple fluttering from the Caesars! The Nazarene!-- And in him will live as an eternal legacy the treason of the Senate and the cruelty of the people. White hair will he have and an inexorable heart, even as did the first of the Catos--his speech, only, at times will be womanish and sweet. At his feet the men of the North will experience a second childhood, and for the second time he will deify Rome before the nations of the earth!
IRIDION. Ah! I have desired without measure, I have labored without rest in order to destroy, just as other men desire without measure and labor without rest in order to love and to bless at death the one whom they have loved during life! Ah! And now, just as I am dying, thou announcest to me the immortality of Rome!
MASINISSA. Despair not, for the time will come when the shadow of the cross will appear as a scorching heat to the nations, and in vain it will stretch forth its arms in order once again to clasp to its bosom departing men. One after another will rise up and say: 'No longer do we serve thee!' Then at all the gates of the city will be heard complaints and wailings; then the Genius of Rome will again veil his face, and his weeping will be without end; for in the Forum will remain only dust, in the Circus naught but ruins, on the Capitol only shame! And I shall go up and down over these meadows, among wild flocks and pale shepherds, the last inhabitants of Rome--and my struggle upon earth will be drawing to its close!
IRIDION. My heart beats anew. Ah! That day! Is it still far distant?
MASINISSA. I myself can scarcely foresee it!
IRIDION. O Amphilochus, thy son was, then, only a dream, only a shadow, broken off from a distant future--and like an unseasonable plaything the Fates have dashed him to pieces! (To Masinissa) Leave me! Neither to thee nor to any god will I render up my soul. Upon this rock, looking into the eyes of Rome, I will die, as I have lived, in loneliness of spirit!
MASINISSA. O my son, hearken to me! The paleness of thy cheeks I will cast back to death. Anew will I kindle the hearth of strength in thy bosom. I will give to thee forgetfulness of the past, I will give to thee ignorance of the future!
IRIDION. Away from me!
MASINISSA. I will give to thee a thousand desires and thousandfold means of satisfying them. I will raise shapes of beauty for thee from the dead. Each one of them, ere she fades away, shall burn herself out in thine embraces --whether Helen of Troy, or the Idalian Venus, or the daughter of Ptolemies. . . . On distant shores I will assign to thee a race, obedient on the threshold of the palace, fierce in the day of battle. Amid the charms of flattery thou wilt come to love thyself as thou hast loved Hellas. With a king's dread power and with a king's benignant love I will intoxicate thee, my son! Until I shall come, until I shall lay my sign upon thee anew . . . Together, then, eternally, without end, without rest, without hope, without love, until eternal vengeance shall be accomplished!
IRIDION. Let us go! For me Rome, for thee my soul!
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