Vae Victis

Beside the placid sea that mirrored her
With the old glory of dawn that cannot die,
The sleeping city began to moan and stir,
As one that fain from an ill dream would fly;
Yet more she feared the daylight bringing nigh
Such dreams as know not sunrise, soon or late,---
Visions of honour lost and power gone by,
Of loyal valour betrayed by factious hate,
And craven sloth that shrank from the labour of forging fate.

They knew and knew not, this bewildered crowd,
That up her streets in silence hurrying passed,
What manner of death should make their anguish loud,
What corpse across the funeral pyre be cast,
For none had spoken it; only, gathering fast
As darkness gathers at noon in the sun's eclipse,
A shadow of doom enfolded them, vague and vast,
And a cry was heard, unfathered of earthly lips,
'What of the ships, O Carthage? Carthage, what of the ships?'

They reached the wall, and nowise strange it seemed
To find the gates unguarded and open wide;
They climbed the shoulder, and meet enough they deemed
The black that shrouded the seaward rampart's side
And veiled in drooping gloom the turrets' pride;
But this was nought, for suddenly down the slope
They saw the harbour, and sense within them died;
Keel nor mast was there, rudder nor rope;
It lay like a sea-hawk's eyry spoiled of life and hope.

Beyond, where dawn was a glittering carpet, rolled
From sky to shore on level and endless seas,
Hardly their eyes discerned in a dazzle of gold
That here in fifties, yonder in twos and threes,
The ships they sought, like a swarm of drowning bees
By a wanton gust on the pool of a mill-dam hurled,
Floated forsaken of life-giving tide and breeze,
Their oars broken, their sails for ever furled,
For ever deserted the bulwarks that guarded the wealth of the world.

A moment yet, with breathing quickly drawn
And hands agrip, the Carthaginian folk
Stared in the bright untroubled face of dawn,
And strove with vehement heaped denial to choke
Their sure surmise of fate's impending stroke;
Vainly--for even now beneath their gaze
A thousand delicate spires of distant smoke
Reddened the disc of the sun with a stealthy haze,
And the smouldering grief of a nation burst with the kindling blaze.

'O dying Carthage!' so their passion raved,
'Would nought but these the conqueror's hate assuage?
If these be taken, how may the land be saved
Whose meat and drink was empire, age by age?'
And bitter memory cursed with idle rage
The greed that coveted gold beyond renown,
The feeble hearts that feared their heritage,
The hands that cast the sea-kings' sceptre down
And left to alien brows their famed ancestral crown.

The endless noon, the endless evening through,
All other needs forgetting, great or small,
They drank despair with thirst whose torment grew
As the hours died beneath that stifling pall.
At last they saw the fires to blackness fall
One after one, and slowly turned them home,
A little longer yet their own to call
A city enslaved, and wear the bonds of Rome,
With weary hearts foreboding all the woe to come.

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"Vae Victis" Poetry.net. STANDS4 LLC, 2019. Web. 19 Mar. 2019. <https://www.poetry.net/poem/35183/vae-victis>.

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