Mazeppa's Ride by Byron

"'Bring forth the horse!'—the horse was brought, In truth, he was a noble steed, A Tartar of the Ukraine breed, Who looked as though the speed of thought Were in his limbs: but he was wild, Wild as the wild deer, and untaught, With spur and bridle undefiled,— 'Twas but a day he had been caught; And snorting, with erected mane, And struggling fiercely, but in vain, In the full foam of wrath and dread, To me the desert-born was led; They bound me on, that menial throng, Upon his back with many a thong; Then loosed him with a sudden lash,— Away!—away!—and on we dash! Torrents less rapid and less rash. Away!—away! My breath was gone,— I saw not where he hurried on: 'Twas scarcely yet the break of day, And on he foamed,—away!—away!— The last of human sounds which rose, As I was darted from my foes, Was the wild shout of savage laughter, Which on the wind came roaring after A moment from that rabble rout: With sudden wrath I wrenched my head, And snapped the cord, which to the mane Had bound my neck in lieu of rein, And writhing half my form about, Howled back my curse; but midst the tread, The thunder of my courser's speed, Perchance they did not hear nor heed: It vexes me,—for I would fain Have paid their insult back again. I paid it well in after days: There is not of that castle gate, Its drawbridge and portcullis' weight, Stone, bar, moat, bridge, or barrier left; Nor of its fields a blade of grass, Save what grows on a ridge of wall, Where stood the hearthstone of the hall; And many a time ye there might pass, Nor dream that e'er that fortress was: I saw its turrets in a blaze, Their crackling battlements all cleft, And the hot lead pour down like rain From off the scorched and blackening roof, Whose thickness was not vengeance-proof. They little thought that day of pain, When launched, as on the lightning's flash, They bade me to destruction dash, That one day I should come again, With twice five thousand horse, to thank The count for his uncourteous ride. They played me then a bitter prank, When, with the wild horse for my guide, They bound me to his foaming flank: At length I played them one as frank,— For time at last sets all things even,— And if we do but watch the hour, There never yet was human power Which could evade, if unforgiven, The patient search and vigil long Of him who treasures up a wrong.
"Away, away, my steed and I, Upon the pinions of the wind, All human dwellings left behind; We sped like meteors through the sky, When with its crackling sound the night Is checkered with the northern light: Town,—village,—none were on our track, But a wild plain of far extent, And bounded by a forest black: And, save the scarce-seen battlement On distant heights of some strong hold, Against the Tartars built of old, No trace of man. The year before A Turkish army had marched o'er; And where the Spahi's hoof hath trod, The verdure flies the bloody sod: The sky was dull, and dim, and gray, And a low breeze crept moaning by,— I could have answered with a sigh,— But fast we fled, away, away,— And I could neither sigh nor pray; And my cold sweat-drops fell like rain Upon the courser's bristling mane: But, snorting still with rage and fear, He flew upon his far career: At times I almost thought, indeed, He must have slackened in his speed: But no,—my bound and slender frame Was nothing to his angry might, And merely like a spur became: Each motion which I made to free My swoln limbs from their agony Increased his fury and affright: I tried my voice,—'twas faint and low, But yet he swerved as from a blow; And, starting to each accent, sprang As from a sudden trumpet's clang: Meantime my chords were wet with gore, Which, oozing through my limbs, ran o'er; And in my tongue the thirst became A something fierier far than flame.
"We neared the wild wood,—'twas so wide, I saw no bounds on either side; 'Twas studded with old sturdy trees, That bent not to the roughest breeze Which howls down from Siberia's waste, And strips the forest in its haste,— But these were few, and far between, Set thick with shrubs more young and green, Luxuriant with their annual leaves, Ere strown by those autumnal eves That nip the forest's foliage dead, Discolored with a lifeless red, Which stands thereon like stiffened gore Upon the slain when battle's o'er, And some long winter's night hath shed Its frost o'er every tombless head, So cold and stark the raven's beak May peck unpierced each frozen cheek: 'Twas a wild waste of underwood, And here and there a chestnut stood, The strong oak, and the hardy pine; But far apart,—and well it were, Or else a different lot were mine,— The boughs gave way, and did not tear My limbs; and I found strength to bear My wounds, already scarred with cold,— My bonds forbade to loose my hold. We rustled through the leaves like wind, Left shrubs and trees and wolves behind; By night I heard them on the track, Their troop came hard upon our back, With their long gallop, which can tire The hound's deep hate, and hunter's fire: Where'er we flew they followed on, Nor left us with the morning sun; Behind I saw them, scarce a rood, At daybreak winding through the wood, And through the night had heard their feet Their stealing, rustling step repeat. O, how I wished for spear or sword, At least to die amidst the horde, And perish—if it must be so— At bay, destroying many a foe. When first my courser's race begun, I wished the goal already won; But now I doubted strength and speed. Vain doubt! his swift and savage breed Had nerved him like the mountain-roe; Nor faster falls the blinding snow Which whelms the peasant near the door Whose threshold he shall cross no more, Bewildered with the dazzling blast, Than through the forest-paths he past,— Untired, untamed, and worse than wild; All furious as a favored child Balked of its wish; or, fiercer still, A woman piqued, who has her will.
"The wood was past; 'twas more than noon; But chill the air, although in June; Or it might be my veins ran cold,— Prolonged endurance tames the bold: And I was then not what I seem, But headlong as a wintry stream, And wore my feelings out before I well could count their causes o'er: And what with fury, fear, and wrath, The tortures which beset my path, Cold, hunger, sorrow, shame, distress, Thus bound in nature's nakedness; Sprung from a race whose rising blood When stirred beyond its calmer mood, And trodden hard upon, is like The rattlesnake's, in act to strike, What marvel if this worn-out trunk Beneath its woes a moment sunk? The earth gave way, the skies rolled round, I seemed to sink upon the ground; But erred, for I was fastly bound. My heart turned sick, my brain grew sore, And throbbed awhile, then beat no more: The skies spun like a mighty wheel; I saw the trees like drunkards reel, And a slight flash sprang o'er my eyes, Which saw no farther: he who dies Can die no more than then I died. O'ertortured by that ghastly ride, I felt the blackness come and go, And strove to wake; but could not make My senses climb up from below: I felt as on a plank at sea, When all the waves that dash o'er thee, At the same time upheave and whelm, And hurl thee towards a desert realm. My undulating life was as The fancied lights that flitting pass Our shut eyes in deep midnight, when Fever begins upon the brain; But soon it passed, with little pain, But a confusion worse than such: I own that I should deem it much, Dying, to feel the same again; And yet I do suppose we must Feel far more ere we turn to dust: No matter; I have bared my brow Full in Death's face—before—and now.
"My thoughts came back; where was I? Cold, And numb, and giddy: pulse by pulse Life reassumed its lingering hold, And throb by throb; till grown a pang Which for a moment would convulse, My blood reflowed, though thick and chill; My ear with uncouth noises rang, My heart began once more to thrill; My sight returned, though dim, alas! And thickened, as it were, with glass. Methought the dash of waves was nigh; There was a gleam too of the sky, Studded with stars;—it is no dream: The wild horse swims the wilder stream! The bright broad river's gushing tide Sweeps, winding onward, far and wide, And we are half-way struggling o'er To yon unknown and silent shore. The waters broke my hollow trance. And with a temporary strength My stiffened limbs were rebaptized, My courser's broad breast proudly braves, And dashes off the ascending waves, And onward we advance! We reach the slippery shore at length, A haven I but little prized, For all behind was dark and drear, And all before was night and fear. How many hours of night or day In those suspended pangs I lay, I could not tell; I scarcely knew If this were human breath I drew.
"With glossy skin, and dripping mane, And reeling limbs, and reeking flank, The wild steed's sinewy nerves still strain Up the repelling bank. We gain the top: a boundless plain Spreads through the shadow of the night, And onward, onward, onward, seems Like precipices in our dreams, To stretch beyond the sight; And here and there a speck of white, Or scattered spot of dusky green, In masses broke into the light, As rose the moon upon my right. But naught distinctly seen In the dim waste, would indicate The omen of a cottage gate; No twinkling taper from afar Stood like a hospitable star; Not even an ignis-fatuus rose To make him merry with my woes: That very cheat had cheered me then! Although detected, welcome still, Reminding me, through every ill, Of the abodes of men.
"Onward we went,—but slack and slow; His savage force at length o'erspent, The drooping courser, faint and low, All feebly foaming went. A sickly infant had had power To guide him forward in that hour; But useless all to me. His new-born tameness naught availed, My limbs were bound; my force had failed, Perchance, had they been free. With feeble effort still I tried To rend the bonds so starkly tied,— But still it was in vain; My limbs were only wrung the more, And soon the idle strife gave o'er, Which but prolonged their pain: The dizzy race seemed almost done, Although no goal was nearly won: Some streaks announced the coming sun.— How slow, alas! he came! Methought that mist of dawning gray Would never dapple into day; How heavily it rolled away,— Before the eastern flame Rose crimson, and deposed the stars, And called the radiance from their cars, And filled the earth, from his deep throne, With lonely lustre, all his own.
"Up rose the sun; the mists were curled Back from the solitary world Which lay around—behind—before: What booted it to traverse o'er Plain, forest, river? Man nor brute, Nor dint of hoof, nor print of foot, Lay in the wild luxuriant soil; No sign of travel,—none of toil; The very air was mute; And not an insect's shrill small horn, Nor matin bird's new voice was borne From herb nor thicket. Many a werst, Panting as if his heart would burst, The weary brute still staggered on; And still we were—or seemed—alone: At length, while reeling on our way, Methought I heard a courser neigh, From out yon tuft of blackening firs. Is it the wind those branches stirs? No, no! from out the forest prance A trampling troop; I see them come! In one vast squadron they advance! I strove to cry,—my lips were dumb. The steeds rush on in plunging pride; But where are they the reins to guide? A thousand horse,—and none to ride! With flowing tail, and flying main, Wide nostrils,—never stretched by pain,— Mouths bloodless to the bit or rein, And feet that iron never shod, And flanks unscarred by spur or rod, A thousand horse, the wild, the free, Like waves that follow o'er the sea, Came thickly thundering on, As if our faint approach to meet; The sight renerved my courser's feet, A moment staggering, feebly fleet, A moment, with a faint low neigh, He answered, and then fell; With gasps and glazing eyes he lay, And reeking limbs immovable, His first and last career is done! On came the troop,—they saw him stoop, They saw me strangely bound along His back with many a bloody thong: They stop—they start—they snuff the air, Gallop a moment here and there, Approach, retire, wheel round and round, Then plunging back with sudden bound, Headed by one black mighty steed, Who seemed the patriarch of his breed, Without a single speck or hair Of white upon his shaggy hide; They snort—they foam—neigh—swerve aside, And backward to the forest fly, By instinct from a human eye,— They left me there, to my despair, Linked to the dead and stiffening wretch, Whose lifeless limbs beneath me stretch, Relieved from that unwonted weight, From whence I could not extricate Nor him nor me,—and there we lay, The dying on the dead!