Aspasia

by Frances Fuller Victor

O, ye Athenians, drunken with self-praise,

What dreams I had of you, beside the sea,

In far Miletus! while the golden days

Slid into silver nights, so sweet to me;

For then I dreamed my day-dreams sweetly o'er,

Fancying the touch of Pallas on my brow—

Libations of both heart and wine did pour,

And offered up my being with my vow.

'Twas thus to Athens my heart drew at last

My life, my soul, myself. Ah, well, I learn

To love and loathe the bonds that hold me fast,

Your captive and your conquerer in turn;

Am I not shamed to match my charms with those

Of fair boy-beauties? gentled for your love

To match the freshness of the morning rose,

And lisp in murmurs like the cooing dove.

O, men of Athens! by the purple sea

In far Miletus, when I dreamed of you,

Watching the winged ships that invited me

To follow their white track upon the blue;

'Twas the desire to mate my lofty soul

That drew me ever like a viewless chain

Toward Homer's land of heroes, 'til I stole

Away from home and dreams, to you and pain.

I brought you beauty—but your boys invade

My woman's realm of love with girlish airs.

I brought high gifts, and powers to persuade,

To charm, to teach, with your philosophers.

But knowledge is man's realm alone, you hold;

And I who am your equal am cast down

Level with those who sell themselves for gold—

A crownless queen—a woman of the town!

Ye vain Athenians, know this, that I

By your hard laws am only made more free;

Your unloved dames may sit at home and cry,

But, being unwed, I meet you openly,

A foreigner, you cannot wed with me;

But I can win your hearts and sway your will,

And make your free wives envious to see

What power Aspasia wields, Milesian still.

Who would not be beloved of Pericles?

I could have had all Athens at my feet;

And have them for my flatterers, when I please;

Yet, one great man's great love is far more sweet!

He is my proper mate as I am his—

You see my young dreams were not all in vain—

And I have tasted of ineffable bliss,

If I am stung at times with fiery pain.

It is not that I long to be a wife

By your Athenian laws, and sit at home

Behind a lattice, prisoner for life,

With my lord left at liberty to roam;

Nor is it that I crave the right to be

At the symposium or the Agora known;

My grievance is, that your proud dames to me

Came to be taught, in secret and alone.

They fear; what do they fear? is't me or you?

Am I not pure as any of them all?

But your laws are against me; and 'tis true,

If fame is lowering, I have had a fall!

O, selfish men of Athens, shall the world

Remember you, and pass my glory by?

Nay, 'til from their proud heights your names are hurled,

Mine shall blaze with them on your Grecian sky.

Am I then boastful? It is half in scorn

Of caring for your love, or for your praise,

As women do, and must. Had I been born

In this proud Athens, I had spent my days

In jealousy of boys, and stolen hours

With some Milesian, of a questioned place,

Learning of her the use of woman's powers

Usurped by men of this patrician race.

Alas! I would I were a child again,

Steeped in dream langours by the purple sea;

And Athens but the vision it was then,

Its great men good, its noble women free:

That I in some winged ship should strive to fly

To reach this goal, and founder and go down!

O impious thought, how could I wish to die,

With all that I have felt and learned unknown?

Nay, I am glad to be to future times

As much Athenian as is Pericles;

Proud to be named by men of other climes

The friend and pupil of great Socrates.

What is the gossip of the city dames

Behind their lattices to one like me?

More glorious than their high patrician names

I hold my privilege of being free!

And yet I would that they were free as I;

It angers me that women are so weak,

Looking askance when ere they pass me by

Lest on a chance their lords should see us speak;

And coming next day to an audience

In hope of learning to resemble me:

They wish, they tell me, to learn eloquence—

The lesson they should learn is liberty.

O Athens, city of the beautiful,

Home of all art, all elegance, all grace;

Whose orators and poets sway the soul

As the winds move the sea's unstable face;

O wonderous city, nurse and home of mind,

This is my oracle to you this day—

No generous growth from starved roots will you find,

But fruitless blossoms weakening to decay.

You take my meaning? Sappho is no more,

And no more Sapphos will be, in your time;

The tree is dead on one side that before

Ran with such burning sap of love and rhyme.

Your glorious city is the utmost flower

Of a one-sided culture, that will spend

Itself upon itself, 'till, hour by hour,

It runs its sources dry, and so must end.

That race is doomed, behind whose lattices

Its once free women are constrained to peer

Upon the world of men with vacant eyes;

It was not so in Homer's time, I hear.

But Eastern slaves have eaten of your store,

Till in your homes all eating bread are slaves;

They're built into your walls, beside your door,

And bend beneath your lofty architraves.

A woman of the race that looks upon

The sculptured emblems of captivity,

Shall bear a slave or tyrant for a son;

And none shall know the worth of liberty.

Am I seditious?—Nay, then, I will keep

My lesson for your dames when next they steal

On tip-toe to an audience. Pray sleep

Securely, and dream well: we wish your weal!

Why, what vain prattle: but my heart is sore

With thinking on the emptiness of things,

And these Athenians, treacherous to the core,

Who hung on Pericles with flatterings.

I would indeed I were a little child,

Resting my tired limbs on the sunny sands

In far Miletus, where the airs blow mild,

And countless looms throb under busy hands.

The busy hand must calm the busy thought,

And labor cool the passions of the hour;

To the tired weaver, when his web is wrought,

What signifies the party last in power?

But here in Athens, 'twixt philosophers

Who reason on the nature of the soul;

And all the vain array of orators,

Who strove to hold the people in control.

Between the poets, artists, critics, all,

Who form a faction or who found a school,

We weave Penelope's web with hearts of gall,

And my poor brain is oft the weary tool.

Yet do I choose this life. What is to me

Peace or good fame, away from all of these,

But living death? I do choose liberty,

And leave to Athens' dames their soulless ease.

The time shall come, when Athens is no more,

And you and all your gods have passed away;

That other men, upon another shore,

Shall from your errors learn a better way.

To them eternal justice will reveal

Eternal truth, and in its better light

All that your legal falsehoods now conceal,

Will stand forth clearly in the whole world's sight.