The Last Words of Cleanthes

The Last Words of Cleanthes  (1883) 
by Richard Henry Horne

A poem about the Greek philosopher Cleanthes of Assos, second leader of the Stoic school.

The Last Words of Cleanthes.

B.C. 220.

SCENE:—The sea-shore of Assos, in Troas.

‘HERE do I take my seat, Great Element!
And for the last time listen to thy voice,
Which now methinks hath a more lulling tone,
E'en as of sympathy: but that's a dream.

'Many great spirits dwell in other worlds,
And some are here, who live, like me, alone,
But with a recognized influence of good,
Rewarded by self-consciousness of power,
Which is the Stoic's well-sufficing law:
It is his law unto himself, comprising
All kinds of labour; water, food, and space
Of ground sufficient where to rest the head,
Being his right in common with the herds,
And all dumb fellow-creatures of the earth.

'Zeno is gone; and I have taught his School,
With pride I yet may pardon in myself,
Knowing how much of his great soul, outpoured
For all, throughout my being was transfused.
Zeno hath passed to higher learning now,
And thence to higher teachings will attain,
Proportion'd to his spirit towering still;
While I have linger'd here, and day and night
Striven to be worthy of his great bequest.'

The sage was seated on a lone sea-coast,
And while the sun slow sank 'midst solemn smiles,
As of paternal sadness, touch'd with hope,
The sea came flowing up, still murmuring
Its ever-fresh yet ancient harmonies.
Near him there stands a Thracian youth, whose head
And limbs elastic had enchain'd the gaze,
But for the anxious chisellings o'er his face,
As he beholds a man of massive brow,
O'ersnow'd by four score years, who like a rock
Placed on a rock, sits there, self-doom'd to die.

'Young man, thou pray'st me to recount my life—
New comer from the Thracian Chersonese,
Not knowing of my labours, or my thoughts,
Nor why I sit here with intent to end
A long life, every day whereof hath wrought
The utmost work my faculties could achieve;
Here, where the bright waves hasten tow'rds my feet,
Not like fierce rows of fangs, but gracious friends
Who bring to me my flowing funeral rites,
Murmuring their deep hymns to eternity.

'I was a rough-bred and unletter'd man,
Born to great strength of sinew and of bone,
With that endurance which outlives defeat;
And as a cestus-bearing athlete fought,
Gaining some batter'd victories, with the applause
Of brutal natures, and of spirits refined,
Needing reaction after mental toils.
With heavy ox-thonged cestus, newly stained
From smashing contest, craving rest and shade,
The grove I pass'd where Zeno held his School.
The vision of that grand head floats before me,
As then it loom'd above the shoulders bare,
And grape-like curls of many a lovely youth
Whose soaring spirit stood with folded wings.

'The hush'd repose—the shadows,—and the rhythm
Of Zeno's eloquent cadences—a flow
Of harmony as of the confluence sweet
When Simoïs and Xanthus murmur'd through
Some temple in the groves of vanish'd Troy,
Melted my nerves, and overcame my heart,
Till a new life-spring gushed into my brain,
Flooding my thoughts, and forcing o'er each sense
A change, which all my bodily strength transformed,
More than a child's within a giant's grasp,
Or clay beneath the statuary's hand.
Softly I laid me listening on the grass,—
And year by year, ne'er absent, day by day,
Save for deep study in my lone abode,
As one of Zeno's flock I fed and thought.

'Now while the days roll'd o'er my bowed-down head,
My corporal needs—how few—were well supplied
By labours of the night, wherein my strength
Served well my higher craving; and for hinds
On gardens, farms, or cattle far a-field,
Water I drew from wells, or when the springs
Sparkled in frosty silver 'neath the moon.

'Thus through my mind were melted twenty years,
And Zeno left us—on life's pilgrimage
Tow'rds higher knowledge;—and his Chair devolved
On me, though others to that lofty seat
Held worthier claim. As Polygnotus' hand
In paintings illustrated godlike forms,
And acts of heroes, so did I but teach,
With humbler, but not less devoted powers,
What godlike minds had imaged. Let that pass
From me, the medium of those truths sublime,
To rest as crowns for their diviner brows.

'And yet, young man, I have not lived in vain
In mine own person, since examples weighty
Rank with best teachings. Now, brief words paint years:—
The tide rolls inward, and thou must depart,
And leave me here to close my mortal hour.
Through a long life I have thoroughly wrought my will,
From Nature's hand refusing all rich fruits,
As from my labours, or man's kindliness,
Receiving but the means for innocent food,
Thus following Crates' and great Zeno's course,
As rigidly as link doth follow link,
When seamen raise an anchor to the prow;
Or as the shadow of the hero's spear
Beneath its singing, flies to the same mark.
To man's best knowledge, and his highest good
Myself have I devoted evermore,
With no weak murmurings o'er the poverty
Which was my choice. And if my chief return
From man were scoffs, cold pity, or neglect,
As I for social life were all unfit—
No business had on earth—let man progress
The better for my life; I, none the worse
For his contempt, but more content and glad
In that my labours have been more removed
From personal profit. My pure 'vantage rests
On its negation and its nullity,
Which is the Stoic's true—his best reward,
Save in the satisfaction of his soul.
It may be that some balance here is lost,
Since Nature bids each seek his proper good.
Every devotion hath inspiring madness—
Oft madness of the loftiest, purest scope;
But 'tis poor earthliness large gains to crave,
Thanks, and prompt recognition from the world
Of service and self-sacrifice. Enough—
Man knows his own acts, his own secret mind,—
Evades, or all the mingled truths confronts.

'Leave me, young man; the tide is rising fast!
Good youth, retire—'tis now my will to die.
Studies and hardships on extreme age piling
Weight upon weight, life's arches are borne down;
And as nought useless can, or should exist,
I have, for days, all sustenance refused,
Press'd to my hands, but thankfully laid down,
And now sit here, beside my sand-scoop'd grave,
Waiting majestic burial from the sea.

'Nor are tombs wanting. Lo, yon marble rocks!—
The architectures of some hand Divine!
Intaglios fretted by a thousand years—
Inscriptions motto'd by the unseen Powers
That guide earth's great mutations; while around me
The symbols both of present and of past—
Enormous sea-weeds, strombites, and whitening bones,
Submarine flowers that lift their welcoming heads,
And wail of starv'd birds echoing to the moon,
Now slowly rising from her daily grave,
Profusely furnish funeral honours due
To those whose life-lamps burnt in caves, like mine.
Young man! forbear thy touch!—thy tearful voice—
Begone at once! behold the waves flow near,
And soon will kiss these pale and paralyzed feet.
The crescent points creep round with gushing gleams,
And now they eddying meet, and deepening flow!

'Covering his face, with smother'd sobs he goes—
Farewell!—nay, boy!—he weeps, but he is gone.
Ever-young World! I have well loved thy youth,
And thought for me thou hadst no heart at all;
But 'twas not so. I ne'er had sought to gain
That sympathy which yet, like unpluck'd fruit,
Is ready for the worthy traveller's hand.
Absorb'd in work for man, men I forgot,
With all their cherished trivialities;
Wherefore they view'd me as a thing apart.


'O Zeus! I bless thee for the life thou gavest,
So full of bodily strength, and health, and years;
I bless thee for the mind that hath no fears
Of death, whereby our atoms thou still savest,
Till some fine consciousness again appears.


'O Zeus! I have doubted further gifts of Gods—
Doubted futurity for each special mind;
The soul, like music, dying on the wind;
The body merging in earth's sands and sods;—
But to thy Ruling evermore resigned.


'O Zeus! no claim have we to aught beyond!
We bless thee for the life we have enjoyed;
We hope our spirit shall not be destroyed:
Thy waters to my dying Hymn respond

In harmonies that change, ere rapture-cloyed.


'O Zeus! I hear the broad waves gently flowing
Over my feet, and nestling round my knees!
My senses melt away by soft degrees!
My thoughts, like seeds, thy hand afar is sowing!
Sweet songs are in my brain—sweet birds in trees!


'O Zeus! at all-devouring Time I smile;
For he is but Heaven's little playful son,
Toying, or teasing, while we graveward run:
Flow then, ye waves!—our mingling sands beguile!
Flow on, divine Maternity, flow on!'


This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.