Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Isle of the Dead

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Robert Southey

In Finland there is a castle which is called the New Rock, moated about with a river of unfounded depth, the water black, and the fish therein very distasteful to the palate. In this are spectres often seen, which foreshew either the death of the Governor, or some prime officer belonging to the place; and most commonly it appeareth in the shape of an harper, sweetly singing and dallying and playing under the water.

It is reported of one Donica, that after she was dead, the Devil walked in her body for the space of two years, so that none suspected but that she was still alive; for she did both speak and eat, though very sparingly; only she had a deep paleness on her countenance, which was the only sign of death. At length a Magician coming by where she was then in the company of many other virgins, as soon as he beheld her he said, "fair Maids, why keep you company with the dead Virgin whom you suppose to be alive?" when taking away the magic charm which was tied under her arm, the body fell down lifeless and without motion.

The following Ballad is founded on these stories. They are to be found in the notes to "The Hierarchies of the blessed Angels," a poem by Thomas Heywood, printed in folio by Adam Islip, 1635.
[Southey's note]

- - - -

High on a rock, whose castled shade
    Darken'd the lake below,
In ancient strength majestic stood
    The towers of Arlinkow.

The fisher in the lake below
    Durst never cast his net,
Nor ever swallow in its waves
    Her passing wings would wet.

The cattle from its ominous banks
    In wild alarm would run,
Tho' parched with thirst and faint beneath
    The summer's scorching sun.

For sometimes when no passing breeze
    The long lank sedges waved,
All white with foam and heaving high
    Its deafening billows raved;

And when the tempest from its base
    The rooted pine would shake,
The powerless storm unruffling swept
    Across the calm dead lake.

And ever then when death drew near
    The house of Arlinkow,
Its dark unfathom'd depths did send
    Strange music from below.

The Lord of Arlinkow was old,
    One only child had he,
Donica was the Maiden's name
    As fair as fair might be.

A bloom as bright as opening morn
    Flush'd o'er her clear white cheek,
The music of her voice was mild,
    Her full dark eyes were meek.

Far was her beauty known, for none
    So fair could Finland boast,
Her parents loved the Maiden much,
    Young EBERHARD loved her most.

Together did they hope to tread
    The pleasant path of life,
For now the day drew near to make
    Donica Eberhard's wife.

The eve was fair, and mild the air,
    Along the lake they stray;
The eastern hill reflected bright
    The fading tints of day.

And brightly o'er the water stream'd
    The liquid radiance wide;
Donica's little dog ran on
    And gambol'd at her side.

Youth, health, and love bloom'd on her cheek,
    Her full dark eyes express
In many a glance to Eberhard
    Her soul's meek tenderness.

Nor sound was heard, nor passing gale
    Sigh'd thro' the long lank sedge,
The air was hushed; no little wave
    Dimpled the water's edge.

Sudden the unfathom'd lake sent forth
    Strange music from beneath,
And slowly o'er the waters sail'd
    The solemn sounds of death.

As the deep sounds of death arose,
    Donica's cheek grew pale,
And in the arms of Eberhard
    The senseless maiden fell.

Loudly the youth in terror shriek'd,
    And loud he call'd for aid,
And with a wild and eager look
    Gazed on the death-pale maid.

But soon again did better thoughts
    In Eberhard arise,
And he with trembling hope beheld
    The maiden raise her eyes.

And on his arm reclin'd she moved
    With feeble pace and slow,
And soon with strength recover'd, reach'd
    The towers of Arlinkow.

Yet never to Donica's cheek
    Return'd the lively hue,
Her cheeks were deathy white, and wan,
    Her lips a livid blue.

Her eyes so bright and black of yore
    Were now more black and bright,
And beam'd strange lustre in her face
    So deadly wan and white.

The dog that gambol'd by her side,
    And lov'd with her to stray,
Now at his alter'd mistress howl'd
    And fled in fear away.

Yet did the faithful Eberhard
    Not love the maid the less;
He gazed with sorrow, but he gazed
    With deeper tenderness.

And when he found her health unharm'd
    He would not brook delay,
But press'd the not unwilling maid
    To fix the bridal day.

And when at length it came, with joy
    They hail'd the bridal day,
And onward to the house of God
    They went their willing way.

And as they at the altar stood
    And heard the sacred rite,
The hallowed tapers dimly stream'd
    A pale sulphureous light.

And as the youth with holy warmth
    Her hand in his did hold,
Sudden he felt Donica's hand
    Grow deadly damp and cold.

And loudly did he shriek, for lo!
    A Spirit met his view,
And Eberhard in the angel form
    His own Donica knew.

That instant from her earthly frame
    Howling the dæmon fled,
And at the side of Eberhard
    The livid form fell dead.


(Illustration is Arnold Böcklin, The Isle of the Dead, 1883.)

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