Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. VIII. National Spirit
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume VIII. National Spirit.  1904.
 
III. War
Caractacus
Bernard Barton (1784–1849)
 
BEFORE proud Rome’s imperial throne
  In mind’s unconquered mood,
As if the triumph were his own,
  The dauntless captive stood.
None, to have seen his free-born air,        5
Had fancied him a captive there.
 
Though, through the crowded streets of Rome,
  With slow and stately tread,
Far from his own loved island home,
  That day in triumph led,—        10
Unbound his head, unbent his knee,
Undimmed his eye, his aspect free.
 
A free and fearless glance he cast
  On temple, arch, and tower,
By which the long procession passed        15
  Of Rome’s victorious power;
And somewhat of a scornful smile
  Upcurled his haughty lip the while.
 
And now he stood, with brow serene,
  Where slaves might prostrate fall,        20
Bearing a Briton’s manly mien
  In Cæsar’s palace hall;
Claiming, with kindled brow and cheek,
The liberty e’en there to speak.
 
Nor could Rome’s haughty lord withstand        25
  The claim that look preferred,
But motioned with uplifted hand
  The suppliant should be heard,—
If he indeed a suppliant were
Whose glance demanded audience there.        30
 
Deep stillness fell on all the crowd,
  From Claudius on his throne
Down to the meanest slave that bowed
  At his imperial throne;
Silent his fellow-captive’s grief        35
As fearless spoke the Island Chief:
 
“Think not, thou eagle Lord of Rome,
  And master of the world,
Though victory’s banner o’er thy dome
  In triumph now is furled,        40
I would address thee as thy slave,
But as the bold should greet the brave!
 
“I might, perchance, could I have deigned
  To hold a vassal’s throne,
E’en now in Britain’s isle have reigned        45
  A king in name alone,
Yet holding, as thy meek ally,
A monarch’s mimic pageantry.
 
“Then through Rome’s crowded streets to-day
  I might have rode with thee,        50
Not in a captive’s base array,
  But fetterless and free,—
If freedom he could hope to find,
Whose bondage is of heart and mind.
 
“But canst thou marvel that, freeborn,        55
  With heart and soul unquelled,
Throne, crown, and sceptre I should scorn,
  By thy permission held?
Or that I should retain my right
Till wrested by a conqueror’s might?        60
 
“Rome, with her palaces and towers,
  By us unwished, unreft,
Her homely huts and woodland bowers
  To Britain might have left;
Worthless to you their wealth must be,        65
But dear to us, for they were free!
 
“I might have bowed before, but where
  Had been thy triumph now?
To my resolve no yoke to bear
  Thou ow’st thy laurelled brow;        70
Inglorious victory had been thine,
And more inglorious bondage mine.
 
“Now I have spoken, do thy will;
  Be life or death my lot,
Since Britain’s throne no more I fill,        75
  To me it matters not.
My fame is clear; but on my fate
Thy glory or thy shame must wait.”
 
He ceased; from all around upsprung
  A murmur of applause,        80
For well had truth and freedom’s tongue
  Maintained their holy cause.
The conqueror was the captive then;
He bade the slave be free again.
 
 
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