Home » new poems

From the Archives: On the Fifth of November

At the Age of Seventeen

Hardly had the pious James come down from the north
to assume the rule of the people of Albion who had sprung
from ancient Trojan blood; hardly had the treaty
joined together the English and Scottish crowns and scepters,
with the king, in peace and wealth and happiness, taking his place
on the new throne, secure from foes, open or secret,
when the terrible tyrant, the father of Furies, the wandering exile
from Olympus’ majestic heights who rules Acheron’s flood
chanced to rove about the immense orb of the earth
to tally up his faithful slaves and companions in evil
who, when they are buried, will take their place in his realm.
Hovering here in mid-air, he rouses terrible tempests
and scatters among like-minded friends the seeds of hatred.
He appeals to the pride of nations that think they cannot be conquered
to wage war against others that labor under the same
dangerous misconception. Where the olive of peace thrives,
he creates confusion that leads to tumult and mortal combat.
Whoever devotes himself to decency and to virtue
he beguiles with deceptions, corrupting their temptingly innocent hearts.
He knows how to lay his snares and spread his treacherous nets
that entangle unwary men whom he delights to capture
and whom he follows as silent as any Caspian tiger
relentlessly stalking its trembling prey through pathless wastes
on a moonless night ill-lit by the furtive twinkle of stars.
With such destructive intent does the underworld god Summanus,
girt with whirling smoke and flickers of blue-white flame,
appear to overwhelm the cities and towns of men.
He sees the famous beetling cliffs with their skirts of foam,
and the land the sea-god loves enough so that his son
who ruled here bestowed his name upon it–Albion.
Summanus saw the fertile and peaceful fields that Ceres
had blessed and, what was worse, a people who gave their thanks
and praise to the one true god. This provoked him sorely
to sighs and groans with eruptions of Tartarean flames and brimstone,
sulfurous and lurid, like those of the monster Typhoeus
whom Jove consigned beneath Mount Aetna that belches forth
from its noisome mouth expressions of burning hatred and rage.
His eyes are aglow with sinister flashes and from his jaws
there comes the sounds of his gnashing teeth that sound like weapons,
lance meeting iron armor or sword smashing on shield.

“This,” he said, “is as dreadful as anything I have yet seen
as I have wandered the world. This nation alone rejects me
and spurns my powerful yoke and all my machinations.
If my efforts can accomplish what I now have in mind,
they shall not long defy me without paying the cost
that I shall impose on them who will know my vengeance.”

Thus he spoke and on pitch-black wings he soared through the air,
and wherever he flew there were mighty headwinds that came before him,
accumulations of thick black clouds and flashes of lightning.
He passed over the peaks of the snowy Alps and reached
Italy where, on the left, the stormy Apennines lie,
the land of the ancient Sabines, and opposite, on the right,
Tuscany, notorious for sorcerers and magi.
He passed the Tiber that flows through Rome to kiss the sea
and descended to Romulus’ city where, in the fading twilight,
he beheld the man who wears the triple-crown on a litter
carried about in streets on the shoulders of burly men
and bearing their bread-made gods. Before him were kings on their knees
and an endless line of mendicant friars carrying tapers.
All of them blind fools, thus dragging out their lives
in Cimmerian darkness! They entered their temple, bright with torches,
for it was St. Peter’s Day. Thunders of songs and chants
rose to resound in the domes in a Bacchic enthusiasm
that once used to fill the air of Boeotian Mount Aracynthus
while the River Asopus trembled and from far away Mount Cithaeron
returned an echoing answer from one of its hollow cliffs.
When the solemn pomp of these rites came at last to an end,
it was time for Night to depart from Erebus’ embrace
and urge her steeds headlong across the bowl of the sky—
Typhlos (blind), fierce Melanchaetes (having black hair),
Siope (silence), and long-maned Phryx (one who shudders).

The subduer of kings, meanwhile, the proud pontifical heir
to the throne where fiery Phlegethon flows had entered his chamber,
for he does not pass his nights without some concubine,
but sleep had barely closed his eyes when the lord of the shades
appeared in a false form and stood close to his bedside.
His temples were silvered and gray and a white beard hung to his breast;
a garment of ashen hue swept the ground where he walked;
a hood covered his head and concealed his face in its shadow;
and, lest he give himself away, his loins were bound
with a cord of hemp. Slowly in sandaled feet he approached…
so had Francis walked alone in the desert sands
among the haunts of the wild beasts, a sinner who brought
to the dumb creatures pious words of the world’s salvation
and thus he had managed to gentle the wolves and the Libyan lions.

In this disguise the crafty deceiver addressed the recumbent pope,
speaking these inveigling words from his hateful lips:
“Are you asleep, my son? Does your fatigue overpower
your body’s limbs? You forget your faith as well as your flock!
Even now, as I speak, there are, far to the north,
barbarian people defying your throne and your triple crown!
The quivering Britons scorn the laws of the holy father.
Bestir yourself! Arise from your sloth! Remember how
the emperor adores you! Think of the keys of heaven
you have in your hands that will make those gates fly open!
Break their shameless pride and rebellious spirits and show
how sacrilege fares in the world when you have pronounced your curses.
Avenge the defeat of the Spanish fleet where their flags drifted
slowly down to the tranquil bed of the cruel sea.
Think of the saints and martyrs that Amazon virgin queen
sent to hang on the gallows or to lay their heads on the block.
If you lie there in your soft bed pillows and fail to act
and refuse to encounter the foe while his strength every day increases,
the enemy soon will fill the sea with his ships and soldiers
and plant his haughty standard atop the Aventine hill.
He will smash the holy relics and fling them into the flames
and tread with his infidel feet upon the nape of your neck,
even if kings have been delighted to kiss your feet.
But do not attempt any direct attack which could fail;
rather make use of fraud and guile, bearing in mind
that such actions are right and proper for heretics.
Their king has summoned to council the kingdom’s dignitaries
the hereditary peers from everywhere in the land,
and the white-haired sages as well in their fine robes of state.
All these you can blast to ashes with a little well-placed powder
underneath the buildings in which they are all convened.
But before you take such action, you must give fair warning
to whatever souls have remained steadfast in their faith.
These will surely obey your instructions and keep away
and therefore be spared from any harm in the great explosion.
Then, when the nation is seized with panic and in confusion,
let the ruthless Gauls fall upon them or else
the Iberian hordes that are eager to invade and annex their land.
Thus will the spirit return of the age of the faithful Queen Mary
and you will regain your rule over the valiant English.
Fear naught; dread naught; but trust in all the gods and saints
that you parade through the streets on your many festival days!”

So the fiend spoke and then, putting aside his costume,
disappeared forthwith to the joyless realm of Lethe.

The doorman of the celestial hall had driven away
sleep and the nocturnal shapes of pleasant dreams
when rosy-fingered dawn emerged from the eastern gates
to tinge the earth again with a fresh and gentle light,
while weeping dewy tears down on the mountain tops
for the death of her son Memnon before the walls at Troy.

There is a place obscured by the darkness of constant night
where in the vast foundations of ruined buildings lurk
cruel Murder and double-tongued Treachery, the twins
Discord brought forth. Here in their dismal den
among the broken rocks are unburied bones of men
and rotting corpses pierced and gashed by cold steel.
Here sits Guile with his furtive eyes and also Strive
and Calumny with those fangs protruding from his jaw.
And Fury, and Death in a thousand different forms, and Fear
also dwell here, and Horror flying through murky air,
and bodily shapes cry out to punctuate the silence.
The very earth is ashamed, moist as it is with blood.
There, deep in a cave, Murder and Treason sit
where no one dares approach through the hall of jagged rocks,
and there the guilty pair cower, but even so,
Babylon’s high priest can command them as he pleases,
for they have been loyal and faithful servants to him for years.

“On the very western edge of the world,” he tells the two,
“surrounded by ocean there lives a people whom I detest,
smug on their little island, aloof from the rest of the world.
Go there at once, I command you, and find among the faithful
associates in my plot and aids in its execution.
Then, with infernal power of powder, let them be blown
sky high, the king, the nobles, and the entire accurséd race.”

With these words, he fell silent, and the ruthless twins at once
hurried to carry out his orders. The Lord of Heaven
who turns the sphere of the heavens and sends down lightning bolts
from his citadel on high, looked down with a sad smile
at the efforts of this perverse crown that would be in vain
as long as he himself was defending his people’s cause.

Somewhere equidistant from Europe and Asia, there stands
high on a mountain the lofty Tower of Fame, where the Titan
goddess dwells. A thousand windows and doors gape wide
and from spacious courtyards within a murmuring crowd mills,
buzzing like so many flies where the milk pails are set out.
At the highest point sits Fame and she perks her numberless ears
with which she gathers whispers of rumors from everywhere.
Not even you, Argus, the unreliable guard
of Io, rolled so many eyes in your savage face.
Fame’s eyes never get drowsy but she gazes far and wide
over the landscape below, even into the darkness,
places in which the rays of the sun don’t ever shine.
Whatever she sees or hears, her babbling tongue pours out,
utterly disregarding the truth of what she says,
exaggerating or minimizing as it may please her.
Fame, nevertheless, deserves praise in our song
for her one good deed, than which there could not be a better.
I am proud to honor her here, and I do not apologize
for going on at some length—for she was the savior of England.
Capricious goddess, we offer our deepest gratitude.
God, who tempers the motion of stars and planets, hurled
his thunderbolt and, while the earth still trembled, said:

“Are you silent now, O Fame? Or are you unaware
of the evil band of Papists conspiring now against me
and against my people, the Britons? Have you not heard the news
of the terrible murder that they are planning against King James?”

She heard and accepted these commands of the Thunderer God
and even though she was normally speedy, now she hastened
to put on her buzzing wings and clothe her body in plumage.
In her right hand she held a shining brazen trumpet
as she beat the air with her wings and outstripped all the clouds,
and even the winds which she left behind, and the sun’s horses.
Through all the English cities and towns she spread her tales–
uncertain, even contradictory, but disturbing,
and growing ever louder—of the men who were plotting together
this treacherous act. She spoke of the deed itself but included
the names of those involved as well as the place and time
that they had settled upon. Young men and pretty maidens,
and worn old men and women were seized with great alarm
at the thought of such a disaster that struck deep in their hearts.
Meanwhile, the Heavenly Father on high was moved to pity
for these, his people, and he thwarted the Papists’ plans:
the conspirators were captured and dragged away to justice.
Honors and incense were offered as signs of gratitude
for the nation’s having been spared. At all the crossroads, fires
of celebration burned, and young men and women danced,
and no day more than the Fifth of November sees such rejoicing.


John Milton (1608-1674) was a graduate of Christ College, Cambridge. On the Fifth of November was origionally written in Latin; the above is a new translation. Milton also wrote poems in English: “Lycidas,” “Paradise Lost,” “Sampson Agonistes,” and others.

David R. Slavitt‘s recent books include George Sanders, Zsa Zsa, and Me, “a kind of memoir of my flicker-picker” days at Newsweek,” and a translation of Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. His translations of The Latin Elegies of Giovanni Boccaccio and Dante’s La Vita Nuova will appear later this year.

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.