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encourages and determines Nero 'to banish Otho, and finish the horrid deed he had attempted on his mother. Anicetus undertakes to execute his resolves; and, under pretence of a plot upon the Emperor's life, is sent with a guard to murder Agrippina, who is still at Baiæ in imminent fear, and irresolute how to conduct herself. The account of her death, and the Emperor's horror and fruitless remorse, finishes the drama.
I refer the reader to the 13th and 14th books of the annals of Tacitus for the facts on which this story is founded: by turning to that author, he will easily see how far the poet thought it necessary to deviate from the truth of history. I shall only further observe, that as such a fable could not possibly admit of any good character, it is terror only, and not pity that could be excited by this tragedy, had it been completed. Yet it was surely capable of exciting this passion in a supreme degree; if, what the critics tell us be true, that crimes, which illustrious persons commit, affect us from the very circumstance of their rank, because we unite with that our fears for the public weal.
'Tis well, begone! your errand is perform’d:
[Speaks as to Anicetus entering.
The message needs no comment. Tell your master,
His mother shall obey him. Say you saw her
Yielding due reverence to his high command :
Alone, unguarded, and without a lictor,
As fits the daughter of Germanicus.
Say, she retired to Antium ; there to tend
Her household cares, a woman's best employment.
What if you add, how she turn'd pale, and trembled;
You think, you spied a tear stand in her eye,
And would have drop'd, but that her pride restrain'd it ?
(Go! you can paint it well) 'twill profit you,
And please the stripling. Yet 'twould dash his joy
To hear the spirit of Britannicus
Yet walks on earth ; at least there are who know
Without a spell to raise, and bid it fire
A thousand haughty hearts, unus'd to shake
When a boy frowns, nor to be lur'd with smiles
To taste of hollow kindness, or partake
His hospitable board : they are aware
Of th' unpledg’d bowl, they love not Aconite.
He's gone ; and much I hope these walls alone,
And the mute air are privy to your passion.
Forgive your servant's fears, who sees the danger
Which fierce resentment cannot fail to raise
In haughty youth, and irritated power.
And dost thou talk to me, to me, of danger,
Of haughty youth, and irritated power,
To her that gave it being, her that arm’d
This painted Jove, and taught his novice hand
To aim the forked bolt; while he stood trembling
Scar'd at the sound, and dazzled with its brightness?
'Tis like, thou hast forgot, when yet a stranger
To adoration, to the grateful steam
Of flattery's incense, and obsequious vows
From voluntary realms, a puny boy,
Deck'd with no other lustre, than the blood
Of Agrippina's race, he liv'd unknown
To fame or fortune ; haply eyed at distance
Some edileship, ambitious of the power
To judge of weights, and measures ; scarcely dar'd
On expectation's strongest wing to soar,
High as the consulate, that empty shade
Of long-forgotten liberty : when I
Oped his young eye to bear the blaze of greatness ;
Shew'd him, where empire tower'd, and bade him strike
The noble quarry. Gods! then was the time
To shrink from danger; fear might then have worn
The mask of prudence: but a heart like mine,
A heart that glows with the pure
If bright ambition from her
seat Display the radiant prize, will mount undaunted, Gain the rough heights, and grasp the dangerous honour.
Thro’ various life I have pursued your steps,
Have seen your soul, and wonder'd at its daring:
Hence rise my fears. Nor am I yet to learn
How vast the debt of gratitude, which Nero
To such a mother owes; the world, you gave him,
Suffices not to pay the obligation.
I well remember too (for I was present)
When in a secret and dead hour of night,
Due sacrifice perform'd with barb'rous rites
Of mutter'd charms, and solemn invocation,
You bad the Magi call the dreadful powers,
That read futurity, to know the fate
Impending o'er your son: their answer was,
If the son reign, the mother perishes.
Perish (you cry'd) the mother! reign the son!
He reigns, the rest is heav'n's; who oft has bad,
Ev'n when its will seem'd wrote in lines of blood,
Th' unthought event disclose a whiter meaning.
Think too how oft in weak and sickly minds
The sweets of kindness lavishly indulg'd
Rankle to gall; and benefits too great
To be repaid, sit heavy on the soul,
As unrequited wrongs. The willing homage
Of prostrate Rome, the senate's joint applause,
The riches of the earth, the train of pleasures,
That wait on youth, and arbitrary sway;
These were your gift, and with them you
bestow'd The very power he has to be ungrateful.
AGRIPPINA. Thus ever grave
and undisturbid reflection Pours its cool dictates in the madding ear
Of rage, and thinks to quench the fire it feels not.
Say'st thou I must be cautious, must be silent,
And tremble at the phantom I have rais'd ?
Carry to him thy timid counsels. He
heed 'em : tell him too, that one, Who had such liberal power to give, may still With equal power resume that gift, and raise A tempest, that shall shake her own creation To its original atoms_tell me! say This mighty Emperor, this dreaded Hero, Has he beheld the glittering front of war ? Knows his soft ear the trumpet's thrilling voice, And outcry of the battle ? Have his limbs Sweat under iron harness? Is he not The silken son of dalliance, nurs'd in Ease And Pleasure's flowery lap?-Rubellius lives, And Sylla has his friends, tho’ school'd by fear To bow the supple knee, and court the times With shows of fair obeisance; and a call, Like mine, might serve belike to wake pretensions Drowsier than theirs, who boast the genuine blood Of our imperial house.
ACERONIA. Did I not wish to check this dangerous passion, I might remind my mistress that her nod Can rouse eight hardy legions, wont to stem With stubborn nerves the tide, and face the rigour Of bleak Germania's snows. Four, not less brave, That in Armenia quell the Parthian force Under the warlike Corbulo, by you Mark'd for their leader: these by ties confirm’d, Of old respect and gratitude, are yours. Surely the Masians too, and those of Egypt, Have not forgot your
sire : the
of Rome And the Prætorian camp have long rever'd, With custom'd awe, the daughter, sister, wife, And mother of their Cæsars.
Ha ! by Juno,
It bears a noble semblance. On this base
My great revenge shall rise ; or say we sound
The trump of liberty ; there will not want,
Even in the servile senate, ears to own
Her spirit-stirring voice; Soranus there,
And Cassius; Vetus too, and Thrasea,
Minds of the antique cast, rough, stubborn souls,
That struggle with the yoke. How shall the spark
Unquenchable, that glows within their breasts,
Blaze into freedom, when the idle herd
(Slaves from the womb, created but to stare,
And bellow in the Circus) yet will start,
And shake 'em at the name of liberty,
Stung by a senseless word, a vain tradition,
As there were magic in it? wrinkled beldams
Teach it their grandchildren, as somewhat rare
That anciently appear'd, but when, extends
Beyond their chronicle--oh ! 'tis a cause
To arm the hand of childhood, and rebrace
The slacken’d sinews of time-wearied age.
Yes, we may meet, ingrateful boy, we may !
Again the buried genius of old Rome
Shall from the dust uprear his reverend head,
Rous'd by the shout of millions : there before
His high tribunal thou and I appear.
Let majesty sit on thy awful brow,
And lighten from thy eye: around thee call
The gilded swarm that wantons in the sunshine
Of thy full favour ; Seneca be there
In gorgeous phrase of labour'd eloquence
To dress thy plea, and Burrhus strengthen it
With his plain soldier's oath, and honest seeming.
Against thee, liberty and Agrippina :
The world, the prize; and fair befall the victors.
But soft! why do I waste the fruitless hours In threats unexecuted ? 'Haste thee, fly These hated walls, that seem to mock my shame, And cast me forth in duty to their lord.
'Tis time we go, the sun is high advanc'd, And, ère mid-day, Nero will come to Baiæ.