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The Torture of Cuauhtemoc

Alan Seeger 1888 (New York City) – 1916



Their strength had fed on this when Death's white arms
Came sleeved in vapors and miasmal dew,
Curling across the jungle's ferny floor,
Becking each fevered brain. On bleak divides,
Where Sleep grew niggardly for nipping cold
That twinged blue lips into a mouthed curse,
Not back to Seville and its sunny plains
Winged their brief-biding dreams, but once again,
Lords of a palace in Tenochtitlan,
They guarded Montezuma's treasure-hoard.
Gold, like some finny harvest of the sea,
Poured out knee deep around the rifted floors,
Shiny and sparkling, -- arms and crowns and rings:
Gold, sweet to toy with as beloved hair, --
To plunge the lustful, crawling fingers down,
Arms elbow deep, and draw them out again,
And watch the glinting metal trickle off,
Even as at night some fisherman, home bound
With speckled cargo in his hollow keel
Caught off Campeche or the Isle of Pines,
Dips in his paddle, lifts it forth again,
And laughs to see the luminous white drops
Fall back in flakes of fire. . . . Gold was the dream
That cheered that desperate enterprise. And now? . . .
Victory waited on the arms of Spain,
Fallen was the lovely city by the lake,
The sunny Venice of the western world;
There many corpses, rotting in the wind,
Poked up stiff limbs, but in the leprous rags
No jewel caught the sun, no tawny chain
Gleamed, as the prying halberds raked them o'er.
Pillage that ran red-handed through the streets
Came railing home at evening empty-palmed;
And they, on that sad night a twelvemonth gone,
Who, ounce by ounce, dear as their own life's blood
Retreating, cast the cumbrous load away:
They, when brown foemen lopped the bridges down,
Who tipped thonged chests into the stream below
And over wealth that might have ransomed kings
Passed on to safety; -- cheated, guerdonless --
Found (through their fingers the bright booty slipped)
A city naked, of that golden dream
Shorn in one moment like a sunset sky.

Deep in a chamber that no cheerful ray
Purged of damp air, where in unbroken night
Black scorpions nested in the sooty beams,
Helpless and manacled they led him down --
Cuauhtemotzin -- and other lords beside --
All chieftains of the people, heroes all --
And stripped their feathered robes and bound them there
On short stone settles sloping to the head,
But where the feet projected, underneath
Heaped the red coals. Their swarthy fronts illumed,
The bearded Spaniards, helmed and haubergeoned,
Paced up and down beneath the lurid vault.
Some kneeling fanned the glowing braziers; some
Stood at the sufferers' heads and all the while
Hissed in their ears: "The gold . . . the gold . . . the gold.
Where have ye hidden it -- the chested gold?
Speak -- and the torments cease!"

They answered not.
Past those proud lips whose key their sovereign claimed
No accent fell to chide or to betray,
Only it chanced that bound beside the king
Lay one whom Nature, more than other men
Framing for delicate and perfumed ease,
Not yet, along the happy ways of Youth,
Had weaned from gentle usages so far
To teach that fortitude that warriors feel
And glory in the proof. He answered not,
But writhing with intolerable pain,
Convulsed in every limb, and all his face
Wrought to distortion with the agony,
Turned on his lord a look of wild appeal,
The secret half atremble on his lips,
Livid and quivering, that waited yet
For leave -- for leave to utter it -- one sign --
One word -- one little word -- to ease his pain.

As one reclining in the banquet hall,
Propped on an elbow, garlanded with flowers,
Saw lust and greed and boisterous revelry
Surge round him on the tides of wine, but he,
Staunch in the ethic of an antique school --
Stoic or Cynic or of Pyrrho's mind --
With steady eyes surveyed the unbridled scene,
Himself impassive, silent, self-contained:
So sat the Indian prince, with brow unblanched,
Amid the tortured and the torturers.
He who had seen his hopes made desolate,
His realm despoiled, his early crown deprived him,
And watched while Pestilence and Famine piled
His stricken people in their reeking doors,
Whence glassy eyes looked out and lean brown arms
Stretched up to greet him in one last farewell
As back and forth he paced along the streets
With words of hopeless comfort -- what was this
That one should weaken now? He weakened not.
Whate'er was in his heart, he neither dealt
In pity nor in scorn, but, turning round,
Met
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Submitted on May 13, 2011

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Alan Seeger

Alan Seeger was an American poet who fought and died in World War I during the Battle of the Somme serving in the French Foreign Legion. more…

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