My Vulture and My Rock

            Or, like the thief of fire from heaven,
                 Wilt thou withstand the shock?
            And share with him, the unforgiven,
                 His vulture and his rock?



All was sea, sea without shore then;
     the earth was wet, wet with slaughter
     when one man set out—went after
     the sun—taking the road he’d been
     told when he was young runs like fire
     down the throat of the sky: laughter
     the gods themselves ignite and send
     down from the palace of heaven.

He took the road to the palace
      of heaven laid before him and,
      defying milk that his brethren
      had supplied him, climbed the highest,
      up onto constellations for
      what seemed centuries, denying
      what joined them: their common danger—
      ties of kindred, marriage, and war.

In a wood, where shade is thickest,
      husband and wife stood, their cousins
      and ancestors, too; seeking him
      pale-faced, still, and emotionless—
      waiting for him as if under
      a pregnant moon he’d crack open
      a god’s honeypot jaw and pour
      onto them all, light they’d fought for.


Wings of wax broken, he combed down
      the shores of the spheres—planets sore
      from spinning ’round in their own worlds—
      and revolved in his mind the one
      oracle he’d held and ignored:
      ‘Cast behind you the bones of your
      father,’ and so he hurled down stones
      to vex the face of the ocean.

Beholding before him tempests
      each enthroned, each cloud home to one
      of the pantheon—those patrons
      of nature and creation, dressed
      in æther, each son and daughter
      to infinity yet trembling—
      he ran on, on past the winter,
      sprinting across seasons, through air.

To lift the ocean, the heavens
      all stood over him, forever
      calling out their choruses poured
      like stolen sterling on the moon;
      minting for him from his effort
      a new name he’d never asked for—
      ‘Hero,’ as if he’d go glisten
      oyster-bright on the horizon.


Prison in a river, nymphs swam
      the flooded yard when wanting their
      liver-torn dread uplifted, sure
      as wind he could give it to them—
      freedom lit up like fire, like fire
      no man should have—hidden desire
      boiling women and kings, stolen
      to singe into them reflection.

One among the vixens, temptress
      strung out like holocaust mutton—
      in sacrificial heat, blushing—
      looked up from her sunken furnace
      and he fell a prey to hunger;
      wanting her then, to abandon
      his mission, when up out of her
      crimson lips the nymph called, ‘Thunder!’

Seeing himself in her earrings,
      he trekked his solar jaunt farther
      than the starry-white silk vapour
      of blank space could keep her from him;
      onto his knee fell the tatters
      paradise’s face weeps over
      heaven when men come conquering—
      deities calling, ‘Come, husband!’


Alerted to their most savage
      wonder, he flew from temptation
      past vestiges of plundered men
      less poised to carry on, much less
      versed in holy noise than his ears
      were; so, soaring onward and in,
      heroes entered the theater
      gods had painted as massacre.

Undefeated, his storm and stress
      shed from her, her ivory curtain
      undefiled; his destination
      had been reached, all its skirts lifted,
      and his quest for flame like water
      to thirst gifted, filled this garden
      of his with drunkenness sweeter
      than any tavern could offer.

Archways of heiresses opened,
      Milky Ways like molasses poured
      slowly churned prophecy—spun forth
      hands out of which he won; gambling
      poorly, gods folded and paid more
      attention to him: my vulture
      and my rock, my robber husband
      Prometheus, to pain condemned.

1Lord Byron, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte [sic], stanza 15 [16], lines 136–139; written days after the Treaty of Fontainebleau had been concluded, by which the self-crowned Emperor Napoléon I was exiled to the island of Elba, Byron’s comparison of the French military and political leader he admired to legendary Prometheus initiated a symbology Byron popularized in the Romantic age, during which many authors and artists idolized Bonaparte as the ultimate, mythical self-made hero. London: John Murray, 1814; page 14.