The Dionysia: or Festivals of Bacchus

My fancy travelled back three thousand years
To find the meaning of the ancient days,
And disencumber their simplicity
From the corruptions of a later time.
I fashioned in my mind, the god-like shape
Of Dionysius, mighty conqueror,
Who taught the early nations how to live:
No vulgar Bacchus straddling on a cask
Drunken and bestial, but a king of men;
Noble in intellect, and fair in form,
With ivy and with budding violets crowned,
And bearing on his cheerful face, the glow
Of kindly wisdom and perpetual youth.
So to my thought appeared the demi-god;
The same that taught the ignorant hinds of Greece,
To plough the soil, and reap the annual corn,
That taught the grateful villagers to press
The grape and apple for refreshing drink,
To clip the goat, and shear the sheep for wool,
To draw from willing Earth its constant stores
Of blessings, and be thankful for the gifts,
Proving their thankfulness by temperate use:
The same that swept his armies o'er the East
And conquered India — mightiest name maligned —
Philosopher and Hero. Once his praise
Resounded o'er the smiling vales of Greece,
And youths and maidens came from all the bowers
To chant loud hymns in honor of his name;
And Athens, ere she rotted to her fall
With luxury, lasciviousness and sloth,
Vied with all Greece to celebrate his feasts
With greatest pomp of high solemnity.

Come from your graves, ideas of the past!
And live again in song. The Athenian streets
Teem with a multitude of young and old,
The Archons, and the people, and the priests,
To celebrate the Dionysian rites,
With dance, and song, and joyous revelry.
A troop of youths come first, who with them bear
Two sacred vessels. One is filled with wine,
And one with water: holiest the last,
For water is the mother of the vine,
The nurse and fountain of fecundity,
The adorner and refresher of the world.
Then come a hundred virgins — flower of Greece —
Clad in white robes, with ivy in their hair,
Who carry baskets filled with choicest fruits,
With apples and pomegranates, figs and grapes,
Amid which twine and slide small silvery snakes,
To teach the people, by a parable,
There dwells a poisonous serpent in excess.
The thyrsus-bearers follow in a rout,
With drums, and pastoral pipes, and mellower flutes.
Amid the crowd they scatter cones of pine,
As emblems of the fruitfulness of Earth;
And sing, full-voiced, the Dionysian hymn.

Io! Io! Evohe!
Let the dance and song abound:
The corn is springing from the ground,
The vine puts forth its tender leaves,
The swallow builds in barns and eaves,
Io! Bacche! Evohe!
There shall be bread for all the year,
And wine the heart of man to cheer —
Io! Io! Evohe!

Io! Io! Evohe!
For these bounties — ever free —
Ever grateful let us be,
And use them wisely, day and night,
For health, and strength, and pure delight.
Io! Bacche! Evohe!
God of the water and the wine,
The blessing's ours, the praise is thine.
Io! Io! Evohe!

The chorus passes; and another crowd
Follow with other rites, and other songs.
Lo! mounted on an ass, Silenus rides,
Obese and drunken, crowned with happy flowers,
And reeling as he sits. Around him throng
The crowd of men and women, shouting forth
Their gibes and jests, their laughter and their scorn.
Wise are the people, even in rites like these.
Each ceremony, frantic or grotesque,
Has its own meaning, and subserves an end.
Great Dionysius teaches evermore
The principles of use, and temperate joy.
But as the will is weak when pleasure goads
To overstep the wholesome boundaries
That separate enjoyment from abuse,
Silenus ever follows in his train,
The type of gluttony, excess, and lust.
Him all the people point at as he goes,
Half falling from his ass with idiot stare,
And mock him with their fingers and their songs.

Dirty Silenus! god of swine,
Drunken on the lees of wine;
Mad Silenus, old and fat,
Round and ponderous as a vat,
Youth and Beauty gaze on thee,
Warned by thy deformity.

Foolish god, that hast grown old
Ere thy middle life is told;
Bald, and blear, and weak, and dull,
Ere thy growth has reached its full;
Mad Silenus! god of swine,
Drunken on the lees of wine.
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