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Alan Seeger - The Torture of Cuauhtemoc

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 that racked visage with his own unmoved, 
Bent on the sufferer his mild calm eyes, 
And while the pangs smote sharper, in a voice, 
As who would speak not all in gentleness 
Nor all disdain, said: "Yes! And am -I- then 
Upon a bed of roses?" 


Stung with shame -- 
Shame bitterer than his anguish -- to betray 
Such cowardice before the man he loved, 
And merit such rebuke, the boy grew calm; 
And stilled his struggling limbs and moaning cries, 
And shook away his tears, and strove to smile, 
And turned his face against the wall -- and died. 

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Poet: Alan Seeger
Poem: The Torture of Cuauhtemoc
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