Triumph of Death
The night that followed the dread stroke of fate
That quenched the sun-nay, lifted it to heaven,
Leaving me lost and blind upon the earth
Was spreading through the air the coolness sweet
That with the whiteness of Tithonus' mate
Is wont to take the veil from dreams confused,
When toward me, from among a thousand crowns,
There came a lady like unto the Spring,
Crowned with a diadem of orient gems.
Speaking and sighing, she held out to me
Bringing eternal sweetness to my heart
The hand that I so greatly had desired.
"Knowest thou her who first, and long ago,
Guided thy steps away from the common path?"
Pensive she was, and humble, and yet wise,
As when my heart was first aware of her.
She sat, and I beside her, by a stream
0'ershaded by a laurel and a beech.
"How could I fail to know my heavenly guide?"
I answered, like to one who speaks and weeps,
"Tell me, I pray, art thou in life or death?"
"I am in life, and thou art still in death,"
She said, "as thou wilt be until there come
The hour that shall release thee from the earth.
Our time is short, and our desire is long:
Therefore take thought, and count and check thy words
Ere we be parted by the light of day."
And I: "When earthly life comes to its end,
Pray tell me, thou who knowest it by proof,
If death be fraught with bitter suffering."
She answered: "Following the common herd
In all the blindness of their stubborn thought,
Never canst thou attain to happiness.
Death is the end of dark imprisonment
For gentle souls, but bringeth agony
To those whose cares rise not above the mire;
And mine own death, that causeth thee such grief,
Would bring thee gladness, if thou couldst but know
A thousandth part of the joy that now is mine."
Thus did she speak, her eyes devoutly raised
To heaven; then in silence did she move
Her rosy lips, until I spoke again:
"Mezentius, Sulla, Nero, Marius,
Gaius, and burning fevers and racking pains,
Make wormwood seem less bitter than death's sting."
"The failing of the breath before the end,"
Thus she replied, "is hard indeed to bear,
And harder still the fear of lasting woe;
But if the soul hath placed its trust in God
And the heart also, weary though it be,
What more is death than a mere moment's sigh?
When I was near the hour of my passing,
My spirit willing, though my flesh was weak,
I heard a sorrowing voice say quietly:
'Oh sad indeed is he who counts the days,
Each one a thousand years to him. In vain
He lives, no more to meet her on this earth.
He seeks the sea, and travels all its shores,
And yet no wandering brings change to him:
Of her alone he thinks and speaks and writes.'
Then to the place whence came these words to me
I turned my weary eyes, and saw her there
Who, for us both, urged me, restraining thee.
I recognized her by her face and speech,
who often had brought comfort to my heart:
Now grave and wise, and ever true and fair.
When I was in my fairest earthly state
In glowing youth, and unto thee most dear
Whence many have found cause to think and speak
My life was hardly less than bitter, then,
Compared to the sweet kindliness of death
Vouchsafed to me -and rarely to mankind.
In all my passing I was more content,
Than one from exile coming to a dear home,
Save for the pity that I felt for thee."
"Prithee, Madonna, by the faithfulness
That while you lived was manifest to you
And in the sight of God is now confirmed,
Did ever love create within your mind
The thought of taking pity on my plight,
Within the bounds your sense of honor set?
Your sweet reproaches and your sweet disdains
And the sweet signs of peace in your fair eyes
Kept my desire in doubt for many years."
Scarce had I said these words when I beheld
The flashing of that smile so sweet to me,
That once had been a sun to cheer my spirit.
Sighing, she answered: "Never was my heart
From thee divided, nor shall ever be.
Thy flame I tempered with my countenance
Because there was no other way than this
To save us both, and save your youthful fame:
A mother loves, even with lash in hand.
How often to myself I said: 'He loves,
Nay more, he burns, and is in need of help,
Scarce to be had from one who hopes and fears:
Let him behold my face, and not my heart.'
And this it was that often turned thee back
And checked thee, as a frightened steed is checked.
More than a thousand times anger appeared
Upon my face, while love glowed in my heart,
But reason ever conquered my desire.
And when I saw thee overcome with grief
I looked upon thee then with kindly eyes,
Safeguarding thus our honor and thy life;
And if thy suffering were too intense
Making me sorrowful or timorous,
My brow and voice more gently greeted thee.
These my devices were, and these my arts,
Now benign welcoming, and now disdain
Thou knowest, who hast often sung thereof
For there were times when I beheld thine eyes
So tearful that I thought: 'I see the signs,
He is undone, unless some help be given'
And then as best I could I succored thee.
At other times I saw thee so aflame
I said: 'Now needeth he a tighter bit.'
And thus, now warm and red, now cold and white,
Now sad, now glad, I have conducted thee
Safe (and therefor do I rejoice), but weary."
Then trembling, and with tears upon my face,
I said: "Madonna, great reward were this
For all my faith, if I could but believe."
"Of little faith! for if I knew it not,
Or knew not it was true, why should I tell?"
She answered, and her face seemed flushed to me.
"Whether thou didst bring pleasure to my eyes
I will not say; but pleasure that sweet knot
Did give me that thou hadst around thy heart,
And pleasure the fair name thy poetry
Hath won for me, I ween, both near and far.
All that I sought was measure in thy love:
I never found it. While in sorrowful guise
Thou wouldst have shown me what I always saw,
Thou didst reveal thy heart to all the world.
Thence came the coolness that still troubles thee,
For in all else we were as much at one
As love comports, within the bounds of honor.
The flames of love burned almost equally
In us, after I knew the fire in thee:
But one of us revealed them, one did not.
Thou wast already hoarse, calling for mercy,
While I was silent, since my fear and shame
Combined to make my great desire seem small.
Dole that is hidden is no less a pain,
Nor is it made the larger by laments,
For no pretense greatens or lessens truth.
But was not every veil between us rent
When in thy presence I received thy verse,
And sang, 'Our love dares not say more than this'?
My heart was thine, but I controlled mine eyes.
For this thou grievest, thinking I was wrong:
What I withheld was least, what I gave, best.
Knowest thou not that though mine eyes were turned
A way from thee a thousand times and more,
They were restored, and looked on thee with pity?
And peacefully would I have let them turn
Ever to thee, had I not been afraid
Of the parlous flames that shone within thine eyes.
Now that the time of parting is so near
I will say more, to leave thee not without
A final word that thou mayst cherish still.
Though I was richly blest in other ways,
In one sole matter was I ill content:
That I was born in such a lowly place.
Regretful am I that I was not born
Nearer, at least, to thine own flowered nest;
But if I pleased thee, coming thence, , tis well.
For had I been unknown to thee, thy heart,
Wherein I trust, might not have turned to me,
And less renown and fame would have been mine."
"Not so," I answered; "the third heavenly sphere
Unmoved and stable, destined me for a love
As great as this, where' er we might have dwelt."
"So be it then," she said, "for honor comes
To me, and still is mine. But in thy joy
Thou countest not the passing of the hours.
See how Aurora from her golden bed
Brings the day back to mortals, while the sun
Is lifting now his breast above the sea:
She came to part us, and therefor I grieve.
If thou hast more to say, seek to be brief,
Remembering how short a time remains."
"Your kind and loving words have made it seem
That all my sufferings were light and sweet,
But life without you will be hard for me.
Therefore, Madonna, this I fain would know:
Shall it be soon or late that I follow you?"
And she, departing, said: " 'Tis my belief
Thou wilt be long without me on the earth."