The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning

Giuseppe Caponsacchi

Answer you, Sirs? Do I understand aright?

Have patience! In this sudden smoke from hell —

So things disguise themselves — I cannot see

My own hand held thus broad before my face

And know it again. Answer you? Then that means

Tell over twice what I, the first time, told

Six months ago: ’twas here, I do believe,

Fronting you same three in this very room,

I stood and told you: yet now no one laughs,

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Who then . . . nay, dear my lords, but laugh you did,

As good as laugh, what in a judge we style

Laughter — no levity, nothing indecorous, lords!

Only — I think I apprehend the mood:

There was the blameless shrug, permissible smirk,

The pen’s pretence at play with the pursed mouth,

The titter stifled in the hollow palm

Which rubbed the eyebrow and caressed the nose,

When I first told my tale: they meant, you know,

“The sly one, all this we are bound believe!

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“Well, he can say no other than what he says.

“We have been young, too — come, there’s greater guilt!

“Let him but decently disembroil himself,

“Scramble from out the scrape nor move the mud —

“We solid ones may risk a finger-stretch!”

And now you sit as grave, stare as aghast

As if I were a phantom: now ’tis —“Friend,

“Collect yourself!”— no laughing matter more —

“Counsel the Court in this extremity,

“Tell us again!”— tell that, for telling which,

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I got the jocular piece of punishment,

Was sent to lounge a little in the place

Whence now of a sudden here you summon me

To take the intelligence from just — your lips

You, Judge Tommati, who then tittered most —

That she I helped eight months since to escape

Her husband, is retaken by the same,

Three days ago, if I have seized your sense —

(I being disallowed to interfere,

Meddle or make in a matter none of mine,

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For you and law were guardians quite enough

O’ the innocent, without a pert priest’s help)—

And that he has butchered her accordingly,

As she foretold and as myself believed —

And, so foretelling and believing so,

We were punished, both of us, the merry way:

Therefore, tell once again the tale! For what?

Pompilia is only dying while I speak!

Why does the mirth hang fire and miss the smile?

My masters, there’s an old book, you should con

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For strange adventures, applicable yet,

’Tis stuffed with. Do you know that there was once

This thing: a multitude of worthy folk

Took recreation, watched a certain group

Of soldiery intent upon a game —

How first they wrangled, but soon fell to play,

Threw dice — the best diversion in the world.

A word in your ear — they are now casting lots,

Ay, with that gesture quaint and cry uncouth,

For the coat of One murdered an hour ago!

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I am a priest — talk of what I have learned.

Pompilia is bleeding out her life belike,

Gasping away the latest breath of all,

This minute, while I talk — not while you laugh?

Yet, being sobered now, what is it you ask

By way of explanation? There’s the fact!

It seems to fill the universe with sight

And sound — from the four corners of this earth

Tells itself over, to my sense at least.

But you may want it lower set i’ the scale —

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Too vast, too close it clangs in the ear, perhaps;

You’d stand back just to comprehend it more:

Well then, let me, the hollow rock, condense

The voice o’ the sea and wind, interpret you

The mystery of this murder. God above!

It is too paltry, such a transference

O’ the storm’s roar to the cranny of the stone!

This deed, you saw begin — why does its end

Surprise you? Why should the event enforce

The lesson, we ourselves learned, she and I,

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From the first o’ the fact, and taught you, all in vain?

This Guido from whose throat you took my grasp,

Was this man to be favoured, now, or feared,

Let do his will, or have his will restrained,

In the relation with Pompilia? — say!

Did any other man need interpose

— Oh, though first comer, though as strange at the work

As fribble must be, coxcomb, fool that’s near

To knave as, say, a priest who fears the world —

Was he bound brave the peril, save the doomed,

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Or go on, sing his snatch and pluck his flower,

Keep the straight path and let the victim die?

I held so; you decided otherwise,

Saw no such peril, therefore no such need

To stop song, loosen flower, and leave path: Law,

Law was aware and watching, would suffice,

Wanted no priest’s intrusion, palpably

Pretence, too manifest a subterfuge!

Whereupon I, priest, coxcomb, fribble, and fool,

Ensconced me in my corner, thus rebuked,

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A kind of culprit, over-zealous hound

Kicked for his pains to kennel; I gave place,

To you, and let the law reign paramount:

I left Pompilia to your watch and ward,

And now you point me — there and thus she lies!

Men, for the last time, what do you want with me?

Is it — you acknowledge, as it were, a use,

A profit in employing me? — at length

I may conceivably help the august law?

I am free to break the blow, next hawk that swoops

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On next dove, nor miss much of good repute?

Or what if this your summons, after all,

Be but the form of mere release, no more,

Which turns the key and lets the captive go?

I have paid enough in person at Civita,

Am free — what more need I concern me with?

Thank you! I am rehabilitated then,

A very reputable priest. But she —

The glory of life, the beauty of the world,

The splendour of heaven,

         . . . well, Sirs, does no one move?

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Do I speak ambiguously? The glory, I say,

And the beauty, I say, and splendour, still say I,

Who, a priest, trained to live my whole life long

On beauty and splendour, solely at their source,

God — have thus recognised my food in one,

You tell me, is fast dying while we talk,

Pompilia — how does lenity to me,

Remit one death-bed pang to her? Come, smile!

The proper wink at the hot-headed youth

Who lets his soul show, through transparent words,

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The mundane love that’s sin and scandal too!

You are all struck acquiescent now, it seems:

It seems the oldest, gravest signor here,

Even the redoubtable Tommati, sits

Chop-fallen — understands how law might take

Service like mine, of brain and heart and hand,

In good part. Better late than never, law!

You understand of a sudden, gospel too

Has a claim here, may possibly pronounce

Consistent with my priesthood, worthy Christ,

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That I endeavoured to save Pompilia?

        Then,

You were wrong, you see: that’s well to see, though late:

That’s all we may expect of man, this side

The grave: his good is — knowing he is bad:

Thus will it be with us when the books ope

And we stand at the bar on judgment-day.

Well then, I have a mind to speak, see cause

To relume the quenched flax by this dreadful light,

Burn my soul out in showing you the truth.

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I heard, last time I stood here to be judged,

What is priest’s-duty — labour to pluck tares

And weed the corn of Molinism; let me

Make you hear, this time, how, in such a case,

Man, be he in the priesthood or at plough,

Mindful of Christ or marching step by step

With . . . what’s his style, the other potentate

Who bids have courage and keep honour safe,

Nor let minuter admonition teaze?

How he is bound, better or worse, to act.

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Earth will not end through this misjudgment, no!

For you and the others like you sure to come,

Fresh work is sure to follow — wickedness

That wants withstanding. Many a man of blood,

Many a man of guile will clamour yet,

Bid you redress his grievance — as he clutched

The prey, forsooth a stranger stepped between,

And there’s the good gripe in pure waste! My part

Is done; i’ the doing it, I pass away

Out of the world. I want no more with earth.

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Let me, in heaven’s name, use the very snuff

O’ the taper in one last spark shall show truth

For a moment, show Pompilia who was true!

Not for her sake, but yours: if she is dead,

Oh, Sirs, she can be loved by none of you

Most or least priestly! Saints, to do us good,

Must be in heaven, I seem to understand:

We never find them saints before, at least.

Be her first prayer then presently for you —

She had done the good to me . . .

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        What is all this?

There, I was born, have lived, shall die, a fool!

This is a foolish outset:— might with cause

Give colour to the very lie o’ the man,

The murderer — make as if I loved his wife,

In the way he called love. He is the fool there!

Why, had there been in me the touch of taint,

I had picked up so much of knaves’-policy

As hide it, keep one hand pressed on the place

Suspected of a spot would damn us both.

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Or no, not her! — not even if any of you

Dares think that I, i’ the face of death, her death

That’s in my eyes and ears and brain and heart,

Lie — if he does, let him! I mean to say,

So he stop there, stay thought from smirching her

The snow-white soul that angels fear to take

Untenderly. But, all the same, I know

I too am taintless, and I bare my breast.

You can’t think, men as you are, all of you,

But that, to hear thus suddenly such an end

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Of such a wonderful white soul, that comes

Of a man and murderer calling the white black,

Must shake me, trouble and disadvantage. Sirs,

Only seventeen!

        Why, good and wise you are!

You might at the beginning stop my mouth:

So, none would be to speak for her, that knew.

I talk impertinently, and you bear,

All the same. This it is to have to do

With honest hearts: they easily may err,

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But in the main they wish well to the truth.

You are Christians; somehow, no one ever plucked

A rag, even, from the body of the Lord,

To wear and mock with, but, despite himself,

He looked the greater and was the better. Yes,

I shall go on now. Does she need or not

I keep calm? Calm I’ll keep as monk that croons

Transcribing battle, earthquake, famine, plague,

From parchment to his cloister’s chronicle.

Not one word more from the point now!

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        I begin.

Yes, I am one of your body and a priest.

Also I am a younger son o’ the House

Oldest now, greatest once, in my birth-town

Arezzo, I recognise no equal there —

(I want all arguments, all sorts of arms

That seem to serve — use this for a reason, wait!)

Not therefore thrust into the Church, because

O’ the piece of bread one gets there. We were first

Of Fiesole, that rings still with the fame

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Of Capo-in- Sacco our progenitor:

When Florence ruined Fiesole, our folk

Migrated to the victor-city, and there

Flourished — our palace and our tower attest,

In the Old Mercato — this was years ago,

Four hundred, full — no, it wants fourteen just.

Our arms are those of Fiesole itself,

The shield quartered with white and red: a branch

Are the Salviati of us, nothing more.

That were good help to the Church? But better still —

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Not simply for the advantage of my birth

I’ the way of the world, was I proposed for priest;

But because there’s an illustration, late

I’ the day, that’s loved and looked to as a saint

Still in Arezzo, he was bishop of,

Sixty years since: he spent to the last doit

His bishop’s-revenue among the poor,

And used to tend the needy and the sick,

Barefoot, because of his humility.

He it was — when the Granduke Ferdinand

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Swore he would raze our city, plough the place

And sow it with salt, because we Aretines

Had tied a rope about the neck, to hale

The statue of his father from its base

For hate’s sake — he availed by prayers and tears

To pacify the Duke and save the town.

This was my father’s father’s brother. You see,

For his sake, how it was I had a right

To the self-same office, bishop in the egg,

So, grew i’ the garb and prattled in the school,

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Was made expect, from infancy almost,

The proper mood o’ the priest; till time ran by

And brought the day when I must read the vows,

Declare the world renounced and undertake

To become priest and leave probation — leap

Over the ledge into the other life,

Having gone trippingly hitherto up to the height

O’er the wan water. Just a vow to read!

I stopped short awe-struck. “How shall holiest flesh

“Engage to keep such vow inviolate,

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“How much less mine — I know myself too weak,

“Unworthy! Choose a worthier stronger man!”

And the very Bishop smiled and stopped the mouth

In its mid-protestation. “Incapable?

“Qualmish of conscience? Thou ingenuous boy!

“Clear up the clouds and cast thy scruples far!

“I satisfy thee there’s an easier sense

“Wherein to take such vow than suits the first

“Rough rigid reading. Mark what makes all smooth,

“Nay, has been even a solace to myself!

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“The Jews who needs must, in their synagogue,

“Utter sometimes the holy name of God,

“A thing their superstition boggles at,

“Pronounce aloud the ineffable sacrosanct —

“How does their shrewdness help them? In this wise;

“Another set of sounds they substitute,

“Jumble so consonants and vowels — how

“Should I know? — that there grows from out the old

“Quite a new word that means the very same —

“And o’er the hard place slide they with a smile.

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“Giuseppe Maria Caponsacchi mine,

“Nobody wants you in these latter days

“To prop the Church by breaking your back-bone —

“As the necessary way was once, we know,

“When Dioclesian flourished and his like;

“That building of the buttress-work was done

“By martyrs and confessors: let it bide,

“Add not a brick, but, where you see a chink,

“Stick in a sprig of ivy or root a rose

“Shall make amends and beautify the pile!

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“We profit as you were the painfullest

“O’ the martyrs, and you prove yourself a match

“For the cruellest confessor ever was,

“If you march boldly up and take your stand

“Where their blood soaks, their bones yet strew the soil,

“And cry ‘Take notice, I the young and free

“ ‘And well-to-do i’ the world, thus leave the world,

“ ‘Cast in my lot thus with no gay young world

“ ‘But the grand old Church: she tempts me of the two!’

“Renounce the world? Nay, keep and give it us!

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“Let us have you, and boast of what you bring.

“We want the pick o’ the earth to practise with,

“Not its offscouring, halt and deaf and blind

“In soul and body. There’s a rubble-stone

“Unfit for the front o’ the building, stuff to stow

“In a gap behind and keep us weather- tight;

“There’s porphyry for the prominent place. Good lack!

“Saint Paul has had enough and to spare, I trow,

“Of ragged run-away Onesimus:

“He wants the right-hand with the signet-ring

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“Of King Agrippa, now, to shake and use.

“I have a heavy scholar cloistered up

“Close under lock and key, kept at his task

“Of letting Fenelon know the fool he is,

“In a book I promise Christendom next Spring.

“Why, if he covets so much meat, the clown,

“As a lark’s wing next Friday, or, any day,

“Diversion beyond catching his own fleas,

“He shall be properly swinged, I promise him.

“But you, who are so quite another paste

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“Of a man — do you obey me? Cultivate

“Assiduous, that superior gift you have

“Of making madrigals —(who told me? Ah!)

“Get done a Marinesque Adoniad straight

“With a pulse o’ the blood a-pricking, here and there

“That I may tell the lady, ‘And he’s ours!”’

So I became a priest: those terms changed all,

I was good enough for that, nor cheated so;

I could live thus and still hold head erect.

Now you see why I may have been before

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A fribble and coxcomb, yet, as priest, break word

Nowise, to make you disbelieve me now.

I need that you should know my truth. Well, then,

According to prescription did I live,

— Conformed myself, both read the breviary

And wrote the rhymes, was punctual to my place

I’ the Pieve, and as diligent at my post

Where beauty and fashion rule. I throve apace,

Sub-deacon, Canon, the authority

For delicate play at tarocs, and arbiter

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O’ the magnitude of fan-mounts: all the while

Wanting no whit the advantage of a hint

Benignant to the promising pupil — thus:

“Enough attention to the Countess now,

“The young one; ’tis her mother rules the roast,

“We know where, and puts in a word: go pay

“Devoir to-morrow morning after mass!

“Break that rash promise to preach, Passion-week!

“Has it escaped you the Archbishop grunts

“And snuffles when one grieves to tell his Grace

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“No soul dares treat the subject of the day

“Since his own masterly handling it (ha, ha!)

“Five years ago — when somebody could help

“And touch up an odd phrase in time of need,

“(He, he!)— and somebody helps you, my son!

“Therefore, don’t prove so indispensable

“At the Pieve, sit more loose i’ the seat, nor grow

“A fixture by attendance morn and eve!

“Arezzo’s just a haven midway Rome —

“Rome’s the eventual harbour — make for port,

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“Crowd sail, crack cordage! And your cargo be

“A polished presence, a genteel manner, wit

“At will, and tact at every pore of you!

“I sent our lump of learning, Brother Clout,

“And Father Slouch, our piece of piety,

“To see Rome and try suit the Cardinal.

“Thither they clump-clumped, beads and book in hand,

“And ever since ’tis meat for man and maid

“How both flopped down, prayed blessing on bent pate

“Bald many an inch beyond the tonsure’s need,

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“Never once dreaming, the two moony dolts,

“There’s nothing moves his Eminence so much

“As — far from all this awe at sanctitude —

“Heads that wag, eyes that twinkle, modified mirth

“At the closet-lectures on the Latin tongue

“A lady learns so much by, we know where.

“Why, body o’ Bacchus, you should crave his rule

“For pauses in the elegiac couplet, chasms

“Permissible only to Catullus! There!

“Now go do duty: brisk, break Priscian’s head

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“By reading the day’s office — there’s no help.

“You’ve Ovid in your poke to plaster that;

“Amen’s at the end of all: then sup with me!”

Well, after three or four years of this life,

In prosecution of my calling, I

Found myself at the theatre one night

With a brother Canon, in a mood and mind

Proper enough for the place, amused or no:

When I saw enter, stand, and seat herself

A lady, young, tall, beautiful, strange, and sad.

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It was as when, in our cathedral once,

As I got yawningly through matin-song,

I saw facchini bear a burden up,

Base it on the high- altar, break away

A board or two, and leave the thing inside

Lofty and lone: and lo, when next I looked,

There was the Rafael! I was still one stare,

When —“Nay, I’ll make her give you back your gaze”—

Said Canon Conti; and at the word he tossed

A paper-twist of comfits to her lap,

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And dodged and in a trice was at my back

Nodding from over my shoulder. Then she turned,

Looked our way, smiled the beautiful sad strange smile.

“Is not she fair? ’Tis my new cousin,” said he:

“The fellow lurking there i’ the black o’ the box

“Is Guido, the old scapegrace: she’s his wife,

“Married three years since: how his Countship sulks!

“He has brought little back from Rome beside,

“After the bragging, bullying. A fair face,

“And — they do say — a pocket-full of gold

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“When he can worry both her parents dead.

“I don’t go much there, for the chamber’s cold

“And the coffee pale. I got a turn at first

“Paying my duty — I observed they crouched

“— The two old frightened family spectres, close

“In a corner, each on each like mouse on mouse

“I’ the cat’s cage: ever since, I stay at home.

“Hallo, there’s Guido, the black, mean, and small,

“Bends his brows on us — please to bend your own

“On the shapely nether limbs of Light-skirts there

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“By way of a diversion! I was a fool

“To fling the sweetmeats. Prudence, for God’s love!

“To-morrow I’ll make my peace, e’en tell some fib,

“Try if I can’t find means to take you there.”

That night and next day did the gaze endure,

Burnt to my brain, as sunbeam thro’ shut eyes,

And not once changed the beautiful sad strange smile.

At vespers Conti leaned beside my seat

I’ the choir — part said, part sung —“In ex-cel-sis —

“All’s to no purpose: I have louted low,

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“But he saw you staring — quia sub — don’t incline

“To know you nearer: him we would not hold

“For Hercules — the man would lick your shoe

“If you and certain efficacious friends

“Managed him warily — but there’s the wife:

“Spare her, because he beats her, as it is,

“She’s breaking her heart quite fast enough — jam tu —

“So, be you rational and make amends

“With little Light-skirts yonder — in secula

Secu-lo-o-o-o-rum. Ah, you rogue! Every one knows

“What great dame she makes jealous: one against one,

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“Play, and win both!”

        Sirs, ere the week was out,

I saw and said to myself “Light-skirts hides teeth

“Would make a dog sick — the great dame shows spite

“Should drive a cat mad: ’tis but poor work this —

“Counting one’s fingers till the sonnet’s crowned.

“I doubt much if Marino really be

“A better bard than Dante after all.

“’Tis more amusing to go pace at eve

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“I’ the Duomo — watch the day’s last gleam outside

“Turn, as into a skirt of God’s own robe,

“Those lancet-windows’ jewelled miracle —

“Than go eat the Archbishop’s ortolans,

“Digest his jokes. Luckily Lent is near:

“Who cares to look will find me in my stall

“At the Pieve, constant to this faith at least —

“Never to write a canzonet any more.”

So, next week, ’twas my patron spoke abrupt,

In altered guise, “Young man, can it be true

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“That after all your promise of sound fruit,

“You have kept away from Countess young or old

“And gone play truant in church all day long?

“Are you turning Molinist?” I answered quick

“Sir, what if I turned Christian? It might be,

“The fact is, I am troubled in my mind,

“Beset and pressed hard by some novel thoughts.

“This your Arezzo is a limited world;

“There’s a strange Pope — ’tis said, a priest who thinks.

“Rome is the port, you say: to Rome I go.

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“I will live alone, one does so in a crowd,

“And look into my heart a little.” “Lent

“Ended,”— I told friends — “I shall go to Rome.”

One evening I was sitting in a muse

Over the opened “Summa,” darkened round

By the mid-March twilight, thinking how my life

Had shaken under me — broke short indeed

And showed the gap ’twixt what is, what should be —

And into what abysm the soul may slip,

Leave aspiration here, achievement there,

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Lacking omnipotence to connect extremes —

Thinking moreover . . . oh, thinking, if you like,

How utterly dissociated was I

A priest and celibate, from the sad strange wife

Of Guido — just as an instance to the point,

Nought more — how I had a whole store of strengths

Eating into my heart, which craved employ,

And she, perhaps, need of a finger’s help —

And yet there was no way in the wide world

To stretch out mine and so relieve myself —

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How when the page o’ the Summa preached its best,

Her smile kept glowing out of it, as to mock

The silence we could break by no one word —

There came a tap without the chamber-door

And a whisper, when I bade who tapped speak out,

And, in obedience to my summons, last

In glided a masked muffled mystery,

Laid lightly a letter on the opened book,

Then stood with folded arms and foot demure,

Pointing as if to mark the minutes’ flight.

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I took the letter, read to the effect

That she, I lately flung the comfits to,

Had a warm heart to give me in exchange,

And gave it — loved me and confessed it thus,

And bade me render thanks by word of mouth,

Going that night to such a side o’ the house

Where the small terrace overhangs a street

Blind and deserted, not the street in front:

Her husband being away, the surly patch,

At his villa of Vittiano.

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        “And you?”— I asked:

“What may you be?”—“Count Guido’s kind of maid —

“Most of us have two functions in his house.

“We all hate him, the lady suffers much,

“’Tis just we show compassion, furnish aid,

“Specially since her choice is fixed so well.

“What answer may I bring to cheer the sweet

“Pompilia?”

        Then I took a pen and wrote.

“No more of this! That you are fair, I know:

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“But other thoughts now occupy my mind.

“I should not thus have played the insensible

“Once on a time. What made you — may one ask —

“Marry your hideous husband? ’Twas a fault,

“And now you taste the fruit of it. Farewell.”

“There!” smiled I as she snatched it and was gone —

“There, let the jealous miscreant — Guido’s self,

“Whose mean soul grins through this transparent trick —

“Be baulked so far, defrauded of his aim!

“What fund of satisfaction to the knave,

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“Had I kicked this his messenger downstairs,

“Trussed to the middle of her impudence,

“Setting his heart at ease so! No, indeed!

“There’s the reply which he shall turn and twist

“At pleasure, snuff at till his brain grow drunk,

“As the bear does when he finds a scented glove

“That puzzles him — a hand and yet no hand,

“Of other perfume than his own foul paw!

“Last month, I had doubtless chosen to play the dupe,

“Accepted the mock-invitation, kept

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“The sham appointment, cudgel beneath cloak,

“Prepared myself to pull the appointer’s self

“Out of the window from his hiding-place

“Behind the gown of this part-messenger

“Part-mistress who would personate the wife.

“Such had seemed once a jest permissible:

“Now, I am not i’ the mood.”

        Back next morn brought

The messenger, a second letter in hand.

“You are cruel, Thyrsis, and Myrtilla moans

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“Neglected but adores you, makes request

“For mercy: why is it you dare not come?

“Such virtue is scarce natural to your age:

“You must love someone else; I hear you do,

“The baron’s daughter or the Advocate’s wife,

“Or both — all’s one, would you make me the third —

“I take the crumbs from table gratefully

“Nor grudge who feasts there. ’Faith, I blush and blaze!

“Yet if I break all bounds, there’s reason sure,

“Are you determinedly bent on Rome?

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“I am wretched here, a monster tortures me:

“Carry me with you! Come and say you will!

“Concert this very evening! Do not write!

“I am ever at the window of my room

“Over the terrace, at the Ave. Come!”

I questioned — lifting half the woman’s mask

To let her smile loose. “So, you gave my line

“To the merry lady?” “She kissed off the wax,

“And put what paper was not kissed away,

“In her bosom to go burn: but merry, no!

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“She wept all night when evening brought no friend,

“Alone, the unkind missive at her breast;

“Thus Philomel, the thorn at her breast too,

“Sings” . . . “Writes this second letter?” “Even so!

“Then she may peep at vespers forth?”—“What risk

“Do we run o’ the husband?”—“Ah — no risk at all!

“He is more stupid even than jealous. Ah —

“That was the reason? Why, the man’s away!

“Beside, his bugbear is that friend of yours,

“Fat little Canon Conti. He fears him —

590

“How should he dream of you? I told you truth —

“He goes to the villa at Vittiano —’tis

“The time when Spring-sap rises in the vine —

“Spends the night there. And then his wife’s a child,

“Does he think a child outwits him? A mere child:

“Yet so full grown, a dish for any duke.

“Don’t quarrel longer with such cates, but come!”

I wrote “In vain do you solicit me.

“I am a priest: and you are wedded wife,

“Whatever kind of brute your husband prove.

“I have scruples, in short. Yet should you really show

601

“Sign at the window . . . but nay, best be good!

“My thoughts are elsewhere.”—“Take her that!”

        —“Again

“Let the incarnate meanness, cheat and spy,

“Mean to the marrow of him, make his heart

“His food, anticipate hell’s worm once more!

“Let him watch shivering at the window — ay,

“And let this hybrid, this his light-of-love

“And lackey-of-lies — a sage economy —

610

“Paid with embracings for the rank brass coin —

“Let her report and make him chuckle o’er

“The break-down of my resolution now,

“And lour at disappointment in good time!

“— So tantalise and so enrage by turns,

“Until the two fall each on the other like

“Two famished spiders, as the coveted fly

“That toys long, leaves their net and them at last!”

And so the missives followed thick and fast

For a month, say — I still came at every turn

620

On the soft sly adder, endlong ’neath my tread.

I was met i’ the street, made sign to in the church,

A slip was found i’ the door-sill, scribbled word

’Twixt page and page o’ the prayer-book in my piece:

A crumpled thing dropped even before my feet,

Pushed through the blind, above the terrace-rail,

As I passed, by day, the very window once.

And ever from corners would be peering up

The messenger, with the self-same demand

“Obdurate still, no flesh but adamant?

630

“Nothing to cure the wound, assuage the throe

“O’ the sweetest lamb that ever loved a bear?”

And ever my one answer in one tone —

“Go your ways, temptress! Let a priest read, pray,

“Unplagued of vain talk, visions not for him!

“In the end, you’ll have your will and ruin me!”

One day, a variation: thus I read:

“You have gained little by timidity.

“My husband has found out my love at length,

“Sees cousin Conti was the stalking-horse,

640

“And you the game he covered, poor fat soul!

“My husband is a formidable foe,

“Will stick at nothing to destroy you. Stand

“Prepared, or better, run till you reach Rome!

“I bade you visit me, when the last place

“My tyrant would have turned suspicious at,

“Or cared to seek you in, was . . . why say, where?

“But now all’s changed: beside, the season’s past

“At the villa — wants the master’s eye no more.

“Anyhow, I beseech you, stay away

650

“From the window! He might well be posted there.”

I wrote —“You raise my courage, or call up

“My curiosity, who am but man.

“Tell him he owns the palace, not the street

“Under — that’s his and yours and mine alike.

“If it should please me pad the path this eve,

“Guido will have two troubles, first to get

“Into a rage and then get out again.

“Be cautious, though: at the Ave!

        You of the court!

660

When I stood question here and reached this point

O’ the narrative — search notes and see and say

If some one did not interpose with smile

And sneer, “And prithee why so confident

“That the husband must, of all needs, not the wife,

“Fabricate thus — what if the lady loved?

“What if she wrote the letters?”

        Learned Sir,

I told you there’s a picture in our church.

Well, if a low-browed verger sidled up

670

Bringing me, like a blotch, on his prod’s point,

A transfixed scorpion, let the reptile writhe,

And then said, “See a thing that Rafael made —

“This venom issued from Madonna’s mouth!”—

I should reply, “Rather, the soul of you

“Has issued from your body, like from like,

“By way of the ordure-corner!”

        But no less,

I tired of the same black teazing lie

Obtruded thus at every turn; the pest

680

Was far too near the picture, anyhow:

One does Madonna service, making clowns

Remove their dung-heap from the sacristy.

“I will to the window, as he tempts,” said I:

“Yes, whom the easy love has failed allure,

“This new bait of adventure may — he thinks.

“While the imprisoned lady keeps afar,

“There will they lie in ambush, heads alert,

“Kith, kin, and Count mustered to bite my heel.

“No mother nor brother viper of the brood

690

“Shall scuttle off without the instructive bruise!”

So, I went: crossed street and street: “The next street’s turn,

“I stand beneath the terrace, see, above,

“The black of the ambush-window. Then, in place

“Of hand’s throw of soft prelude over lute

“And cough that clears way for the ditty last,”—

I began to laugh already —“he will have

“ ‘Out of the hole you hide in, on to the front,

“ ‘Count Guido Franceschini, show yourself!

“ ‘Hear what a man thinks of a thing like you,

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“ ‘And after, take this foulness in your face!”’

The words lay living on my lip, I made

The one turn more — and there at the window stood,

Framed in its black square length, with lamp in hand,

Pompilia; the same great, grave, griefful air

As stands i’ the dusk, on altar that I know,

Left alone with one moonbeam in her cell,

Our Lady of all the Sorrows. Ere I knelt —

Assured myself that she was flesh and blood —

She had looked one look and vanished.

        I thought —“Just so:

710

“It was herself, they have set her there to watch —

“Stationed to see some wedding-band go by,

“On fair pretence that she must bless the bride,

“Or wait some funeral with friends wind past,

“And crave peace for the corpse that claims its due.

“She never dreams they used her for a snare,

“And now withdraw the bait has served its turn.

“Well done, the husband, who shall fare the worse!”

And on my lip again was —“Out with thee,

720

“Guido!” When all at once she re-appeared;

But, this time, on the terrace overhead,

So close above me, she could almost touch

My head if she bent down; and she did bend,

While I stood still as stone, all eye, all ear.

She began —“You have sent me letters, Sir:

“I have read none, I can neither read nor write;

“But she you gave them to, a woman here,

“One of the people in whose power I am,

“Partly explained their sense, I think, to me

730

“Obliged to listen while she inculcates

“That you, a priest, can dare love me, a wife,

“Desire to live or die as I shall bid,

“(She makes me listen if I will or no)

“Because you saw my face a single time.

“It cannot be she says the thing you mean;

“Such wickedness were deadly to us both:

“But good true love would help me now so much —

“I tell myself, you may mean good and true.

“You offer me, I seem to understand,

740

“Because I am in poverty and starve,

“Much money, where one piece would save my life.

“The silver cup upon the altar-cloth

“Is neither yours to give nor mine to take;

“But I might take one bit of bread therefrom,

“Since I am starving, and return the rest,

“Yet do no harm: this is my very case.

“I am in that strait, I may not abstain

“From so much of assistance as would bring

“The guilt of theft on neither you nor me;

750

“But no superfluous particle of aid.

“I think, if you will let me state my case,

“Even had you been so fancy- fevered here,

“Not your sound self, you must grow healthy now —

“Care only to bestow what I can take.

“That it is only you in the wide world,

“Knowing me nor in thought nor word nor deed,

“Who, all unprompted save by your own heart,

“Come proffering assistance now — were strange

“But that my whole life is so strange: as strange

760

“It is, my husband whom I have not wronged

“Should hate and harm me. For his own soul’s sake,

“Hinder the harm! But there is something more,

“And that the strangest: it has got to be

“Somehow for my sake too, and yet not mine,

“— This is a riddle — for some kind of sake

“Not any clearer to myself than you,

“And yet as certain as that I draw breath —

“I would fain live, not die — oh no, not die!

“My case is, I was dwelling happily

770

“At Rome with those dear Comparini, called

“Father and mother to me; when at once

“I found I had become Count Guido’s wife:

“Who then, not waiting for a moment, changed

“Into a fury of fire, if once he was

“Merely a man: his face threw fire at mine,

“He laid a hand on me that burned all peace,

“All joy, all hope, and last all fear away,

“Dipping the bough of life, so pleasant once,

“In fire which shrivelled leaf and bud alike,

780

“Burning not only present life but past,

“Which you might think was safe beyond his reach.

“He reached it, though, since that beloved pair,

“My father once, my mother all those years,

“That loved me so, now say I dreamed a dream

“And bid me wake, henceforth no child of theirs,

“Never in all the time their child at all.

“Do you understand? I cannot: yet so it is.

“Just so I say of you that proffer help:

“I cannot understand what prompts your soul,

790

“I simply needs must see that it is so,

“Only one strange and wonderful thing more.

“They came here with me, those two dear ones, kept

“All the old love up, till my husband, till

“His people here so tortured them, they fled.

“And now, is it because I grow in flesh

“And spirit one with him their torturer,

“That they, renouncing him, must cast off me?

“If I were graced by God to have a child,

“Could I one day deny God graced me so?

800

“Then, since my husband hates me, I shall break

“No law that reigns in this fell house of hate,

“By using — letting have effect so much

“Of hate as hides me from that whole of hate

“Would take my life which I want and must have —

“Just as I take from your excess of love

“Enough to save my life with, all I need.

“The Archbishop said to murder me were sin:

“My leaving Guido were a kind of death

“With no sin — more death, he must answer for.

810

“Hear now what death to him and life to you

“I wish to pay and owe. Take me to Rome!

“You go to Rome, the servant makes me hear.

“Take me as you would take a dog, I think,

“Masterless left for strangers to maltreat:

“Take me home like that — leave me in the house

“Where the father and the mother are; and soon

“They’ll come to know and call me by my name,

“Their child once more, since child I am, for all

“They now forget me, which is the worst o’ the dream —

820

“And the way to end dreams is to break them, stand,

“Walk, go: then help me to stand, walk and go!

“The Governor said the strong should help the weak:

“You know how weak the strongest women are.

“How could I find my way there by myself?

“I cannot even call out, make them hear —

“Just as in dreams: I have tried and proved the fact.

“I have told this story and more to good great men,

“The Archbishop and the Governor: they smiled.

“ ‘Stop your mouth, fair one!’— presently they frowned,

830

“ ‘Get you gone, disengage you from our feet!’

“I went in my despair to an old priest,

“Only a friar, no great man like these two,

“But good, the Augustinian, people name

“Romano — he confessed me two months since:

“He fears God, why then needs he fear the world?

“And when he questioned how it came about

“That I was found in danger of a sin —

“Despair of any help from providence —

“ ‘Since, though your husband outrage you,’ said he,

840

“ ‘That is a case too common, the wives die

“ ‘Or live, but do not sin so deep as this’—

“Then I told — what I never will tell you —

“How, worse than husband’s hate, I had to bear

“The love — soliciting to shame called love —

“Of his brother — the young idle priest i’ the house

“With only the devil to meet there. ‘This is grave —

“ ‘Yes we must interfere: I counsel — write

“ ‘To those who used to be your parents once,

“ ‘Of dangers here, bid them convey you hence!’

850

“ ‘But,’ said I, ‘when I neither read nor write?’

“Then he took pity and promised ‘I will write.’

“If he did so — why, they are dumb or dead:

“Either they give no credit to the tale,

“Or else, wrapped wholly up in their own joy

“Of such escape, they care not who cries, still

“I’ the clutches. Anyhow, no word arrives.

“All such extravagance and dreadfulness

“Seems incident to dreaming, cured one way —

“Wake me! The letter I received this morn,

860

“Said — if the woman spoke your very sense —

“ ‘You would die for me:’ I can believe it now:

“For now the dream gets to involve yourself.

“First of all, you seemed wicked and not good,

“In writing me those letters: you came in

“Like a thief upon me. I this morning said

“In my extremity, entreat the thief!

“Try if he have in him no honest touch!

“A thief might save me from a murderer.

“’Twas a thief said the last kind word to Christ:

870

“Christ took the kindness and forgave the theft:

“And so did I prepare what I now say.

“But now, that you stand and I see your face,

“Though you have never uttered word yet — well, I know,

“Here too has been dream- work, delusion too,

“And that at no time, you with the eyes here,

“Ever intended to do wrong by me,

“Nor wrote such letters therefore. It is false,

“And you are true, have been true, will be true.

“To Rome then — when is it you take me there?

880

“Each minute lost is mortal. When? — I ask.”

I answered, “It shall be when it can be.

“I will go hence and do your pleasure, find

“The sure and speedy means of travel, then

“Come back and take you to your friends in Rome.

“There wants a carriage, money and the rest —

“A day’s work by to-morrow at this time.

“How shall I see you and assure escape?”

She replied, “Pass, to-morrow at this hour.

“If I am at the open window, well:

890

“If I am absent, drop a handkerchief

“And walk by! I shall see from where I watch,

“And know that all is done. Return next eve,

“And next, and so till we can meet and speak!”

“To-morrow at this hour I pass,” said I.

She was withdrawn.

        Here is another point

I bid you pause at. When I told thus far,

Someone said, subtly, “Here at least was found

“Your confidence in error — you perceived

900

“The spirit of the letters, in a sort,

“Had been the lady’s, if the body should be

“Supplied by Guido: say, he forged them all!

“Here was the unforged fact — she sent for you,

“Spontaneously elected you to help,

“— What men call, loved you: Guido read her mind,

“Gave it expression to assure the world

“The case was just as he foresaw: he wrote,

“She spoke.”

        Sirs, that first simile serves still —

910

That falsehood of a scorpion hatched, I say,

Nowhere i’ the world but in Madonna’s mouth.

Go on! Suppose, that falsehood foiled, next eve

Pictured Madonna raised her painted hand,

Fixed the face Rafael bent above the Babe,

On my face as I flung me at her feet:

Such miracle vouchsafed and manifest,

Would that prove the first lying tale was true?

Pompilia spoke, and I at once received,

Accepted my own fact, my miracle

920

Self-authorised and self-explained — she chose

To summon me and signify her choice.

Afterward — oh! I gave a passing glance

To a certain ugly cloud- shape, goblin-shred

Of hell-smoke hurrying past the splendid moon

Out now to tolerate no darkness more,

And saw right through the thing that tried to pass

For truth and solid, not an empty lie:

“So, he not only forged the words for her

“But word for me, made letters he called mine:

930

“What I sent, he retained, gave these in place,

“All by the mistress-messenger! As I

“Recognised her, at potency of truth,

“So she, by the crystalline soul, knew me,

“Never mistook the signs. Enough of this —

“Let the wraith go to nothingness again,

“Here is the orb, have only thought for her!”

“Thought?” nay, Sirs, what shall follow was not thought:

I have thought sometimes, and thought long and hard.

I have stood before, gone round a serious thing,

940

Tasked my whole mind to touch and clasp it close,

As I stretch forth my arm to touch this bar.

God and man, and what duty I owe both —

I dare to say I have confronted these

In thought: but no such faculty helped here.

I put forth no thought — powerless, all that night

I paced the city: it was the first Spring.

By the invasion I lay passive to,

In rushed new things, the old were rapt away;

Alike abolished — the imprisonment

950

Of the outside air, the inside weight o’ the world

That pulled me down. Death meant, to spurn the ground,

Soar to the sky — die well and you do that.

The very immolation made the bliss;

Death was the heart of life, and all the harm

My folly had crouched to avoid, now proved a veil

Hiding all gain my wisdom strove to grasp:

As if the intense centre of the flame

Should turn a heaven to that devoted fly

Which hitherto, sophist alike and sage,

960

Saint Thomas with his sober grey goose-quill,

And sinner Plato by Cephisian reed,

Would fain, pretending just the insect’s good,

Whisk off, drive back, consign to shade again.

Into another state, under new rule

I knew myself was passing swift and sure;

Whereof the initiatory pang approached,

Felicitous annoy, as bitter- sweet

As when the virgin-band, the victors chaste,

Feel at the end the earthly garments drop,

970

And rise with something of a rosy shame

Into immortal nakedness: so I

Lay, and let come the proper throe would thrill

Into the ecstacy and outthrob pain.

I’ the grey of dawn it was I found myself

Facing the pillared front o’ the Pieve — mine,

My church: it seemed to say for the first time

“But am not I the Bride, the mystic love

“O’ the Lamb, who took thy plighted troth, my priest,

“To fold thy warm heart on my heart of stone

980

“And freeze thee nor unfasten any more?

“This is a fleshly woman — let the free

“Bestow their life-blood, thou art pulseless now!”

See! Day by day I had risen and left this church

At the signal waved me by some foolish fan,

With half a curse and half a pitying smile

For the monk I stumbled over in my haste,

Prostrate and corpse-like at the altar-foot

Intent on his corona: then the church

Was ready with her quip, if word conduced,

990

To quicken my pace nor stop for prating —“There!

“Be thankful you are no such ninny, go

“Rather to teach a black-eyed novice cards

“Than gabble Latin and protrude that nose

“Smoothed to a sheep’s through no brains and much faith!”

That sort of incentive! Now the church changed tone —

Now, when I found out first that life and death

Are means to an end, that passion uses both,

Indisputably mistress of the man

Whose form of worship is self-sacrifice —

1000

Now, from the stone lungs sighed the scrannel voice

“Leave that passion, come be dead with me!”

As if, i’ the fabled garden, I had gone

On great adventure, plucked in ignorance

Hedge-fruit, and feasted to satiety,

Laughing at such high fame for hips and haws,

And scorned the achievement: then come all at once

O’ the prize o’ the place, the thing of perfect gold,

The apple’s self: and, scarce my eye on that,

Was ’ware as well o’ the seven-fold dragon’s watch.

1010

Sirs, I obeyed. Obedience was too strange —

This new thing that had been struck into me

By the look o’ the lady — to dare disobey

The first authoritative word. ’Twas God’s.

I had been lifted to the level of her,

Could take such sounds into my sense. I said

“We two are cognisant o’ the Master now;

“It is she bids me bow the head: how true,

“I am a priest! I see the function here;

“I thought the other way self-sacrifice:

1020

“This is the true, seals up the perfect sum.

“I pay it, sit down, silently obey.”

So, I went home. Dawn broke, noon broadened, I

I sat stone-still, let time run over me.

The sun slanted into my room, had reached

The west. I opened book — Aquinas blazed

With one black name only on the white page.

I looked up, saw the sunset: vespers rang:

“She counts the minutes till I keep my word

“And come say all is ready. I am a priest

1030

“Duty to God is duty to her: I think

“God, who created her, will save her too

“Some new way, by one miracle the more,

“Without me. Then, prayer may avail perhaps.”

I went to my own place i’ the Pieve, read

The office: I was back at home again

Sitting i’ the dark. “Could she but know — but know

“That, were there good in this distinct from God’s,

“Really good as it reached her, though procured

“By a sin of mine — I should sin: God forgives.

1040

“She knows it is no fear withholds me: fear?

“Of what? Suspense here is the terrible thing.

“If she should, as she counts the minutes, come

“On the fantastic notion that I fear

“The world now, fear the Archbishop, fear perhaps

“Count Guido, he who, having forged the lies,

“May wait the work, attend the effect — I fear

“The sword of Guido! Let God see to that —

“Hating lies, let not her believe a lie!”

Again the morning found me. “I will work,

1050

“Tie down my foolish thoughts. Thank God so far!

“I have saved her from a scandal, stopped the tongues

“Had broken else into a cackle and hiss

“Around the noble name. Duty is still

“Wisdom: I have been wise.” So the day wore.

At evening —“But, achieving victory,

“I must not blink the priest’s peculiar part,

“Nor shrink to counsel, comfort: priest and friend —

“How do we discontinue to be friends?

“I will go minister, advise her seek

1060

“Help at the source — above all, not despair:

“There may be other happier help at hand.

“I hope it — wherefore then neglect to say?”

There she stood — leaned there, for the second time,

Over the terrace, looked at me, then spoke:

“Why is it you have suffered me to stay

“Breaking my heart two days more than was need?

“Why delay help, your own heart yearns to give?

“You are again here, in the self-same mind,

“I see here, steadfast in the face of you —

1070

“You grudge to do no one thing that I ask.

“Why then is nothing done? You know my need.

“Still, through God’s pity on me, there is time

“And one day more: shall I be saved or no?”

I answered —“Lady, waste no thought, no word

“Even to forgive me! Care for what I care —

“Only! Now follow me as I were fate!

“Leave this house in the dark to-morrow night,

“Just before daybreak:— there’s new moon this eve —

“It sets, and then begins the solid black.

1080

“Descend, proceed to the Torrione, step

“Over the low dilapidated wall,

“Take San Clemente, there’s no other gate

“Unguarded at the hour: some paces thence

“An inn stands; cross to it; I shall be there.”

She answered, “If I can but find the way.

“But I shall find it. Go now!”

        I did go,

Took rapidly the route myself prescribed,

Stopped at Torrione, climbed the ruined place,

1090

Proved that the gate was practicable, reached

The inn, no eye, despite the dark, could miss,

Knocked there and entered, made the host secure:

“With Caponsacchi it is ask and have;

“I know my betters. Are you bound for Rome?

“I get swift horse and trusty man,” said he.

Then I retraced my steps, was found once more

In my own house for the last time: there lay

The broad pale opened Summa. “Shut his book,

“There’s other showing! ’Twas a Thomas too

1100

“Obtained — more favoured than his namesake here —

“A gift, tied faith fast, foiled the tug of doubt —

“Our Lady’s girdle; down he saw it drop

“As she ascended into heaven, they say:

“He kept that safe and bade all doubt adieu.

“I too have seen a lady and hold a grace.”

I know not how the night passed: morning broke:

Presently came my servant. “Sir, this eve —

“Do you forget?” I started. —“How forget?

“What is it you know?”—“With due submission, Sir,

1110

“This being last Monday in the month but one

“And a vigil, since to-morrow is Saint George,

“And feast day, and moreover day for copes,

“And Canon Conti now away a month,

“And Canon Crispi sour because, forsooth,

“You let him sulk in stall and bear the brunt

“Of the octave. . . . Well, Sir, ’tis important!”

        “True!”

“Hearken, I have to start for Rome this night.

“No word, lest Crispi overboil and burst!

1120

“Provide me with a laic dress! Throw dust

“I’ the Canon’s eye, stop his tongue’s scandal so!

“See there’s a sword in case of accident.”

I knew the knave, the knave knew me.

        And thus

Through each familiar hindrance of the day

Did I make steadily for its hour and end —

Felt time’s old barrier-growth of right and fit

Give way through all its twines and let me go;

Use and wont recognised the excepted man,

1130

Let speed the special service — and I sped

Till, at the dead between midnight and morn,

There was I at the goal, before the gate,

With a tune in the ears, low leading up to loud,

A light in the eyes, faint that would soon be flare,

Ever some spiritual witness new and new

In faster frequence, crowding solitude

To watch the way o’ the warfare — till, at last,

When the ecstatic minute must bring birth,

Began a whiteness in the distance, waxed

1140

Whiter and whiter, near grew and more near,

Till it was she: there did Pompilia come:

The white I saw shine through her was her soul’s,

Certainly, for the body was one black,

Black from head down to foot. She did not speak,

Glided into the carriage — so a cloud

Gathers the moon up. “By San Spirito,

“To Rome, as if the road burned underneath!

“Reach Rome, then hold my head in pledge, I pay

“The run and the risk to heart’s content!” Just that,

1150

I said — then, in another tick of time,

Sprang, was beside her, she and I alone.

So it began, our flight thro’ dusk to clear,

Through day and night and day again to night

Once more, and to last dreadful dawn of all.

Sirs, how should I lie quiet in my grave

Unless you suffer me wring, drop by drop,

My brain dry, make a riddance of the drench

Of minutes with a memory in each,

Recorded motion, breath or look of hers,

1160

Which poured forth would present you one pure glass,

Mirror you plain — as God’s sea, glassed in gold,

His saints — the perfect soul Pompilia? Men,

You must know that a man gets drunk with truth

Stagnant inside him! Oh, they’ve killed her, Sirs!

Can I be calm?

        Calmly! Each incident

Proves, I maintain, that action of the flight

For the true thing it was. The first faint scratch

O’ the stone will test its nature, teach its worth

1170

To idiots who name Parian, coprolite.

After all, I shall give no glare — at best

Only display you certain scattered lights

Lamping the rush and roll of the abyss —

Nothing but here and there a fire-point pricks

Wavelet from wavelet: well!

        For the first hour

We both were silent in the night, I know:

Sometimes I did not see nor understand.

Blackness engulphed me — partial stupor, say —

1180

Then I would break way, breathe through the surprise,

And be aware again, and see who sat

In the dark vest with the white face and hands.

I said to myself —“I have caught it, I conceive

“The mind o’ the mystery: ’tis the way they wake

“And wait, two martyrs somewhere in a tomb

“Each by each as their blessing was to die;

“Some signal they are promised and expect,

“When to arise before the trumpet scares:

“So, through the whole course of the world they wait

1190

“The last day, but so fearless and so safe!

“No otherwise, in safety and not fear,

“I lie, because she lies too by my side.”

You know this is not love, Sirs — it is faith,

The feeling that there’s God, he reigns and rules

Out of this low world: that is all; no harm!

At times she drew a soft sigh — music seemed

Always to hover just above her lips

Not settle — break a silence music too.

In the determined morning, I first found

1200

Her head erect, her face turned full to me,

Her soul intent on mine through two wide eyes.

I answered them. “You are saved hitherto.

“We have passed Perugia — gone round by the wood,

“Not through, I seem to think — and opposite

“I know Assisi; this is holy ground.”

Then she resumed. “How long since we both left

“Arezzo?”—“Years — and certain hours beside.”

It was at . . . ah, but I forget the names!

’Tis a mere post-house and a hovel or two —

1210

I left the carriage and got bread and wine

And brought it her. —“Does it detain to eat?”

“— They stay perforce, change horses — therefore eat!

We lose no minute: we arrive, be sure!”

She said — I know not where — there’s a great hill

Close over, and the stream has lost its bridge,

One fords it. She began —“I have heard say

“Of some sick body that my mother knew,

“’Twas no good sign when in a limb diseased

“All the pain suddenly departs — as if

1220

“The guardian angel discontinued pain

“Because the hope of cure was gone at last:

“The limb will not again exert itself,

“It needs be pained no longer: so with me,

“— My soul whence all the pain is past at once:

“All pain must be to work some good in the end.

“True, this I feel now, this may be that good,

“Pain was because of — otherwise, I fear!”

She said — a long while later in the day,

When I had let the silence be — abrupt —

1230

“Have you a mother?”—“She died, I was born.”

“A sister then?”—“No sister.”—“Who was it —

“What woman were you used to serve this way,

“Be kind to, till I called you and you came?”

I did not like that word. Soon afterward —

“Tell me, are men unhappy, in some kind

“Of mere unhappiness at being men,

“As women suffer, being womanish?

“Have you, now, some unhappiness, I mean,

“Born of what may be man’s strength overmuch,

1240

“To match the undue susceptibility,

“The sense at every pore when hate is close?

“It hurts us if a baby hides its face

“Or child strikes at us punily, calls names

“Or makes a mouth — much more if stranger men

“Laugh or frown — just as that were much to bear!

“Yet rocks split — and the blow-ball does no more,

“Quivers to feathery nothing at a touch;

“And strength may have its drawback, weakness scapes.”

Once she asked, “What is it that made you smile,

1250

“At the great gate with the eagles and the snakes,

“Where the company entered, ’tis a long time since?”

“— Forgive — I think you would not understand:

“Ah, but you ask me — therefore, it was this.

“That was a certain bishop’s villa-gate,

“I knew it by the eagles — and at once

“Remembered this same bishop was just he

“People of old were wont to bid me please

“If I would catch preferment: so, I smiled

“Because an impulse came to me, a whim —

1260

“What if I prayed the prelate leave to speak,

“Began upon him in his presence-hall

“—‘What, still at work so grey and obsolete?

“ ‘Still rocheted and mitred more or less?

“ ‘Don’t you feel all that out of fashion now?

“ ‘I find out when the day of things is done!’ ”

At eve we heard the angelus: she turned —

“I told you I can neither read nor write.

“My life stopped with the play-time; I will learn,

“If I begin to live again: but you —

1270

“Who are a priest — wherefore do you not read

“The service at this hour? Read Gabriel’s song,

“The lesson, and then read the little prayer

“To Raphael, proper for us travellers!”

I did not like that, neither, but I read.

When we stopped at Foligno it was dark.

The people of the post came out with lights:

The driver said, “This time to-morrow, may

“Saints only help, relays continue good,

“Nor robbers hinder, we arrive at Rome.”

1280

I urged — “Why tax your strength a second night?

“Trust me, alight here and take brief repose!

“We are out of harm’s reach, past pursuit: go sleep

“If but an hour! I keep watch, guard the while

“Here in the doorway.” But her whole face changed,

The misery grew again about her mouth,

The eyes burned up from faintness, like the fawn’s

Tired to death in the thicket, when she feels

The probing spear o’ the huntsman. “Oh, no stay!”

She cried, in the fawn’s cry, “On to Rome, on, on —

1290

“Unless ’tis you who fear — which cannot be!”

We did go on all night; but at its close

She was troubled, restless, moaned low, talked at whiles

To herself, her brow on quiver with the dream:

Once, wide awake, she menaced, at arms’ length

Waved away something —“Never again with you!

“My soul is mine, my body is my soul’s:

“You and I are divided ever more

“In soul and body: get you gone!” Then I—

“Why, in my whole life I have never prayed!

1300

“Oh, if the God, that only can, would help!

“Am I his priest with power to cast out fiends?

“Let God arise and all his enemies

“Be scattered!” By morn, there was peace, no sigh

Out of the deep sleep.

        When she woke at last,

I answered the first look —“Scarce twelve hours more,

“Then, Rome! There probably was no pursuit,

“There cannot now be peril: bear up brave!

“Just some twelve hours to press through to the prize —

1310

“Then, no more of the terrible journey!” “Then,

“No more o’ the journey: if it might but last!

“Always, my life-long, thus to journey still!

“It is the interruption that I dread —

“With no dread, ever to be here and thus!

“Never to see a face nor hear a voice!

“Yours is no voice; you speak when you are dumb;

“Nor face, I see it in the dark. I want

“No face nor voice that change and grow unkind.”

That I liked, that was the best thing she said.

1320

In the broad day, I dared entreat, “Descend!”

I told a woman, at the garden-gate

By the post- house, white and pleasant in the sun,

“It is my sister — talk with her apart!

“She is married and unhappy, you perceive;

“I take her home because her head is hurt;

“Comfort her as you women understand!”

So, there I left them by the garden-wall,

Paced the road, then bade put the horses to,

Came back, and there she sat: close to her knee,

1330

A black-eyed child still held the bowl of milk,

Wondered to see how little she could drink,

And in her arms the woman’s infant lay.

She smiled at me “How much good this has done!

“This is a whole night’s rest and how much more!

“I can proceed now, though I wish to stay.

“How do you call that tree with the thick top

“That holds in all its leafy green and gold

“The sun now like an immense egg of fire?”

(It was a million-leaved mimosa.) “Take

1340

“The babe away from me and let me go!”

And in the carriage, “Still a day, my friend;

“And perhaps half a night, the woman fears.

“I pray it finish since it cannot last.

“There may be more misfortune at the close,

“And where will you be? God suffice me then!”

And presently — for there was a roadside-shrine —

“When I was taken first to my own church

“Lorenzo in Lucina, being a girl,

“And bid confess my faults, I interposed,

1350

“ ‘But teach me what fault to confess and know!’

“So, the priest said —‘You should bethink yourself:

“ ‘Each human being needs must have done wrong!’

“Now, be you candid and no priest but friend —

“Were I surprised and killed here on the spot,

“A runaway from husband and his home,

“Do you account it were in sin I died?

“My husband used to seem to harm me, not . . .

“Not on pretence he punished sin of mine,

“Nor for sin’s sake and lust of cruelty,

1360

“But as I heard him bid a farming-man

“At the villa take a lamb once to the wood

“And there ill-treat it, meaning that the wolf

“Should hear its cries, and so come, quick be caught,

“Enticed to the trap: he practised thus with me

“That so, whatever were his gain thereby,

“Others that I might become prey and spoil.

“Had it been only between our two selves —

“His pleasure and my pain — why, pleasure him

“By dying, nor such need to make a coil!

1370

“But this was worth an effort, that my pain

“Should not become a snare, prove pain threefold

“To other people — strangers — or unborn —

“How should I know? I sought release from that —

“I think, or else from — dare I say, some cause

“Such as is put into a tree, which turns

“Away from the northwind with what nest it holds —

“The woman said that trees so turn: now, friend,

“Tell me, because I cannot trust myself!

“You are a man: what have I done amiss?”

1380

You must conceive my answer — I forget —

Taken up wholly with the thought, perhaps,

This time she might have said — might, did not say —

“You are a priest.” She said, “my friend.”

        Day wore,

We passed the places, somehow the calm went,

Again the restless eyes began to rove

In new fear of the foe mine could not see:

She wandered in her mind — addressed me once

“Gaetano!”— that is not my name: whose name?

1390

I grew alarmed, my head seemed turning too:

I quickened pace with promise now, now threat:

Bade drive and drive, nor any stopping more.

“Too deep i’ the thick of the struggle, struggle through!

“Then drench her in repose though death’s self pour

“The plenitude of quiet — help us, God,

“Whom the winds carry!”

        Suddenly I saw

The old tower, and the little white-walled clump

Of buildings and the cypress-tree or two —

1400

“Already Castelnuovo — Rome!” I cried,

“As good as Rome — Rome is the next stage, think!

“This is where travellers’ hearts are wont to beat.

“Say you are saved, sweet lady!” Up she woke.

The sky was fierce with colour from the sun

Setting. She screamed out “No, I must not die!

“Take me no farther, I should die: stay here!

“I have more life to save than mine!”

        She swooned.

We seemed safe: what was it foreboded so?

1410

Out of the coach into the inn I bore

The motionless and breathless pure and pale

Pompilia — bore her through a pitying group

And laid her on a couch, still calm and cured

By deep sleep of all woes at once. The host

Was urgent “Let her stay an hour or two!

“Leave her to us, all will be right by morn!”

Oh, my foreboding! But I could not choose.

I paced the passage, kept watch all night long.

I listened — not one movement, not one sigh.

1420

“Fear not: she sleeps so sound!” they said — but I

Feared, all the same, kept fearing more and more,

Found myself throb with fear from head to foot,

Filled with a sense of such impending woe,

That, at first pause of night, pretence of grey,

I made my mind up it was morn. —“Reach Rome,

“Lest hell reach her! A dozen miles to make,

“Another long breath, and we emerge!” I stood

I’ the court-yard, roused the sleepy grooms.

        “Have out

“Carriage and horse, give haste, take gold!”— said I.

1430

While they made ready in the doubtful morn —

’Twas the last minute — needs must I ascend

And break her sleep; I turned to go.

        And there

Faced me Count Guido, there posed the mean man

As master — took the field, encamped his rights,

Challenged the world: there leered new triumph, there

Scowled the old malice in the visage bad

And black o’ the scamp. Soon triumph suppled the tongue

A little, malice glued to his dry throat,

And he part howled, part hissed . . . oh, how he kept

1441

Well out o’ the way, at arm’s length and to spare! —

“My salutation to your priestship! What?

“Matutinal, busy with book so soon

“Of an April day that’s damp as tears that now

“Deluge Arezzo at its darling’s flight? —

“’Tis unfair, wrongs feminity at large,

“To let a single dame monopolize

“A heart the whole sex claims, should share alike:

“Therefore I overtake you, Canon! Come!

1450

“The lady — could you leave her side so soon?

“You have not yet experienced at her hands

“My treatment, you lay down undrugged, I see!

“Hence this alertness — hence no death-in-life

“Like what held arms fast when she stole from mine.

“To be sure, you took the solace and repose

“That first night at Foligno! — news abound

“O’ the road by this time — men regaled me much,

“As past them I came halting after you,

“Vulcan pursuing Mars, as poets sing —

1460

“Still at the last here pant I, but arrive,

“Vulcan — and not without my Cyclops too,

“The Commissary and the unpoisoned arm

“O’ the Civil Force, should Mars turn mutineer.

“Enough of fooling: capture the culprits, friend!

“Here is the lover in the smart disguise

“With the sword — he is a priest, so mine lies still:

“There upstairs hides my wife the runaway,

“His leman: the two plotted, poisoned first,

“Plundered me after, and eloped thus far

1470

“Where now you find them. Do your duty quick!

“Arrest and hold him! That’s done: now catch her!”

During this speech of that man — well, I stood

Away, as he managed — still, I stood as near

The throat of him — with these two hands, my own —

As now I stand near yours, Sir — one quick spring,

One great good satisfying gripe, and lo!

There had he lain abolished with his lie,

Creation purged o’ the miscreate, man redeemed,

A spittle wiped off from the face of God!

1480

I, in some measure, seek a poor excuse

For what I left undone, in just this fact

That my first feeling at the speech I quote

Was — not of what a blasphemy was dared,

Not what a bag of venomed purulence

Was split and noisome — but how splendidly

Mirthful, what ludicrous a lie was launched!

Would Molière’s self wish more than hear such man

Call, claim such woman for his own, his wife,

Even though, in due amazement at the boast,

1490

He had stammered, she moreover was divine?

She to be his — were hardly less absurd

Than that he took her name into his mouth,

Licked, and then let it go again, the beast,

Signed with his slaver. Oh, she poisoned him,

Plundered him, and the rest! Well, what I wished

Was, that he would but go on, say once more

So to the world, and get his meed of men,

The fist’s reply to the filth. And while I mused,

The minute, oh the misery, was gone!

1500

On either idle hand of me there stood

Really an officer, nor laughed i’ the least.

They rendered justice to his reason, laid

Logic to heart, as ’twere submitted them

“Twice two makes four.”

        “And now, catch her!”— he cried.

That sobered me. “Let myself lead the way —

“Ere you arrest me, who am somebody,

“And, as you hear, a priest and privileged —

“To the lady’s chamber! I presume you — men

1510

“Expert, instructed how to find out truth,

“Familiar with the guise of guilt. Detect

“Guilt on her face when it meets mine, then judge

“Between us and the mad dog howling there!”

Up we all went together, in they broke

O’ the chamber late my chapel. There she lay,

Composed as when I laid her, that last eve,

O’ the couch, still breathless, motionless, sleep’s self,

Wax-white, seraphic, saturate with the sun

O’ the morning that now flooded from the front

1520

And filled the window with a light like blood.

“Behold the poisoner, the adulteress,

“— And feigning sleep too! Seize, bind!”— Guido hissed.

She started up, stood erect, face to face

With the husband: back he fell, was buttressed there

By the window all a-flame with morning-red,

He the black figure, the opprobrious blur

Against all peace and joy and light and life.

“Away from between me and hell!”— she cried:

“Hell for me, no embracing any more!

1530

“I am God’s, I love God, God — whose knees I clasp,

“Whose utterly most just award I take,

“But bear no more love-making devils: hence!”

I may have made an effort to reach her side

From where I stood i’ the door- way — anyhow

I found the arms, I wanted, pinioned fast,

Was powerless in the clutch to left and right

O’ the rabble pouring in, rascality

Enlisted, rampant on the side of hearth,

Home, and the husband — pay in prospect too!

1540

They heaped themselves upon me. —“Ha! — and him

“Also you outrage? Him, too, my sole friend,

“Guardian, and saviour? That I baulk you of,

“Since — see how God can help at last and worst!”

She sprung at the sword that hung beside him, seized,

Drew, brandished it, the sunrise burned for joy

O’ the blade, “Die,” cried she, “devil, in God’s name!”

Ah, but they all closed round her, twelve to one,

— The unmanly men, no woman-mother made,

Spawned somehow! Dead-white and disarmed she lay.

1550

No matter for the sword, her word sufficed

To spike the coward through and through: he shook,

Could only spit between the teeth —“You see?

“You hear? Bear witness, then! Write down . . . but, no —

“Carry these criminals to the prison-house,

“For first thing! I begin my search meanwhile

“After the stolen effects, gold, jewels, plate,

“Money, and clothes, they robbed me of and fled:

“With no few amorous pieces, verse and prose,

“I have much reason to expect to find.”

1560

When I saw, that — no more than the first mad speech,

Made out the speaker mad and a laughing- stock,

So neither did this next device explode

One listener’s indignation — that a scribe

Did sit down, set himself to write indeed,

And sundry knaves began to peer and pry

In corner and hole — that Guido, wiping brow

And getting him a countenance, was fast

Losing his fear, beginning to strut free

O’ the stage of his exploit, snuff here, sniff there —

1570

I took the truth in, guessed sufficiently

The service for the moment —“What I say,

“Slight at your peril! We are aliens here,

“My adversary and I, called noble both;

“I am the nobler, and a name men know.

“I could refer our cause to our own court

“In our own country, but prefer appeal

“To the nearer jurisdiction. Being a priest,

“Though in a secular garb — for reasons good

“I shall adduce in due time to my peers —

1580

“I demand that the Church I serve, decide

“Between us, right the slandered lady there.

“A Tuscan noble, I might claim the Duke:

“A priest, I rather choose the Church — bid Rome

“Cover the wronged with her inviolate shield.”

There was no refusing this: they bore me off,

They bore her off, to separate cells o’ the same

Ignoble prison, and, separate, thence to Rome.

Pompilia’s face, then and thus, looked on me

The last time in this life: not one sight since,

1590

Never another sight to be! And yet

I thought I had saved her. I appealed to Rome:

It seems I simply sent her to her death.

You tell me she is dying now, or dead;

I cannot bring myself to quite believe

This is a place you torture people in:

What if this your intelligence were just

A subtlety, an honest wile to work

On a man at unawares? ’Twere worthy you.

No, Sirs, I cannot have the lady dead!

1600

That erect form, flashing brow, fulgurant eye,

That voice immortal (oh, that voice of hers!)

That vision in the blood-red day-break — that

Leap to life of the pale electric sword

Angels go armed with — that was not the last

O’ the lady! Come, I see through it, you find —

Know the manœuvre! Also herself said

I had saved her: do you dare say she spoke false?

Let me see for myself if it be so!

Though she were dying, a priest might be of use,

1610

The more when he’s a friend too — she called me

Far beyond “friend.” Come, let me see her — indeed

It is my duty, being a priest: I hope

I stand confessed, established, proved a priest?

My punishment had motive that, a priest

I, in a laic garb, a mundane mode,

Did what were harmlessly done otherwise.

I never touched her with my finger-tip

Except to carry her to the couch, that eve,

Against my heart, beneath my head, bowed low,

1620

As we priests carry the paten: that is why

— To get leave and go see her of your grace —

I have told you this whole story over again.

Do I deserve grace? For I might lock lips,

Laugh at your jurisdiction: what have you

To do with me in the matter? I suppose

You hardly think I donned a bravo’s dress

To have a hand in the new crime; on the old,

Judgment’s delivered, penalty imposed,

I was chained fast at Civita hand and foot —

1630

She had only you to trust to, you and Rome,

Rome and the Church, and no pert meddling priest

Two days ago, when Guido, with the right,

Hacked her to pieces. One might well be wroth;

I have been patient, done my best to help:

I come from Civita and punishment

As a friend of the court — and for pure friendship’s sake

Have told my tale to the end — nay, not the end —

For, wait — I’ll end — not leave you that excuse!

When we were parted — shall I go on there?

1640

I was presently brought to Rome — yes, here I stood

Opposite yonder very crucifix —

And there sat you and you, Sirs, quite the same,

I heard charge, and bore question, and told tale

Noted down in the book there — turn and see

If, by one jot or tittle, I vary now!

I’ the colour the tale takes, there’s change perhaps;

’Tis natural, since the sky is different,

Eclipse in the air now; still, the outline stays.

I showed you how it came to be my part

1650

To save the lady. Then your clerk produced

Papers, a pack of stupid and impure

Banalities called letters about love —

Love, indeed — I could teach who styled them so.

Better, I think, though priest and loveless both!

“— How was it that a wife, young, innocent,

“And stranger to your person, wrote this page?”—

“— She wrote it when the Holy Father wrote

“The bestiality that posts thro’ Rome,

“Put in his mouth by Pasquin.”—“Nor perhaps

1660

“Did you return these answers, verse, and prose,

“Signed, sealed and sent the lady? There’s your hand!”

“— This precious piece of verse, I really judge

“Is meant to copy my own character,

“A clumsy mimic; and this other prose,

“Not so much even; both rank forgery:

“Verse, quotha? Bembo’s verse! When Saint John wrote

“The tract ‘De Tribus,’ I wrote this to match.”

“— How came it, then, the documents were found

“At the inn on your departure?”—“I opine,

1670

“Because there were no documents to find

“In my presence — you must hide before you find.

“Who forged them, hardly practised in my view;

“Who found them, waited till I turned my back.”

“— And what of the clandestine visits paid,

“Nocturnal passage in and out the house

“With its lord absent? ’Tis alleged you climbed . . . ”

“— Flew on a broomstick to the man i’ the moon!

“Who witnessed or will testify this trash?”

“— The trusty servant, Margherita’s self,

1680

“Even she who brought you letters, you confess,

“And, you confess, took letters in reply:

“Forget not we have knowledge of the facts!”

“— Sirs, who have knowledge of the facts, defray

“The expenditure of wit, I waste in vain,

“Trying to find out just one fact of all!

“She who brought letters from who could not write,

“And took back letters to who could not read —

“Who was that messenger, of your charity?”

“— Well, so far favours you the circumstance

“That this same messenger . . . how shall we say? . . .

1691

Sub imputatione meretricis

Laborat, — which makes accusation null:

“We waive this woman’s:— nought makes void the next.

“Borsi, called Venerino, he who drove,

“O’ the first night when you fled away, at length

“Deposes to your kissings in the coach,

“— Frequent, frenetic . . . ” “When deposed he so?”

“After some weeks of sharp imprisonment . . . ”

“— Granted by friend the Governor, I engage —”

1700

“— For his participation in your flight!

“At length his obduracy melting made

“The avowal mentioned . . . ” “Was dismissed forthwith

“To liberty, poor knave, for recompense.

“Sirs, give what credit to the lie you can!

“For me, no word in my defence I speak,

“And God shall argue for the lady!”

        So

Did I stand question, and make answer, still

With the same result of smiling disbelief,

1710

Polite impossibility of faith

In such affected virtue in a priest;

But a showing fair play, an indulgence, even,

To one no worse than others after all —

Who had not brought disgrace to the order, played

Discreetly, ruffled gown nor ripped the cloth

In a bungling game at romps: I have told you, Sirs —

If I pretended simply to be pure,

Honest, and Christian in the case — absurd!

As well go boast myself above the needs

1720

O’ the human nature, careless how meat smells,

Wine tastes — a saint above the smack! But once

Abate my crest, own flaws i’ the flesh, agree

To go with the herd, be hog no more nor less,

Why, hogs in common herd have common rights —

I must not be unduly borne upon,

Who had just romanced a little, sown wild oats,

But ’scaped without a scandal, flagrant fault.

My name helped to a mirthful circumstance:

“Joseph” would do well to amend his plea:

1730

Undoubtedly — some toying with the wife,

But as for ruffian violence and rape,

Potiphar pressed too much on the other side!

The intrigue, the elopement, the disguise — well charged!

The letters and verse looked hardly like the truth.

Your apprehension was — of guilt enough

To be compatible with innocence,

So, punished best a little and not too much.

Had I struck Guido Franceschini’s face,

You had counselled me withdraw for my own sake,

1740

Baulk him of bravo-hiring. Friends came round,

Congratulated, “Nobody mistakes!

“The pettiness o’ the forfeiture defines

“The peccadillo: Guido gets his share:

“His wife is free of husband and hook-nose,

“The mouldy viands and the mother-in-law.

“To Civita with you and amuse the time,

“Travesty us ‘De Raptu Helenœ!”

“A funny figure must the husband cut

“When the wife makes him skip — too ticklish, eh?

1750

“Do it in Latin, not the Vulgar, then!

“Scazons — we’ll copy and send his Eminence!

“Mind — one iambus in the final foot!

“He’ll rectify it, be your friend for life!”

Oh, Sirs, depend on me for much new light

Thrown on the justice and religion here

By this proceeding, much fresh food for thought!

And I was just set down to study these

In relegation, two short days ago,

Admiring how you read the rules, when, clap,

1760

A thunder comes into my solitude —

I am caught up in a whirlwind and cast here,

Told of a sudden, in this room where so late

You dealt out law adroitly, that those scales,

I meekly bowed to, took my allotment from,

Guido has snatched at, broken in your hands,

Metes to himself the murder of his wife,

Full measure, pressed down, running over now!

Can I assist to an explanation? — Yes,

I rise in your esteem, sagacious Sirs,

1770

Stand up a renderer of reasons, not

The officious priest would personate Saint George

For a mock Princess in undragoned days,

What, the blood startles you? What, after all

The priest who needs must carry sword on thigh

May find imperative use for it? Then, there was

A princess, was a dragon belching flame,

And should have been a Saint George also? Then,

There might be worse schemes than to break the bonds

At Arezzo, lead her by the little hand,

1780

Till she reached Rome, and let her try to live?

But you were the law and the gospel — would one please

Stand back, allow your faculty elbow-room?

You blind guides who must needs lead eyes that see!

Fools, alike ignorant of man and God!

What was there here should have perplexed your wit

For a wink of the owl- eyes of you? How miss, then,

What’s now forced on you by this flare of fact —

As if Saint Peter failed to recognise

Nero as no apostle, John or James,

1790

Till someone burned a martyr, make a torch

O’ the blood and fat to show his features by!

Could you fail read this cartulary aright

On head and front of Franceschini there,

Large-lettered like hell’s masterpiece of print —

That he, from the beginning pricked at heart

By some lust, letch of hate against his wife,

Plotted to plague her into overt sin

And shame, would slay Pompilia body and soul,

And save his mean self — miserably caught

1800

I’ the quagmire of his own tricks, cheats, and lies?

— That himself wrote those papers — from himself

To himself — which, i’ the name of me and her,

His mistress-messenger gave her and me,

Touching us with such pustules of the soul

That she and I might take the taint, be shown

To the world and shuddered over, speckled so?

— That the agent put her sense into my words,

Made substitution of the thing she hoped,

For the thing she had and held, its opposite,

1810

While the husband in the background bit his lips

At each fresh failure of his precious plot?

— That when at the last we did rush each on each,

By no chance but because God willed it so —

The spark of truth was struck from out our souls —

Made all of me, descried in the first glance,

Seem fair and honest and permissible love

O’ the good and true — as the first glance told me

There was no duty patent in the world

Like daring try be good and true myself,

1820

Leaving the shows of things to the Lord of Show

And prince o’ the Power of the Air. Our very flight,

Even to its most ambiguous circumstance,

Irrefragably proved how futile, false . . .

Why, men — men and not boys — boys and not babes —

Babes and not beasts — beasts and not stocks and stones! —

Had the liar’s lie been true one pin-point speck,

Were I the accepted suitor, free o’ the place,

Disposer of the time, to come at a call

And go at a wink as who should say me nay —

1830

What need of flight, what were the gain therefrom

But just damnation, failure or success?

Damnation pure and simple to her the wife

And me the priest — who bartered private bliss

For public reprobation, the safe shade

For the sunshine which men see to pelt me by:

What other advantage — we who led the days

And nights alone i’ the house — was flight to find?

In our whole journey did we stop an hour,

Diverge a foot from strait road till we reached

1840

Or would have reached — but for that fate of ours —

The father and mother, in the eye of Rome,

The eye of yourselves we made aware of us

At the first fall of misfortune? And indeed

You did so far give sanction to our flight,

Confirm its purpose, as lend helping hand,

Deliver up Pompilia not to him

She fled, but those the flight was ventured for.

Why then could you, who stopped short, not go on

One poor step more, and justify the means,

1850

Having allowed the end? — not see and say,

“Here’s the exceptional conduct that should claim

“To be exceptionally judged on rules

“Which, understood, make no exception here”—

Why play instead into the devil’s hands

By dealing so ambiguously as gave

Guido the power to intervene like me,

Prove one exception more? I saved his wife

Against law: against law he slays her now:

Deal with him!

1860

        I have done with being judged.

I stand here guiltless in thought, word and deed,

To the point that I apprise you — in contempt

For all misapprehending ignorance

O’ the human heart, much more the mind of Christ —

That I assuredly did bow, was blessed

By the revelation of Pompilia. There!

Such is the final fact I fling you, Sirs,

To mouth and mumble and misinterpret: there!

“The priest’s in love,” have it the vulgar way!

1870

Unpriest me, rend the rags o’ the vestment, do —

Degrade deep, disenfranchise all you dare —

Remove me from the midst, no longer priest

And fit companion for the like of you —

Your gay Abati with the well-turned leg

And rose i’ the hat-rim, Canons, cross at neck

And silk mask in the pocket of the gown,

Brisk bishops with the world’s musk still unbrushed

From the rochet; I’ll no more of these good things:

There’s a crack somewhere, something that’s unsound

1880

I’ the rattle!

        For Pompilia — be advised,

Build churches, go pray! You will find me there,

I know, if you come — and you will come, I know.

Why, there’s a Judge weeping! Did not I say

You were good and true at bottom? You see the truth —

I am glad I helped you: she helped me just so.

But for Count Guido — you must counsel there!

I bow my head, bend to the very dust,

Break myself up in shame of faultiness.

1890

I had him one whole moment, as I said —

As I remember, as will never out

O’ the thoughts of me — I had him in arm’s reach

There — as you stand, Sir, now you cease to sit —

I could have killed him ere he killed his wife,

And did not: he went off alive and well

And then effected this last feat — through me!

Me — not through you — dismiss that fear! ’Twas you

Hindered me staying here to save her — not

From leaving you and going back to him

1900

And doing service in Arezzo. Come,

Instruct me in procedure! I conceive —

In all due self-abasement might I speak —

How you will deal with Guido: oh, not death!

Death, if it let her life be: otherwise

Not death — your lights will teach you clearer! I

Certainly have an instinct of my own

I’ the matter: bear with me and weigh its worth!

Let us go away — leave Guido all alone

Back on the world again that knows him now!

1910

I think he will be found (indulge so far!)

Not to die so much as slide out of life,

Pushed by the general horror and common hate

Low, lower — left o’ the very ledge of things,

I seem to see him catch convulsively

One by one at all honest forms of life,

At reason, order, decency, and use —

To cramp him and get foothold by at least;

And still they disengage them from his clutch.

“What, you are he, then, had Pompilia once

1920

“And so forwent her? Take not up with us!”

And thus I see him slowly and surely edged

Off all the table-land whence life upsprings

Aspiring to be immortality,

As the snake, hatched on hill-top by mischance,

Despite his wriggling, slips, slides, slidders down

Hill-side, lies low and prostrate on the smooth

Level of the outer place, lapsed in the vale:

So I lose Guido in the loneliness,

Silence and dusk, till at the doleful end,

1930

At the horizontal line, creation’s verge,

From what just is to absolute nothingness —

Lo, what is this he meets, strains onward still?

What other man deep further in the fate,

Who, turning at the prize of a footfall

To flatter him and promise fellowship,

Discovers in the act a frightful face —

Judas, made monstrous by much solitude!

The two are at one now! Let them love their love

That bites and claws like hate, or hate their hate

1940

That mops and mows and makes as it were love!

There, let them each tear each in devil’s-fun,

Or fondle this the other while malice aches —

Both teach, both learn detestability!

Kiss him the kiss, Iscariot! Pay that back,

That snatch o’ the slaver blistering on your lip —

By the better trick, the insult he spared Christ —

Lure him the lure o’ the letters, Aretine!

Lick him o’er slimy-smooth with jelly-filth

O’ the verse-and-prose pollution in love’s guise!

1950

The cockatrice is with the basilisk!

There let them grapple, denizens o’ the dark,

Foes or friends, but indissolubly bound,

In their one spot out of the ken of God

Or care of man, for ever and ever more!

Why, Sirs, what’s this? Why, this is sorry and strange! —

Futility, divagation: this from me

Bound to be rational, justify an act

Of sober man! — whereas, being moved so much,

I give you cause to doubt the lady’s mind:

1960

A pretty sarcasm for the world! I fear

You do her wit injustice — all through me!

Like my fate all through — ineffective help!

A poor rash advocate I prove myself.

You might be angry with good cause: but sure

At the advocate — only at the undue zeal

That spoils the force of his own plea, I think?

My part was just to tell you how things stand,

State facts and not be flustered at their fume.

But then ’tis a priest speaks: as for love — no!

1970

If you let buzz a vulgar fly like that

About your brains, as if I loved, forsooth,

Indeed, Sirs, you do wrong! We had no thought

Of such infatuation, she and I:

There are many points that prove it: do be just!

I told you — at one little roadside-place

I spent a good half-hour, paced to and fro

The garden; just to leave her free awhile,

I plucked a handful of Spring herb and bloom:

I might have sat beside her on the bench

1980

Where the children were: I wish the thing had been,

Indeed: the event could not be worse, you know:

One more half-hour of her saved! She’s dead now, Sirs!

While I was running on at such a rate,

Friends should have plucked me by the sleeve: I went

Too much o’ the trivial outside of her face

And the purity that shone there — plain to me,

Not to you, what more natural? Nor am I

Infatuated — oh, I saw, be sure!

Her brow had not the right line, leaned too much,

1990

Painters would say; they like the straight-up Greek:

This seemed bent somewhat with an invisible crown

Of martyr and saint, not such as art approves.

And how the dark orbs dwelt deep underneath,

Looked out of such a sad sweet heaven on me —

The lips, compressed a little, came forward too,

Careful for a whole world of sin and pain.

That was the face, her husband makes his plea,

He sought just to disfigure — no offence

Beyond that! Sirs, let us be rational!

2000

He needs must vindicate his honour — ay,

Yet shirks, the coward, in a clown’s disguise,

Away from the scene, endeavours to escape.

Now, had he done so, slain and left no trace

O’ the slayer — what were vindicated, pray?

You had found his wife disfigured or a corpse,

For what and by whom? It is too palpable!

Then, here’s another point involving law:

I use this argument to show you meant

No calumny against us by that title

2010

O’ the sentence — liars try to twist it so:

What penalty it bore, I had to pay

Till further proof should follow of innocence —

Probationis ob defectum, — proof?

How could you get proof without trying us?

You went through the preliminary form,

Stopped there, contrived this sentence to amuse

The adversary. If the title ran

For more than fault imputed and not proved,

That was a simple penman’s error, else

2020

A slip i’ the phrase — as when we say of you

“Charged with injustice”— which may either be

Or not be — ’tis a name that sticks meanwhile.

Another relevant matter: fool that I am!

Not what I wish true, yet a point friends urge:

It is not true — yet, since friends think it helps —

She only tried me when some others failed —

Began with Conti, whom I told you of,

And Guillichini, Guido’s kinsfolk both,

And when abandoned by them, not before,

2030

Turned to me. That’s conclusive why she turned.

Much good they got by the happy cowardice!

Conti is dead, poisoned a month ago:

Does that much strike you as a sin? Not much,

After the present murder — one mark more

On the Moor’s skin — what is black by blacker still?

Conti had come here and told truth. And so

With Guillichini; he’s condemned of course

To the galleys, as a friend in this affair,

Tried and condemned for no one thing i’ the world,

2040

A fortnight since by who but the Governor? —

The just judge, who refused Pompilia help

At first blush, being her husband’s friend, you know.

There are two tales to suit the separate courts,

Arezzo and Rome: he tells you here, we fled

Alone, unhelped — lays stress on the main fault,

The spiritual sin, Rome looks to: but elsewhere

He likes best we should break in, steal, bear off,

Be fit to brand and pillory and flog —

That’s the charge goes to the heart of the Governor:

2050

If these unpriest me, you and I may yet

Converse, Vincenzo Marzi-Medici!

Oh, Sirs, there are worse men than you, I say!

More easily duped, I mean; this stupid lie,

Its liar never dared propound in Rome,

He gets Arezzo to receive — nay more,

Gets Florence and the Duke to authorise!

This is their Rota’s sentence, their Granduke

Signs and seals! Rome for me henceforward — Rome,

Where better men are — most of all, that man

2060

The Augustinian of the Hospital,

Who writes the letter — he confessed, he says,

Many a dying person, never one

So sweet and true and pure and beautiful.

A good man! Will you make him Pope one day?

Not that he is not good too, this we have —

But old — else he would have his word to speak,

His truth to teach the world: I thirst for truth,

But shall not drink it till I reach the source.

Sirs, I am quiet again. You see, we are

2070

So very pitiable, she and I,

Who had conceivably been otherwise.

Forget distemperature and idle heat!

Apart from truth’s sake, what’s to move so much?

Pompilia will be presently with God;

I am, on earth, as good as out of it,

A relegated priest; when exile ends,

I mean to do my duty and live long.

She and I are mere strangers now: but priests

Should study passion; how else cure mankind,

2080

Who come for help in passionate extremes?

I do but play with an imagined life

Of who, unfettered by a vow, unblessed

By the higher call — since you will have it so —

Leads it companioned by the woman there.

To live, and see her learn, and learn by her,

Out of the low obscure and petty world —

Or only see one purpose and one will

Evolve themselves i’ the world, change wrong to right:

To have to do with nothing but the true,

2090

The good, the eternal — and these, not alone

In the main current of the general life,

But small experiences of every day,

Concerns of the particular hearth and home:

To learn not only by a comet’s rush

But a rose’s birth — not by the grandeur, God —

But the comfort, Christ. All this, how far away!

Mere delectation, meet for a minute’s dream! —

Just as a drudging student trims his lamp,

Opens his Plutarch, puts him in the place

2100

Of Roman, Grecian; draws the patched gown close,

Dreams, “Thus should I fight, save or rule the world!”—

Then smilingly, contentedly, awakes

To the old solitary nothingness.

So I, from such communion, pass content. . . .

O great, just, good God! Miserable me!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/browning/robert/ring/book6.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32