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Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse, Page 2

Edith Wharton

  His body? Who flung Galen from his seat,

  And founded the great dynasty of truth

  In error's central kingdom?

  Ask men that,

  And see their answer: just a wondering stare

  To learn things were not always as they are--

  The very fight forgotten with the fighter;

  Already grows the moss upon my grave!

  Ay, and so meet--hold fast to that, Vesalius.

  They only, who re-conquer day by day

  The inch of ground they camped on over-night,

  Have right of foothold on this crowded earth.

  I left mine own; he seized it; with it went

  My name, my fame, my very self, it seems,

  Till I am but the symbol of a man,

  The sign-board creaking o'er an empty inn.

  He names me--true! Oh, give the door its due

  I entered by. Only, I pray you, note,

  Had door been none, a shoulder-thrust of mine

  Had breached the crazy wall"--he seems to say.

  So meet--and yet a word of thanks, of praise,

  Of recognition that the clue was found,

  Seized, followed, clung to, by some hand now dust--

  Had this obscured his quartering of my shield?

  How the one weakness stirs again! I thought

  I had done with that old thirst for gratitude

  That lured me to the desert years ago.

  I did my work--and was not that enough?

  No; but because the idlers sneered and shrugged,

  The envious whispered, the traducers lied,

  And friendship doubted where it should have cheered

  I flung aside the unfinished task, sought praise

  Outside my soul's esteem, and learned too late

  That victory, like God's kingdom, is within.

  (Nay, let the folio rest upon my knee.

  I do not feel its weight.) Ingratitude?

  The hurrying traveller does not ask the name

  Of him who points him on his way; and this

  Fallopius sits in the mid-heart of me,

  Because he keeps his eye upon the goal,

  Cuts a straight furrow to the end in view,

  Cares not who oped the fountain by the way,

  But drinks to draw fresh courage for his journey.

  That was the lesson that Ignatius taught--

  The one I might have learned from him, but would not--

  That we are but stray atoms on the wind,

  A dancing transiency of summer eves,

  Till we become one with our purpose, merged

  In that vast effort of the race which makes

  Mortality immortal.

  "He that loseth

  His life shall find it": so the Scripture runs.

  But I so hugged the fleeting self in me,

  So loved the lovely perishable hours,

  So kissed myself to death upon their lips,

  That on one pyre we perished in the end--

  A grimmer bonfire than the Church e'er lit!

  Yet all was well--or seemed so--till I heard

  That younger voice, an echo of my own,

  And, like a wanderer turning to his home,

  Who finds another on the hearth, and learns,

  Half-dazed, that other is his actual self

  In name and claim, as the whole parish swears,

  So strangely, suddenly, stood dispossessed

  Of that same self I had sold all to keep,

  A baffled ghost that none would see or hear!

  "Vesalius? Who's Vesalius? This Fallopius

  It is who dragged the Galen-idol down,

  Who rent the veil of flesh and forced a way

  Into the secret fortalice of life"--

  Yet it was I that bore the brunt of it!

  Well, better so! Better awake and live

  My last brief moment as the man I was,

  Than lapse from life's long lethargy to death

  Without one conscious interval. At least

  I repossess my past, am once again

  No courtier med'cining the whims of kings

  In muffled palace-chambers, but the free

  Friendless Vesalius, with his back to the wall

  And all the world against him. O, for that

  Best gift of all, Fallopius, take my thanks--

  That, and much more. At first, when Padua wrote:

  "Master, Fallopius dead, resume again

  The chair even he could not completely fill,

  And see what usury age shall take of youth

  In honours forfeited"--why, just at first,

  I was quite simply credulously glad

  To think the old life stood ajar for me,

  Like a fond woman's unforgetting heart.

  But now that death waylays me--now I know

  This isle is the circumference of my days,

  And I shall die here in a little while--

  So also best, Fallopius!

  For I see

  The gods may give anew, but not restore;

  And though I think that, in my chair again,

  I might have argued my supplanters wrong

  In this or that--this Cesalpinus, say,

  With all his hot-foot blundering in the dark,

  Fabricius, with his over-cautious clutch

  On Galen (systole and diastole

  Of Truth's mysterious heart!)--yet, other ways,

  It may be that this dying serves the cause.

  For Truth stays not to build her monument

  For this or that co-operating hand,

  But props it with her servants' failures--nay,

  Cements its courses with their blood and brains,

  A living substance that shall clinch her walls

  Against the assaults of time. Already, see,

  Her scaffold rises on my hidden toil,

  I but the accepted premiss whence must spring

  The airy structure of her argument;

  Nor could the bricks it rests on serve to build

  The crowning finials. I abide her law:

  A different substance for a different end--

  Content to know I hold the building up;

  Though men, agape at dome and pinnacles,

  Guess not, the whole must crumble like a dream

  But for that buried labour underneath.

  Yet, Padua, I had still my word to say!

  Let others say it!--Ah, but will they guess

  Just the one word--? Nay, Truth is many-tongued.

  What one man failed to speak, another finds

  Another word for. May not all converge

  In some vast utterance, of which you and I,

  Fallopius, were but halting syllables?

  So knowledge come, no matter how it comes!

  No matter whence the light falls, so it fall!

  Truth's way, not mine--that I, whose service failed

  In action, yet may make amends in praise.

  Fabricius, Cesalpinus, say your word,

  Not yours, or mine, but Truth's, as you receive it!

  You miss a point I saw? See others, then!

  Misread my meaning? Yet expound your own!

  Obscure one space I cleared? The sky is wide,

  And you may yet uncover other stars.

  For thus I read the meaning of this end:

  There are two ways of spreading light: to be

  The candle or the mirror that reflects it.

  I let my wick burn out--there yet remains

  To spread an answering surface to the flame

  That others kindle.

  Turn me in my bed.

  The window darkens as the hours swing round;

  But yonder, look, the other casement glows!

  Let me face westward as my sun goes down.


  FRA PAOLO, since they say the end is near,

  And you of all men have the g
entlest eyes,

  Most like our father Francis; since you know

  How I have toiled and prayed and scourged and striven,

  Mothered the orphan, waked beside the sick,

  Gone empty that mine enemy might eat,

  Given bread for stones in famine years, and channelled

  With vigilant knees the pavement of this cell,

  Till I constrained the Christ upon the wall

  To bend His thorn-crowned Head in mute forgiveness . . .

  Three times He bowed it . . . (but the whole stands writ,

  Sealed with the Bishop's signet, as you know),

  Once for each person of the Blessed Three--

  A miracle that the whole town attests,

  The very babes thrust forward for my blessing,

  And either parish plotting for my bones--

  Since this you know: sit near and bear with me.

  I have lain here, these many empty days

  I thought to pack with Credos and Hail Marys

  So close that not a fear should force the door--

  But still, between the blessed syllables

  That taper up like blazing angel heads,

  Praise over praise, to the Unutterable,

  Strange questions clutch me, thrusting fiery arms,

  As though, athwart the close-meshed litanies,

  My dead should pluck at me from hell, with eyes

  Alive in their obliterated faces! . . .

  I have tried the saints' names and our blessed Mother's

  Fra Paolo, I have tried them o'er and o'er,

  And like a blade bent backward at first thrust

  They yield and fail me--and the questions stay.

  And so I thought, into some human heart,

  Pure, and yet foot-worn with the tread of sin,

  If only I might creep for sanctuary,

  It might be that those eyes would let me rest. . .

  Fra Paolo, listen. How should I forget

  The day I saw him first? (You know the one.)

  I had been laughing in the market-place

  With others like me, I the youngest there,

  Jostling about a pack of mountebanks

  Like flies on carrion (I the youngest there!),

  Till darkness fell; and while the other girls

  Turned this way, that way, as perdition beckoned,

  I, wondering what the night would bring, half hoping:

  If not, this once, a child's sleep in my garret,

  At least enough to buy that two-pronged coral

  The others covet 'gainst the evil eye,

  Since, after all, one sees that I'm the youngest--

  So, muttering my litany to hell

  (The only prayer I knew that was not Latin),

  Felt on my arm a touch as kind as yours,

  And heard a voice as kind as yours say "Come."

  I turned and went; and from that day I never

  Looked on the face of any other man.

  So much is known; so much effaced; the sin

  Cast like a plague-struck body to the sea,

  Deep, deep into the unfathomable pardon--

  (The Head bowed thrice, as the whole town attests).

  What more, then? To what purpose? Bear with me!--

  It seems that he, a stranger in the place,

  First noted me that afternoon and wondered:

  How grew so white a bud in such black slime,

  And why not mine the hand to pluck it out?

  Why, so Christ deals with souls, you cry--what then?

  Not so! Not so! When Christ, the heavenly gardener,

  Plucks flowers for Paradise (do I not know?),

  He snaps the stem above the root, and presses

  The ransomed soul between two convent walls,

  A lifeless blossom in the Book of Life.

  But when my lover gathered me, he lifted

  Stem, root and all--ay, and the clinging mud--

  And set me on his sill to spread and bloom

  After the common way, take sun and rain,

  And make a patch of brightness for the street,

  Though raised above rough fingers--so you make

  A weed a flower, and others, passing, think:

  "Next ditch I cross, I'll lift a root from it,

  And dress my window" . . . and the blessing spreads.

  Well, so I grew, with every root and tendril

  Grappling the secret anchorage of his love,

  And so we loved each other till he died. . . .

  Ah, that black night he left me, that dead dawn

  I found him lying in the woods, alive

  To gasp my name out and his life-blood with it,

  As though the murderer's knife had probed for me

  In his hacked breast and found me in each wound. . .

  Well, it was there Christ came to me, you know,

  And led me home--just as that other led me.

  (Just as that other? Father, bear with me!)

  My lover's death, they tell me, saved my soul,

  And I have lived to be a light to men.

  And gather sinners to the knees of grace.

  All this, you say, the Bishop's signet covers.

  But stay! Suppose my lover had not died?

  (At last my question! Father, help me face it.)

  I say: Suppose my lover had not died--

  Think you I ever would have left him living,

  Even to be Christ's blessed Margaret?

  --We lived in sin? Why, to the sin I died to

  That other was as Paradise, when God

  Walks there at eventide, the air pure gold,

  And angels treading all the grass to flowers!

  He was my Christ--he led me out of hell--

  He died to save me (so your casuists say!)--

  Could Christ do more? Your Christ out-pity mine?

  Why, yours but let the sinner bathe His feet;

  Mine raised her to the level of his heart. . .

  And then Christ's way is saving, as man's way

  Is squandering--and the devil take the shards!

  But this man kept for sacramental use

  The cup that once had slaked a passing thirst;

  This man declared: "The same clay serves to model

  A devil or a saint; the scribe may stain

  The same fair parchment with obscenities,

  Or gild with benedictions; nay," he cried,

  "Because a satyr feasted in this wood,

  And fouled the grasses with carousing foot,

  Shall not a hermit build his chapel here

  And cleanse the echoes with his litanies?

  The sodden grasses spring again--why not

  The trampled soul? Is man less merciful

  Than nature, good more fugitive than grass?"

  And so--if, after all, he had not died,

  And suddenly that door should know his hand,

  And with that voice as kind as yours he said:

  "Come, Margaret, forth into the sun again,

  Back to the life we fashioned with our hands

  Out of old sins and follies, fragments scorned

  Of more ambitious builders, yet by Love,

  The patient architect, so shaped and fitted

  That not a crevice let the winter in--"

  Think you my bones would not arise and walk,

  This bruised body (as once the bruised soul)

  Turn from the wonders of the seventh heaven

  As from the antics of the market-place?

  If this could be (as I so oft have dreamed),

  I, who have known both loves, divine and human,

  Think you I would not leave this Christ for that?

  --I rave, you say? You start from me, Fra Paolo?

  Go, then; your going leaves me not alone.

  I marvel, rather, that I feared the question,

  Since, now I name it, it draws near to me

  With such dear reassurance
in its eyes,

  And takes your place beside me. . .

  Nay, I tell you,

  Fra Paolo, I have cried on all the saints--

  If this be devil's prompting, let them drown it

  In Alleluias! Yet not one replies.

  And, for the Christ there--is He silent too?

  Your Christ? Poor father; you that have but one,

  And that one silent--how I pity you!

  He will not answer? Will not help you cast

  The devil out? But hangs there on the wall,

  Blind wood and bone--?

  How if I call on Him--

  I, whom He talks with, as the town attests?

  If ever prayer hath ravished me so high

  That its wings failed and dropped me in Thy breast,

  Christ, I adjure Thee! By that naked hour

  Of innermost commixture, when my soul

  Contained Thee as the paten holds the host,

  Judge Thou alone between this priest and me;

  Nay, rather, Lord, between my past and present,

  Thy Margaret and that other's--whose she is

  By right of salvage--and whose call should follow!

  Thine? Silent still.-- Or his, who stooped to her,

  And drew her to Thee by the bands of love?

  Not Thine? Then his?

  Ah, Christ--the thorn-crowned Head

  Bends . . . bends again . . . down on your knees,

  Fra Paolo!

  If his, then Thine!

  Kneel, priest, for this is heaven. . .


  GREAT cities rise and have their fall; the brass

  That held their glories moulders in its turn.

  Hard granite rots like an uprooted weed,

  And ever on the palimpsest of earth

  Impatient Time rubs out the word he writ.

  But one thing makes the years its pedestal,

  Springs from the ashes of its pyre, and claps

  A skyward wing above its epitaph--

  The will of man willing immortal things.

  The ages are but baubles hung upon

  The thread of some strong lives--and one slight wrist

  May lift a century above the dust;

  For Time,

  The Sisyphean load of little lives,

  Becomes the globe and sceptre of the great.

  But who are these that, linking hand in hand,

  Transmit across the twilight waste of years

  The flying brightness of a kindled hour?

  Not always, nor alone, the lives that search

  How they may snatch a glory out of heaven

  Or add a height to Babel; oftener they

  That in the still fulfilment of each day's

  Pacific order hold great deeds in leash,

  That in the sober sheath of tranquil tasks

  Hide the attempered blade of high emprise,