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Saint Romualdo by Emma Lazarus

I give God thanks that I, a lean old man,

Wrinkled, infirm, and crippled with keen pains

By austere penance and continuous toil,

Now rest in spirit, and possess "the peace

Which passeth understanding." Th' end draws nigh,

Though the beginning is as yesterday,

And a broad lifetime spreads 'twixt this and that—

A favored life, though outwardly the butt

Of ignominy, malice and affront,

Yet lighted from within by the clear star

Of a high aim, and graciously prolonged

To see at last its utmost goal attained.

I speak not of mine Order and my House,

Here founded by my hands and filled with saints—

A white society of snowy souls,

Swayed by my voice, by mine example led;

For this is but the natural harvest reaped

From labors such as mine when blessed by God.

Though I rejoice to think my spirit still

Will work my purposes, through worthy hands,

After my bones are shriveled into dust,

Yet have I gleaned a finer, sweeter fruit

Of holy satisfaction, sure and real,

Though subtler than the tissue of the air—

The power completely to detach the soul

From her companion through this life, the flesh;

So that in blessed privacy of peace,

Communing with high angels, she can hold,

Serenely rapt, her solitary course.

Ye know, O saints of heaven, what I have borne

Of discipline and scourge; the twisted lash

Of knotted rope that striped my shrinking limbs;

Vigils and fasts protracted, till my flesh

Wasted and crumbled from mine aching bones,

And the last skin, one woof of pain and sores,

Thereto like yellow parchment loosely clung;

Exposure to the fever and the frost,

When 'mongst the hollows of the hills I lurked

From persecution of misguided folk,

Accustoming my spirit to ignore

The burden of the cross, while picturing

The bliss of disembodied souls, the grace

Of holiness, the lives of sainted men,

And entertaining all exalted thoughts,

That nowise touched the trouble of the hour,

Until the grief and pain seemed far less real

Than the creations of my brain inspired.

The vision, the beatitude, were true:

The agony was but an evil dream.

I speak not now as one who hath not learned

The purport of those lightly-bandied words,

Evil and Fate, but rather one who knows

The thunders of the terrors of the world.

No mortal chance or change, no earthly shock,

Can move or reach my soul, securely throned

On heights of contemplation and calm prayer,

Happy, serene, no less with actual joy

Of present peace than faith in joys to come.

This soft, sweet, yellow evening, how the trees

Stand crisp against the clear, bright-colored sky!

How the white mountain-tops distinctly shine,

Taking and giving radiance, and the slopes

Are purpled with rich floods of peach-hued light!

Thank God, my filmy, old dislustred eyes

Find the same sense of exquisite delight,

My heart vibrates to the same touch of joy

In scenes like this, as when my pulse danced high,

And youth coursed through my veins! This the one link

That binds the wan old man that now I am

To the wild lad who followed up the hounds

Among Ravenna's pine-woods by the sea.

For there how oft would I lose all delight

In the pursuit, the triumph or the game,

To stray alone among the shadowy glades,

And gaze, as one who is not satisfied

With gazing, at the large, bright, breathing sea,

The forest glooms, and shifting gleams between

The fine dark fringes of the fadeless trees,

On gold-green turf, sweetbrier and wild pink rose!

How rich that buoyant air with changing scent

Of pungent pine, fresh flowers and salt cool seas!

And when all echoes of the chase had died,

Of horn and halloo, bells and baying hounds,

How mine ears drank the ripple of the tide

On that fair shore, the chirp of unseen birds,

The rustling of the tangled undergrowth,

And the deep lyric murmur of the pines,

When through their high tops swept the sudden breeze!

There was my world, there would my heart dilate,

And my aspiring soul dissolve in prayer

Unto that Spirit of Love whose energies

Were active round me, yet whose presence, sphered

In the unsearchable, unbodied air,

Made itself felt, but reigned invisible.

This ere the day that from my past divides

My present, and that made me what I am.

Still can I see the hot, bright sky, the sea

illimitably sparkling, as they showed

That morning. Though I deemed I took no note

Of heaven or earth or waters, yet my mind

Retains to-day the vivid portraiture

Of every line and feature of the scene.

Light-hearted 'midst the dewy lanes I fared

Unto the sea, whose jocund gleam I caught

Between the slim boles, when I heard the clink

Of naked weapons, then a sudden thrust

Sickening to hear, and then a stifled groan;

And pressing forward I beheld the sight

That seared itself for ever on my brain—

My kinsman, Ser Ranieri, on the turf,

Fallen upon his side, his bright young head

Among the pine-spurs, and his cheek pressed close

Unto the moist, chill sod: his fingers clutched

A handful of loose weeds and grass and earth,

Uprooted in his anguish as he fell,

And slowly from his heart the thick stream flowed,

Fouling the green, leaving the fair, sweet face

Ghastly, transparent, with blue, stony eyes

Staring in blankness on that other one

Who triumphed over him. With hot desire

Of instant vengeance I unsheathed my sword

To rush upon the slayer, when he turned

In his first terror of blood-guiltiness.

Within my heart a something snapped and brake.

What was it but the chord of rapturous joy

For ever stilled? I tottered and would fall,

Had I not leaned against the friendly pine;

For all realities of life, unmoored

From their firm anchorage, appeared to float

Like hollow phantoms past my dizzy brain.

The strange delusion wrought upon my soul

That this had been enacted ages since.

This very horror curdled at my heart,

This net of trees spread round, these iron heavens,

Were closing over me when I had stood,

Unnumbered cycles back, and fronted him,

My father; and he felt mine eyes as now,

Yet saw me not; and then, as now, that form,

The one thing real, lay stretched between us both.

The fancy passed, and I stood sane and strong

To grasp the truth. Then I remembered all—

A few fierce words between them yester eve

Concerning some poor plot of pasturage,

Soon silenced into courteous, frigid calm:

This was the end. I could not meet him now,

To curse him, to accuse him, or to save,

And draw him from the red entanglement

Coiled by his own hands round his ruined life.

God pardon me! My heart that moment held

No drop of pity toward this wretched soul;

And cowering down, as though his guilt were mine,

I fled amidst the savage silences

Of that grim wood, resolved to nurse alone

My boundless desolation, shame and grief.

There, in that thick-leaved twilight of high noon,

The quiet of the still, suspended air,

Once more my wandering thoughts were calmly ranged,

Shepherded by my will. I wept, I prayed

A solemn prayer, conceived in agony,

Blessed with response instant, miraculous;

For in that hour my spirit was at one

With Him who knows and satisfies her needs.

The supplication and the blessing sprang

From the same source, inspired divinely both.

I prayed for light, self-knowledge, guidance, truth,

And these like heavenly manna were rained down

To feed my hungered soul. His guilt was mine.

What angel had been sent to stay mine arm

Until the fateful moment passed away

That would have ushered an eternity

Of withering remorse? I found the germs

In mine own heart of every human sin,

That waited but occasion's tempting breath

To overgrow with poisoned bloom my life.

What God thus far had saved me from myself?

Here was the lofty truth revealed, that each

Must feel himself in all, must know where'er

The great soul acts or suffers or enjoys,

His proper soul in kinship there is bound.

Then my life-purpose dawned upon my mind,

Encouraging as morning. As I lay,

Crushed by the weight of universal love,

Which mine own thoughts had heaped upon myself,

I heard the clear chime of a slow, sweet bell.

I knew it—whence it came and what it sang.

From the gray convent nigh the wood it pealed,

And called the monks to prayer. Vigil and prayer,

Clean lives, white days of strict austerity:

Such were the offerings of these holy saints.

How far might such not tend to expiate

A riotous world's indulgence? Here my life,

Doubly austere and doubly sanctified,

Might even for that other one atone,

So bound to mine, till both should be forgiven.

They sheltered me, not questioning the need

That led me to their cloistered solitude.

How rich, how freighted with pure influence,

With dear security of perfect peace,

Was the first day I passed within those walls!

The holy habit of perpetual prayer,

The gentle greetings, the rare temperate speech,

The chastening discipline, the atmosphere

Of settled and profound tranquillity,

Were even as living waters unto one

Who perisheth of thirst. Was this the world

That yesterday seemed one huge battle-field

For brutish passions? Could the soul of man

Withdraw so easily, and erect apart

Her own fair temple for her own high ends?

But this serene contentment slowly waned

As I discerned the broad disparity

Betwixt the form and spirit of the laws

That bound the order in strait brotherhood.

Yet when I sought to gain a larger love,

More rigid discipline, severer truth,

And more complete surrender of the soul

Unto her God, this was to my reproach,

And scoffs and gibes beset me on all sides.

In mine own cell I mortified my flesh,

I held aloof from all my brethren's feasts

To wrestle with my viewless enemies,

Till they should leave their blessing on my head;

For nightly was I haunted by that face,

White, bloodless, as I saw it 'midst the ferns,

Now staring out of darkness, and it held

Mine eyes from slumber and my brain from rest

And drove me from my straw to weep and pray.

Rebellious thoughts such subtle torture wrought

Upon my spirit that I lay day-long

In dumb despair, until the blessed hope

Of mercy dawned again upon my soul,

As gradual as the slow gold moon that mounts

The airy steps of heaven. My faith arose

With sure perception that disaster, wrong,

And every shadow of man's destiny

Are merely circumstance, and cannot touch

The soul's fine essence: they exist or die

Only as she affirms them or denies.

This faith sustains me even to the end:

It floods my heart with peace as surely now

As on that day the friars drove me forth,

Urging that my asceticism, too harsh,

Endured through pride, would bring into reproach

Their customs and their order. Then began

My exile in the mountains, where I bode

A hunted man. The elements conspired

Against me, and I was the seasons' sport,

Drenched, parched, and scorched and frozen alternately,

Burned with shrewd frosts, prostrated by fierce heats,

Shivering 'neath chilling dews and gusty rains,

And buffeted by all the winds of heaven.

Yet was this period my time of joy:

My daily thoughts perpetual converse held

With angels ministrant; mine ears were charmed

With sweet accordance of celestial sounds,

Song, harp and choir, clear ringing through the air.

And visions were revealed unto mine eyes

By night and day of Heaven's very courts,

In shadowless, undimmed magnificence.

I gave God thanks, not that He sheltered me,

And fed me as He feeds the fowls of air—

For had I perished, this too had been well—

But for the revelation of His truth,

The glory, the beatitude vouchsafed

To exalt, to heal, to quicken, to inspire;

So that the pinched, lean excommunicate

Was crowned with joy more solid, more secure,

Than all the comfort of the vales could bring.

Then the good Lord touched certain fervid hearts,

Aspiring toward His love, to come to me,

Timid and few at first; but as they heard

From mine own lips the precious oracles,

That soothed the trouble of their souls, appeased

Their spiritual hunger, and disclosed

All of the God within them to themselves,

They flocked about me, and they hailed me saint,

And sware to follow and to serve the good

Which my word published and my life declared.

Thus the lone hermit of the mountain-top

Descended leader of a band of saints,

And midway 'twixt the summit and the vale

I perched my convent. Yet I bated not

One whit of strict restraint and abstinence.

And they who love me and who serve the truth

Have learned to suffer with me, and have won

The supreme joy that is not of the flesh,

Foretasting the delights of Paradise.

This faith, to them imparted, will endure

After my tongue hath ceased to utter it,

And the great peace hath settled on my soul.