10. Before the Gate -

by Herman Melville

Herman Melville

'Tis Kedron, that profound ravine
Whence Saba soars. And all between
Zion and Saba one may stray,
Sunk from the sun, through Kedron's way.
By road more menacingly dead
Than that which wins the convent's base
No ghost to Tartarus is led.
Through scuttle small, that keepeth place
In floor of cellars which impend —
Cellars or cloisters — men ascend
By ladder which the monks let down
And quick withdraw; and thence yet on
Higher and higher, flight by flight,
They mount from Erebus to light,
And off look, world-wide, much in tone
Of Uriel, warder in the sun,
Who serious views this earthly scene
Since Satan passed his guard and entered in.
But not by Kedron these now come
Who ride from Siddim; no, they roam
The roof of mountains — win the tall
Towers of Saba, and huge wall
Builded along the steep, and there
A postern with a door, full spare
Yet strong, a clamped and bucklered mass
Bolted. In waste whose king is Fear,
Sole port of refuge, it is here.
Strange (and it might repel, alas)
Fair haven's won by such a pass.
In London Tower the Traitors' Gate
Through which the guilty waters flow
Looks not more grim. Yet shalt thou know
If once thou enter, good estate.
Beneath these walls what frays have been
What clash and outcry, sabres crossed
Pilgrim and Perizzite between;
And some have here given up the ghost
Before the gate in last despair.
Nor, for the most part, lacking fair
Sign-manual from a mitred lord,
Admission shall that arch afford
To any.
Weary now the train
At eve halt by the gate and knock.
No answer. Belex shouts amain:
As well invoke the Pico Rock.
" Bide," breathes the Druze, and dropping rein,
He points. A wallet 's lowered down
From under where a hood projects
High up the tower, a cowl of stone,
Wherefrom alert an eye inspects
All applicants, and unbeknown
Djalea promptly from his vest
A missive draws, which duly placed
In budget, rises from the ground
And vanishes. So, without sound,
Monks fish up to their donjon dark
The voucher from their Patriarch,
Even him who dwells in damask state
On Zion throned. Not long they wait:
The postern swings. Dismounting nigh,
The horses through the needle's eye,
That small and narrow gate, they lead
But while low ducks each lofty steed,
Behold how through the crucial pass
Slips unabased the humble ass.
And so they all with clattering din
The stony fortress courtyard win.
There see them served and bidden rest;
Horse, ass too, treated as a guest.
Friars tend as grooms. Yet others call
And lead them to the frater-hall
Cliff-hung. By monks the board is spread;
They break the monastery bread,
Moist'ning the same with Saba's wine,
Product of painful toil mid stones
In terraces, whose Bacchic zones
That desert gird. Olive and vine
To flinty places well incline,
Once crush the flint. Even so they fared,
So well for them the brethren cared.
Refection done, for grateful bed
Cool mats of dye sedate were spread:
The lamps were looked to, freshly trimmed;
And last (at hint from mellow man
Who seemed to know how all things ran,
And who in place shall soon be hymned)
A young monk-servant, slender-limbed,
And of a comely countenance,
Set out one flask of stature tall,
Against men's needs medicinal,
Travellers, subject to mischance;
Devout then, and with aspect bright
Invoked Mar Saba's blessing — bade good-night.

He goes. But now in change of tune,
Shall friar be followed by buffoon?
Saba supply a Pantaloon?
Wise largess of true licence yield.
Howe'er the river, winding round,
May win an unexpected bound;
The aim and destiny, unsealed
In the first fount, hold unrepealed.

Last updated January 14, 2019