13. The Church of the Star -

by Herman Melville

Herman Melville

They rise, and for a little space
In farewell Agath they detain,
Transferred here to a timelier train
Than theirs. A work-day, passive face
He turns to Derwent's Luck to thee!
No slight he means — 'tis far from that;
But, schooled by the inhuman sea,
He feels 'tis vain to wave the hat
In God-speed on this mortal strand;
Recalling all the sailing crews
Destined to sleep in ocean sand,
Cheered from the wharf with blithe adieus.
Nor less the heart's farewell they say,
And bless the old man on his way.

Led by a slender monk and young,
With curls that ringed the shaven crown,
Courts now and shrines they trace. That thong
Ascetic which can life chastise
Down to her bleak necessities,
They mark in coarse serge of his gown,
And girdling rope, with cross of wood
For tag at end; and hut-like hood
Superfluous now behind him thrown;
And sandals which expose the skin
Transparent, and the blue vein thin
Meandering there: the feet, the face
Alike in lucid marble grace.
His simple manners self-possessed
Both saint and noble-born suggest;
Yet under quietude they mark
The slumbering of a vivid spark —
Excitable, if brought to test.
A Tuscan, he exchanged the charm
Val d'Arno yields, for this dull calm
Of desert. Was his youth self-given
In frank oblation unto heaven?
Or what inducement might disarm
This Isaac when too young to know?

Hereon they, pacing, muse — till, lo,
The temple opens in dusk glades
Of long-drawn double colonnades:
Monoliths two-score and eight.
Rolfe looked about him, pleased in state:
" But this is goodly! Here we rove
As down the deep Dodona grove:
Years, years and years these boles have stood! —
Late by the spring in idle mood
My will I made (if ye recall),
Providing for the Inn of Trees:
But ah, to set out trunks like these
In harbour open unto all
For generations!" So in vein
Rolfe free descanted as through fane
They passed. But noting now the guide
In acquiescence by their side,
He checked himself: " Why prate I here?
This brother — I usurp his sphere."

They came unto a silver star
In pavement set which none do mar
By treading. Here at pause remained
The monk; till, seeing Rolfe refrained,
And all, from words, he said: " The place,
Signori, where that shining grace
Which led the Magi, stood; below,
The Manger is." They comment none;
Not voicing everything they know,
In cirque about that silver star
They quietly gaze thereupon.
But, turning now, one glanced afar
Along the columned aisles, and thought
Of Baldwin whom the mailed knights brought,
While Godfrey's requiem did ring,
Hither to Bethlehem, and crowned
His temples helmet-worn, with round
Of gold and velvet — crowned him king —
King of Jerusalem, on floor
Of this same nave august, above
The Manger in its low remove
Where lay, a thousand years before,
The Child of awful worshipping,
Destined to prove all slights and scorns,
And a God's coronation — thorns.
Not Derwent's was that revery;
Another thing his heart possessed,
The clashing of the East and West,
Odd sense of incongruity;
He felt a secret impulse move
To start a humorous comment slant
Upon the monk, and sly reprove.
But no: I 'll curb the Protestant
And modern in me — at least here
For time I 'll curb it. Perish truth
If it but act the boor, in sooth,
Requiting courtesy with jeer;
For courteous is our guide, with grace
Of a pure heart.
Some little trace,
May be, of Derwent's passing thought
The Tuscan from his aspect caught;
And turned him: " Pardon! but the crypt:
This way, signori — follow me."
Down by a rock-hewn stair they slipped,
Turning by steps which winding be,
Winning a sparry chamber brave
Unsearched by that prose critic keen,
The daylight. Archimago's cave
Was here? or that more sorcerous scene
The Persian sibyl kept within
For turbaned musings? Bowing o'er,
Crossing himself, and on the knee,
Straight did the guide that grot adore;
Then, rising, and as one set free:
" The place of the Nativity."
Dim pendent lamps, in cluster small
Were Pleiads of the mystic hall;
Fair lamps of silver, lamps of gold —
Rich gifts devout of monarchs old,
Kings catholic. Rare objects beamed
All round, recalling things but dreamed:
Solomon's talismans garnered up,
His sword, his signet-ring and cup.
In further caverns, part revealed,
What silent shapes like statues kneeled;
What brown monks moved by twinkling shrines
Like Aztecs down in silver mines.
This, this the Stable mean and poor?
Noting their looks, to ward surprise,
The Italian: " 'Tis encrusted o'er
With marbles, so that now one's eyes
Meet not the natural wall. This floor — — "
" But how? within a cave we stand!"
" Yes, caves of old to use were put
For cattle, and with gates were shut.
One meets them still — with arms at hand,
The keepers nigh. Sure it need be
That if in Gihon ye have been,
Or hereabouts, yourselves have seen
The grots in question."
They agree;
And silent in their hearts confess
The strangeness, but the truth no less.
Anew the guide: " Ere now we get
Further herein, indulge me yet";
But paused awhile: " Though o'er this cave,
Where Christ." (and crossed himself) " had birth,
Constantine's mother reared the nave
Whose Greek mosaics fade in bloom,
No older church in Christendom;
And generations, with the girth
Of domes and walls, have still enlarged
And built about; yet convents, shrines,
Cloisters and towers, take not for signs,
Entreat ye, of meek faith submerged
Under proud masses. Be it urged
As all began from these small bounds,
So, by all avenues and gates,
All here returns, hereto redounds:
In this one Cave all terminates:
In honour of the Manger sole,
Saints, kings, knights, prelates reared the whole."
He warmed. Ah, fervour bought too dear:
The fingers clutching rope and cross;
Life too intense; the cheek austere
Deepening in hollow, waste and loss.
They marked him; and at heart some knew
Inklings they loved not to pursue.
But Rolfe recalled in fleeting gleam
The first Franciscan, richly born —
The youthful one who, night and morn,
In Umbria ranged the hills in dream,
And first devised the girdling cord
In type that rebel senses so
Should led be — led like beast abroad
By halter. Tuscan! in the glow
And white light of thy faith's illumings,
In vigils, fervent prayers and trances,
Agonies and self-consumings —
Renewest thou the young Saint Francis?
So inly Rolfe; when, in low tone
Considerate Derwent whispered near:
" 'Tis doubtless the poor boy's first year
In Bethlehem; time will abate
This novice-ardour; yes, sedate
He 'll grow, adapt him to the sphere."

Close to the Sanctum now they drew,
A semicircular recess;
And there, in marble floor, they view
A silver sun which (friars profess)
Is set in plummet-line exact
Beneath the star in pavement-tract
Above; and raying from this sun
Shoot jasper-spikes, which so point out
Argent inscription round about
In Latin text; which thus may run:
T HE V IRGIN HERE BROUGHT FORTH THE S ON .
The Tuscan bowed him; then with air
Friendly he turned; but something there
In Derwent's look — no matter what —
An open levity 'twas not —
Disturbed him; and in accents clear,
As challenged in his faith sincere:
" I trust tradition! Here He lay
Who shed on Mary's breasts the ray:
Salvator Mundi!"
Turning now,
He noted, and he bade them see
Where, with a timid piety,
A band of rustics bent them low
In worship mute: " Shepherds these are,
And come from pastoral hills not far
Whereon they keep the night-watch wild:
These, like their sires, adore the Child ,
And in same spot. But, mixed with these,
Mark ye yon poor swart images
In other garb? But late they fled
From over Jordan hither; yes,
Escaping so the heinousness
Of one with price upon his head.
But look, and yet seem not to peer,
Lest pain ye give: an eye, an ear,
A hand, is mutilate or gone:
The mangler marked them for his own;
But Christ redeems them." Derwent here
His eyes withdrew, but Ungar not,
While visibly the red blood shot
Into his thin-skinned scar, and sent,
As seemed, a pulse of argument
Confirming so some angry sense
Of evil, and malevolence
In man toward man.
Now, lower down
The cave, the Manger they descry,
With marble lined; and, o'er it thrown,
A lustrous saint-cloth meets the eye.
And suits of saint-cloths here they have
Wherewith to deck the Manger brave:
Gifts of the Latin princes, these —
Fair Christmas gifts, these draperies.
A damask one of gold and white
Rich flowered with pinks embroidered bright,
Was for the present week in turn
The adornment of the sacred Urn.
Impressive was it here to note
Those herdsmen in the shaggy coat:
Impressive, yet partook of dream;
It touched the pilgrims, as might seem;
Which pleased the monk; but in disguise
Modest he dropped his damsel-eyes.
Thought Derwent then: Demure in sooth!
'Tis like a maid in lily of youth
Who grieves not in her core of glee,
By spells of grave virginity,
To cozen men to foolish looks;
While she — who reads such hearts' hid nooks? —
What now? " Signori, here, believe,
Where night and day, while ages run,
Faith in these lamps burns on and on,
'Tis good to spend one's Christmas Eve;
Yea, better rather than in land
Which may your holly tree command,
And greens profuse which ye inweave."





Last updated January 14, 2019