16. The Convent Roof -

by Herman Melville

Herman Melville

To branching grottoes next they fare,
Old caves of penitence and prayer.
Where Paula kneeled — her urn is there —
Paula the Widow, Scipio's heir
But Christ's adopted. Well her tomb
Adjoins her friend's, renowned Jerome
Never the attending Druze resigned
His temperate poise, his moderate mind;
While Belex, in punctilious guard,
Relinquished not the martial ward:
" If by His tomb hot strife may be,
Trust ye His cradle shall be free?
Heed one experienced, sir." His sword,
Held cavalier by jingling chain,
Dropping at whiles, would clank amain
Upon the pave.
" I pray ye now,"
To him said Rolfe in accents low,
" Have care; for see ye not ye jar
These devotees? they turn — they cease
(Hearing your clanging scimetar)
Their suppliance to the Prince of Peace."

Like miners from the shaft, or tars
From forth the hold, up from those spars
And grottoes, by the stony stair
They climb, emerge, and seek the air
In open space.
" Save me, what now?
Cried Derwent, foremost of the group —
" The holy water!"
Hanging low
Outside, was fixed a scalloped stoup
Or marble shell, to hold the wave
Of Jordan, for true ones to lave
The finger, and so make the sign,
The Cross's sign, ere in they slip
And bend the knee. In this divine
Recess, deliberately a lip
Was lapping slow, with long-drawn pains,
The liquid globules, last remains
Of the full stone. Astray, alas,
Athirst and lazed, it was — the ass;
The friars, withdrawn for time, having left
That court untended and bereft.
" Was ever Saracen so bold!"
" Well, things have come to pretty pass —
The mysteries slobbered by an ass!"
" Mere Nature do we here behold?"
So they. But he, the earnest guide,
Turning the truant there aside,
Said, and in unaffected tone:
" What should it know, this foolish one?
It is an infidel we see:
Ah, the poor brute's stupidity!"
" I hardly think so," Derwent said;
" For, look, it hangs the conscious head."
The friar no relish had for wit,
No sense, perhaps, too rapt for it,
Preoccupied. So, having seen
The ass led back, he bade adieu;
But first, and with the kindliest mien:
" Signori, would ye have fair view
Of Bethlehem of Judaea, pray
Ascend to roof: ye take yon stair.
And now, heaven have ye in its care —
Me save from sin, and all from error!
Farewell" — But Derwent: " Yet delay:
Fain would we cherish when away:
Thy name, then?" " Brother Salvaterra."
" 'Tis a fair name. And, brother, we
Are not insensible, conceive,
To thy most Christian courtesy —
He goes. Sweet echo does he leave
In Salvaterra : may it dwell!
Silver in every syllable!"
" And import too, " said Rolfe.
They fare
And win the designated stair,
And climb; and, as they climb, in bell
Of Derwent's repetition, fell:
" Me save from sin, and all from error!
So prays good brother Salvaterra."

In paved flat roof, how ample there,
They tread a goodly St. Mark's Square
Aloft. An elder brother lorn
They meet, with shrunken cheek, and worn
Like to a slab whereon may weep
The unceasing water-drops. And deep
Within his hollow gown-sleeves old
His viewless hands he did enfold.
He never spake, but moved away
With shuffling pace of dragged infirm delay.
" Seaward he gazed," said Rolfe, " toward home:
An empty longing!"
" Cruel Rome!"
Sighed Derwent; " See, though, good to greet
The vale of eclogue, Boaz' seat.
Trips Ruth there, yonder?" thitherward
Down pointing where the vineyards meet.
At that dear name in Bethlehem heard,
How Clarel starts. Not Agar's child —
Naomi's! Then, unreconciled,
And in reaction falling low,
He saw the files Armenian go,
The tapers round the virgin's bier,
And heard the boys' light strophe free
Overborne by the men's antistrophe
Illusion! yet he knew a fear:
" Fixed that this second night we bide
In Bethlehem?" he asked aside.
Yes, so 'twas planned. For moment there
He thought to leave them and repair
Alone forthwith to Salem. Nay,
Doubt had unhinged so, that her sway,
In minor things even, could retard
The will and purpose. And, beyond,
Prevailed the tacit pilgrim-bond —
Of no slight force in his regard;
Besides, a diffidence was sown:
None knew his heart, nor might he own;
And, last, feared he to prove the fear?
With outward things he sought to clear
His mind; and turned to list the tone
Of Derwent, who to Rolfe: " Here now
One stands emancipated."
" How?"
" The air — the air, the liberal air!
Those witcheries of the cave ill fare
Reviewed aloft. Ah, Salvaterra,
So winning in thy dulcet error —
How fervid thou! Nor less thy tone,
So heartfelt in sincere effusion,
Is hardly that more chastened one
We Protestants feel. But the illusion!
Those grottoes: yes, void now they seem
As phantoms which accost in dream —
Accost and fade. Hold you with me?"
" Yes, partly: I in part agree.
In Kedron too, thou mayst recall,
The monkish night of festival,
And masque enacted — how it shrank
When, afterward, in nature frank,
Upon the terrace thrown at ease,
Like magi of the old Chaldaea,
Viewing Rigel and Betelguese,
We breathed the balm-wind from Sabaea.
All shows and forms in Kedron had —
Nor hymn nor banner made them glad
To me. And yet — why, who may know!
These things come down from long ago.
While so much else partakes decay,
While states, tongues, manners pass away,
How wonderful the Latin rite
Surviving still like oak austere
Over crops rotated year by year,
Or Caesar's tower on London's site.
But, tell me: stands it true in fact
That robe and ritual — every kind
By Rome employed in ways exact —
However strange to modern mind,
Or even absurd (like cards Chinese
In ceremonial usages),
Not less of faith or need were born —
Survive untampered with, unshorn;
Date far back to a primal day,
Obscure and hard to trace indeed —
The springing of the planted seed
In the church's first organic sway?
Still for a type, a type or use,
Each decoration so profuse
Budding and flowering? Tell me here."
" If but one could! To be sincere,
Rome's wide campania of old lore
Ecclesiastic — that waste shore
I 've shunned: an instinct makes one fear
Malarial places. But I 'll tell
That at the mass this very morn
I marked the broidered maniple
Which by the ministrant was worn:
How like a napkin does it show,
Thought I, a napkin on the arm
Of servitor. And hence we know
Its origin. In the first days
(And who denies their simple charm!)
When the church's were like household ways,
Some served the flock in humble state —
At Eucharist, passed cup or plate.
The thing of simple use, you see,
Tricked out — embellished — has become
Theatric and a form. There 's Rome!
Yet what of this, since happily
Each superflux men now disown."
" Perchance! — 'Tis an ambiguous time;
And periods unforecast come on
Recurs to me a Persian rhyme:
In Pera late an Asian man,
With stately cap of Astrakhan,
I knew in arboured coffee-house
On bluff above the Bosphorus.
Strange lore was his, and Saadi's wit:
Over pipe and Mocha long we 'd sit
Discussing themes which thrive in shade.
In pause of talk a way he had
Of humming a low air of his:
I asked him once, What trills your bird?
And he recited it in word,
To pleasure me, and this it is:

" Flamen, flamen, put away
Robe and mitre glorious:
Doubt undeifies the day!
Look, in vapours odorous
As the spice-king's funeral-pyre,
Dies the Zoroastrian fire
On your altars in decay:
The rule, the Magian rule is run,
And Mythra abdicates the sun! " "





Last updated January 14, 2019