16. The Easter Fire -

by Herman Melville

Herman Melville

" There 's politesse! we 're left behind.
And yet I like this Prince of Pith;
Too pithy almost. Where 'll ye find
Nobleman to keep silence with
Better than Lord Djalea? — But you —
It cannot be this interview
Has somehow — — " " No," said Clarel; " no,"
And sighed; then, " How irreverent
Was Belex in the wassail flow:
His Ramadan he links with Lent."
" No marvel: what else to infer?
Toll-taker at the Sepulchre.
To me he gave his history late,
The which I sought. — You 've marked the state
Of warders shawled, on old divan,
Sword, pipe, and coffee-cup at knee,
Cross-legg'd within that portal's span
Which wins the Holy Tomb? Ay me,
With what a bored dead apathy
Faith's eager pilgrims they let in!"
" Guard of the Urn has Belex been?"
Said Clarel, starting; " why then — yes — — "
He checked himself. —
" Nay, but confess,"
Cried Rolfe; " I know the revery lurks:
Frankly admit that for these Turks
There 's nothing that can so entice
To disbelieve, nay, atheise —
Nothing so baneful unto them
As shrined El Cods, Jerusalem.
For look now how it operates:
To Christ the Turk as much as Frank
Concedes a supernatural rank;
Our Holy Places too he mates
All but with Mecca's own. But then
If chance he mark the Cross profaned
By violence of Christian men
So called — his faith then needs be strained;
The more, if he himself have done
(Enforced thereto by harsh command)
Irreverence unto Mary's Son."
" How mean you?" and the speaker scanned.
" Why, not alone has Belex been
An idling guard about the Tomb:
Nay, but he knows another scene
In fray beneath the selfsame dome
At festivals. What backs he 's scored
When on the day by Greeks adored,
St. Basil's Easter, all the friars
Schismatic, with the pilgrim tribes,
Levantine, Russian, heave their tides
Of uproar in among the shrines,
Waiting the burst of fraudful fires
From vent there in the Holy Tomb
Which closeteth the mongers. Room!
It jets! To quell the rush, the lines
Of soldiers sway: crack falls the thong;
And mid the press, some there, though strong,
Are trampled, trodden, till they die.
In transfer swift, igniting fly
The magic flames, which, caught along
By countless candles, multiply
Like seas phosphoric on calm nights,
Blue shows the fane in fog of lights;
But here 'tis hurricane and high:
Zeal, furious zeal, and frenzying faith
And ecstasy of Aty's scathe
When up the Phrygian mount he rushed
Bleeding, yet heeding not his shame,
While round him frantic timbrels pushed
In rites delirious to name.
No: Dindymus' nor Brahma's crew
Dream what these Christian fakirs do:
Wrecked banners, crosses, ragged psalms —
Red wounds thro' vestments white ye view;
And priests who shout ferocious psalms
And hoarse hosannas to their King,
Even Christ; and naught may work a lull,
Nor timely truce of reason bring;
Not cutting lash, nor smiting sword,
Nor yet — O! more than wonderful —
The Tomb, the pleading Tomb where lay Our Lord."
" But who ordains the imposture? speak."
" The vivid, ever-inventive Greek."
" The Greek? But that is hard to think.
Seemly the port, gentle the cheer
Of friars which lodge upon this brink
Of Kedron, and do worship here
With rites august, and keep the creed." —
" Ah, rites august ; — this ancient sect,
Stately upholstered and bedecked,
Is but a catafalque, concede —
Prolongs in sacerdotal way
The Lower Empire's bastard sway;
It does not grow, it does but bide —
An orthodoxy petrified.
Or, if it grow, it grows but with
Russia, and thence derives its pith.
The Czar is its armed bishop. See,
The Czar's purse, so it comes to me,
Contributes to this convent's pride.
But what 's that twinkling through the gloom
Far down? the lights in chantry? Yes!
Whence came the flame that lit? Confess,
E'en from Jerusalem — the Tomb,
Last Easter. Horseman from the porch
Hither each Easter spurs with torch
To re-ignite the flames extinct
Upon Good Friday. Thus, you see,
Contagious is this cheatery;
Nay, that 's unhandsome; guests we are;
And hosts are sacred — house and all;
And one may think, and scarcely mar
The truth, that it may so befall
That, as yon docile lamps receive
The fraudful flame, yet honest burn,
So, no collusive guile may cleave
Unto these simple friars, who turn
And take whate'er the forms dispense,
Nor question, Wherefore? ask not, Whence? "

Clarel, as if in search of aught
To mitigate unwelcome thought,
Appealed to turret, crag and star;
But all was strange, withdrawn and far.

" Yet need we grant," Rolfe here resumed,
" This trick its source had in a dream
Artless, which few will disesteem —
That angels verily illumed
Those lamps at Easter, long ago;
Though now indeed all come from prayer
(As Greeks believe — at least avow)
Of bishops in the Sepulchre.
Be rumour just, which small birds sing,
Greek churchmen would let drop this thing
Of fraud, e'en let it cease. But no;
'Tis ancient, 'tis entangled so
With vital things of needful sway,
Scarce dare they deviate that way:
The Latin in this spurious rite
Joined with the Greek: but long ago,
Long years since, he abjured it quite.
Still, few Rome's pilgrims here, and they
Less credulous than Greeks to-day.
Now worldlings in their worldliness
Enjoin upon us, Never retract:
With ignorant folk, think you, no less
Of policy priestcraft may exact?
But Luther's clergy: though their deeds
Take not imposture, yet 'tis seen
That, in some matters more abstract,
These, too, may be impeached herein
While, as each plain observer heeds,
Some doctrines fall away from creeds,
And therewith, hopes, which scarce again,
In those same forms, shall solace men —
Perchance, suspended and inert
May hang, with few to controvert,
For ages; does the Lutheran,
To such disciples as may sit
Receptive of his sanctioned wit,
In candour own the dubious weather
And lengthen out the cable's tether? —
You catch my drift?"
" I do. But, nay,
Some ease the cable."
" Derwent, pray?
Ah, he — he is a generous wight,
And lets it slip, yes, run out quite.
Whether now in his priestly state
He seek indeed to mediate
'Tween faith and science (which still slight
Each truce deceptive) or discreet
Would kindly cover faith's retreat,
Alike he labours vainly. Nay,
And, since I think it, why not say —
Things all diverse he would unite:
His idol 's an hermaphrodite."
The student shrank. Again he knew
Return for Rolfe of quick distaste;
But mastered it; for still the hue
Rolfe kept of candour undefaced,
Quoting pure nature at his need,
As 'twere the Venerable Bede:
An Adam in his natural ways.
But scrupulous lest any phrase
Through inference might seem unjust
Unto the friend they here discussed,
Rolfe supplements: " Derwent but errs —
No, buoyantly but overstates
In much his genial heart avers:
I cannot dream he simulates.
For pulpiteers which make their mart —
Who, in the Truth not for a day,
Debarred from growth as from decay,
Truth one forever, Scriptures say,
Do yet the fine progressive part
So jauntily maintain; these find
(For sciolists abound) a kind
And favouring audience. But none
Exceed in flushed repute the one
Who bold can harmonise for all
Moses and Comte, Renan and Paul:
'Tis the robustious circus-man:
With legs astride the dappled span
Elate he drives white, black, before:
The small apprentices adore.
Astute ones be though, staid and grave,
Who in the wars of Faith and Science
Remind one of old tactics brave —
Imposing front of false defiance:
The king a corpse in armour led
On a live horse. — You turn your head:
You hardly like that. Woe is me:
What would you have? For one to hold
That he must still trim down, and cold
Dissemble — this were coxcombry!
Indulgence should with frankness mate:
Fraternal be: Ah, tolerate!"
The modulated voice here won
Ingress where scarce the plea alone
Had entrance gained. But — to forget
Allusions which no welcome met
In him who heard — Rolfe thus went on:
" Never I 've seen it; but they claim
That the Greek prelate's artifice
Comes as a tragic after-piece
To farce, or rather prank and game;
Racers and tumblers round the Tomb:
Sports such as might the mound confront,
The funeral mound, by Hellespont,
Of slain Patroclus. Linger still
Such games beneath some groves of bloom
In mid Pacific, where life's thrill
Is primal — pagan; and fauns deck
Green theatres for that tattooed Greek
The Polynesian, — Who will say
These Syrians are more wise than they,
Or more humane? not those, believe,
Who may the narrative receive
Of Ibrahim the conqueror, borne
Dead-faint, by soldiers red with gore,
Over slippery corses heaped forlorn
Out from splashed Calvary through the door
Into heaven's light. Urged to ordain
That nevermore the frenzying ray
Should issue — " That would but sustain
The cry of persecution; nay,
Let Allah, if he will, remand
These sects to reason. Let it stand. " —
Cynical Moslem! but didst err,
Arch-Captain of the Sepulchre?" —

He stayed: and Clarel knew decline
Of all his spirits, as may one
Who hears some story of his line
Which shows him half his house undone.
Revulsion came: with lifted brows
He gazed on Rolfe: Is this the man
Whom Jordan heard in part espouse
The appeal of that Dominican
And Rome? and here, all sects, behold,
All creeds involving in one fold
Of doubt? Better a partisan!
Earnest he seems: can union be
'Twixt earnestness and levity?
Or need at last in Rolfe confess
Thy hollow, Manysidedness!

But, timely, here diversion fell.
Dawn broke; and from each cliff-hung cell
'Twas hailed with hymns — confusion sweet
As of some aviary's seat:
Commemorative matin din:
'Tis Saba's festival they usher in.





Last updated January 14, 2019