Descent into Hades - Part 1

by Hervey Allen

Hervey Allen

While the world slept, sad Joseph came,
Arimathea, with a linen shroud,
And Peter who had done with fear
To beg for him that died the first.
Broken, they begged in Syriac,
While Caius, grim centurion, sat,
With mouth curved like an eagle's beak,
Munching his flour-cake and beans,
And gulping sour, country wine
Out of his iron helmet while
He spat, and buckled on his greaves,
And rose. " Venus! These sorry Jews!
Only six coins, and silver ones
At that! " Oh, well, he'd set a watch
Upon the tomb — the man was dead —
" Ehu! A bloody bargain after all!
" King of the Jews!" Poor madman, he ...
Ha, you Polycarp, get up
And let the veterans sleep awhile. "
The Greek arose beside the fire.

Now morning dazed the eastern stars,
And in the growing half light up
The skully, barren hill they went,
Three crosses dim against the sky
Where the last stars still burned.
The thief upon the left still
Muttered low. " Water! " he hissed, and died.
" Hurry, the ladder, " Caius snapped,
" Before the day is on us. " So
Peter stood beside the cross
And shivered while the cocks crowed on
Down in the valley, cheerfully.
Along the road to Lebanon
Hurried a haggard figure, bent,
Afraid of its own shadow. Now
It stopped beside an orchard and
Turned in. But now the ladder came.

Against the cross they laid it, then
Young Polycarp, the Greek, climbed up.
But, oh, that face of woe, those
Sunken eyes, the tired, hurt mouth!
Where seemed to linger, yet inaudible
Sad as the shadows of those eyes,
And darker still, some word unutterable
That only man might speak, a last
Farewell to hope! Poor Polycarp
Could never look with joy at gods
Smiling beside their altars from
That day. Always that face he saw,
And heard the song of owls, as now
He heard them in the valley drear,
Hooting about the tombs. A sad
Grace and mercy filled him utterly
With sorrow for his fellows. Ah!
That face went with him everywhere!
And he would weep as now he wept.
Lifting the thorns off of the brow,
He took his soldier's cloak and wiped
The blood and tears away, and trembled,
While, as if it were his own flesh,
He from the wide-flung beam those
Outstretched hands from nails removed,
And then the wounded feet, and clasped —
Scarcely a weight, it seemed. A glow
As if that body beat forth life
Suffused him where he stood upon
The ladder, tottering, and a dawn
Beat on his armor, seething
Goldenly, while he came down
And laid his burden on the linen
Shroud that Joseph spread below.
Sadly, with tears of pure despair,
Peter and Joseph swathed their hope,
And gathered up their burden, while
The light gained on the darkness 'mid
Its long and snowy folds, and they
Down rock-scarred places to deep
Shadows bore their burden; down
The valley to the fresh-hewn tomb
Where owls still flitted eerily,
Tho' all about, above them, flamed
Hilltops with light enormous, and
The sun rose upon Zion, rose
To sound of harps and psalteries
Lifted on the morning air
Where the priests sang at sacrifice.

Scarce had the hum of instruments
Passed from the air like wings away,
When a low wailing fell upon
Their ears, and tired weeping, so
Even the Romans started, stopped,
And hailed three wraithy figures by
A tomb, like spirits of the place,
That moved toward them, hesitant,
Until the deep, the strong, sad voice
Of Joseph cried them, " Peace, we have
Him here. " And then the women came
Flitting across the shadows, both
The Marys; Martha, and the wife
Of Joseph, bending down with cries
And streaming hair about that cloudy
Form; weeping, and stretching empty
Hands to heaven with low cries,
Save one who cried aloud three times,
" My son! " — but sank down stricken. Thus
They all stood there and breathed awhile
In agony they could not bear,
Amid the fleering shadows, while
The soldiers watched, and leaned upon
Their spears, and waited silently.
Then in his breast the heart of Caius
Woke at sight of Mary's face,
Touched by some memory, perhaps,
The money from his pouch he drew
And poured the silver coins into
Her lap, whereat her weary tears
More frequent fell, while with her lips
She blessed him, gathering up the price
Of her own flesh returned to her
By him; accepting it, while he,
The hardened soldier, sudden felt
The thick walls of his heart dissolve
Like melting shells — felt young again,
And strangely innocent. And straight
His head he lifts and cries, " A new
Day dawns, arise, tarry not here.
Hark to the morning trumpets blow! "
They heard them from Antonio,
And all the streets of Zion woke;
In hills about Jerusalem
The silver clangor died away.
Yet surely never mortal horns
Wound reveille like that which smote
Their ears and rang amid the vales,
Till the long shadows fled as if
Immortal sound echoed at last,
And rode on light and flowed into
The tombs. Even the soldiers stood
Amazed awhile. Then Peter took
His Master and with Joseph graspt
His snowy cerement that glowed
As if the morning gathered there.
And they two with the women bore
Their sorrow's burden tenderly,
And brought it carefully, and laid
Their hope of morning in the tomb.
Caius a guard set by the door
And sat himself upon a rock,
While cloaks were spread and stones began
To click and flash again for clothes
That had been diced for twenty times
Between that sun and this. Meanwhile
Within the twilight sepulcher
A cry arose again and died,
Startling the sentry at the door,
Who peering in beheld full length
The gray and blue-veined form of one
Upon a hollowed pedestal,
And chips about the threshold, fresh,
But newly from the hillside hewn,
And a huge boulder poised above.

With sounds that fluttered as if grief
Herself were stricken and complained
In there, beneath the wrapt and
Shadowed head the Marys laid
A many-folded, scented towel,
While Peter took the outstretched hands
And placed them on his Master's breast.
Joseph meanwhile the limbs composed,
And all shrank at the bitter wounds,
Thinking how tenderly he lived
Who bore them now so silently.
Then with pure water they had brought
From Hebron's spring the night before
And borne upon their heads, the women
Bathed the sleeper hastily
And wiped away the bitter reek
Of pain and sweat of agony,
Closing the shadowed eyes at last
That glimmered with despair, while near
Those smitten lips that shadowy framed
Their unheard syllables of woe,
Mary leaned down and whispered
As if she comforted a child
As once she did, times gone, and let
His head rest on her breast awhile.
Then Peter took her, and they went
Away, and left the others there.

Arimathea from a box
Of ivory his unguents took,
That scented all the morning air
With balm of Gilead. With these
He cleansed the grievous wounds, the hands,
The feet, the head, the piteous side,
The scourged shoulders; while with tears
That scalded her sad, trembling hands,
Anna, his wife, a precious cup
Held for a basin underneath
The wounds to catch the balm-and-blood,
And water from the spearthrust in
The side. This mixed with essences
Fell in the golden bowl between
Two silver, winged handles that
Outspread above, beyond it, and
Watched like the wings that brooded on
The Sea of Chaos once, so these
Now in-little, yet the same,
Thus looked again upon a tide
Where old Confusion triumphed still —
Yet waited for the spirit to
Begin. Swept down those silver wings
And pinions into involutes
On folds of glittering garments that
Enwrapped the hidden angel of
The cup, whose shrouded form beneath
Its argent garments shone with life
And age-enduring radiance.
Down from the angel's feet the metal
Ran in golden waves that broke
Upon a level space, as if the Sea
Of Mercy rolled beneath the eye
Of God and bore that angel form,
And made the base of that fair cup.
A cup made for King Solomon,
A cup that went to Babylon,
Carried away to Shinar with
The loot of Zion's Temple;
Rescued; brought back; and cherished long
In secret places, now once more
Put to the use of sacrifice,
To hold the blood of David's Son.
So Anna on her knees now held
It up to Joseph like a priest
Who washed those holy wounds, and
Lapped his prince in spices and
Long folds of glimmering linen, and
With care, shrouded the cup in
Napkins; hid it well behind
The shadows of the rocky bier,
Close by the covered head, lest those
Who watched outside with sword and spear
Should rob him of it when he passed.
One long last look they took and
Left Him in the shadows there;
The women down the valley walked;
The sound of grieving died away.
Then Caius looked within the tomb,
Nodded and put his shoulders to
The stone that poised itself above
The door, and thrust against it —
Powerfully. The stone fell down,
Blotting the cavern's entrance like
An eye that closes, and forever,
On the soul, its secrets, and the
Life that burned within — gone —
Gone into darkness and forgot.
Joseph of Arimathea, now
Broken and feeble, leaning on
His staff, departed haltingly,
And weakly came into his house
That stood near by to Golgotha.
Closing the door, the good man prayed,
And Anna with him while they wept.

Last updated September 05, 2017