A Leaf Of Sage

by James McAuley

James McAuley

This is a tale from the Decameron;
Truant to good advice the poet returns
To the lost art, which he is told to shun,
Of narrative; hoping this time to have won
Some part of the perfections he discerns.
Let me be Love's cantor, and have power
To breathe the solemn neums of temple song
In pure unsweetened verse, neither harsh nor sour,
And may this five-leaved stanza come to flower
With graces that to youth and art belong.
A woolmonger's apprentice used to carry
Yarn to a poor household that was paid
To spin a weekly task of thread. And very
Often he would find excuse to tarry
For reasons not connected with his trade.
Pasquino lingered while Simona span;
And as he watched, her spindle seemed to draw
The fibre of his feelings till they ran
Twisting to coloured threads, which Love began
To weave into the pattern he foresaw.
Those fierce uncertain ardours of first love,
Who can quite recall them? Later, it's true,
Love may be jubilant in its summer grove,
Golden as noonday, pungent as the clove,
But gone is that trembling light like morning dew.
Clumsy, vehement, tongue-tied and aflame,
Pasquino's wishes yet found means to advance.
Each blurred encounter through the mesh of shame
And shyness was rewarded with the same
Confused surrender in Simona's glance.
Walking to her house he would devise
Conversations full of love's intent,
Supplying in his fancy her replies;
And if he ventured on these colloquies
She would return almost the words he'd lent.
They touched; they kissed; and passed incontinently
To the next stage of love (is it not so?)
Deceit of elders. Longing to be free,
She of her parents, of his master he,
They plotted what to say and where to go.
And thus one Sunday, with another pair,
They found a garden; each couple sat remote;
The sky laughed; a curling baroque air
Ruffled the colours of the bright parterre;
A bird sat by with soft recording note.
Spring had resumed its liturgy of light.
The sun's gladness like a festal garment
Fell on Simona's body and flowed bright
About her. Suppliant in her presence, sight
And touch and other senses sought preferment.
She seemed the virgin of Love's calendar.
Her mood of stillness, flushing with desire,
Resembled as Pasquino worshipped her
The delicate alternation of a star
Whose cold blue radiance has a pulse of fire.
A sage plant in this garden of their bliss
Like a small tree of knowledge grew at hand.
Laughing she plucked a leaf and said, "Rub this
Against your teeth and it will give your kiss
Its aromatic virtue." Her command
Pleased him, and he quoted the old saw,
"Eat sage in May if you would live for aye."
He crushed the grey-green leaf as if to draw
Immortal joy from it under Love's law;
And then the thumb of Darkness bruised the day.
For not long after, as if plague-stricken, he
Grinced and sweated; livid spots appeared
Upon his face and hands; quite suddenly
His body swelled; he ceased to hear or see;
And while Simona, fixed in horror, stared,
The strange distemper with rough spasms tore
His life out by the cringing roots, and left
A swollen corpse. Beside the unseen door
The hidden bird sang sweetly as before.
And then the girl shrieked, utterly bereft.
O high untraceable permissive Will!
I stare into the whirlpool of your eye
Where our intentions, whether good or ill,
Sink to destruction swift and terrible:
These are your counsels, Lord, which terrify.
The other couple ran up at the sound,
And saw the spotted flesh, deformed and grim;
Then strangers too began to gather round,
And since no cause could readily be found
Suspicion grew that she had poisoned him.
The appetite for random accusation
Woke in a dozen mouths, which flowed with blame
And the sweet slaver of anticipation:
Our virtue loves the sauce of indignation
With which to eat another's life and name.
Hurried weeping to the magistrate,
She is too speechless to deny the crime.
He, unconvinced by what the accusers state,
Comes to the spot and bids the girl relate
Minutely all that happened at the time.
Then somewhat mastering her shock and grief,
Fearful of her accusers' lowering rage,
She tells the story, though her words are brief.
The tale seems hardly worthy of belief,
For why should death come from a harmless sage?
And now in her confusion and despair,
To show exactly how Pasquino died
She rubs the suspect herb against her bare
White teeth, commends her soul to Mercy's care,
And pitifully shows she has not lied.
In silence they cut down the shrub; beneath,
They find a foul toad squatting at the root,
The Satan of that bower, whose noisome breath
Proclaims it the dark minister of death;
For toads were venomous then by long repute.
I fear this business of the toad may seem
Unsatisfactory to those inclined
To live within a scientific scheme;
Why spend one's art upon a tale whose theme
Turns on a fable? But—ah well, never mind.
And then the keeper of the garden came
And with piled timber burned both bush and toad,
Cleansing the garden with a timely flame.
So may the lovers, purified from blame,
Ascend from fire to win a clear abode.
Rest now, my youth, under this hieroglyph,
This figured seal of silence; do not start
Up once more in agony and grief.
Sing, hidden bird, sing mercy and relief
To wanderers in the darkness of the heart.

Collected Poems 1936-1970

Last updated January 14, 2019