Santa Christina

by Robert Laurence Binyon

Laurence Binyon

At Tiro, in her father's tower,
The young Cristina had her bower,
Over blue Bolsena's lake,
Where small frolic ripples break
Under a grove of sycamore
On the sandy eastern shore.
There one clear May eve she sat
Leaning over the rich mat
Hung across the window--sill,
While her doves with eager bill
Fluttered round her for the grain
In her spread hands; up again
Now they soared through golden light,
Radiant in a swerve of white,
Round the trees, now scattering
With a shiver of many a wing,
Soft as snowy drops of foam
Singly they alighted home,
And swaying each a sheeny throat
Crooned their comfortable note.
On a sudden another sound
Smote Cristina from the ground.
Bending over, she espied
Wretched ragged folk, who cried,
Hoarsely: ``See, the doves are fed;
We, men and women, have not bread.''
While Cristina, with a shy,
Courteous simplicity,
Looked upon them, her young heart,
New to sorrow, felt the dart
Of pity pierce her body through,
And she spoke: ``What must I do?''
Then with a thought her bosom beat,
And swift away on frightened feet
To her father's chapel, rich
With images in carven niche,
Breathless and bright--eyed she sped,
Most in dread of her own dread,
Traitor to her purpose; took
The idols in her hands that shook
And brought them gathered in her gown
And from the window cast them down.
The ragged people cried and snatched
This broken treasure; then were matched
Strange companions: here the bust
Of gazing Jupiter august
Weighed on a sore--blotched cripple; there
Against a scullion's clouted hair
Apollo's silver shoulder shone,
While, near by, a withered crone
Hugged into her bosom old
Venus' arm and breast of gold.
Mumbling o'er their spoils they went,
A troop to stir the merriment
Of gods; but sad Cristina sobbed.
When the stately father robbed,
Entering found his pagan shrine
Emptied of its works divine,
Each by a famous craftsman wrought,
Chosen well and dearly bought,
And suffered only to be scanned
(With fond touches of the hand)
By the nice appraising eye,
Duke Urban cried a grievous cry:
But when at last he understood
The crime of his own flesh and blood,
Grief was swallowed up in rage.
``Pest on this corrupted age!''
He cried. ``This is this new god's work.
And now I find the venom lurk
In my own child, in my own home!
I am a citizen of Rome.
She shall have justice: take her hence,
And let my dungeon teach her sense.''
Cristina weeping pleads the pain
Of the famished folk; in vain!
Straightway she is cast and bound
In a dungeon underground.
Three days went. ``Now bring her out,''
Said Urban. Servants, much in doubt,
Led her from the dungeon door,
Much in doubt yet wondering more,
For the damp and starving gloom
Had but glorified her bloom,
And her brow was brave, as she
Stepped before her father: he
With a sullen doubtful glance
Some moments looked on her askance.
``Art thou taught?'' at last he said.
Proud she lifted up her head.
``Father, if I wronged thee, thou
Didst mar the face of mercy. Now,
By God's grace, thy cruel wrong
Hath but made my soul more strong.
I have suffered for thy pride:
Let thy poor be satisfied.
See, God stands upon my side!''
Duke Urban flushed an angry hue.
``Wilt thou brave me to thy rue,
Child?'' he cried. ``Since in thee still
Some imp of evil works his will,
Pricking thee outrageously,
I will burn him out of thee.
Go, build a furnace; bind her in,
And let the flame purge out her sin.''
All her women wept, implored,
``Ah, be merciful, dear lord!''
But the more imperious came
His answer: ``Cast her to the flame.''
When that evening fell, a light
Rose and shuddered up the night.
On the reddened shore around
Soldiers kept the fiery ground,
Where amid the furnace stood
Cristina: spite of hardihood,
None but turned away his eye
To see so sweet a creature die.
Swifter roared the bright fire, dancing
Madder, on their armour glancing,
While the people kneeling wailed.
Suddenly all faces paled.
In their ears a clear voice sang.
From amidst the fire it sprang
Joyous; and the soldiers raised
Their heads, and all the people gazed;
There in the moving crimson core
Of the flames that sound and soar,
Coil and quiver, twist and spire,
'Mid the insufferable fire,
Like a breathing beauteous rose,
Nay, like a precious vase that glows
Outlined intense and clear and white,
Absorbing all the burning light
Into its tissue, through and through,
To purify the shell--like hue,
They behold Cristina stand,
Lifting either little hand,
And with parted lips, and eyes
That the fierce flame glorifies,
See her form transfigured shine
Singing in that fiery shrine--
An embodied rapture! Awe
Fell upon all them that saw.
The young voice melted in their ears,
And beauty hushed them into tears.
Heaven seemed opening on their sight
To its inmost soul of light,
And the daily world of woes
Fell from off them, and they rose
In a rapture: faces, turned
Each unto his neighbour, burned,
While they cried with voices full,
``A miracle, a miracle!''
Urban in his dark tower heard
Trembling that exultant word.
Rage by stabbing terror spurred
Swelled his heart to madness. Straight
With a torch from the open gate
Striding he commanded: ``Curst
Be this snake that I have nursed!
She has witched to her desire
A demon lover, a fiend of fire;
Yet she shall not 'scape me now.
Ere another night, I vow,
She shall die. With morning take
And throw her deep into the lake.''
Though men groaned and women shrieked
At such cruel vengeance wreaked,
None this old man's rage gainsaid;
For within their hearts they prayed
Some new marvel should confound
All his fury. Morning found,
On the glimmering shore assembled,
A great multitude that trembled
Half with hope and half with fear,
Hemmed behind the levelled spear
Of armed ranks; and over all,
Ringed by silent lances tall,
In a high seat Urban sat,
By threatening fingers pointed at,
Motionless with eager frown
And on the wide lake gazing down.
Soon the sun's uprising glowed
Over the eastern hill, and showed,
'Mid the waters that anew
Shivered silvering into blue,
A single boat; it brightly shone
Where Cristina knelt thereon,
And the hangman at her side
Busy bending over tied
Round her neck a great mill--stone;
In the water she was thrown.
Passionate arose the groan
From those watchers, but as soon
Changed into a paean's tune;
For she sank not, but was seen,
Where death's bubble should have been,
Standing on the stone that bore
Her bare feet floating toward the shore,
With little tremblings at the knees
As the buoyant, urging breeze
Rocked her onward. With a shout
Thronged the people, stretching out
Eager arms, or under spears
Thrust their heads with joyful tears,
Clapped their hands and cried to see
So magical a wonder. She,
Simple in her loveliness,
By one hand holding up her dress
From the wave that washed its hem
With white sparkle, seemed to them
Fresh as Venus on her shell
Borne o'er the blue Ionian swell.
Round her head the soft--blown hair
Played in sunny streams of air,
Save one long tress on her breast
That her clasping fingers pressed.
In a dream she heard the cries,
Saw the bright and crowding eyes
Near and nearer; when a strong
Sudden tumult rose; the throng
Turned, and lo! on his high chair,
'Mid the spearmen struggling there,
Duke Urban with head fallen back
And the full vein swollen black
On his throat: his fingers tear
At the suffocating fear
That holds him by the panting heart
Breathless, and his fixed eyes start,
While the heaving hubbub round
Rocks about him; in hoarse sound
Of vengeance his death--gasp is drowned.
But Cristina floating nigh
When she saw this, piteously
Bowed her gentle forehead low
In her hands, and cried, ``Ah, woe
On me and mine! O Lord of Peace,
Now my wretchedness release!''
Even as in despair she prayed,
One that on the shore delayed
At the crowd's edge, watching all
And doubtful what might yet befall,
Scowled and said within his teeth,
``This witch--girl comes to be our death,''
Strung his bow and spurred by fear
Drew an arrow to his ear,
And while still this fierce uproar
Held the wild throng on the shore
Sharp upon the tender throat
The iron barb Cristina smote.
Ere a man had turned to note,
She was falling; ere a tongue
Had one cry of warning rung,
She had fallen, and the foam
Tossing shoreward washed her home.
As a sudden silence rushed
Over lips in terror hushed,
Rolled amid the shallow spray
At their feet her body lay.
Dark is the world to the weak will
As to feet stumbling on a hill
Benighted, when no stars appear.
But as a star that beacons clear,
O beauty of courage, thou dost shine
On souls that falter and that pine.
But most in bodies frail and young
Is thy beauty seen and sung.
There, like a fountain ever new,
Thou dost scatter sunny dew,
Troubling our self--bewildered night
With simplicity of light.
Therefore is Bolsena's lake
Dear for fair Cristina's sake.
Yea, the stone that bore her feet
And still bears the footprint sweet,
Housed in alabaster shrine
Of carved work, as a thing divine,
And by dead lips' kisses worn,
Shall be kissed in sorrow's scorn
By lips of thousands yet unborn.

Last updated January 14, 2019