THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH
THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH.
Questa leggiadra e gloriosa Donna.
The glorious Maid, whose soul to heaven is gone
And left the rest cold earth, she who was grown
A pillar of true valour, and had gain'd
Much honour by her victory, and chain'd
That god which doth the world with terror bind,
Using no armour but her own chaste mind;
A fair aspect, coy thoughts, and words well weigh'd,
Sweet modesty to these gave friendly aid.
It was a miracle on earth to see
The bow and arrows of the deity,
And all his armour broke, who erst had slain
Such numbers, and so many captive ta'en;
The fair dame from the noble sight withdrew
With her choice company,—they were but few.
And made a little troop, true virtue's rare,—
Yet each of them did by herself appear
A theme for poems, and might well incite
The best historian: they bore a white
[Pg 372]Unspotted ermine, in a field of green,
About whose neck a topaz chain was seen
Set in pure gold; their heavenly words and gait,
Express'd them blest were born for such a fate.
Bright stars they seem'd, she did a sun appear,
Who darken'd not the rest, but made more clear
Their splendour; honour in brave minds is found:
This troop, with violets and roses crown'd,
Cheerfully march'd, when lo, I might espy
Another ensign dreadful to mine eye—
A lady clothed in black, whose stern looks were
With horror fill'd, and did like hell appear,
Advanced, and said, "You who are proud to be
So fair and young, yet have no eyes to see
How near you are your end; behold, I am
She, whom they, fierce, and blind, and cruel name,
Who meet untimely deaths; 'twas I did make
Greece subject, and the Roman Empire shake;
My piercing sword sack'd Troy, how many rude
And barbarous people are by me subdued?
Many ambitious, vain, and amorous thought
My unwish'd presence hath to nothing brought;
Now am I come to you, while yet your state
Is happy, ere you feel a harder fate.
"On these you have no power," she then replied,
(Who had more worth than all the world beside,)
"And little over me; but there is one
Who will be deeply grieved when I am gone,
His happiness doth on my life depend,
I shall find freedom in a peaceful end.
As one who glancing with a sudden eye
Some unexpected object doth espy;
Then looks again, and doth his own haste blame
So in a doubting pause, this cruel dame
A little stay'd, and said, "The rest I call
To mind, and know I have o'ercome them all:"
Then with less fierce aspect, she said, "Thou guide
Of this fair crew, hast not my strength assay'd,
Let her advise, who may command, prevent
Decrepit age, 'tis but a punishment;
From me this honour thou alone shalt have,
Without or fear or pain, to find thy grave.
[Pg 373]"As He shall please, who dwelleth in the heaven
And rules on earth, such portion must be given
To me, as others from thy hand receive,"
She answered then; afar we might perceive
Millions of dead heap'd on th' adjacent plain;
No verse nor prose may comprehend the slain
Did on Death's triumph wait, from India,
From Spain, and from Morocco, from Cathay,
And all the skirts of th' earth they gather'd were;
Who had most happy lived, attended there:
Popes, Emperors, nor Kings, no ensigns wore
Of their past height, but naked show'd and poor.
Where be their riches, where their precious gems,
Their mitres, sceptres, robes, and diadems?
O miserable men, whose hopes arise
From worldly joys, yet be there few so wise
As in those trifling follies not to trust;
And if they be deceived, in end 'tis just:
Ah! more than blind, what gain you by your toil?
You must return once to your mother's soil,
And after-times your names shall hardly know,
Nor any profit from your labour grow;
All those strange countries by your warlike stroke
Submitted to a tributary yoke;
The fuel erst of your ambitious fire,
What help they now? The vast and bad desire
Of wealth and power at a bloody rate
Is wicked,—better bread and water eat
With peace; a wooden dish doth seldom hold
A poison'd draught; glass is more safe than gold;
But for this theme a larger time will ask,
I must betake me to my former task.
The fatal hour of her short life drew near,
That doubtful passage which the world doth fear;
Another company, who had not been
Freed from their earthy burden there were seen,
To try if prayers could appease the wrath,
Or stay th' inexorable hand, of Death.
That beauteous crowd convened to see the end
Which all must taste; each neighbour, every friend
Stood by, when grim Death with her hand took hold,
And pull'd away one only hair of gold,
[Pg 374]Thus from the world this fairest flower is ta'en
To make her shine more bright, not out of spleen
How many moaning plaints, what store of cries
Were utter'd there, when Fate shut those fair eyes
For which so oft I sung; whose beauty burn'd
My tortured heart so long; while others mourn'd,
She pleased, and quiet did the fruit enjoy
Of her blest life: "Farewell," without annoy,
"True saint on earth," said they; so might she be
Esteem'd, but nothing bates Death's cruelty.
What shall become of others, since so pure
A body did such heats and colds endure,
And changed so often in so little space?
Ah, worldly hopes, how blind you be, how base!
If since I bathe the ground with flowing tears
For that mild soul, who sees it, witness bears;
And thou who read'st mayst judge she fetter'd me
The sixth of April, and did set me free
On the same day and month.
Oh! how the way
Of fortune is unsure; none hates the day
Of slavery, or of death, so much as I
Abhor the time which wrought my liberty,
And my too lasting life; it had been just
My greater age had first been turn'd to dust,
And paid to time, and to the world, the debt
I owed, then earth had kept her glorious state:
Now at what rate I should the sorrow prize
I know not, nor have heart that can suffice
The sad affliction to relate in verse
Of these fair dames, that wept about her hearse;
"Courtesy, Virtue, Beauty, all are lost;
What shall become of us? None else can boast
Such high perfection; no more we shall
Hear her wise words, nor the angelical
Sweet music of her voice.
" While thus they cried,
The parting spirit doth itself divide
With every virtue from the noble breast,
As some grave hermit seeks a lonely rest:
The heavens were clear, and all the ambient air
Without a threatening cloud; no adversaire
'Durst once appear, or her calm mind affright;
Death singly did herself conclude the fight;
[Pg 375]After, when fear, and the extremest plaint
Were ceased, th' attentive eyes of all were bent
On that fair face, and by despair became
Secure; she who was spent, not like a flame
By force extinguish'd, but as lights decay,
And undiscerned waste themselves away:
Thus went the soul in peace; so lamps are spent,
As the oil fails which gave them nourishment;
In sum, her countenance you still might know
The same it was, not pale, but white as snow,
Which on the tops of hills in gentle flakes
Falls in a calm, or as a man that takes
Desir'ed rest, as if her lovely sight
Were closed with sweetest sleep, after the sprite
If this be that fools call to die,
Death seem'd in her exceeding fair to be.
[LINES 103 TO END.
And now closed in the last hour's narrow span
Of that so glorious and so brief career,
Ere the dark pass so terrible to man!
And a fair troop of ladies gather'd there,
Still of this earth, with grace and honour crown'd,
To mark if ever Death remorseful were.
This gentle company thus throng'd around,
In her contemplating the awful end
All once must make, by law of nature bound;
Each was a neighbour, each a sorrowing friend.
Then Death stretch'd forth his hand, in that dread hour,
From her bright head a golden hair to rend,
Thus culling of this earth the fairest flower;
Nor hate impell'd the deed, but pride, to dare
Assert o'er highest excellence his power.
What tearful lamentations fill the air
The while those beauteous eyes alone are dry,
Whose sway my burning thoughts and lays declare!
And while in grief dissolved all weep and sigh,
She, in meek silence, joyous sits secure,
Gathering already virtue's guerdon high.
"Depart in peace, O mortal goddess pure!"
They said; and such she was: although it nought
[Pg 376]'Gainst mightier Death avail'd, so stern—so sure!
Alas for others! if a few nights wrought
In her each change of suffering dust below!
Oh! Hope, how false! how blind all human thought!
Whether in earth sank deep the dews of woe
For the bright spirit that had pass'd away,
Think, ye who listen! they who witness'd know.
'Twas the first hour, of April the sixth day,
That bound me, and, alas! now sets me free:
How Fortune doth her fickleness display!
None ever grieved for loss of liberty
Or doom of death as I for freedom grieve,
And life prolong'd, who only ask to die.
Due to the world it had been her to leave,
And me, of earlier birth, to have laid low,
Nor of its pride and boast the age bereave.
How great the grief it is not mine to show,
Scarce dare I think, still less by numbers try,
Or by vain speech to ease my weight of woe.
Virtue is dead, beauty and courtesy!
The sorrowing dames her honour'd couch around
"For what are we reserved?" in anguish cry;
"Where now in woman will all grace be found?
Who with her wise and gentle words be blest,
And drink of her sweet song th' angelic sound?"
The spirit parting from that beauteous breast,
In its meek virtues wrapt, and best prepared,
Had with serenity the heavens imprest:
No power of darkness, with ill influence, dared
Within a space so holy to intrude,
Till Death his terrible triumph had declared.
Then hush'd was all lament, all fear subdued;
Each on those beauteous features gazed intent,
And from despair was arm'd with fortitude.
As a pure flame that not by force is spent,
But faint and fainter softly dies away,
Pass'd gently forth in peace the soul content:
And as a light of clear and steady ray,
When fails the source from which its brightness flows,
She to the last held on her-wonted way.
Pale, was she? no, but white as shrouding snows,
That, when the winds are lull'd, fall silently,
[Pg 377]She seem'd as one o'erwearied to repose.
E'en as in balmy slumbers lapt to lie
(The spirit parted from the form below),
In her appear'd what th' unwise term to die;
And Death sate beauteous on her beauteous brow.
La notte che seguì l' orribil caso.
The night—that follow'd the disastrous blow
Which my spent sun removed in heaven to glow,
And left me here a blind and desolate man—
Now far advanced, to spread o'er earth began
The sweet spring dew which harbingers the dawn,
When slumber's veil and visions are withdrawn;
When, crown'd with oriental gems, and bright
As newborn day, upon my tranced sight
My Lady lighted from her starry sphere:
With kind speech and soft sigh, her hand so dear.
So long desired in vain, to mine she press'd,
While heavenly sweetness instant warm'd my breast:
"Remember her, who, from the world apart,
Kept all your course since known to that young heart.
Pensive she spoke, with mild and modest air
Seating me by her, on a soft bank, where,
In greenest shade, the beech and laurel met.
"Remember? ah! how should I e'er forget?
Yet tell me, idol mine," in tears I said,
"Live you?—or dreamt I—is, is Laura dead?"
"Live I? I only live, but you indeed
Are dead, and must be, till the last best hour
Shall free you from the flesh and vile world's power.
But, our brief leisure lest desire exceed,
Turn we, ere breaks the day already nigh,
To themes of greater interest, pure and high.
Then I: "When ended the brief dream and vain
That men call life, by you now safely pass'd,
Is death indeed such punishment and pain?"
Replied she: "While on earth your lot is cast,
Slave to the world's opinions blind and hard,
True happiness shall ne'er your search reward;
Death to the good a dreary prison opes,
But to the vile and base, who all their hopes
[Pg 378]And cares below have fix'd, is full of fear;
And this my loss, now mourn'd with many a tear,
Would seem a gain, and, knew you my delight
Boundless and pure, your joyful praise excite.
Thus spoke she, and on heaven her grateful eye
Devoutly fix'd, but while her rose-lips lie
Chain'd in cold silence, I renew'd my theme:
"Lightning and storm, red battle, age, disease,
Backs, prisons, poison, famine,—make not these
Death, even to the bravest, bitter seem?"
She answer'd: "I deny not that the strife
Is great and sore which waits on parting life,
And then of death eternal the sharp dread!
But if the soul with hope from heaven be fed,
And haply in itself the heart have grief,
What then is death? Its brief sigh brings relief:
Already I approach'd my final goal,
My strength was failing, on the wing my soul,
When thus a low sad-whisper by my side,
'O miserable! who, to vain life tied,
Counts every hour and deems each hour a day,
By land or ocean, to himself a prey,
Where'er he wanders, who one form pursues,
Indulges one desire, one dream renews,
Thought, speech, sense, feeling, there for ever bound!'
It ceased, and to the spot whence came the sound
I turn'd my languid eyes, and her beheld,
Your love who check'd, my pity who impell'd;
I recognised her by that voice and air,
So often which had chased my spirit's gloom,
Now calm and wise, as courteous then and fail.
But e'en to you when dearest, in the bloom
Of joyous youth and beauty's rosy prime.
Theme of much thought, and muse of many a rhyme,
Believe me, life to me was far less sweet
Than thus a merciful mild death to meet,
The blessed hope, to mortals rarely given:
And such joy smooth'd my path from earth to heaven,
As from long exile to sweet home I turn'd,
While but for you alone my soul with pity yearn'd.
"But tell me, lady," said I, "by that true
And loyal faith, on earth well known to you
[Pg 379]Now better known before the Omniscient's face,
If in your breast the thought e'er found a place
Love prompted, my long martyrdom to cheer,
Though virtue follow'd still her fair emprize.
For ah! oft written in those sweetest eyes,
Dear anger, dear disdain, and pardon dear,
Long o'er my wishes doubts and shadows cast.
Scarce from my lips the venturous speech had pass'd,
When o'er her fair face its old sun-smile beam'd,
My sinking virtue which so oft redeem'd,
And with a tender sigh she answer'd: "Never
Can or did aught from you my firm heart sever:
But as, to our young fame, no other way,
Direct and plain, of mutual safety lay,
I temper'd with cold looks your raging flame:
So fondest mothers wayward children tame.
How often have I said, 'It me behoves
To act discreetly, for he burns, not loves!
Who hopes and fears, ill plays discretion's part!
He must not in my face detect my heart;'
'Twas this, which, as a rein the generous horse,
Slack'd your hot haste, and shaped your proper course.
Often, while Love my struggling heart consumed,
Has anger tinged my cheek, my eyes illumed,
For Love in me could reason ne'er subdue;
But ever if I saw you sorrow-spent,
Instant my fondest looks on you were bent,
Myself from shame, from death redeeming you;
Or, if the flame of passion blazed too high,
My greeting changed, with short speech and cold eye
My sorrow moved you or my terror shook.
That these the arts I used, the way I took,
Smiles varying scorn as sunshine follows rain,
You know, and well have sung in many a deathless strain
Again and oft, as saw I sunk in grief
Those tearful eyes, I said, 'Without relief,
Surely and swift he marches to his grave,'
And, at the thought, the fitting help I gave.
But if I saw you wild and passion spurr'd,
Prompt with the curb, your boldness I deterr'd;
Thus cold and kind, pale, blushing, gloomy, gay,
Safe have I led you through the dangerous way,
[Pg 380]And, as my labour, great my joy at last.
Trembling, I answer'd, and my tears flow'd fast,
"Lady, could I the blessed thought believe,
My faithful love would full reward receive.
"O man of little faith!"—her fairest cheek,
E'en as she spoke, a warm blush 'gan to streak—
"Why should I say it, were it less than true?
If you on earth were pleasant in my view
I need not ask; enough it pleased to see
The best love of that true heart fix'd on me;
Well too your genius pleased me, and the fame
Which, far and wide, it shower'd upon my name;
Your Love had blame in its excess alone,
And wanted prudence; while you sought to tell,
By act and air, what long I knew and well,
To the whole world your secret heart was shown;
Thence was the coldness which your hopes distress'd,
For such our sympathy in all the rest,
As is alone where Love keeps honour's law.
Since in your bosom first its birth I saw,
One fire our heart has equally inflamed,
Except that I conceal'd it, you proclaim'd;
And louder as your cry for mercy swell'd,
Terror and shame my silence more compell'd,
That men my great desire should little think;
But ah! concealment makes not sorrow less,
Complaint embitters not the mind's distress,
Feeling with fiction cannot swell and shrink,
But surely then at least the veil was raised,
You only present when your verse I praised,
And whispering sang, 'Love dares not more to say.
Yours was my heart, though turn'd my eyes away;
Grieve you, as cruel, that their grace was such,
As kept the little, gave the good and much;
Yet oft and openly as they withdrew,
Far oftener furtively they dwelt on you,
For pity thus, what prudence robb'd, return'd;
And ever so their tranquil lights had burn'd,
Save that I fear'd those dear and dangerous eyes
Might then the secret of my soul surprise.
But one thing more, that, ere our parley cease,
Memory may shrine my words, as treasures sweet,
[Pg 381]And this our parting give your spirit peace.
In all things else my fortune was complete,
In this alone some cause had I to mourn
That first I saw the light in humble earth,
And still, in sooth, it grieves that I was born
Far from the flowery nest where you had birth;
Yet fair to me the land where your love bless'd;
Haply that heart, which I alone possess'd,
Elsewhere had others loved, myself unseen,
And I, now voiced by fame, had there inglorious been.
"Ah, no!" I cried, "howe'er the spheres might roll,
Wherever born, immutable and whole,
In life, in death, my great love had been yours.
"Enough," she smiled, "its fame for aye endures,
And all my own! but pleasure has such power,
Too little have we reck'd the growing hour;
Behold! Aurora, from her golden bed,
Brings back the day to mortals, and the sun
Already from the ocean lifts his head.
Alas! he warns me that, my mission done,
We here must part.
If more remain to say,
Sweet friend! in speech be brief, as must my stay.
Then I: "This kindest converse makes to me
All sense of my long suffering light and sweet:
But lady! for that now my life must be
Hateful and heavy, tell me, I entreat,
When, late or early, we again shall meet?"
"If right I read the future, long must you
Without me walk the earth.
She spoke, and pass'd from view.
More Poems by Francesco Petrarch
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