Triumph of Death
THAT LADY, glorious and beautiful,
Who, once a pillar of high excellence,
Is now but spirit and a little earth,
In honor was returning from her war,
Glad for her victory over the great foe
Who with his fraudulence afflicts the world?
Her weapons none save purity of heart,
Beauty of countenance and modest thought,
And converse ever virtuous and wise.
And it was wondrous in her train to see,
Shattered, the arrows and the bow of Love,
And those whom he had captured or had slain.
Returning from their noble victory
The lovely lady with a chosen few
Together made a troop that was but small?
The glory that is true is ever rare?
But for herself each one of them deserved
A noble poem, or historic fame.
The banner of their victory displayed
An ermine white upon a field of green,
Wearing a chain of topaz and of gold.
Not human, rather to be called divine,
Were both their bearing and their holy words:
Blessed is one born for such destiny!
With violets and roses they were decked;
Bright stars they seemed, and in their midst a sun
Adorned them all, and made them brighter still.
And as a gentle heart wins honor, so
The troop was moving onward joyously,
When I beheld a banner dark and sad,
And a woman shrouded in a dress of black,
With fury such as had perchance been seen
When giants raged in the Phlegraean vale,
Came near, and said: "0 thou who goest on,
Proud of thy beauty and thy youthfulness,
And know'st not when thy life shall reach its end,
I am that one whom all ye mortals call
Fierce and relentless: ye are deaf and blind,
Night falls upon you ere' tis eventide.
'Twas I who brought the Grecians to their fate,
And Troy, and then the Romans last of all,
With this my sword, that cuts and plunges deep,
And other peoples, barbarous and strange;
And coming when there is least heed of me,
I put an end to infinite vain thoughts.
And now to you, when life delights you most,
I take my course, ere Fortune strike at you,
Turning your sweetness into bitterness."
"Thou hast no power over those with me" ?
Thus answered she who was without a peer?
"And little over me, save for my body.
I know that there is one who more than I
Will grieve, who needeth me for his soul's sake;
But I shall grateful be for my release."
As one who bends her eyes on something strange,
Perceiving what before she had not seen,
Marveling and regretful for her error,
Such now was this dread creature: but ere long
"Well do I recognize them all," she said,
"And know when they were bitten by my tooth."
Then, with her brow less troubled and less dark
She said: "Thou who dost lead this goodly throng,
And yet hast never felt my poisonous touch,
If thou hast any trust in what I say,
Who can enforce my will, 'tis better far
To shun old age and all its many woes.
I am disposed to honor thee in a way
Unwonted, and to let thee pass from life
Free from all fear and from all suffering."
"As it may please the Lord who is in heaven
And rules and moderates the universe,
Do with me as thou dost with all mankind."
'Twas thus she answered; and then suddenly
The vale was filled with folk already dead,
Beyond the power of prose or verse to telL
The plain itself and all its slopes were filled
With a great host of the dead of many times,
From India, Cathay, Morocco, Spain.
Here now were they who were called fortunate,
Popes, emperors, and others who had ruled;
Now are they naked, poor, of all bereft.
Where now their riches? Where their honors now?
Where now their gems and scepters, and their crowns,
Their miters, and the purple they had worn?
Wretched who sets his hope on mortal things?
Yet who does not?-and if he find himself
Deluded at the last, it is but just.
What profit have ye from your blind pursuits?
Ye all return to the great ancient mother:
Even the memory of your names is lost.
Of your unnumbered tasks is there e'en one
That is aught more than merest vanity?
Let him reply who knows what ye have done.
Avails it aught to conquer other lands
And make their foreign people tributary,
Your will enkindled ever for their harm?
After emprises perilous and vain
And lands and treasures won with your own blood,
Ye will find bread and water far more sweet,
And wood and glass better than gems and gold.
But, following no more so long a theme,
'Tis time that I return to my prime task.
So I declare that for her earthly life,
Brief and renown'd, the final hour had come,
And the doubtful passing that the world doth dread.
There to behold her was another throng
Of worthy women still in life, who came
To see if it may be that Death be kind.
This noble company was gathered there
To see and contemplate the fatal end
That comes to all of us, and comes but once:
They were her friends and neighbors, everyone.
And then from her blond head the hand of Death
Plucked forth a single sacred golden strand;
And thus she chose the whole world's fairest flower,
Not out of hatred, but to demonstrate
Her sovereignty o'er e'en the highest things.
Weeping and sad laments abounded there,
And only those fair eyes of hers were dry
For which I sang and burned so many years.
Amid the sighing and the sorrowing
Silent and well content she sat alone,
Gathering now the fruit of her good life.
"Go then in peace," they said, "0 thou who art
A mortal goddess." Such she was, and yet
Naught could prevail 'gainst Death's relentless power.
Night after night she had suffered burning pain,
Now less, now more: how then shall others fare?
0 human hopes! how blind and false ye are!
If many tears fell then upon the earth,
Called forth by pity for her gentle soul,
who saw them, knows: thou, listener, mayst but think.
April the sixth, it was, and the first hour,
When I was bound-and now, alas, set free!
Surely the ways of fate are strange indeed!
None ever grieved so much for servitude,
Even for death, as I for liberty,
And that my life was not now taken from me.
'Twas due this age of ours, and due the world,
That I, who first had come, should first have gone,
And that its brightest honor should remain.
Grief beyond measure filled us all: I scarce
Dare think of it, and even less be bold
Enough to speak thereof in verse or rhyme.
"Virtue is dead, beauty and gentleness" ?
'Twas thus by her chaste bed the ladies all
Spoke sadly: "What shall now become of us?
Who now will see her perfect way of life?
Who now will hear the wisdom of her words,
Or the angelic sweetness of her song?"
Her spirit, ready now to leave her breast,
Was gathering her virtues to itself,
And the heaven above her had become serene.
No evil adversary ventured then
To make appearance with malignant mien
Before the task of Death was all complete.
And now, the time for fear and weeping past,
All were intent upon her lovely face,
Despair bringing to them its certainty.
Not like a flame that forcibly is quenched,
But like to one that doth itself consume,
Her soul, contented, went its way in peace,
Like to a light that is both clear and sweet
And loses slowly its own nutriment,
Keeping its dearness to the very end.
Not pale, but whiter than the whitest snow
Quietly falling on a gentle hill,
She seemed to be aweary and at rest.
And that which is called "death" by foolish folk
Was a sweet sleep upon her lovely eyes,
Now that her body held her soul no more;
And even death seemed fair in her fair face.