Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE NEW APOCRYPHA: BERENICE, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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THE NEW APOCRYPHA: BERENICE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: How is it with this people?
Last Line: Come sister, festus, to the banquet room.
Subject(s): Berenice; Princess (28-79 A.d.)


AGRIPPA

How is it with this people?

FESTUS

Much the same.
They kick the Roman rule. Like flame in stubble,
Which being slapped with sticks, leaps up and spreads,
Oppression makes them hotter.

BERENICE

And why not?
Seeing their customs, altars, arks and temples
The beauty of their faith, as they have dreamed it,
And fashioned it with hands from gold and wood
Is desecrated.

FESTUS

How to firmly keep
The rule of Caesar, leave their god untouched,
That is the problem. Where the state and god
Are one, inseparable, can Caesar rule
And not subject their god? There was this Judas
Together with a Pharisee named Sadduk
Who fought the Roman census of the Jews,
Raised revolution in religion's name,
A cunning strategy. You could not crush
The revolution, leave their faith unharmed.
And now this new sect called the Nazarenes --
The country's in a tumult.

AGRIPPA

Yes, these Nazarenes,
The worst of all.

BERENICE

I have heard the desert
Fosters a little burr of poisonous spines
Which sometimes as the lion roams the sands,
Sticks in the hairy clefts between his claws.
It itches, stings, and maddens; with a growl
The lion lays him down and with his tongue
Licks out the pest. It sticks upon his tongue.
He has no second tongue to lick it thence.
It sticks and stings. The poison spreads space
And puffs the rebelling member till his throat
Narrows for breath. And then he runs and roars,
And with his nose plows through the sand, lies down,
Digs in the desert, leaps, rolls over, froths,
Grows green of eye; chokes to his death at last.
Rome is your lion, and the burr these Jews.

AGRIPPA

Sweet sister, be as apt with counsel as
Your parable is apt.

BERENICE

You have my word.
Let them alone, their internecine strife
'Twixt sect and sect fight out. Madmen they are
And zealots -- let them choke and strive and wail.
Jesus they killed and Stephen. But should Rome
Repress religions, doctrines, script or speech?
If what they teach be false 'twill die, if true
You cannot kill it.

AGRIPPA

You could say as well
If thickets bear no apples they will die;
If they bear apples you can kill them not.
But thickets bear no apples. Apple trees
Fall easily to the ax. And so with truth,
And false truth. Where you have one man who's wise
You have a million fools, who take the stones
Of ignorance and error in their hands
And overwhelm the wise. Rome shall not fall,
Recede, relent before a mob like this.

FESTUS

They seem to thrive by being mowed, and yet
If left uncut they choke us. There is Paul,
My heritage from Felix, jailed two years,
And brought before me by the Jews, who charged
Offenses numerous against him, such
As breaches of the Jewish law, attacks
Upon their temple, on the emperor,
Contemned perhaps, the which they could not prove.
Now to report to you, O King, my judgment
Divided in the case of Paul. I sought
To do the Jews a pleasure. So I asked:
Will you go to Jerusalem and be judged?
But Paul replied: I stand at Caesar's seat,
There should my judgment be.

AGRIPPA

O, wicked Rome,
Whose laws become a haven to her foes
When they are troubled.

FESTUS

Yes, I told these Jews
Rome does not give a man to die before
He meets his accusers face to face, has time
To answer for himself. And so it was
I came to Caesarea, had him brought
And heard the case. As I supposed, they charged
This Paul with nothing, only matters raised
Of their own superstitions, and of Jesus
Whom Paul affirmed, affirms to be alive,
Though dead long since. But as he had appealed
To Caesar I commanded he be kept
Till I might send him. But what shall I say?
How shall I send him, after all, to Caesar
Without a writing that shall signify
Why and for what I send him? Caesar's time
Is not for crimeless causes.

AGRIPPA

Nevertheless
As he's appealed to Caesar he must go.
But I would hear him.

FESTUS

I have sent for him
That you may hear him. There, he enters now!
(Paul is brought in.)
He has a speech that he has often made
How first he persecuted, for in truth Agrippa
He is a catapult that has sprung up
As far as he was pulled the other way.
And he will tell you how he stoned this Stephen,
And hunted Nazarenes: and how he went
With writs of persecution from the priests
Up to Damascus, on the way saw light
From heaven, heard the voice of Jesus cry
That he should be a minister to the faith,
And preach as he had persecuted. You see
The rebound of nature, mind.

BERENICE

How thin,
How pale he is, how bright his eyes! Agrippa
Confine him to the matter of this god
Who died, and from the dead arose. O Death,
You are man's horror, and we brood upon you,
Our altars are placations to your wrath.
This Paul is mad for thinking of you, mad
With faith that he has conquered you. Look there!
See how his eyes are staring bright as fire --
I am afraid. And yet if it were true
Jesus arose, nay if the world could be
Persuaded that he rose, the faith would sweep
The world with fire, and crumble every temple
And altar of our gods in almighty Rome.
Look how he stares!

AGRIPPA

There is a noble madness,
A madness which has slaved nobility
And energy and eloquence. Say now
Who saw this Jesus after he arose?
Did Paul? Who saw him?

FESTUS

No one that I know.
Not Paul. He says a multitude. Some disciples,
Some women, and one Peter.

AGRIPPA

Where are they?
Bring one to me. Bring Peter; bring a woman.
This is the cause I'd hear. And if this Paul
Can bring me witness, though his crime were great
As Hannibal's on Rome, I'll set him free.
Why look at him! Is this new matter to me?
Is he the first who for the gods went mad?
Or for the mystery of life went mad?
Or madness took for what we are and why,
And what this life means? For this world has seen
A perfect harmony and working thought
And inspiration in a thousand minds
Of madness on some matter. Fellow, come
Close here before me. Look at me. Yes, well,
There is the light of rising suns, and stars
That burn immortally, in your eyes. Now speak.
Did Jesus die?

PAUL

He died.

AGRIPPA

Did he arise?

PAUL

He arose.

AGRIPPA

How long being dead?

PAUL

Three days.

AGRIPPA
Saw you him in life?

PAUL

No.

AGRIPPA

In death?

PAUL

No.

AGRIPPA
After he rose?

PAUL

No! I only heard his voice.

AGRIPPA

Where?

PAUL

On the way to Damascus.

AGRIPPA

What did he say?

PAUL

"It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks."

AGRIPPA
What else?

PAUL

I asked, "Who art thou Lord?"

AGRIPPA

And then?

PAUL

"I am Jesus," he said, "whom thou persecutest.
To thee have I come to make of thee a witness
And a minister."

AGRIPPA

Since then you have preached,
For which the Jews have persecuted you
As you stoned Stephen?

PAUL

Yes.

AGRIPPA

And you affirm
That Jesus from the dead arose?

PAUL

Thou hast said.
But also I affirm that all shall rise
From death who in the Christ believe, save those
Who live now, and shall die not ere he come.

AGRIPPA

He comes again?

PAUL

Quickly, even before
This generation passes.

AGRIPPA

You are mad.
Do you appeal to Caesar?

PAUL

I appeal.

AGRIPPA

Why not be stoned as Stephen was and rise?
If you believe in Jesus, you believe
They cannot kill you.

PAUL

As you will, O King.
I must finish my course, whatever time I die.

AGRIPPA

I could have set you free, if you had taken
To Caesar no appeal. Being as it is
I send you up to Rome. Who can find out
The workings of a mind? Yet true it is
He saves himself out of a cunning thought
Of this appeal to Caesar. Turn him over
To the Centurion Julius -- on to Rome.
We have conferred together. He has done
No thing deserving death. Take him to Rome.
He'll find a house and hire it, in Rome
Live unmolested, preach, hear Mithra preached
Who cheated death, they say, as Jesus did.
Now let us rise and to the banquet room.
Come Sister, Festus, to the banquet room.





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