Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE LEGEND OF ARA-COELI, by THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH



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THE LEGEND OF ARA-COELI, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Looking at fra gervasio
Last Line: "what know I, signor? They found her dead!"
Subject(s): Legends; Catholicism; Babies; Infants


I.

LOOKING at Fra Gervasio,
Wrinkled and withered and old and gray,
A dry Franciscan from crown to toe,
You would never imagine, by any chance,
That, in the convent garden one day,
He spun this thread of golden romance.

Romance to me, but to him, indeed,
'T was a matter that did not hold a doubt;
A miracle, nothing more nor less.
Did I think it strange that, in our need,
Leaning from Heaven to our distress,
The Virgin brought such things about --
Gave mute things speech, made dead things move? --
Mother of Mercy, Lady of Love!
Besides, I might, if I wished, behold
The Bambino's self in his cloth of gold
And silver tissue, lying in state
In the Sacristy. Would the signor wait?

Whoever will go to Rome may see,
In the chapel of the Sacristy
Of Ara-Coeli, the Sainted Child --
Garnished from throat to foot with rings
And brooches and precious offerings,
And its little nose kissed quite away
By dying lips. At Epiphany,
If the holy winter day prove mild,
It is shown to the wondering, gaping crowd
On the church's steps -- held high aloft --
While every sinful head is bowed,
And the music plays, and the censers' soft
White breath ascends like silent prayer.

Many a beggar kneeling there,
Tattered and hungry, without a home,
Would not envy the Pope of Rome,
If he, the beggar, had half the care
Bestowed on him that falls to the share
Of yonder Image -- for you must know
It has its minions to come and go,
Its perfumed chamber, remote and still,
Its silken couch, and its jewelled throne,
And a special carriage of its own
To take the air in, when it will;
And though it may neither drink nor eat,
By a nod to its ghostly seneschal
It could have of the choicest wine and meat.
Often some princess, brown and tall,
Comes, and unclasping from her arm
The glittering bracelet, leaves it, warm
With her throbbing pulse, at the Baby's feet.
Ah, he is loved by high and low,
Adored alike by simple and wise.
The people kneel to him in the street.

What a felicitous lot is his --
To lie in the light of ladies' eyes,
Petted and pampered, and never to know
The want of a dozen soldi or so!
And what does he do for all of this?
What does the little Bambino do?
It cures the sick, and, in fact, 't is said
Can almost bring life back to the dead.
Who doubts it? Not Fra Gervasio.
When one falls ill, it is left alone
For a while with one -- and the fever's gone!

At least, 't was once so; but to-day
It is never permitted, unattended
By monk or priest, to work its lure
At sick folks' beds -- all that was ended
By one poor soul whose feeble clay
Satan tempted and made secure.

It was touching this very point the friar
Told me the legend, that afternoon,
In the cloisteral garden all on fire
With scarlet poppies and golden stalks.
Here and there on the sunny walks,
Startled by some slight sound we made,
A lizard, awaking from its swoon,
Shot like an arrow into the shade.
I can hear the fountain's languorous tune,
(How it comes back, that hour in June
When just to exist was joy enough!)
I can see the olives, silvery-gray,
The carven masonry rich with stains,
The gothic windows with lead-set panes,
The flag-paved cortile, the convent grates,
And Fra Gervasio holding his snuff
In a squirrel-like meditative way
'Twixt finger and thumb. But the Legend waits.

II.

It was long ago (so long ago
That Fra Gervasio did not know
What year of our Lord), there came to Rome
Across the Campagna's flaming red,
A certain Filippo and his wife --
Peasants, and very newly wed.
In the happy spring and blossom of life,
When the light heart chirrups to lovers' calls,
These two, like a pair of birds, had come
And built their nest 'gainst the city's walls.

He, with his scanty garden-plots,
Raised flowers and fruit for the market-place,
Where she, with her pensile, flower-like face --
Own sister to her forget-me-nots --
Played merchant: and so they thrived apace,
In humble content, with humble cares,
And modest longings, till, unawares,
Sorrow crept on them; for to their nest
Had come no little ones, and at last
When six or seven summers had past,
Seeing no baby at her breast,
The husband brooded, and then grew cold;
Scolded and fretted over this --
Who would tend them when they were old,
And palsied, maybe, sitting alone,
Hungry, beside the cold hearth-stone?
Not to have children, like the rest!
It cankered the very heart of bliss.

Then he fell into indolent ways,
Neglecting the garden for days and days,
Playing at mora, drinking wine,
With this and that one -- letting the vine
Run riot and die for want of care,
And the choke-weeds gather; for it was spring,
When everything needed nurturing
But he would drowse for hours in the sun,
Or sit on the broken step by the shed,
Like a man whose honest toil is done,
Sullen, with never a word to spare,
Or a word that were better all unsaid.
And Nina, so light of thought before,
Singing about the cottage door
In her mountain dialect -- sang no more;
But came and went, sad-faced and shy,
Wishing, at times, that she might die,
Brooding and fretting in her turn.
Often, in passing along the street,
Her basket of flowers poised, peasant-wise,
On a lustrous braided coil of her hair,
She would halt, and her dusky cheek would burn
Like a poppy, beholding at her feet
Some stray little urchin, dirty and bare.
And sudden tears would spring to her eyes
That the tiny waif was not her own,
To fondle, and kiss, and teach to pray.
Then she passed onward, making moan.
Sometimes she would stand in the sunny square,
Like a slim bronze statue of Despair,
Watching the children at their play.

In the broad piazza was a shrine,
With Our Lady holding on her knee
A small nude waxen effigy.
Nina passed by it every day,
And morn and even, in rain or shine,
Repeated an ave there. "Divine
Mother," she'd cry, as she turned away,
"Sitting in paradise, undefiled,
O, have pity on my distress!"
Then glancing back at the rosy Child,
She would cry to it, in her helplessness,
"Pray her to send the like to me!"

Now once as she knelt before the saint,
Lifting her hands in silent pain,
She paled, and her heavy heart grew faint
At a thought which flashed across her brain --
The blinding thought that, perhaps if she
Had lived in the world's miraculous morn
God might have chosen her to be
The mother -- O heavenly ecstasy! --
Of the little babe in the manger born!
She, too, was a peasant girl, like her,
The wife of the lowly carpenter!
Like Joseph's wife, a peasant girl!

Her strange little head was in a whirl
As she rose from her knees to wander home,
Leaving her basket at the shrine;
So dazed was she, she scarcely knew
The old familiar streets of Rome,
Nor whither she wished to go, in fine;
But wandered on, now crept, now flew,
In the gathering twilight, till she came
Breathless, bereft of sense and sight,
To the gloomy Arch of Constantine,
And there they found her, late that night,
With her cheeks like snow and her lips like flame!

Many a time from day to day,
She heard, as if in a troubled dream,
Footsteps around her, and some one saying --
Was it Filippo? -- "Is she dead?"
Then it was some one near her praying,
And she was drifting -- drifting away
From saints and martyrs in endless glory!
She seemed to be floating down a stream,
Yet knew she was lying in her bed.
The fancy held her that she had died,
And this was her soul in purgatory,
Until, one morning, two holy men
From the convent came, and laid at her side
The Bambino. Blessed Virgin! then
Nina looked up, and laughed, and wept,
And folded it close to her heart, and slept.

Slept such a soft, refreshing sleep,
That when she awoke her eyes had taken
The hyaline lustre, dewy, deep,
Of violets when they first awaken;
And the half-unravelled, fragile thread
Of life was knitted together again.
But she shrunk with sudden, strange new pain,
And seemed to droop like a flower, the day
The Capuchins came, with solemn tread,
To carry the Miracle Child away!

III.

Ere spring in the heart of pansies burned,
Or the buttercup had loosed its gold,
Nina was busy as ever of old
With fireside cares; but was not the same,
For from the hour when she had turned
To clasp the Image the fathers brought
To her dying-bed, a single thought
Had taken possession of her brain:
A purpose, as steady as the flame
Of a lamp in some cathedral crypt,
Had lighted her on her bed of pain;
The thirst and the fever, they had slipt
Away like visions, but this had stayed --
To have the Bambino brought again,
To have it, and keep it for her own!
That was the secret dream which made
Life for her now -- in the streets, alone,
At night, and morning, and when she prayed.

How should she wrest it from the hand
Of the jealous Church? How keep the Child?
Flee with it into some distant land --
Like mother Mary from Herod's ire?
Ah, well, she knew not; she only knew
It was written down in the Book of Fate
That she should have her heart's desire,
And very soon now, for of late,
In a dream, the little thing had smiled
Up in her face, with one eye's blue
Peering from underneath her breast,
Which the baby fingers had softly prest
Aside, to look at her! Holy one!
But that should happen ere all was done.

Lying dark in the woman's mind --
Unknown, like a seed in fallow ground --
Was the germ of a plan, confused and blind
At first, but which, as the weeks rolled round,
Reached light, and flowered, -- a subtile flower,
Deadly as nightshade. In that same hour
She sought the husband and said to him,
With crafty tenderness in her eyes
And treacherous archings of her brows,
"Filippo, mio, thou lov'st me well?
Truly? Then get thee to the house
Of the long-haired Jew Ben Raphaim --
Seller of curious tapestries,
(Ah, he hath everything to sell!)
The cunning carver of images --
And bid him to carve thee to the life
A bambinetto like that they gave
In my arms, to hold me from the grave
When the fever pierced me like a knife.
Perhaps, if we set the image there
By the Cross, the saints would hear the prayer
Which in all these years they have not heard."

Then the husband went, without a word,
To the crowded Ghetto; for since the days
Of Nina's illness, the man had been
A tender husband -- with lover's ways
Striving, as best he might, to wean
The wife from her sadness, and to bring
Back to the home whence it had fled
The happiness of that laughing spring
When they, like a pair of birds, had wed.

The image! It was a woman's whim --
They were full of whims. But what to him
Were a dozen pieces of silver spent,
If it made her happy? And so he went
To the house of the Jew Ben Raphaim.
And the carver heard, and bowed, and smiled,
And fell to work as if he had known
The thought that lay in the woman's brain,
And somehow taken it for his own:
For even before the month was flown
He had carved a figure so like the Child
Of Ara-Coeli, you 'd not have told,
Had both been decked with jewel and chain
And dressed alike in a dress of gold,
Which was the true one of the twain.

When Nina beheld it first, her heart
Stood still with wonder. The skilful Jew
Had given the eyes the tender blue,
And the cheeks the delicate olive hue,
And the form almost the curve and line
Of the Image the good Apostle made
Immortal with his miraculous art,
What time the sculptor dreamed in the shade
Under the skies of Palestine.
The bright new coins that clinked in the palm
Of the carver in wood were blurred and dim
Compared with the eyes that looked at him
From the low sweet brows, so seeming calm;
Then he went his way, and her joy broke free,
And Filippo smiled to hear Nina sing
In the old, old fashion -- carolling
Like a very thrush, with many a trill
And long-drawn, flute-like, honeyed note,
Till the birds in the farthest mulberry,
Each outstretching its amber bill,
Answered her with melodious throat.

Thus sped two days; but on the third
Her singing ceased, and there came a change
As of death on Nina; her talk grew strange,
Then she sunk in a trance, nor spoke nor stirred;
And the husband, wringing his hands dismayed,
Watched by the bed; but she breathed no word
That night, nor until the morning broke,
When she roused from the spell, and feebly laid
Her hand on Filippo's arm, and spoke:
"Quickly, Filippo! get thee gone
To the holy fathers, and beg them send
The Bambino hither" -- her cheeks were wan
And her eyes like coals -- "O, go, my friend,
Or all is said!" Through the morning's gray
Filippo hurried, like one distraught,
To the monks, and told his tale; and they,
Straight after matins, came and brought
The Miracle Child, and went their way.

Once more in her arms was the Infant laid,
After these weary months, once more!
Yet the woman seemed like a thing of stone
While the dark-robed fathers knelt and prayed;
But the instant the holy friars were gone
She arose, and took the broidered gown
From the Baby Christ, and the yellow crown
And the votive brooches and rings it wore,
Till the little figure, so gay before
In its princely apparel, stood as bare
As your ungloved hand. With tenderest care,
At her feet, 'twixt blanket and counterpane,
She hid the Babe; and then, reaching down
To the coffer wherein the thing had lain,
Drew forth Ben Raphaim's manikin
In haste, and dressed it in robe and crown,
With lace and bawble and diamond-pin.
This finished, she turned to stone again,
And lay as one would have thought quite dead
If it had not been for a spot of red
Upon either cheek. At the close of day
The Capuchins came, with solemn tread,
And carried the false bambino away!

Over the vast Campagna's plain,
At sunset, a wind began to blow
(From the Apennines it came, they say),
Softly at first, and then to grow --
As the twilight gathered and hurried by --
To a gale, with sudden tumultuous rain
And thunder muttering far away.
When the night was come, from the blackened sky
The spear-tongued lightning slipped like a snake,
And the great clouds clashed, and seemed to shake
The earth to its centre. Then swept down
Such a storm as was never seen in Rome
By any one living in that day.
Not a soul dared venture from his home,
Not a soul in all the crowded town.
Dumb beasts dropped dead, with terror, in stall;
Great chimney-stacks were overthrown,
And about the streets the tiles were blown
Like leaves in autumn. A fearful night,
With ominous voices in the air!
Indeed, it seemed like the end of all.
In the convent, the monks for very fright
Went not to bed, but each in his cell
Counted his beads by the taper's light,
Quaking to hear the dreadful sounds,
And shrivelling in the lightning's glare.
It appeared as if the rivers of Hell
Had risen, and overleaped their bounds.

In the midst of this, at the convent door,
Above the tempest's raving and roar
Came a sudden knocking! Mother of Grace,
What a desperate wretch was forced to face
Such a night as that was out-of-doors?
Across the echoless, stony floors
Into the windy corridors
The monks came flocking, and down the stair,
Silently, glancing each at each,
As if they had lost the power of speech.
Yes -- it was some one knocking there!
And then -- strange thing! -- untouched by a soul
The bell of the convent 'gan to toll!
It curdled the blood beneath their hair.
Reaching the court, the brothers stood
Huddled together, pallid and mute,
By the massive door of iron-clamped wood,
Till one old monk, more resolute
Than the others -- a man of pious will --
Stepped forth, and letting his lantern rest
On the pavement, crouched upon his breast
And peeped through a chink there was between
The cedar door and the sunken sill.
At the instant a flash of lightning came,
Seeming to wrap the world in flame.
He gave but a glance, and straight arose
With his face like a corpse's. What had he seen?
Two dripping, little pink-white toes!
Then, like a man gone suddenly wild,
He tugged at the bolts, flung down the chain,
And there, in the night and wind and rain --
Shivering, piteous, and forlorn,
And naked as ever it was born --
On the threshold stood the SAINTED CHILD!

"Since then," said Fra Gervasio,
"We have never let the Bambino go
Unwatched -- no, not by a prince's bed.
Ah, signor, it made a dreadful stir."
"And the woman -- Nina -- what of her?
Had she no story?" He bowed his head,
And knitting his meagre fingers, so --
"In that night of wind and wrath," said he,
"There was wrought in Rome a mystery.
What know I, signor? They found her dead!"





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