Verse > Anthologies > Harriet Monroe, ed. > Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 1912–22
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Harriet Monroe, ed. (1860–1936).  Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  1912–22.
 
The Death of Agrippina
By John G. Neihardt
 
I
  [The courtyard of the Imperial villa at Baiae. A moonlit night in late March. Occupying the left half of background is seen a portion of the villa. A short, broad flight of steps leads through the arched doorway to a pillared hall beyond, vague, but seeming vast in the uncertain lights that flicker in the draught. To the right of the doorway is a broad open window at the height of a man’s head from the courtyard. An urn stands near window in the shadow to the right. From within harp music is heard, threading the buzzing merriment of a banquet that is being given to celebrate Nero’s reconciliation with his mother. To the right of stage a glimpse of the moonlit sea is caught through trees.]

  [Enter from left, walking toward the sea, Anicetus and the Captain of a galley.]
  Captain.  [Pointing toward sea.]  Yon lies the galley weltering in the moon.
A fair ship!—like a lady in a swoon
Of languid passion. Never fairer craft
Flung the green rustle of her skirts abaft
And wooed the dwindling leagues!        5
  Anicetus.        A boat’s a boat!
And were she thrice the fairest keel afloat,
Tonight she founders, sinks—make sure of that!
  Captain.  And all to drown one lean imperial cat
With claws and teeth too sharp despite the purr!        10
Ah, scan the graceful woman lines of her!
Fit for the male Wind’s love is she—alas!
Scuttled and buried in a sea of glass
By her own master! It will cost me pain.
Better a night of lightning-riven rain        15
With hell-hounds baying in the driven gloom!
  Anicetus.  The will of Nero is her wind of doom—
Woe to the seaman who defies that gale!
Go now—make ready that we may not fail
To crown the wish of Caesar with the deed.        20
  Captain.  Aye, Master!
            [Exit Captain toward sea.]
  Anicetus.  And no brazen wound shall bleed
Red scandal over Rome; the nosing mob
Shall sniff no poison. Just a gulping sob
And some few bubbles breaking on the swell—        25
Then, good night, Agrippina, rest you well!
And may the gods revamp the silly fish
With guts of brass for coping with that dish!
  [A muffled outburst of laughter in banquet hall. Anicetus turns toward window. Uproar dies out.]
They’re drinking deep—the banquet’s at its height
And all therein are kings and queens tonight.
  [Goes to urn, mounts it and peers in at window.]
        30
A merry crew! Quite drunk, quite drunk I fear,
My noble Romans!—Burrus’ eyes are blear!
One goblet hence, good Burrus, you will howl!
E’en Seneca sits staring like an owl
And strives to pilot in some heavy sea        35
That wisdom-laden boat, his head. Ah me,
Creperius Gallus, you are floundering deep
In red Falernian bogs, so you shall sleep
Quite soundly while your mistress takes the dip!
Fair Acerronia thinks the place a ship        40
And greenly sickens in the dizzy roll!
There broods Poppaea, certain of her goal,
Her veil a sea-fog clutching at the moon,
A portent to wise sailors! Very soon
The sea shall wake in hunger and be fed!        45
She smiles!—the glimmer on a thunderhead
That vomits ruin!—What has made her smile?
Ah, Nero’s wine is sugared well with guile!
So—kiss your mother—gently fondle her—
Pet the old she-cat till she mew and purr        50
Unto the tender hand that strokes her back;
So shall there be no sniffing at the sack!
Would that her eyes, like his, with wine were dim!
Gods! What a tragic actor died in him
To make a comic Caesar!        55
                I surmise
By the too rheumy nature of your eyes,
Divine, imperial Nero, and their sunk
Lugubrious aspect—pardon!—but you’re drunk,
Drunk as a lackey when the master’s out!        60
O kingly tears that down that regal snout
Pour salty love upon a mother’s breast!
So shall her timid doubts be lulled to rest!
  [Bustle within as of many rising to their feet.]
They rise! The prologue’s ended—now the play!
  [He gets down from urn and goes off toward sea.]
  Heralds.  [Crying within.]  Make way for Caesar! Ho!        65
  Make way! Make way!
  [The musicians within strike up a martial strain. After a few moments, within the hall appear Nero and Agrippina, arm in arm, approaching the flight of steps. Nero is robed in a tunic of the color of amethyst, with a winged harp embroidered on the front. He is crowned with a laurel wreath, now askew in his disordered hair. Agrippina wears a robe of maroon without decoration. Nero endeavors to preserve the semblance of supporting his mother, but in fact is supported by her, while he caresses her with considerable extravagance. They pause half way down the steps, and the music within changes to a low melancholy air.]
  Agrippina.  [Lifting her face to the moon seaward.]
    How fair a moon to crown our happy revel!
  Nero.  [Gazing blankly at the moon.]  Eh? Veil the hussy!
  Agrippina.            Son, son!
  Nero.                    She’s a devil!        70
  Agrippina.  [Placing a loving arm closer about Nero.]
Just such a night ’t was, Lucius—you remember?—
When Claudius’ spirit like a smouldering ember
Struggled ’twixt flame and ash—do you forget?
  Nero.  Ha ha—’t was snuffed—ho ho!
  Agrippina.  [Stroking his hair.]  ’T was then I set        75
The imperial circlet here; ’t was then I cloaked
My boy with world-robes!
  Nero.  [Still staring at moon and pointing unsteadily.]
                        Have that vixen choked!
Her staring makes me stagger—where’s her veil?
  Agrippina.  It all comes back like an enchanted tale—        80
The moon set and the sun rose—
  Nero.            Dead and gone—
The sun set and the moon rose—
  Agrippina.            Nay, at dawn
The blear flame died, the new flame blossomed up.        85
  Nero.  Did someone drop a poison in my cup?
The windless sea crawls moaning—
  [They move slowly down steps, Nero clinging to his mother.]
  Agrippina.            Son of mine,
Cast off the evil humors of the wine!
I am so happy and was so forlorn!        90
Ah, not another night since you were born
Has flung such purple through me! Son—at last
The haggard hours that parted us are past;
I’ve wept my tears and none are left to shed!
I live—I live—I live! And I was dead.        95
  Nero.  [Clinging closer.]  Dead—dead—what ails the sea—’tis going red—
                [Laughter in banquet hall.]
Who’s laughing?—Mother—scourge them from the place!
Who gave the moon Poppaea’s dizzy face
To fright the sea?
  Agrippina.        Your message gave me life!        100
Ah, Lucius, not for us to mar with strife
A world so made for loving!
                Lucius dear,
I was too harsh, perhaps; the fault was here.
                    [Placing hand on heart].
  Nero.  [Staring into his mother’s eyes.]  Too harsh perhaps—        105
  Agrippina.        Yea, so we mothers err:
Too long we see our babies as they were,
And last of all the world confess them tall.
They stride so far—we shudder lest they fall—
They toddle yet.
                And she who bears a son
        110
Shall be two women ever after; one
The fountain of a seaward cooing stream,
And one the shrouded virgin of a dream
Whom no man wooes, whose heart, a muted lyre,
Pines with a wild but unconfessed desire        115
For him who—never understands, my son!
I’ll be all fountain—kill that other one!
  Nero.  That other one—
  Agrippina.        Oh, like a wind of Spring
Wooing the sere grave of a buried thing,        120
Your summons came! Such happy tendrils creep
Out of me, in that old ache rooted deep,
To blossom sunward greener for the sorrow.
And, O my Emperor, if on the morrow
Your heart could soften toward that gentle one,        125
That frail white lily pining for the sun,
Octavia, your patient little wife,
Smile, smile upon that flower and give it life!
Make of my Lucius emperor in truth,
Not Passion’s bondman!
                ’T is the way of youth
        130
To drive wild stallions with too slack a rein
Toward fleeing goals no fleetness can attain!
Oh splendid speed that fails for lack of fear!
The grip of iron makes the charioteer!
The lyric fury heeds the master beat        135
And is the freer for its shackled feet!
You who are Law shall be more free than others
By seeming less so, Lucius.
  Nero.            Best of mothers,
Tomorrow—yes, tomorrow—Mother, stay!        140
You must not go so far, so far away!
  Agrippina.  Only to Bauli.
  [They have reached the extreme right of stage. The guests now begin to come out of banquet hall, scattering a rippling laughter. Nero is aroused by the merry sound, looks back, gathers himself together with a start.]
  Nero.            Ah! The moon is bright!
The sea is still! We’ll banquet every night,
Shall we not, Mother?
                Certain cares of state
        145
Weigh heavily—’tis awful to be great—
Nay, terrible at times! Can I be ill?
It seemed the sea moaned—yet ’tis very still!
Mother, my Mother—kiss me! Let us go
Down to the galley—so.
  [They pass out toward the sea, Nero caressing his mother. The guests now throng down the steps into the courtyard. They are in various states of intoxication. Many are dressed to represent mythological figures: Fauns and Satyrs; Bacchus crowned with grape leaves, wearing a leopard skin on his shoulders; six Bacchantes; Psyche with wings; Luna in a spangled tunic with silver horns in her hair; Mercury with winged sandals and the caduceus; Neptune in an emerald robe, crowned and bearing the trident; Iris rainbow-clad; Silenus. Some are dressed in brilliant oriental garments. There are Senators in broad bordered togas with half moons embroidered on their sandals; Pages dressed as Cupids and infant Bacchi; Officers of the Praetorian Guard in military uniform. Turbaned, half nude Numidian slaves, with bronze rings in their ears, come trotting in with litters, attended by torch-bearers. Some of the guests depart in the litters. The music continues in banquet hall.]
        150
  Neptune.  [Staggering against Luna.]  Who’d be a sailor when great Neptune staggers
Dashed in the Moon’s face!—Calm me, gentle Luna,
And silver me with kisses!
  Luna.  [Fleeing from his outstretched arms, but regarding him invitingly over her shoulder.] Fie, you wine-skin!
A hiccough’s not a tempest! Lo, I glide,        155
Treading a myriad stars!
  [Neptune follows with a rolling gait.]
  A Satyr.  [Looking after them as they disappear.]
                    Roll, eager Tide!
Methinks ere long the wooing moon shall fall!
  [Those near laugh.]
  First Senator.  [To Second Senator.]  Was Nero acting, think you?
  Second Senator.      Not at all.        160
’Twas staged, no doubt, but—
  First Senator.        Softly, lest they hear!
  Second Senator.  The mimic is in mimicry sincere—
The role absorbed the actor. So he wept.
  [They pass on, talking low.]
  A Praetorian Officer.  [To Psyche leaning on his arm.]
Was it a vision, Psyche? Have I slept?
        165
By the pink-nippled Cyprian, I swear
Our Caesar knows a woman! Gods! That hair!
Spun from the bowels of Ophir!
  Psyche.            Who’s so fair?
  Praetorian.  Poppaea!        170
  Psyche.        She?—A Circe, queen of hogs!
A cross-road Hecate, bayed at by the dogs!
A morbid Itch—
  Praetorian.        Sh!
  Psyche.            —strutting in a cloak        175
Of what she has not, virtue!
  Praetorian.        Ha! You joke!
All cloaks are ruses, fashioned to reveal
What all possess, pretending to conceal—
Who’d love a Psyche else?
  [They pass on.]
        180
  Iris.  [To a Satyr who supports her.]  A clever wile
Her veil is! Ah, we women must beguile
The stupid male by seeming to withhold
What’s dross, displayed, but, guarded well, is gold!
Faugh! Hunger sells it and the carter buys!        185
  Satyr.  Consume me with the lightning of her eyes!
She’s Aphrodite!
  Iris.        Helen!
  Satyr.            Helen, then!
A peep behind that veil, and once again        190
The sword-flung music of the fighting men,
Voluptuous ruin and wild battle joy,
The swooning ache and rapture that was Troy!
Delirious doom!
  Iris.  [Laughing.]  O Sorcery of Night!        195
We’re all one woman in the morning light!
  Satyr.  [Laughing.]  You’re jealous!
  Iris.            No, I rend the veil in twain!
  [They mingle with the throng.]
  Silenus.  [To a Naval Officer.]  The wind veers and the moon seems on the wane!
What bodes it—reinstatement for the Queen?        200
  Naval Officer.  No seaman knows the wind and moon you mean;
Yet land were safer when those signs concur!
  [They pass on.]
  Mercury.  [To a Bacchante.]  ’T would rouse compassion in a toad, and stir
A wild boar’s heart with pity!
  Bacchante.  [Placing a warning hand on his mouth.]
                Hush! Beware!
        205
  Mercury.  Could you not feel the hidden gorgon stare,
The venom of her laughter dripping slow?
  [The musicians from within having followed the departing throng from the banquet hall, and having stationed themselves on the steps, now strike up a wild Bacchic air.]
  Bacchus.  [Swinging into the dance.]  Bacchantes, wreathe the dance!
  Bacchantes.  [From various parts of the throng.]  Io, Bacche! Io!
  [Pirouetting to the music, they assemble, circling about Bacchus, joining hands and singing. When the song is finished, the circle breaks, the dancers wheel, facing outward. Bacchus endeavors to kiss a Bacchante who regards him with head thrown back. The dance music becomes more abandoned, and the Bacchante flees, pursued by Bacchus, who reels as he dances. All the other Bacchantes follow, weaving in and out between pursuer and pursued. The throng laughingly makes way for them. At length the pursued Bacchante flings off in a mad whirl toward the grove in the background, followed by Bacchus and the Bacchantes. Fauns and Satyrs now take up the dance and join in the pursuit. The throng follows eagerly, enjoying the spectacle. All disappear among the trees. Laughter in the distance, growing dimmer. The musicians withdraw into the villa and disappear, their music dying out. The lights go out in the banquet hall. The stage is now lit by the moon alone, save for the draughty lamps within the pillared hall.
  After a period of silence, re-enter Nero, walking backward from the direction of the sea toward which he gazes.]
  Nero.  Dimmer—dimmer—dimmer—        210
A shadow melting in a moony shimmer
Down the bleak seaways dwindling to that shore
Where no heaved anchor drips forevermore,
Nor winds breathe music in the homing sail:
But over sunless hill and fruitless vale,        215
Gaunt spectres drag the age-long discontent
And ponder what this brief, bright moment meant—
The loving—and the dreaming—and the laughter.
Ah, ships that vanish take what never after
Returning ships may carry.
                Dawn shall flare,
        220
Make bloom the terraced gardens of the air
For all the world but Lucius. He shall see
The haunted hollow of Infinity
Gray in the twilight of a heart’s eclipse.
With our own wishes woven into whips        225
The jealous gods chastise us!—I’m alone!
About the transient brilliance of my throne
The giddy moths flit briefly in the glow;
But when at last that light shall flicker low,
A taper guttering in a gust of doom,        230
What hand shall grope for Nero’s in the gloom,
What fond eyes shed the fellows of his tears?
She bore her heart these many troublous years
Before me, like a shield. And she is dead.
Her hand ’twas set the crown upon my head;        235
Her heart’s blood dyed the kingly robe for me.
Dank seaweed crowns her, and the bitter sea
Enshrouds with realmless purple!
                Round and round,
Swirled in the endless nightmare of the drowned,
Her fond soul gropes for something vaguely dear        240
That lures, eludes forever. Shapes that leer,
Distorted Neros of a tortured sleep,
Cry “Mother, come to Baiae.” Deep on deep
The green death folds her and she can not come.
Vague, gaping mouths that hunger and are dumb        245
Mumble the tired heart so ripe with woe,
Where night is but a black wind breathing low
And daylight filters like a ghostly rain!
O Mother! Mother! Mother!
  [With arms extended, he stares seaward a moment, then covers his face, turns, and walks slowly toward entrance of villa.]
                Vain, ’tis vain!
How shall one move an ocean with regret?
  [He has reached the steps and pauses.]
        250
Ah, one hope lives in all this bleakness yet.
Song!—Mighty Song the hurt of life assuages!
This fateful night shall fill the vaulted ages
With starry grief, and men unborn shall sing
The mournful measure of the Ancient King!        255
I’ll write an ode!
  [He stands for a moment, glorified with the thought.]
                Great heart of Nero, strung
Harplike, endure till this last song be sung,
Then break—then break—
  [Turns and mounts the steps.]
                Oh Fate, to be a bard!
The way is hard, the way is very hard!
  [A dim outburst of laughter from the revellers in the distance.]
 
II
  [The same night. Nero’s private chamber in his villa at Baiae. Nero is discovered asleep in his state robes on a couch, where he has evidently thrown himself down, overcome by the stupor incident to the feast of the night. Beside the couch is a writing stand, bearing writing materials. A few lights burn dimly. Nero groans, cries out, and, as though terrified by a nightmare, sits up, trembling and staring upon some projected vision of his sleep. He is yet only half awake.]
  Nero.  Oh—oh—begone, blear thing!—She is not dead!
        260
You are not she—my mother!—Ghastly head—
Trunkless—and oozing green gore like the sea,
Wind-stabbed! Begone! Go—do not look at me—
I will not be so tortured!—Eyes burned out
With scorious hell-spew!—Locks that grope about        265
To clutch and strangle!
  [He has got up from the couch and now struggles with something at his throat, still staring at the thing.]
                Off! Off!
  [In an outburst of terrified tenderness extends his arms as toward a woman.]
                    Mother—come
Into these arms—speak to me—be not dumb!
Stare not so wildly—kiss me as of old!
Be flesh again—warm flesh! Oh green and cold
As the deep grave they gave you!
                ’Twas not I!
        270
Mother, ’twas not my will that you should die—
’Twas hers!—I hate her! Mother, pity me!
Oh, is it you?—Sole goddess of the sea
I shall proclaim you! Pity! I shall pour
The hot blood of your foes on every shore,        275
A huge libation! Hers shall be the first!
I swear it! May my waking be accursed,
My sleep a-swarm with furies if I err!
  [He has advanced a short distance toward what he sees, but now shrinks back, burying his face in his robe.]
Go!—Spare me!—Guards! Guards!
  [Three soldiers, who have been standing guard without the chamber, rush in and stand at attention.]
                    Seize and shackle her!
There ’tis!—eh?  [He stares blankly, rubs his eyes.]
                    It is gone!
  [Blinks at soldiers, and cries petulantly.]
                        What do you here?
        280
  First Soldier.  Great Caesar summoned us.
  Nero.  [Glancing nervously about.]  The night is blear—
Make lights! I will not have these shadow things
Crawling about me! Poisoners of kings
Fatten on shadows! Quick there, dog-eyed scamp,        285
Lean offal-snifter! Kindle every lamp!
  [Soldier tremblingly takes a lamp and lights a number of others with its flame. Stage is flooded with light.]
By the bronze beard I swear there shall be lights
Enough hereafter, though I purge the nights
With conflagrating cities, till the crash
Of Rome’s last tower beat up the smouldering ash        290
Of Rome’s last city!
                    So—I breathe again!
Some cunning, faneless god who hated men
Devised this curse of darkness! What’s the hour?
  Second Soldier.  The third watch wanes.
  Nero.            Too late! Too late! The power        295
Of Nero Caesar can not stay the sun!
The stars have marched against me—it is done!
And all Rome’s legions could not rout this swarm
Of venom-footed moments!
                    —She was warm
One little lost eternity ago.
  [TWith awakening resolution.]  ’Twas not my deed! I did not wish it so!
        300
Some demon, aping Caesar, gave the word
While Lucius Ahenobarbus’ eyes were blurred
With too much beauty!
                Oh, it shall be done!
Ere these unmothered eyes behold the sun,
She shall have vengeance, and that gift is mine!        305
  [To First Soldier.]  Rouse the Praetorians! Bid a triple line
Be flung about the palace!
  [To Second Soldier.]  Send me wine—
Strong wine to nerve a resolution!
  [To Third Soldier.]        You—
Summon Poppaea!
  [The Soldiers go out.]
                This deed I mean to do
Unties the snarl, but broken is the thread.        310
Would that the haughty blood these hands will shed
Might warm my mother! that the breath I crush—
So—[clutching air] from that throat of sorceries, might rush
Into the breast that loved and nurtured me!
The heart of Nero shivers in the sea,        315
And Rome is lorn of pity!
                Could the world
And all her crawling spawn this night be hurled
Into one woman’s form, with eyes to shed
Rivers of scalding woe, her towering head
Jeweled with realms aflare, with locks of smoke,        320
Huge nerves to suffer, and a neck to choke—
That woman were Poppaea! I would rear
About the timeless sea, my mother’s bier,
A sky-roofed desolation groined with awe,
Where, nightly drifting in the stream of law,        325
The vestal stars should tend their fires, and weep
To hear upon the melancholy deep
That shipless wind, her ghost, amid the hush!
Alas! I have but one white throat to crush
With these world-hungry fingers!
  [From behind Nero, enter Page—a little boy—bearing a goblet of wine on a salver. Nero turns, startled.]
                Ah!—You!—You!
        330
  Page.  I bring wine, mighty Caesar.
  [Nero passes his hand across his face, and the expression of fright leaves.]
  Nero.            So you do—
I saw—the boy Britannicus!—One sees—
Things—does one not?—such eerie nights as these?
  Page.  [With eager boyish earnestness.]  With woozy heads?        335
  Nero.  [Irritably.]    The wine!
  [The Page, startled, presents the salver, from which Nero takes the goblet with unsteady hand. Page is in the act of fleeing.]
                Stay!
  [Page stops and turns tremblingly.]
                Never dare
Again to look like—anyone! Beware!
  [Page’s head shakes a timid negative. Nero stares into goblet and muses.]
Blood’s red too. Ah, a woman is the grape
Ripe for the vintage, from whose flesh agape
Glad feet tonight shall stamp the hated ooze!        340
It boils!—See!—like some witch’s pot that brews
Venomous ichor!—Nay—some angry ghost
Hurls bloody breakers on a bleeding coast!—
’Tis poisoned!—Out, Locusta’s brat!
  [Hurls goblet at Page, who flees precipitately.]
                ’Twas she!
The hand that flung my mother to the sea        345
Now pours me death!
                Alas, great Hercules
Too long has plied the distaff at the knees
Of Omphale, spinning a thread of woe!
Was ever king of story driven so
By unrelenting Fate? Lo, round on round        350
The slow coils grip and choke—a mother drowned,
Her wrathful spirit rising from the dead—
A gentle wife outcast, discredited,
With sighs to wake the dread Eumenides!
Some thunder-hearted, vaster Sophocles,        355
His aeon-beating blood the stellar stream,
Has flung on me the mantle of his dream,
And Nero grapples Fate! O wondrous play!
With smoking brand aloft, the haggard Day
Gropes for the world! Pursued by subtle foes,        360
Superbly tragic ’mid a storm of woes,
The fury-hunted Caesar takes the cue!
One time-outstaring deed remains to do,
Then let the pit howl—Caesar sings no more!
Go ask the battered wreckage on the shore        365
Who sought his mother in a sudden sleep,
To be with her forever on the deep
A twin ship-hating tempest!
  [Enter Anicetus excitedly.]
  Anicetus.            Lost! We’re lost!
The Roman ship yaws rockward tempest-tossed        370
And Nero is but Lucius in the wreck!
  Nero.  Croak on! Each croak’s a dagger in that neck,
You vulture with the hideous dripping beak,
The clutching tearing talons that now reek
With what dear sacred veins!        375
  Anicetus.            O Caesar, hear!
So keen the news I bear you, that I fear
To loose it like the arrow it must be.
I know not why such wrath you heap on me;
I know what peril deepens ’round my lord;        380
How, riven by the lightning of the sword,
The doom-voiced blackness labors round his head!
  Nero.  Say what I know, that my poor mother’s dead—
So shall your life be briefer!
  Anicetus.            Would ’t were so!        385
  Nero.  [A light coming into his face.]  She lives?
  Anicetus.  Yea, lives—and lives to overthrow!
  Nero.  Not perished?
  Anicetus.        —And her living is our death!
  Nero.  She moves and breathes?        390
  Anicetus.            —And potent is her breath
To blow rebellion up!
  Nero.  [Rubbing his eyes.]  Still do I sleep?
Is this a taunting dream that I may weep
More bitterly? Or some new foul intrigue?        395
  Anicetus.  ’Tis bitter fact to her who swam a league,
And bitter fact to Nero shall it be!
At Bauli now, still dripping from the sea,
She crouches snarling!
  Nero.  [In an outburst of joy.]  Oh, you shall not die,        400
My best-loved Anicetus! Though you lie,
Sweeter these words are than profoundest truth!
They breathe the fresh, white morning of my youth
Upon the lampless night that smothered me!
O more than human Sea        405
That spared my mother that her son might live!
What bounty can I give?
I—Caesar—falter beggared at this gift
Of living words that lift
My mother from the regions of the dead!        410
Ah—I shall set a crown upon your head,
Snip you a kingdom from Rome’s flowing robe!
I’ll temple you in splendors! Yea, I’ll probe
Your secret heart to know what wishes pant
In wingless yearning there, that I may grant!
  [Pause, while Anicetus regards Nero with gloomy face.]
        415
What sight thus makes your face a pool of gloom?
  Anicetus.  The ghost of Nero crying from his tomb!
  Nero.  [Startled.]  Eh?—Nero’s ghost—mine?
  Anicetus.        Even so I said.
The doomed to perish are already dead        420
Who woo not Fate with swift unerring deeds!
That breathless moment when the tigress bleeds
Is ours to strike in, ere the tigress spring!
What could it boot your servant to be king
While any moment may the trumpets cry,        425
Hailing the certain hour when we shall die—
Caesar, the deaf, and his untrusted slave?
Peer deep, peer deep into this yawning grave
And tell me who shall fill it!—Wind and fire,
Harnessed with thrice the ghost of her dead sire,        430
Your mother is tonight! She knows, she knows
How galleys founder when no tempest blows
And moonlight slumbers on a glassy deep!
The beast our wound has wakened shall not sleep
Till it be gorged with slaughter, or be slain!        435
Lull not your heart, O Caesar! It is vain
To dream this cub-lorn tigress will not turn.
Lo, flaring through the dawn I see her burn,
A torch of revolution! Hear her raise
The legions with a voice of other days,        440
Worded with pangs to fret their ancient scars!
And every sword-wound of her father’s wars
Will shriek aloud with pity!
  Nero.  [During Anicetus’ speech he has shown growing fear.]
                Listen!—There!
You heard it?—Did you hear a trumpet blare?        445
  Anicetus.  ’Tis but the shadow of a sound to be
One rushing hour away!
  Nero.  [In panic.]  Where shall I flee?—
I, the sad poet whom she made a king!
At last we flesh the ghost of what we sing—        450
We bards!—I sang Orestes.
  [His face softens with a gentler thought.]
                Ah—I’ll go
To my poor heartsick mother. Tears shall flow,
The tears of Lucius, not imperial tears.
I’ll heap on her the vast, too vast arrears
Of filial love. The Senate shall proclaim        455
My mother regnant with me—write her name
Beside Augustus with the demigods!
Yea, lictors shall attend her with the rods,
And massed Praetorians tramp the rabble down
Whene’er her chariot flashes through the town!        460
One should be kind to mothers.
  Anicetus.            Yea, and be
Kind to the senseless fury of the sea,
Fondle the tempest in a rotten boat!
  Nero.  What would you, Anicetus?        465
  Anicetus.            Cut her throat!
  [Nero gasps and shrinks from Anicetus.]
  Nero.  No; no!—her ghost!—one can not stab so deep—
One can not kill these tortures spawned of sleep!
No, no—one can not kill them with a sword!
  Anicetus.  Faugh! One good thrust—the rest is air, my lord!
  [Enter Page timorously. Nero turns upon him.]
        470
  Page.  [Frightened.]  Spare me, good Caesar!—Agerinus—
  Nero.            Go!
Bid Agerinus enter!
  [Page flees. Nero to Anicetus menacingly.]
                We shall know
What breath from what damned throat tonight shall hiss!
  [Enter Agerinus, bowing low.]
  Agerinus.  My mistress sends fond greetings and a kiss        475
To her most noble son, and bids me say,
She rests and would not see him until day.
The royal galley, through unhappy chance,
Struck rock and foundered; but no circumstance
So meagre might deprive a son so dear        480
Of his beloved mother! Have no fear,
The long swim leaves her weary, but quite well.
She knows what tender love her son would tell
And yearns for dawn to bring him to her side.
  Nero.  [To Anicetus.]  So! Spell your doom from that! You lied! You lied!        485
I’ll lance that hateful fester in your throat!
Yea, we shall prove who rides the rotten boat
And supplicates the tempest!
  [With a rapid motion, Nero draws Agerinus’ sword from its sheath. Anicetus shrinks back. Nero cries to Agerinus.]
                Wait to see
The loving message you bear back from me!
  [Nero, brandishing the sword, makes at Anicetus. As he is about to deliver the stroke, enter Poppaea from behind. She has evidently been quite leisurely about her toilet, being dressed gorgeously, and wearing her accustomed half-veil. Her manner is stately and composed. She approaches slowly. Nero stops suddenly in the act to strike Anicetus, and stares upon the beautiful apparition. Anger leaves his face, which changes as though he had seen a great light.]
  Poppaea.  [Languidly.]  My Nero longed for me?
  [Nero with his free hand brushes his eyes in perplexity.]
        490
  Nero.            I—can not—tell—
What—’twas—I wished—I wished—
  Poppaea.  [Haughtily.]  Ah, very well.
  [She walks slowly on across the stage. Nero stares blankly after her. The sword drops from his hand. As Poppaea disappears, he rouses suddenly as from a stupor.]
  Nero.  Ho! Guards!
  [Three soldiers enter. Nero points to Agerinus.]
        There—seize that wretch who came to kill
Imperial Caesar!
  [Agerinus is seized. Nero turns to Anicetus.]
        Hasten! Do your will!
  [Nero turns, and with an eager expression on his face, goes doddering after Poppaea.]
        495
 
III
  [The same night. Agrippina’s private chamber in her villa at Bauli near Baiae. There is one lamp in the room. At the center back is a broad door closed with heavy hangings. At the right is an open window through which the moonlight falls. Agrippina is discovered lying on a couch. One maid, Nina, is in attendance and is arranging Agrippina’s hair.]
  Agrippina.  He was so tender—what should kindness mean?
  [The maid, seeming not to hear, continues with toilet.]
  I spoke!—you heard me speak?
  Nina.        I heard, my Queen.
  Agrippina.  And deemed my voice some ghostly summer wind
Fit for autumnal hushes? He was kind!        500
Was ever breath in utterance better spent?
  Nina.  Your slave could scarcely fancy whom you meant,
There are so many tender to the great.
  Agrippina.  When all the world is one sky-circled state,
Pray, who should fill it as the sun the sky?        505
The mother of that mighty one am I—
And he caressed me!
                I shall feel no pain
Forever now. So, drenched with winter rain,
The friendless marshland knows the boyish South
And shivers into color!
            On the mouth
        510
He kissed me, as before that other came—
That Helen of the stews, that corpse aflame
With lust for life, that—
                Ah, he maidened me!
What dying wind could sway so tall a tree
With such proud music? I shall be again        515
That darkling whirlwind down the fields of men,
That dart unloosed, barbed keenly for his sake,
That living sword for him to wield or break,
But never sheathe!
  [Lifts herself on elbow.]
                O Nina, let me be
Robed as the Queen I am in verity!        520
Robed as a victrix home from splendid wars,
Whom, ’mid the rumble of spoil-laden cars
Trundled by harnessed kings, the trumpets hail!
Let quiet garments be for those who fail,
Mourning a world ill-lost with meek surrenders!        525
I would flare bright ’mid Death’s unhuman splendors,
Dazzle the moony hollows of the dead!
Ah no—[Arising and going to window.]
  I shall not die yet.  [Parts the curtains and gazes out.]
  Nina.        ’Tis the dread        530
Still clinging from the clutches of the sea,
That living, writhing horror! Ugh! O’er me
Almost I feel the liquid terror crawl!
Through glassy worlds of tortured sleep to fall,
Where winds blow not, nor mornings ever blush,        535
But green, cold, ghastly light-wraiths wander—
  Agrippina.  [Turning from window with nervous anger.]
                Hush!
  [Turns again to window; after pause, continues musingly.]
She battles in a surf of spectral fire.
No—like some queen upon a funeral pyre,
Gasping, she withers in a fever swoon.        540
Had she a son too?
  Nina.  [Approaching the window.]
                Who, O Queen?
  Agrippina.            The moon!
See, she is strangled in a noose of pearl!
What telltale scars she has!
                —Look yonder, girl—
        545
Your eyes are younger—by the winding sea
Where Baiae glooms and blanches; it may be
Old eyes betray not, but some horsemen take
The white road winding hither by the lake.
  Nina.  The way lies plain—I see no moving thing.        550
  Agrippina.  Why thus is Agerinus loitering?
For he was ever true.  [Joyously.]  Ah foolish head!
My heart knows how my son shall come instead,
My little Lucius! Even now he leaps
Into the saddle and the dull way creeps        555
Beneath the spurred impatience of his horse,
He longs so for me!
  [Pause—She scans the moonlit country.]
                Shrouded like a corse,
Hoarding a mother’s secret, lies the sea;
And Capri, like a giant Niobe,
Outgazes Fate!
            O sweet, too gentle lies
        560
And kisses sword-like! Would the sun might rise
No more on Baiae! Would that earth might burst
Spewing blear doom upon this world accursed
With truth too big for hiding!
                    See! He sleeps
Beside her, and the shame-dimmed lamp-light creeps        565
Across her wine-stained mouth—so red—so red—
Like mother blood!—See! hissing round her head
Foul hate-fanged vipers that he calls her hair!
Ah no—beyond all speaking is she fair!
Sweet as a sword-wound in a gasping foe        570
Her mouth is; and too well, too well I know
Her face is dazzling as a funeral flame
Battened on queen’s flesh!
  [Turning angrily from window.]
                Oh the blatant shame!
The bungling drunkard’s plot!—Tonight, tonight
I shall swoop down upon them by the light        575
Of naked steel! Faugh! Had it come to that?
Had Rome no sword, that like a drowning rat
The mother of a king should meet her end?
What Gallic legion would not call me friend?
Did they not love Germanicus, my sire?        580
Oh, I will rouse the cohorts, scattering fire
Till all Rome blaze rebellion!
  [She has advanced to a place beside the couch, stands in a defiant attitude for a moment, then covers her face with her hands and sinks to the couch.]
                No, no, no—
It could not be, I would not have it so!
Not mine to burn the tower my hands have built!
And somewhere ’mid the shadows of his guilt        585
My son is good.
  [Lifts herself on elbow.]
                Look, Nina, toward the roofs
Of sleeping Baiae. Say that eager hoofs
Beat a white dust-cloud moonward.
  [Nina goes to window and peers out.]
  Nina.            Landward crawls
A sea fog; Capri’s league-long shadow sprawls        590
Lengthening toward us—soon the moon will set.
  Agrippina.  No horsemen?
  Nina.  None, my Queen.
  Agrippina.            —And yet—and yet—
He called me baby names. Ah, ghosts that wept        595
Big tears down smiling faces, twined and crept
About my heart, and still I feel their tears.
They make me joyous.—After all these years,
The little boy my heart so often dirged
Shivered the man-husk, beardless, and emerged!        600
He kissed my breasts and hung upon my going!
Once more I felt the happy nurture flowing,
The silvery, tingling shivers of delight!
What though my end had come indeed tonight—
I was a mother!
                —Have you children?
        605
  Nina.                No,
My Queen.
  Agrippina.  Yet you are winsome.
  Nina.            Lovers go
Like wind, as lovers come; I am unwed.        610
  Agrippina.  How lonely shall you be among the dead
Where hearts remember, but are lorn of hope!
Poor girl! No dream of tiny hands that grope,
And coaxing, hunting little mouths shall throw
Brief glories ’round you!
                Nina, I would go
        615
Like any brazen bawd along the street,
Hailing the first stout carter I should meet,
Ere I would perish childless! Though we nurse
The cooing thing that some day hurls the curse,
Forge from our hearts the matricidal sword,        620
The act of loving is its own reward.
We mothers need no pity!
                ’Twill be said,
When this brief war is done, and I am dead,
That I was wanton, shameless—be it so!
Unto the swarm of insect scribes I throw        625
The puffed-up purple carcass of my name
For them to feast on! Pointed keen with shame.
How shall each busy little stylus bite
A thing that feels not! I have fought my fight!
That mine were but the weapons of the foe,        630
Too well the ragged scars I bear can show.
Oh, I have triumphed, and am ripe to die!
About my going shall the trumpets cry
Forever and forever!
                I can thread
The twilit under-regions of the dead        635
A radiant shadow with a heart that sings!
Before the myriad mothers of great kings
I shall lift up each livid spirit hand
Spotted with blood—and they shall understand
How small the price was!        640
  Nina.            Hark!
  [The tramp of soldiery and the clatter of arms are heard from without. Nina, panic-stricken, runs to window, peers out, shrinks back, and, turning, flees by a side door.]
  Agrippina.            Why do you flee?
Did I not say my son would come to me?
’Tis Nero—Nero Caesar, Lord of Rome!
My little boy grown tall is coming home!
  [She goes to window, peers out, shrinks back, then turns toward the door and sees three armed men standing there—Anicetus, the Captain of a Galley and a Centurion of the Navy. The men stare at her without moving.]
        645
Why come you here?
  [Silence.]
                To know my health?—Go tell
My son, your master, I am very well—
And happy—
  [The men make no reply. Agrippina straightens her body haughtily.]
                —If like cowards in the night
You come to stab a woman—
  Anicetus.  [Drawing his sword and speaking to Captain.]
                Snuff the light!
  [The men spring forward with drawn swords. Agrippina does not move. The light is stricken out.]
        650
 
 
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