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Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571).  Autobiography.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
This Capitolo I Write to Luca Martin Addressing Him in It As Will Appear
 
 
WHOSO 1 would know the power of God’s dominion,
    And how a man resembles that high good,
    Must lie in prison, is my firm opinion:
 
On grievous thoughts and cares of home must brood,        5
    Oppressed with carking pains in flesh and bone,
    Far from his native land full many a rood.
 
If you would fain by worthy deeds be known,
    Seek to be prisoned without cause, lie long,        10
    And find no friend to listen to your moan.
 
See that men rob you of your all by wrong;
    Add perils to your life; be used with force,
    Hopeless of help, by brutal foes and strong.        15
 
Be driven at length to some mad desperate course;
    Burst from your dungeon, leap the castle wall;
    Recaptured, find the prison ten times worse.
         20
Now listen, Luca, to the best of all!
    Your leg’s been broken; you’ve been bought and sold;
    Your dungeon’s dripping; you’ve no cloak or shawl.
 
Never one friendly word; your victuals cold        25
    Are brought with sorry news by some base groom
    Of Prato—soldier now—druggist of old.
 
Mark well how Glory steeps her sons in gloom!
    You have no seat to sit on, save the stool:        30
    Yet were you active from your mother’s womb.
 
The knave who serves hath orders strict and cool
    To list no word you utter, give you naught,
    Scarcely to ope the door; such is their rule.        35
 
These toys hath Glory for her nursling wrought!
    No paper, pens, ink, fire, or tools of steel,
    To exercise the quick brain’s teeming thought.
         40
Alack that I so little can reveal!
    Fancy one hundred for each separate ill:
    Full space and place I’ve left for prison weal!
 
But now my former purpose to fulfil,        45
    And sing the dungeon’s praise with honour due—
   For this angelic tongues were scant of skill.
 
Here never languish honest men and true,
    Except by placemen’s fraud, misgovernment,        50
    Jealousies, anger, or some spiteful crew.
 
To tell the truth whereon my mind is bent,
    Here man knows God, nor ever stints to pray,
    Feeling his soul with hell’s fierce anguish rent.        55
 
Let one be famed as bad as mortal may,
    Send him in jail two sorry years to pine,
    He’ll come forth holy, wise, beloved alway.
         60
Here soul, flesh, clothes their substance gross refine;
    Each bulky lout grows light like gossamere;
    Celestial thrones before purged eyeballs shine.
 
I’ll tell thee a great marvel! Friend, give ear!        65
    The fancy took me on one day to write:
    Learn now what shifts one may be put to here.
 
My cell I search, prick brows and hair upright,
    Then turn me toward a cranny in the door,        70
    And with my teeth a splinter disunite;
 
Next find a piece of brick upon the floor,
    Crumble a part thereof to powder small,
    And form a paste by sprinkling water o’er. 2        75
 
Then, then came Poesy with fiery call
    Into my carcass, by the way methought
    Whence bread goes forth—there was none else at all.
         80
Now to return unto my primal thought:
    Who wills to know what weal awaits him, must
    First learn the ill that God for him hath wrought.
 
The jail contains all arts in act and trust;        85
    Should you but hanker after surgeon’s skill,
    ’Twill draw the spoiled blood from your veins adust.
 
Next there is something in itself that will
    Make you right eloquent, a bold brave spark,        90
    Big with high-soaring thoughts for good and ill.
 
Blessed is the man who lies in dungeon dark,
    Languishing many a month, then takes his flight
    Of war, truce, peace he knows, and tells the mark.        95
 
Needs be that all things turn to his delight;
    The jail has crammed his brains so full of wit,
    They’ll dance no morris to upset the wight.
         100
Perchance thou’lt urge: “Think how thy life did flit;
    Nor is it true the jail can teach thee lore,
    To fill thy breast and heart with strength of it!”
 
Nay, for myself I’ll ever praise it more:        105
    Yet would I like one law passed—that the man
    Whose acts deserve it should not scape this score.
 
Whoso hath gotten the poor folk in ban,
    I’d make him learn those lessons of the jail;        110
    For then he’d know all a good ruler can:
 
He’d act like men who weigh by reason’s scale,
    Nor dare to swerve from truth and right aside,
    Nor would confusion in the realm prevail.        115
 
While I was bound in prison to abide,
    Foison of priests, friars, soldiers I could see;
    But those who best deserved it least I spied.
         120
Ah! could you know what rage came over me,
    When for such rogues the jail relaxed her hold!
    This makes one weep that one was born to be!
 
I’ll add no more. Now I’m become fine gold,        125
    Such gold as none flings lightly to the wind,
    Fit for the best work eyes shall e’er behold.
 
Another point hath passed into my mind,
    Which I’ve not told thee, Luca; where I wrote,        130
    Was in the book of one our kith and kind. 3
 
There down the margins I was wont to note
    Each torment grim that crushed me like a vice:
    The paste my hurrying thoughts could hardly float.        135
 
To make an O, I dipped the splinter thrice
    In that thick mud; worse woe could scarcely grind
    Spirits in hell debarred from Paradise.
         140
Seeing I’m not the first by fraud confined,
    This I’ll omit; and once more seek the cell
    Wherein I rack for rage both heart and mind.
 
I praise it more than other tongues will tell;        145
    And, for advice to such as do not know,
    Swear that without it none can labour well.
 
Yet oh! for one like Him I learned but now,
    Who’d cry to me as by Bethesda’s shore:        150
    Take thy clothes, Benvenuto, rise and go!
 
Credo I’d sing, Salve reginas pour
    And Paternosters; alms I’d then bestow
    Morn after morn on blind folk, lame, and poor.        155
 
Ah me! how many a time my cheek must grow
    Blanched by those lilies! Shall I then forswear
    Florence and France through them for evermore? 4
         160
If to the hospital I come, and fair
    Find the Annunziata limned. I’ll fly:
    Else shall I show myself a brute beast there. 5
 
These words flout not Her worshipped sanctity,        165
    Nor those Her lilies, glorious, holy, pure,
    The which illumine earth and heaven high!
 
But for I find at every coign obscure
    Base lilies which spread hooks where flowers should blow        170
    Needs must I fear lest these to ruin lure. 6
 
To think how many walk like me in woe!
    Born what, how slaved to serve that hateful sign!
    Souls lively, graceful, like to gods below!        175
 
I saw that lethal heraldry decline
    From heaven like lightning among people vain;
    Then on the stone I saw strange lustre shine.
         180
The castle’s bell must break ere I with strain
    Thence issued; and these things Who speaketh true
    In heaven on earth, to me made wondrous plain. 7
 
Next I beheld a bier of sombre hue        185
    Adorned with broken lilies; crosses, tears;
    And on their beds a lost woe-stricken crew. 8
 
I saw the Death who racks our souls with fears;
    This man and that she menaced, while she cried:        190
    “I clip the folk who harm thee with these shears!”
 
That worthy one then on my brow wrote wide
    With Peter’s pen words which—for he bade shun
    To speak them thrice—within my breast I hide. 9        195
 
Him I beheld who drives and checks the sun,
    Clad with its splendour ’mid his court on high,
    Seld-seen by mortal eyes, if e’er by one. 10
         200
Then did a solitary sparrow cry
    Loud from the keep; hearing which note, I said:
    “He tells that I shall live and you must die!”
 
I sang, and wrote my hard case, head by head,        205
    Asking from god pardon and aid in need,
    For now If felt mine eyes outworn and dead.
 
Ne’er lion, tiger, wolf, or bear knew greed
    Hungrier than that man felt for human blood;        210
    Nor viper with more venomous fang did feed. 11
 
The cruel chief was he of robbers’ brood,
    Worst of the worst among a gang of knaves;
    Hist! I’ll speak soft lest I be understood!        215
 
Say, have ye seen catchpolls, the famished slaves,
    In act a poor man’s homestead to distrain,
    Smashing down Christs, Madonnas, with their staves?
         220
So on the first of August did that train
    Dislodge me to a tomb more foul, more cold:—
   “November damns and dooms each rogue to pain!” 12
 
I at mine ears a trumpet had which told        225
    Truth; and each word to them I did repeat,
    Reckless, if but grief’s load from me were rolled.
 
They, when they saw their final hope retreat,
    Gave me a diamond, pounded, no fair ring,        230
    Deeming that I must die if I should eat.
 
That villain churl whose office ’twas to bring
    My food, I bade taste first; but meanwhile thought:
    “Not here I find my foe Durante’s sting!”        235
 
Yet erst my mind unto high God I brought
    Beseeching Him to pardon all my sin,
    And spoke a Miserere sorrow-fraught.
         240
Then when I gained some respite from that din
    Of troubles, and had given my soul to God,
    Contented better realms and state to win,
 
I saw along the path which saints have trod,        245
    From heaven descending, glad, with glorious palm,
    An angel: clear he cried, “Upon earth’s sod
 
Live longer thou! Through Him who heard thy psalm,
    Those foes shall perish, each and all, in strife,        250
    While thou remainest happy, free, and calm,
Blessed by our Sire in heaven on earth for life!”
 
Note 1. Cellini’s Capitolo in Praise of the Prison is clearly made up of pieces written, as described above, in the dungeon of S. Angelo, and of passages which he afterwards composed to bring these pieces into a coherent whole. He has not displayed much literary skill in the redaction, and I have been at pains to preserve the roughness of the original. [back]
Note 2. The Italian is acqua morta; probably a slang phrase for urine. [back]
Note 3. Un nostro parente. He says above that he wrote the Capitolo on the leaves of his Bible. [back]
Note 4. Un nostro parente. He says above that he wrote the Capitolo on the leaves of his Bible. [back]
Note 5. Gabriel holds the lily in Italian paintings when he salutes the Virgin Mary with Ave Virgo! [back]
Note 6. That is, he finds everywhere in Italy the arms of the Farnesi. [back]
Note 7. Allusion to his prevision of the castellan’s death. [back]
Note 8. Allusion to his prevision of Pier Luigi Farnese’s murder. [back]
Note 9. Allusion to the angel who visited him in prison. [back]
Note 10. Allusion to his vision of the sun in the dungeon. [back]
Note 11. An invective against Pier Luigi Farnese. [back]
Note 12. Allusion to the prophetic words he flung at the officers who took him to Foiano’s dungeon. [back]
 

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