Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. IX. Tragedy: Humor
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume IX. Tragedy: Humor.  1904.
 
Poems of Tragedy: V. Italy
Countess Laura
George Henry Boker (1823–1890)
 
IT was a dreary day in Padua.
The Countess Laura, for a single year
Fernando’s wife, upon her bridal bed,
Like an uprooted lily on the snow,
The withered outcast of a festival,        5
Lay dead. She died of some uncertain ill,
That struck her almost on her wedding day,
And clung to her, and dragged her slowly down,
Thinning her cheeks and pinching her full lips,
Till in her chance, it seemed that with a year        10
Full half a century was overpast.
In vain had Paracelsus taxed his art,
And feigned a knowledge of her malady;
In vain had all the doctors, far and near,
Gathered around the mystery of her bed,        15
Draining her veins, her husband’s treasury,
And physic’s jargon, in a fruitless quest
For causes equal to the dread result.
The Countess only smiled when they were gone,
Hugged her fair body with her little hands,        20
And turned upon her pillows wearily,
As though she fain would sleep no common sleep,
But the long, breathless slumber of the grave.
She hinted nothing. Feeble as she was,
The rack could not have wrung her secret out.        25
The Bishop, when he shrived her, coming forth,
Cried, in a voice of heavenly ecstasy,
“O blessèd soul! with nothing to confess
Save virtues and good deeds, which she mistakes—
So humble is she—for our human sins!”        30
Praying for death, she tossed upon her bed
Day after day; as might a shipwrecked bark
That rocks upon one billow, and can make
No onward motion towards her port of hope.
At length, one morn, when those around her said,        35
“Surely the Countess mends, so fresh a light
Beams from her eyes and beautifies her face,”—
One morn in spring, when every flower of earth
Was opening to the sun, and breathing up
Its votive incense, her impatient soul        40
Opened itself, and so exhaled to heaven.
When the Count heard it, he reeled back a pace;
Then turned with anger on the messenger;
Then craved his pardon, and wept out his heart
Before the menial; tears, ah me! such tears        45
As love sheds only, and love only once.
Then he bethought him, “Shall this wonder die,
And leave behind no shadow? not a trace
Of all the glory that environed her,
That mellow nimbus circling round my star?”        50
So, with his sorrow glooming in his face,
He paced along his gallery of art,
And strode among the painters, where they stood,
With Carlo, the Venetian, at their head,
Studying the Masters by the dawning light        55
Of his transcendent genius. Through the groups
Of gayly vestured artists moved the Count,
As some lone cloud of thick and leaden hue,
Packed with the secret of a coming storm,
Moves through the gold and crimson evening mists,        60
Deadening their splendor. In a moment still
Was Carlo’s voice, and still the prattling crowd;
And a great shadow overwhelmed them all,
As their white faces and their anxious eyes
Pursued Fernando in his moody walk.        65
He paused, as one who balances a doubt,
Weighing two courses, then burst out with this:
“Ye all have seen the tidings in my face;
Or has the dial ceased to register
The workings of my heart? Then hear the bell,        70
That almost cracks its frame in utterance;
The Countess,—she is dead!” “Dead!” Carlo groaned.
And if a bolt from middle heaven had struck
His splendid features full upon the brow,
He could not have appeared more scathed and blanched.        75
“Dead!—dead!” He staggered to his easel-frame,
And clung around it, buffeting the air
With one wild arm, as though a drowning man
Hung to a spar and fought against the waves.
The Count resumed: “I came not here to grieve,        80
Nor see my sorrow in another’s eyes.
Who ’ll paint the Countess, as she lies to-night
In state within the chapel? Shall it be
That earth must lose her wholly? that no hint
Of her gold tresses, beaming eyes, and lips        85
That talked in silence, and the eager soul
That ever seemed outbreaking through her clay,
And scattering glory round it,—shall all these
Be dull corruption’s heritage, and we,
Poor beggars, have no legacy to show        90
That love she bore us? That were shame to love,
And shame to you, my masters.” Carlo stalked
Forth from his easel stiffly as a thing
Moved by mechanic impulse. His thin lips,
And sharpened nostrils, and wan, sunken cheeks,        95
And the cold glimmer in his dusky eyes,
Made him a ghastly sight. The throng drew back
As though they let a spectre through. Then he,
Fronting the Count, and speaking in a voice
Sounding remote and hollow, made reply:        100
“Count, I shall paint the Countess. ’T is my fate,—
Not pleasure,—no, nor duty.” But the Count,
Astray in woe, but understood assent,
Not the strange words that bore it; and he flung
His arm round Carlo, drew him to his breast,        105
And kissed his forehead. At which Carlo shrank;
Perhaps ’t was at the honor. Then the Count,
A little reddening at his public state,—
Unseemly to his near and recent loss,—
Withdrew in haste between the downcast eyes        110
That did him reverence as he rustled by.
Night fell on Padua. In the chapel lay
The Countess Laura at the altar’s foot.
Her coronet glittered on her pallid brows;
A crimson pall, weighed down with golden work,        115
Sown thick with pearls, and heaped with early flowers,
Draped her still body almost to the chin;
And over all a thousand candles flamed
Against the winking jewels, or streamed down
The marble aisle, and flashed along the guard        120
Of men-at-arms that slowly wove their turns,
Backward and forward, through the distant gloom.
When Carlo entered, his unsteady feet
Scarce bore him to the altar, and his head
Drooped down so low that all his shining curls        125
Poured on his breast, and veiled his countenance.
Upon his easel a half-finished work,
The secret labor of his studio,
Said from the canvas, so that none might err,
“I am the Countess Laura.” Carlo kneeled,        130
And gazed upon the picture; as if thus,
Through those clear eyes, he saw the way to heaven.
Then he arose; and as a swimmer comes
Forth from the waves, he shook his locks aside,
Emerging from his dream, and standing firm        135
Upon a purpose with his sovereign will.
He took his palette, murmuring, “Not yet!”
Confidingly and softly to the corpse,
And as the veriest drudge, who plies his art
Against his fancy, he addressed himself        140
With stolid resolution to his task,
Turning his vision on his memory,
And shutting out the present, till the dead,
The gilded pall, the lights, the pacing guard,
And all the meaning of that solemn scene        145
Became as nothing, and creative Art
Resolved the whole to chaos, and reformed
The elements according to her law:
So Carlo wrought, as though his eye and hand
Were Heaven’s unconscious instruments, and worked        150
The settled purpose of Omnipotence.
And it was wondrous how the red, the white,
The ochre, and the umber, and the blue,
From mottled blotches, hazy and opaque,
Grew into rounded forms and sensuous lines;        155
How just beneath the lucid skin the blood
Glimmered with warmth; the scarlet lips apart
Bloomed with the moisture of the dews of life;
How the light glittered through and underneath
The golden tresses, and the deep, soft eyes        160
Became intelligent with conscious thought,
And somewhat troubled underneath the arch
Of eyebrows but a little too intense
For perfect beauty; how the pose and poise
Of the lithe figure on its tiny foot        165
Suggested life just ceased from motion; so
That any one might cry, in marvelling joy,
“That creature lives,—has senses, mind, a soul
To win God’s love or dare hell’s subtleties!”
The artist paused. The ratifying “Good!”        170
Trembled upon his lips. He saw no touch
To give or soften. “It is done,” he cried,—
“My task, my duty! Nothing now on earth
Can taunt me with a work left unfulfilled!”
The lofty flame, which bore him up so long,        175
Died in the ashes of humanity;
And the mere man rocked to and fro again
Upon the centre of his wavering heart.
He put aside his palette, as if thus
He stepped from sacred vestments, and assumed        180
A mortal function in the common world.
“Now for my rights!” he muttered, and approached
The noble body. “O lily of the world!
So withered, yet so lovely! what wast thou
To those who came thus near thee—for I stood        185
Without the pale of thy half-royal rank—
When thou wast budding, and the streams of life
Made eager struggles to maintain thy bloom,
And gladdened heaven dropped down in gracious dews
On its transplanted darling? Hear me now!        190
I say this but in justice, not in pride,
Not to insult thy high nobility,
But that the poise of things in God’s own sight
May be adjusted; and hereafter I
May urge a claim that all the powers of heaven        195
Shall sanction, and with clarions blow abroad.—
Laura you loved me! Look not so severe,
With your cold brows, and deadly, close-drawn lips!
You proved it, Countess, when you died for it,—
Let it consume you in the wearing strife        200
It fought with duty in your ravaged heart.
I knew it ever since that summer day
I painted Lilla, the pale beggar’s child,
At rest beside the fountain; when I felt—
O Heaven!—the warmth and moisture of your breath        205
Blow through my hair, as with your eager soul—
Forgetting soul and body go as one—
You leaned across my easel till our cheeks—
Ah me! ’t was not your purpose—touched, and clung!
Well, grant ’t was genius; and is genius naught?        210
I ween it wears as proud a diadem—
Here, in this very world—as that you wear.
A king has held my palette, a grand-duke
Has picked my brush up, and a pope has begged
The favor of my presence in his Rome.        215
I did not go; I put my fortune by.
I need not ask you why: you knew too well.
It was but natural, it was no way strange,
That I should love you. Everything that saw,
Or had its other senses, loved you, sweet,        220
And I among them. Martyr, holy saint,—
I see the halo curving round your head,—
I loved you once; but now I worship you,
For the great deed that held my love aloof,
And killed you in the action! I absolve        225
Your soul from any taint. For from the day
Of that encounter by the fountain-side
Until this moment, never turned on me
Those tender eyes, unless they did a wrong
To nature by the cold, defiant glare        230
With which they chilled me. Never heard I word
Of softness spoken by those gentle lips;
Never received a bounty from that hand
Which gave to all the world. I know the cause.
You did your duty,—not for honor’s sake,        235
Nor to save sin, or suffering, or remorse,
Or all the ghosts that haunt a woman’s shame,
But for the sake of that pure, loyal love
Your husband bore you. Queen, by grace of God,
I bow before the lustre of your throne!        240
I kiss the edges of your garment-hem,
And hold myself ennobled! Answer me,—
If I had wronged you, you would answer me
Out of the dusty porches of the tomb:—
Is this a dream, a falsehood? or have I        245
Spoken the very truth?” “The very truth!”
A voice replied; and at his side he saw
A form, half shadow and half substance, stand,
Or, rather, rest; for on the solid earth
It had no footing, more than some dense mist        250
That waves o’er the surface of the ground
It scarcely touches. With a reverent look
The shadow’s waste and wretched face was bent
Above the picture; as though greater awe
Subdued its awful being, and appalled,        255
With memories of terrible delight
And fearful wonder, its devouring gaze.
“You make what God makes,—beauty,” said the shape.
“And might not this, this second Eve, console
The emptiest heart? Will not this thing outlast        260
The fairest creature fashioned in the flesh?
Before that figure, Time, and Death himself,
Stand baffled and disarmed. What would you ask
More than God’s power, from nothing to create?”
The artist gazed upon the boding form,        265
And answered: “Goblin, if you had a heart,
That were an idle question. What to me
Is my creative power, bereft of love?
Or what to God would be that self-same power,
If so bereaved?” “And yet the love, thus mourned,        270
You calmly forfeited. For had you said
To living Laura—in her burning ears—
One half that you professed to Laura dead,
She would have been your own. These contraries
Sort not with my intelligence. But speak,        275
Were Laura living, would the same stale play
Of raging passion tearing out its heart
Upon the rock of duty be performed?”
“The same, O phantom, while the heart I bear
Trembled, but turned not its magnetic faith        280
From God’s fixed centre.” “If I wake for you
This Laura,—give her all the bloom and glow
Of that midsummer day you hold so dear,—
The smile, the motion, the impulsive soul,
The love of genius,—yea, the very love,        285
The mortal, hungry, passionate, hot love,
She bore you, flesh to flesh,—would you receive
That gift, in all its glory, at my hands?”
A smile of malice curled the tempter’s lips,
And glittered in the caverns of his eyes,        290
Mocking the answer. Carlo paled and shook;
A woful spasm went shuddering through his frame,
Curdling his blood, and twisting his fair face
With nameless torture. But he cried aloud,
Out of the clouds of anguish, from the smoke        295
Of very martyrdom, “O God, she is thine!
Do with her at thy pleasure!” Something grand,
And radiant as a sunbeam, touched the head.
He bent in awful sorrow. “Mortal, see—”
“Dare not! As Christ was sinless, I abjure        300
These vile abominations! Shall she bear
Life’s burden twice, and life’s temptations twice,
While God is justice?” “Who has made you judge
Of what you call God’s good, and what you think
God’s evil? One to him, the source of both,        305
The God of good and of permitted ill.
Have you no dream of days that might have been,
Had you and Laura filled another fate?—
Some cottage on the sloping Apennines,
Roses and lilies, and the rest all love?        310
I tell you that this tranquil dream may be
Filled to repletion. Speak, and in the shade
Of my dark pinions I shall bear you hence,
And land you where the mountain-goat himself
Struggles for footing.” He outspread his wings,        315
And all the chapel darkened, as though hell
Had swallowed up the tapers; and the air
Grew thick, and, like a current sensible,
Flowed round the person, with a wash and dash,
As of the waters of a nether sea.        320
Slowly and calmly through the dense obscure,
Dove-like and gentle, rose the artist’s voice:
“I dare not bring her spirit to that shame!
Know my full meaning,—I who neither fear
Your mystic person nor your dreadful power.        325
Nor shall I now invoke God’s potent name
For my deliverance from your toils. I stand
Upon the founded structure of his law,
Established from the first, and thence defy
Your arts, reposing all my trust in that!”        330
The darkness eddied off; and Carlo saw
The figure gathering, as from outer space,
Brightness on brightness; and his former shape
Fell from him, like the ashes that fall off,
And show a core of mellow fire within.        335
Adown his wings there poured a lambent flood,
That seemed as molten gold, which plashing fell
Upon the floor, enringing him with flame;
And o’er the tresses of his beaming head
Arose a stream of many-colored light,        340
Like that which crowns the morning. Carlo stood
Steadfast, for all the splendor, reaching up
The outstretched palms of his untainted soul
Towards heaven for strength. A moment thus; then asked,
With reverential wonder quivering through        345
His sinking voice, “Who, spirit, and what, art thou?”
“I am that blessing which men fly from,—Death.”
“Then take my hand, if so God orders it;
For Laura waits me.” “But, bethink thee, man,
What the world loses in the loss of thee!        350
What wondrous art will suffer with eclipse!
What unwon glories are in store for thee!
What fame, outreaching time and temporal shocks,
Would shine upon the letters of thy name
Graven in marble, or the brazen height        355
Of columns wise with memories of thee!”
“Take me! If I outlived the Patriarchs,
I could but paint those features o’er and o’er:
Lo! that is done.” A smile of pity lit
The seraph’s features, as he looked to heaven,        360
With deep inquiry in his tender eyes.
The mandate came. He touched with downy wing
The sufferer lightly on his aching heart;
And gently, as the skylark settles down
Upon the clustered treasures of her nest,        365
So Carlo softly slid along the prop
Of his tall easel, nestling at the foot
As though he slumbered; and the morning broke
In silver whiteness over Padua.
 
 
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