Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Rubens in the cloister

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2927349Once a Week, Series 1, Volume XI — Rubens in the cloister
1864William Black


From pallid morn until the drowsy noon
I worked with burning fever in my heart,
That I might show my fellows with what skill
God had imbued my fingers and my brain—
That I might wear a nobler crown than they,
And win me fame within our convent walls.
But as I worked, and worked, and hovered o’er
The tell-tale canvas, as a mother seeks
Faint recognition in her young one’s eyes,
A sense of shame and disappointment stole
Upon me, for I knew my heart contained
Serener love, a beauty nobler far
Than this weak hand could clasp. So one grey morn
A passion seized me, and I wildly swore
And trampled in the dust my summer’s toil,
Then threw myself upon my little couch
And wept in vague remorse and throbbing pain.
I did sore penance all that weary day
And through the night; the while with tears I prayed
That God would pardon all my foolish pride,
And teach me so to work in reverent love,
With perfect gentleness of will and aim,
That men should look upon my art and feel
Themselves thereby a little nearer Heaven.

This did I purpose: then with secret care
I sought the shadow of my lonely cell,
Where but one gleam of clear and crystal light
Fell from the sky above. There laboured I
What time my brother monks stood in the sun
With idle gossip in the garden-square;
And when the mournful bell swung to and fro
And called us forth to penance or to prayer,
There went with me a dream of loveliness—
A strange white presence that before my eyes
Floated like vapour o’er a summer sea—
And at my heart I felt sweet consciousness
Of happiness desired and reached. So I
From earliest dawn till sunset strove to gain
The full perfection nestled in my breast;
And as I saw the beauty come and go
In fitful flashes as the sunlight stole
Athwart my little room, I seized it there
And bade it burn and burn for evermore
To satisfy my gloating, ardent eyes.

It was my comfort day by day; therein
I found some consolation when my soul
Grew dark with thinking of my sunny youth,
And when the evening light stole down the sky
And reddened poplar stems, or touched the wall
With faint approach of crimson—when I dreamed
Of summer twilights buried long ago
Within the pale vaults of the past, until
My heart grew sick and weary of my life,
And there uprose a vision of my home
Afar amid the blue Calabrian hills—
Of one there, also, whose angelic face
Was far too pure for earth—and of the nights
Made musical by beating of twin hearts—
Bah! wherefore should I rave? I turned and looked
Upon my picture, called myself a fool,
And wondered if in all my moon-struck days
I could have done or dreamed this glorious work.

At length ’twas finished, and they came to see:
Spoke oily comments from beneath their cowls,
And veiled their ignorance in soft applause.
The prior said ’twas this and that—admired
The handling and the colour consonance;
Was somewhat critical, and spoke of forms
That gained distinctness by a vague outline.
He praised the work, but said it might have been
Some other thing—he scarcely knew well what;
And shut an eye, and raised a finger so,
To see if such a line were truly straight.
I turned from them: they knew not me nor mine:
Saw in all beauty earthward sent by God
A merely pleasant thing that touched the eye,
Or, with a graceful figure, hue, or tint,
Rendered a sensual delight more sweet.

Then strangers came: the prior was polite—
Would bring them hither and with pride display
My picture as a marvel of the place;
Whereat they looked, and smiled, and said ’twas fine,
Twas wondrous fine, the convent should be famed!
I heard them all, yet heeded none. To me
My picture offered calm content, and I
Was fain to spend my life in solitude—
My poor and shattered life—a worthless thing—
A sunset drowned in rainy mist of tears.

Among the rest one day an artist came,—
He said he was an artist—this I knew
In that he spoke not hurriedly, nor deemed
It quite sufficient for a painter’s ear
To hear that he had met with fair success.
At length he broke the silence with a stream
Of phrases admirably turn’d, and then
I thought him just like others, nor did care
To thank him for his praise. He said that I
Should make the nations ring with clamorous joy,
And should bequeath unto all coming time
The strength that God had given; that he would
Obtain a dispensation from the Pope
To yield me time for study and for work.
I said, “The world has many painters; I
Have but one soul; wherefore would I remain
Within these walls.” Whereat he looked amazed,
Then glanced upon my picture once again.
I swear that thou art greater than myself!

This picture here doth surely dwarf that power
Which even now the earth acknowledges!”
With sudden thrill of thought I asked his name;
Whereto he answered with a look of pride,
“Men call me Rubens.”
Men call me Rubens.”  O the sudden chill
That turned my heart to stone! Cold drops of sweat
Stood beaded on my brow, I felt like one
Who, toiling through a desert, sees beyond
The haunts of men he fondly hoped to reach,
And yet must die within their very sound.
Should I forsake my convent and go forth
With glory as a meteoric star
To blind the eyes of men?—forget my vows,
Peril mayhap the safety of my soul?
“Thou shalt have wealth, whate’er thou mayst desire,
By dispensation of the Holy See;
Old Rome shall choose thee as her chiefest son,

And waft thine honour over all the land,
To rival those whose names are evermore
Set high upon the eternal arch of fame!”
This might be mine! O God! but it was hard
To steel my soul against it; for I thought
Of those within that deep Calabrian vale,
Who tore me from the dear embrace of her
Whom I did gaze upon as doth the sea
Stretch forth his eager arms unto the moon,
Receiving such faint recompense of light
As smooths his turbid bosom into rest,
And wakes a plaintive music in his waves.
So gained I sweetness from her angel face.
She, looking on me as a stately queen,
Entranced me with effulgency of light;
Then, breaking from her throne in perfect love,
She drowned me with her kisses and her tears.
They stole her from me—look you, I was poor!—
And would have married her to some rich fool,
But she, poor thing, did one day strangely die,
And somehow cheated them of their design.

Now what a rare and sweet revenge were this!
To make their sordid hearts grow sick to think
What might have been had they but left my flower
Unto myself! Alas, the time was gone:
Revenge is for the young; my wrath had cooled.
You pause?” he said, amazed.
You pause?” he said, amazed.  “Well may I pause.
Too late the summons comes: the world no more
Enticeth me with subtlety as when
It taught my hand and heart and soul to seek
With perfect consonance one eager wish.
You will not go?”
You will not go?”  Again that fearful chill!
I thought of her—my darling now in Heaven—
And said I would not. Then he sighed and left.

But in the night, what time the silent moon
Gleamed like a spirit on my window pane,
I rose and seized my brushes, palette, all
That came ’twixt me and placid thoughts of her,
And with a sudden power I broke them there,
And cast them forth into the darkness. Then
I knelt and prayed to God for soft content;
That I might end my days without regret,
And wait with hope the coming of the dawn.

William Black.