Pietro of Abano (Browning)
Petrus Aponensis—there was a magician!
When that strange adventure happened, which I mean to tell my hearers,
Nearly had he tried all trades—beside physician,
Architect, astronomer, astrologer,—or worse:
How else, as the old books warrant, was he able,
All at once, through all the world, to prove the promptest of appearers
Where was prince to cure, tower to build as high as Babel,
Star to name or sky-sign read,—yet pouch, for pains, a curse?
—Curse: for when a vagrant, foot-sore, travel-tattered,
Now a young man, now an old man, Turk or Arab, Jew or Gipsy,—
Proffered folk in passing—O for pay, what mattered?—
"I'll be doctor, I'll play builder, star I'll name—sign read!"
Soon as prince was cured, tower built, and fate predicted,
"Who may you be?" came the question; when he answered, "Petrus ipse,"
"Just as we divined!" cried folk—"A wretch convicted
Long ago of dealing with the devil—you indeed!"
So, they cursed him roundly, all his labour's payment,
Motioned him—the convalescent prince would—to vacate the presence:
Babylonians plucked his beard and tore his raiment,
Drove him from that tower he built: while, had he peered at stars,
Town howled "Stone the quack who styles our Dog-star—Sirius!"
Country yelled "Aroint the churl who prophesies we take no pleasance
Under vine and fig-tree, since the year's delirious,
Bears no crop of any kind,—all through the planet Mars!"
Straightway would the whilom youngster grow a grisard,
Or, as case might hap, the hoary eld drop off and show a stripling.
Town and country groaned—indebted to a wizard!
"Curse—nay, kick and cuff him—fit requital of his pains!
Gratitude in word or deed were wasted truly!
Rather make the Church amends by crying out on, cramping, crippling
One who, on pretence of serving man, serves duly
Man's arch foe: not ours, be sure, but Satan's—his the gains!"
Peter grinned and bore it, such disgraceful usage:
Somehow, cuffs and kicks and curses seem ordained his like to suffer:
Prophet's pay with Christians, now as in the Jew's age,
Still is—stoning: so, he meekly took his wage and went,
—Safe again was found ensconced in those old quarters,
Padua's blackest blindest by-street,—none the worse, nay, somewhat tougher:
"Calculating," quoth he, "soon I join the martyrs,
Since, who magnify my lore on burning me are bent."
Therefore, on a certain evening, to his alley
Peter slunk, all bruised and broken, sore in body, sick in spirit,
Just escaped from Cairo where he launched a galley
Needing neither sails nor oars nor help of wind or tide,
—Needing but the fume of fire to set a-flying
Wheels like mad which whirled you quick—North, South, where'er you pleased require it,—
That is—would have done so had not priests come prying,
Broke his engine up and bastinadoed him beside.
As he reached his lodging, stopped there unmolested,
(Neighbours feared him, urchins fled him, few were bold enough to follow)
While his fumbling fingers tried the lock and tested
Once again the queer key's virtue, oped the sullen door,—
Someone plucked his sleeve, cried, "Master, pray your pardon!
Grant a word to me who patient wait you in your archway's hollow!
Hard on you men's hearts are: be not your heart hard on
Me who kiss your garment's hem, O Lord of magic lore!
"Mage—say I, who no less, scorning tittle-tattle,
To the vulgar give no credence when they prate of Peter's magic,
Deem his art brews tempest, hurts the crops and cattle,
Hinders fowls from laying eggs and worms from spinning silk,
Rides upon a he-goat, mounts at need a broomstick:
While the price he pays for this (so turns to comic what was tragic)
Is—he may not drink—dreads like the Day of Doom's tick—
One poor drop of sustenance ordained mere men—that's milk!
"Tell such tales to Padua! Think me no such dullard!
Not from these benighted parts did I derive my breath and being!
I am from a land whose cloudless skies are coloured
Livelier, suns orb largelier, airs seem incense,—while, on earth—
What, instead of grass, our fingers and our thumbs cull,
Proves true moly! sounds and sights there help the body's hearing, seeing,
Till the soul grows godlike: brief,—you front no numbscull
Shaming by ineptitude the Greece that gave him birth!
"Mark within my eye its iris mystic-lettered—
That's my name! and note my ear—its swan-shaped cavity, my emblem!
Mine's the swan-like nature born to fly unfettered
Over land and sea in search of knowledge—food for song.
Art denied the vulgar! Geese grow fat on barley,
Swans require ethereal provend, undesirous to resemble 'em—
Soar to seek Apollo,—favoured with a parley
Such as, Master, you grant me—who will not hold you long.
"Leave to learn to sing—for that your swan petitions:
Master, who possess the secret, say not nay to such a suitor!
All I ask is—bless mine, purest of ambitions!
Grant me leave to make my kind wise, free, and happy! How?
Just by making me—as you are mine—their model!
Geese have goose-thoughts: make a swan their teacher first, then coadjutor,—
Let him introduce swan-notions to each noddle,—
Geese will soon grow swans, and men become what I am now!
"That's the only magic—had but fools discernment,
Could they probe and pass into the solid through the soft and seeming!
Teach me such true magic—now, and no adjournment!
Teach your art of making fools subserve the man of mind!
Magic is the power we men of mind should practise,
Draw fools to become our drudges, docile henceforth, never dreaming—
While they do our hests for fancied gain—the fact is
What they toil and moil to get proves falsehood: truth's behind!
"See now! you conceive some fabric—say, a mansion
Meet for monarch's pride and pleasure: this is truth—a thought has fired you,
Made you fain to give some cramped concept expansion,
Put your faculty to proof, fulfil your nature's task.
First you fascinate the monarch's self: he fancies
He it was devised the scheme you execute as he inspired you:
He in turn sets slaving insignificances
Toiling, moiling till your structure stands there—all you ask!
"Soon the monarch's known for what he was—a ninny:
Soon the rabble-rout leave labour, take their work-day wage and vanish:
Soon the late puffed bladder, pricked, shows lank and skinny—
'Who was its inflator?' ask we, 'whose the giant lungs?'
Petri en pulmones! What though men prove ingrates?
Let them so they stop at crucifixion—buffet, ban and banish!
Peter's power's apparent: human praise—its din grates
Harsh as blame on ear unused to aught save angels' tongues.
"Ay, there have been always, since our world existed,
Mages who possessed the secret—needed but to stand still, fix eye
On the foolish mortal: straight was he enlisted
Soldier, scholar, servant, slave—no matter for the style!
Only through illusion; ever what seemed profit—
Love or lucre—justified obedience to the Ipse dixi:
Work done—palace reared from pavement up to soffit—
Was it strange if builders smelt out cheating all the while?
"Let them pelt and pound, bruise, bray you in a mortar!
What's the odds to you who seek reward of quite another nature?
You've enrolled your name where sages of your sort are,
—Michael of Constantinople, Hans of Halberstadt!
Nay and were you nameless, still you've your conviction
You it was and only you—what signifies the nomenclature?—
Ruled the world in fact, though how you ruled be fiction
Fit for fools: true wisdom's magic you—if e'er man—had 't!
"But perhaps you ask me, 'Since each ignoramus
While he profits by such magic persecutes the benefactor,
What should I expect but—once I render famous
You as Michael, Hans, and Peter—just one ingrate more?
If the vulgar prove thus, whatsoe'er the pelf be,
Pouched through my beneficence—and doom me dungeoned, chained, or racked, or
Fairly burned outright—how grateful will yourself be
When, his secret gained, you match your—master just before?'
"That's where I await you! Please, revert a little!
What do folks report about you if not this—which, though chimeric,
Still, as figurative, suits you to a tittle—
That,—although the elements obey your nod and wink,
Fades or flowers the herb you chance to smile or sigh at,
While your frown bids earth quake palled by obscuration atmospheric,—
Brief, although through nature naught resists your fiat,
There's yet one poor substance mocks you—milk you may not drink!
"Figurative language! Take my explanation!
Fame with fear, and hate with homage, these your art procures in plenty.
All's but daily dry bread: what makes moist the ration?
Love, the milk that sweetens man his meal—alas, you lack:
I am he who, since he fears you not, can love you.
Love is born of heart not mind, de corde natus haud de mente;
Touch my heart and love's yours, sure as shines above you
Sun by day and star by night though earth should go to wrack!
"Stage by stage you lift me—kiss by kiss I hallow
Whose but your dear hand my helper, punctual as at each new impulse
I approach my aim? Shell chipped, the eaglet callow
Needs a parent's pinion-push to quit the eyrie's edge:
But once fairly launched forth, denizen of aether,
While each effort sunward bids the blood more freely through each limb pulse,
Sure the parent feels, as gay they soar together,
Fully are all pains repaid when love redeems its pledge!"
Then did Peter's tristful visage lighten somewhat,
Vent a watery smile as though inveterate mistrust were thawing.
"Well, who knows?" he slow broke silence. "Mortals—come what
Come there may—are still the dupes of hope there's luck in store.
Many scholars seek me, promise mounts and marvels:
Here stand I to witness how they step 'twixt me and clapperclawing!
Dry bread,—that I've gained me: truly I should starve else:
But of milk, no drop was mine! Well, shuffle cards once more!"
At the word of promise thus implied, our stranger—
What can he but cast his arms, in rapture of embrace, round Peter?
"Hold! I choke!" the mage grunts. "Shall I in the manger
Any longer play the dog? Approach, my calf, and feed!
Bene . . . won't you wait for grace?" But sudden incense
Wool-white, serpent-solid, curled up—perfume growing sweet and sweeter
Till it reached the young man's nose and seemed to win sense
Soul and all from out his brain through nostril: yes, indeed!
Presently the young man rubbed his eyes. "Where am I?
Too much bother over books! Some reverie has proved amusing.
What did Peter prate of? 'Faith, my brow is clammy!
How my head throbs, how my heart thumps! Can it be I swooned?
Oh, I spoke my speech out—cribbed from Plato's tractate,
Dosed him with 'the Fair and Good,' swore—Dog of Egypt—I was choosing
Plato's way to serve men! What's the hour? Exact eight!
Home now, and to-morrow never mind how Plato mooned!
"Peter has the secret! Fair and Good are products
(So he said) of Foul and Evil: one must bring to pass the other.
Just as poisons grow drugs, steal through sundry odd ducts
Doctors name, and ultimately issue safe and changed.
You'd abolish poisons, treat disease with dainties
Such as suit the sound and sane? With all such kickshaws vain you pother!
Arsenic's the stuff puts force into the faint eyes,
Opium sets the brain to rights—by cark and care deranged.
"What, he's safe within door?—would escape—no question—
Thanks, since thanks and more I owe, and mean to pay in time befitting.
What most presses now is—after night's digestion,
Peter, of thy precepts!—promptest practice of the same.
Let me see! The wise man, first of all, scorns riches:
But to scorn them must obtain them: none believes in his permitting
Gold to lie ungathered: who picks up, then pitches
Gold away—philosophizes: none disputes his claim.
"So with worldly honours: 'tis by abdicating,
Incontestably he proves he could have kept the crown discarded.
Sylla cuts a figure, leaving off dictating:
Simpletons laud private life? 'The grapes are sour,' laugh we.
So, again—but why continue? All's tumultuous
Here: my head 's a-whirl with knowledge. Speedily shall be rewarded
He who taught me! Greeks prove ingrates? So insult you us?
When your teaching bears its first-fruits, Peter—wait and see!"
As the word, the deed proved; ere a brief year's passage,
Fop—that fool he made the jokes on—now he made the jokes for, gratis:
Hunks—that hoarder, long left lonely in his crass age—
Found now one appreciative deferential friend:
Powder-paint-and-patch, Hag Jezebel—recovered,
Strange to say, the power to please, got courtship till she cried Jam satis!
Fop be-flattered, Hunks be-friended, Hag be-lovered—
Nobody overlooked, save God—he soon attained his end.
As he lounged at ease one morning in his villa,
(Hag's the dowry) estimated (Hunks' bequest) his coin in coffer,
Mused on how a fool's good word (Fop's word) could fill a
Social circle with his praise, promote him man of mark,—
All at once—"An old friend fain would see your Highness!"
There stood Peter, skeleton and scarecrow, plain writ Phi-lo-so-pher
In the woe-worn face—for yellowness and dryness,
Parchment—with a pair of eyes—one hope their feeble spark.
"Did I counsel rightly? Have you, in accordance,
Prospered greatly, dear my pupil? Sure, at just the stage I find you
When your hand may draw me forth from the mad war-dance
Savages are leading round your master—down, not dead.
Padua wants to burn me: baulk them, let me linger
Life out—rueful though its remnant—hid in some safe hole behind you!
Prostrate here I lie: quick, help with but a finger
Lest I house in safety's self—a tombstone o'er my head!
"Lodging, bite and sup, with—now and then—a copper
—Alms for any poorer still, if such there be,—is all my asking.
Take me for your bedesman,—nay, if you think proper,
Menial merely,—such my perfect passion for repose!
Yes, from out your plenty Peter craves a pittance
—Leave to thaw his frozen hands before the fire whereat you're basking!
Double though your debt were, grant this boon—remittance
He proclaims of obligation: 'tis himself that owes!"
"Venerated Master—can it be, such treatment
Learning meets with, magic fails to guard you from, by all appearance?
Strange! for, as you entered,—what the famous feat meant,
I was full of,—why you reared that fabric, Padua's boast.
Nowise for man's pride, man's pleasure, did you slyly
Raise it, but man's seat of rule whereby the world should soon have clearance
(Happy world) from such a rout as now so vilely
Handles you—and hampers me, for which I grieve the most.
"Since if it got wind you now were my familiar,
How could I protect you—nay, defend myself against the rabble?
Wait until the mob, now masters, willy-nilly are
Servants as they should be: then has gratitude full play!
Surely this experience shows how unbefitting
'Tis that minds like mine should rot in ease and plenty. Geese may gabble,
Gorge, and keep the ground: but swans are soon for quitting
Earthly fare—as fain would I, your swan, if taught the way.
"Teach me, then, to rule men, have them at my pleasure!
Solely for their good, of course,—impart a secret worth rewarding,
Since the proper life's-prize! Tantalus's treasure
Aught beside proves, vanishes, and leaves no trace at all.
Wait awhile, nor press for payment prematurely!
Over-haste defrauds you. Thanks! since,—even while I speak,—discarding
Sloth and vain delights, I learn how—swiftly, surely,—
Magic sways the sceptre, wears the crown and wields the ball!
"Gone again—what, is he? 'Faith, he's soon disposed of!
Peter's precepts work already, put within my lump their leaven!
Ay, we needs must don glove would we pluck the rose—doff
Silken garment would we climb the tree and take its fruit.
Why sharp thorn, rough rind? To keep unviolated
Either prize! We garland us, we mount from earth to feast in heaven,
Just because exist what once we estimated
Hindrances which, better taught, as helps we now compute.
"Foolishly I turned disgusted from my fellows!
Pits of ignorance—to fill, and heaps of prejudice—to level—
Multitudes in motley, whites and blacks and yellows—
What a hopeless task it seemed to discipline the host!
Now I see my error. Vices act like virtues
—Not alone because they guard—sharp thorns—the rose we first dishevel,
Not because they scrape, scratch—rough rind—through the dirt-shoes
Bare feet cling to bole with, while the half-mooned boot we boast.
"No, my aim is nobler, more disinterested!
Man shall keep what seemed to thwart him, since it proves his true assistance,
Leads to ascertaining which head is the best head,
Would he crown his body, rule its members—lawless else.
Ignorant the horse stares, by deficient vision
Takes a man to be a monster, lets him mount, then, twice the distance
Horse could trot unridden, gallops—dream Elysian!—
Dreaming that his dwarfish guide's a giant,—jockeys tell's."
Brief, so worked the spell, he promptly had a riddance:
Heart and brain no longer felt the pricks which passed for conscience-scruples:
Free henceforth his feet,—Per Bacco, how they did dance
Merrily through lets and checks that stopped the way before!
Politics the prize now,—such adroit adviser,
Opportune suggester, with the tact that triples and quadruples
Merit in each measure,—never did the Kaiser
Boast as subject such a statesman, friend, and something more!
As he, up and down, one noonday, paced his closet
—Council o'er, each spark (his hint) blown flame, by colleagues' breath applauded,
Strokes of statecraft hailed with "Salomo si nôsset!"
(His the nostrum)—every throw for luck come double-six,—
As he, pacing, hugged himself in satisfaction,
Thump—the door went. "What, the Kaiser? By none else were I defrauded
Thus of well-earned solace. Since 'tis fate's exaction,—
Enter, Liege my Lord! Ha, Peter, you here? Teneor vix!"
"Ah, Sir, none the less, contain you, nor wax irate!
You so lofty, I so lowly, vast—the space which yawns between us!
Still, methinks, you—more than ever—at a high rate
Needs must prize poor Peter's secret since it lifts you thus.
Grant me now the boon whereat before you boggled!
Ten long years your march has moved—one triumph—(though e's short)—hactēnus,
While I down and down disastrously have joggled
Till I pitch against Death's door, the true Nec Ultra Plus.
"Years ago—some ten 'tis—since I sought for shelter,
Craved in your whale house a closet, out of all your means a comfort.
Now you soar above these: as is gold to spelter
So is power—you urged with reason—paramount to wealth.
Power you boast in plenty: let it grant me refuge!
House-room now is out of question: find for me some stronghold—some fort—
Privacy wherein, immured, shall this blind deaf huge
Monster of a mob let stay the soul I'd save by stealth!
"Ay, for all too much with magic have I tampered!
—Lost the world, and gained, I fear, a certain place I'm to describe loth!
Still, if prayer and fasting tame the pride long pampered,
Mercy may be mine: amendment never comes too late.
How can I amend beset by cursers, kickers?
Pluck this brand from out the burning! Once away, I take my Bible-oath,
Never more—so long as life's weak lamp-flame flickers—
No, not once I'll tease you, but in silence bear my fate!"
"Gently, good my Genius, Oracle unerring!
Strange now! can you guess on what—as in you peeped—it was I pondered?
You and I are both of one mind in preferring
Power to wealth, but—here's the point—what sort of power, I ask?
Ruling men is vulgar, easy, and ignoble:
Rid yourself of conscience, quick you have at beck and call the fond herd.
But who wields the crozier, down may fling the crow-bill:
That's the power I covet now; soul's sway o'er souls—my task!
" 'Well but,' you object, 'you have it, who by glamour
Dress up lies to look like truths, mask folly in the garb of reason:
Your soul acts on theirs, sure, when the people clamour,
Hold their peace, now fight now fondle,—earwigged through the brains.'
Possibly! but still the operation's mundane,
Grosser than a taste demands which—craving manna—kecks at peason—
Power o'er men by wants material: why should one deign
Rule by sordid hopes and fears—a grunt for all one's pains?
"No, if men must praise me, let them praise to purpose!
Would we move the world, not earth but heaven must be our fulcrum—pou sto!
Thus I seek to move it: Master, why intérpose—
Baulk my climbing close on what's the ladder's topmost round?
Statecraft 'tis I step from: when by priestcraft hoisted
Up to where my foot may touch the highest rung which fate allows toe,
Then indeed ask favour! On you shall be foisted
No excuse: I'll pay my debt, each penny of the pound!
"Ho, my knaves without there! Lead this worthy downstairs!
No farewell, good Paul—nay, Peter—what's your name remembered rightly?
Come, he's humble: out another would have flounced—airs
Suitors often give themselves when our sort bow them forth.
Did I touch his rags? He surely kept his distance:
Yet, there somehow passed to me from him—where'er the virtue might lie—
Something that inspires my soul—Oh, by assistance
Doubtlessly of Peter!—still, he's worth just what he's worth!
"'Tis my own soul soars now: soaring—how? By crawling!
I'll to Rome, before Rome's feet the temporal-supreme lay prostrate!
'Hands' (I'll say) 'proficient once in pulling, hauling
This and that way men as I was minded—feet now clasp!'
Ay, the Kaiser's self has wrung them in his fervour!
Now—they only sue to slave for Rome, nor at one doit the cost rate.
Rome's adopted child—no bone, no muscle, nerve or
Sinew of me but I'll strain, though out my life I gasp!"
As he stood one evening proudly—(he had traversed
Rome on horseback—peerless pageant!—claimed the Lateran as new Pope)—
Thinking "All's attained now! Pontiff! Who could have erst
Dreamed of my advance so far when, some ten years ago,
I embraced devotion, grew from priest to bishop,
Gained the Purple, bribed the Conclave, got the Two-thirds, saw my coop ope,
Came out—what Rome hails me! O were there a wish-shop,
Not one wish more would I purchase—lord of all below!
"Ha!—who dares intrude now—puts aside the arras?
What, old Peter, here again, at such a time, in such a presence?
Satan sends this plague back merely to embarrass
Me who enter on my office—little needing you!
'Faith, I'm touched myself by age, but you look Tithon!
Were it vain to seek of you the sole prize left—rejuvenescence?
Well, since flesh is grass which Time must lay his scythe on,
Say your say and so depart and make no more ado!"
Peter faltered—coughing first by way of prologue—
"Holiness, your help comes late: a death at ninety little matters.
Padua, build poor Peter's pyre now, on log roll log,
Burn away—I've lived my day! Yet here's the sting in death—
I've an author's pride: I want my Book's survival:
See, I've hid it in my breast to warm me 'mid the rags and tatters!
Save it—tell next age your Master had no rival!
Scholar's debt discharged in full, be 'Thanks' my latest breath!"
"Faugh, the frowsy bundle—scribblings harum-scarum
Scattered o'er a dozen sheepskins! What's the name of this farrago?
Man and book may burn together, cause the world no loss!
Stop—what else? A tractate—eh, 'De Speciebus
Ceremonialis Ma-gi-æ?' I dream sure! Hence, away, go,
Wizard,—quick avoid me! Vain you clasp my knee, buss
Hand that bears the Fisher's ring or foot that boasts the Cross!
"Help! The old magician clings like an octopus!
Ah, you rise now—fuming, fretting, frowning, if I read your features!
Frown, who cares? We're Pope—once Pope, you can't unpope us!
Good—you muster up a smile: that's better! Still so brisk?
All at once grown youthful? But the case is plain! Ass—
Here I dally with the fiend, yet know the Word—compels all creatures
Earthly, heavenly, hellish. Apage, Sathanas!
Dicam verbum Salomonis—' '—dicite!' When—whisk!—
What was changed? The stranger gave his eyes a rubbing:
There smiled Peter's face turned back a moment at him o'er the shoulder,
As the black door shut, bang! "So he 'scapes a drubbing!"
(Quoth a boy who, unespied, had stopped to hear the talk.)
"That's the way to thank these wizards when they bid men
Benedicite! What ails you? You, a man, and yet no bolder?
Foreign Sir, you look but foolish!" "Idmen, idmen!"
Groaned the Greek. "O Peter, cheese at last I know from chalk!"
Peter lived his life out, menaced yet no martyr,
Knew himself the mighty man he was—such knowledge all his guerdon,
Left the world a big book—people but in part err
When they style a true Scientiæ Com-pen-di-um:
"Admirationem incutit" they sourly
Smile, as fast they shut the folio which myself was somehow spurred on
Once to ope: but love—life's milk which daily, hourly,
Blockheads lap—O Peter, still thy taste of love's to come!
Greek, was your ambition likewise doomed to failure?
True, I find no record you wore purple, walked with axe and fasces,
Played some antipope's part: still, friend, don't turn tail, you're
Certain, with but these two gifts, to gain earth's prize in time!
Cleverness uncurbed by conscience—if you ransacked
Peter's book you'd find no potent spell like these to rule the masses;
Nor should want example, had I not to transact
Other business. Go your ways, you'll thrive! So ends my rhyme.
When these parts Tiberius,—not yet Cæsar,—travelled,
Passing Padua, he consulted Padua's Oracle of Geryon
(God three-headed, thrice wise) just to get unravelled
Certain tangles of his future. "Fling at Abano
Golden dice," it answered: "dropt within the fount there,
Note what sum the pips present!" And still we see each die, the very one,
Turn up, through the crystal,—read the whole account there
Where 'tis told by Suetonius,—each its highest throw.
Scarce the sportive fancy-dice I fling show "Venus:"
Still—for love of that dear land which I so oft in dreams revisit—
I have—oh, not sung! but lilted (as—between us—
Grows my lazy custom) this its legend. What the lilt?
- "Studiando le mie cifre col compasso,
Rilevo che sarò presto sotterra,
Perchè del mio saper si fa gran chiasso,
E gl'ignoranti m'hanno mosso guerra."
Said to have been found in a well at Abano in the
last century. They were extemporaneously Englished
thus: not as Father Prout chose to prefer them:—
Studying my ciphers with the compass,
I reckon—I soon shall be below-ground;
Because of my lore folk make great rumpus,
And war on myself makes each dull rogue round.—R.B.