The Heretic's Tragedy

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The Heretic's Tragedy (1855)
by Robert Browning
766191The Heretic's Tragedy1855Robert Browning

A Middle-Age Interlude

Rosa mundi; seu, fulcite me floribus. A conceit of Master Gysbrecht, Canon-regular of Saint Jodocus-by-the-Bar, Ypres city. Cantuque, Virgilius. And hath often been sung at Hock-tide and festivals. Gavisus eram, Jessides.

(It would seem to be a glimpse from the burning of Jacques du Bourg-Molay, at Paris, A.D. 1314; as distorted by the refraction from Flemish brain to brain, during the course of a couple of centuries.)

[Molay was Grand Master of the Templars when that order was suppressed in 1312.]



The Lord, we look to once for all,
        Is the Lord we should look at, all at once:
He knows not to vary, saith Saint Paul,
        Nor the shadow of turning, for the nonce.
See him no other than as he is!
        Give both the infinitudes their due—
Infinite mercy, but, I wis,
        As infinite a justice too.
                        [Organ: plagal-cadence.
        As infinite a justice too.



John, Master of the Temple of God,
        Falling to sin the Unknown Sin,
What he bought of Emperor Aldabrod,
        He sold it to Sultan Saladin:
Till, caught by Pope Clement, a-buzzing there,
        Hornet-prince of the mad wasps' hive,
And clipt of his wings in Paris square,
        They bring him now to be burned alive.
                        [And wanteth there grace of lute
                         or clavicithern, ye shall say to
                         confirm him who singeth—

        We bring John now to be burned alive.


In the midst is a goodly gallows built;
        'Twixt fork and fork, a stake is stuck;
But first they set divers tumbrils a-tilt,
        Make a trench all round with the city muck;
Inside they pile log upon log, good store;
        Faggots no few, blocks great and small,
Reach a man's mid-thigh, no less, no more,—
        For they mean he should roast in the sight of all.


        We mean he should roast in the sight of all.


Good sappy bavins that kindle forthwith;
        Billets that blaze substantial and slow;
Pine-stump split deftly, dry as pith;
        Larch-heart that chars to a chalk-white glow:
They up they hoist me John in a chafe,
        Sling him fast like a hog to scorch,
Spit in his face, then leap back safe,
Sing "Laudes" and bid clap-to the torch.


        Laus deo—who bids clap-to the torch.


John of the Temple, whose fame so bragged,
        Is burning alive in Paris square!
How can he curse, if his mouth is gagged?
        Or wriggIe his neck, with a collar there?
Or heave his chest, which a band goes round?
        Or threat with his fist, since his arms are spliced?
Or kick with his feet, now his legs are bound?
        —Thinks John, I will call upon Jesus Christ.
                                [Here one crosseth himself.


Jesus Christ—John had bought and sold,
        Jesus Christ—John had eaten and drunk;
To him, the Flesh meant silver and gold.
        (Salvā reverentiā.)
Now it was, "Saviour, bountiful lamb,
        "I have roasted thee Turks, though men roast me!
"See thy servant, the plight wherein I am!
        "Art thou a saviour? Save thou me!"


       'Tis John the mocker cries, "Save thou me!"


Who maketh God's menace an idle word?
        —Saith, it no more means what it proclaims,
Than a damsel's threat to her wanton bird?—
        For she too prattles of ugly names.
—Saith, he knoweth but one thing—what he knows?
        That God is good and the rest is breath;
Why else is the same styled Sharon's rose?
        Once a rose, ever a rose, he saith.


        O, John shall yet find a rose, he saith!


Alack, there be roses and roses, John!
        Some, honied of taste like your leman's tongue:
Some, bitter; for why? (roast gaily on!)
        Their tree struck root in devil's-dung.
When Paul once reasoned of righteousness
        And of temperance and of judgment to come,
Good Felix trembled, he could no less:
        John, snickering, crook'd his wicked thumb.


        What cometh to John of the wicked thumb?


Ha ha, John plucketh now at his rose
        To rid himself of a sorrow at heart!
Lo,—petal on petal, fierce rays unclose;
        Anther on anther, sharp spikes outstart;
And with blood for dew, the bosom boils;
        And a gust of sulphur is all its smell;
And lo, he is horribly in the toils
        Of a coal-black giant flower of hell!


        What maketh heaven, That maketh hell.


So, as John called now, through the fire amain,
        On the Name, he had cursed with, all his life—
To the Person, he bought and sold again—
        For the Face, with his daily buffets rife—
Feature by feature It took its place:
        And his voice, like a mad dog's choking bark,
At the steady whole of the Judge's face—
        Died. Forth John's soul flared into the dark.


        God help all poor souls lost in the dark!

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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