AFTER a silence of more than ten years, broken only by the publication, under the title of Lis Isclo d’Or, of a collection of fugitive poems, the author of Mirèio and Calendau has given to the world another narrative or nouvello in modern Provencal verse. Nerto is a romantic tale of the fourteenth century, founded on a tradition concerning the mode of escape of the last Pope from Avignon, and comprising seven cantos, a prologue, and an epilogue. It bears the somewhat sinister motto of Lou Diable porto péiro (Le Diable porte la pierre) ; and the poet, after telling us in the first lines of his prologue that the days are past when he cared for scaling the mountain-peaks of song with girded loins, bare breast, and flowing hair, proceeds to offer a grave and cogent argument in favor of the obstinate persistence and undiminished power of diabolic agency in this world. He deplores the tendency of science, “ falsely so-called,” dangerously to weaken this conservative and salutary belief, and exhorts to constant vigilance and gallant warfare against the more than ever insidious wiles of the Evil One. Though he speaks of Satan with homely and almost jocose familiarity by the odd-looking Provencal abbreviation of his name, Cifèr, he contrives to convey a strong impression of his earnestness; and it is rather a relief to be assured, in the concluding lines of the prologue, that the poet considers the powers of good stronger, upon the whole, than those of evil. Shaking off his temporary gloom, and resuming his wonted bonhomie, he exclaims, —
Dono, aparas, vòsti faudiéu.”
(“ Shine, sun ! We are on God’s side ! Now, ladies, hold your aprons ! ”) The ladies thus apostrophized are apparently the select seven to whom he dedicates the seven cantos of Nerto respectively, the prologue having been previously inscribed to Madame Mistral.
The description of the ruined castle of Renard, with which the first canto opens, has a certain quiet charm : —
Like hornèd beast descried afar,
Surmount the hill. Its crenelate wall
And gateways lie in ruin all;
And here, on sunny days of spring,
Comes the white phlox to blossoming;
The tufted thyme and pellitory
Replace high dames, renowned in story,
While lizards course the fallen stone
And list the pines’ melodious moan. So, now ; but once, in high disdain,
Yon tower-crowned burg surveyed the plain
For many a mile, and haughtily
The ’scutcheon with its poignards three
Sustained the sun’s o’ermastering blaze.
Return we to the papal days.”
Pons, the lord of the castle, lay upon his deathbed. With a few strokes, — for M. Mistral, once so artlessly and charmingly diffuse, has become something of an impressionist, and aims obviously at a suggestive brevity, — a picture is given of the haggard old baron, as he lies, with clasped hands and eyes fixed upon the canopy of his couch, in a dim chamber richly tapestried with Cordovan leather, through whose mullioned window the light of early morning falls upon the gracious figure of his only child, the fair-haired Nerto, or Myrtle, who watches him from the ruelle. Through the same opening comes the pitiful whinnying of the baron’s charger in his stall; while far down the hill we catch a glimpse of the Jew leech Mordecai, who has just pronounced the seigneur’s doom; he is descending, upon his mule, the steep pathway which leads to the chateau.
The baron has a last confession to make, but there is no question of sending for a priest to hear it, for he has long since placed himself beyond the reach of ecclesiastical succor. Thirteen years before, after a long revel in the castle of a neighboring baron, he had had a run of most disastrous luck at play : —
My olive orchards and my stud ;
I lost my Florence mantle red,
The jewels of thy mother dead;
I lost my river-islands all,
The noble ’scutcheon from my wall,
Whereof the field three poignards bore,
Nay, even the locks from off my door.
The cross of baptism on my brow
And shame alone were left me now!
Enraged by these multiplied misfortunes, and turning with a sort of frenzied revolt from the thought of a life of poverty and dependence, he took his way over the mountains, at midnight, to Chateau Renard. Fierce temptations assailed him. If he could but meet a merchant with full money-bags, how easy to leap upon and dispatch him ! His daughter would then be the child of a murderer. Ah, bah ! his daughter ! The devil himself might have her for gold.
This is well known to be the sort of invitation which M. Mistral’s respected friend never declines. Scarcely had the impious words passed the lips of Baron Pons, when he was confronted by a truly original apparition.
On all the land. With sudden ray,
Forth of its mirk the moon leapt clear,
And in the uncanny atmosphere
I saw revolve a mighty wheel,
Whose air-hung circle did conceal
Belike a hundred rods of soil ;
And, bracing, bending to the toil
Which made the monstrous engine turn,
With eyes that burned as torches burn,
With arms a mighty helm that plied,
A hideous Being I descried.
The monster spake with accent gay;
“ So goes the luck! But, friend of mine,
A fellow with eyes as sharp as thine
Need never die of money lost.”
At his old well-wheel ground and ground
The jester dire, till, with a bound,
Forth of its bowels, — Holy Blue!
A torrent of gold rushed into view,
Rising and roaring under the moon,
With many a sequin and doubloon.
It leaped, it boiled, the yellow flood
Put sudden fever in my blood.
The time-honored pact was then proposed by the Being at the wheel : “ All these things will I give thee, and, in fact, an unfailing supply of the same, for thy daughter’s white soul, to be delivered at the end of thirteen years ; ” and the father agreed. Neither here nor elsewhere is the guilt of Baron Pons enlarged upon. He died and went to hell, we are told parenthetically, and that is all. The poet paints vividly the maiden’s horror and despair, and then, by way of contrast, gives a touching picture of the bright innocence of her early days.
She had been queen of all the plain.
The peasant-folk were never done
With lauding her graces every one.
Full oft she set her dainty feet
Within their doors, and who so sweet ?
“ God’s peace be here. What news to-day ?
And how’s the spinning, Dame Babet ? ”
“ Has nobody hired thee, Mother Jane ?
Mine for the lessive then, ’t is plain ! ”
And, “Nan, was it thou didst make this bread ?
How good it is, how light! ” she said.
“ And when does little Marthe commune ?
I shall have her for my handmaid soon,
If all goes well.” So up and down
The narrow street of the tiny town,
With fingers white that ever played
About her purse-strings, Nerto strayed.
Who careth only for blows and blood,
But the little lady with golden hair,
Her like there liveth not anywhere.”
A somnolent old aunt, Donna Sibylla, was her nominal duenna, but interfered little with the guidance of Nerto’s own sweet will. The gay and good old times, the heyday of Troubadour minstrelsy, were nearly a century gone by ; nevertheless, Nerto’s studies were chiefly in the Breviari d’Amor, the famous compendium of Ermengaut of Beziérs : —
Like autumn fruit. It did rehearse
Bird of the air, fish of the sea,
Beast of the field, and potency
Whereby are many wonders done
With flowering plant and precious stone,
Sapphire to wit, and diamond
That wins the sword from the wielder’s hand;
Also the pathway of St. James 1
Along the sky, and the Zodiac’s names;
The fiery star with tresses long,
Echo the nymph and the siren-song;
The eight great winds that rule the deep,
The points of doctrine all must keep;
Grandmother Eve, and the spouse she had,
And angels good, and angels bad,
And Paradise with joy replete,
And tortures ten of the nether pit.
And, furthermore, the Tree of Love
Was in that book, whose precepts move
To fine allure and courtesy
Whatever maid of high degree
Is wooed for love. In fair designs
All gold and blue illuminate shines
The vellum page with flowers bedight,
And these were Nerto’s dear delight,.
The pictured people most of all.
So when she saw a damsel tall,
Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, red-lipped and thin,
Carrying a spray of jessamine,
With tender couplet writ below, —
“ That is myself ; is it not so,
Dear aunt ? ” she cried; — and drowsily
Donna Sibylla made reply, —
“ The maiden hid is the maiden sought ;
That, my sweet, is the posy’s thought,” —
And fell away to her doze again.
Into the calm of this bright morning time the father’s ghastly avowal descends like a thunderbolt, quenching in an instant all its joy. “ Is there no hope, then ? ” gasps the poor child ; and slowly and with difficulty the Baron gives the result of his midnight wrestlings with the terror of his sin, and proposes a somewhat startling plan.
For five years now the so-called AntiPope Benedict XIII. has been besieged in his rock-reared palace at Avignon, and no man experienced in warfare, like Baron Pons, can doubt that the castle must soon fall. There is already a Boniface at Rome, acknowledged by France, England, and Germany, but Provence and the greater part of Spain are still devotedly loyal to Benedict ; and if the latter can but effect his escape from the foredoomed fortress on the Durance, they will rally at once under his sacred banner. “ I ought to have been with him inside those walls,” groans the father; “ but it is now too late for that, and for all things except this one chance for thee. There exists,” he goes on to explain, “ a subterranean passage, more than a league in length, from the Avignonese Vatican to the vaults of Château Renard. It passes under the bed of the Durance, and was constructed, with a view to supreme emergencies, shortly after the palace was built, by Pope Clement, with the advice and assistance of ‘ Madame Jeanne.’ Only the pope of the period and the actual lord of the manor of Renard were ever to know the secret of this passage, to whose entrance and exit each of these personages possesses a key bearing the papal arms.”2 It seems more than probable to Baron Pons, however, that the present Benedict has never so much as heard of this mode of escape. At all events, he now commits the key to Nerto’s keeping, and commands her to make her way, with her little greyhound Diane for a guide, through this passage to the palace at Avignon, to see the Holy Father and offer to conduct him to a place of safety. In return for such a service, Benedict, with his power over the destinies of souls, will surely, Baron Pons opines, consent to remit the innocent Nerto’s share in her father’s terrible forfeit. His own he proposes to take like a man.
“ Go ! ” says the baron imperiously. “ the castle may surrender at any moment! Do not stay lingering for my latest breath ! ” and the maiden obeys.
Canto II., entitled The Pope, opens with a brilliant picture of the stir and splendor of Avignon during the half century in which it was illustrated by the presence of the pontiffs. Royal visitors flocked thither ; merchants of all nations brought their richest wares and trafficked in its streets; scores of lesser palaces, for the residence of lords and cardinals, rose up and encircled the papal towers ; the trumpet-tones of the mistral blew wide o’er all the world the benediction of its sovereign priest. But the wave of glory fell as rapidly as it had risen. Schism rent the church, and the hosts of the faithful were divided. Two whitehaired cardinals alone, out of all the sacred college, remained faithful to Benedict, and the palace, long besieged by a French army under Maréchal Boucicaut, was already falling into ruin. The olive-groves of its wonderful hanging gardens had been felled and used for fuel during the last hard winter ; and the garrison, commanded by a nephew of the Pope, the valiant Roderic of Luna, was reduced to the very last extremity, while Benedict still stoutly refused to consult his personal safety and compromise his claim to the papacy by a surrender.
Emerging from her underground wanderings, Nerto appeared amid the soldiers like a spirit, causing for a moment a sort of superstitious panic. But Don Roderic, full details of whose vie orageuse in former days at Avignon are given with great spirit, was not to be daunted by anything in female form. When this lovely bit of prey dropped like a frightened robin into his hands (“ Figuras vous dono, l’entrigo,” — “Figurez. vous, Mesdames, l’intrigue,” — interpolates the poet archly), Roderic was fully equal to the occasion, and courteously inquired the maiden’s wishes. And when Nerto answered simply that she had come to see the Pope, the count gallantly kissed her finger-tips, and offered her his arm to conduct her into Benedict’s presence. Through court after court, and along interminable galleries, round about and up and down, they make the immense circuit of the palace : —
Of that luxurious dynasty.
Heaps upon heaps, aye, mines were there
Of silver and gold, in sacred ware ;
A treasure of precious stones gave light
As of the star-set heaven at night ;
Chalcedony and sardonyx
And carbuncle their splendors mix
With emerald and lapis-lazuli;
And then— what wealth of tapestry !
What wonder of banners, reft afar
From impious Moors, in the Holy War,
By Christian knights ! And ere the end
is won of the devious way they wend,
The tale of the hapless maid is told,—
How the Devil hath bought her soul for gold.
Roderic undertakes to reassure her. He knows, he says, a sovereign antidote for the malice of the Demon, and its name is Love. “ But what is love ? ” inquires the little maid confidingly ; “ I know the old songs and romances are all about it, but what is it, and how is it won?” “I will explain,” says Roderic ; and he proceeds to do so, at somewhat too great and ardent length for entire quotation. In the full tide of his impassioned eloquence, however, he is suddenly arrested. At the angle of a corridor, they come upon a great crucifix surmounted by a sculptured tiara. Nerto pauses reverently, crosses herself, and turns to her instructor : —
From those of my dear breviary
Of love, whereof each leaf is gold;
For therein surely we are told
That love should be without a stain,
Like the first Eden come again.”
The grand seigneur and guileless maid, —
At the state-stairway’s topmost height.
Untold degrees of marble white
Unroll beneath; a portal vast
Confronts, where Roderic taps in haste
And no more lingers, but to say,
“ A kindlier answer some fair day
Most noble maid, I hope to win ;
Pass on ! His Holiness is within.”
The huge hall surnamed Marvelous, —
Avignon’s wonder. High o’erhead
The groined arches leap, and spread
Their giant limbs about the ceiling, Full many a pictured space revealing,
Where all the glory of Heaven shines
In Master Memmi’s hues and lines.
All things in that stupendous hall
Revealed the seat majestical
Of him who moved earth’s Pontiff yet ; —
The cross in each tall window set,
The leagues of hill and plain, descried
Their openings through, on every side.
At his prie-dieu, as if in prayer,
With sorrowful gaze fixt far away,
Saw haply the departing day
A rosy veil aerial throw
O’er great Ventour’s attire of snow.
An aged man of stately height,
With sweeping beard, in garments white,
Heavily-browed and hollow-eyed,
And wasted, like the Crucified: —
Before his open vision come
The impending woes of Christendom.
He sees, as from the height of heaven,
The Church by schism rent, and driven
Rudderless through a raging deep ;
He hears the saintly souls who weep;
He hears the laughter of the world
Over the cross — anathemas hurled
By warring councils; yet, intent
Ever on that great sacrament
That sealed him Pontiff, in his thought
He swears anew to bate no jot.
The spirit-like Nerto interrupts his reverie as she had before interrupted the ribaldry of the garrison, and hurriedly, yet with all reverence, explains her father’s plan for his escape. What might have been his answer is uncertain, for the interview is interrupted by a new and terrible clamor arising from below, and Don Roderic rushes into the hall to announce that all is lost, — the Greek fire of the besiegers has taken effect, the palace is burning from base to battlement, and the foe is already within the walls. Whereupon, —
The stricken Pontiff kneels and prays;
Till calm once more, and undismayed,
“ The will of God be done ! ” he said.
And, as a tree uprears its form
After the onset of the storm,
The monarch of earth’s wilderness
Did all his majesty redress,
And to the altar turned, where lay
The sacred species hidden away,
And these withdrew, and laid them, holden
Within a reliquary golden,
Right reverently upon his heart;
So did the strange procession part,
The noble Sire, the maiden guide,
The greyhound leaping still beside.
Between the dying and the dead
They pass ; they win the great court-yard ;
And once again the veteran guard
Close round their lord, and yet once more
They kneel his blessing to implore.
Full many a stilled sob and wail,
Unheard amid the roaring gale,
Brake from the prostrate folk distressed,
While, with his God upon his breast,
Benedict came, and passed from sight,
Ascending to the rampart’s height.
Then from the palace pinnacle
There pealed the note of a silver bell,
And the great city her breath did draw
Quick, and the gunners paused in awe,
Waiting some portent; for they know
The silver bell sends never so
From that high tower its single tone,
Save when a Pope ascends the throne,
Or, haply, when death calls for him.
Benedict rises yet once more,
White, rigid, mitred as of yore,
While all Avignon kneels below,
And even the army of Boucicaut
Lowers the standard, bows the head.
Then were the mighty arms outspread
Above the world and all who grieve,
Above the remnant who believe ;
And, urbe et orbi still addressing,
The Pontiff raised his voice in blessing : —
“ Benedicat vos, Dominus,
Pater, filius, et spiritus ! ’
Even as the airy tones expire,
Awestruck before those towers on fire
The kneeling multitude on the plain
Answer with bursting sobs “ Amen! ”
Against the furious wind upright,
Upright on the Cathedral Rock
Pietro stood the tempest-shock;
Then, turning with a face of woe,
Let fall one last long look below
The Babylonian gates to scan,
Of his Avignon Vatican.
So, muffled in his falling cope.
Vanished Avignon’s latest Pope,
Seeking the vaults that know not day,
With little Nerto’s taper-ray
Alone to guide him, as the sun
Sinks in the west when day is done.
We have quoted at some length from M. Mistral’s second canto, because it seems to us, upon the whole, the finest in the poem ; the most original both in subject and treatment. Canto III., —The King, — though abounding in life, motion, and picturesque detail, is more conventional. The scene opens at Château Renard, which became the rallying-point for Benedict’s supporters, as soon as the news got abroad of his escape thither. Louis II. was there, — the young Count of Provence, and king of Fourcalquier, Naples, and Jerusalem, for such was the style assumed in the charters of that day, — and with him a general concourse of all the greater nobles of the South, as well as his affianced bride, the wealthy Spanish Princess Yolande (or Vioulando, in the language of Provence), under an escort of Spanish grandees. It had been decided that Benedict himself should marry the royal pair in the ancient church of St. Trophimus at Arles, and great festivities were toward. The poet, as may be imagined, revels in describing the splendor of the wedding-cortége, and the naïf comments of the country - folk as it passes by : —
Their start the joyous cavalcade,
Long following where the trumpets blow
The melody of “ Belle Margot,”
Aubado sang the nightingales ;
The bursting buds in grassy dales
Breathed perfume; flag and streamer fair
Fluttered along the early air;
Shivered the silken banners through
Their lily-bordered fields of blue,
Or, undulate in red and gold,
The hues of Aragon unrolled,
San-kindled, with the breeze at play.
Durant3 clomb fast, as people say,
Untangling, as he rose, his braid
Of fire-spun tresses, till he made
Vanish the gleaming dew-pearls, worn
By fair-haired dames in earlier morn.
On either side of the Pope ride the bride and bridegroom of the morrow, — Louis and Yolande. The former, full of exultant happiness, sets forth a fine programme of the Italian conquests to which he means to turn his attention as soon as his marriage is consummated, and by virtue of which he expects to reinstate Benedict in Rome. The air is merry with the tinkling laughter of ladies and the gallant choruses of their cavaliers. They hunt larks with their falcons, they indulge in all manner of brilliant fooling ; only one maiden, and she not the least fair among them, rides quietly and with a heavy heart, feeling herself cruelly separate from all this gladsome world. As soon as they were safe in Château Renard, Nerto had sought another audience with the Pope, told him the sad remainder of her history, and asked him to release her soul in return for the service which she had done him. But Benedict had answered sadly that his jurisdiction did not extend beyond Purgatory, and that he could assist her only by his prayers. He had then solemnly enjoined upon her to make her own life one of expiation in the Benedictine convent of Sainte Césaire at Arles, which she was to enter as soon as the royal marriage was over, and where he could at least dispense her from the necessity of a novitiate, so that she might take her vows without delay. The state and splendor of the wedding journey were not calculated to render obedience easier to poor Nerto ; still, no thought of resistance would ever have entered her meek and child-like soul, had the same not been suggested by a dangerous counselor. Don Roderic had made the first use of his own freedom — for Boucicaut had raised the siege of Avignon as soou as he heard of the Pontiff’s escape — to rally with the Provençal nobles to the standard of his uncle. He had overtaken the cavalcade upon the march, presented himself at Nerto’s side, to her great amazement, and was proceeding to trouble her sorrowful spirit yet farther, by using his most plausible arguments to dissuade her from her pious purpose : —
But surely we are made acquaint,
By what these nightingales would say,
With the true rapture of the May!
’T is to exult, as now they do,
Free on the air, beneath the blue!
“ Shut five long years in fortress dread,
And heart-sick with the din of war,
How good to be, as now we are,
Alive, abroad! Look everywhere: —
To grazing flocks, how light the care
Of guardian swain, who none the less
Capers to each young shepherdess;
The ploughman whistles loud and sweet
Along the furrow; Where the Wheat
Is green, their toil the weeders ply
With laughter, jest, and piercing cry ;
In narrow ways, the muleteer
Sets all his mule-bells jingling clear ;
In flowery meads the busy mower,
The fisher basking on the shore,
The maiden in her farmstead, and
The huntsman sweeping o’er the land, —
All come and go, with action rife ;
In all ferments the wine of life!
Ah, do but listen and attend
The crepitation without end,
The gentle buzz and murmur borne
From whispering reed and growing corn,
The tinkle of the waterfall
Where sport the little fishes all, —
Oh, earth’s aglow! her pulse goes fast!
Under the bark the sap makes haste
To mount; each blossom holds apart
A drop of honey in its heart ;
Seeds germinate, and suckers leap,
And opening buds their beauty steep
In the great sun-bath, with no trace
Of death in all their jubilant ways!
Nay, even they whose eyes abide
The sun, — the monarch and his bride, —
Conduct, meseems, in humor gay,
Love’s triumph on this radiant day !
We, too, whose nostrils titillate,
Smit by the blended odors keen
Of sloe, and thorn, and aubepine.”
And so on to more impassioned and specific invitation, until the agitated Nerto ventures timidly to interrupt her bold wooer.
Like skylarks bold, for they,” said she,
“ Fly straight to heaven. You swallow’s wing
Grazed us but now, and’t is a thing
Brings always luck; for only list!
The words he sings are, Jesus Christ! ”
All this is very like portions of Calendau, but if the sensuous rapture of the earlier poem is never quite attained, Nerto is a worthier sister of Mirèio, and a far more human and credible creation than the weird enthusiast Esterello. The unequal debate of the now acknowledged lovers is interrupted by the arrival of a deputation of the citizens of Arles, who propose to open their city gates to the King and the Pope, provided the former will agree to respect those ancient liberties which Arles has so long maintained under her Lion-standard. Louis makes gracious promises, and the dazzling procession enters the town, horses neighing, banners waving, armor flashing. The celebration of the royal marriage is to be suitably followed by a great show, in the arena, of a fight between four wild bulls from the Camarque and the typical beast of the Arlesian republic, — the live lion, always maintained in the city at the public expense, and unchained only upon occasions of supreme importance and solemnity.
The Lion accordingly gives its name to the fourth canto, which opens in the goodly hostelry of Master Bertrand Boisset, the veritable author of a Provençal chronicle, covering the years between 1376 and 1404. The outside of this famous tavern is dazzling with quick-lime, and all the vessels and cooking implements displayed in the huge kitchen, described with Dutch fidelity, are spick and span, and polished till they shine like mirrors. Here the versatile Bertrand, who is also a land surveyor and a man of letters, as well as a publican,—and has been chosen to present to the king, after the games in the amphitheatre, the address of the senate of Arles,—entertains a large audience of his humbler townsfolk with a minute description of the splendors of the wedding ceremony which he has just witnessed at St. Trophimus, He dwells with great zest on the personal charms of the youthful pair, and the gorgeous costumes of knights, ladies, and ecclesiastics, interrupting his own narrative from time to time by a complacent aside: —
Lou marcarai au cartabèn.”
(“ In fact it was altogether fine ! I shall set it down in my note-book ! ”)
He next proceeds to describe the wedding gifts : —
Such offerings made! I’m jesting not, —
for Arles bestowed upon the pair
A dozen cups of silver-ware,
Marseilles, a little ship of gold,
The city of Apt gave sweets untold,
And Aix, a chest phenomenal,
And Tarascon, a copy in small
Of its own flag. Fourcalquier
Three loaves of wax, — three mounds, I say! —
And Avignon, a fair trousseau.
Lastly, the crown of all the show,
An embassy of the Three Estates,
Before the royal bridegroom waits,
To pour, like berries in the lap,
A hundred thousand crowns, mayhap,
In tinkling coin ! — Pass me the claret!
This thirst, —I can no longer bear it! ”
And, thrusting aside somewhat loftily the admiring gossips who besiege his door, Master Bertrand makes his way to the scene of his public and ceremonial duties. No need to say that M. Mistral gives a glowing picture of the circling spectators, or that he describes with power and gusto the conflict of the beasts in the amphitheatre. One by one the formidable bulls of the salt marshes succumb before the greater fury of the unchained lion, but not without inflicting grievous wounds upon the latter. We pass to the catastrophe of the occasion. Left in sole possession of the arena, but dripping with gore, and partially disemboweled, the so-called “ king ” of Arles pauses for one breathless instant, and then —
He sniffs a rival on the scene,
Aye, and a worthy. With one spring
He turns on the usurping king.
The crowned beside the newly wed,
Unguarded in that instant dread,
Sat moveless, with unquailing eye
Fixing the beast defiantly,
While at the queen’s feet, overpowered
With terror, little Nerto cowered.
Rapidly upward, four by four,
The amphitheatre benches o’er
Clomb the fell monster, till the blast
Of his hot breath upon them past,
But lo! where swirled the folk bereft
Of sense, Roderic of Luna cleft
His way, as lightning falls, and brake
His dagger in the lion’s neck!
Drooped the dire snout, and swam the brain
Of the fierce beast, — who tumbled slain.
Yolande the queen, Yolande the fair,
, Gathered, for guerdon of the brave,
A ruby, and to Roderic gave ;
And Nerto, as her senses woke,
Heard the wild plaudits of the folk, —
“ The king is dead! Long live the king! ”
Only the old men, sorrowing,
Said to themselves, “A bitter sign !
Farewell to Trophimus’ bark divine !
The Lion dies, the Dolphin lives,
The commonwealth its doom receives ! ”
But none the less the maids and boys
Their tambourines beat with merry noise,
And little King Louis turned the while
And murmured with triumphant smile
Before the seneschal George de Marle,
“ Now am I truly King of Arles! ”
This agitating scene was, of course, little calculated to calm Nerto’s rebellious pulses and reconcile her to the tremendous sacrifice of the morrow. Through all the fevered night which intervened between the royal bridal and her own solemn espousals to Heaven, she sees only the figure of Roderic in the stately guise of her deliverer from a dreadful death, — “ in an orange doublet, black-shod, with tall plumes upon his helmet, like the Archangel Michael.” One moment she bids him in her heart an impassioned farewell ; the next, he passes before her like a vision far away, shining in the splendor of his high deeds, but with a dagger always in his heart, — a dagger from her own three-bladed escutcheon of Chateau Renard.
Spent with spiritual conflict, she half consoles herself at last with the thought that her days in the convent may at least be spent in prayer for Roderic ; and so the night passes, and the fifth canto, entitled The Nun, opens with dawn, to the ringing of convent bells.
Very onomatopœically they are made to ring in the verse of the felébre, with plaintive musical changes on balalan, balalin, and balalon, which it would be hopeless to attempt reproducing by our sturdy English ding-dong. Trembling like a leaf before the gale, Nerto essays her meditation in the chapel, while the long-robed sisters come and go, and the cage is made ready for the hapless bird :
Surged hither and yon a pious throng,
For Mother Abbess and her maids
To-day have well-nigh lost their heads,
Because the Pontiff and the King
And Queen, with all their following,
Are coming, —the cross before them borne,—
In grand procession on this morn,
To see assume her veil and vows
That daughter of a noble house,
Fair Nerto, of Chateau Renard.
Wide fly the ancient convent gates,
And the glad sunshine penetrates
Victoriously both parlor and grille,
Following the courtly people, till
Through all the pallid halls it flows.
With folded palms, in double rows,
Kneel the still nuns, as they assemble,
Eyes meekly bent, and hearts a-tremble,
To hear the wailing viol-strain,
Voicing at once the parting pain
And joy of the God-given maid.
But little Nerto, in the shade,
Weeps wildly still, while Queen Yolande
And Louis the King her sponsors stand,
While one by one the candles flare,
While two by two the nuns repair,
To close her from the world apart.
Aye, death is at the maiden’s heart,
Who listens the decree to hear
Of her unending penance drear.
That decree is pronounced by Benedict in person, before whom the stately abbess, Dame Barrale, bows until her forehead touches the ground. Then follows the Aspersion. Incense rises, and the chanting of psalms proceeds, while the soft hands of Nerto’s holy attendants remove one by one the articles of her worldly attire. But when she feels the icy touch of the shears upon her neck, she cries aloud, praying that her beautiful tresses may at least be hung up in the chapel of Sainte Césaire, as an offering above the altar of her own patroness, the Virgin Mother.
Fair curls of gold I loved too well,
And in my sixteen summers’ pride
So all exultingly untied
And combed them in the gold of morn
And bound them like a sheaf of corn !
Ah, if I kiss my curls,” — wept she,
“The Blessèd Virgin will pardon me!
No more by sunshine to be kissed,
To float upon the breeze no more
With quivering rings, and ‘broidered o’er
their silly silk with mountain flowers !
T is childish, but the thought o’erpowers
And breaks my heart! Leave me alone
To weep one moment ! Now, ’t. is done !
Now, tie with weights the fluttering wing
Of the Provencal lark ! and sing,
Sing, happy birds, o’er field and hill,
Nor ever heed her silent trill !
My merry mates, leave not for me
The violet and the strawberry
Ungathered, where the bright Réal
Slips o’er its pebbles musical!
My little greyhound, who didst come
With me to Arles, —an early doom
Is thine, for thou mayhap wilt die
Of sorrow and pining, long ere I,
Smothered in cloister-glooms and wed
To the sad crucifix instead,
Attain the death for which I wait, —
Ah, pity my distressful fate ! ”
If this piercing lament was really articulate, it was drowned in the rolling bass of the organ, and the awesome rite proceeded to its close. The queen kissed her tenderly and presented her with an exquisite Livre d’Heures, with gold fleur-de-lys on the cover, and dainty illuminations from the master-hand of Brother Béranger of Mout-Majour, and the court folk went their way, murmuring that it was the will of God, no doubt, but that it was really a pity to see so young and beautiful a creature in the Benedictine dress.
Simultaneously, however, at the sign of the Sword, — the hostelry of a little village on the plain below the convent, — the “ diable à quatre ” was presiding over the revelries of sundry red-capped and knife-girt Catalan ruffians, hired by Roderic of Luna to be ready at curfew for whatever service he might choose to impose on them. The hour strikes, the tavern-lights are extinguished, and the band, armed with hatchets and scalingladders, creep noiselessly under the walls of Sainte-Césaire, which form on one side a part of the boundary of that most ancient cemetery of Arles, — the Aliscamp, or Elysii Campi: —
Their slumber, and arise, and take Into the shadowy church their way,
Where by the lamps’ uncertain ray,
Each one within her dusky stall,
They chant the midnight office all,
And, heavy-eyed with slumber, there
Perform their allotted task of prayer.—
God ! What is this ? With sudden shock
The doors are smit, the doors are broke ; —
’T is Roderie ! that warrior bold
Become a spoiler of the fold;
And “ ’Ware the wolf! ” his accents boom;
“ Who calls the Devil ? He is come ! ”
Close on his heels, his band accurst
Into the sacred shadow burst,
Rod-beretted, with elf-locks brown,
And mantles o’er their shoulders thrown.
By holy Maximus, I swear
The sudden trance of horror there
Was as if earth had yawned, and shown
The dead folk in their sleep of stone !
The fascinate nuns, like turtle-doves
When the fierce hawk above them moves,
Wait ; but the eye of Roderic
Hath fallen on her he came to seek ;
And with one leap he gains the altar.
“Oh help us Thou, good Lord! ” ’gan falter
The Abbess with upraised eyes ; —but he,
Thrusting her off disdainfully,
Gathers the half inanimate child
And flies, — yet flying murmurs mild
“ ‘T is only I! ” — and, at the door, —
“ Fear nothing, darling, any more ! ”
If you had seen what ensued in the church, remarks the poet dryly, you would know why the devil is sometimes called Catalan. The townspeople were promptly alarmed, however, and hurried to avenge the outrage, so that before Roderic had cleared the Aliscamp with his prize, he heard the tumult of a general fray behind him, and was fain to deposit Nerto under the tomb of Roland, — for the hero of Roncevalles is buried there, — while he returned to rally and bring off his band. And then we have a picture of that immemorial home of the dead, which is one of the most impressive in the poem : —
Spread that miraculous burial-place, —
The Aliscamp of history,
With legend fraught, and mystery,
All full of tombs and chapels thrust,
And hilly with heaps of human dust.
This is the legend ever told : —
When good St. Trophimus of old
The ground would consecrate, not one
Of all the congregation
Of fathers met, so meek they were,
Dared sprinkle the holy water there.
Then, ringed about with cloud and flam
Of angels, out of heaven came
Our Lord himself to bless the spot,
And left, — if the tale erreth not, —
The impress of his bended knee
Rock-graven. Howso this may be,
Full oft a swarm of angels white
Bends hither, on a tranquil night,
Singing celestial harmonies.
Wherefore the spot so holy is,
No man would slumber otherwhere ;
But hither kings and priests repair,
And here, earth’s poor, — and every one
Hath here his deep-wrought funeral-stone
Or pinch of dust from Palestine ;
The powers of hell in vain combine
’Gainst happy folk in slumber found
Under the cross, in that old ground.
And all along the river clear,
With silver laid upon the bier
For burial fees, men launched and sped
Upon the wave their kinsfolk dead
Who longed in Aliscamp to lie;
Then, as the coffins floated by,
Balancing on the waters bright,
All sailors turned them at the sight,
And helped the little skiffs ashore,
And signed the cross the sleepers o’er,
And, kneeling under the willow-trees,
Piously prayed for their souls’ peace.
Roused from her half-swoon by the din of ungodly conflict among the graves, Nerto returned to a terrified consciousness of what had befallen her. Stung by shame and anguish, she then contrived to slip away between the tombs and chapels and make her escape into the open country, so that when Roderic, having beaten off his assailants with no little bloodshed, returned to the tomb of Roland, it was to find his precious prey no longer there.
In Canto VI., — The Angel, — M. Mistral recurs to the style of the legende pieuse, in which, as the readers of Mirièo may remember, he has frequently made experiments. One of these, — the tale of the sinless shepherd among the mountains, who had forgotten even his prayers, he had been so long in the desert, and who had no worse crime to reveal to the holy recluse who confessed him at the last than that of having once thrown a stone at a bird, — was peculiarly happy. It had all the artlessness and verity, the exquisite form anti perfume, of one of the Fioretti of St. Francis. We have a suspicion that it was a favorite with the author himself, and may have suggested to him the idea of amplifying a similar conception into the tale of the solitary with whom Nerto found refuge. If so, we must express our preference for the earlier and more naïf story, although there is no little beauty of detail in the later one.
Nerto, then, flies to the hills, and, after wandering all night, is led, in the early morning, by the tinkling of a small bell, to a tiny church and hermitage buried among deep woods, whence a white-bearded recluse comes forth to greet her. To this holy man she does not hesitate to tell her whole sorrowful story, which he hears with unfeigned interest and sympathy. He gives her food, he bids her rest, and after that, they sit side by side under the trees for nearly the whole of the long summer morning, and have much edifying and sweet discourse together. The hermit dwells at length on the happiness of all God’s little creatures with whom he had become familiar in the wild, and when poor Nerto passionately calls his attention to the difference between their lots and hers, he is moved to so keen a compassion, that he confides to her the great and solemn secret of his life in the wilderness, whereby he is not without hope of finding a remedy even for her piteous case:—
So beautcously above us borne,
Are holy to St. Gabriel ; —
A dove-cote, where he maketh dwell
Marvelous, pure visions of himself.
The chapel upon yon rocky shelf,
Mid lavender set, and grasses tall,
The title bears, majestical,
Of him who hailed in other days
Our Blessed Lady full of grace.
Look, where he smiles in marble o’er
The carven lintel of the door !
Thereon are storied all his deeds.
Daniel the prophet here he feeds,
And yonder draggeth by the hair
The prophet Habakkuk. How they glare
Upon the saint, those lions twain !
Ah, glorious Gabriel, not in vain
Our fathers, in the time gone by,
Set thee to guard eternally
The gates of that great mountain-world
Which gleams above us, dew-impearled,
While in St. Michael’s tutelage
Our sires of the departed age
Placed all the lesser hills below.
Their gleaming blades, associate so,
An arch o’er all the heavens extend
And guard the land from end to end.
That I have tarried in this wild ;
And sure my pillow of stone is rough ;
But, never, never so enough
So fast doth ripen folly’s fruit
When one lives isolate and mute !
I bound myself to Christ, and he
Returned the slave his liberty.
I shut me in the leafy shade,
A vow to holy Gabriel made,
And now, for fifty summers bright,
I am the archangel’s anchorite.
For Heaven restores abundantly !
Who dips in heaven’s unsounded tide
Shalt ever more be satisfied !
Once then, at Yule, — a bitter day,
Weather for wolves, as people say, —
No food had I ; all had been given,—
(If this be pride, forgive me Heaven
For saving so !) — I had made dole,
To a poor beggar, of the whole ;
When lo, toward midday, I discerned
A red rose-light aloft that burned,
A light like the reflection cast
From some great fire ; I rose and passed
And rang my angelus bell, and clomb
The mountain-path, in hope to come
Where I might see this meteor plain;
But ere the summit I could gain
There dawned out of the deepening light
A most serene, resplendent sight; —
Himself, — the Archangel ! Human speech
His gracious aspect may not reach;
His smile fell on the heart like balm ;
And in a voice of golden calm,
‘ Who prays, must also eat,’ he said :
‘ See, I have brought thee angels’ bread !
And may our Lord, and may his power,
Be ever with thee from this hour ! ’ —
So vanished like a star ; but aye
At noon, since then, he draweth nigh
Each blessed day, arid leaveth here
A basket of celestial cheer.
Oh bread of God ! Oh favor sweet !
I am unfit, unfit, unfit! ”
It is, however, to his heavenly visitant that the hermit proposes to refer Nerto’s cruel case, and both are full of hope that Gabriel may devise some way to save her. At midday, therefore, leaving the maid in earnest prayer below, the hermit makes his customary ascent, and awaits his daily vision. How dazzling, yet how dreamy, is the picture of the summer noon! —
The midges waltz their idle way,
The thyme and rosemary outpour,
From fairy bells, a honied store
To win the wanton butterfly;
And the slim lizards basking lie
Upon the pebbles, drunk with heat,
While sunward mounts a perfume sweet
And sacred, as of incense-smoke;
The spells of the mirage evoke
Afar the outlines of the land,
And hill and plain uplifted stand;
Yet on the mountain’s outmost spur
The cowléd saint and worshiper
Stands tranced, and sees not any more
The things of earth ; but, hovering o’er,
Breaks on his wakeful spirit’s ken
A shape unseen by other men ; —
Two long white wings extended clear
In the translucent atmosphere,
Quivering as canvas pinions do
Of ships, and melting in the blue.
The so young sister whom I see
In prayer below ? ” With bended head,
“A poor, afflicted maiden,” said
The hermit, “who my promise hath
To save her from the Demon’s wrath.”
The shadow of a swift cloud doth pass,
So darkened Gabriel’s aspect clear.
“ Handful of dust ! ” he spoke severe,
“ Shut alway in thy desert lone,
How knowest that thou hast held thy own
Against the master of all deceit ?
Barely thou savest thyself ! And yet
Thou wilt save others ! Feeble reed !
Ah, pitiable and poor indeed ! ” —
And the strong spirit starward shook
His pinions, and the earth forsook.
There was possibly no other course for the anchorite, after receiving this terrible rebuff, but to scurry away to poor Nerto, bewailing his mistake and beseeching her to depart from him ; still, there is an effect of lâcheté about such a proceeding which lowers him hopelessly in the reader’s estimation. In response to Nerto’s piteous inquiry, where she can now take refuge, he directs her to the village of Laurado on the plain below, where he advises her to “ ask hospitality,” and, on the strength of what she may receive, to make her way to a shrine of the Madonna hard by, Nosto Damo di Castén (Our Lady of the Castle), and present her petition there. Then, after naming a long list of saints, whose invisible company he hopes she may have upon her travels, he allows her to depart.
This brings us to the seventh and last canto, which bears the ominous title of Lon Diable. It opens with the wrath of Roderic, who, when he finds that Nerto has escaped him, invokes the Evil One, if ever he (Roderic) has done him good service in bygone days, to assist him to recapture her, and give her wholly into his power. Cifér responds promptly that he can well do so, for the thirteen years of Baron Pons’ impious compact are exactly expired, and on the ensuing night the child’s soul will inevitably fall into his hand. Moreover, he adds that she is now abandoned and astray in the neighborhood of Laurado. the hamlet to which the solitary had directed her ; wherefore he proposes presently to produce an enchanted palace in that region (an castalet tout alesti — un petit château meublé), with distinct apartments for each of the seven deadly sins, whither Roderic, having found Nerto, shall conduct her, and the rest, under the Devil’s immediate auspices, will be easily arranged. We are then told how it was that Roderic, a man of generous nature, and the son of an honorable and pious line, came to be on such intimate terms with the master of all ill.
In the Avignonese Vatican there was, necessarily, a vast collection of heretical literature, and Roderic had whiled away the tedious months of the siege by rummaging amongst it. very much to his soul’s detriment.
Mysterious parchments, occult lore, The vain imaginings of that pair
The Greater and Lesser Albert. There
The theses doomed of heresy, Tomes of black-art and sorcery, —
Such as Agrippa’s. Books that tell
The rules for philter and for spell,
Talmud and Cabala, and the Niere
Of witch-world, and its Sabbath dire,
Philosopher’s stone, and Solomon’s key,
And Hermes upon alchemy.
All lying systems, man-devised,
All blasphemies anathematized,
The arsenal of that Ancient One
The lord of evil, lying prone
Before the victorious crucifix.
For as the waters of earth all mix
In mother ocean, flows again
To mother-church all lore of men.
Unhallowed studies such as these had gradually corrupted Roderic’s mind, and left him small power of resistance to the wiles of Cifèr, who on his part considered a pope’s nephew, or even an anti-pope’s, worthy an extraordinary exercise of his power. The palace, therefore, which he reared in a night, to be the theatre of Nerto’s fall, was of marvelous if bizarre magnificence : —
The sudden-conjured castle stood. A green peninsula in the waste
Around Laurado saw amazed
The vision of its fantastic towers,
Conceived in Other form than ours,
Or than the Goth’s, — but likening more
The heathen Moor’s, — all diapered o’er
With tiles of gold, and tiles of jet,
And crimson tiles, in order set;
With airy arches, linked as if
By drapery of the clover-leaf,
While virevoLte and arabesque fair
Ran dazzling riot everywhere.
Like writhing serpents when they rear,
The slender, twisted shafts appear ;
A mazy dance of devils small
Encircles every capital;
From carven angles, dragon-wise
The gargoyles leap, — and minarets rise
O’ertopped by Islam’s crescent-sign
Goring with horns the blue divine.
Moreover, every wall displayed
A cunning Moorish frieze, inlaid
With barbarous characters that writ
A mystic meaning over it.
And o er the topmost magic tower,
Kude-wrought with foliage and flower
In bronze and gold, and gleaming down
O’er leagues of land, there hung a crown, —
Each leaf, a mask right horrible, —
A very cauldron-lid of hell !
Below are labyrinthine glades,
W ith zigzag paths among the shades ;
But whosoever treads the same
Is lost. He hears an evil name
Whispered about the boskage, — sees
Funeral plants and tortured trees,
And flowers unknown whose odor dense
Mounts cloud-like, dulling all the sense.
Inducted into the possession of this ill-omened pleasure-house, Roderic roams for a while about the seven great halls, respectively dedicated to the indulgence of Pride, Envy, Avarice, Gluttony, Luxury, Rage, and Sloth, all of whose appurtenances are fully and vividly described. He had half hoped to find Nerto within, but the place is empty, and a feeling of languor and disgust creeps over him, which drives him forth again, to watch outside in the falling twilight for her coming. He has not long to wait : —
Fear at her heart, the little maid
Crept by the border of the fen.
The lily Hades, leaping then
Forth of the ooze, her greenery spread
Silently o’er the waters dead,
And her great blossoms did unfold
As moonlight, — colorless and cold,
Through tangled marrish grasses there
Struggled the typhas to upbear
Their brimming cups ; —but she, the child,
Whither to turn, in such a wild ?
Suddenly, all ablaze with light,
The castle breaks upon her sight ;
And, as the mirror lures the lark,
Or the moth seeks the candle-spark,
Thither she flies. From windows wide
Pours o’er the dark a luminous tide
Sparkling with wavelets green and red ;
And, from the roof-tree overhead,
Changing, and pulsing bubble-wise,
A fire-dome swells into the skies.”
The momentary relief and rapture of Nerto, when Roderic comes forth from this strange house to welcome her, assures her that it is his house for the time being, and draws her in, is followed by a corresponding revulsion of horror when the truth dawns upon her, and she realizes that on this fatal night, of all others, she has been lured into a stronghold of her infernal foe. Gathering courage from despair, she firmly resists her lover’s impassioned solicitations, and when the Enemy himself rises between them, triumphantly claiming her father’s forfeit, she exhorts Roderic to give him battle while she prays. They can but die together, she says, and it may be that for a sinless love no place will be found in hell. Thus inspired, Roderic lifts his cross-hilted sword, and a terrific conflict ensues, closed by a shock of whirlwind and the falling of a thunderbolt which entirely consumes both castle and combatants, leaving only what may still be seen there, — the image of a praying nun in stone.
The epilogue of the poem remains, in which we are invited to return to the cell of the discomfited anchorite. It is satisfactory to know that he had received no angel-visits since the day when, in selfish panic lest he should lose the labor of years for the safety of his own soul, he had driven poor little Nerto from his door. The fourth morning finds him plunged in deepest dejection, as well as nearly famished through the failure of his angelic supplies ; nevertheless he makes shift to climb the mountain as usual, and there the accustomed vision is once more vouchsafed. The prostrate reverence of the hermit is indulgently received by the archangel, who relates, for the benefit of the trembling saint, the blessed dénoûment of Nerto’s history. In brief, the faith and constancy of the nun, combined with the desperate valor of the knight in that final encounter, had sufficed to rout the demon, and for three days now there had been feasts and rejoicing in Paradise over the final rescue and mystical union of the lovers. “ Glory to God ! ” sings the hermit generously, and with the promptitude of a class-leader, “ but now tell me truly, most glorious patron, why did you repulse me so cruelly three days ago ? ” and the archangel is absolutely obliged to explain to this obtuse penitent that he needed a lesson in humility ! After this, and very gracefully, the poet closes and dedicates his romance in his proper person —
Thou voyagest through St. Gabriel’s land,
Caring for aught that might avail
To prove the truth of this my tale,
There in the levels fair with corn
Thou shalt behold my nun forlorn,
Bearing upon her marble brow
Lucifer’s lightning mark. But now,
Mute as a milestone. All these years
The murmur of budding life she hears ;
And the white snails for coolness hide
Her rigid vesture-folds inside,
Mint-perfumed; while about her feet
The shadow turns, the seasons fleet,
And everything beneath the sun
Changes, except the lonely nun.
Mute, said I ? Nay, the whisper goes
That here, when high midsummer glows,
There breathes, at noon, a dulcet tone.
Lay then thine ear against the stone,
And, if thou bearest aught at all,
’T will be the hymn angelical.
An ancient, small basilica ;
Sorrowful, as it would appear,
Because for now so many a year
No Christian footstep thither goes,
But there the guardian olive grows,
And, in the archivolt of the door,
St. Gabriel, — kneeling as of yore, — Says Ave to Our Lady, while
The snaky author of all guile,
Twining around the knowledge-tree,
Lures from their primal innocency
Adam and Eve. A silent place:
The careless hind upon his ways
Mayhap salutes the Queen Divine,
But sets no candle at her shrine.
Only the blessed plants of God,
Among the courtyard stones untrod,
In fissures of the massy wall,
Between the roof-tiles, over all,
Take root and beauteously bloom,
And in the heat their wild perfume
Rises like altar-incense. There
God’s tiny living creatures fare ;
Flutter the chickens of St. John ;
Butterflies light and waver on ;
Among the grass-blades, mute and lean
The mantis kneels ; the rifts between
Of the high roof-ridge, hides the bee
His honey-hoard right busily ;
Neath gauzy wings, the livelong day
The innocent cicalas play
One only silver tune; —and these
Are as the parish families
Who throng the door, and tread the choir
Evermore gilt by sunshine. Higher
In window-niches, with the wind
For organ-bass, the sparrows find
Their place, and emulously swell
The laudo of that good Gabriel
Who saves them from the hawk. And I,
Maillano’s minstrel, passing by
Thy widowed church this very day,
Did enter in, and softly lay, —
O Gabriel of Tarascon ! —
A simple tale, new come to light,
And only with thy glory bright.
It is perhaps fortunate that the exigencies of the new Provençal poetry do not demand an argument as the indispensable adjunct of a narrative poem ; for it might be a little difficult clearly to define the moral position and bearing upon the action of the tale of Benedict, or Cifèr, or the hermit, or even the angelic patron himself. That a love with so very large and frank an admixture of earth as that of Roderic and Nerto should be a more powerful antidote to the venom of original evil than word of pope, or prayer of saint, or even the intervention of one of the highest officers of the celestial hierarchy, cannot surely be the lesson which a believer of M. Mistral’s earnestly professed orthodoxy intended to convey. Yet this appears to be the gist of the poem, and we know — on the authority of its altogether serious and sententious prologue — that it lay very much upon his heart, whether primarily or as an after-thought, to render the story of Nerto instructive as well as entertaining. Can it be that the prologue is by way of an apology ?
But why tease a poet, even a professedly pious one, for a specific moral ? Nerto has no pretension to rank with a great Satanic epic like Paradise Lost, nor with a great Satanic allegory like Faust. It even suffers a little, we think, by comparison with a natural, straightforward story of superstition and sorrow, like Jasmin’s Françonette. But the old sweetnesss is here, a good deal of the old richness in rusticity, the old mobility and variety, almost, occasionally, the old élan. If the idea more than once recurs that the note of naïveté has been pressed until the string has become a little worn and the vibrations thin, there are still many passages in every canto of Nerto whose inspiration is drawn from none of the literatures with which the reading world is familiar, if from any literature at all. The poem has been warmly received in Paris. The critic who first likened it to an illuminated missal had perhaps unconsciously in mind one of that new variety which M. Renan proposes to compile; yet the poem does resemble an illumination_ and one of the best days of that art — in the soft brightness of its coloring, the beauty of its bird and flower decoration, and the childish yet graphic drawing of its figures, no less than in the artless and abrupt succession of its incidents, and in a certain lack of perspective and of atmosphere.
To the form of the verse, — though managed, it is needless to say, by M. Mistral with the ease of a master in rhyme, — we have not been able fully to reconcile ourselves. The short step of what, in the absence of a more precise term, we must call the iambic tetrameter, that octosyllabic measure adopted by Chaucer from the old romances of chivalry and formed by him, illustrated by Milton, abused by Butler, revived by Byron and re-polished by William Morris, is, in spite of old Provençal precedent, far better suited to the manly genius of our own language than to the slipshod grace of the modern Provençal. We miss the long undulating lines and affluent double and triple endings of the verse of Mirèio and Calendau. The double ending, as employed in Nerto, seems even to entangle and impede the forward movement of the phrase, as the gait may be impeded by a too full drapery ; and it is a sore trial to the translator, who, in essaying to turn the thought into a language so much poorer than the original in feminine rhymes and fluent polysyllables, is almost compelled, in some instances, to fill out the verse by a multiplication of epithets.
The wealth of the poet’s vocabulary, as displayed both in the Provençal narrative and in his own parallel French version, remains a wonder and a despair. French men of letters are the foremost to admire M. Mistral’s inexhaustible store and ingenious employment of rare and curious French words. They say that he baffles their best philologists at times, and taxes the resources of M. Littré himself.
Harriet Waters Preston.
- The Milky Way.↩
- M. Mistral himself told me that there is a tradition in the neighborhood of Avignon that Pietro di Luna, otherwise Benedict XIII., escaped from his palace by an underground passage connecting with Chateau Renard, and that this was the sole foundation, whether in history or legend, for the story of Nerto. The ex-pope died in 1424. in a monastery in Spain.↩
- A sobriquet bestowed by the Provençal peasants upon the sun, because he regulates the duration of the day.↩