Virgil at Brundisium        

 
Here, propped on pillows, Virgil, dying, speaks:

The young beside him listen.

 

‘Destroyed.

You understand?

All.

Everything.

The whole.

Even the pure and unalloyed

Gold

Gone.

Not a line

Held back.

The whole.

Everything.

AII.

I command -

Destroyed.’

 

Standing in the archway from the sunken garden,

The Prince,

His nightgown clutched against the cold,

Attends in silence.

 

‘I see you,

Octavius,

Closer than you think,

Majestic watchfulness

Proclaims the World

Waiting.

Can

It be true

That I do not blink

Back a tear

At leaving you?

It seems this parting ruffles

Only a still surface,

The ripple curled

Through a mosaic sea.

 

Does it appear

I am ungrateful

Touching

The many things you did for me?

You have been thanked enough.’

 

The lamps, replenished by his downcast slaves

Throw shadows at the feet of Caesar,

But fling a rose-filled light about

The statues

And the gilded cedar-wood

Which holds the dying poet

In an embrace of sorrows.

 

‘Within this marble room

I see the brazen loves

Glitter.

Their fixed progression wakes

One thought,

Moves

Me to laughter.

How sadly

They posture in a borrowed tomb!

One ought

Not to die badly,

I suppose.

Some words of wisdom - after

A tear or two,

Which show heroic grief

Controlled.

“Be bold!”

Is that not what

Your legions have been told

When dying for you?

The last throes

Of the heart,

Like throws

At dice,

Are best brief.

Or would you be consoled

To hear me whisper

An eternal line?

What memories would you start

Preparing for the future?

“He left us with a look of glory

While speaking the immortal praise

Of Rome.”

 

Thus truth decays

When left to those

Who marbleize

Our days.

A useful story,

But foreign to my nature.

How would you glaze

Over the telling of

A different version?

“He whines,

Then claws the covers,

Cries:

‘The dome is crooked overhead.

Who built this palace

Cheated me.’

Dies,

Screeching with malice

In a tumbled bed.”

No noble lines.

Terror instead

Of glory round

My laurelled head.

Each one of you discovers

Less

Than you think.

What I am saying, O lovers

Of poetry,

Is hidden from you now.

There is a last success

In how

I go.’

 

The young, still silent, motion to each other,

Then draw the Tyrean coverings close

About the poet.

 

‘See how

These statues hold

Back their classic tears

Easily.

They have no hearts.

Yet you reproach

Me for want of tact

In saying so.

Should I exchange farewells

With layers of artifact,

The cunning botch

Of pride

Allied

With worship of

Delusive arts?

No.

The naked truth

Of their perrenial youth

Lies

In blank and tearless eyes.

Each foretells

Gaiety that no one feels.

Contrived

From metal like our master,

Which has deceived

Us most?

Venus in the guise

Of Magna Mater?

Apollo with his lyre?

Or some plaster

Godlet for a corner

Smiling?

My thoughts are lost

In this vast

Room

Of death.

I tire.

It is a kind of doom

Whiling

Away your waiting

For my last breath.

I think

That I shall speak to you

Of something else.’

 

In undertones the young converse together there,

Like guardsmen who exchange a countersign;

Then stand the closer round,

But leave a view

For Caesar.

 

‘It seems

That they were dreams

At Mantua

When I was young.

I thought

There ought

To be

Some way

To see

Beyond.

I have found

Nothing.

Or rather,

Looking farther

Than even I had hoped,

I shaped

Something

That failed me

In the light

Of this now

Dawning day.

 

A semblance there

Beckoned.

I seemed to see

One -

A Child.

No.

Not Marcellus.

And there were beasts,

I thought,

About Him.

Orpheus?

I doubt it.

This peace -

This peace perplexed me.

And you,

Augustus,

You perplexed me.

I seemed to see . . .

But saw no more.

 

And all became

Mere glory of your name.

So I have nothing here

To hold

But fear.

For I mistook

The way

And wandered from

That brightness.

My heart

Is desolate.

My art?

It is like straw.

And I am sinking

Beyond a fragile lyric

Law

Into chasms

Of forgetfulness.

 

Ah, poets, now is when

You see the wax write

By itself

And know the stylus

Is not needed.

 

Destroyed.

You understand?

All.

Everything.

The whole.

Even the pure and unalloyed

Gold

Gone.

Not a line

Held back.

The whole.

Everything.

All.

I command -

Destroyed.

 

Why?

Because it is not true.

What madness made me try

To marble you?

 

Evil.

Capricious.

All you do

Is done from pride.

You would hurl

Persia

At Rome

If it were you

Who paced among the peacocks

At Susa there,

In the alabaster gardens.

I see you

Despot,

Who would rule

Even a poet’s world.

That Ajax

Which you wrote

While fishing for the praise

Of Cicero -

It would be wise

To have it lost,

Or else

His laughter

Will ring after

You in the cold

Halls of Dis.’

 

The young, appalled, draw back,

As though from one who raves.

Imperious, their master waves

Them closer to the gilded bed.

 

‘Ah, but it comes too late,

The wisdom of the dying.

I might...

And Horace also.

But there are limits to

A poet’s bravery.

This man

Who murdered Cicero

Has made us great.

And I am lying

In his bed.

And you are drawn

To listen.

 

See!

See there they glisten!

Laurels touched with sun.

And all I did

Should be undone.

Destroyed.

All.

The whole.

Gone.

Everything.

Destroyed.

I...

 

But who gives orders now?

It is Death

I think,

Who comes,

Glowing

Like a sun

On laurel leaves.

 

If anything I said

In any manner grieves,

Say it was said

When I was dead.

Vale,

Imperial one!

 

I seem to see

Homer,

No longer blind,

But dazzling like a god,

Who beckons.

 

Ah, Death,

You have been kind

To me!’

Then from the shadows steps

The Master of the World:

Commands.

 

‘Let trumpets sound

Over the sea.

Let beacons burn.

 

Let Antioch and Athens,

Alexandria,

Know

This poet is to be

Honoured

Eternally.

 

Go now.

Leave me to my grief.

I mourn a friend

Whose greatness covers me with cypress

And with bay.’

 

The young, all silent, bow,

Then with their togas

Veil their heads,

And move, processional,

Down to the dawn-lit sea.