Tombs and funeral pyres
by Theophile Gautier
No grim cadaver set its flaw
In happy days of pagan art,
And man, content with what he saw,
Stripped not the veil from beauty’s heart.
No form once loved that buried lay,
A hideous spectre to appal,
Dropped bit by bit its flesh away,
As one by one our garments fall;
Or, when the days had drifted by
And sundered shrank the vaulted stones,
Showed naked to the daring eye
A motley heap of rattling bones.
But, rescued from the funeral pyre,
Life’s ashen, light residuum
Lay soft, and, spent the cleansing fire,
The urn held sweet the body’s sum,–
The sum of all that earth may claim
Of the soul’s butterfly, soul passed,–
All that is left of spended flame
Upon the tripod at the last.
Between acanthus leaves and flowers
In the white marble gaily went
Loves and bacchantes all the hours,
Dancing about the monument.
At most, a little Genius wild
Trampled a flame out in the gloom,
And art’s harmonious flowering smiled
Upon the sadness of the tomb.
The tomb was then a pleasant place.
As bed of child that slumbereth,
With many a fair and laughing grace
The joy of life surrounded death.
Then death concealed its visage gaunt,
Whose sockets deep, and sunken nose,
And railing mouth our spirits haunt,
Past any dream that horror shows.
The monster in flesh raiment clad
Hid deep its spectral form uncouth,
And virgin glances, beauty-glad,
Sped frankly to the naked youth.
Twas only at Trimalchio’s board
A little skeleton made sign,
An ivory plaything unabhorred,
To bid the feasters to the wine.
Gods, whom Art ever must avow,
Ruled the marmoreal sky’s demesne.
Olympus yields to Calvary, now;
Jupiter to the Nazarene!
Voices are calling, “Pan is dead!”
Dusk deepeneth within, without.
On the black sheet of sorrow spread,
The whitened skeleton gleams out.
It glideth to the headstone bare,
And signs it with a paraph wild,
And hangs a wreath of bones to glare
Upon the charnel death-defiled.
It lifts the coffin-lid and quaffs
The musty air, and peers within,
Displays a ring of ribs, and laughs
Forever with its awful grin.
It urges unto Death’s fleet dance
The Emperor, the Pope, the King,
And makes the pallid steed to prance,
And low the doughty warrior fling;–
Behind the courtesan steals up,
And makes wry faces in her glass;
Drinks from the sick man’s trembling cup;
Delves in the miser’s golden mass.
Above the team it whirls the thong,
With bone for goad to hurry it,
Follows the plowman’s way along,
And guides the furrows to a pit.
It comes, the uninvited guest,
And lurks beneath the banquet chair,
Unseen from the pale bride to wrest
Her little silken garter fair.
The number swells: the young give hand
Unto the old, and none may flee.
The irresistible saraband
Compelleth all humanity.
Forth speeds the tall, ungainly fright,
Playing the rebeck, dancing mad,
Against the dark a frame of white,
As Holbein drew it–horror-sad;–
Or if the times be frivolous,
Trusses the shroud about its hips:
Then like a Cupid mischievous,
Across the ballet-room it skips,
And unto carven tombs it flies,
Where marchionesses rest demure,
Weary of love, in exquisite guise,
In chapels dim and pompadour.
But hide thy hideous form at last,
Worm-eaten actor! Long enough
In death’s wan melodrama cast,
Thou’st played thy part without rebuff.
Come back, come back, O ancient Art!
And cover with thy marble’s gleam
This Gothic skeleton! Each part
Consume, ye flames of fire supreme!
If man be then a creature made
In God’s own image, to aspire,
When shattered must the image fade,
Let the lone fragments feed the fire!
Immortal form! Rise thou in flame
Again to beauty’s fount of bloom
Let not thy clay endure the shame,
The degradation of the tomb!