The National Gallery
SAINT JEROME kneels within the wilderness ;
Along the cavern's sandy channels press
The flowings of deep water. On one knee,
On one foot he rests his weight—
A foot that rather seems to be
The clawed base of a pillar past all date
Than prop of flesh and bone ;
About his sallow, osseous frame
A cinder-coloured cloak is thrown
For ample emblem of his shame.
Grey are the hollowed rocks, grey is his head
And grey his beard that, formal and as dread
As some Assyrian’s on a monument,
From the chin is sloping down.
O'er his tonsure heaven has bent
A solid disc of unillumined brown ;
His scarlet hat is flung
Low on the pebbles by a shoot
Of tiny nightshade that among
The pebbles has maintained a root.
He turns his face— yea, turns his body where
They front the cleanness of the sky and air ;
We feel, although we see not, what he sees.
From the hidden desert flows
An uncontaminated breeze
That terrible in censure round him blows ;
While the horizons brim
His eyes with silver glare and it
Casts, in its purity, on him
An accusation infinite.
Sublime and fierce, he will not budge
Although each element becomes his judge :
For is not life the breath of God and thought
God's own light across the brain ?
Yet he, in whom these powers have wrought,
Hath dared with slow and lusting flesh to stain
Their operations clear
As those of sunshine and the wind :
He is unfit for sigh or tear,
So whole the sin that he hath sinned,
Thus having done the man within him wrong.
He lifts his arm, the tendons of it strong
As rods, the fingers resolute and tense
Round a flint-stone in the hand ;
Against his breast, with vehemence,
He aims a blow, as if at God's command.
His breast of flint awaits
Much flagellation ; pleasure fills
The body courage reinstates
Enduring what the spirit wills.
Dark wisdom, dread asceticism ! — See,
The night-owl, set athwart a rock-bound tree
Below the cave, rolls pertinacious eyes
On the penitence that bleeds,
That in abashed absorption tries
To rouse the mere forgetfulness it needs.
But lo ! a white bird's wings
Find on the cliff a resting-place :—
If man looks forth on unsoiled things,
His own defilement he must face,
With somewhat of the hermit's rage of shame,
That only smarting chastisement can tame :
Yet Jerome's mood is humbler, surer far
When, distressful penance done,
His grey-bound volumes, his red Vulgate are
Laid on his lap and he within the sun
Is writing, undismayed
As the quiet cowherd who attends
His kine, beneath a colonnade,
Where yonder, ancient hill ascends.