Saint Jerome in the Desert

Image: Cosimo Tura, Saint Jerome (c.1470). Oil and egg on poplar.101 x 57.2 cm. The National Gallery, London, 1867. Room 55. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/cosimo-tura-saint-jerome, 22 September 2015.

Cosimo Tura

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.

 

Cosimo Tura

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.