Saint Sebastian

Image: Antonello da Messina, Saint Sebastian (c.1478). Oil transferred from wood to canvas. 171 x 85.5 cm. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. http://skd-online-collection.skd.museum/de/contents/showSearch?id=177046, 22 September 2015.

Antonello Da Messina

The Dresden Gallery
 

YOUNG Sebastian stands beside a lofty tree,
Rigid by the rigid trunk that branchlessly
Lifts its column on the blue
Of a heaven that takes
Hyacinthine hue
From a storm that wellnigh breaks.

Shadiness and thunder dout the zenith's light, 
Yet a wide horizon still extends as bright
As the lapis-lazuli ;
Poignant sunshine streams
Over land and sky,
With tempestuous, sunken beams.

He who was a soldier late is standing now
Stript and fastened to the tree that has no bough,
In the centre of a court,
That is bound by walls
Fancifully wrought,
Over which the daylight falls.

Arch and chimney rise aloft into the air :
On the balconies are hung forth carpets rare
Of an Eastern, vivid red ;
Idle women lean
Where the rugs are spread,
Each with an indifferent mien.

On the marble of the courtyard, fast asleep, 
Lies a brutish churl, his body in a heap ;
Two hard-hearted comrades prate
Where a portal shows
Distance blue and great,
Stretching onward in repose.

And between the shafts of sandy-coloured tone
Slips a mother with her child : but all alone
Stays Sebastian in his grief.
What soul pities him !
Who shall bring relief
From the darts that pierce each limb ?

Naked, almost firm as sculpture, is his form, 
Nobly set below the burthen of the storm ;
Shadow, circling chin and cheek,
Their ellipse defines,
Then the shade grows weak
And his face with noonday shines—

Shines as olive marble that reflects the mere
Radiance it receives upon a surface clear ;
For we see no blessedness
On his visage pale,
Turned in its distress
Toward the heaven, without avail.

Massive is his mouth ; the upper lip is set
In a pained, protesting curve : his eyes have met
God within the darkening sky
And dispute His will,
Dark, remorselessly
Fervent to dispute it still.

The whole brow is hidden by the chesnut hair,
That behind the back flows down in locks and there
Changes to a deeper grain.
Though his feet were strong,
They are swoln with strain,
For he has been standing long.

Captive, stricken through by darts, yet armed with power
That resents the coming on of its last hour,
Sound in muscle is the boy,
Whom his manhood fills
With an acrid joy,
Whom its violent pressure thrills.

But this force implanted in him must be lost
And its natural validity be crossed
By a chill, disabling fate ;
He must stand at peace
While his hopes abate,
While his youth and vigour cease.

At his feet a mighty pillar lies reversed ;
So the virtue of his sex is shattered, cursed :
Here is martyrdom and not
In the arrows' sting ;
This the bitter lot
His soul is questioning.

He, with body fresh for use, for pleasure fit,
With its energies and needs together knit
In an able exigence,
Must endure the strife,
Final and intense,
Of necessity with life.

Yet throughout this bold rebellion of the saint
Noonday's brilliant air has carried no complaint.
Lo, across the solitude
Of the storm two white,
Little clouds obtrude
Storm-accentuating light !

 

Antonello Da Messina

The Dresden Gallery
 

YOUNG Sebastian stands beside a lofty tree,
Rigid by the rigid trunk that branchlessly
Lifts its column on the blue
Of a heaven that takes
Hyacinthine hue
From a storm that wellnigh breaks.

Shadiness and thunder dout the zenith's light, 
Yet a wide horizon still extends as bright
As the lapis-lazuli ;
Poignant sunshine streams
Over land and sky,
With tempestuous, sunken beams.

He who was a soldier late is standing now
Stript and fastened to the tree that has no bough,
In the centre of a court,
That is bound by walls
Fancifully wrought,
Over which the daylight falls.

Arch and chimney rise aloft into the air :
On the balconies are hung forth carpets rare
Of an Eastern, vivid red ;
Idle women lean
Where the rugs are spread,
Each with an indifferent mien.

On the marble of the courtyard, fast asleep, 
Lies a brutish churl, his body in a heap ;
Two hard-hearted comrades prate
Where a portal shows
Distance blue and great,
Stretching onward in repose.

And between the shafts of sandy-coloured tone
Slips a mother with her child : but all alone
Stays Sebastian in his grief.
What soul pities him !
Who shall bring relief
From the darts that pierce each limb ?

Naked, almost firm as sculpture, is his form, 
Nobly set below the burthen of the storm ;
Shadow, circling chin and cheek,
Their ellipse defines,
Then the shade grows weak
And his face with noonday shines—

Shines as olive marble that reflects the mere
Radiance it receives upon a surface clear ;
For we see no blessedness
On his visage pale,
Turned in its distress
Toward the heaven, without avail.

Massive is his mouth ; the upper lip is set
In a pained, protesting curve : his eyes have met
God within the darkening sky
And dispute His will,
Dark, remorselessly
Fervent to dispute it still.

The whole brow is hidden by the chesnut hair,
That behind the back flows down in locks and there
Changes to a deeper grain.
Though his feet were strong,
They are swoln with strain,
For he has been standing long.

Captive, stricken through by darts, yet armed with power
That resents the coming on of its last hour,
Sound in muscle is the boy,
Whom his manhood fills
With an acrid joy,
Whom its violent pressure thrills.

But this force implanted in him must be lost
And its natural validity be crossed
By a chill, disabling fate ;
He must stand at peace
While his hopes abate,
While his youth and vigour cease.

At his feet a mighty pillar lies reversed ;
So the virtue of his sex is shattered, cursed :
Here is martyrdom and not
In the arrows' sting ;
This the bitter lot
His soul is questioning.

He, with body fresh for use, for pleasure fit,
With its energies and needs together knit
In an able exigence,
Must endure the strife,
Final and intense,
Of necessity with life.

Yet throughout this bold rebellion of the saint
Noonday's brilliant air has carried no complaint.
Lo, across the solitude
Of the storm two white,
Little clouds obtrude
Storm-accentuating light !