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Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse/The Advent of Spring in the South

< Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse

ARNE NOVÁK: THE ADVENT OF SPRING IN THE SOUTH.

 

AN IMAGINARY CONVERSATION.

 

(The scene is in the Corte Reale at Mantua on a late afternoon in November, 1354. Charles IV.[1] meets with Petrarch, who is reading a book as he passes across the court.)

 

CHARLES IV.: Poet, the evening is casting its cold and gloomy shadows upon your book.

PETRARCH: And yet I feel the spring and flowers. I hear the droning of bees and the measured tread of the grazing flocks. There is a strong fragrance of golden laburnum, and the dulcet cadence of the verses carries me away with the music of torrents drenched with the thawing ice of the Alps.

CHARLES IV.: Once more it is your beloved Virgil, herdsman and prophet, whom you have chosen as your teacher and friend. You do not surprise me; there was a time when I, too, was fond of him. I even confess that in this very spot, above the waters of the Mincio, I have more than once bethought me of him who used to wander here in yearning and tumult. But have you ever found, poet, that your Virgil has at times become a perilous seducer for you?

PETRARCH: A perilous seducer, Sire? Perhaps you meant rather: A source of zeal and comfort? In him I have found the most joyful certainties when I was already wavering. . . ah, you do not know the terrors of my paths. . .

CHARLES IV.: They have led, from what I know, to the summits where a broad survey has entranced you, and where the wings of superhuman self-fathoming have borne your human attributes yonder close to the footstool of the divine throve, so that we Christians were at a loss even for the breath of anguish at so haughty a sin.

PETRARCH: But if I ascended from towns and valleys somewhere to the clouds, was it not for the mere reason that I could no longer live in the depths where it was close and narrow even to stifling? There were moments when I drank from the sponge seaked with vinegar and gall, without knowing whether my sacrifice would deliver a single soul.

CHARLES IV.: Your comparison is blasphemous. Too often you sin through the pride of your sorrow, as other people sin through the pride of their joy.

PETRARCH: Yes, pride of sorrow, pride of sorrowful loneliness. How should you, Sire, wise from childhood, the acme of human perfections, understand me? O would that someone of the living might come to understand me as Virgil, that benign departed, that silent wayfarer, in the realm of shadows understood me!

CHARLES IV.: The Christian Emperor is your friend, O pagan and haughty poet!

PETRARCH: For the which, my thanks, Sire; but I am neither pagan nor overweening. I am merely a true and suffering man who seeks safety and equality of spirit.

CHARLES IV.: Where else will the arms of the balance which holds all destinies come more firmly to equipoise than at the feet of God?

PETRARCH: The pinions of your prayers soar thither, but my thoughts take root only in lowly and more human regions.

CHARLES IV.: And does your pagan poet lead you thus to salvation? I should marvel if you succeeded in convincing me of this.

PETRARCH: O, to convince you, Sire, to gain possession of your faith, to hold sway over your will, that you might remain with us, with the people, with your brothers and fellow-countrymen here, in Italy, here in the South.

CHARLES IV.: Do not forget that I am a Northerner. Black pine-forests overshadow the dark castles where my inmost thought finds its God. The cold winds of the North set the bells swaying in the clouded town of my birth, that they may sing in the wondrously sweet language of my mother a penitent litany for a prodigal son. And haply already the chill and mournful snow is falling on the sad peaks that begird my native land.

PETRARCH: Wherefore, Sire, have you condemned the greatness of your spirit to such narrow confines of vain and austere allegiance? An allegiance which can but be a burden and a curse to you, who belong to the South, to Italy or Avignon, who might have been Augustus over the Tiber and the Arno, over rivers which sing to you in a wistful speech?

CHARLES IV.: It seems to me—if I understand your language aright—that the thought of home has marked me out somehow in the same way as your pagan poet did to you. But pray enlarge unto me, how could Virgil thus preserve and liberate you?

PETRARCH: I fear, Sire, that my words will not be a kindly entertainment for the shades of a November evening. It is chill, it is dark, and the fountain is lamenting piteously in the courtyard. At this moment the distant stars exhort us to slumber.

CHARLES IV.: Perhaps I must appeal to you as pressingly as the passionate and sinful queen of Africa appealed to Aeneas in Virgil? I am hearkening.

PETRARCH: But my utterance will be again only haughty grief. I stood isolated and deserted in the world. I had naught save my grief and my bitterness. My mistress, who meanwhile had changed my loftiest yearning into a wavering dream, died. My tranquility became loathsome to me. Mild and placid France suddenly appeared inhospitable to me. All the waters to which I bowed down were only mirrors of my distress, and not a day passed but I cursed them. All the winds, to which I entrusted my sorrow, dragged my thoughts into the cold eddy of despair somewhere near the feet of the frosty lord of hell, and there were moments when I feared that he, the mighty destroyer, bore my own countenance, sorrowful and set in hopeless fixity. I ascended mountains and there only my shadow, also a thing accursed, also an adulterer of despair, leered upon me.

CHARLES IV.: Why, you are not a priest, not a Christian?

PETRARCH: Sire, there are moments when I have a foreboding that our humanity is something of wider compass than Christendom, that the sacred grace does not vouchsafe us recovery from all spiritual wounds, that Christ has not redeemed us utterly from inherited sin—

CHARLES IV.: What stones of offence, poet, have you brought from Virgil's hell, that you may sinfully enervate yourself, rolling them ever afresh to the summit?

PETRARCH: Ah, none at all. On Virgil's fields blossom the herbs of deliverance.

CHARLES IV. (with a touch of irony) : Haply I, too, could cull them, if indeed, in so doing, I did not become a heretic.

PETRARCH: Sire, man of mighty spirit and noble heart, come unto me, come with me, confide in me! Across the centuries we clasp the hands of another, of a courageous stock who loved life and not death, who yearned for heroism and did not writhe in humility, a race of comrades, brothers, forebears. All that is great in the world was fashioned by these heroes, the men of the South, the Romans and the sons of Romans, the heirs of the language of Virgil. Barbarians silenced them, humbled them, hounded them out, and you, an heir of Augustus, surely do not long to be a barbarian. There is no life except in the South, not among the ruins, but in our own Roman realm. Your North is an evil dream, dark horror, which has saturated your veins with the blood of your mother. Your kindly favour, Sire, invites me ever afresh to your Northern city, which by your wisdom and love you have transformed into a wonderful legend; I desire, I pine, I vow to come to you. Something lures me there almost inconceivably—the endeavour to persuade you that you may give the young and tractable nations to drink of the spirit of the South, and sate them with our new faith, our new hopes.

CHARLES IV.: You are a wondrous dreamer, poet! You, who are fain to be called an old and weary man, rave like a youth. For what is that but raving, when you desire to transform live and fervid nations into mere bondsmen of shadows, with which the pagan bard has quickened your brain.

PETRARCH: Ah, they are not shadows, they are not phantoms. The certainty that life and not death, courageous action and not penitent prayer shall deserve our whole love, draws closer to us those ancestors of old, from the army of Aeneas and Turnus, from the pastoral throng of Euryalus and Menaleus. Not alone do they clasp our hands and speak our language, but they are brothers and friends. Do you not know, Sire, that all the youth in Italy and France, all who were born to witness your wise and heroic deeds as a ruler, feel equally with me. To-day I am no longer alone. My pride is becoming the pride of joy. A new youth is casting anchor on the shores of Latium and is girding itself for the taking of Rome. All their songs are resounding, on all sides their hopes are hovering. Only a leader do we yet lack.

CHARLES IV. (with irony): And your tribune, your Achilles, your Roman?

PETRARCH: Has only arisen to gain Your Majesty for our endeavours.

CHARLES IV.: Adventurers will scarcely succeed in winning me over, poets the rather.

PETRARCH (agitatedly): Sire, be ours, be in good sooth the Roman Emperor! Let the ancestral blood in your veins strike up its song, let your dreams of Avignon be transformed into action. Your admirer, your servant, your slave mourns at your feet . . . mourns, not on his own behalf, but for the sake of thousands in obscurity, and hundreds of thousands yet unborn. Be as the spring-time, as the South, as life! If, among Your Majesty's precious metal there is any slag which burdens you, the heat of a new youth will smelt it out, and the gleaming and sunlit gold of your unscathed empery will redden in the glorious radiance: Night is now bere, and you do not see my mournful countenance—would that you did! Longing and hope, tenderness and humility appeal to you from it. To you it seems that it is autumn, and that the world has grown old. But that is a delusion; spring-time is drawing near, and it is for you—you in very sooth—to open its blossoming portal, that the budding of a new youth may surge along like a wild mountain torrent.

CHARLES IV.: I do not know whether the world has grown old. I know that I have grown old and that the words of a man of fifty sound like the prattling of a child to me who am so much younger. In the midst of our forests, at prayers, in the solitude of night, when the window panes are asparkle with the cold stars, old age comes too quickly. But there the spirit is exhorted to firmness,—I fear, perhaps even to pride, unworthy of a true Christian.

PETRARCH: Of a Christian, who lives righteously, that he may die vainly. Of an Emperor who longs for the virtues of an anchorite.

CHARLES IV.: Yes, it is meekness which becomes almost pride. I have longed to attain the unattainable, to guide my humanity to the superhuman.

PETRARCH (with mournful irony): In the interest of barbarians.

CHARLES IV.: Perhaps my fellow-countrymen are barbarians as yet. They will no longer, God grant, be so. They will have neither the beauty, with which my youth in Avignon was entranced, nor the heroism that your ecstasy has conned from Virgil. They will have another beauty, another heroism. And they, I hope, will also lock towards a new day.

PETRARCH : That they, the barbarians, may come streaming, strengthened, and equipped, to our South; that they may despoil our dreams and hinder the accomplishment of our hopes. Do you not feel, Sire, that you are enkindling your mother's blood against your father's. That you are rending your realm in twain. That you are making ready a descent on Italy by the barbarians?

CHARLES IV.: I confess to you, over-zealous poet, that in the stern nights of my solitude I have pondered on this outcome. But if I have nurtured Christian warriors for new contests, I have achieved right in that I have, at the same time, suppressed all pride, all self-love, all the stubbornness of humanity.

PETRARCH: Say rather all the heroic instincts of your being, mighty Sire. But yet did you never reflect that you,—Augustus and Trajan in one person,—that you are preparing war and rebellion, you who love and honour us? Do you not regret this strange and yet inevitable sacrifice of war to be?

CHARLES IV.: I pray God that the war may not become too great a sacrifice.

PETRARCH: There will be nothing left for me but to crave Providence that your barbarians may not be the victors. That I may not cease to cherish the faith of not having lived in vain, of not having been deceived by my Virgil. But how the leaves rustle, and how chill the wind is. . . . as yonder with you in the North.

CHARLES IV.: Your voice trembles like your limbs. And I hear your anguish from the song ofthe fountain. It is time for you to seek, once more, the draught of rapture in your Virgil.

PETRARCH: I fear I shall open it where, amidst the verses, grow the blossoms of oblivion.

(They both go out in silence).

 
  1. Charles IV. as Emperor of Germany. Charles I., as King of Bohemia. One of the greatest Czechs in history.
 
Copyright.svg PD-icon.svg This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.
Original:

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1939, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

 
Translation:

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1970, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 30 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.