Robert Browning. Sordello’s font.  

In Mantua territory half is slough,

Half pine-tree forest; maples, scarlet oaks

Breed o'er the river-beds; even Mincio chokes

With sand the summer through: but 'tis morass

In winter up to Mantua walls. There was,

Some thirty years before this evening's coil,                                                380

One spot reclaimed from the surrounding spoil,

Goito; just a castle built amid

A few low mountains; firs and larches hid

Their main defiles, and rings of vineyard bound

The rest. Some captured creature in a pound,

Whose artless wonder quite precludes distress,

Secure beside in its own loveliness,

So peered with airy head, below, above,

The castle at its toils, the lapwings love

To glean among at grape-time. Pass within.                                                390

A maze of corridors contrived for sin,

Dusk winding-stairs, dim galleries got past,

You gain the inmost chambers, gain at last

A maple-panelled room: that haze which seems

Floating about the panel, if there gleams

A sunbeam over it, will turn to gold

And in light-graven characters unfold

The Arab's wisdom everywhere; what shade

Marred them a moment, those slim pillars made,

Cut like a company of palms to prop                                                               400

The roof, each kissing top entwined with top,

Leaning together; in the carver's mind

Some knot of bacchanals, flushed cheek combined

With straining forehead, shoulders purpled, hair

Diffused between, who in a goat-skin bear

A vintage ; graceful sister-palms ! But quick

To the main wonder, now. A vault, see ; thick

Black shade about the ceiling, though fine slits 

Across the buttress suffer light by fits

Upon a marvel in the midst. Nay, stoop—                                                     410

A dullish grey-streaked cumbrous font, a group

Round it,—each side of it, where'er one sees,—

Upholds it; shrinking Caryatides

Of just-tinged marble like Eve's lilied flesh

Beneath her maker's finger when the fresh

First pulse of life shot brightening the snow.

The font's edge burthens every shoulder, so

They muse upon the ground, eyelids half closed;

Some, with meek arms behind their backs disposed,

Some, crossed above their bosoms, some, to veil                                          420

Their eyes, some, propping chin and cheek so pale,

Some, hanging slack an utter helpless length

Dead as a buried vestal whose whole strength

Goes when the grate above shuts heavily.

So dwell these noiseless girls, patient to see,

Like priestesses because of sin impure

Penanced for ever, who resigned endure,

Having that once drunk sweetness to the dregs.

 And every eve, Sordello's visit begs

Pardon for them: constant as eve he came                                                         430

To sit beside each in her turn, the same

As one of them, a certain space: and awe

Made a great indistinctness till he saw

Sunset slant cheerful through the buttress-chinks,

Gold seven times globed; surely our maiden shrinks

And a smile stirs her if one faint grain

Her load were lightened, one shade less the stain

Obscured her forehead, yet one more bead slipt

From off the rosary whereby the crypt

Keeps count of the contritions of its charge?                                                        440

 

Reference

Browning, Robert. Sordello. Ed. Arthur J. Whyte. London: Dent, 1913. The Cantos Project: General Sources. Web. Book I: 375-440.

Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. 1934. New York: New Directions, 1987. 188-191.

 

                                        

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