JAY MUELLER – LUXURY VS. SOBRIETY (FROM THE PSYCHOMACHIA OF PRUDENTIUS)


I.

Then up from the war zone’s rosy occident,
To front the holy host, strode Luxury:
A prodigal of fame, esurient
For every carnal crumb: her soul’s sole glee
Was to suck seductive sweets lasciviously,
And so to her own perdition to persuade
Her feeble prey, whose softened strengths oft flee,
When, blear-eyed, dumb, she comes, with scented braids
And lulls our dullard sense, as flagging virtue fades.

II.

Thus presently, she slithered, drowsily, nigh, [10]
Still spewing fumes which rancidly revealed
That, revelling late, she’d drained her tankards dry,
And lounged till dawn, when, though her brain still reeled,
She chanced to hear as war-horns hoarsely pealed;
And then, surrendering her sleepy drinks,
The sensual wench arose, and sought the field;
A pampered, yet a passing nervy minx,
To bloody battle now, with flowers shod she slinks.

III.

Yet, not as one whom perfumed wine impedes,
But, sunken in her sparkling chariot’s seat— [20]
Intent to entrance, then trounce her foes—she speeds;
Though, once arrived, behold! No arrows fleet
Nor lance is hurled; no iron edges meet.
Strange sort of war! In place of punishing blows
(Knowing well how ill with pleasures pains compete)
She sprinkles violets, and many a thornless rose,
And fans their opiate breath ‘gainst all her mustered foes.

IV.

This baleful breeze, blown o’er the charméd crew
Creeps tenderly e’en to their jellied bones,
Their martial hearts, its calming scents subdue; [30]
Whereon steel muscles melt, O’d mouths ooze moans.
And now, with strength unstrung, and minds overthrown,
Our slumbrous soldiers drop their cumbrous spears
And shed indeed that valor, lately shown,
Whereby were crushed this wanton maid’s compeers.
A shameful pass, alas! when vice thus commandeers.

V.

But so things stood, as, into their awestruck eyes,
Her jeweled car flashed beams of myriad hues;
Its shimmering opals and pearls shot luminous dyes;
Its tinselled reins shook yellows, and heaven-sent blues, [40]
Which all, in tangled rainbows, interfuse,
And stun the soldiers, who, as statues, stare
While the wagon’s golden axle, spinning, strews
Sidereal sparks, and its silvery spokes, aflare,
Seem forming amber orbs, electric in the glare.

VI.

And soon, as standards droop, the whole brave band,—
Too fain to yield!—seems eager for defeat.
Beguiled, they’d bow to Luxury; unmanned,
Their sybaritic souls oppose retreat.
Each fancies looser rules, and poisons sweet, [50]
Excepting one, whose steadfast fortitude,
Leaves her alone to grieve and to entreat—
But bold Sobriety! From crime so lewd
Canst woo to war a corps thus—bloodlessly!—subdued?

VII.

In answer, she, unslanting and upright,
Implants her lofty standard in the plain.
Its blazing cross, which oft, in grueling fight,
Had woken sleeping swords, and slackness slain,
Now lent its might, as,—ardent to arraign,
But blending mordant scorn with salving prayer,— [60]
She, chiding, cried: “What madness—O profane!—
What darkness drowns your minds? What vile despair
Prevails, that festoons fetter, and scented air ensnares!”

VIII.

Then thus, as if the dead might wake, she exclaimed:
“What chains—for shame!—Should arms invincible bind?
Shall the scars our wars have carved on yours—far-famed,
Long feared—be bravely mocked, henceforth maligned,
Because leathery thews with lilies were entwined
And dented swords for nosegays were retired?
Do war-worn hands find comfort thus confined? [70]
Are soul-eroding bonds, dissolved, desired?
Alas, that senseless men should ‘gainst themselves conspire!

IX.

And e’en for this! So that those grisly locks
Might mask their crimson tints in gold and lace;
So that saffron scarves might soften war’s rough shocks,
Or, wrapping unhelmed heads, from brows erase
Those holy signs, by unctuous fingers traced,
Whereby a lord’s anointing was bestowed.
What! Shall men made to march, with mincing pace,
Arrayed in flowing silk, all languid, slowed, [80]
With trailing robes to sweep their tracks, seek broader roads?

X.

Did not prolific Faith, with skillful hands,
Once weave an enduring tunic, diamond-hard,
Which, blunting vicious darts and shattering brands,
Still mantled cleanséd hearts, a constant guard?
And this new life, her grace, you’d now discard,
To fete yourselves a-nights, where wastes of wine
From foaming cups are spilt; where, sphere’d in lard,
You too will welter, wilt and waste, supine,
On sodden couches slouched: now soldiers, and now swine. [90]

XI.

Ah, how? Have you forgot grim Horeb’s thirst?
Do you forget how all that parching vast
Was made to flood, how stones, as geysers, burst
Beneath Moses’ mystic rod? How, scorched, harassed,
Your grandsires, thankful, drank—how, thinned in fast,
God rained angelic food upon their tents?
Alas, that later days should thus contrast!
For, now, when our tribe’s holy aliment
Is prized as Christ’s own flesh, you’d spurn it, nor repent.

XII.

Now, feasted e’en as kings, rude gluttony nags; [100]
Now from ambrosial bread to putrid stys,
Luxuriance ne’er-vanquished virtue drags:
Aye, you, who snarling Wrath, Idolatries
Ne’er drove from war, this drunk’s plagues tantalize!
A prancing whore! For shame! Be men, I pray!
Recall yourselves, weigh all that glorifies:
Your race, your king, your lord and God, and stay
Yea, stand, remember Christ, and thrust this plague away!

XIII.

You are the seed of Judah, nobly sprung.
With Her’s through whom He took flesh, your blood is kin. [110]
And as noblest David’s deeds shall e’er be sung,
Even so shall yours, who quell this mournful sin.
But heed stern Samuel’s ways: aught war might win,
He’d let none touch. Crowned heathens, captived, died,—
Nor called their captors from their peace again,—
For then ‘twas crime to stall tyrannicide.
And now? Now, yielding, fall’n, —to foulest foes allied!

XIV.

And do you blush? Tis fitter far you weep!
Still more, if aught of godly reverence stirs,
That you repent, expulse this impious sleep, [120]
And grieve that e’er you dreamed your urges hers.
Repentance mends. This holy lore avers.
Young Jonathan, whose honeyed tongue transgressed,—
Who, coaxed from sacred oaths by power’s allures,
Profaned a sober fast—he wept, confessed,
And, owning guilt, atoned. In his your plight’s expressed:

XV.

Because contrite, he ‘scaped a tearful fate.
No horrid sentence stained his father’s sword.
Do, then, the like. Let naught your hearts amate,
But let them heave, with mine, in one accord. [130]
Lo! I, Sobriety, obeyed, afford
A path to all the virtues, strength to purge
This temptress Luxury, all her hideous horde—
Those legioned sins, which on weak souls converge—
And drag ‘em, chained, toward Christ; your lord, their judge and scourge.”

XVI.

She said no more, but hoisting high o’erhead
Her holy crucifix, she charged amain,
And sped before those foaming coursers dread
And leveled her reverend pike against their reins,
Which stretched and groaned and vainly strove to restrain [140]
A mad stampede, when, beams outspread, agleam,
Her harrowing cross shoots terror all through their veins,
Now blind with rage, repulsed, the masterless team,
Dashes off for a jagged crevasse, set to crash as a cascading stream.
XVII.

The helpless driver, borne, in horror, along,
Still idly tries the bridles, taut and tense,
And, leaning back, proves softness almost strong,
For—lashed with fluttering silks, her tresses sweet scents
Begrimed with dusty sweat—she nothing relents.
But nothing avails, for, torn with a jolt from her seat [150]
Her heavenly car turns an engine of mighty torments:
Its spinning spokes entrap her hands and feet,
Her snapping bones their brake, her silks her winding-sheet.

XVIII.

Thus entangled, the immangling car, still grinding, slows,
While, high on the vacated cliff, Sobriety heaves,
And hurls a boulder, winged with weighty woes
(For as Grace ensures this missile’s aid’s received,
So Grace ensures its shock full sore aggrieves).
But hear how the swordless standard-bearer cheers,
As the angled stone, down-crashing, lengthwise cleaves [160]
Her foe’s defiled face, and smashing, smears
Hot gore all o’er, so aught alluring disappears.

XIX.

As mortal a blow as if ‘twere a meteor’d smote!
It cracks her windpipe, shatters teeth and bones,
Pounds lips to pulp, and batters them down her throat.
And as welling blood whelms bits of swallowed stone,
Her stumped and tattered tongue attempts a moan.
But loaded with such unfamiliar food,
That mouth instead short gurgling gasps intones;—
Which soon, with clogging gobbets corked, conclude— [170]
Though, by the last convulsed, she heaved, and, dying, spewed.

XX.

But not before her sober slayer roared,
And mocking, said, “Now be thy gluttony cloyed,
Aye, gorge! For, lo! That hole wherein barrels were poured,
Now fills itself! That fetid gore you’d void—
Its last abhorrent dish!—O, be it enjoyed!
Thou loathsome sponge! O’ersurfeited with sweet:
Now bitterly e’en thus and thus destroyed,
O, now, thou throat, untoothed and tongueless, eat!
And may insatiate pain thy pampered life complete.” [180]