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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

Michael Angelo: A Fragment

Part First. I. Monologue: The Last Judgment

MICHAEL ANGELO’S Studio. He is at work on the cartoon of the Last Judgment.

WHY did the Pope and his ten Cardinals

Come here to lay this heavy task upon me?

Were not the paintings on the Sistine ceiling

Enough for them? They saw the Hebrew leader

Waiting, and clutching his tempestuous beard,

But heeded not. The bones of Julius

Shook in their sepulchre. I heard the sound;

They only heard the sound of their own voices.

Are there no other artists here in Rome

To do this work, that they must needs seek me?

Fra Bastian, my Fra Bastian, might have done it,

But he is lost to art. The Papal Seals,

Like leaden weights upon a dead man’s eyes,

Press down his lids; and so the burden falls

On Michael Angelo, Chief Architect

And Painter of the Apostolic Palace.

That is the title they cajole me with,

To make me do their work and leave my own;

But having once begun, I turn not back.

Blow, ye bright angels, on your golden trumpets

To the four corners of the earth, and wake

The dead to judgment! Ye recording angels,

Open your books and read! Ye dead, awake!

Rise from your graves, drowsy and drugged with death,

As men who suddenly aroused from sleep

Look round amazed, and know not where they are!

In happy hours, when the imagination

Wakes like a wind at midnight, and the soul

Trembles in all its leaves, it is a joy

To be uplifted on its wings, and listen

To the prophetic voices in the air

That call us onward. Then the work we do

Is a delight, and the obedient hand

Never grows weary. But how different is it

In the disconsolate, discouraged hours,

When all the wisdom of the world appears

As trivial as the gossip of a nurse

In a sick-room, and all our work seems useless.

What is it guides my hand, what thoughts possess me,

That I have drawn her face among the angels,

Where she will be hereafter? O sweet dreams,

That through the vacant chambers of my heart

Walk in the silence, as familiar phantoms

Frequent an ancient house, what will ye with me?

’T is said that Emperors write their names in green

When under age, but when of age in purple.

So Love, the greatest Emperor of them all,

Writes his in green at first, but afterwards

In the imperial purple of our blood.

First love or last love,—which of these two passions

Is more omnipotent? Which is more fair,

The star of morning, or the evening star?

The sunrise or the sunset of the heart?

The hour when we look forth to the unknown,

And the advancing day consumes the shadows,

Or that when all the landscape of our lives

Lies stretched behind us, and familiar places

Gleam in the distance, and sweet memories

Rise like a tender haze, and magnify

The objects we behold, that soon must vanish?

What matters it to me, whose countenance

Is like Laocoön’s, full of pain? whose forehead

Is a ploughed harvest-field, where three-score years

Have sown in sorrow and have reaped in anguish?

To me, the artisan, to whom all women

Have been as if they were not, or at most

A sudden rush of pigeons in the air,

A flutter of wings, a sound, and then a silence?

I am too old for love; I am too old

To flatter and delude myself with visions

Of never-ending friendship with fair women,

Imaginations, fantasies, illusions,

In which the things that cannot be take shape,

And seem to be, and for the moment are.

Convent bells ring.

Distant and near and low and loud the bells,

Dominican, Benedictine, and Franciscan,

Jangle and wrangle in their airy towers,

Discordant as the brotherhoods themselves

In their dim cloisters. The descending sun

Seems to caress the city that he loves,

And crowns it with the aureole of a saint.

I will go forth and breathe the air awhile.