The Profession. A Sketch

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On Santa Croce's golden-pillared shrine,
A thousand tapers pour their blended rays
In one rich tide of radiance. Like a pine,
 Lifting its lofty head amid the blaze
Of sunlit snows, stands forward to the gaze
 Of the assembled throng, the Priest supreme,
 In full pontificals. His hand he lays
Upon a gorgeous crucifix, the theme
Of the oracular words from his pale lips that stream.
Upon his open brow a dignity
That well beseems his office is enthroned;
And if the brightness of his coal-black eye
 Is something tamed by time, it must be owned
 It hath a chastened lustre far beyond
The fire of youthful glances;—and if Care,
 With lines of premature decay, hath crowned
His thoughtful forehead, as in fervent prayer
 He bends, unfailing faith, hope, peace, are beaming there!
The chancel-portals, with a crash, unfold,
And a long train of close-veiled nuns pour in,
And gather round the palisades of gold
 That gird that glorious shriving-place for sin.
The stately Abbess enters:—then begin
Sweet far-off voices on the ear to steal
With dim, delicious melodies, that win
Their way to the deep heart,—till bursts the swell
From organ, harp, voice, lute, in one magnificent peal.
The chaunt hath ended;—and throughout the throng
Heart-hushing silence reigns, and every brow
 Is raised in keen expectancy.—Ere long,
Once more the Pontiff at the shrine doth bow
Before the golden crucifix; and now
 Calls on the fated victim.—She attends
 The awful summons, and with footstep slow
 Draws near,—the altar's marble stair ascends,—
And on the velvet pall, with knee submissive, bends.
 Then breathes the man of God, in eloquent strain,
The pious exhortation;—he dilates
Upon the wild varieties of pain
 Which, in each labyrinth of life, awaits
 ‘The world's tired denizen;’—portrays their fates
 Whom Pleasure 'witches with her syren charms;
And promises to her who dedicates
Her youth to God,—from Passion's vain alarms
 A shield, and sure repose in mild Religion's arms!
All hearts are stirred,—but chiefly hers who kneels
In silent homage there: she lifts her face
 To Heaven, but still her milk-white veil conceals
Its features from the view. Her form of grace,
Through its dim, shadowy foldings you may trace,
 Fair as those curves of beauty in the skies
 Which speak of Hope when storms are near, and chase
 The clouds of dark despondency. All eyes
 Are fixed upon her, now, in pity or surprise:
 For, hark! In measured tones, the convent-bell
Booms heavily on the ear. With stooping brow—
 As mindful of the duty its deep knell
 Proclaims,—and voice, sweet as the musical flow
Of desert waters, she repeats the vow
 That shuts her from the world. In accents mild,
 The father questions, if the words that now
Are registered on high, are unbeguiled
 By circumstance or wish, unstable, vain, or wild?
She answers him ‘they are.’—'Tis well, he cries,
And from the altar takes a golden ring,
 And, gently bidding the young vestal rise,
 'Tis fixed upon her finger.—Then they fling
The snow-white veil aside; but ere they bring
The last black ensign of the awful rite,
 In shroudless beauty stands that lovely thing,—
 A delicate star soft beaming on the sight,
Like Hesper when he breaks from curtaining clouds of night.
 O'er her white brow her wandering hair descends
 In rich unbraided rings;—a coronal
Of lilies, wreathed amid each cluster, lends
 An added grace: and, as at evening's fall
 Day struggles with th' annihilating pall
 That darkness would shed o'er it, so the gleam
 Of her transparent forehead shines through all
 The chestnut curls that shadow it:—so stream
 With tremulous light the rays that from her deep eyes beam.
 Hers is that nameless loveliness that sinks
 On the beholder's heart; and if he seeks,
 Whilst his full glance her blaze of beauty drinks,
 To know where lurks the charm which thus bespeaks
His passionate admiration;—if in cheeks
Of rose—or ruby lips—or violet eyes—
It is in vain!—Not in the separate streaks
 Of that rich bow of gathered beauty lies
The spell of power, but in its full, united dyes.
 She looks around:—upon her delicate lips
 A smile of melancholy sweetness plays;
But soon a passing thought, in dark eclipse,
Hath veiled it from the view;—and now they raise
 Once more to Heaven the pealing notes of praise:
 Her eye grows brighter;—on her cheek a flush
 Of deeper crimson mantles, and her gaze
With holy zeal upturns, as the full rush
 Of the loud organ's tones grows gathering gush on gush.
And now she joins the choir, whose voices swell,
 Swell and subside, then rise, and sink again,
Like ocean's billows when the winds rebel,
And surge on surge prevails. Sudden the strain
Hath ceased; as when upon the watery plain
The oil of peace is poured, and the waves glide
 Untroubled on their way. I list in vain!
Hushed is, at length, that wild and witching tide,
 And organ, harp, voice, lute, have into silence died.
The sable veil is brought,—the prayer is said;
The silken tress and lily wreath removed;
And sighs are heaved, and silent tears are shed
By friends around, so loving and beloved.
Ah! who could view this last sad rite unmoved!—
 Youth, beauty, virtue, in their earliest prime,
 Crossing the threshold of a home unproved;
 Where bigot forms are hallowed but by time,
 And filial duty ends, and love becomes a crime!
 Yet she is firm, and with unfailing voice
 Pours forth the final hymn; and it would seem,
 Taught by some secret instinct to rejoice
That she hath 'scaped the worldling's chequered dream.
 Religion, now, must be the only theme
 On which her heart may dwell. Life's darkest ills
 Can ne'er again disturb the peaceful stream
Of her sweet thoughts, delayed Hope's withering chills,
Ambition's glittering gauds, nor Passion's thousand thrills,
 Wake discord on her mind's melodious lyre,
The convent's portal passed. Perchance her heart
 Hath been too fiercely chastened in the fire
 Of love's deep phantasies,—until the smart
 Bade her all bleeding from the strife depart,
 And seek nepenthe in a fate like this.
 What marvel then, if no big tear-drops start;
If schooled in sorrow thus she bends submiss;
 Since whatsoe'er her doom, to that it must be bliss.
 But see! the altar is deserted now;
The crowd pours out from Santa Croce's walls.
 Behind the gazing throng, with thoughtful brow,
I linger yet amid the flower-decked stalls,
 Deep musing on the past:—the last foot-falls
 Are faintly echoing o'er the marble floor;
 Yet, still, some spell my conscious heart enthralls;—
At length I slowly gain the closing door,
And bid the scene farewell,—now and for evermore!

© Alaric Alexander Watts