Forgive me, friends, this awkward distraction.
I speak on him, Antinous, as tho’
With his heart thou wert as knitted as I;
In its pace as constant; for his voice,
As attuned, trained, responsive and pining.
Yet to thine ears, he’s mute like a stone;
Taciturn as a wedge of white marble
Marked by ready eyes to be hewn to a
Suitable icon; a solemn contour
That, in Saturn’s hoary, unkempt bramble
Shall ever stand his face to shadows bowed;
From sunlight’s blazing impulse, hope’s lantern,
And even the dream of fireflies cosseted;
By fleet glimpses through life’s copse set to be
Idealized, idolized, deified
Past all semblance of that bursting, florid,
Fulsome boy who mesmerized my being.
I’ll retreat a modest handful of years,
Make fitting the preface to his fiber
And so acquaint you each how I of him
Came first acquainted, the better thus to
Understand and champion my project.
(Warm lights up on the Paedagogium of
Rome – an empty space filled only by Hadrian’s words.)
He was but barely ten and four years old.
Walking. Merely walking – as the other
Boys jumped and ran and wrestled and flaunted
Their false and ever-aware selflessness
Before mine unannounced inspection.
Their tutors I’d instructed naught to slip
Of my call to the Paedagogium.
Yet sure as Jupiter knows the cosmos,
They sensed the surveillance; yearned for mine eye,
Its favour, a palm upon their shoulder
Signifying prompt and gold promotion
Into the Emperor’s close company.
‘Twas easy to perceive their disquiet;
The sycophantic ardor of their art,
Longing by the regal sweep to be seen.
Yet there was one. One. One who cared nothing.
Merely with his meadow ambled modestly
Alone, his gaze upon the pulpy soil
But perfunctory to navigation
And quite apparently pursuing some
Considerable internal question.
By that elusiveness, he captured me;
By that unaffected poise, affected.
Him. That one there, walking. Bring him forward.
Enter Antinous. Let this establish how
Hadrian’s frail stature becomes noticeably stronger as he
transitions into conversations with his past. From the cold, grey
light of the present, Telesphorus and Antoninus will watch the scenes
played out as if recounted.
Do you know me, boy?
What am I, then?
A man; else the Emperor Hadrian.
Not the both at once?
If ‘tis a rare and
Occasional exception for heaven,
Where, save in the ambush of an eclipse,
Stalwarts Night and Day relieve each their guard
O’er the arms and charm-choked farms of the earth,
Ne’er to vigil, vine or sup together,
But always each to exchange report and
Bow to a bed beyond the sense of mortals,
How should you expect to blanket the world
Both King’s azure and Man’s empty navy
At once, thence to call it a constant sky?
Yet truly, friend, I breathe before thee here
Both a man and the Emperor of Rome.
The one’s my being, the two’s my title,
(And ‘tis an old, acceptable practice
To bestow on limbs their life’s good mantle).
Think me not thus as Night and Day in time’s
Constant and revolving opposition;
See me as the Day – my title the Sun –
Or, if thou wouldst deign me such bright glory,
Label the pale moon mine Emperor’s crown,
And spill it o’er a Night called Hadrian.
By such adjustment, title fits being,
And each may be seen as the one and same
When looked on with all-encompassing eyes.
How is it you alone see distinction?
Behold, my liege, this, and future difference:
For I shall address thee first my sovereign,
Bid welcome to the Roman Paleastra,
And wish on thee thy fellow gods’ blessing.
Great and glorious be thy patient reign,
That History may find it no other
Hero worthier to record—
I am, I confess, o’erheard of it, friend.
Now then, pray thee, address me as a man.
I remember a day, a breathless day,
When lofty clouds – abundant but their own –
Crowded above us in all but a ring
Of respectful welkin ‘round the white sun,
That every ageless, unobstructed eye
Of curious heaven might gaze downward
T’observe, with the def’rent mortals, as thy
Procession entered my childhood city.
Be it named?
Thou art a Bithynian.
I am, Sir.
‘Tis a fine province from which you hail, boy.
I thank you, Sir.
How old when you spied me?
A month and eight years aged was I that day:
Too young to ascertain connotation,
Comment, or political opinion,
Yet keenly, wildly, drunkenly attuned
To the jubilation in every heart.
High was I perched on my father’s shoulders
As like a centaur in half-mount the plinth,
And, o’er the heads of cheering multitudes,
Marked, advent to exit, thine every step.
Methinks I ought recall such occasion:
Trustworthy Trajan was suddenly dead –
His Parthian exploits fresh concluded –
And I, of forty-one modestly weathered years,
Was named to inherit his prosp’ring peace.
‘Twas from Ancyra came I riding through,
Bound as I was for Nikomedia.
Thy silent lips were tense and thinly smiled
‘Midst the trim beard above thy golden fringe.
And slowly, as the townsfolk ye surveyed,
Thine eyes on I an instant alighted…
And pierced in me a most unwelcome dread.
Dread? Yet how sprouts, in a lad of eight, dread?
I know not the source, nor the course of it:
Such is rare for a lad of eight to know.
Yet I felt and understood it for dread,
As like for a wasp in thin proximity.
Truly thou art a candid fellow, boy!
Aye, Sir. Wilt prefer’t therefore to be known
To me as an emperor or a man?
By the gods, as a man! Only a man!
Speak to me honestly, as none other
Surrounds me would, that I should interview
A fellow being; a friend; an equal
To me both when human and higher above!
Speak, friend. Sing! Go on, and tell me still more
Of that day I rode through and you watched me!
There’s little else to say of the pageant.
‘Twas the first of three times I’d behold thee.
Then tell me of the second!
As you wish.
‘Twas back some two years, when Poseidon’s jaw,
Crunching, clenched for unaccountable rage –
What Nereid or human trespass trod
Can scarce from the stars be speculated –
Yet, with a bellicose brow, his wrenching
Fury forked from the crackling trident
A quaking ruin o’er the Propontis.
Lo, I remember its newsy messenger.
Breathless from his ride he fell before me
And spake of unspeakable disasters:
“An earthquake hath ravaged Bithynia!”
I stood in Parthia when it happened,
A swift reaction to other tremors:
For there’d been rumblings of another feud,
And east from the Pillars of Hercules
I ‘cross the Mediterranean sailed,
There to ward off the man-made quake of war.
Success with a good salute greeted me;
His artful cousin, Diplomacy, smiled,
And there I stood to think myself worthy
Of it to pacify both men and gods,
As tho’ not I nor the millions I ruled
Should give heaven ever again offense.
‘Twas that very day the grave word galloped.
How is it, I wondered then, can solid
Earth heave an engine so unforgiving
That all the centuries of men’s construct
Must be leveled in a lone belt of rage?
How is it, I wondered then by contrast,
Can men assume for it a penitence
With pilgrimage to that God’s own temple?
Thereat to reapply some offering,
Make prostrate sacrifice, weep and wail, pray
To obscene and excessive spectacle,
As though such display could endow the day
With a bankable future recompense.
Be still, you overzealous idiots!
The God hath vented for an injury –
Some prior perpetration committed
In history; unrecoverable –
And all thy fumbling conciliation
In the aftermath appeases Nothing;
Exposes but thy flaccid, imprecise
And reactionary soul to the world.
Instead, look ‘round, breathe, take stock of the Self,
And stand squarely ‘midst the pummeled rubble
With but a plan and frame for the future!
Such could I have cried to the frenzied men
Of Bithynia; they who bereaved all
By lamenting to the God that stole it.
But these are hard, unforgiving instincts
That scorn the heart of human compassion.
How is it, boy, you’ll sneer at frailty,
And refuse men their permission to mourn
When sudden calamity should deflect
What’s hoped for in natural course of life?
If men are frail, ‘tis from thinking their lives
Immune to misfortune and tragedy.
And if that they hope for tranquility,
Wishing it the natural course of life,
They shall be dismal and rudely amazed
By some fat and marauding colossus;
A brawny, buck-toothed toddler of Cronus,
With monstrous lungs that squeal for upheaval,
Angry, incontinent bowels that crud
The palace of every poet’s fancy,
And dimpled limbs that lob men’s precious loves
Like playthings o’er the valleys of the world.
Such is the natural course of life, Sir,
And they that fail to foresee its rampage
Must for stanch blindness become to me frail.
Lights cool upon Antinous as he freezes
to a statue.
HADRIAN (to Telesphorus
Thusly was he riddled with opinion;
And in opinion posed only riddles!
Who was he, this fearless and forward boy;
This paragon of young, mortal beauty
That nonetheless spoke and spat like a god?
He was but fourteen at the time, father?
Fourteen! And yet, a contemporary;
A mind with whom I might merrily spar.
O, I was enraptured! Drowned; astounded
By this too singular intensity…
The meanwhile hung everything on our pause!
Protocol beckoned; the twin’d Caesernii
Murmured them worriedly to each other;
Tense courtiers in vain for mine eye jostled
And great contrivance of state for my hand
Awaited restless the ink’s arrival…
Yet I could not my soul unhitch from his;
Could not think to crack upon our summit
The banal yoke of corporeal life;
And looked on him as like an oracle:
A source of hope, fearsome love and wisdom.
(Lights warm up on the body of Antinous,
releasing him from his immobility as Hadrian addresses him again:)
‘Twell may be, as thou should affirm, that men,
Blind to life’s frailty, enfeeble themselves.
Yet if, as you say, you would gnash at them
In the aftershock of Neptune’s havoc,
Scorn them for tardy, teary repentance,
And beat them with the heart of a Stoic,
How is it you should be contradicted,
And allege to spy me a second time?
For I returned, as will recall, to make
With that cantanker’d Poseidon amends,
To oversee the offerings, give prayer,
Pledge fidelity again to his cult,
And then from the Roman treasury funds
To help the stricken region reconstruct.
I was there, I say, to mourn as a man,
And be frail before the gods that rule us.
So that if, as you boast, you beheld me
The instance of my second arrival,
I assert you stood among the feeble –
Perchance once more on thy father’s shoulders,
Perched for another view of the Purple.
You are wrong, Sir, for my father was dead:
Crushed by a crumbling column in the shrine
Of that very dreadful God you’d appease.
Forgive me, friend. And by that sudden pierce –
The stab and wound of authentic sorrow –
I declare it butchered this living breast,
And offer up my vital venison
For the gods in sacrifice to his name.
I thank you, Sir.
And what of thy mother?
Beneath a mudslide, buried in our home.
Lights cool; Antinous becomes yet another
HADRIAN (to Telesphorus
Canst discern the emerging shape of him;
The melancholy’d marble of a mind
Whose stolid gaze, with level aloofness,
Denudes a defiant soul more centred
Than the throne of dispassionate Pluto?
At eleven years, Fate carved of him an
Orphan from the quarry of human flesh,
And he, seeing his life by divine hands
Sculpted, stepped boldly forth ‘pon Man’s dais
Firm to face Olympus as an icon
Of indefatigable mortal kind,
Whilst ‘round him tumbled the mollific men
To succour not he, but his orphaner!
Now, lest you presume him impertinent –
Pugnacious in the face of angry gods –
Be assured, gentle friends, he was spotless:
Quartz transparent in respect of heaven;
Pious and pure in his pantheist love;
And more sensing of the gods than a priest.
Not once caught I from his eye t’evince it
A wink or any wash of sneer’s contempt!
To heaven he looked not up, but across;
To earth he looked ne’er down, but around.
He was a boy both manlike and godly;
A god of boyish brawl and manly mind;
A man of godly eyes in boyish guise.
(To Antinous, warmly restored:)
By the stars, again, for that misery
Of a mother’s patient love departed,
I doth tender mine utmost condolence.
I thank you, Sir.
What from that became you?
The town elders made known to thy courtiers
My countenance. And they, on seeing it,
Plain before them foresaw an ephebus
Worthy of a lusty spat with Trajan.
I’ve attentive retainers.
For ‘tis obviously among them known
That I with my father once contested
Farcic’ly for the esteem of a boy.
‘Tis well… For who from the rubble scooped you,
And to my lucky eyes thy limbs dispatched,
I warrant shall be duly commended.
Speak of that third occasion you saw me.
‘Tis here and today, by this inspection.
Whereat thou hast been discovered from ‘midst
The desperate and futile obfuscation
Of a hapless, hurt, and envious crowd.
Are they envious?
Can you not sense it?
How they stare through a pretense ne’er to look?
How sport, once heated, hath suddenly cooled?
How in their eyes they scorn you already?
(Antinous looks around, contemplating.)
It brightens me to brighten the soul of
A boy in the shade of isolation.
Hast from suff’ring internship profited
In this Palaestra of Caelian Hill?
Less, methinks, than thou thy burst on Athens
Enjoyed on leave from fair Bithynia.
I trow it’s true.
Wilt regale me of it?
For no other cause than to hear
You as a man confer on something loved.
Lo, if e’er were called the Praetorian
To shield my stubborn will from life’s maraud
Of faultless and formidable reasons,
Each by a philosopher armed for war
And wily in the art of persuasion,
Swift could yours alone, wielding naught but the
Guile of an honest voice, breach their defense,
Pass beneath the gates of good esteem and
Enter the city of my teeming thought.
From the restorations I departed
For the Troad – birthplace of Ganymede –
And there the tomb of Ajax refurbished.
In Mysia, I founded three cities;
Others I inspected and endowed.
Smyrna received ten million drachmas;
Proud Ephebos, like a jealous brother,
Obtained from my coffers ten million more.
Then by ship to the Aegean islands,
And soon afterward on to Samothrace
For the mysteries of the Cabiri.
By summertime I came to Thespiae,
Where, at Mount Helikon of the Muses,
I hunted a bear, and made of it a proud
Offering with a poem I composed –
In Greek – to Eros, the sweetest of gods.
At last I was in Athens, and for half
The handsome year would bathe and bask in it!
To be sure, on coming I encountered
The moss and crumble of its long molder:
Neglect like ochre’d snow was a blanket
Melting each night by nets of seamy streets
More squalid than their founder’s memory.
For this, I, despite of the decadence,
Embodied myself the new Theseus,
And swiftly set about for revival –
A stirring both of soul and expression
Designed for glory on Athens restored.
Her laws and constitution I revised;
Her stagnant commerce I revital’d with
Balmy concessions to aching markets;
Her housing I spaciously expanded.
Of all I undertook those hectic months,
Nothing but could inflame me more than a
Destitute plot of land that three hundred
Years of bilk, blunder, and vain promise had
Shamefully betrayed. Where was that temple
Of Zeus Olympios, long ago to
The enduring people of Athens pledged?
Where their tower of tribute to the vast
Commander of a mighty pantheon?
I resolved it such delays unseemly;
Decreed in solemn vow the stones would rise
And reach a height of incomp’rable scale.
Thus to their labour the labourers bowed,
Thus for their city grew the citizens proud,
Thus to its custom shall Hellas recall,
And by it, shall ever the world enthrall!
Forgive me, friend, this unforeseen fervor:
I am, with good evidence, excited.
The shrine of Zeus must shine for Achaea
A fierce beacon ‘round which to unify.
‘Twill ascend as the centre of culture
And spirit – a lighthouse of the brightest
Erudition, beaming warm cultivation
Through the heavy fog, dank with ignorance,
To illumine at long last an Empire.
‘Tis well observed among the Hellenes,
Thou art the restorer and the saviour.
For fond and bountiful fascination
They ascribe ye the new Dionysos.
Be vigilant, boy – thy song’s in danger
Of mistaking me for thine Emperor.
Forgive me, Sir. As thou art but a man,
I’ll do no more than express an honest
Amazement on such embracing travel
O’er the face of this wide and wondrous earth.
‘Tis gracious, ‘spite of the bothersome fact
Of thy first sighting, whereat ye dreaded;
The second, whereat thy trepidation
Unto hard resolve ossified amidst
The liquidation of thy latent world;
And the third, whereat thou hast caught mine eye,
Intrigued me, and roped mine interest ‘round you.
Dost fear it, boy, this, my full attention –
A portent, perchance, of dangerous days
Ahead, awaiting in thy life’s ambush?
I’ll not be afear’d of a fate o’er which
I wield but the weapons of a mortal.
A laudable strategy for living.
What of my title, then? Are not humbled
By the Emperor Ceasar Trajanus
Hadrian Augustus, grandson of the
Deified Nerva, son of the deified
Trajan Parthicus, pontifex maximus,
Holding the tribunician power
For the seventh year, and consul three times?
Should you like me to be by it humbled?
I am willing, Sir, to kneel before—
By Jupiter, how refreshing thou art.
Be never what any should will for thee,
So evermore may live, as this day, free.
I thank you, Sir.
Lights cool; Antinous freezes.
HADRIAN (to Telesphorus
And yet, ‘twas not a thanks
Of rev’rence for the king’s condescension:
‘Twas thanks from a tourist to one on the
Street for quick direction to the forum.
I thank you, Sir, for thou art as am I:
A mortal; an animal what speaks thought –
No more worthy of worship than a skunk,
Nor of disdain for not being a god.
He was before me perfectly at ease.
Moreso, ‘twas a comportment born not of
Blithe arrogance or green stupidity:
With formulations far beyond his years,
Only an idiot could fail to observe
The obvious intelligence in him.
‘Twas elsewhere, the source of that composure:
A secret wellspring of melancholy,
Gurgling gently through a private arbor
Of cloistered sorrow to pool in a pond
Of brooding and bitter resignation.
Thus could he afford to live aloofly –
Raised wild upon that exclusive estate
Whose dreamy bower beckoned him daily –
For he possessed a special awareness;
Fidelity to some unnamed power
Ever more potent than an Emperor,
Yet less than a god, which thus compelled him
To look on me not as his earthly ruler,
Yet merely as an equal among men.
‘Twas a license in his practical soul,
A greatness I both feared and admired,
And for it I felt a fierce attraction.
(Lights warm; Antinous restored:)
Say to me thy name, boy.
Antinous. Antinous. Well then…
My company walks to the Palatine;
Shall it please you to join me?
Shall it please
You by me to be joined?
If so, thou mayst compel my company
As befits an Emperor to enjoin.
Behold, Antinous, my solemn pledge:
To thee I’ll ever speak with a man’s voice.
Then I shall very much like to join you.
HADRIAN (to Telesphorus
Thusly did he pierce the circumference,
And, into the royal household installed,
Burgeoned from a safely monitored spot.
Aye, for discretely was I watching him:
Outwardly, to be assured, giving no
Indication of my spirit’s ferment
And commanding him to be instructed,
Punished and praised as any other page.
Yet alone in my brain was that one name –
Antinous – forever proximate.
Anxiously I observed him, awaiting
For to manifest that self-importance
What devoured every noble heart for pride.
I wished for it, for when identified
It doth render a man fully human.
Yet daily as that fearsome boy was reared,
Ne’er to mine eye aught arrogance appeared.
Exit Hadrian (the younger) with Antinous.
Lights down on Telesphorus and Antoninus.
END OF EXCERPT