Antinous. Come hither to my side.
Lest you know him not by his pleasing looks,
I shall make a working man’s frank effort
To acquaint you, dear Senators, of him.
Scooped as like from horseback a spoil of war
From the rugged Bithynian splendour
To Rome’s Palaestra of aspiring boys,
This fellow – this Antinous – hath grown
Beneath mine observance unto his youth.
Schooled and scolded among the famuli,
Treated, if anything, more harshly than
Other lads for that to test his mettle,
This Antinous hath by the noblest
Modesty matured from groom to gallant;
From one who tends the horse to one who rides;
From reedy boy unto steely hunter –
In word, economical; mind, acute;
In body, balanced, proud, Apollo-blest.
Yet more than I’ll esteem a one who doth
Esteem in heart no happenstance for hunt,
‘Tis this Antinous what has with us
Traveled Italia, distinguished himself
By courtesy, conduct, good character,
And that most gracious deference to the gods.
Therefore, as to more ambitious journeys
We again embark, I do embrace him
Most publicly – this fine Antinous –
And number him among the amici,
To dine, converse, and ride near to me
A trusted imperial confidante.
Judicious people shall take note of it,
And deem this Antinous… favourite.
(Antinous cools to a statue: young,
dignified, unassailable. Hadrian turns to Telesphorus and Antoninus:)
Dost recall it, that boundless eleventh?
I do, father. ‘Tho myself but a fledge,
Barely attuned, still well remember.
Unto this calm, stoic Antinous
I bestowed my most obsessive passions:
From imperial tables I fed him,
Milked from his vigorous and cultured mind
The sweet, considered notions of wisdom
And churned from his image the essential,
Voluptuous, addictive memories
That still to these mouldy days sustain me.
(To Antinous restored, as lights warm
to Hadrian’s bedroom:)
Wherefore so silent, Antinous? Hey?
Speak to me. Speak to me who is a man.
Thou should not have so conspicuously
This face paraded before the Senate.
If ‘twas admired as truth when yet obscure,
How shall approbation avouch to fame?
For like the object of my good esteem,
Esteem itself my famed objective serves.
Here is the capital. And upon it,
The western provinces gaze triumphant
And unified in anticipation
For the great temple of Venus and Rome.
‘Tis there lies Athens the Aegean jewel,
Whereupon is shone the votive flame of
Eastward provinces over Palestine,
Their twitching dreams as one fixated on
The promised shrine of Zeus Olympios.
Yet these twin realms – east and west – lie apart.
What may unite their insular unities?
How shall Hadrian mesh two marvelous,
Antagonistic cultures to one? Hey?
Perchance by some Bithynian beauty;
A fellow born beneath the gods of Greece,
Whose life is famous loved by gods of Rome.
You’d wear me, then, as a cape to Athens,
And billow with windy speeching my brow?
Brilliant a flag as thee demands be flown,
For when snap’d, doth all men’s pulses arise.
Yet how shall you deem it mere politics
When such use of you proves but a bonus
To that most genuine love I’d surely
Suffer raised ill-bred of hulking statecraft?
Mark – the Latin lover; his Grecian love:
Their graceful union effaces the pock
Of elsewhere’s pale, dispassion’d policy.
Thou art, as like the country that reared you,
A blazing terrain blest and virginal;
And here, as weds my heart to thy nation,
‘Twill ne’er diminish my nation wed to thee.
Long from far I’ve loved you, Antinous,
Long for this privacy privately pined.
Thus I ask you, splendid Antinous:
Wilt join me abed, and be long entwined?
Profluent lover of Antinous,
Full-fig’d bridegroom of a dowager’d Greece,
Recalcitrant Father of the Country,
And impregnable Emperor of Rome,
All men ought know when asked of Hadrian:
‘Tis asking for death to opt refusal.
Thus, tho’ I loathe it to impugn such words
As from thine impeccable mouth emerge,
Yet by the gods, I am stood here askance,
Asking at thy claim this flesh to request,
And must question if ‘tis not a command?
Has not the best assurance been given,
Antinous, in toothless character
More constant than death’s toothy endurance
That alone from exhumed inquiry may
Assure what’s living indeed of who died?
As by the teeth, tongue, tonsil and timbre
Of this – this most fallible mandible,
I shall preach to thee no godly command
To breach my first, fundamental promise.
Trust with conviction thine impunity,
And seek refuge, if wished, in refusal;
Yet know that for thy chastity is chased,
‘Tis but by an archer of bowstringed lips,
Aiming from low off the loam of steam’s earth
To launch his darts of breath’s desire through trees
That long have obscured his antlered prize.
Ardently I crave you in bed this night,
So humbly on my knee do request it.
Show me then Hadrian’s fragrant pillow,
That on it I may undress and be his.
Hadrian guides Antinous toward the bed,
where he disrobes and stands in serene anticipation. Lights cool
him to a statue, demanding the gaze of all eyes.
HADRIAN (to Telesphorus:)
Does it disturb you, O Bishop of Rome,
To hear such a thing? You may speak freely.
For such a thing as the flesh of a boy –
A sullied flesh by flesh made more sullied –
Does it please you, O King, to speak on it?
Aye. And tho’ I smile; tho’ I smirk at thee,
‘Tis not for a snide, carnivorous taunt
At the expense of a hapless Christian.
‘Tis that reconjured bliss, the memory
Of a warm, intimate Antinous –
Generous and patient ‘spite the fervid
Lather of my ferocious consumption –
That doth heave to heaven this merry jowl
And thicken still yet my blood to think it.
Does it perturb you to hear such a thing?
My heart’s perturbed in magnitude equal
To what pleasure you take for speaking it.
‘Tis a looking glass, then, that divides us –
The Pagan from his backward reflection.
By Jove, let’s hazard a glance in the mirror.
(Concerning the stone Antinous:)
Behold the body of a perfect man;
A Classic man; a man of noble blood:
Mark the construction of it so stolid
It doth compel yet the gods to stagger.
Observe it in the gaze of observers –
Proud, dignified, spoken of and admired;
In status, a citizen of the state;
In state, more splendid than what’s mere status.
That it lives publicly, dies a success;
That it dies publicly, succeeds what’s flesh
And e’er from annals of civic deed lives.
Now see in it the Christian reflected:
Self-humiliated, abased, prostrate
Upon the infectious floor, murmuring
Viscous, weepy prayers of plaintive torment.
Is it not true?
The Roman bathes to look on bathing Rome
And sweat his salt among sweet company;
Yet for to forsake the roaming of sight,
The Christian gaze in humbling gauze will swathe.
The Roman struts and doth standard himself
By what’s done in the day’s gymnasium;
The Christian shames and will debase himself
In the shadows of a leprous laneway.
What say you, Telesphorus. Hey? Speak.
Are not my words the buff twixt this and thee?
True to form, reflecting good argument,
He stands but silent, with eyes to nothing.
Shall you answer me, stranger? Self-defend?
The Roman body is vital, vigor’d,
Conspicuous, and ever invested
In the humours of municipal health:
It stands concerned, connected, and hectored
But by duty to weather broad debate.
Christian body is by intention
Broken, severed, bastard and isolate:
Willingly as an anchorite wasted
In the festering must of hermitage.
Wherefore does the dolorous Christian cause
Himself as like a criminal to be
Absent in the holy communion
Of a god-pleasing, sacrificial meal?
Is it not, Sir, a shocking aggression
‘Gainst the excellent forbearance of Rome?
The body’s flesh, by unctuous being,
Doth blanket in sinful urge the soul’s light.
Therefore, by Christ, we deny what’s corp’ral
To affirm ourselves nearer to heaven.
Deny what’s corporal?
How is that?
For in the fasting; the embrace of pain,
We seek and solicit upon our flesh
The suffering ever that purifies.
Awash in ache, in hunger’s belly crimped,
We demonstrate unto God’s approval
Our stanch ability all to transcend.
Shall you be then sublime and contented
If given to the lions in fodder?
Indeed, Sir, I shall, and too will thank thee,
For quicker more close to God am granted.
And what of that, Sir, there, from ‘twixt thy legs
What earthward plumbs ‘til, goaded for pleasure,
It doth engorge, gout, fleshify itself
And turn up its lonesome eye to heaven?
How then dost thou deny what’s corporal?
By that welcome tribulation, my liege,
What assures from the constant temptation –
Granting over and again occasion
To celebrate God’s prescribed purity
In the rigorous bind of abstinence.
‘Tis very strange: a godly prescription
For purity that doth proscribe pleasure;
A deity’s dictum for to deny
Men’s fundamental urges of the flesh –
Food, festive air, Cupid’s fellowship –
Zesty expressions of wellbeing
With which humans their gods do venerate.
(Concerning the statue of Antinous:)
How, Sir, be this beauteous shape sullied?
What fool authority deems it ghastly?
A god, Sir.
What god? What lofty resident?
Heracles that loves Hylas? Apollo
That weeps o’er the fallen Hyacinthus?
Zeus that lusts for the gorgeous Ganymede?
Name him – the god that frowns on such a form!
The ancient god of the Hebrews – alive
In the teachings of His Anointed One.
Naturally – the Hebrews. The Hebrews…
They in god’s name that isolate themselves;
They for god’s shame that mutilate themselves;
They with god’s claim that abhor the very
Vessel from which men live and breathe and worship.
Forgive me, Christian, if that my lack of
Comprehension affronts thy religion.
Solicit not his forgiveness, father:
‘Tis he what hath offend. By Jupiter,
That I wore Purple, he’d redden the pit.
But you are not yet crowned, Antoninus,
And I, the colour’s incumbent, have e’er
Of his bothersome sect been tolerant.
END OF EXCERPT