Stephen Vincent Benet

The Lover in Hell

Eternally the choking steam goes up 
From the black pools of seething oil. . . . 
How merry 
Those little devils are! Theyíve stolen the pitchfork 
From Bel, there, as he slept . . . Look! -- oh look, look! 
Theyíve got at Nero! Oh it isnít fair! 
Lord, how he squeals! Stop it . . . itís, well -- indecent! 
But funny! . . . See, Belís waked. Theyíll catch it now! 

. . . Eternally that stifling reek arises, 
Blotting the dome with smoky, terrible towers, 
Black, strangling trees, whispering obscene things 
Amongst their branches, clutching with maimed hands, 
Or oozing slowly, like blind tentacles 
Up to the gates; higher than that heaped brick 
Man piled to smite the sun. And all around 
Are devils. One can laugh . . . but that hunched shape 
The face one stone, like those Assyrian kings! 
One sees in carvings, watching men flayed red 
Horribly laughable in leaps and writhes; 
That face -- utterly evil, clouded round 
With evil like a smoke -- it turns smiles sour! 
. . . And Nero there, the flabby cheeks astrain 
And sweating agony . . . long agony . . . 
Imperishable, unappeasable 
For ever . . . well . . . it droops the mouth. Till I 
Look up. 
Thereís one blue patch no smoke dares touch. 
Sky, clear, ineffable, alive with light, 
Always the same . . . 
Before, I never knew 
Rest and green peace. 
She stands there in the sun. 
. . . It seems so quaint she should have long gold wings. 
I never have got used -- folded across 
Her breast, or fluttering with fierce, pure light, 
Like shaken steel. Her crown too. Well, itís queer! 
And then she never cared much for the harp 
On earth. Here, though . . . 
She is all peace, all quiet, 
All passionate desires, the eloquent thunder 
Of new, glad suns, shouting aloud for joy, 
Over fresh worlds and clean, trampling the air 
Like stooping hawks, to the long wind of horns, 
Flung from the bastions of Eternity . . . 
And she is the low lake, drowsy and gentle, 
And good words spoken from the tongues of friends, 
And calmness in the evening, and deep thoughts, 
Falling like dreams from the starsí solemn mouths. 
All these. 
They said she was unfaithful once. 
Or I remembered it -- and so, for that, 
I lie here, I suppose. Yes, so they said. 
You see she is so troubled, looking down, 
Sorrowing deeply for my torments. I 
Of course, feel nothing while I see her -- save 
That sometimes when I think the matter out, 
And what earth-people said of us, of her, 
It seems as if I must be, here, in heaven, 
And she -- 
. . . Then I grow proud; and suddenly 
There comes a splatter of oil against my skin, 
Hurting this time. And I forget my pride: 
And my face writhes. 
Some day the little ladder 
Of white words that I build up, up, to her 
May fetch me out. Meanwhile it isnít bad. . . . 

But what a sense of humor God must have!

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