The Sparrow in Hades

Catullus Grows Fanciful

Though hard the voyage to that shore
Of fat, grey sedge and sluggish oar
To which the unbodied legions press
Wandering down death's wilderness
Ere they may lighten with less weight
Charon's crowded, phantom freight, —
Sweet Lesbia, your pet has had
All rites that make the spirit glad
With even two black crickets slain
To appease Pluto's sullen reign....
Then, trust me, he'll not tarry long
Ere he burst forth in shadowy song:

There's nothing stays him at the edge
Of Styx's fat, grey, dreadful sedge,
For, see, he lifts from that dim strand
And reaches Charon's rootlike hand;
The Old One strikes and strikes in vain:
He chirps and lifts and lights again
Perching the great sweep's end the while —
Again the sad wraiths learn to smile
As to the ghostly, thither shore
Your sparrow rides the Ancient's oar,
Rocking as ships do in a gale
And balanced by his dipping tail....

Where Rhadamanthus sits at doom
In a vast-chambered, throng-hushed room
Condemning one leaf-trembling wight
To the last hush of hell's vast night,
He flits straight to the Judge's shoulder,
Pluto never saw a bolder!
('T is you who taught him to dispense
With aught but cries and impudence)....

Hell pauses: all its ranks of ghosts
Watch, in innumerable hosts,
Child and old man, wife and maid....
For now your songbird, unafraid,
With low, sweet chuckle in his throat,
With note on lilted, birdlike note,
Begins to sing...he dares to sing,
The tiny, impudent, bright-eyed thing!
He sings and sings, and for a space,
All hell becomes a happy place;
Its multitudes renew the earth,
Their minds glad with the holy mirth
Of childhood, love, and all Jove gives
To make the life glad while it lives....

At the sweet, strange, alien sound
Ixion's wheel stops turning round;
Of its dread task oblivious
The water stays for Tantalus;
Catching the sweet, far, silver note
Charon neglects his weedy boast, —
The sluggish, following ripples cease;
Hell sinks back with a sigh of peace
From all its many broken hearts...

Ev'n Rhadamanthus, cliff-severe,
Pays to old memories a tear —
One falling, but unfollowed tear —
His prisoner, unjudged, departs!
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