The Lotos-Garland of Antinous by John Addington Symonds

The Lotos-Garland of Antinous
by John Addington Symonds

Behold a vision of the world-old Nile—
Of porch and palace-tower and peristyle
Glassed in the oily current smooth and calm,
With many a fringéd mile of sultry palm
Shimmering in noonday sunlight! O the roar
Of the full-voiced swart-visaged swarming shore,
As the gilt barge, with flash of oars, and cry
Cast on the waters of shrill minstrelsy,
Down the broad tide bears Adrian the king,
Lapped in luxurious ease and winnowing
All husk of hard thought from his heart this day—
So men surmise—to laughter given and play!

Lo the full sails of Tyrian silk out-spread
Like wings of wildest plumage overhead;
The cedar masts with crusted pearl and scale
Of Indian beetle rough; the bellying veil,
Star-sprent, gold-dusted, hyaline in hue,
That tempers like a mist the burning blue
Ofthose bronzed heavens; the heavy-scented flowers,
Plucked from what dim mysterious temple bowers
Deep in the dewy twilight—tuberoses,
Starred jasmines, lotos, crimson chalices
With myrtles woven! Mid that bloomy sea
Are girls, half-seen, reclining dreamily;
Some white as swans unruffled, pure and cold;
Some glowing with the delicate dim gold
Of amber, warm on throat and neck beneath
Black heavy coils of lustrous curls that wreathe,
Snake-like, smooth temples. O the subtle stir
Of laughter and of little feet, the whir
Of fans like night-moths fluttering, mid the wild
Voices of choiring boys, that naked piled
On Persian broidery, to the sound of flute,
Viol and fife and soul-subduing lute,
Make music, piercing shrill and sad and clear
With yearning memories the drowsy ear!

On glides the flashing galley. But the king,
In Roman strength austere, each goodly thing
Serenely reckons. He hath felt the glare
Of shadeless deserts; by the Libyan lair
Of lions hath out-watched the fiery day,
Patiently waiting for his royal prey:
The clash of arms he knows, the thirsty march
O’er sands with wormwood set, where fevers parch
Black lips and tongue, and hollow eyes grow dim:
No Syrian wreath or crown of rose for him
The circlet of the Empire! And behold,
This morn in Theban temples dusk with gold,
While spiry flames from smoking altars flew,
And incense clouds voluminously blue
Sun-proof involved those columned aisles, the seer
Foaming with eyes fixed on the unseen Fear,
A rede of death enwrapped in riddling gloom
Had uttered:—yea, that even for him the doom
Of icy death, unless some spirit free
Of man or boy, unbought, might willingly
Yield life for life, amid the dance and feast,
When hollow-eyed grim Death seems last and least,
Lurked shadow-like. So spake the shuddering priest.
And Adrian heard; yet trembled not, but read
As in a book the doom of Rome dismemberèd:
For on his life alone the Empire hung;
And to his single strength the nations clung,
As clings a vine with leaves and weighty fruit
To some strong pine’s stone-circling massy root.

And none but Adrian heard—save one who stayed
Beside him; one in whose quick pulses played
Fire of free life imperious; a boy
Of nineteen summers, framed for power and joy.
Crisp on his temples curled the coal-black hair;
White myrtle flowers and leaves were woven there:
His eyes had solemn light in them, and shone
Flame-like ‘neath cloudy brows: his cheeks were wan
With passion; and the soul upon his lips,
Smouldering like some fierce planet in eclipse,
Breathed fascination terrible and strong,
As though quick pride strove with remembered wrong.
But oh! what tongue shall tell the orient glow
Of those orbed breasts, smooth as dawn-smitten snow;
The regal gait, processional and grand,
As of a god; the sunny-marble hand,
Grasping a silk-enwoven cedar-wand?
He heard, Antinous! and in his breast
His heart leaped, and his flaming eyes confessed
The fervour of his spirit; still and calm
Standing the while, like some full-fruited palm
Tall by a river-bank. Then forth they went,
The youth divine and royal victim, blent
In silent awe and blind bewilderment.
Down to the Nile they came, and eager men
Pressed round them myriad-voiced with wonder: then
Taking their barge, upon the stream sailed forth,
Downwards all day steering by West and North.

All day the lazy ripple to the prow
Whispered; and all day long by palms arow,
By cities populous with blazing quays,
By tracts of flowering bean and verdant maize,
They glided. Towers and temples sunny bright,
Like mirage in the desert, swam from sight
Behind them; and the wild tumultuous noise
Of nations shouting with a single voice
Grew fainter on the current. All day long,
Lulled to a slumberous symphony of song,
Sails flapped, oars flashed, and boys and maidens made
Cool music in the silken scented shade.
But Adrian dreaming lay, and at his side
Antinous with large eyes blank and wide
Lay dreaming. Thus adown the sleepy tide,
As in a trance toward Lethe through still air,
Lost to the joy of living did they fare.

But now the sun who all day long had driven
His glittering chariot o’er the enamelled heaven,
Began to wester. Level smote his rays,
A furnace-fire of splendour; and the blaze
Burned upon stream and city: in its fire
The pillared shrine and solitary spire,
Tall cypress or thick tamarisk-tangle, swam
Like clouds you scarce can see amid the flame
Of sunset; and the whole vast concave through,
Across the light-irradiate airy blue,
Ran conflagration. Then, ere day was dead,
The slaves who had that service came and spread
The Emperor’s table; and Antinous rose,
For his it was before the banquet’s close
To bear the wine-cup, at his master’s knee
Like Ganymede serving imperially.

He rose, and from his shoulder’s ivory
The veil fell fluttering to his rounded thigh:
Naked he stood; then on his forehead set
A crimson wreath of lotos, cool and wet,
Fresh from the tank, with ivy mixed; and bound
Roses about his breast; and from the ground
A tendril-tangled thyrsus raised, and flung
The quivering leaves aloft that clasped and clung.
Next half the lustre of his limbs he hid,
Like some night-reveller or Bassarid
Fresh-flown from Indian thickets, with the fur
Of panthers streaked and spotted, sleek with myrrh
And musky-fragrant. In his hand a bowl,
Carved of one beryl, soft as if a soul
Throbbed in its flush, he took, and called his crew.
They to their Bacchus with loud laughter flew,
Tossing flame faces, twinkling tiny feet
In measured madness to the timbrel’s beat—
Wild hair behind them flying, loosened zone,
And flowers about their flanks for girdles strewn.
Girls were they, girls with vine-leaves garlanded,
Or jasmines white as their own maidenhead!
Boys too; ye gods, the beauty of those boys,
Lithe as young leopards! the soul-thrilling noise
Of their shrill voices!—Bells are at their feet,
And silver armlets, tinkling as they meet,
Make the air mad.

Behold, in such wild glee,
With dance and music and with witchery,
Paced forth the youth, for whom it seemed that all
His life to come might be one festival.
Yet in his soul was sadness. Well he knew
That ere those lotos-flowers had lost their dew,
He forth would fare upon the dismal way
Of dying.—Thus of many thoughts that day
This one had triumphed: he would die to shield
Adrian from death, if so the doom revealed
By god-sent oracles might be withdrawn
From that great head.—Like Phosphor in the dawn,
Solemn he was and tender; larger eyed,
Of more majestic stature; and his wide
Bare bosom swelled with nobler weight of thought
Than e’er within his heart had yet been wrought,
Since from his fields Bithynian and the play
Of childhood, on a lustrous night of May,
He had been borne by pirate hands, and woke
To weep his mother.

Through the awning broke
The clear-voiced choir; but Adrian in good sooth
Rose from his pillowed couch to greet the youth,
So proudly paced he: and the dying sun,
Shooting that moment from low vapours dun,
Transfigured all his face; and in the glow
The ruddy lotos-flowers upon his brow
Blazed ruby-like, and all his form divine
Blushed into crimson, and the crystalline
Bowl of the gleaming beryl flashed, and dim
With dusky gold the fur that mantled him,
Spread tawny splendour. So he stood and smiled,
Bending his crowned head, like a god who, mild
To mortals, will be worshipped. Such a sight,
So framed, so sphered in music and sunlight,
Had ne’er in court or theatre or grove
Fashioned by Nero for his insolent love,—
Nay ne’er in Syrian valleys where the Queen
Mourns for her lost Adonis, on the green
Of Daphne or of sea-girt Tyre been seen.

He spake: ‘To thee, in semblance of a god,
To thee supreme, who Jove-like with thy nod
Scatterest states and kingdoms, lo! I come
Bearing strong juice of Bacchus. See the foam
Leaps in the crystal for thy lips, and red
As rose or maiden in her bridal bed,
Glows for thy kisses! Health for thee, my king,
Health and long life within the cup I bring.
Yea, were it mine, this youth thou thinkest fair,
(Fair in thy thought, for verily whate’er
Thine eyes have praised, is fairest,) were it mine,
Brief as it is, scarce worth one thought of thine,
(For lo, it blooms to-day, to-morrow dies,
Nay even now is fading, as the skies
Fade after sunset)—were it mine to give,
Thinkest thou, king and master, I would live?
Were it not well to die for thee, and know
There in the scentless myrtle bowers below,
That thou wert living this new life? What breath,
How sweet soe’er, were sweeter than such death?
Nay, Lord, I flatter not. This is no smile
Of hollow semblance on false lips to wile
Kind speech from thee, much prized by us who serve
For could I, from this will I would not swerve!’

Thus spake Antinous, and the table round
Murmured approval; for the honeyed sound
From those calm lips on idle ears like dew
Fell with fresh fragrance and a pleasure new.
Sophists were there, whom Adrian fed, and they
Clapped loud applause, averring the long day
Had kept till eve her flower of perfect speech:
For such fine flattery, like the perfumed peach
Most subtly flavoured, could no palate cloy.
Thus clamoured they, wine-wanton; but the boy,
Bending his lilied brow beneath the wand,
And kneeling to his master, with one hand
Lifted the cup:—a lotos falling stirred
The wine refulgent; then, without a word
Or smile, he raised the sunlight of his face.
But Adrian drank, keeping the flower to grace
His wreath; and bade Antinous take the bowl
Of beryl. Then he turned with graver soul
To some grey counsellor beside him placed;
And the cup-bearer with his revel passed
Forth from the tent imperial.

Lo, the West
Bathing with liquid lustre brow and breast—
Lustre of orange, amber, green and blue,
Glassed on the waves, and gemlike in the dew
Of heaven translucent; the cool breeze that flew
Past silken sail and tent-roof; the black bars
Of palm-groves and of porches; shimmering stars,
And the low moon to eastward, pearly pale
Mid roseate refluence! In one woven veil
Of varied hues the universal world
Seemed by some hand omnipotent enfurled,
Where in the midst the barge, a moving spark
Herself of light, yet mid such splendour dark,
Slept on her shadow. And was this the night,
Centre of all things fair, for thee to blight
Thy blossom with cold frost of death—to die,
Sweetest of all sweet things beneath the sky?

The decks were vacant, as at even-tide
Of chills and sudden dew-fall. Free and wide
The sandal planks thick-matted with bright wool
And furs and flowered embroideries beautiful,
Spread for his pacing; and the lazy plash
Of rippling waves that round the galley wash,
Cooled the clear air. He went as in a dream
Forth to the prow, land o’er the luminous stream
Leaned; and behold, a golden lamp up-borne
By Isis (on her brow the sacred horn,
And at her waist the lotos, leaf by leaf,
And flower by flower, twined in a jewelled sheaf
Of lilies) cast a glimmer pure as pearl
On the veined marble of the watery swirl.
Here stayed Antinous, while the darkening west
Deepened from crimson into amethyst,
From fire to blood-red orange thin and still,
Under faint streaks of tenderest daffodil
Which faded. Soon, as drops of fiery dew
Gleam on a withered primrose, so there grew
Forth from this pallor the intensest glow
Of Hesper’s love-star: tremulous and low,
Poised o’er the palms, he panted; and his beam
Danced like a living lamp upon the stream.

Then spake Antinous: ‘My hour is nigh!
Night cometh, and the guardians of the sky
Illume their cressets!’ So he rose and spread
The panther skin and thyrsus, and the red
Wreath of dead lotos laid upon the ground:
Next in his hand the bowl of beryl, crowned
With roses, from a gleaming golden jar
He rilled; and gazing at the level star,
Thrice made libation, crying: ‘Father Nile,
And Isis and Osiris! ye who smile
On mortal births and burials! lo, I give
My life for Adrian’s! Wherefore should I live?
Have I not learned to trail my manhood’s pride
In the world’s golden gutters?—Like a bride,
Sumptuous with sacrifice and pomp and choir,
Forth from the doors I issued; and the fire
Of Flamens shone to light me: now, alone,
With saffron veil unbound and broken zone,
My blossom withered, lo, a wanton’s doom
Awaits me, or the purifying tomb!—
Nay, even now I weary. Day by day
It irks me to consume the hours with play;
Hearing soft speeches, propped on pillowed down,
To gather smiles; or, when I choose to frown,
Drink womanish tears. Better I ween were strife
With lions than this fulsome flower of life!
And when the flower is faded, what remains?
Yea, heaven, I thank thee: lo, the little pains
Of dying bring me guerdon of great gains!
For in my bloom I perish, having bought
Unending honour. What I give, is nought
But a mere piece of boyhood thrown away:
While he, the Emperor, lives. Even so. This day
Dates a new aeon in the age of Rome;
Wherethrough, a name for ever, in the dome
Of people’s praises, I shall pace, and be
Equalled with heroes in mine infamy!
Nay, what on earth more godlike? I have heard
Of soldiers dying at a general’s word;
Of patriots who drained their hearts to save
A nation: they beside their fathers’ grave,
Before their city walls and smoking shrines,
Fell on the long resounding foeman’s lines
And perished: this was easy; yet they bore
Victorious crowns and hymns for evermore.
But I, what city or what home have I?
What duty, dear or sacred, bids me die?
A slave—the toy and bauble of a king,
Picked from the dust to play with—a cheap thing,
Irksome as soon as used—a cup to sip,
Then fling with loathing from the sated lip!—
Therefore I die more nobly. Where are ye,
My father and my mother, and the glee
Of brothers and of sisters, who were dear
Far off in years forgotten? Not one tear
Shall your calm unfamiliar eyes let fall
For me.—How like a gilded dream is all
The life that I have lived in glorious Rome!
How like a dream it leaves me!—Lo, I come,
Ye awful, soul-exacting, pitiless Powers!
Prepare your laurels and the moony bowers
Of myrtles! Not ignoble, not a slave,
I perish, but of mine own will, to save
The Father of the Empire.—I have seen
In Roman theatres the dying queen
Of weak Admetus, pale Polyxena,
Cheiron, Menoikeus; and the people, ah!
The people how they shouted! Tears and cries
Greet even an actor when he nobly dies:—
Will not the people of the unnumbered dead,
Showering their pallid crowns upon my head,
Nobly receive me noble, dying thus,
Calm in my strength, young, proud, luxurious,
Not torn by pangs, not wasted, not outworn,
But in my splendour?’

As he spake, a horn
Shrilled through the twilight; and he saw the tower
Of Besa, where that night they tarried, lower
Dusk o’er the champaign. Speechless from the bark
He dropped: she onward glided o’er the dark
Breast of the glimmering Nile with lamp and light:
He through the mirrors of the cool black night
Unruffled, dying drifted; and his death
Was seen by no man. Nay, there lingereth
Old legend in the town Antinoë,
Called by his name, a fair town and a free,
How that a flight of eagles from the sky
Down swooping, bore him, rosy breast and thigh
Lustrous like lightning on their sable plumes,
Up to the zenith, where, a star, he blooms
In that bright garden of the grace of Jove,
The martyr and the miracle of love.—
Of this the truth we know not; but we know
That in the town of Besa, where the flow
Of Nile is stayed upon the eastern bank
With wattles and with osiers, for a tank
That draws therefrom through sluices deep and wide
The living waters of the sacred tide,
There in the morn was found as though asleep,
The perfect body of the boy; and deep
Around him, known not till that day, there grew
Great store of lotos flowers, red, white, and blue,
But mostly rose-red, flaming in his hair,
And o’er his breast and shoulders floating fair,
And with his arms enwoven, pure and cool,
Screening his flesh from sunrise. Thus the pool
Burned with a miracle of flowers; but he,
Raised on their petals, pillowed tenderly,
And curtained with fresh leaves innumerous,
Smiled like a god, whom errands amorous
Lure from Olympus, and coy Naiads find
Sleeping, and in their rosy love-wreaths bind.

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An Eighteenth Century Hymn/Prayer to the Gods by Mark Akenside (plus some Neoclassical Sculptures by Bertel Thorvaldsen)

Yes, there were even gay pagan poets in the 18th century. One of my obscure favorites is Mark Akenside (1721-1770), whose collected poems are available here via Project Gutenberg. According to the biographical introduction to his poems:
“Indeed, he [Akenside] never appears to have had much religion, except that of the Pagan philosophy, Plato being his Paul, and Socrates his Christ; and most cordially would he have joined in Thorwaldsen’s famous toast (announced at an evening party in Rome, while the planet Jupiter was shining in great glory), ‘Here’s in honour of the ancient gods.’” [More on Thorwaldsen below.]

Akenside was a lifelong bachelor (we all know what that often means), and was closely associated with his best friend (and sometimes patron), a lawyer by the name of Jeremiah Dyson. According to the 1911 Encylopedia Britannica: “His friendship with Dyson puts his character in the most amiable light. Writing to his friend so early as 1744, Akenside said that the intimacy had ‘the force of an additional conscience, of a new principle of religion’, and there seems to have been no break in their affection. He left all his effects and his literary remains to Dyson, who issued an edition of his poems in 1772.” This was the 1911 way of saying, “By the way, he happened to be gay and had a life partner.” An article on GLBTQ.com clarifies, saying that there was a circle of 18th-century gay men who joined together in ” a ‘little club’ formed in Leiden, Holland, that included the pre-Romantic English poet Mark Akenside and his lawyer-lover Jeremiah Dyson, and the group of European university students they fell in with.”

Biographical details aside, Mark Akenside wrote some beautiful neoclassical poetry. His (rather long) “Hymn to the Naiads” is justly praised as a remarkably early example of Pagan Romanticism, but the following hymn/prayer is especially lovely:

VIII. (From Inscriptions)
by Mark Akenside

Ye powers unseen, to whom, the bards of Greece
Erected altars; ye who to the mind
More lofty views unfold, and prompt the heart
With more divine emotions; if erewhile
Not quite unpleasing have my votive rites
Of you been deem’d, when oft this lonely seat
To you I consecrated; then vouchsafe
Here with your instant energy to crown
My happy solitude. It is the hour
When most I love to invoke you, and have felt
Most frequent your glad ministry divine.
The air is calm: the sun’s unveiled orb
Shines in the middle heaven. The harvest round
Stands quiet, and among the golden sheaves
The reapers lie reclined. The neighbouring groves
Are mute, nor even a linnet’s random strain
Echoeth amid the silence. Let me feel
Your influence, ye kind powers. Aloft in heaven,
Abide ye? or on those transparent clouds
Pass ye from hill to hill? or on the shades
Which yonder elms cast o’er the lake below
Do you converse retired? From what loved haunt
Shall I expect you? Let me once more feel
Your influence, O ye kind inspiring powers:
And I will guard it well; nor shall a thought
Rise in my mind, nor shall a passion move
Across my bosom unobserved, unstored
By faithful memory. And then at some
More active moment, will I call them forth
Anew; and join them in majestic forms,
And give them utterance in harmonious strains;
That all mankind shall wonder at your sway.

***

And speaking of Neoclassicism . . . the Thorwaldsen making a toast to the ancient gods in the above quote is the great Danish-Icelandic sculptor, Bertel Thorwaldsen [aka Bertel Thorvaldsen], who created some incredibly beautiful (and often homoerotic) Neoclassical statues. Below are some of my favorite examples (as always, all photos were found on the web and none were taken by me):

Ganymede Waters Zeus as an Eagle by Bertel Thorvaldsen. Located in the Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen.

Bertel Thorvaldsen. Mercury. Marble Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark

Bertel Thorvaldsen: Adonis, 1808. The Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen [photo by Bjørn Smestad]

Bertel Thorvaldsen: Cupid Triumphant. The Thorvaldsen Museum, Copenhagen

Bertel Thorvaldsen – Apollo [photo by Bjørn Smestad]

Bertel Thorvaldsen – Bacchus [photo by Bjørn Smestad]

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