The Garden of Numa Pompilius

simulat sibi cum dea Egeria congressus nocturnus esse*
— Titus Livy, Ab Urba Condita, i. 9

From whom does the great king
gain his wisdom, the king
whose great laws pour
as from a river?
Some say a woman advises him,
but the king’s house
has neither woman nor woman-child:
no dainty foot has walked here
since the consort’s burial.

Some say, in his grief
he has gone Orphic-mad,
and now a boy inspires him.
It’s true that beardless youths
come freely, serving from silver
bowls and chalices. (Greek ways
and wiles — are they among us?)

This too is idle gossip —
for neither youth nor maiden
has seen the silent garden
of Numa Pompilius.
The summer’s short nights
he sleeps alone here.
Scribes come at dawn
to take his judgments,
hear the new laws.
His wisdom astonishes,
surpassing, surprising
his ever-contending counselors.

The source of his power is here,
a stone-cut spring, old as the Tiber,
that only kings may drink from,
in the grave-scent of yew trees,
the bitterness of laurel —
a still voice that thrills him,
pale arms that come
fro out of nowhere
to rest on his shoulders —
the voice above calumny,
conspiracy and faction.

Rome is Numa, and Numa, Rome.
His, the rites to Jupiter,
the incense rising, entrails read;
his Virgins at Vesta’s hearthside;
his, the temples of Mars and Janus,
the ordered calendar and the names of days —
his thoughts no sooner spoken than enacted.

Her thoughts. Those garden nights
he dare not look backward
to search her countenance —
madness or blindness
the nympholept’s punishment.
She might be crone, or eyeless,
or Gorgon-locked, or nothing more
than poplar leaves rustling.
Her name on his lips,
an Etruscan mystery,
is all he has, or knows.

She will not have a temple,
chooses her own altar and pontifex.
He comes to the spring font,
to the branches bowed
with night-wind,
calls thrice (their only ritual) —
Egeria! Egeria! Egeria!

* He himself pretended to be in nocturnal congress with the goddess Egeria. — Livy, History of Early Rome.


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