James and Mary Ford, eds. Every Day in the Year. 1902.

May 23

Death of Savonarola

By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

  • From “Casa Guidi Windows”
  • An Italian political and religious reformer. He brought about a religious revival in Florence by his denunciation of the vice and corruption in Church and State. He was executed in Florence on May 23, 1498, by order of Pope Alexander VI., whose enmity he had incurred.

  • ’TIS true that when the dust of death has choked

    A great man’s voice, the common words he said

    Turn oracles,—the meanings which he yoked

    Like horses, draw like griffins!—this is true

    And acceptable. Also I desire,

    When men make record, with the flowers they strew,

    “Savonarola’s soul went out in fire

    Upon our Grand-duke’s piazza, and burned through

    A moment first, or ere he did expire,

    The veil betwixt the right and wrong, and showed

    How near God sate and judged the judges there,—

    Desire, upon the pavement overstrewed,

    To cast my violets with as reverent care,

    And prove that all the winters which have snowed

    Cannot snow out the scent, from stones and air,

    Of a sincere man’s virtues. This was he,

    Savonarola, who, while Peter sank

    With his whole boat-load, called courageously

    “Wake Christ, wake Christ!”—who, having tried the tank

    Of the church-waters used for baptistry

    Ere Luther lived to spill them, said they stank!

    Who also, by a princely deathbed, cried

    “Loose Florence, or God will not loose thy soul,”

    While the Magnificent fell back and died

    Beneath the star-looks, shooting from the cowl,

    Which turned to wormwood bitterness the wide

    Deep sea of his ambitions. It were foul

    To grudge Savonarola and the rest

    Their violets! rather pay them quick and fresh!

    The emphasis of death makes manifest

    The eloquence of action in our flesh;

    And men who, living, were but dimly guessed,

    When once free from their life’s entangled mesh,

    Show their full length in graves, or even indeed

    Exaggerate their stature, in the flat,

    To noble admirations which exceed

    Nobly, nor sin in such excess. For that

    Is wise and righteous. We, who are the seed

    Of buried creatures, if we turned and spate

    Upon our antecedents, we were vile.

    Bring violets rather! If these had not walked

    Their furlong, could we hope to walk our mile?

    Therefore bring violets! Yet if we, self-baulked,

    Stand still a-strewing violets all the while,

    These had as well not moved, ourselves not talked

    Of these. So rise up with a cheerful smile,

    And, having strewn the violets, reap the corn,

    And, having reaped and garnered, bring the plough

    And draw new furrows ’neath the healthy morn,

    And plant the great Hereafter in this Now.