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Pope Sylvester II and Meridiana

Pope Sylvester II, born Gerbert de Aurillac (946-1003), is
said to have had a demonic succubus named Meridiana who
not only satisfied his sexual needs but also served as his
counselor and advisor in many political and ecclesiastical
matters. An account of this strange relationship is given in
the De Nugis Curialium of Walter Map, a twelfth-century
Welsh courtier and minor cleric. Sylvester is buried in the
Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. His bones are said
to rattle in their tomb, while the sarcophagus sweats moisture,
whenever a Pope is about to die.

She comes to me not every night, but when
The rainfall patters on the gabled roof.
She slips between the sheets, and in a flash
I find myself atop her yielding limbs.
If you ask me to describe her face
I’m at a loss to answer, even though
Our eyes are close, our lips and tongues entwine.
How nearer could I be to her? And yet
As we match each pelvic thrust for thrust
She seems a total stranger. I cannot
Find the words to tell you her appearance.
And should I see her on the street, I’d fail
To recognize her as my bed-companion.

She seems to me the womanly quintessence:
Smooth skin and perfect breasts and la belle chose
As tight and silken as a faery-knot.
My pleasure’s so intense it borders pain—
The ecstasy might be a kind of hell,
A penitential act of intercourse
Taken from me like a hated tax:
The grim exaction of Meridiana.

Until she came to me I had no luck
In worldly matters, or in my career.
I owed her all my posts: the bishoprics
Of Rheims, Ravenna, and my friendship with
Three German emperors and the lords of France.
She never steered me in a wrong direction
When status, wealth, or power was at stake.
She got for me the triple Papal crown;
All that I learned and wrote of in my books
On mathematics, logic (and those arts
That it behooves no cleric to discuss)
Meridiana taught me, step by step—
My praeceptrix and concubine from hell.

And now here in this tomb she rests with me:
Still my bed-wench in the foetid dark
Where—even fleshless—my concupiscence
Rages in a fierce, tumescent flame
For the beauty of Meridiana.
And from that heat my coffin-stone will sweat
And priests will tremble—terrified, aghast
To hear the rattle of my rutting bones.

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The Nature of the Dramatic Monologue

In the English tradition, the dramatic monologue bases its name on those lengthy speeches that one finds in Renaissance and post-Renaissance English drama. These speeches might be soliloquies spoken by one character alone to himself (as in Hamlet’s soliloquy on death and suicide), or speeches made before others (such as Marc Antony’s inflammatory speech at the funeral of Caesar, or Portia’s courtroom speech on mercy in The Merchant of Venice).

The difference in these two situations has a bearing on poetic dramatic monologues that are not part of the larger context of a play. If a dramatic monologue is imagined as being spoken by one person to himself, then it is merely a convenient device for telling the reader what that character is thinking or planning—and certainly this was often the case in Renaissance plays, where it was necessary for the audience to understand certain motivations or plans that did not reveal themselves in normal dialogue between characters. So, for example, Richard III’s opening speech in the eponymous Shakespeare play is designed to reveal his character, his motives, and his evil passions to the audience before any dramatic interaction with others is shown. On the other hand, Henry V’s address to his soldiers before the battle of Agincourt has as its purpose the strengthening of military morale, and is for that reason open and public.

In a modern dramatic monologue (which is just a printed poem on a page), since there are no other characters present with whom the speaker can openly converse or argue, this distinction can only be discerned by the reader. He must decide, from context or tone or language, whether the speaker of the poem is merely thinking out loud, or addressing a silent interlocutor. Therefore understanding modern dramatic monologues (such as those of Robert Browning) depends upon the reader divining something about the non-speaking interlocutor: first, whether he exists or not; and second, why the speaker is addressing him.

Most of the time it is quite easy. The speaker of the poem will usually talk in such a way as to make it obvious that there are some listening people present with him (as Browning does in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s”) by asking them questions, or responding to their reactions. If he talks in a generalized way, as if musing to himself, or debating something in his mind, we can be pretty sure that there is no silent interlocutor, and we are just getting the speaker’s thoughts. The speaker in the poem can, of course, be either conscious of his interlocutors, or unconscious of them. This also has to be divined by the reader.

But there is another possibility. In some dramatic monologues, the silent interlocutor is the reader himself. The poet is directing the speech of his speaker right to the reader, as one person to another. In such situations the dramatic monologue is either hortatory (it urges something) or denunciatory (it attacks something) or explanatory (it clarifies something) or apologetic (it defends something) or narrative (it recounts something). Browning’s dramatic monologue “Caliban upon Setebos” gives us a monstrous and animalistic subhuman thinking to himself about the powers that control the universe, and what those powers must be like, and in the course of doing that, revealing to us the readers the depth of his own vulgarity, ignorance, and carnality.

An expert dramatic monologue might do all of these things if it is artfully complex. One of the best examples of this kind of complex dramatic monologue is Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto,” in which the speaker is talking to his beloved but unfaithful wife Lucrezia, explaining his own background, recounting family history, defending his past actions, discussing his aesthetic principles, while at the same time unwittingly painting a portrait of himself as a foolish old cuckold whose hopes have been blasted by time and chance. Here there actually is a “silent interlocutor” (his wife) but the more important addressee is the reader, who sees this amazing picture of a great painter who has, by his evil choices, condemned himself to an embittered old age.

In my above poem on Pope Sylvester II, I make use of the legend of Sylvester’s connection with the succubus Meridiana, and how that alleged link was the source of the Pope’s scholarly, political and ecclesiastical success. The poem is addressed solely to the reader, as silent interlocutor, but with an implied twist. Since the speaker (a non-fictional historical character) has been dead for many centuries, how can this be? The problem is resolved only by paying attention to the tense shifts in the text. In the first two stanzas (13 lines and 8 lines), the character speaks only in the present tense, as if we were all back in the tenth century. In the next stanza of 13 lines, he switches to the past tense, as if he were a speaking ghost. But in the last stanza of 8 lines Sylvester switches to the present, and then the future tenses, and he speaks from the tomb where he is buried. And this introduces the final surprise conceit of the poem—namely, that Sylvester is still having passionate and unrepentant sex with his devilish concubine Meridiana in his sepulcher at St. John Lateran, an act which accounts for the rattling bones and sweating stone that presage the death of a Pope. The tense shifts tease the reader with the questions “Is he alive? Is he dead? What’s happening in that tomb?

Normally a conceit is developed for the full length of a poem, but in this case I have tried to lure the reader by feigning (in the beginning of the piece) that its conceit is simply the notion of a Pope having sex with a demonic succubus, and what such a liaison would be like. But ending the poem with the image of the long-dead bones of this same Pope “rutting” in a sarcophagus with the same female demon supercharges the conceit in an unexpected way. To use sexual imagery, one might call it a “delayed-climax” conceit.

—Joseph S. Salemi

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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11 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    Fun poem and interesting commentary, Joseph. You stick to your favored blank verse, although the topic would seem to encourage rollicking rhyme, in the manner of Flanders’s lyric “Have some Madeira, m’dear” and I’d guess a few folk ballads.
    A lustful codger, Pope S II–and how.
    Are he and Ms. M maybe at it now?
    One crucial member his bones would seem to lack;
    But any la belle chose (?) would hardly pack.

    Reply
  2. Allegra Silberstein

    Your poem was a delight from beginning to end. Who would have imagined a Pope having such delights! Also loved your informative article on the monologue.

    Reply
  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    “Pope Sylvester II and Meridiana” has intrigued, engaged and entertained me with its lush array of lascivious language, the tease of the tenses, and the underlying wry humor portrayed by the narrator (a pope, no less) speaking as if these sinful couplings were just par for the course, almost necessary for his climb up that papal ladder to heavenly success. I laughed out loud at the onomatopoeic closing line.

    Having read the poem, I am shocked to my core. I am shocked at the fact that I am not shocked by the carnal acts of Pope Sylvester II with a “demonic succubus”. I fear our current pope’s attitude and acts have rendered me unshockable. In fact, the straight-forward and honest tone of Pope Sylvester II in this dramatic monologue knocks the slippery schmooze of Pope Francis into a cocked hat. Oh dear… what have things come to?!

    Joe S., thank you for an educative essay and an admirably crafted accompanying poem.

    Reply
  4. Brian Yapko

    Joseph (if I may presume to call you thus), I do not know when I have so enjoyed reading and rereading a poem — especially one as dark and sensual as this! First of all, I’m a big fan of Browning so your use of dramatic monologue creates immediate interest. Then, as you get into the meat of the poem you provide a stunning – indeed, haunting – portrait in subjectivity. Without even detailing the stunning language and imagery, what is amazing to me is the Pope’s self-referential review of his relationship with Meridiana which makes this liaison understandable – even attractive – at a time when most outsiders (certainly in the 10th Century) would find it utterly depraved and a source of shocking corruption in the most trusted man in Christendom. This poem reminds me of the fact that Browning wrote of several degenerate clergymen (indeed you mention “The Bishop Ordering His Tomb” in your essay.) I don’t know if I am off base, but I am reminded not only of Browning but of some of Keats as well (Belle Dame Sans Merci, Lamia.) I think your poem is a brilliant feat of characterization.

    Your essay was also a pleasure to read and process. Three of my favorite poems are “An Epistle of Karshish,” “Soliloquy in the Spanish Cloister” and “Rabbi Ben Ezra” each of which is explained and illuminated more clearly by your discussion of the nature of dramatic monologues, subjectivity, conceits and, in particular, your break-down of the relationship between speaker and interlocutor. Thank you for a rewarding educational discussion. This is a post that I will come back to again in the future.

    Reply
  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you all for your kind words.

    Susan, the conceit of a human being sleeping with a demon (a man with a succubus, and a woman with an incubus) has fascinated writers in all ages. The best example is Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, where the main character gets to bed down with any woman he chooses — the succubus will take on the desired lady’s appearance in every detail. And at the end of the play he actually sleeps with Helen of Troy in this manner. It was a shocking coup de theatre for Elizabethan audiences to see a man making love to a demon on stage, and I’m frankly amazed that it got past the censorious Master of Revels.

    Brian, what you say about Sylvester’s “self-referential review” of his relationship with Meridiana was in fact one of the accusations raised against him by his enemies after his death. They charged that he had no compunction at all about using this demon for pleasure and for career advancement, and that he was most certainly in hell with her.

    By the way, Sylvester was the first French pope, and the story of him and Meridiana may have started the tradition about the expertise of French males in lovemaking.

    Reply
  6. Sally Cook

    Joe S.,

    I too am shocked, but not in the same way as Susan J. B. Whether snuggling in the sheets, satisfying his quite normal lusts while at the same time breaking his vows, the pope in question sounds like your normal human. Having had several priests for friends I know this remains a religious problem. I have been told at one time priests married. This – if true – would seem to be a sensible solution. And who would have changed it? Bishops? Popes? But when you bring a succubus into it, the focus changes substantially. But humor? Flickers of it in the narration, but certainly not in the concept. Joe, if I am off on the wrong track, please say.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Sally —

      Yes, priests in the Latin rite used to marry, just as still happens in the eastern Orthodox churches. The change to complete celibacy happened because some high churchmen were worried that if priests married and had families, they might want ecclesiastical property under their control to be inherited by their sons. So celibacy was imposed, and the idea seemed to be that if some priests broke their vows and took concubines or maintained mistresses, any offspring they produced would be illegitimate, and therefore unable to inherit paternal property. However, there also was the idea from St. Paul and the early Fathers that the state of virginity was preferable to the married state, and this was also a good reason for a rule of celibacy for the priesthood. So there was a valid spiritual motive for it, as well as a practical consideration.

      If we believe as Catholics that demons are real, and fixed on leading us into sin, then the notion of the incubus and the succubus is perfectly plausible. A man’s involuntary nocturnal sperm emissions could be explained that way, or a woman’s involuntary orgasms in sleep. But a conscious and voluntary relationship with a succubus (as Sylvester was alleged to have) would be a wholly different thing, and would be deeply evil. You cannot freely consort with demons without committing a grave sin.

      Keep in mind that the story of Pope Sylvester and Meridiana may very well be nothing but a legend. It may have been concocted by his enemies. On the other hand, if the bones don’t rattle in St. John Lateran when Bergoglio kicks off, it’ll be just one more proof that he’s an Antipope.

      Reply
  7. Sally Cook

    Joe, you are remarkable in the depth and scope of your knowledge! My father had told me a little of this; also my priestly friends added to it, but you tied it all together. I had never thought of inheritance as a factor.

    Reply
  8. C.B. Anderson

    Sin and sedevacantism aside, Joseph, if you happen to know a good succubus, then I wouldn’t mind a formal introduction.

    Reply
  9. Joseph S. Salemi

    Egad, Kit! Do you think I’m a hellish whoremaster? (Actually that would be a great alliterative title for a poem: “The Hellish Whoremaster.” I leave it to you to write.)

    Reply
  10. Paul Freeman

    I muse on this strange fact, and perhaps not alone,
    How Sylvester gets a boner, without a bone!

    I couldn’t let you have all the fun, joseph.

    Thanks for this essay. I occasionally write blank verse monologues, so it’s a great help.

    Reply

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