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What Lord Byron Saw


George Gordon, Lord Byron lived in Italy (mainly in Venice and Pisa) between 1817 and 1823, when he decided to join the Greek fight for independence. The fourth canto (the term used for the three parts of Dante's Commedia) of his poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is a sort of poetical guide of Italy.
This page contains excerpts of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage - Canto IV related to Rome and its monuments.


Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Canto the Fourth

     Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!
     The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,
     Lone mother of dead empires! and control
     In their shut breasts their petty misery.
     What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
     The cypress, hear the owl, and plod your way
     O'er steps of broken thrones and temples, Ye!
     Whose agonies are evils of day --
A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay.

     The Niobe of nations! there she stands,
     Childless and crownless, in her voiceless woe;
     An empty urn within her wither'd hands,
     Whose holy dust was scatter'd long ago;
     The Scipios' tomb contains no ashes now;
     The very sepulchres lie tenantless
     Of their heroic dwellers: dost thou flow,
     Old Tiber! through a marble wilderness?
Rise, with thy yellow waves, and mantle her distress.


     There is a stern round tower of other days,
     Firm as a fortress, with its fence of stone,
     Such as an army's baffled strength delays,
     Standing with half its battlements alone,
     And with two thousand years of ivy grown,
     The garland of eternity, where wave
     The green leaves over all by time o'er thrown; --
     Where was this tower of strength? within its case
What treasure lay, so lock'd, so hid? -- A woman's grave.

     But who was she, the lady of the dead,
     Tomb'd in a palace? Was she chaste and fair?
     Worthy a king's, or more -- a Roman's bed?
     What race of chiefs and heroes did she bear?
     What daughter of her beauties was she heir?
     How lived, how loved, how died she? Was she not
     So honoured -- and conspicuously there,
     Where meaner relics must not dare to rot,
Placed to commemorate a more than mortal lot?

     Was she as those who love their lords, or they
     Who love the lords of others? such have been
     Even in the olden time, Rome's annals say.
     Was she a matron of Cornelia's mien,
     Or the light air of Egypt's graceful queen,
     Profuse of joy -- or 'gainst it did she war
     Inveterate in virtue? Did she lean
     To the soft side of the heart, or wisely bar
Love from amongst her griefs? -- for such the affections are.

     Perchance she died in youth: it may be, bow'd
     With woes far heavier than the ponderous tomb
     That weigh'd upon her gentle dust, a cloud
     Might gather o'er her beauty, and a gloom
     In her dark eye, prophetic of the doom
     Heaven gives its favourites -- early death; yet shed
     A sunset charm around her, and illume
     With hectic light, the Hesperus of the dead,
Of her consuming cheek the autumnal leaf-like red.

     Perchance she died in age -- surviving all,
     Charms, kindred, children -- with the silver gray
     On her long tresses, which might yet recall,
     It may be, still a something of the day
     When they were braided, and her proud array
     And lovely form were envied, praised, and eyed
     By Rome -- But whither would Conjecture stray?
     Thus much alone we know -- Metella died,
The wealthiest Roman's wife: Behold his love or pride!

     I know not why -- but standing thus by thee
     It seems as if I had thine inmate known,
     Thou Tomb! and other days come back on me
     With recollected music, though the tone
     Is changed and solemn, like the cloudy groan
     Of dying thunder on the distant wind;
     Yet could I set me by this ivied stone
     Till I had bodied forth the heated mind,
Forms from the floating wreck which Ruin leaves behind;


     Egeria! sweet creation of some heart
     Which found no mortal resting-place so fair
     As thine ideal breast; whate'er thou art
     Or wert, -- a young Aurora of the air,
     The nympholepsy of some fond despair;
     Or, it might be, a beauty of the earth,
     Who found a more than common votary there
     Too much adoring; whatsoe'er thy birth,
Thou wert a beautiful thought, and softly bodied forth.

     The mosses of thy fountain still are sprinkled
     With thine Elysian water-drops; the face
     Of thy cave-guarded spring with years unwrinkled,
     Reflects the meek-eyed genius of the place,
     Whose green, wild margin now no more erase
     Art's works; nor must the delicate waters sleep,
     Prison'd in marble -- bubbling from the base
     Of the cleft statue, with a gentle leap
The rill runs o'er -- and round -- fern, flowers, and ivy creep,

     Fantastically tangled: the green hills
     Are clothed with early blossoms, through the grass
     The quick-eyed lizard rustles, and the bills
     Of summer-birds sing welcome as ye pass;
     Flowers fresh in hue, and many in their class,
     Implore the pausing step, and with their dyes,
     Dance in the soft breeze in a fairy mass;
     The sweetness of the violet's deep blue eyes,
Kiss'd by the breath of heaven, seems colour'd by its skies.

     Here didst thou dwell, in this enchanged cover,
     Egeria! thy all heavenly bosom beating
     For the far footsteps of thy mortal lover;
     The purple Midnight veil'd that mystic meeting
     With her most starry canopy, and seating
     Thyself by thine adorer, what befell?
     This cave was surely shaped out for the greeting
     Of an enamour'd Goddess, and the cell
Haunted by holy Love -- the earliest oracle!

     And didst thou not, thy breast to his replying,
     Blend a celestial with a human heart;
     And Love, which dies as it was born, in sighing,
     Share with immortal transports? could thine art
     Make them indeed immortal, and impart
     The purity of heaven to earthly joys,
     Expel the venom and not blunt the dart --
     The dull satiety which all destroys --
And root from out the soul the deadly weed which cloys?


     I see before me the Gladiator lie:
     He leans upon his hand -- his manly brow
     Consents to death, but conquers agony,
     And his droop'd head sinks gradually low --
     And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
     From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one,
     Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now
     The arena swims around him -- he is gone,
Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail'd the wretch who won.

     He heard it, but he heeded not -- his eyes
     Were with his heart, and that was far away;
     He reck'd not of the life he lost nor prize,
     But where his rude hut by the Danube lay,
     There where his young barbarians all at play,
     There was their Dacian mother -- he, their sire,
     Butcher'd to make a Roman holiday --
     All this rush'd with his blood -- Shall he expire
And unavenged? Arise! ye Goths, and glut your ire!

     But here, where Murder breathed her bloody steam;
     And here, where buzzing nations choked the ways,
     And roar'd or murmur'd like a mountain stream
     Dashing or winding as its torrent strays;
     Here, where the Roman million's blame or praise
     Was death or life, the playthings of a crowd,
     My voice sounds much -- and fall the stars faint rays
     On the arena void -- seats crush'd -- walls bow'd --
And galleries, where my steps seem echoes strangely loud.

     A ruin -- yet what a ruin! from its mass
     Walls, palaces, half-cities, have been rear'd;
     Yet oft the enormous skeleton ye pass,
     And marvel where the spoil could have appear'd.
     Hath it indeed been plunder'd, or but clear'd?
     Alas! developed, opens the decay,
     When the colossal fabric's form is near'd:
     It will not bear the brightness of the day,
Which streams too much on all -- years -- man -- have reft away.

     But when the rising moon begins to climb
     Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
     When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,
     And the low night-breeze waves along the air
     The garland-forest, which the gray walls wear,
     Like laurels on the bald first Cæsar's head;
     When the light shines serene but doth not glare,
     Then in this magic circle raise the dead:
Heroes have trod this spot -- 'tis on their dust ye tread.

     'While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand;
     'When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall;
     'And when Rome falls -- the World.' From our own land
     Thus spake the pilgrims o'er this mighty wall
     In Saxon times, which we are wont to call
     Ancient; and these three mortal things are still
     On their foundations, and unalter'd all;
     Rome and her Ruin past Redemption's skill,
The World, the same wide den -- of thieves, or what ye will.

     Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime --
     Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,
     From Jove to Jesus -- spared and blest by time;
     Looking tranquillity, while falls or nods
     Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods
     His way through thorns to ashes -- glorious dome!
     Shalt thou not last? Time's scythe and tyrants' rods
     Shiver upon thee -- sanctuary and home
Of art and piety -- Pantheon! -- pride of Rome!

     Relic of nobler days, and noblest arts!
     Despoil'd yet perfect, with thy circle spreads
     A holiness appealing to all hearts --
     To art a model; and to him who treads
     Rome for the sake of ages, Glory sheds
     Her light through thy sole aperture; to those
     Who worship, here are altars for their beads;
     And they who feel for genius may repose
Their eyes on honour'd forms, whose busts around them close.


     Turn to the mole which Hadrian rear'd on high,
     Imperial mimic of old Egypt's piles,
     Colossal copyist of deformity
     Whose travell'd phantasy from the far Nile's
     Enormous model, doom'd the artist's toils
     To build for giants, and for his vain earth,
     His shrunken ashes, raise this dome: How smiles
     The gazer's eyes with philosophic mirth,
To view the huge design which sprung from such a birth!

     But lo! the dome -- the vast and wondrous dome,
     To which Diana's marvel was a cell --
     Christ's mighty shrine above his martyr's tomb!
     I have beheld the Ephesian's miracle; --
     Its columns strew the wilderness, and dwell
     The hyæna and the jackal in their shade;
     I have beheld Sophia's bright roofs swell
     Their glittering mass i' the sun, and have survey'd
Its sanctuary the while the usurping Moslem pray'd;

     But thou, of temples old, or altars new,
     Standest alone, with nothing like to thee --
     Worthiest of God, the holy and the true.
     Since Zion's desolation, when that He
     Forsook his former city, what could be,
     Of earthly structures, in his honour piled,
     Of a sublimer aspect? Majesty,
     Power, Glory, Strength, and Beauty all are aisled
In this eternal ark of worship undefiled.

     Enter: its grandeur overwhelms thee not;
     And why? It is not lessen'd; but thy mind,
     Expanded by the genius of the spot,
     Has grown colossal, and can only find
     A fit abode wherein appear enshrined
     Thy hopes of immortality; and thou
     Shalt one day, if found worthy, so defined,
     See thy God face to face, as thou dost now
His Holy of Holies, nor be blasted by his brow.

     Thou movest, but increasing with the advance,
     Like climbing some great Alp, which still doth rise,
     Deceived by its gigantic elegance;
     Vastness which grows, but grows to harmonise --
     All musical in its immensities;
     Rich marbles, richer painting -- shrines where flame
     The lamps of gold -- and haughty dome which view
     In air with Earth's chief structures, though their frame
Sits on the firm-set ground, and this the clouds must claim.

     Thou seest not all; but piecemeal thou must break,
     To separate contemplation, the great whole;
     And as the ocean many bays will make
     That ask the eye -- so here condense thy soul
     To more immediate objects, and control
     Thy thoughts until thy mind hath got by heart
     Its eloquent proportions, and unroll
     In mighty graduations, part by part,
The glory which at once upon thee did not dart,

     Not by its fault -- but thine: Our outward sense
     Is but of gradual grasp -- and as it is
     That what we have of feeling most intense
     Outstrips our faint expression; even so this
     Outshining and o'erwhelming edifice
     Fools our fond gaze,and greatest of the great
     Defies at first our Nature's littleness,
     Till growing with its growth, we thus dilate
Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.

     Then pause, and be enlighten'd; there is more
     In such a survey than the sating gaze
     Of wonder pleased, or awe which would adore
     The worship of the place, or the mere praise
     Of art and its great masters, who could raise
     What former time, nor skill, nor thought could plan;
     The fountain of sublimity displays
     Its depth, and thence may draw the mind of man
Its golden sands, and learn what great conceptions can.


     Lo, Nemi! navell'd in the woody hills
     So far, that the uprooting wind which tears
     The oak from his foundation, and which spills
     The ocean o'er its boundary, and bears
     Its foam against the skies, reluctant spares
     The oval mirror of thy glassy lake;
     And calm as cherish'd hate, its surface wears
     A deep cold settled aspect nought can shake,
All coil'd into itself and round, as sleeps the snake.

     And near, Albano's scarce divided waves
     Shine from a sister valley; -- and afar
     The Tiber winds, and the broad ocean laves
     The Latian coast where sprung the Epic war,
     'Arms and the Man,' whose re-ascending star
     Rose o'er an empire: -- but beneath thy right
     Tully reposed from Rome; -- and where yon bar
     Of girdling mountains intercepts the sight
The Sabine farm was till'd, the weary bard's delight.

Read What Charles Dickens Saw.
Read What Mark Twain Saw.
Read What Henry James Saw.
Read What William Dean Howells Saw.
Read What Goethe Saw.
Read What Dante Saw.
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