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Poem by Richard Monckton Milnes


Meditative Fragments, on Venice


I.

Walk in St. Mark's, the time, the ample space
Lies in the freshness of the evening shade,
When, on each side, with gravely darkened face,
The masses rise above the light arcade;
Walk down the midst with slowly--tunèd pace,
But gay withal,--for there is high parade
Of fair attire and fairer forms, which pass
Like varying groups on a magician's glass.

From broad--illumined chambers far within,
Or under curtains daintily outspread,
Music, and laugh, and talk, the motley din
Of all who from sad thought or toil are sped,
Here a chance hour of social joy to win,
Gush forth,--but I love best, above my head
To feel nor arch nor tent, nor anything
But that pure Heaven's eternal covering.

It is one broad Saloon, one gorgeous Hall;
A chamber, where a multitude, all Kings,
May hold full audience, splendid festival,
Or Piety's most pompous ministerings;
Thus be its height unmarred,--thus be it all
One mighty room, whose form direct upsprings
To the o'er--arching sky;--it is right good,
When Art and Nature keep such brotherhood.

For where, upon the firmest sodden land,
Has ever Monarch's power and toil of slaves
Equalled the works of that self--governed band,
Who fixed the Delos of the Adrian waves;
Planting upon these strips of yielding sand
A Temple of the Beautiful, which braves
The jealous strokes of ocean, nor yet fears
The far more perilous sea, ``whose waves are years?''

Walk in St. Mark's again, some few hours after,
When a bright sleep is on each storied pile,--
When fitful music, and inconstant laughter,
Give place to Nature's silent moonlight smile:
Now Fancy wants no faery gale to waft her
To Magian haunt, or charm--engirded isle,
All too content, in passive bliss, to see
This show divine of visible Poetry:--

On such a night as this impassionedly
The old Venetian sung those verses rare,
``That Venice must of needs eternal be,
For Heaven had looked through the pellucid air,
And cast its reflex in the crystal sea,
And Venice was the image pictured there;''
I hear them now, and tremble, for I seem
As treading on an unsubstantial dream.

Who talks of vanished glory, of dead power,
Of things that were, and are not? Is he here?
Can he take in the glory of this hour,
And call it all the decking of a bier?
No, surely as on that Titanic tower
The Guardian Angel stands in aether clear,
With the moon's silver tempering his gold wing,
So Venice lives, as lives no other thing:--

That strange Cathedral! exquisitely strange,--
That front, on whose bright varied tints the eye
Rests as of gems,--those arches, whose high range
Gives its rich--broidered border to the sky,--
Those ever--prancing steeds!--My friend, whom change
Of restless will has led to lands that lie
Deep in the East, does not thy fancy set
Above those domes an airy minaret?

Dost thou not feel, that in this scene are blent
Wide distances of the estrangèd earth,
Far thoughts, far faiths, beseeming her who bent
The spacious Orient to her simple worth,
Who, in her own young freedom eminent,
Scorning the slaves that shamed their ancient birth,
And feeling what the West could be, had been,
Went out a Traveller, and returned a Queen?

II.

The Golden Book
Is now unwritten in, and stands unmoved,
Save when the curious traveller takes down
A random volume, from the dusty shelf,
To trace the progress of a bruited name;
The Bucentaur
Is shattered, and of its resplendent form
There is no remnant, but some splintered morsel,
Which in his cabin, as a talisman,
Mournfully hangs the pious Gondolier;
The Adrian sea
Will never have a Doge to marry more,--
The meagre favours of a foreign lord
Can hardly lead some score of humble craft
With vilest merchandize into the port,
That whilom held the wealth of half a world.
Thy Palaces
Are bartered to the careful Israelite,--
Or left to perish, stone by stone, worn down
In desolation,--solemn skeletons,
Whose nakedness some tufts of pitying grass,
Or green boughs trembling o'er the trembling wall,
    Adorn but hide not. And are these things true,
Miraculous Venice? Is the charm then past
Away from thee? Is all thy work fulfilled,
Of power and beauty? Art thou gatherèd
To the dead cities? Is thy ministry
Made up, and folded in the hand of Thought?
Ask him who knows the meaning and the truth
Of all existence;--ask the Poet's heart:
Thy Book has no dead tome for him,--for him
Within St. Mark's emblazoned porticoes,
Thy old Nobility are walking still;--
The lowliest Gondola upon thy waters
Is worth to him thy decorated Galley;
He never looks upon the Adrian sea
But as thy lawful tho' too faithless Spouse;
And when, in the sad lustre of the moon,
Thy Palaces seem beautifully wan,
He blesses God that there is left on earth
So marvellous, so full an antidote,
For all the racks and toils of mortal life,
As thy sweet countenance to gaze upon.

III.
LIDO.

I went to greet the full May--moon
On that long narrow shoal
Which lies between the still Lagoon
And the open Ocean's roll.

How pleasant was that grassy shore,
When one for months had been
Shut up in streets,--to feel once more
One's foot--fall on the green!

There are thick trees too in that place;
But straight from sea to sea,
Over a rough uncultured space,
The path goes drearily.

I passed along, with many a bound,
To hail the fresh free wave;
But, pausing, wonderingly found
I was treading on a grave.

Then, at one careless look, I saw
That, for some distance round,
Tomb--stones, without design or law,
Were scattered on the ground:

Of pirates or of mariners
I deemed that these might be
The fitly--chosen sepulchres,
Encircled by the sea.

But there were words inscribed on all,
I' the tongue of a far land,
And marks of things symbolical,
I could not understand.

They are the graves of that sad race,
Who, from their Syrian home,
For ages, without resting--place,
Are doomed in woe to roam;

Who, in the days of sternest faith,
Glutted the sword and flame,
As if a taint of moral death
Were in their very name:

And even under laws most mild,
All shame was deemed their due,
And the nurse told the Christian child
To shun the cursèd Jew.

Thus all their gold's insidious grace
Availed not here to gain
For their last sleep, a seemlier place
Than this bleak--featured plain.

Apart, severely separate,
On the verge of the outer sea,
Their home of Death is desolate
As their Life's home could be.

The common sand--path had defaced
And pressed down many a stone;
Others can be but faintly traced
I' the rank grass o'er them grown.

I thought of Shylock,--the fierce heart
Whose wrongs and injuries old
Temper, in Shakspeare's world of Art,
His lusts of blood and gold;

Perchance that form of broken pride
Here at my feet once lay,--
But lay alone,--for at his side
There was no Jessica!

Fondly I love each island--shore,
Embraced by Adrian waves;
But none has Memory cherished more
Than Lido and its graves.

IV.

Oh Poverty! thou bitter--hearted fiend!
How darest thou approach the Beautiful?
How darest thou give up these Palaces,
Where delicate Art in wood and marble wove
Its noblest fancies, with laborious skill,
To the base uses of the artizan?
How darest thou defile with coarsest stores,
And vermin's loathsome nests, the aged walls,
Whence Titian's women burningly looked down
On the rich--vested pomp that shone below?
Is nothing sacred for thy hand, no names,
No memories,--thou bold Iniquity!
Shall men, on whose fine brows we recognize
The lines of some great ducal effigies,
Which frown along St. John's cathedral aisles,
With hearts as high as any of their fathers,
Sink silent under thy slow martyrdom,
Leaving their children, Liberty's just heirs,
Children like those that Gianbellini painted,
To batten on the miserable alms,
The sordid fragments of their country's wealth,
Doled out by servants of a stranger king?
Is there no engine of compassionate Death,
Which with a rapid mercy will relieve
This ancient city of its shamèd being?
Is War so weary that he cannot strike
One iron blow, that she may fold her robe
About her head, and fall imperially?
Is there no eager earthquake far below,
To shiver her frail limbs, and hurl her down
Into the bosom of her mated sea?
Or must she, for a lapse of wretched years,
Armless and heartless, tremble on as now,
Like one who hears the tramp of murderous foes,
Unseen, and feels them nearer, nearer still;--
Till round her Famine's pestilential breath,
Fatally closing, to the gloom of Time,
She shall, in quivering agony, give up
The spirit of that light, which burnt so long,
A stedfast glory, an unfailing fire?
Thus ran the darkling current of my thoughts,
As one sad night, from the Rialto's edge,
I looked into the waters,--on whose face
Glimmered the reflex of some few faint stars,
And two far--flitting lamps of gondoliers,
That seemed on that black flat to move alone,
While, on each side, each well--known building lost
Its separate beauty in one dark long curve.

V.

City, whose name did once adorn the world,
Thou might'st have been all that thou ever wert,
In form and feature and material strength,
Up from the sea, which is thy pedestal,
Unto thy Campanile's golden top,
And yet have never won the precious crown,
To be the loved of human hearts, to be
The wise man's treasure now and evermore.--
Th' ingenious boldness, the creative will,
Which from some weak uncertain plots of sand,
Cast up among the waters, could erect
Foundations firm as on the central ground,--
The art which changed thy huts to palaces,
And bade the God of Ocean's temples rise
Conspicuous far above the crystal plain,--
The ever--active nerve of Industry,
That bound the Orient to the Occident
In fruitful commerce, till thy lap was filled
With wealth, the while thy head was girt with power;
Each have their separate palm from wondering men,
But the sage thinker's passion must have source
In sympathy entire with that rare spirit
Which did possess thee, as thy very life,--
That power of union and self--sacrifice,
Which from the proud republics of old time
Devolved upon thee, by a perfect faith
Strung to a tenfold deeper energy.
Within thy people's mind immutable
Two notions held associate monarchy,
Religion and the State,--to which alone,
In their full freedom, they declared themselves
Subject, and deemed this willing servitude
Their dearest privilege of liberty.
Thus at the call of either sacred cause,
All wealth, all feelings, all peculiar rights,
Were made one universal holocaust,
Without a thought of pain,--thus all thy sons
Bore thee a love, not vague and hard defined,
But close and personal, a love no force
Could take away, no coldness could assuage.
Thus when the noble body of Italy,
Which God has bound in one by Alps and sea,
Was struggling with torn heart and splintered limbs,
So that the very marrow of her strength
Mixed with the lavished gore and oozed away,--
Town banded against town, street against street,
House against house, and father against son,
The servile victims of unmeaning feuds,--
Thou didst sustain the wholeness of thy power,--
Thy altar was as a domestic hearth,
Round which thy children sat in brotherhood;--
Never was name of Guelf or Ghibelline
Writ on thy front in letters of bright blood;
Never the stranger, for his own base ends,
Flattered thy passions, or by proffered gold
Seduced the meanest of thy citizens.--
Thus too the very sufferers of thy wrath,
Whom the unsparing prudence of the state,
For erring judgment, insufficient zeal,
Or heavier fault, had banished from its breast,
Even they, when came on thee thy hour of need,
Fell at thy feet and prayed, with humble tears,
That thou wouldst deign at least to use their wealth,
Though thou didst scorn the gift of their poor lives.

Prime model of a Christian commonwealth!
Thou wise simplicity, which present men
Calumniate, not conceiving,--joy is mine,
That I have read and learnt thee as I ought,
Not in the crude compiler's painted shell,
But in thine own memorials of live stone,
And in the pictures of thy kneeling princes,
And in the lofty words on lofty tombs,
And in the breath of ancient chroniclers,
And in the music of the outer sea.



Richard Monckton Milnes


Richard Monckton Milnes's other poems:
  1. London Churches
  2. The Subterranean River, At Cong
  3. Switzerland and Italy
  4. To the Moon of the South
  5. Sir Walter Scott at the Tomb of the Stuarts in St Peter's


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