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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

Michael Angelo: A Fragment

Part Third. IV. In the Coliseum


WHAT do you here alone, Messer Michele?

I come to learn.

You are already master,

And teach all other men.

Nay, I know nothing;

Not even my own ignorance, as some

Philosopher hath said. I am a school-boy

Who hath not learned his lesson, and who stands

Ashamed and silent in the awful presence

Of the great master of antiquity

Who built these walls cyclopean.


His name was, I remember. His reward

Was to be thrown alive to the wild beasts

Here where we now are standing.

Idle tales

But you are greater than Gaudentius was,

And your work nobler.

Silence, I beseech you.

Tradition says that fifteen thousand men

Were toiling for ten years incessantly

Upon this amphitheatre.


How wonderful it is! The queen of flowers,

The marble rose of Rome! Its petals torn

By wind and rain of thrice five hundred years;

Its mossy sheath half rent away, and sold

To ornament our palaces and churches,

Or to be trodden under feet of man

Upon the Tiber’s bank; yet what remains

Still opening its fair bosom to the sun,

And to the constellations that at night

Hang poised above it like a swarm of bees.

The rose of Rome, but not of Paradise;

Not the white rose our Tuscan poet saw,

With saints for petals. When this rose was perfect

Its hundred thousand petals were not saints,

But senators in their Thessalian caps,

And all the roaring populace of Rome;

And even an Empress and the Vestal Virgins,

Who came to see the gladiators die,

Could not give sweetness to a rose like this.

I spake not of its uses, but its beauty.

The sand beneath our feet is saturate

With blood of martyrs; and these rifted stones

Are awful witnesses against a people

Whose pleasure was the pain of dying men

Tomaso Cavalieri, on my word,

You should have been a preacher, not a painter!

Think you that I approve such cruelties,

Because I marvel at the architects

Who built these walls, and curved these noble arches?

Oh, I am put to shame, when I consider

How mean our work is, when compared with theirs!

Look at these walls about us and above us!

They have been shaken by earthquakes, have been made

A fortress, and been battered by long sieges;

The iron clamps, that held the stones together,

Have been wrenched from them; but they stand erect

And firm, as if they had been hewn and hollowed

Out of the solid rock, and were a part

Of the foundations of the world itself.

Your work, I say again, is nobler work,

In so far as its end and aim are nobler;

And this is but a ruin, like the rest.

Its vaulted passages are made the caverns

Of robbers, and are haunted by the ghosts

Of murdered men.

A thousand wild flowers bloom

From every chink, and the birds build their nests

Among the ruined arches, and suggest

New thoughts of beauty to the architect.

Now let us climb the broken stairs that lead

Into the corridors above, and study

The marvel and the mystery of that art

In which I am a pupil, not a master.

All things must have an end; the world itself

Must have an end, as in a dream I saw it.

There came a great hand out of heaven, and touched

The earth, and stopped it in its course. The seas

Leaped, a vast cataract, into the abyss;

The forests and the fields slid off, and floated

Like wooded islands in the air. The dead

Were hurled forth from their sepulchres; the living

Were mingled with them, and themselves were dead,—

All being dead; and the fair, shining cities

Dropped out like jewels from a broken crown.

Naught but the core of the great globe remained,

A skeleton of stone. And over it

The wrack of matter drifted like a cloud,

And then recoiled upon itself, and fell

Back on the empty world, that with the weight

Reeled, staggered, righted, and then head-long plunged

Into the darkness, as a ship, when struck

By a great sea, throws off the waves at first

On either side, then settles and goes down

Into the dark abyss, with her dead crew.

But the earth does not move.

Who knows? who knows?

There are great truths that pitch their shining tents

Outside our walls, and though but dimly seen

In the gray dawn, they will be manifest

When the light widens into perfect day.

A certain man, Copernicus by name,

Sometime professor here in Rome, has whispered

It is the earth, and not the sun, that moves.

What I beheld was only in a dream,

Yet dreams sometimes anticipate events,

Being unsubstantial images of things

As yet unseen.