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Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.

Alaric at Rome

A Prize Poem, 1840

  • [A prize poem recited in Rugby School, June 12, 1840. Published at Rugby the same year.]

  • Admire, exult, despise, laugh, weep, for here
  • There is such matter for all feeling.
  • Childe Harold.

  • I
    UNWELCOME shroud of the forgotten dead,

    Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou:

    Why speed’st thou not thy deathlike wave to shed

    O’er humbled pride, and self-reproaching woe:

    Or time’s stern hand, why blots it not away

    The saddening tale that tells of sorrow and decay?

    There are, whose glory passeth not away—

    Even in the grave their fragrance cannot fade:

    Others there are as deathless full as they,

    Who for themselves a monument have made

    By their own crimes—a lesson to all eyes—

    Of wonder to the fool—of warning to the wise.

    Yes, there are stories registered on high,

    Yes, there are stains time’s fingers cannot blot,

    Deeds that shall live when they who did them, die;

    Things that may cease, but never be forgot:

    Yet some there are, their very lives would give

    To be remembered thus, and yet they cannot live.

    But thou, imperial City! that hast stood

    In greatness once, in sackcloth now and tears,

    A mighty name, for evil or for good,

    Even in the loneness of thy widowed years:

    Thou that hast gazed, as the world hurried by,

    Upon its headlong course with sad prophetic eye.

    Is thine the laurel-crown that greatness wreathes

    Round the wan temples of the hallowed dead—

    Is it the blighting taint dishonour breathes

    In fires undying o’er the guilty head,

    Or the brief splendour of that meteor light

    That for a moment gleams, and all again is night?

    Fain would we deem that thou hast risen so high

    Thy dazzling light an eagle’s gaze should tire;

    No meteor brightness to be seen and die,

    No passing pageant, born but to expire,

    But full and deathless as the deep dark hue

    Of ocean’s sleeping face, or heaven’s unbroken blue.

    Yet stains there are to blot thy brightest page,

    And wither half the laurels on thy tomb;

    A glorious manhood, yet a dim old age,

    And years of crime, and nothingness, and gloom:

    And then that mightiest crash, that giant fall,

    Ambition’s boldest dream might sober and appal.

    Thou wondrous chaos, where together dwell

    Present and past, the living and the dead,

    Thou shattered mass, whose glorious ruins tell

    The vanisht might of that discrownèd head:

    Where all we see, or do, or hear, or say,

    Seems strangely echoed back by tones of yesterday:

    Thou solemn grave, where every step we tread

    Treads on the slumbering dust of other years;

    The while there sleeps within thy precincts dread

    What once had human passions, hopes, and fears;

    And memory’s gushing tide swells deep and full

    And makes thy very ruin fresh and beautiful.

    Alas, no common sepulchre art thou,

    No habitation for the nameless dead,

    Green turf above, and crumbling dust below,

    Perchance some mute memorial at their head,

    But one vast fane where all unconscious sleep

    Earth’s old heroic forms in peaceful slumbers deep.

    Thy dead are kings, thy dust are palaces,

    Relics of nations thy memorial-stones;

    And the dim glories of departed days

    Fold like a shroud around thy withered bones:

    And o’er thy towers the wind’s half-uttered sigh

    Whispers, in mournful tones, thy silent elegy.

    Yes, in such eloquent silence didst thou lie

    When the Goth stooped upon his stricken prey,

    And the deep hues of an Italian sky

    Flasht on the rude barbarian’s wild array:

    While full and ceaseless as the ocean roll,

    Horde after horde streamed up thy frowning Capitol.

    Twice, ere that day of shame, the embattled foe

    Had gazed in wonder on that glorious sight;

    Twice had the eternal city bowed her low

    In sullen homage to the invader’s might:

    Twice had the pageant of that vast array

    Swept, from thy walls, O Rome, on its triumphant way.

    Twice, from without thy bulwarks, hath the din

    Of Gothic clarion smote thy startled ear;

    Anger, and strife, and sickness are within,

    Famine and sorrow are no strangers here:

    Twice hath the cloud hung o’er thee, twice been stayed

    Even in the act to burst, twice threatened, twice delayed.

    Yet once again, stern Chief, yet once again,

    Pour forth the foaming vials of thy wrath:

    There lies thy goal, to miss or to attain,

    Gird thee, and on upon thy fateful path.

    The world hath bowed to Rome, oh! cold were he

    Who would not burst his bonds, and in his turn be free.

    Therefore arise and arm thee! lo, the world

    Looks on in fear! and when the seal is set,

    The doom pronounced, the battle-flag unfurled,

    Scourge of the nations, wouldst thou linger yet?

    Arise and arm thee! spread thy banners forth,

    Pour from a thousand hills thy warriors of the north!

    Hast thou not marked on a wild autumn day

    When the wind slumbereth in a sudden lull,

    What deathlike stillness o’er the landscape lay,

    How calmly sad, how sadly beautiful;

    How each bright tint of tree, and flower, and heath

    Were mingling with the sere and withered hues of death?

    And thus, beneath the clear, calm vault of heaven

    In mournful loveliness that city lay,

    And thus, amid the glorious hues of even

    That city told of languor and decay:

    Till what at morning’s hour look warm and bright

    Was cold and sad beneath that breathless, voiceless night.

    Soon was that stillness broken: like the cry

    Of the hoarse onset of the surging wave,

    Or louder rush of whirlwinds sweeping by

    Was the wild shout those Gothic myriads gave,

    As towered on high, above their moonlit road.

    Scenes where a Caesar triumpht, or a Scipio trod.

    Think ye it strikes too slow, the sword of fate,

    Think ye the avenger loiters on his way,

    That your own hands must open wide the gate,

    And your own voice[s] guide him to his prey;

    Alas, it needs not; is it hard to know

    Fate’s threat’nings are not vain, the spoiler comes not slow?

    And were there none, to stand and weep alone,

    And as the pageant swept before their eyes

    To hear a dim and long forgotten tone

    Tell of old times, and holiest memories,

    Till fanciful regret and dreamy woe

    Peopled night’s voiceless shades with forms of long Ago?

    Oh yes! if fancy feels, beyond to-day,

    Thoughts of the past and of the future time,

    How should that mightiest city pass away

    And not bethink her of her glorious prime,

    Whilst every chord that thrills at thoughts of home

    Jarr’d with the bursting shout, ‘they come, the Goth, they come!’

    The trumpet swells yet louder: they are here!

    Yea, on your fathers’ bones the avengers tread,

    Not this the time to weep upon the bier

    That holds the ashes of your hero-dead,

    If wreaths may twine for you, or laurels wave,

    They shall not deck your life, but sanctify your grave.

    Alas! no wreaths are here. Despair may teach

    Cowards to conquer and the weak to die;

    Nor tongue of man, nor fear, nor shame can preach

    So stern a lesson as necessity,

    Yet here it speaks not. Yea, though all around

    Unhallowed feet are trampling on this haunted ground,

    Though every holiest feeling, every tie

    That binds the heart of man with mightiest power,

    All natural love, all human sympathy

    Be crusht, and outraged in this bitter hour,

    Here is no echo to the sound of home,

    No shame that suns should rise to light a conquer’d Rome.

    That troublous night is over: on the brow

    Of thy stern hill, thou mighty Capitol,

    One form stands gazing: silently below

    The morning mists from tower and temple roll,

    And lo! the eternal city, as they rise,

    Bursts, in majestic beauty, on her conqueror’s eyes.

    Yes, there he stood, upon that silent hill,

    And there beneath his feet his conquest lay:

    Unlike that ocean-city, gazing still

    Smilingly forth upon her sunny bay,

    But o’er her vanisht might and humbled pride

    Mourning, as widowed Venice o’er her Adrian tide.

    Breathe there not spirits on the peopled air?

    Float there not voices on the murmuring wind?

    Oh! sound there not some strains of sadness there,

    To touch with sorrow even a victor’s mind,

    And wrest one tear from joy! Oh! who shall pen

    The thoughts that toucht thy breast, thou lonely conqueror, then?

    Perchance his wandering heart was far away,

    Lost in dim memories of his early home,

    And his young dreams of conquest; how to-day

    Beheld him master of Imperial Rome,

    Crowning his wildest hopes: perchance his eyes

    As they looked sternly on, beheld new victories,

    New dreams of wide dominion, mightier, higher,

    Come floating up from the abyss of years;

    Perchance that solemn sight might quench the fire

    Even of that ardent spirit; hopes and fears

    Might well be mingling at that murmured sigh,

    Whispering from all around, ‘All earthly things must die.’

    Perchance that wondrous city was to him

    But as one voiceless blank; a place of graves,

    And recollections indistinct and dim,

    Whose sons were conquerors once, and now were slaves:

    It may be in that desolate sight his eye

    Saw but another step to climb to victory!

    Alas! that fiery spirit little knew

    The change of life, the nothingness of power,

    How both were hastening, as they flowered and grew,

    Nearer and nearer to their closing hour:

    How every birth of time’s miraculous womb

    Swept off the withered leaves that hide the naked tomb.

    One little year; that restless soul shall rest,

    That frame of vigour shall be crumbling clay,

    And tranquilly, above that troubled breast,

    The sunny waters hold their joyous way:

    And gently shall the murmuring ripples flow,

    Nor wake the weary soul that slumbers on below.

    Alas! far other thoughts might well be ours

    And dash our holiest raptures while we gaze:

    Energies wasted, unimproved hours,

    The saddening visions of departed days:

    And while they rise here might we stand alone,

    And mingle with thy ruins somewhat of our own.

    Beautiful city! If departed things

    Ever again put earthly likeness on,

    Here should a thousand forms on fancy’s wings

    Float up to tell of ages that are gone:

    Yea, though hand touch thee not, nor eye should see,

    Still should the spirit hold communion, Rome, with thee!

    O! it is bitter, that each fairest dream

    Should fleet before us but to melt away;

    That wildest visions still should loveliest seem

    And soonest fade in the broad glare of day:

    That while we feel the world is dull and low,

    Gazing on thee, we wake to find it is not so.

    A little while, alas! a little while,

    And the same world has tongue, and ear, and eye,

    The careless glance, the cold unmeaning smile,

    The thoughtless word, the lack of sympathy!

    Who would not turn him from the barren sea

    And rest his weary eyes on the green land and thee!

    So pass we on. But oh! to harp aright

    The vanisht glories of thine early day,

    There needs a minstrel of diviner might,

    A holier incense than this feeble lay;

    To chant thy requiem with more passionate breath,

    And twine with bolder hand thy last memorial wreath!