Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  Ghetto di Roma

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Italy: Vols. XI–XIII. 1876–79.


Ghetto di Roma

By Thomas William Parsons (1819–1892)

WHOEVER, led by worship of the past,

Or love of beauty, even in its wane,

Wastes a sweet season of delightful sadness

In wandering mid the wilderness of Rome,

May see,—as I did, many a summer since,—

A wretched quarter of the sacred city,

Where the poor dregs of Israel’s children dwell.

’T is called the Ghetto, and the pious townsman

Shuns it, unless his piety lie deep

Enough to teach him not to turn aside

From any form of human brotherhood:

Hard by the muddy Tiber’s idle flow,

Beyond the shadow of the Vatican,

Yet within sound, almost, of choirs that chant

Morning and evening to a Christian organ,

Its prison-like and ragged houses rise.

A miry street leads through the unholy realm,

Where no saint’s chapel, perfect in proportion,

Breaks the long ugliness with one fair front;

Nor ever open door breathes odorous fumes

Of silver censers on the passers by.

Here hymns are never heard, nor sacring bell,

Nor benediction from benignant lips,

Nor whispered aves to the cold-eyed Virgin.

The cowled procession brings no tapers here,

With crucifix and banner-bearing boys,

To take the taint out of the Hebrew air.


At either entrance of the ill-paved way

A gate as massive as the Scæan was,

And grim as that through which the Tuscan passed

On his dread journey to the fires of hell,

Swings on its hinges till the set of sun,

And then is bolted till he glare again.

Thus dawn and night to the poor captives come

Made by the barring only and unbarring

Of the spiked portals; for the blessed ray

Pierces no lattice, gilds no threshold here.

The gloomy shops a mingled steam exhale

Of withered greens, and musty grocers’ ware,

And such rank offal as the meaner sort

Of curs will mumble when their Lent seems long.

Here at high noon the petty trade proceeds

By the dim tallow which the greasy counter

Receives in minted drops,—the only coin,

Save that of oaths, which is abundant here.