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

Monte Cassino

Monte Cassino

By Samuel Rogers (1763–1855)

(From Italy)

“WHAT hangs behind that curtain?” “Wouldst thou learn?

If thou art wise, thou wouldst not. ’T is by some

Believed to be his master-work who looked

Beyond the grave, and on the chapel wall,

As though the day were come, were come and past,

Drew the Last Judgment. But the wisest err.

He who in secret wrought, and gave it life,—

For life is surely there and visible change,—

Life such as none could of himself impart

(They who behold it go not as they came,

But meditate for many and many a day),—

Sleeps in the vault beneath. We know not much;

But what we know we will communicate.

’T is in an ancient record of the house;

And may it make thee tremble, lest thou fall!

“Once,—on a Christmas eve,—ere yet the roof

Rung with the hymn of the Nativity,

There came a stranger to the convent gate,

And asked admittance; ever and anon,

As if he sought what most he feared to find,

Looking behind him. When within the walls,

These walls so sacred and inviolate,

Still did he look behind him; oft and long,

With curling, quivering lip and haggard eye,

Catching at vacancy. Between the fits—

For here, ’t is said, he lingered while he lived—

He would discourse and with a mastery,

A charm by none resisted, none explained,

Unfelt before; but when his cheek grew pale

(Nor was the respite longer, if so long,

Than while a shepherd in the vale below

Counts, as he folds, five hundred of his flock)

All was forgotten. Then, howe’er employed,

He would break off, and start as if he caught

A glimpse of something that would not be gone,

And turn and gaze and shrink into himself,

As though the fiend were there, and, face to face,

Scowled o’er his shoulder.
Most devout he was,

Most unremitting in the services,—

Then, only then, untroubled, unassailed,—

And, to beguile a melancholy hour,

Would sometimes exercise that noble art

He learnt in Florence; with a master’s hand,

As to this day the Sacristy attests,

Painting the wonders of the Apocalypse.

“At length he sunk to rest, and in his cell

Left, when he went, a work in secret done,—

The portrait (for a portrait it must be)

That hangs behind the curtain. Whence he drew,

None here can doubt; for they that come to catch

The faintest glimpse—to catch it and be gone—

Gaze as he gazed, then shrink into themselves,

Acting the selfsame part. But why ’t was drawn,—

Whether, in penance, to atone for guilt,

Or to record the anguish guilt inflicts,

Or haply to familiarize his mind

With what he could not fly from,—none can say,

For none could learn the burden of his soul.”