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

Isola Bella

Napoleon at Isola Bella

By Lord Lytton (1803–1873)

  • In the Isola Bella, upon the Lago Maggiore, where the richest vegetation of the tropics grows in the vicinity of the Alps, there is a lofty laurel-tree (the bay), tall as the tallest oak, on which, a few days before the battle of Marengo, Napoleon carved the word “Battaglia.” The bark has fallen away from the inscription, most of the letters are gone, and the few left are nearly effaced.

  • O FAIRY island of a fairy sea,

    Wherein Calypso might have spelled the Greek,

    Or Flora piled her fragrant treasury,

    Culled from each shore her zephyr’s wings could seek,—

    From rocks where aloes blow,

    Tier upon tier, Hesperian fruits arise;

    The hanging bowers of this soft Babylon;

    An India mellows in the Lombard skies,

    And changelings, stolen from the Lybian sun,

    Smile to yon Alps of snow.

    Amid this gentlest dreamland of the wave

    Arrested, stood the wondrous Corsican;

    As if one glimpse the better angel gave

    Of the bright garden-life vouchsafed to man

    Ere blood defiled the world.

    He stood,—that grand Sesostris of the North,—

    While paused the car to which were harnessed kings;

    And in the airs, that lovingly sighed forth

    The balms of Araby, his eagle-wings

    Their sullen thunder furled

    And o’er the marble hush of those large brows

    Dread with the awe of the Olympian nod,

    A giant laurel spread its breathless boughs,

    The prophet-tree of the dark Pythian god,

    Shadowing the doom of thrones!

    What, in such hour of rest and scene of joy,

    Stirs in the cells of that unfathomed brain?

    Comes back one memory of the musing boy,

    Lone gazing at the yet unmeasured main,

    Whose waifs are human bones?


    Write on the sacred bark such native prayer,

    As the mild power may grant in coming years,

    Some word to make thy memory gentle there;

    More than renown, kind thought for men endears

    A hero to mankind.

    Slow moved the mighty hand,—a tremor shook

    The leaves, and hoarse winds groaned along the wood;

    The Pythian tree the damning sentence took,

    And to the sun the battle-word of blood

    Glared from the gashing rind.

    So thou hast writ the word, and signed thy doom:

    Farewell, and pass upon thy gory way.

    The direful skein the pausing Fates resume!

    Let not the Elysian grove thy steps delay

    From thy Promethean goal.

    The fatal tree the abhorrent word retained

    Till the last battle on its bloody strand

    Flung what were nobler had no life remained,—

    The crownless front, and the disarméd hand,

    And the foiled Titan soul;

    Now, year by year, the warrior’s iron mark

    Crumbles away from the majestic tree,

    The indignant life-sap ebbing from the bark

    Where the grim death-word to humanity

    Profaned the Lord of Day.

    High o’er the pomp of blooms, as greenly still,

    Aspires that tree,—the archetype of fame,

    The stem rejects all chronicle of ill,

    The bark shrinks back,—the tree survives the same,

    The record rots away.