Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  Piano di Sorrento

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


Piano di Sorrento

By Robert Browning (1812–1889)

FORTÙ, Fortù, my beloved one,

Sit here by my side,

On my knees put up both little feet!

I was sure, if I tried,

I could make you laugh spite of Scirocco:

Now, open your eyes,—

Let me keep you amused till he vanish

In black from the skies,

With telling my memories over

As you tell your beads;

All the memories plucked at Sorrento,—

The flowers, or the weeds.

Time for rain! for your long hot dry Autumn

Had networked with brown

The white skin of each grape on the bunches,

Marked like a quail’s crown,

Those creatures you make such account of,

Whose heads—specked with white

Over brown like a great spider’s back,

As I told you last night—

Your mother bites off for her supper;

Red-ripe as could be.

Pomegranates were chapping and splitting

In halves on the tree:

And betwixt the loose walls of great flintstone,

Or in the thick dust

On the path, or straight out of the rock-side,

Wherever could thrust

Some burnt sprig of bold, hardy rock-flower,

Its yellow face up,

For the prize were great butterflies fighting,

Some five for one cup.

So I guessed, ere I got up this morning,

What change was in store,

By the quick rustle-down of the quail-nets

Which woke me before

I could open my shutter, made fast

With a bough and a stone,

And look through the twisted dead vine-twigs,

Sole lattice that ’s known!

Quick and sharp rang the rings down the net-poles,

While, busy beneath,

Your priest and his brother tugged at them,

The rain in their teeth;

And out upon all the flat house-roofs

Where split figs lay drying,

The girls took the frails under cover:

Nor use seemed in trying

To get out the boats and go fishing,

For, under the cliff,

Fierce the black water frothed o’er the blind-rock.

No seeing our skiff

Arrive about noon from Amalfi,—

Our fisher arrive,

And pitch down his basket before us,

All trembling alive

With pink and gray jellies, your sea-fruit,—

You touch the strange lumps,

And mouths gape there, eyes open, all manner

Of horns and of humps,

Which only the fisher looks grave at,

While round him like imps

Cling screaming the children as naked

And brown as his shrimps:

Himself, too, as bare to the middle,—

You see round his neck

The string and its brass coin suspended,

That saves him from wreck.

But to-day not a boat reached Salerno,

So back to a man

Came our friends, with whose help in the vineyards

Grape-harvest began:

In the vat, half-way up in our house-side,

Like blood the juice spins,

While your brother all bare-legged is dancing

Till breathless he grins

Dead-beaten, in effort on effort

To keep the grapes under,

Since still when he seems all but master,

In pours the fresh plunder

From girls who keep coming and going

With basket on shoulder,

And eyes shut against the rain’s driving,

Your girls that are older,—

For under the hedges of aloe,

And where, on its bed

Of the orchard’s black mould, the love-apple

Lies pulpy and red,

All the young ones are kneeling and filling

Their laps with the snails

Tempted out by this first rainy weather,—

Your best of regales.

As to-night will be proved to my sorrow,

When, supping in state,

We shall feast our grape-gleaners (two dozen,

Three over one plate)

With lasagne so tempting to swallow

In slippery ropes,

And gourds fried in great purple slices,

That color of popes.

Meantime, see the grape-bunch they ’ve brought you,—

The rain-water slips

O’er the heavy blue bloom on each globe

Which the wasp to your lips

Still follows with fretful persistence,—

Nay, taste, while awake,

This half of a curd-white smooth cheese-ball,

That peels, flake by flake,

Like an onion’s, each smoother and whiter;

Next, sip this weak wine

From the thin green glass flask, with its stopper,

A leaf of the vine,—

And end with the prickly-pear’s red flesh

That leaves through its juice

The stony black seeds on your pearl-teeth.

… Scirocco is loose!

Hark! the quick, whistling pelt of the olives

Which, thick in one’s track,

Tempt the stranger to pick up and bite them,

Though not yet half black!

How the old twisted olive-trunks shudder!

The medlars let fall

Their hard fruit, and the brittle great fig-trees

Snap off, figs and all,—

For here comes the whole of the tempest!

No refuge, but creep

Back again to my side and my shoulder,

And listen or sleep.

O, how will your country show next week,

When all the vine-boughs

Have been stripped of their foliage to pasture

The mules and the cows?

Last eve, I rode over the mountains;

Your brother, my guide,

Soon left me, to feast on the myrtles

That offered, each side,

Their fruit-balls, black, glossy, and luscious,—

Or strip from the sorbs

A treasure, so rosy and wondrous,

Of hairy gold orbs!

But my mule picked his sure, sober path out,

Just stopping to neigh

When he recognized down in the valley

His mates on their way

With the fagots, and barrels of water;

And soon we emerged

From the plain, where the woods could scarce follow;

And still as we urged

Our way, the woods wondered, and left us,

As up still we trudged

Though the wild path grew wilder each instant,

And place was e’en grudged

Mid the rock-chasms, and piles of loose stones

(Like the loose broken teeth

Of some monster, which climbed there to die

From the ocean beneath),

Place was grudged to the silver-gray fume-weed

That clung to the path,

And dark rosemary, ever a-dying,

That, ’spite the wind’s wrath,

So loves the salt rock’s face to seaward,—

And lentisks as stanch

To the stone where they root and bear berries,—

And … what shows a branch

Coral-colored, transparent, with circlets

Of pale sea-green leaves,—

Over all trod my mule with the caution

Of gleaners o’er sheaves,

Still, foot after foot like a lady,—

So, round after round,

He climbed to the top of Calvano,

And God’s own profound

Was above me, and round me the mountains,

And under, the sea,

And within me, my heart to bear witness

What was and shall be!

O heaven, and the terrible crystal!

No rampart excludes

Your eye from the life to be lived

In the blue solitudes!

O, those mountains, their infinite movement!

Still moving with you,—

For, ever some new head and breast of them

Thrusts into view

To observe the intruder,—you see it

If quickly you turn

And, before they escape you, surprise them,—

They grudge you should learn

How the soft plains they look on, lean over,

And love (they pretend)—

Cower beneath them; the flat sea-pine crouches,

The wild fruit-trees bend,

E’en the myrtle-leaves curl, shrink, and shut,—

All is silent and grave,—

’T is a sensual and timorous beauty,—

How fair, but a slave!

So I turned to the sea,—and there slumbered

As greenly as ever

Those isles of the siren, your Galli;

No ages can sever

The Three, nor enable their sister

To join them,—half-way

On the voyage, she looked at Ulysses,—

No farther to-day;

Though the small one, just launched in the wave,

Watches breast-high and steady

From under the rock, her bold sister

Swum half-way already.

Fortù, shall we sail there together

And see from the sides

Quite new rocks show their faces,—new haunts

Where the siren abides?

Shall we sail round and round them, close over

The rocks, though unseen,

That ruffle the gray glassy water

To glorious green?

Then scramble from splinter to splinter,

Reach land and explore,

On the largest, the strange square black turret

With never a door,

Just a loop to admit the quick lizards;

Then stand there and hear

The birds’ quiet singing, that tells us

What life is, so clear!

The secret they sang to Ulysses,

When, ages ago,

He heard and he knew this life’s secret,

I hear and I know!

Ah, see! The sun breaks o’er Calvano—

He strikes the great gloom

And flutters it o’er the mount’s summit

In airy gold fume!

All is over! Look out, see the gypsy,

Our tinker and smith,

Has arrived, set up bellows and forge,

And down-squatted forthwith

To his hammering, under the wall there;

One eye keeps aloof

The urchins that itch to be putting

His jews-harps to proof,

While the other, through locks of curled wire,

Is watching how sleek

Shines the hog, come to share in the windfalls—

An abbot’s own cheek!

All is over! Wake up and come out now,

And down let us go,

And see the fine things got in order

At Church for the show

Of the Sacrament, set forth this evening;

To-morrow ’s the Feast

Of the Rosary’s Virgin, by no means

Of Virgins the least,—

As you ’ll hear in the off-hand discourse

Which (all nature, no art)

The Dominican brother, these three weeks,

Was getting by heart.

Not a post nor a pillar but ’s dizened

With red and blue papers;

All the roof waves with ribbons, each altar

Ablaze with long tapers;

But the great masterpiece is the scaffold

Rigged glorious to hold

All the fiddlers and fifers and drummers,

And trumpeters bold,

Not afraid of Bellini nor Auber,

Who, when the priest’s hoarse,

Will strike us up something that ’s brisk

For the feast’s second course.

And then will the flaxen-wigged Image

Be carried in pomp

Through the plain, while in gallant procession

The priests mean to stomp.

And all round the glad church lie old bottles

With gunpowder stopped,

Which will be, when the Image re-enters,

Religiously popped.

And at night, from the crest of Calvano

Great bonfires will hang,

On the plain will the trumpets join chorus,

And more poppers bang!

At all events, come—to the garden,

As far as the wall,

See me tap with a hoe on the plaster

Till out there shall fall

A scorpion with wide angry nippers!

… “Such trifles,”—you say?

Fortù, in my England at home,

Men meet gravely to-day

And debate, if abolishing Corn-laws

Is righteous and wise,—

If ’t is proper, Scirocco should vanish

In black from the skies!