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


Saint Ambrose

By Giuseppe Giusti (1809–1850)

Translated by W. D. Howells

YOUR Excellency is not pleased with me

Because of certain jests I made of late,

And, for my putting rogues in pillory,

Accuse me of being anti-German. Wait,

And hear a thing that happened recently

When wandering here and there one day as fate

Led me, by some odd accident I ran

On the old church St. Ambrose, at Milan.

My comrade of the moment was, by chance,

The young son of one Sandro,—one of those

Troublesome heads,—an author of romance,—

Promessi Sposi,—your Excellency knows

The book perhaps?—has given it a glance?

Ah, no? I see! God give your brain repose:

With graver interests occupied, your head

To all such stuff as literature is dead.

I enter, and the church is full of troops:

Of Northern soldiers, of Croatians, say,

And of Bohemians, standing there in groups

As stiff as dry poles stuck in vineyards,—nay,

As stiff as if impaled, and no one stoops

Out of the plumb of soldierly array;

All stand, with whiskers and mustache of tow,

Before their God like spindles in a row.

I started back: I cannot well deny

That being rained down, as it were, and thrust,

Into that herd of human cattle, I

Could not suppress a feeling of disgust

Unknown, I fancy, to your Excellency,

By reason of your office. Pardon! I must

Say the church stank of heated grease, and that

The very altar-candles seemed of fat.

But when the priest had risen to devote

The mystic wafer, from the band that stood

About the altar, came a sudden note

Of sweetness over my disdainful mood:

A voice that, speaking from the brazen throat

Of warlike trumpets, came like the subdued

Moan of a people bound in sore distress,

And thinking on lost hopes and happiness.

’T was Verdi’s tender chorus rose aloof,—

That song the Lombards, there, dying with thirst,

Send up to God,—“Lord, from the native roof,”—

O’er countless thrilling hearts the song has burst,

And here I, whom its magic put to proof,

Beginning to be no longer I, immersed

Myself amidst those tallowy fellow-men

As if they had been of my land and kin.

What would your Excellency? The piece was fine,

And ours, and played, too, as it should be played:

It drives old grudges out when such divine

Music as that mounts up into your head!

But when the piece was done, back to my line

I crept again, and there I should have stayed,

But that just then, to give me another turn,

From those mole-mouths a hymn began to yearn:

A German anthem, that to heaven went

On unseen wings, up from the holy fane:

It was a prayer, and seemed like a lament,

Of such a pensive, grave, pathetic strain

That in my soul it never shall be spent;

And how such heavenly harmony in the brain

Of those thick-skulled barbarians should dwell

I must confess it passes me to tell.

In that sad hymn I felt the bitter-sweet

Of the songs heard in childhood, which the soul

Learns from belovéd voices, to repeat

To its own anguish in the days of dole:

A thought of the dear mother, a regret,

A longing for repose and love, the whole

Anguish of distant exile seemed to run

Over my heart and leave it all undone:

When the strain ceased, it left me pondering

Tenderer thoughts and stronger and more clear:

These men, I mused, the selfsame despot king,

Who rules in Slavic and Italian fear,

Tears from their homes and arms that round them cling,

And drives them slaves thence, to keep us slaves here:

From their familiar fields afar they pass

Like herds to winter in some strange morass.

To a hard life, to a hard discipline,

Derided, solitary, dumb, they go:

Blind instruments of many-eyed Rapine

And purposes they share not and scarce know;

And this fell hate that makes a gulf between

The Lombard and the German aids the foe

Who tramples both divided, and whose bane

Is in the love and brotherhood of men.

Poor souls! far off from all that they hold dear,

And in a land that hates them! Who shall say

That at the bottom of their hearts they bear

Love for our tyrant? I should like to lay

They ’ve our hate for him in their pockets! Here,

But that I turned in haste and broke away,

I should have kissed a corporal stiff and tall,

And like a scarecrow stuck against the wall.