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

Rubicon, the River

The Rubicon

By John Edmund Reade (1800–1870)

(From Italy)

ONWARD we pass: a vein-like rivulet

Glides gushingly along, whose azure threads

Disparted scarce their emptied channel wet;

Here swelling to a river such as heads

The steed slow wading through its pebbled beds:

Its name hath passed a household word with men,

Moral for him who late or early treads

Life’s fortunate path: who grasps that moment when

The good or ill are offered, ne’er to come again:

Which leads to sunny happiness, or fame,

But leaves, for aye, in shallows if withstood;

Lo, where yon red banks tell the water’s name,

The Rubicon: and here the arch-rebel stood;

Whose name is ever linked with that wild flood,

Spoiled child of Rome and Fortune, he who chained

Victory to his car: in changeful mood

An ever-varying Proteus, the unreined

Impulse, his law of will, obeyed as fate ordained.

With an unsettled eye and brow perturbed

He looked on, but saw not the river’s course;

Earth seemed as if she rose and palpably curbed

His passage on: a wail as of remorse

Rose from that stream, her mandate to enforce;

The Roman mother stood before her son:

Life opening flashed on him from its first source,

All or of good or ill, to seek or shun,

The infinite of thought within its limit won.

Here Cæsar paused, the working influence

Of the stern circumstance that rules us still,

The prescient feeling of the right, the sense

Of conscience stifled but immutable,

Contending impulses of good and ill

Strove here for mastery, the balance hung

By the self-love that doth its fate fulfil:

Strength, faith, hope, confidence behind him clung,

Before, his foe’s cold smile, pride conquered, and he sprung.

For O, what loves or human memories slaked,

Country, or fame, or gods, the undying thirst

Of feverish ambition once awaked?

Thine was of purer essence, to be first

Thy aim: Rome was not by thy tyranny cursed;

She loved, yet marvelled at thee; and the fear

Of thy dread eagles which by victory nursed,

Came, saw, and conquered, vanished when more near,

For thy unbroken faith taught foemen to revere.

Thou wert Rome’s sacrifice, her greatest, last;

The throne upreared by thee a lesser took,

Yet fitter, so thy end of life surpassed:

He, wiser, turned the sword into a crook,

But who on thy bald laurelled brow could look,

Nor fear the heights ambition might attain?

Hate struck, the blow for freedom’s he mistook;

But thou didst leave, on thy own altar slain,

A warning to earth’s tyrants rendered not in vain.

For thou wert stamped by Nature one of those

Whose fiery spirits must ascend or die,

Conquering or falling, aught save life’s repose

Thou couldst endure: thine the sublimity

Of an undying nature, and thy sigh

To be the first, the world’s sole oracle,

Its grand but misdirected energy;

For when thy least wish fortune did fulfil,

What respite gave it thee, thou man of restless will?

And thou, Ariminum! wert first to hail

The immortal rebel on his march, when sprang

Thy citizens from morning slumbers pale,

As the shrill trumpets through thy forum rang!

The wild shouts of the soldiery, the clang

Of arms: and shielded o’er his legion’s tide,

Cæsar, enthroned, forgot remorse’s pang:

His brow inflamed with mingled wrath and pride,

Rising like War let loose with Até by his side.

The passionate harangue, the answering wrath,

Wrung from the fierce excitement of the hour:

The cohorts rushing on in their wild path,

Whose rage is reason and whose law is power!

The consciousness of dangers such as lower

O’er him who dares against his country rear

The rebel’s standard, cursed alike his dower,

Failure, or triumph; vengeance, hate, and fear,

Passion’s wild elements met in warring chaos here.