Home  »  Poems of Places An Anthology in 31 Volumes  »  The Scalinnatti

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


The Scalinnatti

By Thomas Buchanan Read (1822–1872)

IN Rome there is a glorious flight of stone,

Great steps, as leading to a giant’s throne,

Or to a temple of Titanic gods;

This marvellous height, up which the pilgrim plods,

Breathless half-way, seems like a stairway tracked

By myriad feet of some wild cataract;

Like those where Nilus, with his flag of spray,

Leads his wild Abyssinian floods away.

Below this giant stairway, in the square,

There springs a cooling murmur in the air;

The liquid music of a tinkling rill;

A stolen naiad from the Sabine hill,

Still singing, in captivity, the lay

Learned on her native mountains far away.

In middle of this fount a marble barge

Sits, overflowing with its crystal charge;

Its light mast liquid silver in the sun;

Its viewless rowers singing every one,

Until,—so feigns the fancy,—warmly dark,

Great Egypt sails in the fantastic bark;

Melting in languors of her own heart’s heat,

A tame, bright leopard cushioning her feet!

But here, with swelling heart and lordly mien,

The stately swan of Avon swims between.

Crowning the flight, a porphyry column stands

Dark as the sphinx above the desert sands;

Solemn as prophecy it points the sky,

Propounding its dim riddle to the eye;

And it has seen, with look as calm as Fate’s,

On Nile and Tiber, the imperial states

Rise nobly, and fall basely; and there still

Waits for new wonders, silent on yon hill.

IN Rome there is a glorious flight of stone,

Terrace o’er terrace rising, like that shown

To dreaming Jacob, climbing, till on high

The last broad platform nobly gains the sky.

On this great stairway what are these I see?

Ascending and descending! They should be

Angels with spotless mantles and white wings.

But, look again: those sad, misshapen things,

They scarce seem human! Where they crawl and lay

Their tattered misery in the stranger’s way,

Filling the air with simulated sighs,

Weeping for bread with unsuffused eyes.

Would they did weep, indeed! for, stung to tears

Then were there hope where now no hope appears.

But such the melting influence of the place,

That one there was,—most abject of his race;

A whining trunk,—deprived of every gift

Save his misfortune; but with this did lift

Himself to such a height of wealth and power,

That many a Roman noble at this hour

Envies his hoard, and many a sinking name

The beggar’s usurous gold still keeps from shame.

Here the brown Sabines, in their gay attires,

Whose eyes still kindle with ancestral fires,

Bring down their mountain graces to the mart,

And wait for bread on the demands of Art.

Their Belisarius, with his patriarch hair,

Sits blind and hungry. A Lucretia there

Winds her light distaff. Young Endymion here

Sleeps, as in Latmos. Yonder, drawing near,

The original of many a picture moves,

And many a statue which the world approves.

There sits the mother, with her soft, brown eyes

Bent o’er the face which on her bosom lies;

Enough of mingled wonder, pride, and trust,

To call the hand of Raphael from the dust.