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

Rome, Ruins of

The Shadow of the Obelisk

By Thomas William Parsons (1819–1892)

HOMEWARD turning from the music which had so entranced my brain,

That the way I scarce remembered to the Pincian Hill again,—

Nay, was willing to forget it underneath a moon so fair,

In a solitude so sacred, and so summer-like an air,—

Came I to the side of Tiber, hardly conscious where I stood,

Till I marked the sullen murmur of the venerable flood.

Rome lay doubly dead around me, sunk in silence calm and deep:

’T was the death of desolation, and the nightly one of sleep.

Dreams alone, and recollections, peopled now the solemn hour,

Such a spot and such a season well might wake the Fancy’s power;

Yet no monumental fragment, storied arch, or temple vast,

Mid the mean plebeian buildings loudly whispered of the Past.

Tethered by the shore, some barges hid the wave’s august repose;

Petty sheds of humble merchants nigh the Campus Martius rose;

Hardly could the dingy Thamis, when his tide is ebbing low,

Life’s dull scene in colder colors to the homesick exile show.

Winding from the vulgar prospect, through a labyrinth of lanes,

Forth I stepped upon the Corso where its greatness Rome retains.

Yet it was not ancient glory, though the midnight radiance fell

Soft on many a princely mansion, many a dome’s majestic swell;

Though, from some hushed corner gushing, oft a modern fountain gleamed,

Where the marble and the waters in their freshness equal seemed:

What though open courts unfolded columns of Corinthian mould?

Beautiful it was,—but altered! naught bespake the Rome of old.

So, regardless of the grandeur, passed I towards the Northern Gate;

All around were shining gardens, churches glittering, yet sedate;

Heavenly bright the broad enclosure! but the o’erwhelming silence brought

Stillness to mine own heart’s beating, with a moment’s truce of thought,

And I started as I found me walking, ere I was aware,

O’er the Obelisk’s tall shadow, on the pavement of the square.

Ghost-like seemed it to address me, and conveyed me for a while,

Backward, through a thousand ages, to the borders of the Nile;

Where, for centuries, every morning saw it creeping, long and dun,

O’er the stones perchance of Memphis, or the City of the Sun.

Kingly turrets looked upon it, pyramids and sculptured fanes;

Towers and palaces have mouldered, but the shadow still remains.

Out of that lone tomb of Egypt, o’er the seas the trophy flew;

Here the eternal apparition met the millions’ daily view.

Virgil’s foot has touched it often, it hath kissed Octavia’s face,—

Royal chariots have rolled o’er it, in the frenzy of the race,

When the strong, the swift, the valiant, mid the thronged arena strove,

In the days of good Augustus and the dynasty of Jove.

Herds are feeding in the Forum, as in old Evander’s time;

Tumbled from the steep Tarpeian all the towers that sprang sublime.

Strange that what seemed most inconstant should the most abiding prove;

Strange that what is hourly moving no mutation can remove:

Ruined lies the cirque! the chariots, long ago, have ceased to roll,—

Even the Obelisk is broken,—but the shadow still is whole.

What is Fame! if mightiest empires leave so little mark behind,

How much less must heroes hope for, in the wreck of humankind!

Less than even this darksome picture, which I tread beneath my feet,

Copied by a lifeless moonbeam on the pebbles of the street;

Since, if Cæsar’s best ambition, living, was to be renowned,

What shall Cæsar leave behind him save the shadow of a sound?