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

Torcello, the Island


By Joaquin Miller (1837–1913)

(From The Ship in the Desert)

I DO recall some sad days spent,

By borders of the Orient,

Days sweet as sad to memory—

’T would make a tale. It matters not—

I sought the loneliest seas; I sought

The solitude of ruins, and forgot

Mine own lone life and littleness

Before this fair land’s mute distress,

That sat within this changeful sea.

Slow sailing through the reedy isles,

By unknown banks, through unknown bays,

Some sunny summer yesterdays,

Where Nature’s beauty still beguiles,

I saw the storied yellow sail

And lifted prow of steely mail.

’T is all that ’s left Torcello now,—

A pirate’s yellow sail, a prow.

Below the far, faint peaks of snow,

And grass-grown causeways well below,

I touched Torcello.
Once a-land,

I took a sea-shell in my hand,

And blew like any trumpeter.

I felt the fig-leaves lift and stir

On trees that reached from ruined wall

Above my head, but that was all.

Back from the farther island shore

Came echoes trooping; nothing more.

Lo! here stood Adria once, and here

Attila came with sword and flame,

And set his throne of hollowed stone

In her high mart.
And it remains

Still lord o’er all. Where once the tears

Of mute petition fell, the rains

Of heaven fall. Lo! all alone

There lifts this massive empty throne!

The sea has changed his meed, his mood,

And made this sedgy solitude.

By cattle-paths grass-grown and worn,

Through marbled streets all stained and torn

By time and battle, there I walked.

A bent old beggar, white as one

For better fruitage blossoming,

Came on. And as he came he talked

Unto himself; for there are none

In all his island, old and dim,

To answer back or question him.

I turned, retraced my steps once more.

The hot miasma steamed and rose

In deadly vapor from the reeds

That grew from out the shallow shore,

Where peasants say the sea-horse feeds,

And Neptune shapes his horn and blows.

I climbed and sat that throne of stone

To contemplate, to dream, to reign,

Ay, reign above myself; to call

The people of the past again

Before me as I sat alone

In all my kingdom.
There were kine

That browsed along the reedy brine,

And now and then a tusky boar

Would shake the high reeds of the shore,

A bird blows by—but that was all.

I watched the lonesome sea-gull pass.

I did remember and forget;

The past rolled by; I stood alone.

I sat the shapely chiselled stone

That stands in tall sweet grasses set;

Ay, girdle deep in long strong grass,

And green Alfalfa.
Very fair

The heavens were, and still and blue,

For Nature knows no changes there.

The Alps of Venice, far away

Like some half-risen half-moon lay.

How sweet the grasses at my feet!

The smell of clover over sweet.

I heard the hum of bees. The bloom

Of clover-tops and cherry-trees

Were being rifled by the bees,

And these were building in a tomb.

The fair Alfalfa; such as has

Usurped the Occident, and grows

With all the sweetness of the rose

On Sacramento’s sundown hills,

Is there, and that mid island fills

With fragrance. Yet the smell of death

Comes riding in on every breath.

Lo! death that is not death, but rest:

To step aside, to watch and wait

Beside the wave, outside the gate,

With all life’s pulses in your breast;

To absolutely rest, to pray

In some lone mountain while you may.

That sad, sweet fragrance. It had sense

And sound and voice. It was a part

Of that which had possessed my heart,

And would not of my will go hence.

’T was Autumn’s breath; ’t was dear as kiss

Of any worshipped woman is.

Some snails have climbed the throne and writ

Their silver monograms on it

In unknown tongues.
I sat thereon,

I dreamed until the day was gone;

I blew again my pearly shell,—

Blew long and strong, and loud and well;

I puffed my cheeks, I blew, as when

Horned satyrs danced the delight of men.

Some mouse-brown cows that fed within

Looked up. A cowherd rose hard by,

My single subject, clad in skin,

Nor yet half clad. I caught his eye,

He stared at me, then turned and fled.

He frightened fled, and as he ran,

Like wild beast from the face of man,

Across his shoulder threw his head.

He gathered up his skin of goat

About his breast and hairy throat.

He stopped, and then this subject true,

Mine only one in hands like these

Made desolate by changeful seas,

Came back and asked me for a sou.