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

Vesuvius, the Mountain


By Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813–1892)

DREAD, desolate Mount! when first I gazed at thee

Lifting thy shadowy cone across the sea,

Thou seemedst a remembered picture drawn

By boyhood’s vision in some Southern dawn,

Twin spirit with the purple clouds that rest

In hazy light above thy towering crest.

But when I climbed thy bare and burning side,

And felt the scorching of that fiery tide

Bubbling from thy hot lips, and saw the blight

Of thy dread power spread through the dusky night,

Far down the black slopes to the ocean skiffs,—

When I beheld the drear and savage cliffs

Towering around me black and sulphur-drenched,

The burning cracks whose heat is never quenched,

I knew thou wast that desolating fount

Whose fearful flowing centuries might recount,

Whose fiery surge beat down the marble pride

Of stainless fanes that slept too near thy side,

When fated cities of renownéd fame

Fluttered like moths toward thy devouring flame.

Motionless Victor! Lord of fiery doom!

On thy dark helmet waves thy smoky plume;

Wrapt in thy purple like a Syrian king,

While crouches at thy feet the shrinking Spring,

Thy fallen archangel’s throne befits thee,—thou

Who canst not bless, but curse. Thy blasted brow

Scowls with dull eye of hate that nightly broods

On dire events in thy drear solitudes.

Tireless thou burnest on from age to age.

No winter’s rains, though yearly they assuage

Thy hot cheeks, where the lava tear-drops run

Down the black furrows,—no joy-giving sun

Of balmy spring clothing thy ruggedness

With colors of all depth and tenderness,—

No clouds of summer smiling on thy sleep,—

No autumn vintage round thy fire-cloven steep,—

Have charmed away the awful mystery

That burns within a heart no eye can see.

In the bright day thou mak’st the blue heavens dun,

Blotting with blasphemous smoke the blessed sun.

No calmest starlit night can still thy curse

Breathed upward through the silent universe.

Last night we saw thee shrouded in a cloak

Of dull gray rain-clouds. From thy crater broke

Swift blazing spasms of flame that glimmered through

The awful gloom of mist whose pallid hue

Half hid thy form, now dark, and flashing now

Like the dread oracles on Sinai’s brow.

Prophetic mount! Thou seemedst then to be

Wrapt in a vision of futurity,

Fearfully whispering words of joy or moan,

Whose sense was hidden in thy heart alone.

Nor seer alone of future days o’ercast,

But true historian of the blighted past,

Buried beneath thy feet thou chainest deep

Treasures of beauty in enchanted sleep:

Temples and streets and quaintly painted halls,

Vases and cups for antique festivals,

Fair statues in whose undulating line

The Grecian artist lavished dreams divine;

Altars that burned to gods of mighty name,

Until thy greater sacrificial flame

Swallowed the lesser. Princely art and power

Sank blood-warm to its grave in that dark hour

When thou, wild despot, even to the sea

Whose fevered waves shrank from the fear of thee

Meeting thy fire-kiss, didst send forth thy hosts,

Cloud-myrmidons of death, flooding the coasts

That smiled around thy blue enamelled bay.

Years rolled. The cities in their dungeons lay

Embalmed in lovely death. Long ages crept.

Flowers and luxuriant vines above them slept,

And still not half the wealth beneath that lies

Revisits the sweet light of summer skies.

So thou, stern chronicler, dialest thy dates,

Not by the ephemeral growth and change of states,

But thunderous blasts upheaving from below,

That melt to mist the winter’s hoarded snow,

By thy deep beds of fire, thy strata old,

And the slow creep of vegetable mould.

Yet fearful as thou towerest, seen so near,

In thy environment of blight and fear,

Beautiful art thou burning from afar

In liquid fire,—as though a melting star

Had fallen upon thee from the sky profound,

And streamed adown thy sides which, gemmed around,

Sparkle like some dark Abyssinian queen

Robed in her amethyst and ruby sheen.

E’en now I see thee nightly from this bower

Where the red rose and the white orange-flower

Mingle their odors. Looking o’er the sea,

Thy shadowy cone of solemn mystery

Shoots downward in the waves a softened gleam,

Until, by beauty lulled, I can but dream

Of thee as of each gentle lovely thing

That in my path lies daily blossoming.