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Gigantic phantoms dimly seemed to glide,*
In misty files, along the mountain's side,
To view with threatening scowl your fated lands,
And toward your city point their shadowy hands ?
In vain celestial omens prompted fear,
And nature's signal spoke the ruin near.
In vain through many a night ye viewed from far
The meteor flag of elemental war
Unroll its blazing folds from yonder height,
In fearful sign of earth's intestine fight.
In vain Vesuvius groaned with wrath supprest,
And muttered thunder in his burning breast.
Long since the Eagle from that flaming peak
Hath soared with screams a safer nest to seek.
Awed by the infernal beacon's fitful glare,
The howling fox hath left his wonted lair;
Nor dares the browsing goat in venturous leap
To spring, as erst, from dizzy steep to steep. —
Man only mocks the peril. Man alone
Defies the sulphurous flame, the warning groan.
While instinct, humbler guardian, wakes and saves,
Proud reason sleeps, nor knows the doom it braves.
But see, the opening theatre invites
The fated myriads to its gay delights.
In, in, they swarm, tumultuous as the roar
Of foaming breakers on a rocky shore.
The enraptured throng in breathless transport views
The gorgeous temple of the Tragic Muse.
There, while her wand in shadowy pomp arrays
Ideal scenes, and forms of other days,
Fair as the hopes of youth, a radiant band,
The sister arts around her footstool stand,
To deck their Queen, and lend a milder grace
To the stern beauty of that awful face.
Far, far, around the ravished eye surveys
The sculptured forms of Gods and heroes blaze.
Above, the echoing roofs the peal prolong
Of lofty converse, or melodious song,
While, as the tones of passion sink or swell,
Admiring thousands own the moral spell,
Melt with the melting strains of fancied woe,
With terror sicken, or with transport glow.
Oh! for a voice like that which pealed of old
Through Salem's cedar courts and shrines of gold,
And in wild accents round the trembling dome
Proclaimed the havoc of avenging Rome;
While every palmy arch and sculptured tower
Shook with the footsteps of the parting power.
Such voice might check your tears, which idly stream
For the vain phantoms of the poet's dream,
Might bid those terrors rise, those sorrows flow,
For other perils, and for nearer woe.
The hour is come. Even now the sulphurous cloud
Involves the city in its funeral shroud,
And far along Campania’s azure sky
Expands its dark and boundless canopy.
The Sun, though throned on heaven's meridian height,
Burns red and rayless through that sickly night.
Each bosom felt at once the shuddering thrill.
At once the music stopped. The song was still.
None in that cloud's portentous shade might trace
The fearful changes of another's face:
But through that horrid stillness each could hear
His neighbor's throbbing heart beat high with fear.
A moment's pause succeeds. Then wildly rise
Grief's sobbing plaints and terror's frantic cries.
The gates recoil; and towards the narrow pass
In wild confusion rolls the living mass.
Death, — when thy shadowy sceptre waves away
From his sad couch the prisoner of decay,
Though friendship view the close with glistening eye,
And love's fond lips imbibe the parting sigh,
By torture racked, by kindness soothed in vain,
The soul still clings to being and to pain.
But when have wilder terrors clothed thy brow,
Or keener torments edged thy dart than now,
When with thy regal horrors vainly strove
The law of nature, and the power of Love?
On mothers babes in vain for mercy call,
Beneath the feet of brothers, brothers fall.
Behold the dying wretch in vain upraise,
Towards yonder well-known face, the accusing gaze;
See trampled to the earth the expiring maid
Clings round her lover's feet, and shrieks for aid.
Vain is the imploring glance, the frenzied cry;
All, all is fear; – to succor is to die.
how wild, how red, how broad a light
Burst on the darkness of that mid-day night,
As fierce Vesuvius scattered o'er the vale
Her drifted flames and sheets of burning hail,
Shook hell's wan lightnings from his blazing cone,
And gilded heaven with meteors not its own?
The morn all blushing rose; but sought in vain
The snowy villas and the flowery plain,
The purple hills with marshalled vineyards gay,
The domes that sparkled in the sunny ray.
Where art or nature late had decked the scene
With blazing marble or with spangled green,
There, streaked by many a fiery torrent's bed,
A boundless waste of hoary ashes spread.
Along that dreary waste where lately rung
The festal lay which smiling virgins sung,
Where rapture echoed from the warbling lute,
And the gay dance resounded, all is mute.
Mute! — Is it Fancy shapes that wailing sound
Which faintly murmurs from the blasted ground,
Or live there still, who, breathing in the tomb,
Curse the dark refuge which delays their doom,
In massive vaults, on which the incumbent plain
And ruined city heap their weight in vain ?
Oh! who may sing that hour of mortal strife,
When Nature calls on Death, yet clings to life?
Who paint the wretch that draws sepulchral breath,
A living prisoner in the house of Death?
Pale as the corpse which loads the funeral pile,
With face convulsed that writhes a ghastly smile,
Behold him speechless move with hurried pace,
Incessant, round his dungeon's caverned space,
Now shriek in terror, and now groan in pain,
Gnaw his white lips, and strike his burning brain,
Till Fear o'erstrained in stupor dies away,
And Madness wrests her victim from dismay,
His arms sink down; his wild and stony eye
Glares without sight on blackest vacancy.
He feels not, sees not: wrapped in senseless trance
His soul is still and listless as his glance.
One cheerless blank, one rayless mist is there,
Thoughts, senses, passions, live not with despair.
Haste, Famine, haste, to urge the destined close,
And lull the horrid scene to stern repose.
Yet ere, dire Fiend, thy lingering tortures cease,
And all be hushed in still sepulchral peace,
Those caves shall wilder, darker deeds behold
Than e'er the voice of song or fable told,
Whate'er dismay may prompt, or madness dare,
Feasts of the grave, and banquets of despair.
Hide, hide, the scene; and o'er the blasting sight
Fling the dark veil of ages and of night.
Go, seek Pompeii now:- – with pensive tread
Roam through the silent city of the dead.
Explore each spot, where still, in ruin grand,
Her shapeless piles and tottering columns stand,
Where the pale ivy's clasping wreaths o'ershade
The ruined temple's moss-clad colonnade,
Or violets on the hearth's cold marble wave,
And muse in silence on a people's grave.
Fear not. - No sign of death thine eyes
No, all is beauty, verdure, fragrance there.
A gentle slope includes the fatal ground
With odorous shrubs and tufted myrtles crowned;
Beneath, o'ergrown with grass, or wreathed with flowers,
Lie tombs and temples, columns, baths, and towers.
As if in mockery, Nature seems to dress
In all her charms the beauteous wilderness,
And bids her gayest flowerets twine and bloom
In sweet profusion o'er a city's tomb.
With roses here she decks the untrodden path,
With lilies fringes there the stately bath;
The Acanthus'* spreading foliage here she weaves
Round the gay capital which mocks its leaves ;
There hangs the sides of every mouldering room
With tapestry from her own fantastic loom,
Wallflowers and weeds, whose glowing hues supply
With simple grace the purple's Tyrian dye.
The ruined city sleeps in fragrant shade,
Like the pale corpse of some Athenian maidet
Whose marble arms, cold brows, and snowy neck
The fairest flowers of fairest climates deck,
Meet types of her whose form their wreaths array,
Of radiant beauty, and of swift decay.
Advance, and wander on through crumbling halls,
Through prostrate gates, and ivied pedestals,
Arches, whose echoes now no chariots rouse,
Tombs, on whose summits goats undaunted browse.
See, where yon ruined wall on earth reclines,
Through weeds and moss the half-seen painting shines,
Still vivid 'midst the dewy cowslips glows,
Or blends its colors with the blushing rose.
* The capital of the Corinthian pillar is carved, as is well known, in imitation of the Acanthus. Mons. de Chateaubriand, as I have found since this Poem was written, has employed the same image in his Travels.
+ It is the custom of the modern Greeks to adorn corpses profusely with flowers.