Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dorchester Amphitheatre .

By Rome's old amphitheatre I stood,
Still pretty perfect, on the Weymouth road,
Within some half a mile of Dorchester.
There had I come, as others come, to feed
A curious eye, and win such thoughts as spring
From sense of contrast 'twixt the ideal Past
And the fact-speaking Present. In good sooth
Strange contrast did I find; for all within
The oval boundary of that fair arena
Was seen to spread a most unclassic growth
Of vile potatoes! Plant, to me it seems,
Aye somewhat vile to view; which, when the World
New-found first gave it to our older climes,
She gave with true utilitarian aim,

Far more for use than beauty. But these were
Of all most vile; black spotted, with torn leaves
And draggled stalks; dank and disconsolate
As Autumn rains and trampling feet could make them.
Some pauper-hand had sown the ragged crop;
No peasant's, but some mean suburban hand;
Whether with license from the corporation,
Or of his own coarse will I might not learn,
'Twas a sore check to fancy; and, full sure,
Fine lady or yet finer gentleman,
Fastidious dandlers of their own sweet wills,
At once had quitted, in a brisk disgust,
Potatoes—amphitheatre—and all.
But I had learned (a lesson time will teach)
To make the best of matters, and, beside,
'Tis a wise pride, through the mind's alchemy,
To draw a pleasure from poor promisings
Nor hard the task; for let but patience watch
The process, and up-comes, in no long time,
Through subtile ducts of feeling or of thought,
The good which lurks in all things.

So I went not;
But, laid at length upon the topmost edge
Of that green circus, failed not soon to win
Full recompence. For the benignant air
Was very bliss to breathe; and evening, now,
Was slanting her long shadows o'er the land,
And, with her shadows, peace! All told of peace,
Insensate things and things of life; each flake
Of floating cloud, like white-sailed bark becalmed,
That paused in the blue sky; the thrifty rook,
Last labourer in the newly furrowed field,
Seen wending homeward on slow-waving wing;
And unyoked ox that, tranquil still, though freed,
Swayed leisurely by, to food and needful rest
In stable or night pasture. Nor did man
Not profit by the hour; but stole him forth
From out the precinct of the toiling town
To taste, abroad, our nobler human rest,
Which links with meditation; pondering, now,
The quiet of the plain; now sending forth
Freed thought to travel 'mid the circling hills.

Who may misprize Dorchestrian hills? What though
They tower to no such height as looks with scorn
Over a dwindled plain; what though no crags
Be there to fortify; no forest belts

To gird them midway round; yet theirs, instead,
Are graceful slopes with shadowy dips between;
And theirs are breezy summits, not too high
To recognise familiar sights, and catch
Familiar sounds of life, the ploughman's call
Or tinkling from the fold. Yet thence the eye
Feeds on no stinted landscape, sky and earth
And the blue sea; and thence may wingèd thought,
Which ever loves the vantage ground of hills,
Launch amid buoyant air, and soar at will.

Fair, amid these, art thou, camp-crested Mount,
In some far time, for some forgotten cause,
Named of the Maiden. Nor doth surer lore
Attest if Briton or if Roman wound
Those triple trenches round thee; regular
As terraces, by architect up-built
For princely pleasure-ground, or those, far-famed,
By ancient hunters made—so some have deemed—
Or else by Nature's self in wild Glenroy.

Along thy sides they stretch, ring above ring,
Marking thee from afar; then vanish round
Like the broad shingly banks, which ocean heaves
In noble curves along his winding shore.
The passing wayfarer with wonder views
E'en at imperfect distance, their bold lines,
And asks the Who? the Wherefore? and the When?
Wafting his spirit back into far times,
And dreaming as he goes. But whoso stays,
And climbs the turf-way to thy tabled top,
Shall reap a fuller wonder; shall behold
Thy girdled area, of itself a plain,
Where widely feeds the scattered flock; shall mark
Thy trenches, complicate' with warlike art,
And deep almost as natural ravine
Cut in the mountain; or some startling rent
In the blue-gleaming glacier; or as clefts,
Severing the black and jagged lava-walls,
Which old Vesuvius round his crater flings,
Outworks, to guard the mysteries within.
But these are smooth and verdant. Tamed long since,
Breastwork abrupt and pallisaded mound
Are, now, but sloping greensward; as if Nature,

Who vainly her mild moral reads to man,
Still strove to realize the blessed days,
By seers avouched, by statesmen turned to dreams,
When war shall be no more.
So mused I there!
As who had failed to muse? But now the sun,
Silently sunken, with departing light
Had fused the whole horizon; not alone
His western realm, but flooded refluent gold
Back to the southern hills, along whose tops
Are seen to stretch, in far continuous line,
Sepulchral barrows. Brightly-verdant cones
I marked them rise beneath his earlier ray;
But now they stood against that orange light
Each of a velvet blackness; like the bier
Before some high-illumined altar spread
When a king lies in state; and well might seem
To twilight fantasy, like funeral palls,
Shrouding the bones of aboriginal men,
Who there had lived and died, long ere our tribes
Had heard the name or felt the conquering arms
Of Rome or Roman; or as yet had seen,

Mocking their hearths of clay and turf-built huts,
The prætor's quaint mosaic or tiled bath;
Or heard our hard-school task, the phrase of Terence,
Bandied in common parlance round the land.

This was the hour of Fancy, Spirit shy!
Who weaves no dreams beneath the garish day,
Or if indeed she weave, yet tells them not,
So fearful of the comment, or the jeer.
Nay, still the more from vulgar guess to hide
Her visionary themes, will oft put on,
With harmless treachery, worldly masquerade
Of common-place or business; squaring now
Some dull frivolity of daily life,
Visit or etiquette; now poring o'er
Law book or ledger, or long-drawn report
Of grave committee, just as if she prized
The things she seems to ponder but when night
Is in the heaven, her natural day begins.
Then, like yon star, which, when the morning sun
Came forth, first trembled, and then dropt away
To unobserved seclusion, and yet now
Once more hangs thoughtful in the twilight sky;

E'en so doth Fancy venture forth again
To float among the tinted clouds of eve;
And—hovering now—now car-like borne along—
Imbues her visions with their loveliest hues,
And gives them back yet lovelier of her own.
Ere long, uncontradicted and more bold,
She gives command to Matter and to Space
To work her bidding; and behold! the Twain,
Like Genii-servants of the lamp or ring,
Contract themselves at once, or else dilate
As she would have it. Nor may Time oppose
His realm's remoteness, parted by the gulf
Of cycled centuries; for she knows to weave
Her gossamer threads so subtile, yet so strong,
That linkèd by the long invisible line,
Present and Past are one.

This was her hour,
The potent hour of Fancy! As of old
The games were just beginning; and I saw
The rural dwellers hastening o'er the plain
By ones, and twos, and threes; some quaint to view
With their own painted skins, and some hirsute

In spoil of wolf or bear. A denser mass
Poured from the crowded city; helm and gown,
The soldier and civilian; and, ere long,
These circling seats, almost obliterate' now,
And where the shy mole-cricket, undisturbed,
Creaks his funereal note, were thronged with looks
So eager—so intent—it seemed as if
No desolation e'er could touch the place.
Mingled they sat, conquered and conqueror;
The intruder and the native of the land;
Fair British damsel by dark Roman maid;
And whoso had but scanned, with curious eye,
The multitude there met, had singled out
Each separate race, distinct as then they showed,
Ere holy marriage rites, and lapse of years,
Had fused the swarthy South and paler North
Into one blended beauty.

Fancy still
Relaxed not, and behold! the games went on.
But here no wretched gladiator died,
To stimulate the jaded taste corrupt
Of a luxurious city, mingling blood

And sport together; here no lordly brute,
Pride of his woods, tiger nor spotted 'pard
Was brought to bathe his beautiful sides in gore.
But simple games were here, befitting well
Remoter province. Yet there wanted not
The course of chariots, seven times rapt around
The level circus; nor impetuous speed
Of the foot-racer swift; nor clenchèd hand
With cestus mailed; nor strong transcendent arm
Whirling the discus far and far away.

Here too were jugglers' feats, with many a feint
Of the quick hand, deceiving eye and guess;
Perchance transmitted down from those who strove
With Moses, when the rods to serpents rolled
In ancient Egypt, aye for magic famed;
And whose strange sorceries even now perplex
The traveller, and send him doubting home.
And graceful dancers here from Southern Gaul
Wove their gay measures, with half-wingèd feet
Quivering in air, as if the air were half
Their element; nor was there lack of song
From smooth Italian clime, nor of sweet flute,

Breathing some lay, on slope of Aready
First framed by love-sick shepherd; courting now
Barbarian ears; which yet delighted heard,
And treasured up the strain.

Him too I saw—
(For Fancy bodied forth whate'er she willed)—
The shepherd-minstrel of remotest time,
Zampognatore, who, with moving arm,
From the pressed bag compels the struggling air
Into a liquid music. He had strayed
From his Calabrian home, lone wanderer,
For humble gain, thus far; and such, e'en now,
Gay Naples! when returning Christmas brings
High festival, amid thy crowded streets
Are seen and heard, hymning each sacred shrine.
In simple sheep-skin clad, they wend along,
(Rude vesture! worn of old, when men first watched
Their feeding flocks along the grassy hills,)
And seem like records of an earlier world,
Linking the Past and Present. And, full oft,
(If Fancy might presume on holy ground,)

Me would she fondly lure to dream that such
As these, perchance, in old Judæa's land,
The missioned angel summoned from their folds,
To learn the glorious birth in Bethlehem!

A pause—and, lo! two well-trained wrestlers come,
Briton with Roman matched; and as they stand
Eyeing each other, face to face, erect,
Look like bold statues, which some master-hand
Hath wrought to best proportion. Soon their arms
Are grasping each the other's at full length.
Anon they stoutly close; and while they strive
Each one to stir the other from the base
Of his firm footing, you behold them rock
Like gallant vessels in a stormy surge,
Whose proud yards almost touch the deep; or trees
Full-foliaged, which, when some mighty wind
Sweeps through the forest, stagger to and fro,
Full soon to fall! A thousand straining eyes,
And utter silence, and suspended breaths,
Are waiting on the contest; till, at last,
By one collected effort whirled amain,
Prostrate the Roman lies. Then all at once

Bursts a loud shout from the rude tribes around,
Mixed with the broad uncultured laugh. Yet one
Stood there, who joined not in the laugh nor shout,
A chieftain of the land! but deeply groaned
Within his inmost soul to mark his race,
Firm as they were of valour and of limb,
Thus to the stranger bowed. Yet wherefore groan?
Finite is human wrong; while Justice holds
Eternally—to balance and redress—
Her righteous scales above.

Not far away,
In modest beauty sat a British maid,
That chieftain's daughter. She nor heard the shout,
Nor marked the triumph. All her thoughts, the while,
Were in the Imperial City; thither led
By tale of young centurion, whose dark plume,
As he bent o'er her, nearer and more near,
Soft-shadowed her sweet face. From him she heard
Of mighty amphitheatres, within
Whose ample bounds a hundred chariots roll;
Then—flooded to broad lakes—a hundred barks
Glide o'er their vast arenas. Passing by,
In pity to that pitying heart of hers,

Combat of man or beast, he spoke of shows
More gentle, that enforced no shuddering ear.
He told her of the nodding elephant,
Huge and compact of bulk, and girt with tower;
And dromedary of ungainly stride;
And still more rare, and stranger still of form,
Camelopard; yet prized for sinuous grace
Of neck, and delicate step, and loving eye,
Mild as her own.

She, with half doubting eyes,
Expanding as he spoke, sat by and listened,
Scarce knowing if she might believe or not;
Hard though it were such speaker not to trust.
Then would he tell her of proud palaces,
Temples, and towers; yet most he loved to speak
Of his own native home, their Sabine farm;
Where still his mother dwelt, 'mid their own fields,
Their fruitful olive trees and tents of vine;
Vaunting his dear Penates; yet therewith
Mingling, as if by chance, some gentle word
Of Cupid and of Hymen.

Thence I turned
To the benign Proconsul. He was one,
Or so imagination loved to feign,
Of Rome's first blood, tracing his lofty line,
Through long-drawn pedigree and consular fast,
To race of Lelius or of Scipio;
And thence fore-born large thoughts to interweave
Of statesman and of sage. Some warrior-pride
He well might feel, beholding all around
His steadfast soldiery, and the strong walls
Of the near city, and those camp-crowned hills,
Plucked from their fierce defenders. Yet his heart
Was gentle, and his mind full-fraught with lore
From history won, and humanized by power
Of mild philosophy; nor lacked he love
For Maro's polished strain, or bolder song
Of old Mæonides. And now, e'en now,
Amid this throng and tumult of the games,
There seemed to flit athwart his pensive brow
Such thoughts, as oft, at eve, will touch the soul
Of him who sojourns in a foreign land.

Say, did he think on his own native Rome
And fallen empires? on Etruria old,
Gone like a dream—on Carthage, vanish'd too—

And the razed walls of proud Jerusalem?
Then ask himself if that barbarian flood,
Rolled from the stormy regions of the North,
Billow on billow, and o'erhanging now
In dread suspense, should yet withhold its wave;
Or burst in vengeance on sweet Italy,
Whelming her ancient glories? Did he muse
How, then, each conquered realm, long tributary,
The Dacian tribes, wide Gaul and mountain-Spain
Should snap their bonds? and e'en this isle remote
Start from its vassalage, perhaps to pluck
Itself—some shred of empire?

Thus far might warn from shrine of thoughtful mind,
Or yet more thoughtful heart, deceiving not.
But not far thoughts, nor deep humanities,
Nor clear experience from old histories won,
Might hint of all the coming. Who might tell
How ships, contemptuous of the guiding shore,
Should breast right onward o'er strange seas, and find
A world as yet unknown; all bold to dare
—Though still beat back—the beakèd promontory,
For ever weltered round by stormy waves,

From which the trireme bark had shrunk amazed?
Then burst on other oceans, all unguessed
Till now, far-spread and thousand-islanded,
Amid new climates and beneath new stars?
Not well-known constellations; not the Twins,
Orion, nor the ancient Pleiades;
But stars yet unbeheld; which when, at first,
The helmsman viewed, he doubted his own eyes,
Perchance grown old, or else with watching worn,
And questioned if he read aright; or if
To mar the boldness of presumptuous man,
Who dared (for so might be) forbidden seas,
The very heavens themselves were changed.

Or how
Might'st Thou, Proconsul mild! (albeit full-stored
With lore of statesman, and far-reaching thought)
How might'st thou dream that this barbarian isle,
O'er which it seemed half-exile e'en to rule,
This Britain utterly from the world shut out,
Should rise from strife to strife, from strength to strength,
Foremost among the nations; conquering
O'er lands and seas to which the Roman realm,
In its most lordly day, was but a speck?

That she should shed her laws, her polity,
Her cultured language, and her peaceful arts,
All she had stored from her own toils, and all
That came from Rome or Greece transmitted down,
A glorious gift! o'er half the peopled globe?
There to survive, when she, perchance, may be
What Rome and Greece are now!

Change deep as this,
What oracle might bring thee to believe?
Or that, in tract of time, a day could come,
When, in this very amphitheatre,
A common plant—its lonely tenant now—
By a chance-traveller scanned—should summon up,
To dim the glories of departed Rome,
The mightier marvel of a new-found world?
John Kenyon

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1/18/2021 1:08:32 AM #