Italy : 18. The Brides Of Venice

It was St. Mary's Eve, and all poured forth
As to some grand solemnity. The fisher
Came from his islet, bringing o'er the waves
His wife and little one; the husbandman
From the Firm Land, along the Po, the Brenta,
Crowding the common ferry. All arrived;
And in his straw the prisoner turned and listened,
So great the stir in Venice. Old and young
Thronged her three hundred bridges; the grave Turk,
Turbaned, long-vested, and the cozening Jew,
In yellow hat and threadbare gaberdine,
Hurrying along. For, as the custom was,
The noblest sons and daughters of the State,
They of Patrician birth, the flower of Venice,
Whose names are written in the Book of Gold,
Were on that day to solemnize their nuptials.
At noon, a distant murmur through the crowd,
Rising and rolling on, announced their coming;
And never from the first was to be seen
Such splendour or such beauty. Two and two
(The richest tapestry unrolled before them),
First came the Brides in all their loveliness;
Each in her veil, and by two bride-maids followed,
Only less lovely, who behind her bore
The precious caskets that within contained
The dowry and the presents. On she moved,
Her eyes cast down, and holding in her hand
A fan that gently waved, of ostrich-feathers.
Her veil, transparent as the gossamer,
Fell from beneath a starry diadem;
And on her dazzling neck a jewel shone,
Ruby or diamond or dark amethyst;
A jewelled chain, in many a winding wreath,
Wreathing her gold brocade.
Before the Church,
That venerable structure now no more
On the sea-brink, another train they met,
No strangers, nor unlooked for ere they came,
Brothers to some, still dearer to the rest;
Each in his hand bearing his cap and plume,
And, as he walked, with modest dignity
Folding his scarlet mantle. At the gate
They join; and slowly up the bannered aisle
Led by the choir, with due solemnity
Range round the altar. In this vestments there
The Patriarch stands; and, while the anthem flows,
Who can look on unmoved -- the dream of years
Just now fulfilling! Here a mother weeps,
Rejoicing in her daughter. There a son
Blesses the day that is to make her his;
While she shines forth thro' all her ornament,
Her beauty heightened by her hopes and fears.
At length the rite is ending. All fall down,
All of all ranks; and, stretching out his hands,
Apostle-like, the holy man proceeds
To give the blessing -- not a stir, a breath;
When hark, a din of voices from without,
And shrieks and groans and outcries as in battle!
And lo, the door is burst, the curtain rent,
And armed ruffians, robbers from the deep,
Savage, uncouth, led on by Barbaro,
And his six brothers in their coats of steel,
Are standing on the threshold! Statue-like,
Awhile they gaze on the fallen multitude,
Each with his sabre up, in act to strike;
Then, as at once recovering from the spell,
Rush forward to the altar, and as soon
Are gone again -- amid no clash of arms
Bearing away the maidens and the treasures.
Where are they now? -- ploughing the distant waves,
Their sails out-spread and given to the wind,
They on their decks triumphant. On they speed,
Steering for Istria; their accursed barks
(Well are they known, the galliot and the galley)
Freightened, alas, with all that life endears!
The richest argosies were poor to them!
Now hidst thou seen along that crowded shore
The matrons running wild, their festal dress
A strange and moving contrast to their grief;
And through the city, wander where thou wouldst,
The men half armed and arming -- every where
As roused from slumber by the stirring trump;
One with a shield, one with a casque and spear;
One with an axe severing in two the chain
Of some old pinnace. Not a raft, a plank,
But on that day was drifting. In an hour
Half Venice was afloat. But long before,
Frantic with grief and scorning all control,
The Youths were gone in a light brigantine,
Lying at anchor near the Arsenal;
Each having sworn, and by the holy rood,
To slay or to be slain.
And from the tower
The watchman gives the signal. In the East,
A ship is seen, and making for the Port;
Her flag St. Mark's. And now she turns the point,
Over the waters like a sea-bird flying!
Ha, 'tis the same, 'tis theirs! from stern to prow
Green with victorious wreaths, she comes to bring
All that was lost. ---- Coasting, with narrow search,
Friuli -- like a tiger in his spring,
They had surprised the Corsairs where they lay
Sharing the spoil in blind security
And casting lots -- had slain them, one and all,
All to the last, and flung them far and wide
Into the sea, their proper element;
Him first, as first in rank, whose name so long
Had hushed the babes of Venice, and who yet,
Breathing a little, in his look retained
The fierceness of his soul.
Thus were the Brides
Lost and recovered; and what now remained
But to give Thanks? Twelve breast-plates and twelve crowns,
By the young Victors to their Patron-Saint
Vowed in the field, inestimable gifts
Flaming with gems and gold, were in due time
Laid at his feet; and ever to preserve
The memory of a day so full of change,
From joy to grief, from grief to joy again,
Thro' many an age, as oft as it came round,
'Twas held religiously. The Doge resigned
His crimson for pure ermine, visiting
At earliest dawn St. Mary's silver shrine;
And thro' the city, in a stately barge
Of gold, were borne with songs and symphonies
Twelve ladies young and noble. Clad they were
In bridal white with bridal ornaments,
Each in her glittering veil; and on the deck,
As on a burnished throne, they glided by;
No window or balcony but adorned
With hangings of rich texture, not a roof
But covered with beholders, and the air
Vocal with joy. Onward they went, their oars
Moving in concert with the harmony,
Thro' the Rialto to the Ducal Palace,
And at a banquet, served with honour there,
Sat representing, in the eyes of all,
Eyes not unwet, I ween, with grateful tears,
Their lovely ancestors, the Brides of Venice.