The Roman Wall by Thomas Doubleday
Where yonder reaching hill slopes boldly down,
Far stretching eastward, with a long decline,
Stand where the cottages the summit crown,
And mark it cut with many a crossing line
Of lane and hedgerow; on the right the Tyne
Spreads himself, glittering, in the morning ray;
There many a midnight fire is seen to shine,
And may a dusky vessel plough her way,
Where once Rome's burnish'd prows and Denmark's Sea-Kings lay.
What doth the prospect from the summit yield?
Full many a pillar'd smoke and black'ning heap,
Full many an arable and pasture field--
But lo! that line of green that seems to sweep
Sheer forward on to the not distant deep,
(For here one almost tastes the brinish air)
What an unbending course it seems to keep!
As if it led — a vernal alley — where
Tyne joins his Father Sea, to meet and greet him there.
Come down with me, and thou shalt, haply, view
A spot of which full many a tale is told;
There many a stunted shrub of vig'rous hue,
Twists out and branches from the rocky mould;
The almost buried stones look grey and old;
It seems, methinks, as if the peasant's plough
Had by some spell been charm'd here to hold,
And that the flourishing weed and hardy bough
Sprung from the stony heap that gather'd even till now.
Here plant thy foot, where many a foot hath trod,
Whose scarce-known home was o'er the southern wave,
And sit thee down; on no ignoble sod,
Green from the ashes of the great and brave;
Here stretch'd that chain which nations could enslave,
The least injurious token of their thrall,
Which, if it help'd to humble, help'd to save;
This shapeless mound thou know'st not what to call,
Was a world's wonder once — This is the Roman Wall.
There was the deep trench'd Vallum to the left;
The Agger here; — o'er many a hill they went,
An endless and perpetual battlement.--
And when the spring the frozen nations sent,--
The restless Pict — forth from his thawing snows,
This was his bound-stone — oft with blood besprent--
Here where the daisies settle, and the rose
Now trusts her tender leaves, and the shy violet blows.
Where yon tall grove at distance lifts its head,
Lay many a cohort gay with foreign gold,
Sons of the men whom the first Caesar led;
And there th' Imperial Eagle would unfold
His pinions to the sun — ere time had told
A trembling world that e'en his eye must cower;--
Or yet Northumbria knew the Saxon's power,
Or Tynemouth's Danish Fort, or Robert's Norman Tower.
How many an age of twilight hath o'erpast
Since that bright noontide of the olden time,
When glory's rays a distant sunlight cast
Across the vista of rank'd years — sublime,
But dim with blood, barbarity, and crime!--
How many a darkling scene of age and woe,
Forgot, or shadow'd forth in some rude rhyme,
That those who know them scarce can say they know,
Hath been, since Rome's keen blade hew'd down the misletoe!
How many a cloud of ignorance hath cover'd,
Like creeping mists, these once illustrious stones!
How many a superstitious legend hover'd
Above those warrior's slowly-mouldering bones!
The peasant stops, and thinks he hears the tones
Of demons in the wind, that in its speed
Above the branch'd and ivy'd ruin moans;
The monk of all his exorcisms hath need,
Unless that gownsman lie — the Venerable Bede.
For, on an hour, haply, from Jarrow's Aisle,
The cowled Chronicler would venture o'er;
What time the summer sun smiled a last smile,
Or the moon-silver'd ripple chafed the shore;--
This were a scene for his historic lore;
Here the mild sage might muse — the saint might pray;
Here trace that empire, limitless of yore,
And mark how Power and Grandeur pass away,
And doubt if e'en his Church might not these, decay.
Even so. Thy second empire, Rome, is gone,
Thy second empire, mightier than the first;
That on the living spirit built its throne,
And bound the airy soul in chains accurs'd!
Most strangely have thy fortunes been revers'd.
Lo! mid thy ruin'd towers and fanes o'erturn'd,
How fondly do we wander in the thirst
Of finding something of those spells inurn'd,
Which, were they not extinct, in hate we would have spurn'd!
Why are we drawn thus to the things departed,
And yearn to woo the reliques of hoar Time?
Why do we bend, with love, so deeply hearted,
O'er remnants but of Folly, and of Crime?
'Tis for no love of those. — 'Tis the sublime
Hope a like immortality to share;--
We fan no passion for the stone and lime,
But would not be forgot, — and fondly dare
To hope for memory, from memories that are.
Man, in himself, can bear not thought of change.
Which of us brooks to see the cottage wall
He lov'd, — the copse through which he wont to range
The orchard's shade — whatever ours we call,--
In sudden ruin and oblivion fall?
For they are part of us, — and grieve we must
To view them sinking, in destruction's thrall,
Or rudely and unpityingly thrust,
With this world's cast-aways, in the promiscuous dust.
It is the charm — that we too may remain--
That can endear a grey and mould'ring stone;
Anxious we seek for ever for some chain
To bind us to the mighty that are gone;
And we will have our feelings rest upon
The little, slender wreck of what hath been,
E'en as the spider, when he lurks alone,
In some dark nook, unthought of and unseen,
Touches his tenuous line to feel beyond his screen.
Above the painting of th' Historic quill,
Above the Magic of the Poet's pen,
Ev'n from the most diminish'd fragment, still
We can recall the lofty whole again--
He truly knows the bulk of Memnon then,
Who finds a finger of the marble hand
That graced some giant statue — haply when
Or Porus or Sesostris claim'd command--
Mid India's palmy wastes, or Nubia's tameless sand.
We lend a substance to the mere Ideal,
A taste of truth which language never caught,
And feel the storied past grow less unreal,
When we have trodden on the self-same spot,
O'er stones, by Greek or Roman chisel wrought;
Freshly we call up many a long-known theme,
And say, "Twas here they built and here they fought,"
And scan the very earth — well pleased to deem
That History is no cheat, and Poesy no dream.
Thus would we be remembered! — and like those
Who, drowning, think a passing straw may save,
We catch at aught which fondly we suppose
May buoy awhile upon th' oblivious wave;
A Cenotaph to memorise our grave;
A cheated Nation, or a yielding Dame;
A sword to liberate, or to enslave;
The Scholar's parchment — the Poetic flame--
Whate'er may serve to float a Mem'ry, or a Name.