Monte Cassino

A poem

Beautiful valley, through whose verdant meads
Unheard the Garigliano glides along, —
The Liris, nurse of rushes and reeds,
The river taciturn of classic song!

The Land of Labor, and the Land of Rest,
Where mediæval towns are white on all
The hill-sides, and where every mountain crest
Is an Etrurian or a Roman wall!

There is Alagna, where Pope Boniface
Was dragged with contumely from his throne,
Sciarra Colonna, was that day’s disgrace
The Pontiff’s only, or in part thine own?

There is Ceprano, where a renegade
Was each Apulian, as great Dante saith,
When Manfred, by his men-at-arms betrayed,
Spurred on to Benevento and to death.

There is Aquinum, the old Volscian town
Where Juvenal was born, whose lurid light
Still hovers o’er his birthplace like the crown
Of splendor over cities seen at night.

Doubled the splendor is, that in its street
The Angelic Doctor as a school-boy played,
And dreamed perhaps the dreams that he repeats
In ponderous folios for scholastics made.

And there, uplifted like a passing cloud
That pauses on a mountain summit high,
Monte Cassino’s convent rears its proud
And venerable walls against the sky.

Well I remember how on foot I climbed
The stony pathway leading to its gate;
Above, the convent bells for vespers chimed;
Below, the darkening town grew desolate.

Well I remember the low arch and dark,
The court-yard with its well, the terrace wide,
From which, far down, diminished to a park,
The valley veiled in mist was dim descried.

The day was dying, and with feeble hands
Caressed the mountain-tops; the vales between
Darkened; the river in the meadow-lands
Sheathed itself as a sword and was not seen.

The silence of the place was like a sleep,
So full of rest it seemed; each passing tread
Was a reverberation from the deep
Recesses of the ages that are dead.

For more than thirteen centuries ago
Benedict, fleeing from the gates of Rome,
A youth disgusted with its vice and woe,
Sought in these mountain solitudes a home.

He followed here his Convent and his Rule
Of prayer and work, and counted work as prayer.
His pen became a clarion, and his school
Flamed like a beacon in the midnight air.

What though Boccaccio, in his reckless way
Mocking the lazy brotherhood, deplores
The illuminated manuscripts that lay
Torn and neglected on the dusty floors?

Boccaccio was a novelist, a child
Of fancy and of fiction at the best;
This the urbane librarian said, and smiled
Incredulous, as at some idle jest.

Upon such themes as these with one young friar
I sat conversing late into the night,
Till in its cavernous chimney the wood fire
Had burnt its heart out like an anchorite.

And then translated, in my convent cell,
Myself yet not myself, in dreams I lay;
And as a monk who hears the matin bell,
Started from sleep; — already it was day.

From the high window I beheld the scene
On which Saint Benedict so oft had gazed;
The mountains and the valley in the sheen
Of the bright sun, and stood as one amazed.

Gray mists were rolling, rising, vanishing;
The woodlands glistened with their jeweled crowns;
Far off the mellow bells began to ring
For matins in the half-awakened towns.

The conflict of the Present and the Past,
The ideal and the actual in our life,
As on a field of battle held me fast,
Where this world and the next world were at strife.

For, as the valley from its sleep awoke,
I saw the iron horses of the steam
Toss to the morning air their plumes of smoke,
And woke as one awaketh from a dream.