Verse > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow > Complete Poetical Works
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882).  Complete Poetical Works.  1893.
Michael Angelo: A Fragment
Part Third.
IV. In the Coliseum

WHAT do you here alone, Messer Michele?
I come to learn.

                    You are already master,
And teach all other men.

                    Nay, I know nothing;
Not even my own ignorance, as some
Philosopher hath said. I am a school-boy        5
Who hath not learned his lesson, and who stands
Ashamed and silent in the awful presence
Of the great master of antiquity
Who built these walls cyclopean.

His name was, I remember. His reward        10
Was to be thrown alive to the wild beasts
Here where we now are standing.

                            Idle tales
But you are greater than Gaudentius was,
And your work nobler.

                    Silence, I beseech you.
Tradition says that fifteen thousand men
Were toiling for ten years incessantly
Upon this amphitheatre.

How wonderful it is! The queen of flowers,
The marble rose of Rome! Its petals torn
By wind and rain of thrice five hundred years;        20
Its mossy sheath half rent away, and sold
To ornament our palaces and churches,
Or to be trodden under feet of man
Upon the Tiber’s bank; yet what remains
Still opening its fair bosom to the sun,        25
And to the constellations that at night
Hang poised above it like a swarm of bees.
The rose of Rome, but not of Paradise;
Not the white rose our Tuscan poet saw,
With saints for petals. When this rose was perfect        30
Its hundred thousand petals were not saints,
But senators in their Thessalian caps,
And all the roaring populace of Rome;
And even an Empress and the Vestal Virgins,
Who came to see the gladiators die,        35
Could not give sweetness to a rose like this.
I spake not of its uses, but its beauty.
The sand beneath our feet is saturate
With blood of martyrs; and these rifted stones
Are awful witnesses against a people        40
Whose pleasure was the pain of dying men
Tomaso Cavalieri, on my word,
You should have been a preacher, not a painter!
Think you that I approve such cruelties,
Because I marvel at the architects        45
Who built these walls, and curved these noble arches?
Oh, I am put to shame, when I consider
How mean our work is, when compared with theirs!
Look at these walls about us and above us!
They have been shaken by earthquakes, have been made        50
A fortress, and been battered by long sieges;
The iron clamps, that held the stones together,
Have been wrenched from them; but they stand erect
And firm, as if they had been hewn and hollowed
Out of the solid rock, and were a part        55
Of the foundations of the world itself.
Your work, I say again, is nobler work,
In so far as its end and aim are nobler;
And this is but a ruin, like the rest.
Its vaulted passages are made the caverns        60
Of robbers, and are haunted by the ghosts
Of murdered men.

            A thousand wild flowers bloom
From every chink, and the birds build their nests
Among the ruined arches, and suggest
New thoughts of beauty to the architect.        65
Now let us climb the broken stairs that lead
Into the corridors above, and study
The marvel and the mystery of that art
In which I am a pupil, not a master.
All things must have an end; the world itself        70
Must have an end, as in a dream I saw it.
There came a great hand out of heaven, and touched
The earth, and stopped it in its course. The seas
Leaped, a vast cataract, into the abyss;
The forests and the fields slid off, and floated        75
Like wooded islands in the air. The dead
Were hurled forth from their sepulchres; the living
Were mingled with them, and themselves were dead,—
All being dead; and the fair, shining cities
Dropped out like jewels from a broken crown.        80
Naught but the core of the great globe remained,
A skeleton of stone. And over it
The wrack of matter drifted like a cloud,
And then recoiled upon itself, and fell
Back on the empty world, that with the weight        85
Reeled, staggered, righted, and then head-long plunged
Into the darkness, as a ship, when struck
By a great sea, throws off the waves at first
On either side, then settles and goes down
Into the dark abyss, with her dead crew.        90
But the earth does not move.

                Who knows? who knows?
There are great truths that pitch their shining tents
Outside our walls, and though but dimly seen
In the gray dawn, they will be manifest
When the light widens into perfect day.        95
A certain man, Copernicus by name,
Sometime professor here in Rome, has whispered
It is the earth, and not the sun, that moves.
What I beheld was only in a dream,
Yet dreams sometimes anticipate events,        100
Being unsubstantial images of things
As yet unseen.

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