Julian and Maddalo (Excerpt)

I rode one evening with Count Maddalo
   Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow
   Of Adria towards Venice: a bare strand
   Of hillocks, heap’d from ever-shifting sand,
   Matted with thistles and amphibious weeds,
   Such as from earth’s embrace the salt ooze breeds,
   Is this; an uninhabited sea-side,
   Which the lone fisher, when his nets are dried,
   Abandons; and no other object breaks
 The waste, but one dwarf tree and some few stakes
 Broken and unrepair’d, and the tide makes
 A narrow space of level sand thereon,
 Where 'twas our wont to ride while day went down.
 This ride was my delight. I love all waste
 And solitary places; where we taste
 The pleasure of believing what we see
 Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be:
 And such was this wide ocean, and this shore
 More barren than its billows; and yet more
 Than all, with a remember’d friend I love
 To ride as then I rode; for the winds drove
 The living spray along the sunny air
 Into our faces; the blue heavens were bare,
 Stripp’d to their depths by the awakening north;
 And, from the waves, sound like delight broke forth
 Harmonizing with solitude, and sent
 Into our hearts aëreal merriment.
 So, as we rode, we talk’d; and the swift thought,
 Winging itself with laughter, linger’d not,
 But flew from brain to brain—such glee was ours,
 Charg’d with light memories of remember’d hours,
 None slow enough for sadness: till we came
 Homeward, which always makes the spirit tame.
 This day had been cheerful but cold, and now
 The sun was sinking, and the wind also.
 Our talk grew somewhat serious, as may be
 Talk interrupted with such raillery
 As mocks itself, because it cannot scorn
 The thoughts it would extinguish: 'twas forlorn,
 Yet pleasing, such as once, so poets tell,
 The devils held within the dales of Hell
 Concerning God, freewill and destiny:
 Of all that earth has been or yet may be,
 All that vain men imagine or believe,
 Or hope can paint or suffering may achieve,
 We descanted, and I (for ever still
 Is it not wise to make the best of ill?)
 Argu’d against despondency, but pride
 Made my companion take the darker side.
 The sense that he was greater than his kind
 Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind
 By gazing on its own exceeding light.
 Meanwhile the sun paus’d ere it should alight,
 Over the horizon of the mountains—Oh,
 How beautiful is sunset, when the glow
 Of Heaven descends upon a land like thee,
 Thou Paradise of exiles, Italy!
 Thy mountains, seas, and vineyards, and the towers
 Of cities they encircle! It was ours
   To stand on thee, beholding it: and then,
 Just where we had dismounted, the Count’s men
 Were waiting for us with the gondola.
 As those who pause on some delightful way
 Though bent on pleasant pilgrimage, we stood
 Looking upon the evening, and the flood
 Which lay between the city and the shore,
 Pav’d with the image of the sky.... The hoar
 And aëry Alps towards the North appear’d
 Through mist, an heaven-sustaining bulwark rear’d
 Between the East and West; and half the sky
 Was roof’d with clouds of rich emblazonry
 Dark purple at the zenith, which still grew
 Down the steep West into a wondrous hue
 Brighter than burning gold, even to the rent
 Where the swift sun yet paus’d in his descent
 Among the many-folded hills: they were
 Those famous Euganean hills, which bear,
 As seen from Lido thro’ the harbour piles,
 The likeness of a clump of peakèd isles—
 And then—as if the Earth and Sea had been
 Dissolv’d into one lake of fire, were seen
 Those mountains towering as from waves of flame
 Around the vaporous sun, from which there came
 The inmost purple spirit of light, and made
 Their very peaks transparent. “Ere it fade,”
 Said my companion, “I will show you soon
 A better station”—so, o’er the lagune
 We glided; and from that funereal bark
 I lean’d, and saw the city, and could mark
 How from their many isles, in evening’s gleam,
 Its temples and its palaces did seem
 Like fabrics of enchantment pil’d to Heaven.
 I was about to speak, when—"We are even
 Now at the point I meant," said Maddalo,
 And bade the gondolieri cease to row.
 “Look, Julian, on the west, and listen well
 If you hear not a deep and heavy bell.”
 I look’d, and saw between us and the sun
 A building on an island; such a one
 As age to age might add, for uses vile,
 A windowless, deform’d and dreary pile;
 And on the top an open tower, where hung
 A bell, which in the radiance sway’d and swung;
 We could just hear its hoarse and iron tongue:
 The broad sun sunk behind it, and it toll’d
 In strong and black relief. “What we behold
 Shall be the madhouse and its belfry tower,”
 Said Maddalo, “and ever at this hour
 Those who may cross the water, hear that bell
 Which calls the maniacs, each one from his cell,
 To vespers.” “As much skill as need to pray
 In thanks or hope for their dark lot have they
 To their stern Maker,” I replied. “O ho!
 You talk as in years past,” said Maddalo.
 “ 'Tis strange men change not. You were ever still
 Among Christ’s flock a perilous infidel,
 A wolf for the meek lambs—if you can’t swim
 Beware of Providence.” I look’d on him,
 But the gay smile had faded in his eye.
 “And such,” he cried, “is our mortality,
 And this must be the emblem and the sign
 Of what should be eternal and divine!
 And like that black and dreary bell, the soul,
 Hung in a heaven-illumin’d tower, must toll
 Our thoughts and our desires to meet below
 Round the rent heart and pray—as madmen do
 For what? they know not—till the night of death,
 As sunset that strange vision, severeth
 Our memory from itself, and us from all
 We sought and yet were baffled.” I recall
 The sense of what he said, although I mar
 The force of his expressions. The broad star
 Of day meanwhile had sunk behind the hill,
 And the black bell became invisible,
 And the red tower look’d gray, and all between
 The churches, ships and palaces were seen
 Huddled in gloom;—into the purple sea
 The orange hues of heaven sunk silently.
 We hardly spoke, and soon the gondola
 Convey’d me to my lodgings by the way.
   The following morn was rainy, cold and dim:
 Ere Maddalo arose, I call’d on him,
 And whilst I waited with his child I play’d;
 A lovelier toy sweet Nature never made,
 A serious, subtle, wild, yet gentle being,
 Graceful without design and unforeseeing,
 With eyes—Oh speak not of her eyes!—which seem
 Twin mirrors of Italian Heaven, yet gleam
 With such deep meaning, as we never see
 But in the human countenance: with me
 She was a special favourite: I had nurs’d
 Her fine and feeble limbs when she came first
 To this bleak world; and she yet seem’d to know
 On second sight her ancient playfellow,
 Less chang’d than she was by six months or so;
 For after her first shyness was worn out
 We sate there, rolling billiard balls about,
 When the Count enter’d. Salutations past—
 “The word you spoke last night might well have cast
 A darkness on my spirit—if man be
 The passive thing you say, I should not see
 Much harm in the religions and old saws
 (Though I may never own such leaden laws)
 Which break a teachless nature to the yoke:
 Mine is another faith”—thus much I spoke
 And noting he replied not, added: “See
 This lovely child, blithe, innocent and free;
 She spends a happy time with little care,
 While we to such sick thoughts subjected are
 As came on you last night. It is our will
 That thus enchains us to permitted ill.
 We might be otherwise. We might be all
 We dream of happy, high, majestical.
 Where is the love, beauty, and truth we seek
 But in our mind? and if we were not weak
 Should we be less in deed than in desire?”
 “Ay, if we were not weak—and we aspire
 How vainly to be strong!” said Maddalo:
 “You talk Utopia.” “It remains to know,”
 I then rejoin’d, “and those who try may find
 How strong the chains are which our spirit bind;
 Brittle perchance as straw.... We are assur’d
 Much may be conquer’d, much may be endur’d,
 Of what degrades and crushes us. We know
 That we have power over ourselves to do
 And suffer—what, we know not till we try;
 But something nobler than to live and die:
 So taught those kings of old philosophy
 Who reign’d, before Religion made men blind;
 And those who suffer with their suffering kind
 Yet feel their faith, religion.” “My dear friend,”
 Said Maddalo, “my judgement will not bend
 To your opinion, though I think you might
 Make such a system refutation-tight
 As far as words go. I knew one like you
 Who to this city came some months ago,
 With whom I argu’d in this sort, and he
 Is now gone mad—and so he answer’d me—
 Poor fellow! but if you would like to go
 We’ll visit him, and his wild talk will show
 How vain are such aspiring theories.”
 “I hope to prove the induction otherwise,
 And that a want of that true theory, still,
 Which seeks a 'soul of goodness’ in things ill
 Or in himself or others, has thus bow’d
 His being. There are some by nature proud,
 Who patient in all else demand but this—
 To love and be belov’d with gentleness;
 And being scorn’d, what wonder if they die
 Some living death? this is not destiny
 But man’s own wilful ill.”
     As thus I spoke
 Servants announc’d the gondola, and we
 Through the fast-falling rain and high-wrought sea
 Sail’d to the island where the madhouse stands.
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