Canto the Fourth
Of poets who come down to us through distance
Of time and tongues, the foster-babes of Fame,
Life seems the smallest portion of existence;
Where twenty ages gather o'er a name,
'Tis as a snowball, which derives assistance
From every flake, and yet rolls on the same,
Even till an iceberg it may chance to grow;
But, after all, 'tis nothing but cold snow.
And so great names are nothing more than nominal,
And love of glory's but an airy lust,
Too often in its fury overcoming all
Who would as 'twere identify their dust
From out the wide destruction, which, entombing
Leaves nothing till 'the coming of the just'
Save change: I've stood upon Achilles' tomb,
And heard Troy doubted; time will doubt of Rome.
C I I.
The very generation of the dead
Are swept away, and tomb inherits tomb,
Until the memory of an age is fled,
And, buried, sinks beneath its offspring's doom:
Where are the epitaphs our fathers read?
Save a few glean'd from the sepulchral gloom
Which once-named myriads nameless lie beneath,
And lose their own in universal death.
C I I I
I canter by the spot each afternoon,
Where perish'd, in his fame, the hero-boy,
Who lived too long for men, but died too soon
For human vanity, the young De Foix!
A broken pillar, not uncouthly, hewn,
But which neglect is hastening to destroy;
Records Ravenna's carnage on its face,
While weeds and ordure rankle round the base.
C I V.
I pass, each day, where Dante's bones are laid:
A little cupola, more neat than solemn,
Protects his dust; but reverence here is paid
To the bard's tomb, and not the warrior's column;
The time must come when both, alike decay'd,
The chieftain's trophy, and the poet's volume,
Will sink where lie the songs and wars of earth,
Before Pelides' death, or Homer's birth.
With human blood that column was cemented,
With human filth that column is defiled;
AJ ii the peasant's coarse contempt were vented
To show his loathing of the spot he soil'd:
Thus is the trophy used, and thus lamented
Should ever be those bloodhounds, from whose
Instinct of gore and glory earth has known
Those sufferings Dante saw ill hell alone.
Yet there will still be bards; though fame is
Its fumes are frankincense to human thought;
And the unquiet feelings, which first woke
Song in the world, will seek what then they sought;
As on the beach the waves at last are broke,
Thus to their extreme verge the passions brought
Dash into poetry, which is but passion,
Or at least was so ere it grew a fashion.
C V I I.
If in the course of such a life as was
At once adventurous and contemplative,
Men who partake all passions as they pass,
Acquire the deep and bitter power to give
Their images again, as in a glass,
And in such colours that they seem to live;
You may do right forbidding them to show 'em,
But spoil (I think) a very pretty poem.