Monte Cassino

…from the quills of the dead white poets

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882)

Terra Di Lavoro

Beautiful valley! through whose verdant meads

Unheard the Garigliano glides along;–

The Liris, nurse of rushes and of reeds,

The river taciturn of classic song.

The Land of Labor and the Land of Rest,

Where mediaeval towns are white on all

The hillsides, and where every mountain’s 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 seen o’er cities in the night.

Doubled the splendor is, that in its streets

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, the valley like a park

Veiled in the evening mists, was dim descried.

The day was dying, and with feeble hands

Caressed the mountain-tops; the vales between

Darkened; the river in the meadowlands

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 founded here his Convent and his Rule

Of prayer and work, and counted work as prayer;

The 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 woodfire

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 jewelled 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.

About Paul Jacko

Jacko was born in Czechoslovakia not long before the communist putsch in February 1948. He studied industrial chemistry there and left in 1969 for Australia, where he became a lawyer and established his own practice. He has now retired and beside hunting, fishing, camping, prospecting and playing golf he amuses himself by writing.
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