Bells and Pomegranates, Second Series/England in Italy

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5824Bells and Pomegranates, Second Series — England in ItalyRobert Browning


(Piano di Sorrento.)

Fortù, Fortù, my loved one,
Sit by my side,
On my knees put up both little feet!
I was sure, if I tried,
I could make you laugh spite of Scirocco:
Now, open your eyes—
Let me keep you amused till he vanish
In black from the skies,
With telling my memories over
As you tell your beads;
All the Plain saw me gather, I garland
—Flowers prove they, or weeds.

'Twas time, for your long hot dry Autumn
Had net-worked with brown
The white skin of each grape on the bunches,
Marked like a quail's crown,
Those creatures you make such account of,
Whose heads,—speckled with white
Over brown like a great spider's back,
As I told you last night,—
Your mother bites off for her supper;
Red-ripe as could be,
Pomegranates were chapping and splitting
In halves on the tree:
And 'twixt the loose walls of great flintstone,
Or in the thick dust
On the path, or straight out of the rock side,
Wherever could thrust
Some starving sprig of bold hardy rock flower
Its yellow face up,
For the prize were great butterflies fighting,
Some five for one cup:
So, I guessed, ere I got up this morning,
What change was in store,
By the quick rustle-down of the quail-nets
Which woke me before
I could open my shutter, made fast
With a bough and a stone,
And look thro' the twisted dead vine-twigs,
Sole lattice that's known;
Sharp rang the rings down the bird-poles
While, busy beneath,
Your priest and his brother were working,
The rain in their teeth.
And out upon all the flat house-roofs
Where split figs lay drying,
The girls took the frails under cover:
Nor use seemed in trying
To get out the boats and go fishing,
For under the cliff,
Fierce the black water frothed o'er the blind-rock—
No seeing our skiff
Arrive about noon from Amalfi,
—Our fisher arrive,
And pitch down his basket before us,
All trembling alive
With pink and grey jellies, your sea-fruit,
—Touch the strange lumps,
And mouths gape there, eyes open, all manner
Of horns and of humps,
Which only the fisher looks grave at,
While round him like imps
Cling screaming the children as naked
And brown as his shrimps,
Himself too as bare to the middle
—You see round his neck
The string and its brass coin suspended,
That saves him from wreck.
But to-day not a boat reached Salerno,
So back to a man
Came our friends, with whose help in the vineyards
Grape-harvest began:
In the vat, half-way up in our house-side,
Like blood the juice spins
While your brother all bare-legged is dancing
Till breathless he grins
Dead-beaten, in effort on effort
To keep the grapes under,
For still when he seems all but master
In pours the fresh plunder
From girls who keep coming and going
With basket on shoulder,
And eyes shut against the rain's driving,
Your girls that are older,—
For under the hedges of aloe,
And where, on its bed
Of the orchard's black mould, the love-apple
Lies pulpy and red,
All the young ones are kneeling and filling
Their laps with the snails
Tempted out by this first rainy weather,—
Your best of regales,
As to-night will be proved to my sorrow,
When, supping in state,
We shall feast our grape-gleaners—two dozen,
Three over one plate,—
Maccaroni so tempting to swallow
In slippery strings,
And gourds fried in great purple slices,
That colour of kings,—
Meantime, see the grape-bunch they've brought you,—
The rain-water slips
O'er the heavy blue bloom on each globe
Which the wasp to your lips
Still follows with fretful persistence—
Nay, taste while awake,
This half of a curd-white smooth cheese-ball,
That peels, flake by flake,
Like an onion's, each smoother and whiter—
Next sip this weak wine
From the thin green glass flask, with its stopper,
A leaf of the vine,—
And end with the prickly-pear's red flesh
That leaves thro' its juice
The stony black seeds on your pearl-teeth.
. . . Scirocco is loose!
Hark! the quick pelt of the olives
Which, thick in one's track,
Tempt the stranger to pick up and bite them
Tho' not yet half black!
And how their old twisted olive trunks shudder!
The medlars let fall
Their hard fruit—and the brittle great fig-trees
Snap off, figs and all,
For here comes the whole of the tempest!
No refuge but creep
Back again to my side and my shoulder,
And listen or sleep.

O how will your country show next week,
When all the vine-boughs
Have been stripped of their foliage to pasture
The mules and the cows?
Last eve I rode over the mountains—
Your brother, my guide,
Soon left me to feast on the myrtles
That offered, each side,
Their fruit-balls, black, glossy and luscious,
Or strip from the sorbs
A treasure, or, rosy and wondrous,
Those hairy gold orbs!
But my mule picked his sure, sober path out,
Just stopping to neigh
When he recognised down in the valley
His mates on their way
With the faggots, and barrels of water;
And soon we emerged
From the plain where the woods could scarce follow
And still as we urged
Our way, the woods wondered, and left us,
As up still we trudged
Though the wild path grew wilder each instant,
And place was e'en grudged
'Mid the rock-chasms, and piles of loose stones
Like the loose broken teeth
Of some monster, which climbed there to die
From the ocean beneath—
Place was grudged to the silver-gray fume-weed
That clung to the path,
And dark rosemary, ever a-dying,
That, 'spite the wind's wrath,
So loves the salt rock's face to seaward,—
And lentisks as staunch
To the stone where they root and bear berries,
And—what shows a branch
Coral-coloured, transparent, with circlets
Of pale seagreen leaves—
Over all trod my mule with the caution
Of gleaners o'er sheaves:
Foot after foot like a lady—
So, round after round,
He climbed to the top of Calvano,
And God's own profound
Was above me, and round me the mountains,
And under, the sea,
And with me, my heart to bear witness
What was and shall be!
Oh heaven, and the terrible crystal!
No rampart excludes
The eye from the life to be lived
In the blue solitudes!
Oh, those mountains, their infinite movement!
Still moving with you—
For ever some new head and breast of them
Thrusts into view
To observe the intruder—you see it
If quickly you turn
And, before they escape you, surprise them—
They grudge you should learn
How the soft plains they look on, lean over,
And love, they pretend,
—Cower beneath them—the flat sea-pine crouches,
The wild fruit-trees bend,
E'en the myrtle-leaves curl, shrink and shut—
All is silent and grave—
'Tis a sensual and timorous beauty—
How fair, but a slave!
So I turned to the sea,—and there slumbered
As greenly as ever
Those isles of the syren, your Galli;
No ages can sever
The Three—nor enable their sister
To join them,—half way
On the voyage, she looked at Ulysses—
No farther to-day,
Tho' the small one, just launched in the wave,
Watches breast-high and steady
From under the rock, her bold sister
Swum halfway already.
O when shall we sail there together
And see from the sides
Quite new rocks show their faces—new haunts
Where the syren abides?
Oh, to sail round and round them, close over
The rocks, tho' unseen,
That ruffle the grey glassy water
To glorious green,—
Then scramble from splinter to splinter,
Reach land and explore
On the largest, the strange square black turret
With never a door—
Just a loop to admit the quick lizards;
—To stand there and hear
The birds' quiet singing, that tells us
What life is, so clear;
The secret they sang to Ulysses,
When ages ago
He heard and he knew this life's secret
I hear and I know!

Ah see! O'er Calvano the sun breaks:
He strikes the great gloom
And flutters it o'er his summit
In airy gold fume!
All is over. Look out, see the gypsy,
Our tinker and smith,
Has arrived, set up bellows and forge,
And down-squatted forthwith
To his hammering, under the wall there;
One eye keeps aloof
The urchins that itch to be putting
His jews'-harps to proof,
While the other thro' locks of curled wire
Is watching how sleek
Shines the hog, come to share in the windfalls
—An abbot's own cheek!
All is over! wake up and come out now,
And down let us go,
And see all the fine things set in order
At church for the show
Of the Sacrament, set forth this evening;
To-morrow's the Feast
Of the Rosary's virgin, by no means
Of virgins the least—
As we'll hear in the off-hand discourse
Which (all nature, no art)
The Dominican brother these three weeks
Was getting by heart.
Not a post nor a pillar but 's dizened
With red and blue papers;
All the roof waves with ribbons, each altar's
A-blaze with long tapers;
But the great masterpiece is the scaffold
Rigged glorious to hold
All the fiddlers and fifers and drummers,
And trumpeters bold,
Not afraid of Bellini nor Auber,
Who, when the priest 's hoarse,
Will strike us up something that's brisk,
For the feast's second course.
And then will the flaxen-wigged Image
Be carried in pomp
Thro' the plain, while in gallant procession
The priests mean to stomp.
And all round the glad church stand old bottles
With gunpowder stopped,
Which will be, when the Image re-enters,
Religiously popped.
And at night from the crest of Calvano
Great bonfires will hang,
On the plain will the trumpets join chorus,
And more poppers bang!
At all events, come—to the garden,
As far as the wall,
See me tap with a hoe on the plaster
Till out there shall fall
A scorpion with wide angry nippers!

. . . "Such trifles" you say?
Fortù, in my England at home,
Men meet gravely to-day
And debate, if abolishing Corn-laws
Be righteous and wise
—If 'tis proper Scirocco should vanish
In black from the skies!