Through the Fields to St. Peters.

From: The Bird and the Bell with Other Poems (1875)
Author: Christopher Pearse Cranch
Published: Osgood and Company 1875 Boston


THERE’s a by-road to St. Peter’s. First you swing across the Tiber
In a ferry-boat that floats you in a minute from the crowd:
Then through high-hedged lanes you saunter; then by fields and sunny pastures;
And beyond the wondrous dome uprises like a golden cloud.

And this morning, Easter morning, while the streets were thronged with people,
And all Rome moved toward the apostle’s temple by the usual way,
I strolled by the fields and hedges, stopping now to view the landscape,
Now to sketch the lazy cattle in the April grass that lay.

Galaxies of buttercups and daisies ran along the meadows,
Rosy flushes of red clover, blossoming shrubs and sprouting vines.
Overhead the larks were singing, heeding not the bells a-ringing,
Little knew they of the Pasqua, or the proud St. Peter’s shrines.

Contadini, men and women, in their very best apparel
Trooping one behind another, chatted all along the roads.
Boys were pitching quoits and coppers, old men in the sun were basking.
In the festal smile of Heaven all laid aside their weary loads.

Underneath an ancient portal soon I passed into the city;
Entered San Pietro’s Square, now thronged with upward crowding forms,
Past the Cardinals’ gilded coaches, and the gorgeous scarlet lackeys,
And the flashing files of soldiers, and black priests in gloomy swarms.

All were moving to the temple. Push aside the ponderous curtain;
Lo! the glorious heights of marble, melting in the golden dome,
Where the grand mosaic pictures, veiled in wnrm and misty softness,
Swim in faith’s religious trances, high above all heights of Rome.

Grand as Pergolesi chantings, lovely as a dream of Titian,
Tones and tints and chastened splendors wreathed and grouped in sweet accord;
While through nave and transept pealing, soar and sink the choral voices,
Telling of the death and glorious resurrection of the Lord.

But, ah, fatal degradation for this temple of the nations!
For the soul is never lifted by the accord of sights and sound,
But yon priest in gold and satin, mumming with his ghostly Latin,
Drags it from its natural flights, and trails its plumage on the ground.

And to-day the Pope is heading his whole army of gay puppets,
And the great machinery moving round us with an extra show:
Genuflections, censers, mitres, mystic motions, candle-lighters,
And the juggling show of relics to the crowd that gapes below;

Till at last they show the Pontiff, draped and diademed and tinselled,
Under canopy and fan-plumes borne along in splendor proud
To a show-box of the temple overlooking all the Piazza.
There he gives his benediction to the long-expectant crowd.

Benediction! while this people, blighted, cursed by superstition,
Steeped in ignorance and darkness, taxed and starved, looks up and begs
For a little light and freedom, for a little law and justice,
That at least the cup so bitter they may drain not to the dregs.

Benediction! while old Error keeps alive a nameless terror.
Benediction! while the poison at each pore is entering deep,
And the sap is slowly withered, and the wormy fruit is gathered,
And a vampire sucks the life out, while the soul is fanned asleep!

Ah! this splendor gluts the senses, while the spirit pines and dwindles.
Mother Church is but a dry-nurse, singing while her infant moans;
While anon a cake or rattle gives a little half-oblivion,
And the sweetness and the glitter mingle with her drowsy tones.

But the infant moans and tosses with a nameless want and anguish,
While with coarse unmeaning bushings louder sings the hireling nurse;
Knows no better in her dull and superannuated blindness,
Tries no potion, seeks no nurture, but consents to worse and worse.

If such be thy ultimation, Church of infinite pretension,—
If within thy chosen garden flowers and fruits like these be found,
Ah, give me the book of nature, open wide to every creature,
And the unconsecrated thoughts that spring like daisies all around.

Send me to the woods and waters, to the studio, to the market;
Give me simple conversation, books, arts, sports, and friends sincere.
Let no priest be e’er my tutor, on my brow no label written;
Coin or passport to salvation rather none than ask it here.

Give me air, and not a prison; love for heart, and light for reason.
Let me walk no slave or bigot,—God’s untrammeled fearless child.
Yield me rights each soul is born to,—rights not given and not taken,
Free to cardinals and princes, and Campagna shepherds wild.

Like these Roman fountains gushing clear and sweet in open spaces,
Where the poorest beggar stoops to drink, and none can say him nay,
Let the law, the truth, be common, free to man and child and woman,—
Living waters for the souls that now in sickness waste away.

Therefore are these fields far sweeter than yon temple of St. Peter.
Through this grander dome of azure God looks down and blesses all.
In these fields the birds sing clearer, to the Eternal Heart are nearer,
Than the proud monastic chants that yonder on my ears did fall.

Never smiled Christ’s holy vicar on the heretic and sinner
As this sun, true type of Godhead, smiles o’er all the peopled land.
Sweeter smells this blowing clover than the perfume of the censer,
And the touch of spring is kinder than the pontiff’s jewelled hand.

ROME, Easter, 1859.

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