Home  »  library  »  poem  »  The Fifth of May

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Fifth of May

By Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873)

From ‘Modern Italian Poets’: Translation of William Dean Howells

HE passed: and as immovable

As, with the last sigh given,

Lay his own clay, oblivious,

From that great spirit riven,

So the world stricken and wondering

Stands at the tidings dread;

Mutely pondering the ultimate

Hour of that fateful being,

And in the vast futurity

No peer of his foreseeing

Among the countless myriads

Her blood-stained dust that tread.

Him on his throne and glorious

Silent saw I, that never—

When with awful vicissitude

He sank, rose, fell forever—

Mixed my voice with the numberless

Voices that pealed on high;

Guiltless of servile flattery

And of the scorn of coward,

Come I when darkness suddenly

On so great light hath lowered,

And offer a song at his sepulchre

That haply shall not die.

From the Alps unto the Pyramids,

From Rhine to Manzanares,

Unfailingly the thunderstroke

His lightning purpose carries;

Bursts from Scylla to Tanais,—

From one to the other sea.

Was it true glory?—Posterity,

Thine be the hard decision;

Bow we before the mightiest,

Who willed in him the vision

Of his creative majesty

Most grandly traced should be.

The eager and tempestuous

Joy of the great plan’s hour,

The throe of the heart that controllessly

Burns with a dream of power,

And wins it, and seizes victory

It had seemed folly to hope,

All he hath known: the infinite

Rapture after the danger,

The flight, the throne of sovereignty,

The salt bread of the stranger;

Twice ’neath the feet of the worshipers,

Twice ’neath the altar’s cope.

He spoke his name; two centuries,

Armèd and threatening either,

Turned unto him submissively,

As waiting fate together;

He made a silence, and arbiter

He sat between the two.

He vanished; his days in the idleness

Of his island prison spending,

Mark of immense malignity,

And of a pity unending,

Of hatred inappeasable,

Of deathless love and true.

As on the head of the mariner,

Its weight some billow heaping,

Falls, even while the castaway,

With strainèd sight far sweeping,

Scanneth the empty distances

For some dim sail in vain:

So over his soul the memories

Billowed and gathered ever;

How oft to tell posterity

Himself he did endeavor,

And on the pages helplessly

Fell his weary hand again.

How many times, when listlessly

In the long dull day’s declining—

Downcast those glances fulminant,

His arms on his breast entwining—

He stood assailed by the memories

Of days that were passed away;

He thought of the camps, the arduous

Assaults, the shock of forces,

The lightning-flash of the infantry,

The billowy rush of horses,

The thrill in his supremacy,

The eagerness to obey.

Ah, haply in so great agony

His panting soul had ended

Despairing, but that potently

A hand, from heaven extended,

Into a clearer atmosphere

In mercy lifted him.

And led him on by blossoming

Pathways of hope ascending

To deathless fields, to happiness

All earthly dreams transcending,

Where in the glory celestial

Earth’s fame is dumb and dim.

Beautiful, deathless, beneficent

Faith! used to triumphs, even

This also write exultantly:

No loftier pride ’neath Heaven

Unto the shame of Calvary

Stooped ever yet its crest.

Thou from his weary mortality

Disperse all bitter passions:

The God that humbleth and hearteneth,

That comforts and that chastens,

Upon the pillow else desolate

To his pale lips lay pressed!