December 10, 2012

Campbell: Of Rome's faded Glory

"I claim for them nothing great," James Edwin Campbell once wrote in the preface to his first book of poems, Driftings and Gleanings. Yet, several of the poems in that collection are incredibly ambitious, including his lengthy verse on "The River Tiber." The poem, dated as December 10, 1884 and written from his home town of Pomeroy, Ohio, is a long, densely academic poem on Ancient Rome. If nothing else, the complicated poem is a major accomplishment for the 17-year old Campbell (who lived only to the age of 28). It begins:

Thou chronicle of ages, long, long past!
Thou, who hast seen the seven far-sung hills,
On which proud Rome her foundations still doth hold,
Covered with the flocks of the Latin shepherds of old.
Thou who, long ere Romulus or Remus was born,
Flowed fearlessly, grandly, tranquilly on!
Thou, who sawest, long ere the lofty walls of Rome
Had reared high their battlements and their turrets of stone,
The shepherds of Latinus and their rude huts or homes
                Clustered along thy banks;
Tell me of the things thou hast kept so long,
                Hidden in thy bosom.

Throughout the nearly 120-line poem, Campbell's poem depicts the famed river as a witness. He uses various allusions to Roman history, folklore, and mythology, including Julius Caesar and the empire's enemy Hannibal. Some scholars have been frustrated by poems like "The River Tiber," hoping that Campbell would offer more criticism of contemporary racial concerns. Still, the poem does have its tensions, as the poet notes how the river will outlive temporary empires and dynasties. The poem ends with an awe-filled and respectful reverie for the river's longevity and power:

And as for thee, thou living monument of dust-mouldered nations,
On whose winding brink is stamped the impress of many generations;
Thou, who, at Rome's fall, when the Vandal caused the streets to flow in blood,
Wept a torrent of tears and poured out thy destructive flood,
That by the Vandal the bending grain might not be mown
Which by Rome's unfortunate husbandmen was sown;
Flow on, and ever in thy course, Tiber, do thou tell
Of Rome's faded Glory; Now, Tiber, fare-thee-well.

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