Verse > Anthologies > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. > Poems of Places > Africa
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed.  Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Africa: Vol. XXIV.  1876–79.
 
The Barbary States: Algiers
Under the Olives
Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829–1925)
 
          “The Sahel of Algiers is the range of hills lying between the sea and the Atlas Mountains. They are of an average elevation of 600 feet, but occasionally attain much greater height. This belt of hills is exceedingly rich and fertile in vegetation, and is cut by numerous deep ravines whose sides are clothed with large olive-trees, with ilex, lentisk, aloes, cactuses, and a profuse undergrowth of shrubs and wild-flowers. In some places a narrow plain intervenes between the hills and the sea, but at the town itself this plain becomes a mere strip covered by the great square and two streets east and west, at the back of which the houses mount the hill abruptly, divided by steep narrow streets, which frequently break off into steps, and up which no vehicle can pass. On each side of the town the slopes are dotted with country-houses and lovely gardens. The Gardens of the Hesperides are placed by the poets somewhere at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, whose snowy summits can be seen from the Sahel of Algiers.”—Ballads and Songs.

SEATED in a Moorish garden
  On the Sahel of Algiers,
Wandering breezes brought the burden
  Of its history in past years.
Lost amidst the mist of ages,        5
  Its first chronicles arise;
Yonder is the chain of Atlas,
  And the pagan paradise!
 
Past these shores the wise Phœnicians
  Coasted outwards towards the west,        10
Hoping there to find Atlantis,
  And the Islands of the Blest.
Somewhere in these mystic valleys
  Grew the golden-fruited trees,
Which the wandering son of Zeus        15
  Stole from the Hesperides.
 
Many monsters, famed in story,
  Had their habitations here,
Scaly coats and tresses hoary
  Struck adventurous souls with fear.        20
Not far off lived Polyphemus,
  Glaring with his single eye;
Sailors wrecked upon these waters
  Only gained their brink to die.
 
But if ever, while carousing,        25
  Rescued travellers told their feats,—
How the elephants came browsing
  From the inner desert-heats,
How the dragons and the griffins
  Likewise howled along the shore,—        30
Those who listened bade their footsteps
  Seek those dreadful realms no more!
*        *        *        *        *
When the veil of History rises,
  Carthage owns the glorious state,
Planted with the Arts of Commerce,        35
  And the men who made her great.
Rivalled only by Etruria,
  She was mistress of the main;
Still we have the solemn treaty,
  Drawn in brass betwixt them twain.        40
 
One among her many daughters,
  Iol at her altars prayed;
Merchants, storm-struck on the waters,
  Sought this harbor when afraid.
All this coast of ancient Afric        45
  Bore her sway and owned her name;
To her western port of Iol
  Buyers flocked and sellers came.
 
Yearly swarming populations
  Poured through Carthage’ busy gates,        50
Bearing forth the seed of nations;
  And her ships bore living freights
Costlier far than pearl or coral,—
  Hardy, brave, adventurous men!
As our exiles cling to England,        55
  Sons of Carthage loved her then.
 
They, when working mines in Cornwall,
  Gathering ivory near the Line,
Pressing grapes from vines of Cadiz,
  Also thought her gods divine!        60
These blue peaks and golden valleys,
  Those white waves of northern foam,
Also had their groups of eager,
  Loving hearts, who called her “home.”
 
But, “Delenda est Carthago!”        65
  Was the threat proclaimed of yore,—
Scarce a bird now flaps his pinion,
  White-winged vessels dance no more.
Heaps of stone, o’ergrown with brambles,
  Mutely eloquent, attest,        70
Men who once called Carthage mother,
  Sleep forgotten on her breast.
 
Lo! a troop of white-robed Arabs,
  Passing in a silent file,
Fix the eye which else would vainly        75
  Range the plain from mile to mile.
Not a dwelling known to Carthage!
  Not one temple on the hill!
Empty lie the land-locked harbors,
  Margins bare, and waters still!        80
 
Empty graves, through which the hyena
  Ranges, laughing at decay,
Strike their dark and dangerous labyrinth
  Inward from the light of day.
And such utter desolation        85
  Triumphs here, it may be said,
That of this forgotten nation
  Even the graves give up their dead!
 
On which summit was the Byrsa
  Scipio fought five days to gain?        90
Here is naught but what the footstep
  In five minutes might attain.
Can it be that once a million
  People dwelt upon this plain!
*        *        *        *        *
Such is Carthage, lying eastward        95
  Ten days’ journey from Algiers;
On the grassy slopes of Iol
  Lie two thousand nameless years.
Dead her sailors, sunk her vessels,
  Merchants seek her marts no more;        100
I have walked midst broken columns
  Strewed about her sounding shore,
 
And I have retraced the story,
  How across that bright blue sea,
Clove the sharp prows, keen for glory,        105
  Straight from distant Italy,
Manned by warriors whose unbounded
  Thirst for conquest nerved them well;
And the state by Dido founded
  Vainly struggled, sadly fell.        110
 
Even as the walls of Veii
  Fell beneath a Latin wile,
Carthage also lowered her sceptre
  From the Atlantic to the Nile.
This was then called old Numidia,        115
  Underneath the Roman sway;—
Ere through centuries dark with bloodshed
  Rose the Crescent of the Dey.
 
Once these hills were crowned with villas,
  Ripe with harvest all these plains;        120
Scarce a trace of Roman splendor
  Or Athenian art remains.
Little dreams the colon d’ Afrique,
  Roughly ploughing round his home,
These ravines midst which he labors        125
  Once were “granaries of Rome.”
 
From this harbor of Icosium
  Passed the many-oared trireme,
Laden with colonial produce
  Bound for Ostia’s yellow stream.        130
Sacks of corn and oil of olives,
  Strings of dates and jars of wine,
Such the tribute yearly rendered
  Hence unto Mount Palatine.
 
Now, across that waste of waters,        135
  Sailless is the lonely sea,
Not a vessel tracks the pathway,
  Rome, betwixt Algiers and thee!
For the pulses of a people
  With their rulers rise and fall,        140
And Numidia gives her harvest
  To defray the tax of Gaul!
*        *        *        *        *
What is that red cloud ascending,
  Scarcely bigger than a hand,
From where sea and sky are blending,        145
  Till it hovers o’er the land?
See! the mists are slowly dwining,
  We shall see its brightness soon!
’T is no cloud with silver lining,
  But the perfect crescent moon!        150
 
’T is the emblem of the Prophet
  Hanging in a violet sky,
While amidst the cloudy olives
  Breaks the jackal’s evening cry.
Just as if to help my story,        155
  Signs and sounds came into play,
Crescent of a fearful glory!
  War-cry of a beast of prey!
 
Dark and dreadful is the legend
  Of a thousand years of crime,        160
Since the writer of the Koran,
  Flying, marked the flight of Time.
Since, from depths of far Arabia,
  Rolled the fierce, resistless throng,
And the race was to the swift one,        165
  And the battle to the strong.
 
As I sit within this garden,
  All the air is soft and sweet;
Endless length of famous waters
  Roll to northward at my feet—        170
Waters where the pirate vessels,
  Year by year and hour by hour,
Swept across a trembling ocean,
  Seeking what they might devour!
 
Still in sunlight lies the city,        175
  Here and there a palm-tree waves
Over Moorish mosque and rampart,
  Over nameless Christian graves.
These fair clumps of winter roses
  Once drank dew of bitter tears;        180
Christian hearts grew sick with sunshine
  On the Sahel of Algiers!
 
Yet how gallant is the poem
  Of the triumph of the Cross!
How the ranks of instant martyrs        185
  In the front filled up the loss!
How the slave died in the bagnio!
  The crusader at his post!
And for each priest struck, another
  Served the altar and the Host!        190
 
Hither came the good St. Vincent,
  Brought a captive o’er the sea,
Slave unto a learned doctor
  For two weary years was he;
Next he served the gentle lady,        195
  Wife to an apostate lord;
But, behold, his prayers were fruitful,
  And he brought them to accord!
 
In these prisons languished hundreds;—
  Oft the mystic sound of wails,        200
Wafted over leagues of ocean,
  Wept and murmured past Marseilles.
In the chapels shook the tapers
  As the spirit-wind passed by,
And the noblest swords in Europe        205
  Leapt responsive to the cry.
 
When, at length, the Sails of Rescue
  Loomed upon the northern wave,
All the voices of the martyrs
  Welcome breathed from this their grave.        210
Past the town, and round the mountains,
  See the stately fleet advance;—
And the children of St. Louis
  Plant the fleurs-de-lis of France!
*        *        *        *        *
Seated in a Moorish garden        215
  On the Sahel of Algiers,
I can hear a tender burden,
  Like the music of the spheres.
Not from any mortal voices
  Could that tender music come!        220
No! It is a strain familiar—
  ’T is the hymn we sing at home!
 
As it soars above the olives,
  Drops below the pine-clad hills,
What a vast and tender memory        225
  Mine imagination fills!
From the grave where She lay buried,
  Fifteen hundred years are rolled,
And the church of St. Augustine
  Steps regenerate as of old!        230
 
Hippo lies a shapeless ruin,
  All her ramparts overthrown;
Yet, wherever men are Christians,
  Her great Bishop’s name is known.
Over Hippo blow the breezes,        235
  Sighing from the great blue sea;—
Yet of all our living preachers
  Who so powerful as he?
 
Once, upon a Sabbath morning,
  I at Bona heard the bells        240
In a chorus—as the water
  Sharply ebbs and softly swells.
And to me it seemed the mountains
  Echoed back a sweet refrain,
That the ruined church of Hippo        245
  Harbored prayer and praise again!
 
When the bared, bowed head of Jerome
  Fell before the flashing sword;—
When both Marcellin and Cyril
  To the last confessed the Lord;        250
When St. Felix fell at Carthage,
  Struck with clubs; and in the flames
Saints Severian and Aquila
  (Married lovers) knit their names
 
In a more immortal linking,        255
  As twin martyrs for the faith;
When St. Marcian at Cherchell
  Faced the cruel teeth of death;—
They did more than bear brave witness
  To the glorious hearts of old;        260
For they laid the strong foundation
  Of the universal Fold.
 
In that great stone ring at Cherchell
  Grass hath muffled all the ground;
All the circling seats are empty,        265
  Not a motion or a sound!
Pause! O feet that here tread lightly!
  Hush! O voice discoursing here!
Spirits of the just made perfect
  Doubtless often linger near!        270
 
What if in that calm arena
  Where the sunbeams softly sleep,
You, with many an aching bosom,
  Dared not cry and could not weep!
What if Marcian wore the features—        275
  Dear blue eyes and soft brown hair,—
And you saw the savage creatures
  Leap infuriate from their lair?
*        *        *        *        *
Yet, O dreadful dream of Cherchell!
  That was what was undergone        280
In that circle where the fruit-trees
  Like a faint reflection shone.
Now for every martyr noted
  In the list I read to-day,
Is a tender special mention        285
  When Algerian Christians pray.
 
Down the hill I see the belfry
  And the quaint old Moorish porch;
Hark! the little bell is swinging,
  Calling willing feet to church.        290
Down the lane between the olives,
  Then across the wide white road;
Stranger, if your heart is heavy,
  Take it to that hushed abode,
 
Where the lamp burns ever dimly        295
  All throughout the sunny day,
But shines clear upon the arches
  As the twilight fades away.
You will find the weight drop from you,—
  Leave it there among the flowers,        300
Which beneath the Christian altar
  Mark the change of Christian hours.
 
Quaint old court of True Believer,
  All thy truth is overthrown!
Servants of another Master        305
  Now have claimed thee for their own;
Built his altar, placed around it
  Irises and asphodels;—
Where to-morrow some new glory
  Will unfold its buds and bells.        310
 
Sitting in this golden stillness
  All my thoughts turn back to them
Who in such an Eastern sunshine
  Worshipped at Jerusalem!
Are they then a living presence,        315
  After all these changing years?
Hark, how many bells are ringing
  On the Sahel of Algiers!
 
 
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