Take a Lyrical Trip to the Italian Coast with 'Amalfi' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Take a Lyrical Trip to the Italian Coast with 'Amalfi' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Monday, 3 October, 2022

You might know American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from high school English class staples like Paul Revere’s Ride, The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline. He was also the first American to completely translate Dante’s Divine Comedy. Longfellow was a traveler and linguist, a romantic and a Romantic, rooted in American life and infatuated with Europe.

Born in Portland, Maine, in 1807 to an established New England family, Longfellow was expected to follow in his father’s well-heeled footsteps to become a lawyer. Instead, during his time at Bowdoin College, he showed dexterity with foreign languages. When the school offered him a post-graduation position teaching modern languages, there was just one stipulation: He must travel to Europe to research foreign tongues in person. Oh, to be a 19-year-old student of life and language on a grand tour! During his first trip from 1826 to 1829, his lifelong love affair with words and the Old World began.

He traveled to Italy several times during his life, most triumphantly in 1869 with his family of nine at his side. The photo below was taken in Venice (zoom into image), although Florence became one of his favorite cities, inspiring him to write the (unfinished) dramatic poem The Old Bridge at Florence.

 sepia-toned photo of henry wadsworth longfellow with his family in 1869

This poem is a tribute to Amalfi, a small town tucked between the sea and the foot of Monte Cerreto. The setting is dramatic with steep cliffs that form a deep ravine that, as Longfellow describes, is ‘a stairway, not a street.’


Amalfi — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  • Sweet the memory is to me
  • Of a land beyond the sea,
  • Where the waves and mountains meet,
  • Where amid her mulberry-trees
  • Sits Amalfi in the heat,
  • Bathing ever her white feet
  • In the tideless summer seas.
  • In the middle of the town,
  • From its fountains in the hills,
  • Tumbling through the narrow gorge,
  • The Canneto rushes down,
  • Turns the great wheels of the mills,
  • Lifts the hammers of the forge.
  • ‘Tis a stairway, not a street,
  • That ascends the deep ravine,
  • Where the torrent leaps between
  • Rocky walls that almost meet.
  • Toiling up from stair to stair
  • Peasant girls their burdens bear;
  • Sunburnt daughters of the soil,
  • Stately figures tall and straight,
  • What inexorable fate
  • Dooms them to this life of toil?
  • Lord of vineyards and of lands,
  • Far above the convent stands.
  • On its terraced walk aloof
  • Leans a monk with folded hands,
  • Placid, satisfied, serene,
  • Looking down upon the scene
  • Over wall and red-tiled roof;
  • Wondering unto what good end
  • All this toil and traffic tend,
  • And why all men cannot be
  • Free from care and free from pain,
  • And the sordid love of gain,
  • And as indolent as he.
  • Where are now the freighted barks
  • From the marts of east and west;
  • Where the knights in iron sarks
  • Journeying to the Holy Land,
  • Glove of steel upon the hand,
  • Cross of crimson on the breast?
  • Where the pomp of camp and court?
  • Where the pilgrims with their prayers?
  • Where the merchants with their wares,
  • And their gallant brigantines
  • Sailing safely into port
  • Chased by corsair Algerines?
  • Vanished like a fleet of cloud,
  • Like a passing trumpet-blast,
  • Are those splendors of the past,
  • And the commerce and the crowd!
  • Fathoms deep beneath the seas
  • Lie the ancient wharves and quays,
  • Swallowed by the engulfing waves;
  • Silent streets and vacant halls,
  • Ruined roofs and towers and walls;
  • Hidden from all mortal eyes
  • Deep the sunken city lies:
  • Even cities have their graves!
  • This is an enchanted land!
  • Round the headlands far away
  • Sweeps the blue Salernian bay
  • With its sickle of white sand:
  • Further still and furthermost
  • On the dim discovered coast
  • Pæstum with its ruins lies,
  • And its roses all in bloom
  • Seem to tinge the fatal skies
  • Of that lonely land of doom.
  • On his terrace, high in air,
  • Nothing doth the good monk care
  • For such worldly themes as these.
  • From the garden just below
  • Little puffs of perfume blow,
  • And a sound is in his ears
  • Of the murmur of the bees
  • In the shining chestnut-trees;
  • Nothing else he heeds or hears.
  • All the landscape seems to swoon
  • In the happy afternoon;
  • Slowly o’er his senses creep
  • The encroaching waves of sleep,
  • And he sinks, as sank the town,
  • Unresisting, fathoms down,
  • Into caverns cool and deep!
  • Walled about with drifts of snow,
  • Hearing the fierce north-wind blow,
  • Seeing all the landscape white,
  • And the river cased in ice,
  • Comes this memory of delight,
  • Comes this vision unto me
  • Of a long-lost Paradise,
  • In the land beyond the sea.

Top image courtesy of travelwild/Shutterstock.

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