Out of Pompeii

Charles G.D. Roberts

Save what the night-wind woke of sweet
And solemn sound, I heard alone
The sleepless ocean's ceaseless beat,
The surge's monotone.

Low down the south a dreary gleam
Of white light smote the sullen swells,
Evasive as a blissful dream,
Or wind-borne notes of bells.

The water's lapping whispers stole
Into my brain, and there effaced
All human memories from my soul,—
An atom in a shifting waste.

Weird fingers, groping, strove to raise
Some numbing horror from my mind;
And ever, as it met my gaze,
The sharp truth struck me blind.

The keen edged breath of the salt sea
Stung, but a faint, swift, sulphurous smell
Blew past, and I reeled dizzily
As from the blink of hell,

One moment; then the swan-necked prow
Sustained me, and once more I scanned
The unfenced flood, against my brow
Arching my lifted hand.

O'er all the unstable vague expanse
I towered the lord supreme, and smiled;
And marked the hard, white sparkles glance,
The dark vault wide and wild.

Again that faint wind swept my face—
With hideous menace swept my eyes.
I cowered back in my straitened place
And groped with dim surmise,

Not knowing yet. Not knowing why,
I turned, as one asleep might turn,
And noted with half curious eye
The figure crouched astern.

On heaped-up leopard skins she crouched,
Asleep, and soft skins covered her,
And scarlet stuffs where she was couched,
Sodden with sea-water,

Burned lurid with black stains, and smote
My thought with waking pangs; I saw
The white arm drooping from the boat,
Round-moulded, pure from flaw;

The yellow sandals even-thonged;
The fair face, wan with haunting pain;—
Then sudden, crowding memories thronged
Like unpent sudden rain.

Clear-stamped, as by white lightning when
The swift flame rends the night, wide-eyed
I saw dim streets, and fleeing men,
And walls from side to side

Reeling, and great rocks fallen; a pall
Above us, an encumbering shroud
About our feet, and over all
The awful Form that bowed

Our hearts, the fiery scourge that smote
The city,—the red Mount. Clear, clear
I saw it,—and this lonely boat,
And us two drifting here!

With one sharp cry I sprang and hid
My face among the skins beside
Her feet, and held her safe, and chid
The tumult till it died.

And crouched thus at her rescued feet
Save her low breath, I heard alone
The sleepless ocean's ceaseless beat,
The surge's monotone.

From In Divers Tones.

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Added 22 November 2008.
Updated 22 November 2008.