The Colosseum by Moonlight      

Down from the terrace, where the diners linger

Under the bearded watching of the window

Boxed Capuchins across the Via Vittoria Venito:

          Into the crumbling landau,

Whose dappled horse is netted, though no longer

Beaded by green flies; whom I had feared dead

At stumbling moments in the day, when backed, or, Mia

Madre! made to turn in some vicolo

Along the Aventine that plunged, a dusty

Mis-step off, into the marble gardens

Of the Knights of Malta:

                                       And away -


Stare with see-all eyes; take in the broccoli

On candle-lighted trays; retell the history

Of Colonna and Orsini to my

Mother. In mantilla, Spanish shawl, and

Crystals that catch the moonlight, she half-listens,

Says: ‘Look! There is Palazro Barberini.’

I answer: ‘Si.’ The horse’s hooves re-echo,

While I recount the story that ends: ‘Non barbari

Sed Barberini.’ And the palace hastens

Into the past, as do the sculptured many

Fountains. We clatter on the cobbles. Tobacco

Fumes, mixed with the rancid smells of sour

Wine, blow from the close trattoria. A drunken

Coachman shouts, his carriage almost tangling

In our wheels. ‘Ne le regarde pas!’ Mother

Says, and looks away, down towards the Forum.

I look, and see, below, the moonlit sunken

Rome strewn across the valley. The wrangling

Coachman’s yells are muted now. Another

Sound. Bells ringing out the De profundis

For the dead above the immortal city.

We bow our heads and cross ourselves. Our driver

Prays out loud. I almost think our horse would

Do the same, were we not there.

                                      The endless

Palazzi pass. Now cobbles soften. Pity

For our slippery-footed horse ebbs. Over

This via antica we clip-clop lightly,

Head high, mane almost flying. I consider

My triumph, laurel-crowned, this chariot gilded.

‘Mother, a Roman general’s face was painted

Scarlet, when he rode along the Sacred

Way.’ And in the hush that somehow mightily

Falls, great shadows reaching round, I shudder

At the cold. The monument, unbuilded

Stone by stone, looms. ‘Here, Dunstan, the saints were

Martyred. This is holy ground.’

                                      The acrid

Smells of Rome are gone. No music wavers

From those arches up above. And Mother

Says: ‘I wish we could go in and see it

In the moonlight. But we cannot safely

Tonight, alone.’ I say: ‘You mean the driver

Might go off without us? We’d find another

Carriage. Or, if not, then I could lead you

Back. We’d walk to the hotel.’ She says: ‘How brief

Time is! I saw this with my father twenty

Years ago. It might be yesterday. And

All is still unchanged.’ I say: ‘But he is

Dead.’ Then, heartstruck, add: ‘I’m very sorry.’

Soothed by the moonlit calm, she answers: ‘In Paris,

Far from home. But God knows best.’ Then: ‘Rallenti!

Rallenti!’ speaking to the driver. I say: ‘And

If we went in, we could pray, and see this

Just as when you came with Grandfather.’

But have no hopes: I know that she would worry

About robbers.

                             And then, perhaps, the martyrs

Intervene. A carriage comes the other

Way and stops. Two women and a priest get

Out, as we drive slowly past. ‘Ferma qui!’

Mother says. We halt. And when she questions

The priest - Italian first, then French - he answers:

‘Avec plaisir, Madame.’ I follow Mother,

Inattentive to the gentle talk.

                                      The past, made

Present, awes me, as we go the eerie

Way beneath the arches, black bastions

Of suffering. But then the moonlight, glancing

Over the broken monoliths, impowers

The sweep of sand that centres all my wonder.

‘Was it here . . . ?’ I ask. But Mother tells me

Not to talk. We cross the silver arena.

‘Voilà!’ The priest points to a far off towering

Darkness. ‘La loge impériale!’ The thunder

Of a distant world reverberates. I still my

Fears, walk slowly on. Was this the scene of

Stories I had read? ‘At Rome: The Triumph

Of Felix, Audactus and Silvester

In the Reign of Decius.’ And the lions -

The circus lions one saw do tricks at Barnum

And Bailey’s - sprang through the screaming silence.

‘Voici, mon cher garçon, la cave des lions.’

The priest, his soutane shining silver, beckons

Me towards a moonlit grating. ‘Oui, mon

Père’,' I say, but go no further.

                                      The seconds

Sift down. We stand together by the crucifix,

Obscure against the milky light. I marvel

At the silence, palpable, like voices

Singing just above the topmost note. And

Mother whispers: ‘Say a prayer for Grandfather.’

I do, and ask her: ‘Are we where the martyrs

Died? Are we standing on the very places?’

Mother consults the priest, then says: ‘This white sand

Was put down by an early Pope, so others

Might walk here without risk of their profaning

The blood-stained ground ten feet below.’ The women

Shiver, as a cloud conceals the moon. But then I

Hear the priest begin to pray. In darkness

We answer to the Latin litany ‘Ora

Pro nobis.’ One by one the names are mentioned:

Sebastian, Agnes, John and Paul, Crescentius.

The martyrology unrolls. The stark stones

Reappear, silvered again. But more of

The saints are begged in Gallic accents to pray

For us, in peril from the lion-like dangers.

At the end, I stoop down, gather handfuls

Of the moonlit sand, abiding treasure,

And stow it in my pockets. The strangers

Smile. The priest says: ‘Brave garçon!’ My pleasure

Is lessened by the weight of all the sand. Still,

It represents a triumph, though not mine.


Go back through the arches. Mother tells me

To say good-bye and thank you. I endeavour

To add some more in French, but fail. Again in

Our carriage, we move towards our hotel. I

See the moonlight shine from Mother’s crystals.

I see her tears. And so I say: ‘I love you,

Mother.’ At once she smiles. And at the corner

We turn to look a last time at the crystal

Of the moon upon the martyrs’ monument -

A vast still gleaming crown.

                             Then, without warning,

Our driver starts to sing. Our horse is hurrying

Home, his moonlit mane all silver. Palaces

Go past. I sink back in the cushions, dream.

And Mother says: ‘Dunstan, you will remember

This - when you are grown.’