February 4, 2010

The Roman Centurion’s Song

Once a Brit, always a Brit? This may be true—at least for a certain kind of people, I guess, and even if one was previously from elsewhere. I mean, some time ago a Brit friend of mine was amazed at my being a lover of Britain. He couldn’t understand why on earth I liked Britain so much, after having grown up in Rome, studied in Venice and San Francisco, California, and traveled a lot around Europe and the USA. I tried to explain to him that, apart from some good and darling memories, I loved certain shades of green in the hills around Edinburgh, the stones of Cambridge and the windswept cliffs of Cornwall, the colors of London, from the wet pavements of Piccadilly to the grass of Hyde Park, and the beautiful countryside of Wales.

But my British friend continued looking at me rather incredulously. Quite an awkward position, but he is a huge fan of everything Italian…

However, all of the above considerations were intended to introduce a poem by Rudyard Kipling I came across today. And if this piece of poetry has little to do with myself, it nonetheless has much to do with Britain.

The Roman Centurion’s Song

(Roman Occupation of Britain, A.D. 300)

LEGATE, I had the news last night - my cohort ordered home
By ships to Portus Itius and thence by road to Rome.
I've marched the companies aboard, the arms are stowed below:
Now let another take my sword. Command me not to go!

I've served in Britain forty years, from Vectis to the Wall,
I have none other home than this, nor any life at all.
Last night I did not understand, but, now the hour draws near
That calls me to my native land, I feel that land is here.

Here where men say my name was made, here where my work was done;
Here where my dearest dead are laid - my wife - my wife and son;
Here where time, custom, grief and toil, age, memory, service, love,
Have rooted me in British soil. Ah, how can I remove?

For me this land, that sea, these airs, those folk and fields suffice.
What purple Southern pomp can match our changeful Northern skies,
Black with December snows unshed or pearled with August haze -
The clanging arch of steel-grey March, or June's long-lighted days?

You'll follow widening Rhodanus till vine an olive lean
Aslant before the sunny breeze that sweeps Nemausus clean
To Arelate's triple gate; but let me linger on,
Here where our stiff-necked British oaks confront Euroclydon!

You'll take the old Aurelian Road through shore-descending pines
Where, blue as any peacock's neck, the Tyrrhene Ocean shines.
You'll go where laurel crowns are won, but -will you e'er forget
The scent of hawthorn in the sun, or bracken in the wet?

Let me work here for Britain's sake - at any task you will -
A marsh to drain, a road to make or native troops to drill.
Some Western camp (I know the Pict) or granite Border keep,
Mid seas of heather derelict, where our old messmates sleep.

Legate, I come to you in tears - My cohort ordered home!
I've served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?
Here is my heart, my soul, my mind - the only life I know.
I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!