“The Roman Sentinel” by Ward M. Florence was included in many elocution books of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this pre-television era, families and friends entertained one another with performances of dramatic or humorous poems, plays, stories, or tableaux. Many of the popular novels of the time depict characters in the act of preparing for or enjoying a production of this sort.
Books such as The Popular Reciter in which I found “The Roman Sentinel” include not only material suitable for recitation, but exercises to prepare the body and voice for recitation, and detailed instructions on gesture, walking, expression, and illustrations or photos of performers in proper dress and pose.
The explanatory note that appears before the poem states, “In the excavations made by the government authorities to restore the ancient city of Pompeii, the workmen discovered the bones of a Roman soldier in the sentry box at one of the city’s gates. As rocks of shelter were near at hand, and escape from the volcano’s fiery deluge thus rendered possible, the supposition is that this brave sentinel chose to meet death, rather than desert his post of duty.”
The Roman Sentinel
THE morning sun rose from his crimson couch
In the Orient-land, and bathed the world
In golden showers of refreshing light:
With orange and with jasmine the gardens
Of Pompeii were beautiful and fragrant;
The gray rocks, robed and crowned with vines and flowers,
Were lulled to sleep upon the bosom of the Bay.
The merchant ships and pleasure boats lay still
And lifeless-or, drifted aimlessly between
The blue of the skies and the blue of the sea.
Sailing away on silvery pinions,
A pair of cloud-lovers, with cheeks of pearl,
Blushed to discover, in the sea below,
Their mirrored images : the distant isles
Answered back smiles of happy contentment
To voices calling from the mainland shores.
The hazy air, mild and calm, wrapped this proud
Old Italian city in a mantle
Of dreamful repose. On her streets the tramp
Of feet, now and then, broke the lazy quiet—
Some bought, some sold, some danced, some played, some slept;
And each one went about his daiiy work,
Nor dreamed of danger near.
At a gate commanding entrance to Pompeii
Was placed a trusty sentinel. His tall,
Erect and warlike stature told a tale
Of dauntless courage. Proud of the faith and
Confidence placed in his loyal heart,
The sentinel’s eyes shone like brilliant stars ;
His trumpet, sword, and buckler hung about
His frame with airy lightness, while his face,
His bearing and his every action
Proclaimed in terms and force significant—
“Here stands a Roman Soldier!”
While pacing to and fro his measured beat,
And dreaming dreams of long expected honors,
There comes, beneath him, a strange quick movement !
He stops—waits—listens. Ah, it comes again!
Then he knows the awful truth,—an earthquake,
That dreadful harbinger of volcanic
Action! A third time, and the ground doth heave
Like ocean billows ! Up, through ev’ry vein
The soldier’s blood darts with freezing torture!
He looks towards the Bay,—it boils and struggles
In its mad contention, lashing itself
As it lashes the shore ! He lifts his trumpet
And sounds a loud alarm ! Back from the throat
Of great Vesuvius returns the answer,—
A rumble, rumble, rumble, like distant
Artillery! Volumes of smoke, dense and
Gigantic, roll from the maddened crater!
Daylight ceases! no sun! no moon! no stars!
Now dreadful, appaling, and magnificent
Blazes the weird Plutonian candle!
The ground heaves! It rocks again! The waters
Leap beyond their shores! See—the giant mountain
Trembles! Then one long, unnatural, roaring
Peal of wild volcanic thunder, and the
Fiery lakes of hell are hurled, seething,
Into the clouds above! Sound the danger
Signals! Rouse the thoughtless people! Fly! fly!
Fly for your lives! Too late! too late! forever
Too late! A molten sea of liquid fire
Pours down upon the fated city!
Ghastly imps, the spectres of ruin, gloat
Above the hissing surges! Now a rain
Of red-hot ashes, stones, and cinders falls
Thick and fast for miles around! In the streets,
In their shops, in their homes that startled mass
Of poor humanity is suddenly
Clasped in the arms of unexpected death.
Old age, manhood, buoyant youth, and helpless
Infancy all, all at once are buried
‘Neath the burning fury of that awful
When the pent up ire
Of grim Vesuvius had burst its massive
Prison bars, the soldier thought: ” What shall
I do? To yon projecting rock I quick
Can fly and safety find! But can I thus betray
My sacred trust and win the name of coward?
Is life a gem worth such a price to me?
Could e’er again these Roman lips repeat
The name my father bore? No! no! no! here!
Here will I stand; so let the fiends of hell
Exhaust their utmost fury! Trumpet, sound
My challenge bold! Ye heavens, wear your blackest face!
Volcano, hurl your wildest fires! For though
I choke—I burn—I sink—I die—yet ne’er
Will I forsake my post of duty! ”
Hundred years rolled by ere again the light
Of day shone on the buried city;
Then excavation broke the seals which held
The solemn secret. Two hundred thousand
Skulls and more were found entombed beneath
The ashes. Every stone and piece of metal
Lifted from the ancient ruins, told o’er
And o’er the horrors of that dark eruption.
At his post the sentinel’s bones had kept
Their long and ghastly vigil. As in life
So e’en in death, the sacred trust was not deserted.
Ward M. Florence
I was unable to find specific information on Ward M. Florence, but kept coming upon Florence Warden, the pseudonym of Florence Alice Price James, a prolific Victorian author who was publishing in 1901. It is entirely possible that Ward M. Florence is another pseudonym for this author.
The New Popular Reciter and Book of Elocution A Complete Handbook of Entertainment for All Ages and Occasions by Frances Putnam Pogle, B. E., and George M. Vickers, A. M. is difficult to find in the original edition shown above (it’s available on AbeBooks right now for $89), but there is a paperback edition (not nearly as attractive) available on Amazon.
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