Death, or dishonor, which is best to taste?--
A Roman sentinel, with courage high,
When God's hot anger laid Pompeii waste,
Answered the question, and resolved to die.
His duty was upon his post to bide
Till the relief came, let what might betide.
He stood forgotten by the fleeing guard,
Choosing that part which is the bitterest still--
His face with its fixed purpose cold and hard,
Cut in the resolute granite of his will.
"Better," he said, "to die than live in shame;
Death wreathes fresh flowers round a brave man's name."
Life is the wave's deep whisper on the shore
Of a great sea beyond: the soldier saw
That day the light in broad sails hoisted o'er
The drifting boat of dawn; nor dreamed the flaw,
The puff called death, would blow him with them by,
Out to the boundless sea beyond the sky.
He watched the quaking mountain's fire-gashed cheeks,
And saw come up the sand's entombing shower;
The storm darts out its red tongue when it speaks,
And fierce Vesuvius, in that wild hour,
Put forth his tongue of flame, and spoke the word
Of hatred to the city from the Lord.
The gloom of seventeen centuries skulked away,
And standing in a marble niche was found
A skeleton in armor all decay;
The soulless skull was by a helmet crowned,
Cleaving thereto with mingled rust and sand,
And a long spear was in the crumbling hand.
Pompeii from its burial upsprings--
Paved streets with pillared temples on each side,
Baths, houses, paintings, monuments of kings.
But the arched gate whereat the sentry died,
The rusted spear, and helmet with no crest,
Are better far to see than all the rest.
O heart, whatever lot to thee God gives,
Be strong, and swerve not from a blameless way;
Dishonor hurts the soul that ever lives,
Death hurts the body that is kin with clay.
Though Duty's face is stern, her path is best:
They sweetly sleep who die upon her breast.