Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1786

  • Posted on: 20 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

Vesuvius from Portici by Joseph Wright of Derby

When I arrived at Naples there was luckily an Eruption of the neighbouring Mountain; nor have I ever yet seen anything which rival’d the first Sight of Vesuvius for Interest or general Effect. it Looked like a Ladder of Fire from Capua; but as one drew nearer, & observed the Bend of the Torrent, I soon discerned its resemblance to all the Views one sees, & all the descriptions one reads of it. Nothing however can describe the passing of a Cloud charged electrick Matter over the Mountain from whence a Column of proceeding in that Instant, lets off the lightning in a Way no Words can express: I saw the Phænomenon more than once & shall not easily lose the Impression made on my Mind.

As a Proof of those Feelings being wholly irresistible, I shall write down the Verses they, & the other Sensations excited by the Objects around me daily inspired--perhaps Pozzuoli which one is ever out of the sight of, is the most sublime among them--perhaps! but ’tis impossible to forbear glowing up into Enthusiasm when one treads a soil so warm; while one turns one’s Eyes only from one Animating Sight to another--from Nerva’s Cavern to Virgil’s Tomb.--

Irregular Stanzas-written at Naples Feb: 1786.

First of Achelous’ Blood!
Fairest Daughter of the Flood!
Queen of the Sicilian Sea!
Beauteous, bright Parthenope!
Syren sweet, whose magic
Force Stops the swiftest in his Course!
Wisdom's self when most severe1Longs to lend a listening Ear,
Gently dips the fearful Oar,
Trembling eyes the tempting Shore,
And sighing quits th’ enervate Coast
With only half his virtue lost.

Let thy warm, thy wond’rous Clime
Animate my artless Rhyme,
Whilst alternate round me rise
Terror, Pleasure and Surprize;
Here th’ astonish’d Soul surveys
Dread Vesuvius’ awful Blaze:
Smoke that to the Sky aspires,
Heavy Hail of Solid Fires!
Flames the fruitful Fields o’erflowing,
Ocean with the Reflex glowing:
Thunder whose redoubled sound
Echoes o’er the vaulted Ground
Such thy Glories; such the Gloom
That conceals thy secret Tomb
Sovereign of this enchanted Sea
Where sunk thy Charms—Parthenope!

Now by the glimmering Torches Ray.
I tread Pozzuoli’s Cavern’d Way;
Hollow Grot! that might beseem
T’Etnean Cyclop--Polypheme:
And here the Bat at Noon-day ’bides
And here the houseless Beggar hides,
While the holy Hermit’s Voice
Glads me with accustom’d Noise.
Now I trace, or Travellers err,
Modest Maro’s Sepulchre;
Where Nature sure of his Intent
Is studious to conceal,
That Eminence he always meant
We should not see but feel.
While Sannazarius from the Steep
Views well pleas’d the fertile Deep,
Give Life to them who seize the scaly Fry,
And to their Poet Immortality.

Next beauteous Baia’s warm Remains invite
To Nero’s Stoves my wondring Sight:
Where Palaces and Domes destroy’d,
Leave a flat unwholesome Void;
Where underneath the cooling Wave
Ordain’d Pollution’s fav’rite Spot to lave,
Now hardly heaves the stifled Sigh,
Hot, hydropick Luxury!
Yet chas’d by Heav’n’s correcting hand
Tho’ various Crimes have fled the Land,
Tho’ brutish Vice, tyrannic Pow’r
No longer tread the trembling Shore,
Or taint the ambient Air:
By Destiny’s kind Care arranged,
Th’ Inhabitants are scarcely changed;
For Birds obscene, and Beasts of Prey,
That seek the Night, and shun the Day
Still find a Dwelling there.

If then beneath the deep Profound
Retires unseen the slippery Ground,
If melting Metals pour’d from high
A verdant Mountain grows by Time,
Where frisking Kids can browze & climb,
And softer Scenes supply:
Let us who view the varying Scene,
And tread th’ instructive paths between,
See famish’d Time his favrite Sons devour,
Fix’d for an Age—then swallow’d in an hour;
Let us at least be early wise,
And forward walk with heav’n-fix’d Eyes;
Each flow’ry Isle avoid—each Precipice despise.
Till spite of Pleasure, Fear or Pain,
Eternity’s firm Coast we gain;
Whence looking back with alter’d Eye,
These fleeting Phantoms we’ll descry,
And find alike the Song and Theme,
Was but an empty, airy Dream.

Written by Hester Lynch Thrale in Naples, Italy February 1786. Thraliana entry dated 30 June 1786.

Hester Thrale's spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalisation, some of which may not conform to today's standards, are reproduced faithfully throughout. More writings by Hester Thrale