Saturday, 19 November 2022

'The Crosses on the Wall - a legend of Primiero' by Francesca Alexander (1837 - 1917)


   I have only recently become acquainted with the book 'The Hidden Servants and other very old stories - told over again by Francesca Alexander', and published by David Nutt, at the Sign of the Phoenix, Long Acre, London, in 1911, in which is a collection of  Italian  legends sourced over many centuries, and re-presented in poetic form by Francesca Alexander, author and artist, born in the U.S.A., who at the age of 16 years moved with her father, a portrait painter, and her mother, a wealthy philanthropist, to Italy, settling in Florence for the rest of her life. 

    In the Preface to this book, Anna Fuller quotes from a letter she received from Francesca Alexander, regarding the sources of the legends, written with no thought of publication, but as it were, from the heart. This is what Francesca wrote: - 

        "With regard to this present collection of ballads, I can tell its history in a few words. When I was a young girl many old and curious books fell into my hands and became my favourite reading (next to the Bible, and, perhaps, the Divina Commedia), as I found in them the strong faith and simple modes of thought which were what I liked and wanted.  Afterwards, in my constant intercourse with the country people, and especially with old people whom I always loved, I heard a great many legends and traditions, often beautiful, often instructive, and which, as far as I knew, had never been written down. I was always in request with children for the stories which I knew, and could tell, and, as I found they liked these legends, I thought it a pity they should be lost after I should have passed away, and so I always meant to write them down; all the more that I had felt the need of such reading when I was a child myself. But I never had time to write them as long as my eyes permitted me to work at my drawing, and afterwards, when I wanted to begin them, I found myself unable to write at all for more than a few minutes at once.  Finally, I thought of turning the stories into rhyme and learning them all by heart, so that I could write them down little by little.  I thought children would not be very particular, if I could just make the dear old stories vivid and comprehensible, which I tried to do.  If, as you kindly hope, they may be good for older people as well, then it must be when the Lord took from me one faculty, He gave me another, which is in no way impossible.  And I think of the beautiful Italian proverb: 'When God shuts a door, He opens a window.'" 

        After such an account of the origin and growth of these poems no further comment would seem fitting, unless it be that made by Cardinal Manning when writing to Mr  Ruskin in 1883 to thank him for a copy of Francesca's 'Story of Ida'.  He writes: -- "It is simply beautiful, like the Fioretti di San Francesco. Such flowers can grow in one soil alone.  They can be found only in the Garden of Faith, over which the world of light hangs visibly, and is more intensely seen by the poor and the pure in heart than by the rich, or the learned, or the men of culture."

                                                                     ANNA FULLER.


'This beautiful legend Has for me a most peculiar interest, owing to the circumstances under which I first heard it. It was taught to me by a very dear young friend whom I had known and loved from his infancy, -- Piero, the only surviving child of Count Giuseppe Zanelli of Faenza.  It was only last October -- eight months ago -- and we were all staying together in the home of his beloved and still beautiful grandmother, at Bassano, in the Veneto.  It was the last evening that we expected to pass together, and Pierino (we had never been able to give up calling him by that childish diminutive) brought a book with him, a collection of popular legends compiled by De Gubernatis, and said that he had a story to read us.  It was "The Crosses on the Wall", and it has always seemed to me as though he read it on that particular evening to prepare us for what was to come. For some months he had been not quite so strong as usual, yet no one felt any particular apprehension, until on the twenty-eighth of November he died, almost without warning. He was twenty-two years old, of a very beautiful character, -- so good that we ought to have known he was not for us. With him two great and ancient families come to an end, --- the Pasolini-Zanelli of Faenza, and the Baroni-Semitecolo  of Bassano: these last are the only descendants of that Semitecolo who worked in mosaic at Torcello.'

                                                                        Francesco Alexander


The Crosses on the Wall

A Legend of Primiero



Come, children, listen to what I tell,

For my words are wise today:

From Primiero among the hills

Was the legend brought away.


And Primiero among the hills

Is a little world apart,

Where is much to love and much to learn,

If you have a willing heart.


It lies on high, like a stranded ship,

From the parted wave of time;

Not far from the troubled world we know,

But the way is hard to climb.


For the mountains rise and close it in,

With their walls of green and gray;

With crag and forest and smooth-worn cliff,

Where the clouds alone can stray.


And when a house they have builded there,

If a blessing they would win,

Above the door do they write a prayer,

That Christ may dwell therein.


And I think, throughout the ancient town,

On its steep ascending road,

In many a heart, in many a home,

Has He taken His abode.


And when a burden is hard to bear –

And such burdens come to all –

They tell the story I’m telling now,

Of the crosses on the wall.


‘T is a pearl of wisdom, gathered far

In the dim and distant past;

But ever needed, but ever new,

As long as the world shall last.


For never has been since earth was made,

And surely shall never be,

A man so happy or wise or great,

He might from the cross be free.


The tale it is of a widow poor,

And by trouble sorely pressed;

Of how, through sorrow and many tears,

At the end her soul was blest.


She had not been always poor and sad,

For her early years were bright,

With a happy home, and with parents kind,

And herself their hearts’ delight!


A mother’s darling, a father’s pride,

She was fair in form and face;

A sunny creature, a joy to all,

For her sweet and winning grace.


Then, early married to one she loved,

She had still been shielded well;

For her he laboured, for her he thought,

And on her no burden fell.


She worked, indeed; but what work was hers

Through the short and happy hours?

To pluck the fruit from her orchard trees,

Or to tend the garden flowers;


To sit and spin, and to sing the while

In her porch with roses gay;

To spread the table with plenty piled,

And to watch the children play.


Their home was a little nest of peace;

‘T was a mile beyond the town,

In that sheltered valley, green with woods,

Where the river murmurs down.


And she never dreamt of change to come,

(Though a change must all expect,)

Till the blow, like lightning, on her fell,

And her happy life was wrecked.


But who could have thought the man would die?

There were few so strong as he!

From his forest work they bore him home,

Struck dead by a falling tree.


A petted child, and a wife beloved,

She had hardly sorrow known,

Till the strong, brave man was borne away,

And she faced the world alone.


Alone, with a babe too young to speak,

And with other children five:

“Oh, why,” she asked, “are the strong removed

And the feeble left alive?”


But where is the good of asking why,

When our helpers disappear?

That question never was answered yet,

And it never will be, here.


There was little time to sit and weep;

She must rise, and bear the strain;

Alone she stood, with the home to keep,

And the children’s bread to gain.


The best of herself had gone with him;

She had no more faith nor trust:

She could not bow to the Lord’s decree,

For she felt it all unjust.


The good Lord cares for a widow’s need,

But on Him she did not call.

She laboured hard, and she fought with fate,

And they lived – but that was all.


She fought her battle with fate, and failed,

As many have failed before;

If against the thorns we push and press,

They will only prick the more.


She could not bear with the children now,

And she called them rude and wild;

Forgetting quite, in her sullen grief,

That she had been once a child.


Yes, wild they were; and like all wild things

They were light and swift and strong;

And her poor, sick spirit turned away

From the gay, unruly throng.


They swam the river, they climbed the trees,

They were full of life and play;

But oft, when their mother’s voice they heard,

They hid from her sight away.


They did not love her, and that she knew,

And of that she oft complained;

But not by threats nor by angry words

Could the children’s love be gained.


Respect and honour we may command;

They will come at duties call:

But love, the beautiful thornless rose,

Grows wild, when it grows at all.


And she grew bitter, as time went on,

Grew bitter and hard and sore,

Till one day she cried in her despair,

“I can bear my life no more!


“Look down from Heaven, good Lord, and see

And pity my cruel fate!

Oh, come, and in mercy take away

My burden, for ‘t is too great!


“My heart is breaking with all its load,

And I feel my life decline;

Never I think did the woman live

Who has borne a cross like mine!”


To her cry for help an answer came,

And solemn it was, and strange!

For a silence deep around her fell,

And the place seemed all to change.


She stood in a sad and sombre room, 

Where from ceiling down to floor,

Along the wall and on every side,

There were crosses – nothing more.


There were crosses old, and crosses new,

There were crosses large and small;

And in their midst there was One who stood

As the Master of them all.


Before His presence her eyes dropped low,

And her wild complaining died;

For she knew the cross that He had borne

Was greater than all beside.


And He bade her choose, and take away,

From among the many there,

Another cross, in exchange for hers,

That she found too great to bear.


She looked for those that were least in size,

And she quickly lifted one;

But oh, ‘t was heavy, and pained her more

Than her own had ever done!


She laid it back with a trembling hand –

“And whose cross is that?” she cried;

“For heavier ‘t is than even mine!”

And a solemn voice replied:


“That cross belongs to a maiden young,

But of youth she little knows;

For the days to her are days of pain,

And the night brings scant repose.


“A helpless, suffering, useless thing!

And her pain will never cease,

Till death in pity will come one day,

And her troubles end in peace.


“She never has walked the pleasant fields,

Nor has sat beneath the trees;

The hospital wall that shuts her in

Is the only world she sees.


“She has no mother, she has no home,

And in strangers’ hands she lies;

With none to care for her while she lives,

Nor weep for her when she dies.”


“But why is the cross so small, my Lord,

And why does her heart not break?”

“She counts it little,” the answer came,

“For she bears it for my sake.”


The widow blushed with a sudden shame;

To her eyes the tears arose:

She dried them soon, and again she turned,

And another cross she chose.


It fell from her hand against the wall,

And she let it there remain:

“That cross shall never be mine,” she said,

“Though I take my own again!


“And whose is this that I cannot hold?

For it seems to burn my hand!

And never, I think, was heart so strong

That could such a weight withstand.”


“The cross it is of a gentle wife,

And she wears it all unseen;

With early sorrow her hair is white,

But she keeps a smile serene.


“She gave her heart to an evil man,

And she thought him good and true;

And long she trusted and long believed,

But at last the truth she knew.


“She knows that his soul is stained with crime,

But the worst she still conceals;

Abuse and terror her sole reward,

And the lord knows what she feels!


“She cannot leave him, for love dies hard,

And her children bear his name;

But she prays for grace, to keep and guard

Their innocent lives from shame.


“She trembles oft when his step she hears

On a lonely winter night;

And she hides her frightened babes afar

From their cruel father’s sight.


“And she dares not even hope for death,

Though his hand might set her free:

‘T were well for her in the grave to rest;

But where would the children be?”


The widow shuddered, her face grew pale,

And she no more turned to look:

She reached her hand to the wall near by,

And a cross by chance she took.


‘T was not so large as the first had been,

But it seemed a fearful weight!

“And whose am I holding now?” she asked,

For it did not look so great.


“A mother’s cross is the one you bear,”

So the voice in answer said,

“And she once had children six like you;

But her children all are dead.


“She has all besides that earth can give;

She has friends and wealth to spare,

And house and land – but she counts them not,

For the children are not there.


“Time passes slowly, and she grows old;

But she may not yet depart.

In lonely splendour she counts the years,

With an empty, hungry heart.


“And she knows by whom the cross was sent,

And she tries her head to bow;

But six green mounds by the churchyard wall

Are the most she cares for now.”


The widow thought of her own wild brood,

And she felt a creeping chill:

And, “Oh give me back my cross!” she said,

“I will keep and bear it still.


“Forgive me, Lord” (and with that she knelt,

And for very shame she wept).

“I know my sin, that I could not bow,

Nor Thy holy will accept.


“Oh, give me patience, for life is hard;

And the daily strength I need!

And by Thy grace I will try to bear

The burden for me decreed.


“I’ll change my ways with the children now,

Though they give me added cares.

Poor babes! I know, if they love me not,

That the blame is mine, not theirs!”


She kept her word as the weeks went on,

And she fought with fate no more:

‘T was now with a patient, humble heart

That her daily cross she bore.


The children wondered to see her change

So greatly in look and speech!

She met them now with a smile so kind,

And a gentle word for each.


And soon they learned, from her altered ways,

What her words had vainly taught;

Their love, that long she had claimed in vain,

Came back to her all unsought.


There were merry shouts and dancing feet,

When the mother came in sight;

There were little arms around her thrown,

There were eyes with joy alight.


With love for teacher, they learnt to help,

There was work for fingers small:

Her heart grew soft like the earth in spring,

And she thanked the Lord for all!


Her girls so pretty, her boys so brave,

And so helpful all and kind!

She wondered often, and thought with shame

Of how she had once repined.


For in their presence she oft forgot

Her burden of want and care,

Forgot her trouble – forgot, almost,

That she had a cross to bear!




'The Holy Family' by Paolo Veronese (1528 - 1588)


NB. For a further work by Francesca Alexander, please see 'Whitesmokeahoy' blog  dated 18 November 2022, 'The Bag of Sand' 


whitesmokeahoy: 'The Bag of Sand' by St. Heradius 



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'The Crosses on the Wall - a legend of Primiero' by Francesca Alexander (1837 - 1917)

     I have only recently become acquainted with the book 'The Hidden Servants and other very old stories - told over again by Francesca...