The rock and the sea were finely blended in one of my first discoveries in the land, and in consequence they have seemed, to my imagination, more closely united here than is common. On a stormy afternoon I had strolled down the main road, and was walking toward Letojanni. I came, after a little, to a great cliff that overhung the sea, with room for the road to pass beneath; and as I drew near I heard a strange sound, a low roaring, a deep-toned reverberation, that seemed not to come from the breaking waves, loud on the beach: it was a more solemn, a more piercing and continuous sound. It was from the rock itself. The grand music of the rolling sea beneath was taken up by the hollowed cliff, and reechoed with a mighty volume of sound from invisible sources. It seemed the voice of the rock, as if by long sympathy and neighbourhood in that lonely place the cliff were interpenetrated with the sea-music, and had become resonant of itself with those living harmonies heard only in the Psalmist’s song. It seemed a lyre for the centuries; and I thought over how many a conqueror, how many a race, that requiem had been lifted upon it as they passed to their death on this shore. I came back slowly in the twilight, and was roused from my reverie by the cold wind breathing on me as I reached the top of the hill, pure and keen and frosted like the bright December breezes of my own land. It was the kiss of Etna on my cheek.
Will you hear the legend of Taormina?—for in these days I dare not call it history. Noble and romantic it is, and age-long. I had not hoped to recover it; but my friend the librarian has brought me books in which patriotic Taorminians have written the story celebrating their dear city. I was touched by the simplicity with which he informed me that the town authorities had been unwilling to waste on a passing stranger these little paper-bound memorials of their city. “But,” he said, “I told them I had given you my word.” So I possess these books with a pleasant association of Sicilian honour, and I have read them with real interest. As I turned the pages I was reminded once more how impossible it is to know the past. The past survives in human institutions, in the temperament of races, and in the creations of ideal art; but only in the last is it immortal. Custom and law are for an age: race after race is pushed to the sea, and dies; only epic and saga and psalm have one date with man, one destiny with the breath of his lips, one silence at the last with them. Least of all does the past survive in the living memories of men. Here and there the earth cherishes a coin or a statue, the desert embalms some solitary city, a few leagues of rainless air preserve on rock and column the lost speech of Nile; so the mind of man holds in dark places, or lifts to living fame, no more than ruins and fragments of the life that was. I have been a diligent reader of books in my time; and here in an obscure corner of the Old-World I find a narrative studded with noble names, not undistinguished by stirring deeds, and, save for the great movements of history and a few shadowy figures, it is all fresh to my mind. I have looked on three thousand years of human life upon this hill; something of what they have yielded, if you will have patience with such a tract of time, I will set down.