Jan 142011

by Lois Bassen


Noah’s flood and 40 days Moses was in the mount to receive the Law, Exodus 24:18.  40 days of the spies, issuing in the penal sentence of 40 years, Numbers 13:26, 14:34. 40 days of Elijah in Horeb, 1 Kings 19:8. 40 days of Jonah and Nineveh, Jonah 3:4. 40 days Ezekiel lay on his right side. 40 days Jesus was tempted of the Devil, Matthew 4:2. 40 days Jesus was seen of His disciples, speaking of things pertaining to God’s kingdom, Acts 1:2.


Behind the Astors’ Beaux Arts mansion

one of the summer ‘cottages’ of Newport,

built into the steep cliff

above the cooling Atlantic

were 40 wooden steps

where their servants met after hours

to dance and sing,

the signs say.

Along the Cliff Walk, this small space

(now carefully carved stone) surprises tourists,

such steep confinement for relief & festival

below such vaulted halls.

Also, how more precarious then –

how deft they had to be above ocean waves

breaking on haphazard rock slabs.

How dark it had to be, lighted how?

by candle or oil lanterns

lined up along the 40 steps?

or by the distant glow

of mansion or the moon?

Were the only-tall-white men


still in livery on these steps,

flirting with the maids?

and did the cook and governess

mingle? did the butler do it?

The signs don’t say, no echoes audible

above such indifferent noisy surf.

Now clover blows in a stiff bright wind;

tourists amble past University

Salve Regina’s backside

covered in green lawn skirt

to her hem along the Walk.

“40 is a biblical number,” one says.

“A time of trial followed by blessing.”

The signs warn against straying

from the pathway.  A groom,

who tried to delight his bride by

walking in history’s footsteps,

died here.