Oh Rome! My Country! City of the Soul!

Oh Rome! My country! City of the soul!
The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,
Lone mother of dead empires! and control
in their shut breasts their petty misery.
What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
The cypress, hear the owl, and plod your way
O’er steps of broken thrones and temples, Ye!
Whose agonies are evils of a day —
A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay.

Byron. Childe Harolde. IV. LXXVIII. Statue of Byron in Villa Borghese Gardens.

To Evening (1803): A Sunday Italian poem

Italy from Space

Ugo Foscolo, an Italian patriot, pre-Romantic and atheist, died in exile in London.  After the Risorgimento his remains were returned to Florence.  His poem To Evening (Alla Serra) captures his restlessness, his longing for the peace that evening brings to the world, whilst foreshadowing his eventual death that will soothe his pains away.

Perhaps because you are the image
of the fatal quiet, your coming is so dear to me,
O evening!  And whether gay summer clouds
and serene zephyrs court you
Or whether down from the snowy air
you bring long, restless nights to the world,
Always you descend invoked.
and you softly take hold of the secret paths of my heart

You cause me to wander with my thoughts upon the traces
That lead to eternal nothingness; and meanwhile
this evil time flies, and with it goes the swarms
Of cares with which it is destroying itself and me;
And the while I gaze upon your peacefulness
that warrior spirit which roars in me is sleeping.

Photograph of the Mezzogiorno partly under cloud, with lightning over Naples, by the US Astronaut Scott Kelly who is spending a year in space in the International Space Station.

 

A Summer poem: on the Banks of a Canal, near Naples, 1872

10 days before before he died, Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, completed his final poem.

It was inspired by the ‘quiet beauty‘ of a picture of a Naples canal painted in 1872 by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte which hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.  In the picture the artist ‘depicts a canal and pathway extending into the distant horizon of a flat Italian landscape.  By allowing the edges of his canvas to slice through the water and path, Caillebotte gives the scene a sense of randomness that marked a particularly modern way of seeing‘.  Heaney wrote:

Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel

Towing silence with it, slowing time

To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam

Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still.

The stunted concrete mocks the classical.

Water says, ‘My place here is in dream,

In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream,

Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.’

Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland,

The sky not truly bright or overcast:

I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,

The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest

Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight

Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.

Poem c/o Seamus Heaney, 2014.  More detail on the picture at National Gallery of Ireland.

Sunday Poem: For Midas of Akragas Flute-Playing Contest 490 BC

Agrigento

O splendour-loving city, most beautiful on earth, home of Persephone; you who inhabit the hill of well-built dwellings above the banks of sheep-pasturing Akragas: be propitious, and with the goodwill of gods and men, mistress, receive this victory garland from Pytho in honor of renowned Midas.

The remains of the ‘splendour-loving city’ of 2,500 years ago can today be visited at the Valle dei Templi, a archaeological site in Agrigento, Sicily. It is one of the most outstanding remaining examples of Greater Grecian (Magna Graecia) art and architecture, and is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Poem by the Greek Pindar.  Pythian Ode XII 1 – 6.

Unrequited love: a Paraclausithyron from Pompeii

A paraklausithyron is a ‘motif from Greek and especially Augustan love elergy’ which typically places a lover outside his (or her) mistress’s door, desiring entry.  This one, in a woman’s voice, was found in Pompeii on the door of a modest private dwelling and is reportedly ‘the only female homoerotic love poem to survive from the ancient Roman world’.

Oh, if only I could hold your sweet arms around my neck
In an embrace and place kisses on your tender lips.
Go now, entrust your joys to the winds, my darling,
Believe me, fickle is the nature of men.
Often I have been wakeful in the middle of the wasted night
Thinking these things to myself:
many men whom Fortune has raised up on high,
Now suddenly rush headlong, and fall, overwhelmed by her.
In this way when Venus has suddenly joined together lover’s bodies
But daylight comes to divide them.

‘The fleeting nature of love, desire, and pain of separation, all at Venus’s behest’ are recurring themes of graffiti in Pompeii.

Featured image: Simeon Solomon.  Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene.  1864.

An Italian poem for Valentine’s Day

I want a slow painful love, as slow as a slow death and with no end (I want it to be stronger than death) and with no change either, no. I want our two souls to undergo, without a moment’s peace, a dark torment; and in a rapt silence the lament at our doors of an ocean, alone, below. I want the high tower made of granite and rising so high in the serene sky that it could with the polar star be entwined. I want a bed of crimson and to find when in that shade and on that breast I lie, as if deep inside a tomb, the Infinite.

I Want A Slow Painful Love by Gabriele D’Annunzio.  Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti.

A Sunday poem for an exiled Empress

Seated Agrippina

Agrippina the Younger was a Roman force to be reckoned with: great-granddaughter of Augustus, adopted granddaughter of debauched Tiberius, sister of mad Caligula (who she may have slept with), wife of slobbering Claudius (who she may have poisoned) and mother of tyrannical Nero.  The British Archeologist Mary Beard wrote that ‘Agrippina was probably the best connected woman that the Roman world ever saw ‘ and she was one of the most ruthless, described by ancient texts as beautiful but ‘ambitious, violent and domineering’, utterly determined to make her son, Nero, Emperor by all means available.  Having succeeded, in an ensuing power struggle with her son, she was exiled to the port of Misenum, now Miseno, near Naples before being bumped off in AD59 aged 43.

Above is a photograph of the famous statute known as Seated Agrippina which is in the Naples Archeological Museum.  It may or may not be her.  But when visiting Naples in the mid 19th Century, the American Herman Melville, writer of Moby Dick, wrote:

In hall of Naples here, withall I stood,
Before the pale mute-speaking stone
Of seated Agrippina – she
The truest woman that ever wed
In tragic widowhood transfixed;
In cruel craft exiled from Rome
To gaze on Naples’ sunny bay,
More sharp to feel her sunless doom,
O ageing face, O youthful form,
O listless hand in idle lap,
And, ah, what thoughts of God and man!

A rather sympathetic portrayal of a ruthless operator.  A rundown Roman ruin in Miseno is known as Agrippina’s tomb.