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Slade, ‘Friend long-sundered’ 01/03/2011

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Vernon Arnold Slade’s first poetical epistle: Florence, 30 October, 1906

Friend long-sundered and far-distant

Out of Florence I salute you,

Wish you well, and send you tidings

Of the things that have befallen.

Hither was I called abruptly,

And, at dawn one stormy morning

Found myself alone in Paris.

There the rain fell half a day long

Till at noon the sun emerging

Lit the Seine with royal splendour,

Turned its filth to molten silver,

Showed afar the Gare de Lyon

Whence at two I left the city.

Swift we sped through level country

By a pale green stream canal-like,

Bordered all the way with poplars,

Still, upright, and turning yellow.

With their limp leaves yet upon them.

Each seemed like a golden nimbus

Swathed about some wistful wood-nymph

Senseless of the train’s loud clamour,

Rapt and brooding on her image

In the sullen stream beneath her.

Evening came. The sun’s red glitter

Lit upon the vine leaves hanging

Shrunk and flimsy on the trellis

Liker shreds of shrivelled paper;

And night found me, hot and sleepless.

Pining for a bed of roses.

Morning broke amid the mountains

Where the lone church on the hill-top

Calls the sandalled priest to vespers,

While the sound drifts downward slowly

From the belfry to the peasant.

Here the bare-foot girls and children

Lay and basked along the valleys

In the dried-up beds of rivers

Where in spring, their brothers waded

And the live stream leapt alertly.

Houses now in place of orchards

Passed, and from the open windows

Many a bold-eyed donna leaning

Viewed our flight; or hung for bleaching

Garments in the blazing sunshine.

On the far hills, sprinkled villas

Peered out where the clustered cypress

Stood erect like dark-robed friars,

Peace within though black their vesture;

And you fancied that beyond them,

In the sunlight, gleamed a fountain

Cupid clasped and running ever.

So, with spells of noxious tunnel,

Till the pale autumnal sunset

Found me in the streets of Florence,

In the streets once trod by Dante.

O the languid gracious motion

Of the young Italian women!

Sinuous they float towards you

Black hair, mobile lips so fashioned,

Save when smiling they seem pouting

Like a late-weaned child that hungers.

There’s a something in their carriage

Makes them ogle thro’ their bodies,

More than eyes from under eye-lids

Ever dare to lure in England.

Some there are whose being smoulders

With a milder flame, who, walking,

Sing with tiny trills as dulcet

As a bird in Spring may warble,

Bathed in calm like Earth in Summer

You’ve the type in Titian’s ‘Flora’.

‘So’, you say, ‘but what of Florence?’

There’s the school where Dante tutored,

And the house he dwelt in near it;

(If the gossips tell you truly):

I live midway in the top-most

Story of a lofty building

Broad-eaved, red-tiled, rising steeply

To its six-floor height. You reach it

Up a hundred steps by groping.

Are you breathed? Throw wide the window

And behold a panorama

Of the sloping hills that girdle

Florence, like a sleeping goddess

Shrined about from prying glances

That should view her undevoutly.

In the foreground, the Duomo

Cuts off the remoter mountains;

And Giotto’s Campanile

Cleaves the sky and glitters spear-like.

Here I sleep, and feed and scribble,

Free as air, and paying only

Three small silver lire daily.

For my meals I’m mainly tended

By an old man whose white eye-brows

Shadow furtive eyes betraying

Dog-like fear of disapproval.

Five-and-sixty years I guess him,

Lean, and verging on his dotage;

Older far than men of eighty.

Whom we see at home, yet eager

‘Tis the husk alone that’s shrivelled.

He’s one son at Rome, he tells me,

In the papal guard, and proudly

Bids his daughter bring the portrait.

She’s the very flower of Florence;

Works eight hours a day as sempstress;

Trills you ‘Aida’ and embroiders

Naive Madonnas sold to tourists.

Wrought (they fancy) on the hillsides

Long ago in pure devotion.

She has sombre eyes, and nostrils

Made for breathing hard like horses;

And her black hair ripples downward

Like the mane on Flemish stallions

Limned long years ago by Rubens.

There’s a shrine to the Madonna

In the little room adjoining,

Draped about with tasselled curtains.

Daily here she trims her candles;

And at noon each day I hear her

Softly praying thro’ the panel.

Scarce a day slips by but friars

Bare-foot, with a rope for girdle,

Rap the door and there solicit

Charity for sake of Jesus

Pious drones who tax the thrifty

To support them living trance-like,

In a halo of devotion.

Still I ramble, while you’re pining

For the palaces and pictures,

Statues, frescoes, and medallions;

So, dear friend, you now shall have them.

First I place the noble statue

Angelo’s colossal ‘David’,

Arrogant in strength and beauty,

With the restive over-bearing

Eye-brow of the born commander.

As to buildings: first remember

Florence is a fortress city

Oft embroiled, and all her buildings

Breathe not beauty, rather menace

On the foes that erst assailed her,

Saying ‘Further I forbid you’.

There’s the gaunt old Strozzi Palace

Built of boulders; huge torch brackets

Like some beast’s lopped limbs protruding,

Metamorphosed into iron

By long age: huge rings suspending

Dropped from hands of buried Titans:

Ere the rock grew hard, they rooted.

Sinister their pomp is always.

Canopies the famous Loggia

Aught but cruel rape and slaughter?

Done superbly that I grant you.

Much I grieve to see Cellini’s

‘Perseus’ propped by touts and loafers;

And its base’s marble cornice

Daily chafed by greasy shoulders.

So Andromeda is daily

Polished in the hushed siesta,

And the cornice-heads upholding

Wicker bowls of fruit, and merging

Budding breasts that symbol plenty

In the rigid marble border.

Here, across the square, the drivers

Flick their whips in fine bravado

Sounding like the crack of pistols:

And a thousand careless footsteps

Tread the stones, where, in his fervour,

Savonarola burnt for freedom.

Can you hear him in the cloisters,

Tense among his inert fellows

Moving in a slow procession

Singing solemn chants gregorian?

‘Is it, brothers, truly noble

Thus to mimic Christ’s own lily

Bathed in tears in lieu of dew-drops?

Nay, I tell you, would you truly

Drink the wine of tears and purge you,

Gird your loins and join the battle.’

Now for chant the men of Florence

Bawl their wares, or lounge and wrangle

Lazy, volatile, ecstatic;

Hot with zeal that withers swiftly.

Thence we pass into the Palace

Where the pompous, plumed custodian

Smiles and clicks his sword in walking,

And the tiny cupid flitting

(Caught so, like a moth in motion)

Laughs for joy there’s no regretting

With his slippery prize clasped to him.

O! the beauty of the pillars

With the cupids hide-and-seeking,

And the satyrs playing see-saw,

Trellised vines to slake the hunter,

Many a bout in mimic frenzy

Man with man for lonely woman.

Then the council chamber’s splendid,

Spacious, but a shade barbaric

With its armed men sprawling cumbrous,

Liker wave-swamped ships in motion.

Do they lead their steeds, or only,

Wine-full, stumble blindly forward?

This I know they don’t inspire you.

High above the Palace portal

Whence we hail again the sunlight,

You may read in antique Roman

Chiselled deep that all may read it,

And in pledge of loyal purpose

Lord of Lords Who Rules All Rulers.

Don’t you feel the noble swagger

Heedless of the dust and ashes,

As their spirits, like winged horses.

Felt and bit into the bridle,

Ill-content should earth confine them?

So they reared yon turret-eyrie

Whence, of old, the men of Florence

Scanned the world like furtive eagles

Spurred and clawed, while all their banners

Flapped there, wing-like, in the tempest

Of assault that shook the city.

Thence we pass to the Uffizi.

I can’t tell you of the pictures.

So much splendour’s apt to daze you.

Harlots clasped by amorini

Live and laugh and love for ever;

Frail Madonnas suckling Jesus

Take from all their toll of pity

For the fate long fore-ordained him;

Angels and arch-angels haloed

With the bronze gold loved of Titian

Battle with the foul usurper:

Centaurs, skulls, and serpents jostle

In the frescoes and the panels:

I can’t trust my pen. These beauties

Spur some wild Promethean instinct

Deep within, to scale the heavens,

Snatch down fire, and so live always

Girt with such unending glory

Sadly hinders homely duty.

One thing only now seems certain

That’s my love for Donatello,

For his girlish lithe young stripling

Buskin-clad, and naively christened

‘David’. That’s a sad misnomer;

‘Little Jack that killed the Giant’

Suits him better, with such muscles

Made for killing moths in Summer.

For the rest, you’ll trust to sketches

Herewith sent. The Campanile’s

Forty times a man’s height it haunted

By a hundred cooing pigeons

Nesting in the niched apostles.

Which for sprinkled grain, cease billing,

And with wings dis-pread, and crouching,

Make their dive down airy fathoms.

Cracking whips and clashing belfries;

Speech so shrill that it seems always

On the brink of something tragic

That’s the normal note in Florence.

Time flies. I’ve been here a fortnight.

Write, and send me books. So, vale!

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