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Slade, ‘Still, dear friend’ 26/04/2011

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Vernon Arnold Slade’s second poetical epistle: Florence, 15 November, 1906.

Still, dear friend, while hard you’re toiling

Here I loiter thrall to Florence.

I’ve not read the guides you sent me.

It was kind. But why so strangle

Novel whims and native fancy

Precious, though one’s thought be idle.

They’ll serve later when the normal

Dust has settled on my eye-lids

Making stress of day-light heavy

With the sense of joys expended.

Then I’ll ply with guide and note-book.

Pocket lens and folding foot-rule.

For the present let me wander

Child-like with my sense of wonder

Joy’s best helper. I’ve been working,

(Though you twit me with my languor)

Three replicas done. I started

With the self-drawn head of Sarto

Grey-green toned and mildly pensive.

Energy snuffed out of action

By the weight of pure sensation

Working drug-like—so I read him;

Then the soft sweet head of Raphael

They’re as brothers in my fancy;

Last, Van Dyke chin-tufted, courtly,

With that side-glance o’er his shoulder

He knew well enhanced his beauty,

Showed the Adam’s apple sinking

In the pale cravat. The regal

Gold insignia that bound him

Here he wears, as though submitting,

Silent to the world’s imposture.

Daily now I drink my coffee

In an old dark vaulted tavern

Papered o’er with garish posters

Praising soaps or circus beauties.

You slip down a steep stone stairway;

Take your seat; the waiter hails you

Out of dusk like something ghoulish,

He’s so very deft and noiseless.

‘Noiseless? Can he be Italian?’

Oft I ask. Such altercations

Pass for normal speech in Florence!

In the main, your daring tourist

Scenting fare, peers down the stairway,

Deems the dusky vault unwholesome;

Redolence of wines long musty,

Hissing oil-baths from the kitchen,

And tobacco fumes assail him;

Laughter leaps from some dark corner.

He draws back with misty notions

Of Italians and stilettoes,

Slaves in subterranean caverns,

Hunger, thirst, and heavy ransom:

Well, I sit here; watch the people;

Understand a stray word only.

But they’re musical when wildest.

Cabman, hawker, beggar, student,

All potential priests intoning.

Four lean students sing me snatches

Such light songs as suit the wine-flasks

Glowing through the dusk like rubies

On the table there beside them.

They’ve the beauty and the lightness

Of an iridescent bubble

Blown from baby mouths in sunshine.

None but child mouths would so blow them;

All seem children here or dotards;

No staid sober prime afflicts them.

Sunday last in the Cascine

Saw the troops reviewed. I followed;

Heard the fine fan-fare of trumpets

Gleaming brightly in the sunshine;

Saw the veteran commander

Girt with plumes and martial trappings

Swaying to his horse’s motion.

All the people hummed with pleasure

As a cat purrs when you stroke it.

I confess my fancy taken

By some toy balloons that fluttered

Nymph-like from some frowsy vendor.

Trade was brisk and youth made happy.

Age was happy too, with cock-plumes,

Gold stars, epaulettes of silver.

Never was superber circus.

Which was clown? No man avowed it.

Still I’ll own the horses lovely,

Lacking oft in gloss it may be,

But alert to wheel or canter

At the bugle sound, or angry

At the hint of spurs to follow.

One old major sat his charger

Spectacles on nose, with helmet

Lit with plumes; an old blind vulture

Blasted with excess of sunlight.

Dropped to earth, wing-clipped and tutored

To train others in his calling.

I’ve no further news of pictures.

I’ll not have the subtler relish

Spoilt by surfeit; whence my silence

Of the Pitti’s gems. Sufficient

Still remains in the Uffizi

Missed or yet unfelt in essence.

I’m more friendly with the Loggia,

On the way to my poor painting

Daily seen—the pigeons perching

O’er ‘Perseus’ or where Bologna’s

Marble ‘Rape of Sabine Women’

Like a crested wave o’er-toppling,

Never falls but takes the rain-drops

Year by year to stain and smooth it.

Still I’m full of Donatello;

He’s so versatile, I marvel

One hand wrought that butcher ‘Judith’;

Linked that maze of laughing children

In the marble cantoria;

Set St. George with brows concentred,

Stiff, unblenching, shield before him:

Some young slogger at the Oval

Stedfast against time for victory

Might so scan the ball’s flight curling.

You’ll be keen to hear of churches.

Aged crones with their ‘scaldinoes’

Guard the doors and feebly mutter

Pray’rs for ha’pence of the stranger

Who, compassionate, may haply

Fill the vacant palm held forward.

Doors once passed you pace the building

Veiled in dusk and fumes of incense,

Humming with the whispered comments

Of a dozen on like errand.

It’s a feast and mass proceeding;

Star-light you see tapers shining;

Hear the solemn intonation

Of the celebrant in vestments;

Acolytes around him hover

Moth-like. The whole rite seems pagan,

So much beauty drugs the senses.

Doubtless, though, the priest’s mechanic,

Takes his functions as some chairman

Leading toasts. The thought’s unholy

You’ll forgive so bold a fancy.

Should you not be there at service

You may hear poor peasant women

Prone before grim stalls in corners

Feebly moaning to the fathers

Pent, oracular, within them.

In the side aisles, marble altars

Blaze with gorgeous candelabras

Held aloft by cherubini

Smiling bland as though they rather

Smote the timbrel for Delilah,

Valour maimed and eased triumphant.

Then you’ll muse and think of Dante

Whose stern face you’ve seen in frescoe.

Jaw set tight, the whole man tutored

To a glorious abnegation

Of the normal self that hungers

For applause, reward or pity

All that’s here in garish symbol.

Though unduly in your etching

Ponte Vecchio looks decrepit,

Lack of colour prompts your query

‘What’s the thing’s inherent beauty?’

Just an old grey bridge whereunto

Cling, like barnacles, the houses

Propped by wooden stakes, and bulging.

There’s a touch of merry quaintness

Like an old crone feigning beauty

In the red tiles and green shutters

And the warped slant of the windows,

Whence the brown hands peep to empty

Household filth into the river.

Benvenuto deigns to scan you

From his proud perch in the centre,

Puzzled by your furled umbrella;

Deems the thing a sword that’s muffled

From politeness I should fancy.

In the dusk one seems to see him

Stroke his dark moustache discreetly,

Musing on the perfect fitness

Of a rippled curl’s direction.

He’s the man who brawled for harlots;

Carved, and wrote divine bravado;

Lived a life that’s one long challenge

To detractors; bragging always

‘Here’s a god who dwells among you,

Flinging pearls to swine that grovel.’

Do you know Heredia’s sonnet

Telling of the real old Ponte?

Here the lapidary poet

Has full scope to show his mastery.

Each suave line’s a stone of colour

Polished smooth, and set in silver;

Link on link the apt rhymes hold them.

Here’s my version, poor and limping

Hat in hand, to sue your favour.

On graven chalice or on hasp of gold

With the first beam the valiant master bent.

His brushes ready and his hand intent.

On Latin mottoes to be smoothly scrolled.

Over the bridge the silvern belfries tolled,

The spurred heel smote, the priestly raiment went;

The mounting sun-beams in the clear sky blent,

And lovely girls fared onward aureol’d.

And fain, whom wanton ardour swiftly drove,

The wistful lads forgot their lover’s seal

And left the clasped hands on the rings undone;

While, with a slim blade sharp as murderer’s steel,

Cellini, without heed, wrought on alone

A dagger’s hilt whereon the Titans strove.

Though the Pitti’s banned, I’d tell you

Of its garden’s solemn verdure,

Ceremonial, almost frigid;

Sombre colonnades of cypress,

And the statues gazing cheerless,

Cobweb-skeined and marred with lichen

On the dead leaves downward falling;

Mount Morello looming purple

Through the boughs that rustle softly

To the sound of hidden voices

Hinting time when Pan was living,

Ruled a frolic world and loved it.

But my lamp burns low and midnight

Warns me from the Campanile

How time flies. For your epistle

Deem the debt repaid, I pray you.

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