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Slade, ‘O my friend’ 07/06/2011

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Vernon Arnold Slade’s third poetical epistle: Florence, 1 December, 1906

O my friend, I write in tumult

Of such feelings as must seldom

Come to man on this life’s journey.

One chill day I left the Pitti

Prompt at noon, and home returning.

Whistled o’er the Ponte Vecchio

Songs I’d heard at the Alhambra.

Half a mile down the Lung’Amo

Whither brightest sunshine lured me

What should hold my gaze but Doris!

You remember we were lovers

Ere we left our teens. She’s twenty.

Touched with Ruskin’s zeal and wanders

Sylph-like through the streets of Florence

With his Mornings held half open.

That’s no sin, though I’ve recanted

Half his doctrine; what’s more evil,

She was walking with her mother

That old harpy who forbade me.

So I dodged and bought a postcard

Showing the frail nun whom Lippi,

Priest and forger, made his plaything.

Since, she’s found me out and written,

Saying ‘Mother has relented;

Hopes you’ll call at noon to-morrow,

Lunch, and tell us what in Florence

Best is worth our hurried survey.

We’ve but ten days at disposal.

Say you’ll come for my sake only.’

Well, fierce battle waged within me

At this message. Self said ‘Scorn it;

You’re no shuttle-cock rebounding

For a new rebuff.’ Love counselled

‘Swallow pride; obey the summons.’

Hence I tore the note in fragments

And dismissed it without answer.

When the day arrived, I’m tender

With regret; and shame consumes me

That my fretful spleen arrested

What now seems the nobler impulse.

That’s a full week past. I yielded

At the last, and duly met them.

Mother was all smiles. She mutely

Gave herself in meek surrender,

With drooped eyelids most like Raphael’s

Child-eyes on his chill Madonnas,

Little hinting pain to follow.

When I met her gaze ‘twas Mary

Whose great love acclaimed her sinless

In God’s verdict, humbly pleading

As she’s limned by Perugino.

Two such mild brown eyes accost you

From a face like some smooth apple

Just grown ripe and tanned with Summer;

And that soft sweet mouth O! surely

Never shaped a word of anger

With such curves; and if it pleaded

Who could ever help forgive it.

I was ill at ease with questions

Of my progress, mode of living;

If I found my exile irksome,

Or seclusion more conducive

To unbroken toil, high purpose,

And the culture of new notions.

Mother deemed me some exotic

That was sure; and Doris awesome

Seldom intervened with comment.

When she spoke ‘twas innuendo

Of maternal indiscretions

Running headlong to Abysms

Of the banal she’d not follow.

So we parted with the promise

Both in turn should sit for portraits,

And prolong their stay a fortnight.

Well, I sketched my love in outline,

With her hair let loose on shoulders

By her special leave. It’s nobler

Flowing so than neatly braided

In a tiny coil behind her.

Meanwhile she was mute and patient

Lest she robbed the world of glory,

Should her motion mar my labour.

One sole hour she posed so, smiling

When at times I came to move her

Just a shade for finer contours.

Now she’s ill. Her mother frantic

Swears the malady is mental

Wrought by love and late bereavement.

Simply it’s the mind o’er-burdened

By impact with many pictures

Full of naive or lurid fancies,

And Italian colour glaring

In the white, unearthly sunshine

Which forbids you to distinguish

Real from mimic balustrading.

Judith slaying, Gian’s Devil

Tragic hints at every corner

Lie in wait like masked garotters

For the normal sense we boast of.

We viewed many things together.

She was awe-struck by Giotto’s

Rocket-flight the Campanile,

And the grand pile that supports it.

I avoid it with its angels

Strumming toy guitars and ogling

On the garish brazen portals.

I prefer its milder splendour

When the bats flit round at night-time

And the gas-lamps yield a lustre

On its front like moons that glitter

On high snow-drifts glowing under

God’s eye in supremest glory.

One cold evening after sunset

Silent we walked slowly homeward

Through the Street of Death, a byeway

Branching near the Campanile;

Lit by one lone lamp that glittered

Once upon a boxed Madonna,

Now close-shuttered like the fancies

Time permits to wither slowly

In our sterile hearts. She saw it;

With a little sigh resented

Its neglect; meanwhile forgetting

All such things are banned in England,

For which we’re the better surely.

It’s a street where painted harlots

Lurk and nightly tout for custom

Their base use can’t quench my pity

For the hunger that impels it.

Who should pass us but Anita

(That’s my landlord’s black-haired daughter)

Whose hot cheeks betrayed her purpose.

Some small lapse had made an ending

Of her late employ as sempstress.

Still for needs the girl had ample;

Love of gauds must prompt the office,

I concluded sadly musing.

At my glance her head turned swiftly

Lost in gloom. Now comes my story.

Next day Doris gave the sitting

I’ve described; and then fell sickly.

To my room stole dark Anita

Where I sorrowed; found me seated

O’er a brief note of condolence.

‘Signer’, she began, and faltered

‘Che ritratto?’ I, resentful

At the girl’s intrusion, faced her

Frowning. Then, in declamation,

Sobbing in her self-abasement,

While her fond arms held me captor,

‘Si, si, si, io sono brutta.’

It is true that I am ugly.

‘Ma io ti amo’ – but I love you.

How I freed myself I know not.

One thing’s sure : I can’t stay longer

In these rooms. Submission quenches

Swiftly love of brutish temper,

But denial works like bellows.

Can a fellow four-and-twenty

Judge quite sanely such a crisis?

Don’t delay to send me counsel;

Though it come too late, I’ll profit

By your words in retrospection.

I’ll resent no sharp reprisal

Should it help to saner vision.

Write, dear friend, and write me swiftly.

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