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A Poet’s First Experience of Tuscany 27/07/2011

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c. 1910 remembering the 1860s

Our road lay through Civita Castellana, Terni, Narni, Clitumnus, Thrasymene, Perugia, and Spoleto; the sun shining, the nightingales warbling, the vines putting on their green livery, the figtrees burgeoning, the bovi waiting to help us up the steepest hills, and girls and their mothers knitting on the doorsteps, and wishing us well on our way. It took five nights and six days to get to Florence. As in the dusk of the sixth day we descended upon the City of Flowers, the fire-flies thronged the air above and around us. The whole journey was a feast of natural beauty and fifteenthcentury art, and contributed to that intimacy with Italian country life I afterwards widened and deepened by frequent and prolonged visits. It stripped me of that insularity of familiar knowledge that marks so much of English literature, though least of all in our poetry; for poets are wanderers by temperament, and very little foreign travel serves to rouse their imagination; their rapid seizure of the Real, and transfiguration of it into the Ideal, being part of their ‘so potent art’.  

Landing at Leghorn, we broke our journey to Florence at Pisa for one night, and there I had my first view of the Arno, of early Tuscan frescoes in the Campo Santo, and of a Tuscan Duomo and Baptistery. The contrast between them and what I was accustomed to in my native land was bewildering, because so sudden; and I needed the journey through the lower valley of the Arno between Pisa and Florence to recover serenity. A new aspect of Nature may surprise, but never embarrasses. I saw the Vintage for the first time, and its human accessories, and felt as ‘one to the manner born’. It was full of enchantment, but left me free to enjoy it with an appreciation due to temperament and ideals, and without any consciousness that one’s poetic education was being promoted by it.

A still stronger effect was produced by Florence itself; unstinted delight, without the faintest intention of ever turning it to any account. But through the retrospect of years I can see that Past, Present, and Future are but One; and that, then, notwithstanding seeming silence, one was being impregnated with far-off future utterances. It was the season purple-sweet, When figs are plump and grapes are pressed, and all your sons with following feet bore a dead Poet to his rest. You seemed to fling your gates ajar, And lead me softly by the hand, Saying, ‘Behold! henceforth you are No stranger in our Tuscan land’. No later wanderings can dispel the glamour of those bygone years, And through the streets I know so well I scarce can see my way, for tears.

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