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Slade, ‘I’ve been to the Certosa’ 27/09/2011

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Vernon Arnold Slade’s sixth poetical epistle: Florence, 28 February 1908

I’ve been to the Certosa. On a mount

The Abbey perches amid cypress trees

Slim-shaped as needles set the wrong end up

To spear the cloud-wrack that goes drifting by.

A white-robed friar with a shining pate

Close-shaven, for a fee will pilot you,

And speak in slow French in your ear’s unused

To bear the torrent of Italian.

They’ve Brunelleschi cloisters, panels wrought

By Andrea della Robbia in his prime;

And one pale slab shows Michael’s prentice hand

At work upon the mitre of a priest

In death’s last sleep recumbent All around

The mountains rise like billows; and, from thence,

Far belfries peer like sunken masts at sea

And toll the hour to shepherds. The warm air

Has more of languor than your Scotch hills know

Besieged by dark battalions of tall pines

Whose vanguard’s lost in cloud like battlesmoke

About their hidden summits. Here the vines

And olives fledge the hillsides in long files

To the remotest vistas of the south;

And northward past Galuzzo where the line

Curves into Gelsomino – such a sight!

On this same highway you may pass to Rome

By gaunt Siena and a hundred hills

Still bearing on their breasts the unhealing scars

Of that inhuman tempest in whose broils

Proud Florence battened on her weaker peers

It was a grey day when I went. The wind

Snatched up the clouds and would not let them pause

To comfort the dry vales; in sudden puffs

It smote the roadway dust into a steam

Like water on red embers loth to die.

About the Abbey’s base there ran a brook

In merry ripples that the sun made dance

Thro’ slits in the grey cloud. A gipsy camp

With three rude shanties set on aching wheels

Was pitched beside it; and about the fire

Two boys, a monkey, and a shaggy mule

Tied by his fetlock to a stump of wood

A picture ready for the hand of Claude.

From Christian World to Pagan’s but a span

In that long bridge that links eternal time.

I’ve been to the museum where a store

Of shattered remnants from Etruria

Crowd the low rooms; above Egyptian runes

Press close on antique vases, urns, and rings,

And Greek and Roman bronzes turned to green;

Helmets and armour from the loot of Kings

Once crowned in cities now depopulate;

Rams’ heads with hollow eyes, and mouths agape;

A war-steed’s head and neck all creased to show

The bridle’s sudden tension in the mouth.

The stress upon the haunches, and the snort

That spread his eager nostrils gaping wide;

Blurred hand-mirrors that brightly once gave back

The proud glance of some beauty in her prime;

Snapped spears, cracked bucklers, all things that attest

Dead valour, futile beauty, fill the mind

With dust of chariots and the shout of men

Defiant on the far dim verge of time.

Well, well, I fall to ranting. To be brief

For all these marvels – for the owls, storks, bulls,

And long-horned antelopes that haunted once

The reedy waters of old Father Nile,

I care but little – more remote to me

Than the Chimera whose long tail becomes

A serpent self-devouring at the tip.

Two things I treasured; one, a weeping girl

And one, a scornful peasant gazing back.

I chose, in fancy, to connect the two

And call the girl abandoned, whence there came

The three-versed poem that I here append.

Sung to a reed-pipe when the world was younger.

O! lover passing in the night

Beneath my window, hear my cry!

I cannot see the lantern’s light

For bitter tears fast flowing by

O! help me, help me ere I die.

By day thou reapest in the field

My dear brown god amid the grain;

And I by night to thee would yield

This virgin body without stain.

Ah me! Ah me! the bitter pain!

Come to me ere the harvest goes,

Ere all the hot sun’s golden shine

Suck dry the full heart of the rose,

Ere all my sweetness turn to brine.

Ah! lover dear for whom I pine!

I’m well and working hard, but I can give

No details of my painting, for, alas!

I find my rhymed lament has filled the quire.

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