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Slade, ‘Since this must be my final’ 25/10/2011

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Vernon Arnold Slade’s seventh poetical epistle: Florence, 10 March 1908

Since this must be my final ere we meet

In London on Good Friday, you shall come

And gaze your last on Florence from the hill

Where ‘David’s’ bronze replica, dominant,

Stares out intrepid on his unseen foes

Past tower, tree, and villa unabashed.

There’s surely no man born could frown him down,

Or move his calm and kingly arrogance

From its fell purpose.

Florence lies below

Like scattered shingle on a desert strand

Where waves have flung their pearl and amber down,

So bright the houses gleam below the hills.

If it’s a sunny day and clear, you’ll view

Fiesole perched high and looped about

With spiral roads that make the way seem long

So often do you turn and turn about

Before you reach the tall lean tower that tolls

The hours for labour and the church’s call.

Then further to your right there’s Ripoli;

A snowy-terraced mountain lies beyond

That tells of air too chilly for the vines;

And to your left tall Mount Morello tilts

A bare grey shoulder into the blue sky.

It’s only half a minute you’ll stay so

Before a tout comes wheedling with his wares.

You fly him like the pest he is, and leap

The steps alternate on the steep stone way

That slants through trees precipitously down

To Porta San Miniato where they tax

All dutiable produce passing through.

Keep on due north and soon you’ll cross a Bridge

Over the river romping to its bourne;

On the green edge gay petticoats a-gleam

Where Arno serves as wash-tub for the wives.

From a high window in a neighbouring palace

A grey-garbed signorina lures your eye

With such a growth of bronze hair in thick braids

Not needing ribbon to maintain it so

In all its wiry vigour freshly coiled,

And such a poise of figure as she leans

Her bare arms on a faded balcony.

Above, a half-obliterated bust

Struck from the stone to mark some ancient triumph,

Looks down on the plebeian multitude

Crowned with vain laurel garlands that acclaim

To all the world its futile arrogance.

I haunt this bridge at nightfall for the sake

Of serenaders with their mandolines

Who, with their trilling, snare light coins that

Fall from blazing hotel windows opened wide,

Along the Arno all the lamps a-row

Shoot down long spears of light into the stream.

The plaintive music swells and ebbs and dies;

Lights twinkle; and the water tremulous

Reflects the thousand lamps like truant stars

Drawn earthward from their chilly altitudes

By the long-wailing music’s amorous tone.

From the far bank the vesper chimes float down

To flout these chants of pagan minstrelsy,

From belfries where the priest-like cypress trees

Keep their eternal vigil night and day.

Here is an echo of a plaintive song,

Song in high tenor there a week ago

English dims its native colouring.

Lovely and strong, now man at his labour

Yearns for his bride.

One that waits for him only I am forsaken.

Now is the vintage come and the vintners

Work in the sun,

Red blood swift in its ferment

Feeding their sinews.

Singing they move in line, and the trellis

Yieldeth its fruit.

Young boys swift to the wine-press

Bear it in baskets.

Laden twixt arm and hip, they are moving

Downward the slope,

One arm wide and the other

Crooked to the burden.

Yonder the brook runs swift, and the cresses

Shake to its song.

Girls spread over the willows

Newly-rinsed linen.

White as the snow it gleams or the lilies

White in the fields;

White swan’s down is not whiter

Cast on the river.

Lovely and strong now man at his labour

Yearns for his bride,

One that waits for him only

I am forsaken.

Wandering last night among the gloomy bow’rs

That crest Mount Oliveto, 1 was moved

By a most gaunt old cypress tree that seemed

The spirit of my darker self that leant

His cheek to mine and whispered ‘All is ill.

The earth is grown too old and topples downward

Into that sunless chaos whence she rose

Because the elder gods are all forgot’.

His cone was a black finger on the sky

Where thunder muttered; and the scared wind smote

The pliant boughs into a hymn of praise

In honour of gods forgotten utterly.

The rain fell downward, hissing in my ears;

Frayed birds fled homeward; and I shut my

Eyes enchaining so the phantom images

Raised by the thunder’s riot; and I heard

Hard breathing and the hurried beat of hooves

From men and beasts, as in an earlier day,

Battling anew for mastery of the world

The cypress sang another song of old.

When grief was sin and strength was bom of joy,

All trees that flourished were as ministers

To hearten and console; their boughs conspired

In benediction round the homes of men.

Well, that’s my fancy. Here the thing’s worked out

Into a chant slow sung reproachfully

By hidden dryads to complaining boors

In times when these lacked trains and telephones,

Three posts a day and pensions from the state,

And yet perchance were happier. Who shall say?

Are things uncouth?

There shall be loveliness if you be kind.

Fear draws a veil o’er beauty,

Death’s own shadow.

Fear not your kin;

For if all men be watchers who shall toil!

Chill hearts among the sowers

Chill earth’s bosom.

O, soft and brave

Are men who earn our favour, maiming naught.

Mindful are they and cherish

Newt and fledgling;

And when these pass,

Or a frayed squirrel scampers up the bole,

Clap not their hands nor gather

Mirth from terror.

Who snare or slay

Snare their own spirit, clip the wings of joy;

Nor shall the earth for slayers

Yield her plenty.

All things that live

Share of their loveliness with them that love.

Our breath shall shape their nostrils,

Fan their pulses.

Farewell till Friday week, I’m loth to leave

My lair among the house-tops with its view

Of Giotto’s bell-tower leaping to the sky

Most like a froz’n cascade, all iridescent,

My uncompleted canvas, and my hosts

So prompt and sedulous to all my needs.

But other things a-tugging at my heart

Make call peremptory – my village home.

Green fields, trim hedgerows and my mother tongue

From voices that I love among the Downs.

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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.

Slade, ‘New Year dawned’ 23/08/2011

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Vernon Arnold Slade’s fifth poetical epistole: Florence, 2 January 1907

New Year dawned on frosted windows;

All the hills were veiled; the belfries

Chimed their holy summons dimly

Through the haze; while youths went chanting

Songs of carnival in chorus.

Such dull weather’s ill for Florence;

With the sun goes half her beauty,

What are all those wave-stained bastions

With the plaster slowly flaking,

Licked by Arno, without sunlight?

Those defaced facades discoloured

By inclement Time; those pillars

Peeping shapely from the plaster

Like a live limb out of chaos?

Light’s the thing enhances colour

Makes the ten poor rags that flutter

On yon clothes-line things of beauty,

Ten live tints; and glosses over

All decay and all dishonour

Wrought by Time or vandal blunder;

Gives a gold ground to the cypress

Cones thrust up into the sunlight

Clean as swords but sans their glitter;

Careless flings a myriad twinkling

Points of light upon the ilex;

Underlines the crumbled fret-work;

Puts new fire in faded dragons

Rampant on their worn escutcheons;

Heals and clarifies and cleanses.

Post gave way to rain this morning.

Arno’s flood leaps turbulently

Past each bridge in foaming eddies

Like the swine of old Gadara

Devil-spurred to self-destruction.

There’s a most astounding tumult

Where the weir’s self makes a sudden

Downfall of their swift impulsion,

And the rabble roars confounded.

Though I boast a high top-story

I’ve no light, and chilly fingers

Poorly warmed by two scaldinoes:

Hence to-day, I left my painting;

Hid my canvas in a corner

(Lest I found its glance too tempting)

;

Took my lamp and read dear Reynold’s

Counsel sage in his ‘Discourses’,

So urbane, so gentlemanly!

Out of this has grown a book-plate,

Interlacing vine and laurel

Round three cameo-heads. There’s Raphael

Fronting poor pope-pestered Michael

Whom he loved so; Titian under.

He of Venice only pardoned,

Throned aloof from all his fellows.

This I send: the thing may serve you

For some album’s front; or haply

Please your sister to embroider

Sans the heads, all which are taken

Much dwarfed, from Uffizi portraits.

Since my last, I’ve lost my novice,

Bruno Melli, who’s absconded

From his order, none knows whither.

I was fancied an abettor

Of his flight. A girl’s gone with him

From the flat below. A slattern

With a mole on her left eyebrow,

And grey eyes wide-spread. I marvel

Such an earthy goddess lured him.

Once she served me as a model

Languorous, unkempt, and frowsy

In a street scene selling flowers

Where she served to prop a corner

As her wont was. There’ll be sudden

Penitence, recrimination,

And the narrow aisle’s redemption

For poor Bruno. But – for Ida?

Well, again she’ll proffer flowers;

Prop the grey street corners, luring

Other Brunos, none that love her.

Will her numbed heart then remember

All is done for one dear Bruno

Snug there in the church’s bosom?

We shall see. His abjuration

Of the holy spouse won’t aid him

To find bread for the supplanter.

Bruno is some serving woman’s

Luckless child born out of wedlock,

Gossips hint a ducal father,

Twenty years ago, resulting

From a summer day’s hot fancy

In the vales of Vallombrosa

When not one small wind was moving

To assuage with gentle motion

The warm air’s intemperate ardour.

Him a humane dame adopted

Soon as born, and vowed to monkhood;

Hoped to make a new St. Francis

Of the amorous delinquent.

Poor vain fancies! Ida’s father

Grovels daily near the portals

Of San Marco, with a bandage

On one eye to mimic blindness.

Begging is a high profession.

One of the fine arts in Florence.

Ragged heaps of human flotsam

Whine for alms at every corner

Proffering, like ancient pontiffs,

Peace eternal for your ‘soldi’,

And damnation for refusal

Of their claims. They’re mimes and graceful

Always, spite of rage and foulness.

And the slow law’s idle menace.

Please allay your ‘shrewd suspicions’

As to the young wife. I’m gauging

Better now the shallow fancy

Of her sudden love. She’s bridled

Now, and moves along sedately.

All alert, apologetic

To myself your humble servant

Should she misdemean; she’s easy

To subdue. I’ll change my manner

Of address, and drop the trustful

Form, and use the second person;

Yield no thanks, and hint of leaving

That’s a loss of silver lire

To the coffers.

Tall Pietro

Now parades the streets as carter

To an export firm. He proudly

Tells me he has English horses

‘Always excellent, Signore’.

Old Francesco – that’s her father –

Acts as cook. We all on Sunday

Sit together at the table

For our mid-day meal. They’re flattered

Highly, and defer in all things

To my whim. The tender morsels

All come my way. After dinner

Babbo, Nita and Pietro

Puff their cigarettes quite gravely.

I, who cannot share their fancy

For the weed, tip up a flagon.

Fill my glass, and leaning backward

Sip Marsala or Spumante,

While they smoke and hum Mascagni.

Nita, with her full lips parted

And a curl of blue smoke passing

Slowly through that pearly portal,

With her black hair, coarse and glossy

As a horse’s mane, seems fashioned

For a sunnier realm than Florence

In these chilly days. She rather

Seems befitting to the harem

Of some bronzed Arabian Nimrod

Further south where lips grow ardent,

Fanned by airs that make the rosebuds

Pout and open wide their bosoms,

Begging all the bees to sip there.

I’m a dilatory scribe. Don’t serve me

With a like long term of silence.

Let instead your pen go gallop.

Promptly. Yield me good for evil.

Slade, ‘Ere your letter came’ 26/07/2011

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Vernon Arnold Slade’s fourth poetical epistole: 10 December, 1906

Ere your letter came, bright sunshine

Broke my swamping cloud the thunder

Rolled away and laughed remotely

At my tremors. Dark Anita

Came next morning to my chamber;

Swore the wicked fiend possessed her

When she spoke, and prayed forgiveness:

Him she’d exorcised with candles

Trebled on her tiny altar.

Her remorse was naively cheerful

Like a child who, reprimanded,

Sulks an hour and says returning

‘Please I’m good now; won’t you kiss me?

It’s a case of pique quite clearly

She’d a quarrel with Pietro

Her tall lover who’s reclaimed her.

While she, smiling, begged my pardon

He was waiting in the doorway;

And a note for fifty lire

Made them glad as birds in April.

Now they’re man and wife, and dwelling

In this house with me as tenant

Whom they treat as lord and master.

Her old father chuckles proudly

O’er a wilful bird safe-nested,

‘No more plaints and no more flapping

Skyward after stars alluring.

Now she’s mated.’ So he mutters.

Well, my love’s gone and we’re plighted.

Wholly trusting and contented.

Three days spent in restful languor

Eased the rapid pulse; the roses

Bloomed again as in my portrait

I’ve recorded – just a twinkle

In the brown eyes deep and drowsy

Like a sparkle in a wine-cup.

I can see you smile, old cynic!

My revenge will come, don’t doubt it

When the love-god overtakes you.

I’ve a new friend in a novice

Chance-met in a street one morning

Where I’d lost my way. My query

Drew his gay reply in English

Naively formed and scorning S’s

As their wont is with Italians.

Like the pianist ecstatic

In Giorgione’s lovely ‘Chorus’

Is his glance that ebbs or brightens

As a flame the breezes flutter.

Thrice a week he comes for lessons,

Never prompt and always tiring

Ere his task’s complete. Though facile

Both of hand and eye, he cheapens

All his work with vain convention

Trite and symbolising nothing.

Ere a work’s half done he’s listless,

Rapt anew by some stray fancy

Which his body’s poise expresses

With a kind of wanton languor

That’s Italia. Never people

Felt the primal curse so keenly

‘In thy brow’s sweat shalt thou labour

All thy days:’ and they, like Adam,

Seize the plough but ever backward

Gaze on some receding glory.

For the youth I feel compassion,

Sworn to priesthood ere he’s twenty.

Seldom he’s austere. He whistles

Love songs full of threats and kisses

Wave on wave of wild ‘crescendo’

Like a pigeon wooing hotly:

Here’s a snatch may serve as sampler.

Of songs I have a store within

Love-taught; my dancing senses spin

To hear them on the violin.

And, should that sweet girl satisfy

My soul; and she her tongue untie

In song, while pity brimmed her eye,

What solace would my spirit drink!

Ah, then for her my notes I’d link

Blithe as a warbling bobolink.

Dear golden angel whom I’d teach

To sing of love; forbidden peach

Full ripe and hanging out of reach,

Bright sun above the lowly rye

Look down upon me ere I die

For love of thee aloft so high!

Here the most of art and music

But exploits such pagan senses.

You will find in crypt and courtyard

Not the spirit’s strife exalted,

But each type of human impulse.

Doll Christs nestle close to Mary

Clad in gaudy robes; about her

Kneel the saints with lips disparted

As though sipping unseen nectar.

Wrapt in a most sensual languor.

You’ve a hint of this in Sarto’s

Bland ‘Madonna of the Harpies’

With the saints in adoration

Round the smiling babe who whispers

‘Foolish men; I’m really Cupid

Creeping slyly to Griefs bosom:

On the morrow she’ll be merry.’

It’s an art that leaves no summit

For the spirit’s upward toiling

Such as northern tempers cherish.

Does such art advance man’s stature

In the civil scale? I doubt it.

Don’t forget there’s Leonardo,

Angelo and Botticelli

Shall I venture Donatello?

Men who touch the universal,

From my scruples clear exempted.

There is music played each Sunday

In the Park, that draws all beauty.

Horse, man, woman, like a magnet.

Black-haired donnas walk there hatless,

(As at home our northern mill-hands)

Tousled heads and powdered faces:

(Powder’s such a swift ablution;

Gives a peach bloom; water roughens)

Officers, their gold braid shining

In the keen December sunshine,

Pace the walks with cloaks flung round

them

Like the Belvidere Apollo,

Truculent or vainly smiling

At the brown girls promenading;

Nuns, with hats like toy feluccas

In full sail, move slowly forward;

Much-bejewelled matrons jostle

A slim nurse whose pale blue streamers

Gaily flutter from her bonnet,

As she shakes a Punchinello

At her charge who laughs responsive.

All the way down the Lung Amo

Eye meets eye in shameless challenge.

While the full lips prelude loving

In a manner hardly sacred.

There’s a hint of snow-capped mountains

Just beyond the four arched bridges

All a-glitter like gold fetters

Linking towns of dream together

Over pearl streams. Groups of cypress

Sentinel remoter Edens

On the sky-line. Opened windows

Flash a sparkle down the vista.

Arno’s barred with white where softly

O’er the weir its waters tumble.

There a score of gazing loafers

Lean enraptured by the motion

Of the ripples sudden plashing

O’er the stone shelf into billows

Tossing for a yard’s width under.

Then a chain of pack-mules greet you,

With their tiny bells a-jingle,

Which the driver cheers with music

Chanted in a thin falsetto.

Passing thence into some byeway

Seems like diving under water,

Such a swift chill gloom accepts you;

Narrow streets and lofty houses

Ban the sunshine so completely

That you fancy for a moment

Sudden storm-clouds have descended.

So felt I when last I wrote you.

Now the vista’s one long sparkle:

That’s my life and all its promise

To my lover’s gaze; I’ll warrant

Three new pictures done ere Christmas

Proving that I’m no mere dreamer.

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.

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.

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!