A Letter from Rome


For Dr Leonie Kramer
Rome, Rome! thou art no more
As thou has been!
Hotel della Rotonda
ROME 1958

Man being transitory likes to act
As though he had all time to air his views.
Man being idle takes to rhyme. In fact
Journeying in the company of the Muse,
I’d just arrived at this hotel, unpacked,
Refurbished, washed my face and changed my shoes,
When in she came all smiles and said: “In Rome,
The thing to do is, write a letter home.”

“My dear, good girl,” I said, “do you forget a
Theme like this needs eagle wings to soar?
I might just rise to a familiar letter,
News, observations, gossip, nothing more.
Besides, it’s all been done and done much better;
I’ve never tried that sort of thing before.
Australian poets, you recall, prefer
The packhorse and the slip-rail and the spur.”

“High time they stopped it then,” the Muse replied,
“I never liked that pioneering strain,
The tales of how those mountain horsemen ride—
Today they drive a truck or take a plane.
Australian poets, if they ever tried,
Might show at least a rudiment of brain,
And yours—” “All right,” I answered with a grin,
“You’ve talked me into it, my dear; you win!”

So here I am in the Eternal City
The Pantheon itself is just next door.
I might be wise, I might at least be witty
Where bards have been so eloquent before.
Some found her splendid, others thought her pretty,
Some said she was the Babylonian Whore;
But each was vocal, vehemens et tremens,
From Roman Virgil down to Mrs Hemans.

Yet travelling poets, even at the best,
Are apt to turn out bores or something worse;
Even Childe Harold, it must be confessed,
Is sometimes merely Baedeker in verse,
And for a new antipodean guest
Rome as a subject daunts, if not deters.
But I, since she demands my tribute, can
At least contrive to write some lines that scan;

And since I’m launched now in ottava rima,
—For easy-going verse it’s just the thing—
I shan’t attempt the high poetic theme or
Pitch my note to make the welkin ring.
That “Roma non è più come era prima
Which Byron heard the Roman workmen sing
Gives scope to write on anything at all
Since Romulus and Remus built their wall.

I might compile a Muses’ Guide to Rome,
Describing all the sights and trips and treats,
Label the cells that cram the honeycomb,
The haunts of poets and their favourite streets,
The gate where Ovid lingered leaving home,
The oak of Tasso and the tomb of Keats,
The booth where Horace bought Falernian wine,
The restaurant where Goethe used to dine.

I have just dined myself extremely well
And drunk much wine, though not Falernian.
I might, if I were Goethe, who can tell,
Compose a new West-Oestliche Diwan,
Like Mrs Browning I might raise from hell
A Vision of the Poets, man by man,
And show you who was who, and what was what;
But something warns me I had better not.

A man, of course, should know his limitations
And, only if he has one, trust his star.
But poets ought to risk their reputations
To find out what those limitations are;
And modern poets put me out of patience
Wanting the grace, or guts, to aim too far.
So in this instance I shall not proceed
To emulate the Venerable Bede.

Just think of Bede the Tourist!—I, you see, am
Not drunk, but just a little “flown with wine”—
Bede came to Rome and offered his Te Deum,
Fresh from a land as barbarous as mine,
Made one remark about the Colosseum
And plodded back to Jarrow-on-the-Tyne.
And think of Bede the Poet, satisfied
To leave one poem, composed the day he died!

But lacking Bede’s restraint, I must beware
In Rome the pilgrim’s more besetting sin,
Which made poor Mistress Kempe so hard to bear,
God’s holy howler-monkey from King’s Lynn,
Too much engrossed in Margery Kempe to spare
A page to the great city she was in,
For here I am with eighty lines set down
About myself and eight about the town.

So to my theme—and if I should digress,
As possibly I shall do by and by,
Skip as you please; most readers do, I guess,
Faced with the longer forms of poetry.
If I run on, one reason, I confess,
Is to employ the tongue and rest the eye:
Six weeks a tourist render me, alas,
As blind as Balaam, chattier than his ass.

The Tourist’s fate though curiously reversed
Is that of Tantalus who watched a feast
Devoured by famine, who, consumed by thirst
Saw the cool waters rising to his breast.
The tourist has to cram until he burst
Or gulp until he vomit like a beast;
But either way the case is much the same;
The arrows of desire miss their aim.

Six weeks in Italy! He has to grapple
With all the culture that there is to see
In baptistery, temple, church or chapel,
Museum, mausoleum, gallery.
Adam was cursed for eating that one apple,
But had he finished the whole fatal tree
He might have found that gorging Good and Evil
Led less to Sin and Death than mere upheaval.

If asked to sink too fast too many bumpers,
No matter how felicitous the wine,
The mental belly will begin a rumpus
No matter though the matter is divine.
There is an end to what the eye can compass
Of perfect colour and superb design,
And whether art be sacred or profane,
To look too often is to look in vain.

Day after day, with guide-book at the ready,
I’ve stormed the galleries from hall to hall,
Where headless muse or mutilated lady
Are flanked by god unsexed or Dying Gaul.
Checking my members every night in bed, I
Have groaned, I must admit, as I recall
That on the morrow waits for me a fresh
Mountain of marble chiselled into flesh.

I’ve contemplated all the types of Venus
Which win the heart or take the soul by storm,
The modest fig-leaf and the shameless penis
In every proper or improper form,
Until the individual in the genus
Is lost and all exceptions in the norm,
And fair and foul and quaint and crass and crude
Dissolve in one vast cliché of the Nude.

I’ve seen enough Nativities to fluster
The whole collective Midwives’ Fellowship,
More angels than scholastic wits could thrust a
Pin between, or count upon the tip,
More Virgins than St Ursula could muster
To chaperon that fatal one-way trip,
And Holy Families and Annunciations
By tribes and hordes and multitudes and nations.

I’ve viewed the pitch of human ingenuity
Record in bronze, in marble and in paint
New schemes and still new schemes in perpetuity
For martyrdoms—and some extremely quaint—
New ways to grill St Lawrence, if to do it he
Were forced to spatchcock that devoted saint,
New ways to stick Sebastian full of arrows
And scarify St What’s-his-name with harrows.

Augustine possibly was optimistic
About the rout and ruin of pagan gods;
The City of God, triumphant book, was his stick,
The City of Rome had always other rods,
And Christian savages, no less sadistic
Than those who at the Circus had laid odds
Upon the lion and against the martyr
Now took their pleasures in another quarter.

I grant the butchery of the arena
Was finished and the bad old days were done;
But brothers of the wolf and the hyena
Could still contrive to have their grisly fun;
Where painter vied with painter to give keener
Edge to the axe, make bloodier rivers run,
It gave a thrill as brutal, though vicarious,
To lop Eulalia or chop Januarius.

Yet saint or sadist, each could gaze his fill
Or if unfilled, come back another day.
Before a masterpiece the mind could still
Take time to learn, to ponder or to pray.
The modern tourist pays a job-lot bill,
Takes one quick look and then is whisked away:
“Next we see Titian’s famous—Ah, too late!
Alas, messieurs, mesdames, our bus won’t wait.”

The Muses have no schedules, they are free,
But foreign travel, once a private venture
At best, is now a major industry
Where dividend and bonus and debenture,
Compete with wisdom, love and piety.
Change them for comfort, uplift, tame adventure,
And those who put a girdle round the earth
Will guarantee we get our money’s worth.

The pilgrims of the age of faith bareshod
Tramped across Europe, singing by the way;
Innkeepers, robbers on the roads they trod
Might wait and make of them their natural prey;
And Rome once reached, the ministers of God
For each act of devotion make them pay;
But no one sold them “culture” on the side
Or made them beggars to his Barmecide.

Romantic Felicaja! He was sure
His country had her scenery to thank
For all invasions, Lombard, Goth and Moor,
German and Spaniard, Saracen and Frank;
“The fatal gift of beauty”, not the lure
Of rape, the simple urge to rob a bank,
Or what impels a Mohawk to take scalps,
Had led them up her coasts or through the Alps.

It was quite other armies the reward
Of Beauty drew—it draws them to this day—
The travelling gentleman, the young milord,
Hell-bent on culture, curios, women, play,
Drank, diced and duelled, dug for statues, whored,
Bought pictures or sketched ruins, came away
At last complete, accomplished, finished fellows,
Formed by her courts or poxed by her bordellos.

And after the Grand Tour there came the Trip
Abroad, a much more middle-class affair:
Migratory bards recovering from the pip,
The family party, the adulterous pair,
The archaeologists in a chartered ship,
Lounged, ate gelati, swam or stopped to stare
At Ruskin sketching every stone in Venice
Or Browning in his braces playing tennis.

Well “culture” in the eighties, at a guess,
Did little harm. As far as one can see,
Seasons in Italy were more or less
A leisured picnic, a light-hearted spree.
That dogged transatlantic earnestness
From which no nation now on earth is free,
Had not yet turned its pleasure into solemn
Lectures on how to look at Trajan’s column.

It soon came on, indeed was on the way,
As Henry James depicted it, for one.
In any picture-gallery today
Kulturgeschichte takes away the fun
Unless one joins a group and cares to stay
To watch the Herr Professor toss the bun
To teach us peasants, munching it with zeal,
Not only what to think but how to feel.

However lucid, well-informed, vivacious
The lecturer’s task is hopeless from the start:
Most ready-made emotions are fallacious
And there’s no ready-made response to art.
Tibetan prayer-wheels may be efficacious
Since those who twirl them know the prayers by heart,
But these are devotees whose utmost skill
Consists in knowing how to gulp the pill.

Of course it would be stupid out of measure
To laugh at those who know their need to learn.
For some, perhaps, who never had the leisure
Nor yet the chance before, this serves their turn.
A tale I heard last week with simple pleasure
In Florence dots the i’s of my concern,
And illustrates to what absurd degree
Some people will proceed to cross a t.

That evening I had dinner with a man
Who has lived forty years in Italy,
Half English, more than half Italian
With all the latter’s gift of irony;
And while we drank our wine my host began
To talk of Florence and her history,
Her life, her people, and to finish off he
Told me the following story over coffee:

“In Florence there is a well-known foundation,
Richly endowed from the United States,
Trimmed to the latest trends in education,
It ‘finishes’ young women graduates
And gives them poise and polish for the station
Their family’s bank-balance indicates,
The sort of thing entitled, as a rule,
A Continental Summer Graduate School.
“Its aims are serious, its methods sound,
Its courses academically respectable,
Fine Arts for those who like to shop around,
Western Philosophy for the directable,
And Poetry from Poe to Ezra Pound,
With, just to stiffen subjects so delectable,
A weekly seminar, a monthly test,
And Love is on the course with all the rest.

“Of course it is not on their syllabus,
As best confined to individual choice;
But hints are dropped in sessions to discuss
How to attain maturity and poise
That, if arranged discreetly, without fuss,
Brief love-affairs with nice Italian boys
May well repay the trouble and expense
Since nothing broadens like experience.

“Italian boys are not, and never were,
Averse to girls when rich, well-dressed and pretty.
The summer school created quite a stir
Among the young Lotharios of the city;
The alleys throbbed with an expectant purr;
The streets were filled with amorous banditti.
The girls of Florence, it may be, were less
Well-pleased, but that is anybody’s guess.

“But how to set about it? How to find
A lover? That’s quite simple in a town
Where every girl gets pinched on the behind
In shops, trams, church, or walking up and down.
It’s half an invitation, half a kind
Of compliment. If she should turn and frown
That’s that; but if she smiles, he’ll raise his hat
And ask her to take coffee, and that’s that!

“Louise, though very beautiful, was what I’m
Inclined to call a serious girl at heart,
And, though endowed with an attractive bottom,
Thought pinching it no proper way to start;
And Alessandro was well-bred; if not I’m
Sure he knew just how to act the part.
He met her at a concert, did not pinch,
But said the pizzicati made him flinch.

“She smiled and said: ‘How’s that?’ The ice was broken.
He offered coffee. She did not refuse.
They talked on various topics which betoken
The parties each have cultivated views.
And as they talked their eyes said things unspoken.
The world was all before them, where to choose.
He saw her home and on the doorstep they
Arranged to meet again the following day.

“Louise went in and calmly jotted down
Some notes on her emotional reactions,
Removed her make-up, donned her dressing gown
And nicely planned her conduct and her actions;
While Alessandro wandered through the town
Enraptured by her charms and her attractions.
His plans were just the usual well-bred
Young man’s to get the girl to go to bed.

“To his surprise, and more to his chagrin,
She went to bed without the least demur.
Passion expects resistance, and to win
Without it, on his passion cast a slur.
He loved her voice, her eyes, her shape, her skin
But found no answering response in her.
She loved him, not for love however fiery,
But for providing data for her diary.

“They went to bed; they took a trip to Pisa;
They ‘did’ the Pitti; and they went to bed;
She told him all about herself; to please her
He talked about Etruscan tombs; she read
Her diary to him and that day to ease a
Sense of strain they took a walk instead;
They walked, they talked, she reasoned and he swore,
But in the end they went to bed once more.

“And at the close of a divine semester
She annotated and revised her notes,
Wrote: ‘Field-Work’ on the cover and repressed a
Less serious urge to label it: ‘Wild Oats’.
She can’t say Europe very much impressed her,
Though Sandro is a name on which she dotes.
She thinks that Kinsey overrates the male.”
And here my host broke off his merry tale.

A Merry Tale? Boccaccio might have written:
“How Messer Sandro wooed a learnèd dame,
But found his labour lost, the biter bitten
And half a thesis cooked upon his flame.”
Yet I am sad to see so many smitten
By the same view of art and much the same
Approach as this poor girl’s who thought her fee
Made Love one more post-graduate degree.

But talking of degrees, the Schedule Beaters
On any scale of nonsense touch the top.
Hung round with cameras, light-filters, meters,
Always on time and travelling till they drop,
They pause—a wife identifies St Peter’s.
They never look at all, but make a stop,
Squint, fiddle, click and, happy, hurry back
To Bristol, Cincinnati or Toorak.

Watching these futile pilgrims in their legions
Who must get home to find where they have been,
I find myself who owe them no allegiance,
Caught in a farce as senseless as obscene,
Asking what brings me here from those dim regions
Where Dante planted Hell’s Back Door, and Dean
Swift his microcosm of civilization?
The facts fell short of their imagination

For I am no infernal refugee
And reach a normal height of five foot nine.
Yet there is something strange, I would agree,
In those dumb continents below the Line.
The roots are European, but the tree
Grows to a different pattern and design;
Where the fruit gets its flavour I’m not sure,
From native soil or overseas manure.

And this uncertainty is in our bones.
Others may think us smug or insular;
The voice perhaps is brash, its undertones
Declare in us a doubt of what we are.
When the divided ghost within us groans
It must return to find its avatar.
Though this puts things too solemnly, of course,
Yet here am I returning to the source.

That source is Italy, and hers is Rome,
The fons et origo of Western Man;
Athens perhaps begot, Rome was the womb;
Here the great venture of the heart began.
Here simply with a sense of coming home
I have returned with no explicit plan
Beyond a child’s uncertain quest, to find
Something once dear, long lost and left behind.

The clue lies not in art or history,
Relics or ruins that survive their prime.
The thing I came to find was lost in me,
Not in the Forum’s dust, the Tiber’s slime.
The act which resurrects is just to be
Patient before these witnesses of time.
The graves may open and their dead appear,
But mine is the sepulchral voice I hear.

The efficacy of place, like that of prayer,
Lies in no overt effort of the will;
To keep the mind unquesting but aware,
The heart unmoving but responsive still,
Opens the way to forces which prepare
Answers whose questions lie beyond our skill,
And this, I know, is what I have in view,
As other poets, I think, have felt it too.

And one especially is in my mind:
The limping man, the legend of his age.
Asking myself what he came here to find
I’ve just re-read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,
Which offers, almost equally combined,
The shrewd, the silly, the noble and the sage,
The stamp of genius and the touch of sham.
Well, I’m quite sure of one thing: that I am

Not like the Pilgrim of Eternity,
Revisiting the Muses’ Campo Santo,
Not like his Harold—who indeed could be
Like Harold, and what man alive would want to?
Yet what moved Byron then, it seems to me,
To write his fourth, superb and final canto,
Impels me too to write, although the scene
Is somewhat changed since eighteen seventeen.

What caused him to leave Venice? Well, he said
He’d like to take a trip and see the Pope,
Hinted he’d like a rest from too much bed
With a blonde charmer called the Antelope;
Writing to Murray for tooth-powder (red)
He said that Rome had drawn him with the hope
To make Constantinople’s glories pale.
The poem, I think, tells quite another tale.

Unlike that desultory scenic stroll
Which robs his earlier cantos of their force,
This moves, with sure direction and control,
In towards the centre, back towards the source.
Its theme is destiny and Rome its goal;
And yet it does not stop with Rome; the course
Of history retraced, it moves at last
Into the savage, pre-historic past.

It ends with Nemi and the Golden Bough.
What instinct led him there? I like to think
What drew him then is what has drawn me now
To stand in time upon that timeless brink,
To sense there the renewal of a vow,
The mending of a lost primordial link.
These may be only fancies, yet I swear
I felt the presence of the numen there.

There’s nothing now at Nemi to evoke
Sir James G. Frazer’s memorable scene:
The sleepless victim-King, the sacred oak;
A market garden spreads its tidy green
Where stood Diana’s grove; no voices spoke;
There were no omens; cloudless and serene
The sun beat harshly on the drowsing lake;
And yet I felt my senses wide awake,

Alert, expectant—as we scrambled down
The crater from the village to the shore
And strolled along its path, we were alone;
And, picnicking among the rocks, I saw
No cause for these sensations. Yet I own
A tension grew upon me more and more.
What Byron felt as calm and cherished hate
For me was more like force, insistence, fate.

And under this impulsion from the place,
I seemed constrained, before I came to drink,
To pour some wine upon the water’s face,
Later, to strip and wade out from the brink.
Was it a plea for chrism or for grace?
An expiation? More than these, I think
I was possessed, and what possessed me there
Was Europe’s oldest ritual of prayer.

But prayer to whom, for what? The Intervention
Did not reveal itself or what it meant.
The body simply prays without “intention”,
The mind by the bare force of its assent.
That “higher, more extended comprehension”,
Which Byron, writing after the event,
Felt necessary to explain brute fact,
Came by mere power of my consenting act.

Well, let it pass: I have no views about it;
Only I sensed some final frontier passed,
Some seed, long dormant, which has stirred and sprouted,
Some link of understanding joined at last.
I may have been deluded, but I doubt it
Though where the series leads I can’t forecast.
Laugh at these intimations if you will;
The days go by and they are with me still.

Meanwhile I walk and gaze. For all its size,
Rome is a city one can see on foot,
And that’s the pace for such an enterprise.
Each morning we buy cheese and rolls and fruit
And stroll and stop to view whatever lies
Along a vague and ambulating route
I miss a lot of course, but what I see,
Because I found it, seems a part of me.

And as I walk I think of my own land
To which I must return when this trip’s over.
She speaks a language that I understand,
And wakes no love that “moves with the remover”.
I fear this letter’s getting out of hand
But there’s a topic still I wish to cover
Which hangs upon a tale of Yin and Yang:
The Abendland‘s reputed Untergang.

I’d like to say at once I’ve never much
Believed the prophets of impending doom,
The Spenglers, T. S. Eliots and such,
Guides to the Waste Lands and the Wrath to Come.
Perhaps I’m simply rather out of touch,
But I’m confirmed by what I sense in Rome.
She still is urbs et orbis, still the ground
Of generation and the roots are sound.

And yet, although the roots are sound enough,
A blight has touched the branches and the fruit.
The voice of wisdom falters and falls off
In aimless speculation and dispute.
The single, sure tradition and the tough
Old faiths that fed and fostered it are mute,
And Italy, from which the West arose,
Falls prey to new but more barbarian foes.

Italia, O Italia, still in fetters,
Though risen at last, restored, united, free,
I too shall bring you from the world of letters
One more lament, though it is not for me
Perhaps to try to emulate my betters.
The tragic theme, the bough of prophecy
I leave to Dante, Ariosto, Byron
Whose ages range from gold to brass to iron.

But mine’s the age of plastics and alloys
Which bring combustion engines in their train
To fill with hideous and inhuman noise
All your once pleasant cities of the plain.
It is the curse of Hell that it destroys
Good of the intellect; the heat, the pain,
The darkness and the terror and the thirst,
Are damnable, but not damnation’s worst.

Though Dante found it crowded, hot and smelly,
His first impressions and most lasting were:
Accenti d’ira, orribili favelle,
The sounds of torment, discord and despair,
Screams from the tortured and the brute bass belly
Chuckle of demons; yet if I might dare
Cap Dante I should give for “Hell let loose”
The din Italian motor-bikes produce.

It blinds the heart, it breaks the mind with menace.
Beats, batters, deafens, bruises, numbs, appals,
Ruins Rome’s surge of life and blasts Ravenna’s
Millennial slumber in her crumbling walls.
And pulverizes every town but Venice
Which, God be praised, is saved by the canals.
Hearing it now it seems to signify
The burden of the poet’s anguished cry:

Servi Italia di dolore ostello!
As one by one your tyrants had their hour
The arts could flourish still, and though the fellow
Of lust and greed, the tree of man still flower;
But what can vie with this mechanic bellow,
The final brutal voice of naked power,
As you, who spoke for Europe in your day,
Become its symbol for the mind’s decay?

You spoke for Europe as you spoke for Man,
Taught him to pray, to probe, to dream, to dare;
In you his new entelechy began
Where now the yawp of Babel fills the air.
Who speaks for Europe now? The few who can
Know only the recourses of despair;
And none arise to find, renew, prolong
The harmonies of your enchanted song,

A song the Sybil’s murmur taught to grow
From age to age, until the centuries
Heard the high trumpets in their passion blow,
Now lost in mindless roar from the abyss.
The parables of history can show
Surely no sadder irony than this
Which brings that noble, intellectual voice
To drown in trivial and distracting noise.

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