Inspired by Florence: English poetry about’Firenze’

Portraits of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning

Nowadays, we visit Florence and perhaps send a brief postcard to family and friends back home, perhaps even write a blog or twitter post about our experience. We may tag ourselves in photos posted on Facebook of our trip to Florence. But in the past, the expression of wonderment at Florence’s beauty was expressed in a much more lasting manner.

It should come as no surprise that stunning Florence and its surrounding Tuscan surrounds have given inspiration to a great number of writers throughout the centuries to put pen to hand-pressed paper to proffer prose and verse.

Whilst we may not all have the inclination or capacity to put our feelings for Florence into verse, we can still relate to the sentiments and experiences had by those who have.

As we mentioned in yesterday’s post, in what was one of history’s greatest romantic tales of true love, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett fell in love throughout an exchange of letters. Owning to Barrett’s ill health, her family would not let her pursue the romance, forcing the couple to elope to Florence in 1845, where they wed. Their son (Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, nicknamed ‘Pen’) was later born here, and they lived many a happy year until Barrett passed away, to be buried in the non-Catholic cemetery just the outskirts of Florence’s historical city centre, her tomb inscribed with a poem by fellow cemetarian, poet Walter Savage Landor. Known as Il Cimitero degli Inglesi (The English Cemetery), it is in fact a burial place for non-Catholics and provides a resting place for many people from around the world.

So fond of his new wife and their child, as well as their new home city, Browning wrote ‘Old Pictures in Florence’:

The morn when first it thunders in March,

The eel in the pond gives a leap, they say:

As I leaned and looked over the aloed arch

Of the villa-gate this warm March day,

No flash snapped, no dumb thunder rolled

In the valley beneath where, white and wide

And washed by the morning water-gold,

Florence lay out on the mountain-side.

Barrett (now Barrett-Browning) wrote an epic novel-size poem, ‘Aurora Leigh’ outlining the life of a woman born to a Florentine mother and English father:

I found a house, at Florence, on the hill
Of Bellosguardo. ‘Tis a tower that keeps
A post of double-observation o’er
The valley of Arno (holding as a hand
The outspread city) straight toward Fiesole
And Mount Morello and the setting sun,?
The Vallombrosan mountains to the right,
Which sunrise fills as full as crystal cups
Wine-filled, and red to the brim because it’s red.
No sun could die, nor yet be born, unseen
By dwellers at my villa: morn and eve
Were magnified before us in the pure
Illimitable space and pause of sky,
Intense as angels’ garments blanched with God,
Less blue than radiant. From the outer wall
Of the garden, dropped the mystic floating grey
Of olive-trees, (with interruptions green
From maize and vine) until ’twas caught and torn
On that abrupt black line of cypresses
Which signed the way to Florence. Beautiful
The city lay along the ample vale,
Cathedral, tower and palace, piazza and street;
The river trailing like a silver cord
Through all, and curling loosely, both before
And after, over the whole stretch of land
Sown whitely up and down its opposite slopes,
With farms and villas.

A plaque indicating the apartment in Florence where Landon died.

As to Landor, in 1815 he had fled London in exile, heading first to Como from where he was also expelled. Clearly not one to learn a lesson quickly, in 1921 he arrived in Florence, where he was almost kicked out again for insulting a policeman! He took some time out, returning to stay with his family in England before trying out Italy again, this time moving in with the Brownings in 1858 until his death in 1864.

His house company was clearly inspirational, as it was during his time living in Villa Castiglione with the Brownings that Landor wrote his most famous work, Imaginary Conversations. The poem sees Landor penning a dedication to his daughter, whilst also noting his fondness for Florence:

By that dejected city, Arno runs,

Where Ugolino claspt his famisht sons.

There wert thou born, my Julia! there thine eyes

Return’d as bright a blue to vernal skies.

And thence, my little wanderer! when the Spring

Advanced, thee, too, the hours on silent wing

Brought, while anemonies were quivering round,

And pointed tulips pierced the purple ground,

Where stood fair Florence: there thy voice first blest

My ear, and sank like balm into my breast:

For many griefs had wounded it, and more

Thy little hands could lighten were in store.

Elizabeth Barrett-Bornwing's tomb in the so-called English Cemetery in Florence

The tomb of Barrett Browning in turn inspired Emily Dickson to write ‘The soul selects her own society’:

The soul selects her own society,

Then shuts the door;

On her divine majority

Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing

At her low gate;

Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling

Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation

Choose one;

Then close the valves of her attention

Like stone.

Poet Arthur Hugh Clough, who keeps Barrett-Browning and Landor company in the Cimitero degli Inglesi, wrote ‘Amours De Voyage’, whose protagonists visit Florence:

Therefore farewell, ye hills, and ye, ye envineyarded ruins!
Therefore farewell, ye walls, palaces, pillars, and domes!
Therefore farewell, far seen, ye peaks of the mythic Albano,
Seen from Montorio’s height, Tibur and Æsula’s hills!
Ah, could we once, ere we go, could we stand, while, to ocean descending,

Sinks o’er the yellow dark plain slowly the yellow broad sun,
Stand, from the forest emerging at sunset, at once in the champaign,
Open, but studded with trees, chestnuts umbrageous and old,
E’en in those fair open fields that incurve to thy beautiful hollow,
Nemi, imbedded in wood, Nemi, interned in the hill!?
Therefore farewell, ye plains, and ye hills, and the City Eternal!
Therefore farewell! We depart, but to behold you again!

Oscar Wilde spent time in Florence in the 1870s, and sitting by the Arno river, scratched into his parchment paper the lovely ‘By the Arno’, inspired as he was by the stunning scenery, the sunlight sparking on the gently currented waters:

The oleander on the wall
Grows crimson in the dawning light,
Though the grey shadows of the night
Lie yet on Florence like a pall.
The dew is bright upon the hill,
And bright the blossoms overhead,
But ah! the grasshoppers have fled,
The little Attic song is still.
Only the leaves are gently stirred
By the soft breathing of the gale,
And in the almond-scented vale
The lonely nightingale is heard.
The day will make thee silent soon,
O nightingale sing on for love!
While yet upon the shadowy grove
Splinter the arrows of the moon.
Before across the silent lawn
In sea-green vest the morning steals,
And to love’s frightened eyes reveals
The long white fingers of the dawn.
Fast climbing up the eastern sky
To grasp and slay the shuddering night,
All careless of my heart’s delight,
Or if the nightingale should die.

William Leighton, a famous poet inspired by the sites of Florence

‘Florentine Sonnets’ was written in 1906 by William Leighton (1833-1911), describing a simple yet wonderous walk along the cobbled streets of Florence. Leighton was, as we are still to this day, touched by the history, of clicking his heels along the same worn cobblestones as the poets and artists that stepped before him.

Through these old streets I wander dreamily;
Around me Florence sweeps her busy tide
Of life; quaint palaces on every side.
Here, where I pass, perchance in former day
Petrarch hath walked, composing poetry
To oft-sung charms of Laura. Here hath hied
Dante, of Florence now the greatest pride,
But whom, in life, she fiercely drove away,
To write in gloom his epic. Here, beneath
This loggia, Boccaccio hath told
His laughing tales, to comrades, merrily
What wondrous memories these scenes bequeath
What artists, sculptors, painters, here of old
Fashioned this lovely gem of Italy!

Italy was one important stop for ‘gentlemen of means’ undertaking a Grand Tour of Europe, many of them authors, poets and artists from well-to-do families. Time would be spent in Florence (even for several months), then Rome and Venice. It was a tradition in flavor from around 1660 to the 1840s, at which time young Americans also started to do the tour. With the advent of rail travel, the experience changed somewhat. It was considered a time where young men could spend a few months or even up to a few years seeing the most culturally important sites in Europe. The focus on the study of art and architecture meant that Italy, and the selected stops of Rome, Florence and Italy were long-stay stops on the rite-of-passage itinerary.

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