VENICE: PART 3

analyzing the imagist poemFirst Draft: Hexameters

Part 3

I was unprepared, and of the premonitions
that hung in my mind like the summer clouds I
was hardly cognisant. That thought-on body that
was mine to have and fondle, flagrant to reach to,
feel that tender pressing stir its deeper sinews,
rise from husky luxuriousness to drenching passion,
vibrant and demanding and from that knotted trembling
to subside again in heavy murmurings as will
the sea from storm and tempest, black destructiveness
pass in a day to smiling sunlit brilliancy,
drifting as the day may take it or may not,
acquiescing in the unhurried ebb of happiness
that hugs the shoreline in the lace-like sunlight
on the water, glitterings, reflected sights.
These a man does not forget that has his inner
body pulled into long depths where his limbs kick out
into the sturdy water but are withstood by pressures
that knead his being, undo sinews, bring him gasping
to the surface in a rush of bubbles, all this
was mine and with a uncared openness I'd not
have thought there possible in one so calculating
in step and dress. That was the contract kept meticulously
those days or weeks I would not see her but felt there still
the warm blood pumping through, re-animating all
that came in new commissions and strong happiness.

Veronese I must tell you was a name that brought
to minds the sumptuous colour of our festivals,
our love of spectacle, the warmth of being dressed
as the day was far over the sparkling waters of the Adriatic.
Our coasts that brought the rich dark cedars down to Smyrna,
Lebanon, the honied smell of dates and figs, the rich
festering of the light reflected on the small Greek islands,
the far Ionian Isles where olives hug the hillsides
and of Cypress where the sea-borne Venus came
to the clear air out of mystery and its copper ore.
All that is Venice with its trading posts across
the frozen Caucasus, the camel bells that tinkle
quietly through the threaded silence of the summer
heat that blazes far too bright to watch under the
pitiless vast emptinesses that are Asia,
all these I set down saturated in my canvases
of clothes and happiness in fabic substances.
What I painted there I felt, and in my strokes
that lingered on an eyelid or a nipple, a streak
of grey-green in the lustrous golden tumult of
the hair brought back to braids in gleaming pearls
or the jewelled flash of azure on the breast or ear
were things which I had handled, run my fingers through
50. on long remembered afternoons when the blue sky
and the soft sunlight soaked in walls and tapestries
of the dona Antonia. What I had was hers in origin.
No doubt all knew that and her worthier suitors
who crowded embassies and the Council's meetings.

For me, I was modest, impenetrably deprecating
of myself and of my servile station. I am
a man still bound by indentures and by signed agreements.
Such matters that dilate on empires, the prelates' zeal,
the choice of theme or ornament, who will be seen
among the candidates as patrons, such was theirs
to make, likewise dimensions and the vantage point.
Mine was only what I saw each living day:
our Saviour's ineffable goodness in all His forms so given
me to capture in my coloured brush and line -
that also, I may add, yet made the ducat's ring
Would your studio do this - we'd be much obliged,
Your last has astonished us and Venice and therefore we
will meet your fees, in total, as with signatories.
Then I saw no madman whose unlicenced dreams
were good to place before the public gaze, but only
the happiness of rank and dazzling precedence,
that Venice of which to me as a mason's son many
had spoken in good terms, of future industry,
of prospects beyond the quiet burger's facades and
festivals of modest prosperity in in plain Verona.
All that was mine to glory in and celebrate,
and if no doubt as well there came the troubling sights,
as daylight that surges through an inner room will
bear the shadowed sanctity of undressed thought,
what could I do? I put this with that, scraped back the acres
of sumptuous flame in damask, velvet and satin braids,
saw nothing beneath it but the dull cloth gleam, the grain
that spoke so eloquently of harlot's underclothes,
the drab and weave of workaday mere labouring men,
I was no forward thinker but sought in God's meek
and perpetual majesty to praise what He has given
us and pass in silence over where the gateways in
to Hell flared out in doorway or in upper rooms.
All those who flaunted bodices but not that gender,
the drabs who not so much exposed themselves but did
all manner of disgusting acts with some I was
acquainted of, this I knew, and crossed myself, and blessed
the scriptures that have safely, day by day so brought
me over, who are poor sinners always, all of us
but driftwood on the surge and eddy of events.
We are God's creatures, whom that God forgives as
in His own good grace He moves in us and our poor clay.
What should I add who daily, when young, lived with miracles
and lodged them in my mind. When daylight bloomed however
late or dilatory or monastic even on whitewashed walls,
100. I'd rise and sketch the tropes of gesture on the rough-cut
stones, figures sumptuous as they stood, life-proud,
imperiously contained within their forms. Of course,
now, being older, I am appalled at such buffoonery.
Repaint the altar-pieces, the frescoed palaces,
apply to memory of all I touched rich colours:
and yet I marvel as I marvelled then, awed
at what I'd done. God's work, it's true, but for all
the puppetry and make believe I am an efflorescence
as it were, redeeming images to make them real,
the conscience that my father had here given one
to see and act and do. A stout man, I remember
him as given to rages and to heavy drinking,
a disappointed man with talent locked away
who saw God's creatures round him, felt the angel's wings
in gusts of wind or in the moving clouds, could hear
God speak to him no doubt but with his heavy chisel
made nothing on the stone but clumsy scratches, ragged
cuts and blunt, deluded, stiff rows of prophets.
One opening from another, each was spoiled and kept
him toiling endlessly in provincial churches, wayside shrines.

Why God would let him labour on in vain, would taunt
him with such mirages and throw them back at him
with limitless self-loathing I do not know, thought He,
I should have known would make this painter in his turn
doubt all, see all, and hear beyond the shouts of praise
matters much more pertinent, self-abnegating.
But that was far away, those long full sunny days
when heavy with dona Antonia's beauty and drunk
with the facility that saw a thousand ingenious ways
to make a patron's airy wishes take firm hold
on character and many-coloured situations
I would set out with modest confidence how this would be
and that, and at my whirling hand there came prodigies
of coloured tumult. They could see the world around them
brought to that most distant past, that all they lived
now was but parcel and continuation of days
in the sun-drenched holy land, that what they hoped for,
lived for had been lived before, graciously,
that echoing shore that rounded and embayed the Lido
140. was but what the Saviour's feet had trodden on
the long, sad centuries before, that He, for all
His meekness and remit of pain, such subjugation
that He had borne was not required of us. Feasting
and good things were in His glory, the parables
that led in all good time to what is true. Even
of course then the days were growing late for this
good merchantile conception, that Venice waned as the last
bright edge of sunlight on the rounding world grown dark.
We did not know that, either the Serenissima
150. or her prattling, feasting, ever hopeful people.

Will master Veronese look at our refectory hall,
assess the lighting in this chamber, consider how
our dear Lord Saviour with his choiring saints might flare
above our own high altar: we want colour there
to match our altar cloths and bring parishioners'
sumptuous Sunday cloths of gold and scarlet satins
to be one blaze of happiness to praise the Lord.
They walked, as I walked, under the blazing summer sun
into shadowed doorways and accademies, to recesses
of learning with the Barbaro or Contarini,
good men who read the latin authors, could dispute
in many tongues which those who'd travelled half across
the world to be with them, exchange opinions, what
the turk would do when next the cannonades from ports
and citadels the length of the far Illurian coast
thundered out their warning, when their galleys sailed,
two or three adeck with each a hundred oars no doubt
of good men, Christians, bound in chains to sweat and heave
themselves to nothing but a heathern paradise
of whip and salted bread to but dogfish bait,
for crabs to feed on while the billowing ocean blue
weltered over or it broke on cliffs: the Lord
keep us from ends as terrible, the Lord preserve
his great Republic and let our pennants fly in white
and red wherever the crescent darkens in the east,
bid dust of our dear Saviour's land be mixed not with
suffering and shed martyr's blood but faith and hope
of better things, that Church triumphant come again
to the synogue in wheatlands, oleander
and the flowering olive trees that stand in clumps
even as they do in our more richly cultivated
Roman lands, which are example and our paternoster.
True men still looked to Venice and to walk on stones
splashed by the green and limpid promontories
of that far world is but to lean upon that far world east
that for ever dwindles to the hot lands sweltering
under the ever-present tread of iniquity.
How great the consternation that we heard of golden
Cyprus taken, the barbarities which the saracen
exacted recompense for all his blood. How more
we heard with indignation as the word came through
of captives taken, noble men soft-flayed with whips
until their skin was floated from their body, and in a mess
of blood and agony their life departed. Let
it be remembered that our Venice stands upon
the dark world of corruption and suffering as the sun
at morning breaks and dyes the grey stiff world of shadows,
of torments and of things conjectured, stuff of nightmares
and of madhouses, the fierce sectarian divides that turn
200. the northern lands to slaughter-houses, lynching mobs,
disbowellings for what we cannot see or know.
Or not for certain as to save men's souls were quit
for eternities of suffering that hang upon a word.
And if the Holy Office of the Saints, the Inquisition,
would press its interpretations and its sanctities
upon the bustling, open disputatious congresses
of Venice, God knows himself how many calamities
and injurious actions would boil up in the blood,
what books for which even the oriental or saracen
will pay obeisance to would disappear, their contents
gutted as even have been the bodies of good writing men.
In this I am Venetian, and although my roots are in
the back regions of quiet waterways, of dotted farming fields
that mist at autumn to ghosts of poplars and cathedral bells,
to thick clay soils and a heaviness or constancy,
of things so moving that have always moved upon
the services of bishops and of holy days, still
as I think of the plaster slowly peeling from chapel walls,
the dampness of the enclosing trees, the pessimism
of its farmers and its labouring folk who know
how hard they press this heavy soil for crops, how nigardly
come rows of vegetables in season, how the frost can nip
the forward budding or turn to black watering uselessness
the stalks of lentils or of lilyflowers, still in this
I am Venetian though my son will keep I hope
his marsh-girt property at Veniso. Small men, small hopes
but always sufficient to see in his true place the signatory
of greater. So in this golden period I look back upon
I do not see, nor anyone, how Venice stood
upon the pinnacle of powers that even then
were ebbing backwards as a deepening canker ate
into the fabric of these fantasies. This seething,
bristling world of commerce and rich trade, Chinese
silks and Byzantine needlework, Indian cottons,
the Damascenes and heavy satins of the dutiful,
long-bordered northern countries, the furs of fox
and otter skins, the astrokans and thick-brushed sables
that bring a taste of arctic cold in their long fibres,
the scent of musk deer and the brimming Arabian
240. incenses we trade in, hoarding them most carefully
in vaults and go-downs, the varied world of pigments
which I know so well, from rich vermilions, orpiment
and Naples yellow, the Tyrian purple and the azurites
that come from Persia and the Safid kingdom, all these,
although we did not know it were all that moment
slipping out from us, across the Indian and
Arabian Seas, the stormy Atlantic and hard
Horn Passage, year by year diverted, taken from us,
that all our fiddling, feasting, dancing, paying court
250. was on a corpse, a dead man's body or soon to be.

 

The completed poem is here. Venice section started here.

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