27 January 2007

from War and Peace, volume II, part II, chapter 12 (Leo Tolstoy, trans. Anthony Briggs)

Prince Andrey listened to Pierre in silence, looking ahead. Once or twice he missed something because of the rumbling wheels and asked Pierre to repeat what he had said. Noting a peculiar glint in Prince Andrey's eyes and also his reluctance to speak, Pierre could see that his words were not falling on stony ground and Prince Andrey was not going to interrupt or laugh at anything he said.

They came to a river that had burst its banks, making it necessary for them to cross by ferry. While the men saw to the carriage and horses they walked on to the ferry-boat. Prince Andrey leant his elbows on the rail and gazed silently over the flood-water, which gleamed in the setting sun.

[...] Prince Andrey didn't answer. The coach and horses had long been taken over to the other bank and harnessed up again, the sun had half-set and the evening frost was sprinkling the pools near the ferry with stars, but - to the astonishment of the servants, coachmen and ferryhands - Pierre and Andrey were still on the boat, talking.

[...] (He pointed up to the sky.) Prince Andrey was still standing with his elbows on the rail of the ferry, and as he listened to Pierre he never took his eyes off the sun's red reflection on the shining blue water. Pierre stopped talking. There was absolute stillness. The ferry had long since come to the bank, and the only sound came from the river, with waves plashing softly against the bottom of the boat. Prince Andrey half-imagined that the lapping of the water sounded like a chorus echoing what Pierre had been saying: 'This is the truth. Believe it.'

[...] 'Yes, if only it was true!' he said. 'Anyway, let's get back to the carriage,' added Prince Andrey, and as he walked off the ferry he looked up at the sky where Pierre had pointed, and for the first time since Austerlitz he saw it again, the lofty, eternal sky, just as he had seen it when he lay on the battlefield, and suddenly something inside him that had long lain dormant, something better than before, awoke in his soul with a feeling of youth and joy. It was a feeling that would vanish as soon as Prince Andrey got back to the normal run of everyday life, but he was sure, without knowing what to do with it, that this feeling was still there inside him. Pierre's visit marked a new age for Prince Andrey, a time when his life, although outwardly unchanged, began again in his own inner world.

14 January 2007

Juliet of Nations, from Casa Guidi Windows (Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

I heard last night a little child so singing
’Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,
O bella libertà, O bella!—stringing
The same words still on notes he went in search
So high for, you concluded the upspringing
Of such a nimble bird to sky from perch
Must leave the whole bush in a tremble green,
And that the heart of Italy must beat,
While such a voice had leave to rise serene
’Twixt church and palace of a Florence street:
A little child, too, who not long had been
By mother’s finger steadied on his feet,
And still O bella libertà he sang.

Then I thought, musing, of the innumerous
Sweet songs which still for Italy outrang
From older singers’ lips who sang not thus
Exultingly and purely, yet, with pang
Fast sheath’d in music, touch’d the heart of us
So finely that the pity scarcely pain’d.
I thought how Filicaja led on others,
Bewailers for their Italy enchain’d,
And how they call’d her childless among mothers,
Widow of empires, ay, and scarce refrain’d
Cursing her beauty to her face, as brothers
Might a sham’d sister’s,—“Had she been less fair
She were less wretched;”—how, evoking so
From congregated wrong and heap’d despair
Of men and women writhing under blow,
Harrow’d and hideous in a filthy lair,
Some personating Image wherein woe
Was wrapp’d in beauty from offending much,
They call’d it Cybele, or Niobe,
Or laid it corpse-like on a bier for such,
Where all the world might drop for Italy
Those cadenced tears which burn not where they touch,—
“Juliet of nations, canst thou die as we?
And was the violet that crown’d thy head
So over-large, though new buds made it rough,
It slipp’d down and across thine eyelids dead,
O sweet, fair Juliet?” Of such songs enough,
Too many of such complaints! behold, instead,
Void at Verona, Juliet’s marble trough:
As void as that is, are all images
Men set between themselves and actual wrong,
To catch the weight of pity, meet the stress
Of conscience,—since ’t is easier to gaze long
On mournful masks and sad effigies
Than on real, live, weak creatures crush’d by strong.