Milan, 26 March 2023
A few days ago, I realised with a start that it was my father’s birthday. He would have been 106 years old had he made it this far – a venerable age indeed. But he shuffled off this mortal coil some twenty years ago already, and hopefully is singing with the choirs invisible (although he was terribly tone deaf; hearing him sing was a sufferance).
I am now at an age when I can reflect on my father more as an equal than as a Father Figure. We were never really that close: a generational thing, I think – he was a child of the severe, repressed, melancholic post-War 1930s, I was a child of the optimistic 1960s. But the gap between us was intensified by our different characters – he was a brooder, I never brood. I don’t suppose it helped that I hardly grew up with him. From the ages of 8 to 18 I spent three-quarters of the year away from the family. Most of that was in boarding school, but one school holiday a year was also spent with relations; for all of my life my father worked outside the UK.
But in one thing, I recognise a deep similarity; he was, and I am, a romantic. In my case, I feel it is of a piece with my cheerful character. But in his case, it was quite surprising. Normally, he was a measured man, carefully balancing all things, and pronouncing well argued verdicts; not surprisingly, he had spent much of the first half his working life as a judge and spent the second half ensconced in a law school as a professor. But when it came to poetry, my father’s romantic side emerged into the light and he was floridly, lushly, ridiculously romantic. It seems to me that his 106th birthday is a good excuse to pay tribute to his poetic inclinations (very different from mine, I have to say), through flashbacks of moments when he bared his romantic soul to me through poetry.
Omar Kahyam’s Rubaiyat, or rather Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of it, was a favourite of his. I still have memories, fond ones now, pleasantly blurred by the passage of time, of my father declaiming quatrains from Edward Fitzgerald’s – very loose – translation of the Rubaiyat. This was one of his favourite quotes – I still see him in my mind’s eye declaiming it at lunch one day.
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
He once asked me what I thought of Fitzgerald’s poetry. In the callowness of my youth, I found it precious and somewhat ridiculous, but I smiled diplomatically and I think – at least, I hope – I managed not to sound too, too negative (although I have to say that even with the wisdom of old age I find Fitzgerald’s poetry too precious for my tastes). After his death, when my mother invited me to go through his books and take those I wanted, I took his copy of the Rubaiyat. It still graces my shelves.
Once my father retired, he gave freer rein to his poetic inclinations. On one of my infrequent trips to visit my parents, he confessed to me an adoration of Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso. He declared that when he read Dante – in the original, old Italian; he was a gifted linguist – the verse would grip him in his vitals. I was rather startled by this turn of phrase from such a measured man. One of my sisters bought him a large, expensive, limited edition, book of Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso, complete with pictures. But that I didn’t take. In the first place, it weighed a ton. But in addition I was also mindful of what my father said to my mother-in-law when my parents came down to Milan to meet her for the first time. She had proudly shown him one of her treasured possessions, an exact replica of the Bible of Borso d’Este. It’s a beautiful book, enlivened throughout with lovely miniatures.
But my father told her that he was interested in reading books rather than admiring them. The poor woman was quite deflated.
I join him in loving Dante – although in my case, in modern Italian “translation” – but our differing characters brought us to diverge on which parts we liked most. Thoroughly romantic as he was, it was the parts where Dante dwells on his impossible love for Beatrice in Paradise which he delighted in most.
I, instead, found Dante’s Paradise really boring. But his Hell was wonderful, full of fantastic and fun characters.
There was also a time when the opening lines of Inferno resonated with me:
When half way through the journey of our life
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost.
Have we not all asked ourselves at some point in the later years of our lives if we have strayed from the path we should have taken? What if I had taken that other job, gone to that other university? … What if … what if …?
Another set of books – notebooks, actually – that I took after my father’s death was the diary he wrote from the ages of 16 to 22. This is the first volume.
The diaries start abruptly at the beginning of 1934 – perhaps the result of a New Year’s resolution – and finish equally abruptly in 1939, a piece of blotting paper still sitting between the pages waiting to dry the next entry. Reading them was wonderful. Suddenly, the older man with such gravitas that I had known became a young lad doing silly things with his friends. It is really quite endearing. In the later diaries, when he’s at University, he tells of how he meets my mother, the French friend of his sister’s who is in the UK to brush up her English. Knowing how the story ends (and personally very thankful that it ends that way, allowing me as it does to be born!), it’s a treat to read “hot off the press” how their relationship unfolded. The first thing my father did was to take my mother up to his rooms for tea and cake (I was quite surprised he was allowed to do this, perhaps he smuggled her in) and they read poetry out loud. He chose to read “The Isles of Greece” by Byron.
The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.
The Scian and the Teian muse,
The hero’s harp, the lover’s lute,
Have found the fame your shores refuse:
Their place of birth alone is mute
To sounds which echo further west
Than your sires’ ‘Islands of the Blest’.
The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
It goes on a good deal longer but I think my readers get the picture. Definitely not a poem I would have chosen, but my father was overwhelmed with emotion, confiding to his diary that “there were tears in my eyes most of the time and I was quivering all over when I had finished.”
My father writes that my mother read a French poem, although he doesn’t report which one she chose. I’m sure it was in a romantic vein; my mother also had a wide romantic streak running through her soul.
My father’s diaries show that the Young Him imagined himself as quite the man about town. Even while building the relationship with my mother, he continued flirting outrageously with other women. In some cases, he was even moved to turn his hand to writing poems about them. As I went through his papers after his death, I came across a cache of these poems, typed up; my father was an intensive user of the typewriter, the rapid click of its keys being a constant soundtrack to my youth. In truth, the poems are not very good, but I treasure them. And at least he tried to write poetry. I have never dared, except for one light-hearted “poem” (rhyming doggerel, really) which I wrote many years ago in response to a poem my son had written at primary school – both poems hang on the wall, side by side, in our apartment.
In his fifties, my father turned back to an earlier love, that of Latin poetry; he had studied Latin and Greek at school and did Classics at University, and he had never lost his deep admiration of the Classics (an admiration he tried to instil in me with embarrassing results; I barely scraped a pass in Latin and Greek at O-levels and then escaped from these hated subjects forever). He was particularly fond of the love poems of Catullus and dedicated his spare moments in his later years to translating them. I remember him trying out one of his translations on me. I think it was of this poem, which is one of Catullus’s better known love poems (I give it in translation, although not translated by my father).
Let us live, my Lesbia, let us love,
and all the words of the old, and so moral,
may they be worth less than nothing to us!
Suns may set, and suns may rise again:
but when our brief light has set,
night is one long everlasting sleep.
Give me a thousand kisses, a hundred more,
another thousand, and another hundred,
and, when we’ve counted up the many thousands,
confuse them so as not to know them all,
so that no enemy may cast an evil eye,
by knowing that there were so many kisses.
I remember that his version had the line “Kiss me, Kate” in it somewhere. I suppose he was trying to modernise the poem, Lesbia not being a name one hears nowadays. Why Kate? Maybe it gave him a rhyme, maybe he found the double K pleasing. In any event, I smiled and murmured something noncommittal before escaping. Quite recently, I laughed out loud when on a family WhatsApp group my younger sister confessed to doing the same when my father buttonholed her to try out one of his translations on her. Where did those translations go, I wonder? I found no trace of them among his papers. Perhaps he despaired and threw them away.
I wanted to finish this post with a poem written by a son to his father, but the only one I could find which was half-way satisfying was the poem by Dylan Thomas where he is talking to his dying father. It starts:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Alas, the poem is too late for my father, the dying of the light happened twenty years ago for him. And anyway I’m not sure he would have burned and raved at the close of his day. He believed in God and an afterlife (another difference between him and me) and I’m sure he saw Death as merely a doorway to be passed through to another life.
So let me finish instead with a poem which I dedicate to my wife – my Lesbia, my Kate, my Beatrice. It is a sonnet written by Shakespeare, and it speaks of the love one has in the late autumn of our lives. More satisfying, I think, than the lush romance my father delighted in.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.