Limestone, Berlusconi and “the glorious dead”

I’ve blogged before about W.H. Auden’s poem In Praise of Limestone, but it’s been much in my mind lately as I read Auden’s Selected Poems (finally caving in to the long-dawning realisation that he’s going to end up as one of my favourite poets).

It’s also rather topical for this week. The poem as a whole describes southern Italy (it was written while Auden was staying in Ischia, pictured above):

What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm?

Hard not to think of the “flirtatious male”, “never doubting / That for all his faults he is loved” whose leadership of Italy has been so dominant in recent news.

That stanza continues with a lovely interpretation of the Italian landscape as the product of a younger child’s attempts to gain attention through charm (Auden being the third of three sons, a situation with which my wife and I are very familiar!):

                                                             From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

This reminds me of the suggestion that the medieval cathedrals of northern Europe were the product of devotion to the Virgin Mary (“Mother”).

Returning to Mr Berlusconi, his insouciant dismissal of concerns about Italy’s economy (“the restaurants are full!”) suggests that he fits well Auden’s description of those:

                                                                                    unable
To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay: for accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed…

(And Auden’s surely intentional double entendre about “a good lay” fits the bill pretty well, too!)

Then there’s this, describing how Italy cannot be dismissed as easily as disdainful and patronising northern Europeans may want to assume:

                                         A backward
And dilapidated province, connected
To the big busy world by a tunnel, with a certain
Seedy appeal, is that all it is now? Not quite:
It has a worldly duty which in spite of itself
It does not neglect, but calls into question
All the Great Powers assume…

On to a completely separate news story now: the furore over the wearing of Remembrance Day poppies, an annual tradition which this year seems to have hit new heights. I don’t want to get into that particular discussion, but what it has highlighted is a lack of ease in our relationship with the dead, and over what does and doesn’t “honour” them.

                                                                      But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide.

In all the arguments over what does and doesn’t honour “the war dead”, these lines remind us that this is ultimately an argument about the living, and of how we live together. “The blessed” are beyond all this – if “sins can be forgiven” and “bodies rise from the dead”.

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