Venice


A click of window glass had roused me
Out of my sleep at early dawn.
Beneath me Venice swam in water,
A sodden pretzel made of stone.

It was all quiet now; however,
While still asleep, I heard a cry--
And, like a sign that had been silence,
It still disturbed the morning sky.

It hung--a trident of the Scorpion--
Above the sleeping mandolins
And had been uttered by an angry,
Insulted woman's voice, maybe.

Now it was silent. To the handle
Its fork was stuck in morning haze.
The Grand Canal, obliquely grinning,
Kept looking back--a runaway.

Reality was born of dream-shreds
Far-off, among the hired boats.
Like a Venetian woman, Venice
Dived from the bank to glide afloat.

Boris Pasternak--Venice, 1913 (revised 1928)
Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater

My concern has always been for meaning, and my dream that every poem should have content in itself--a new thought or a new image. And that the whole of it with all its individual character should be engraved so deeply into the book that it should speak from it with all the silence and with all the colors of its colorless black print.

Thus I wrote a poem called "Venice," and another called "The Railway Station".  What I saw before me as I was writing was the town standing on the water, the figures-of-eight and circles of its reflections drifting, multiplying, swelling like a biscuit soaked in tea. Or the distance of the railway station, where the tracks and platforms end in clouds and smoke and the trains vanish, and the skyline of departure ends the history of situations--meetings and farewells and events before and after them.

I was concerned neither with myself nor with my readers nor with the theory of art. All I cared about was that one poems should contain the town of Venice, and the other the Brest (now called the Byelorussian-Baltic) railway station.

---from Pasternak's An Essay in Autobiography

This was intended to serve as the introduction for a 1954 collection of Pasternak's poems; the collection never appeared, but the introduction was translated by Manya Harari and published in London in 1959.

Into my heart an air that kills



Into my heart an air that kills
  From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
  What spires, what farms are those?

This is the land of lost content,
  I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
  And cannot come again.

A.E. Housman (1859-1936) spent much of his life as a Latin professor at Trinity College, Cambridge, concentrating on arcane areas of Latin scholarship and acquiring a reputation as aloof and demanding. He seemed an unlikely candidate to have written one of the most beloved poetry collections in English.

His A Shropshire Lad was published in a tiny edition in 1896. According to Housman himself, his style had been shaped by Shakespeare, the Border Ballads of Scotland and the poems of Germany's Heinrich Heine. Inspired by those models, Housman created a unique voice that reminds us of poetry's ability to produce heart-shaking emotion with a handful of words.

Housman's collection was a book people loved to read and share: Thomas Hardy received a copy at Christmas in 1902. Later admirers included Robert Graves, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Randall Jarrell liked Housman's poetry so much he wrote his Vanderbilt master's thesis about it. T.S. Eliot said simply, "We should all write poetry like Housman, if only we could."