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Literature and Ideas

Sails and Flies

Study of a cow by Silvio Bicchi (1874–1948).
Better by far to sleep on shaded grass
than on a gilded bed. Your purple sheets
don't overawe me. I'm at ease, at last.

Perhaps a cheerful heart can overthrow
all darker thoughts and every sordid pain.
I feel completely calm and unalone.

As sun begins to dawn, the cows repeat
their gentle sounds, herds harmonising peacefully.
Perchè dolce più assai era fra l’erba 
Sotto l’ombre dormir queto e sicuro, 
Che ne’ dorati letti, e di superba 
Porpora ornati: e forse più ogn' oscuro 
Pensier discaccia, ed ogni doglia acerba, 
Sentir col cor tranquillo, allegro, e puro 
Nell’ apparir del Sol mugghiar gli armenti, 
Che l’armonia de’ più soavi accenti.

Vittoria Colonna (1492–1547)

The Cause of Things

Close-up of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa,
sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
From never-ending yearnings rise
our ending deeds that tremble like
the falling fruit, borne before its time
of fruitless weeping. Paradise
is felt through one's organic might —
a truth shown by those flitting cries,
but one well hidden otherwise.
Aus unendlichen Sehnsüchten steigen
endliche Taten wie schwache Fontänen,
die sich zeitig und zitternd neigen.
Aber, die sich uns sonst verschweigen,
unsere fröhlichen Kräfte — zeigen
sich in diesen tanzenden Tränen.

Rainer Maria Rilke


Alert to the sounds of early nothings. Dark
and abandoned auroral streets. Hand on metalwork.

The rustling stopped me, threatened an ignorance.
Scanned for its source, which stayed unseen. I glanced —

Balled at my feet — the creature calmly disturbed.
It lay on the pavement like a kitten barbed.


There lies my childhood,
high on that hill.
I see its inhabited
lights from my night-
time carriage.

Pulling in at the station,
the burning stench
of crop-stalks
hits me.

A spreading, ancient stench,
like the various voices
I seem to hear
call me.

But the train drives on. I don't know where to.

The friend beside me, he barely stirs.

No one thinks, can conceive,
what this land of my birth
might mean as I speed
on through like an
Giace lassù la mia infanzia.
Lassù in quella collina
ch'io riveggo di notte,
passando in ferrovia,
segnata di vive luci.
Odor di stoppie bruciate
m'investe alla stazione.
Antico e sparso odore
simile a molte voci che mi chiamino.
Ma il treno fugge. Io vo non so dove.
M'è compagno un amico
che non si desta neppure.
Nessuno pensa o immagina
che cosa sia per me
questa materna terra ch'io sorvolo
come un ignoto, come un traditore.

Vincenzo Cardarelli (1887–1959)

Brave be the Poet

The scaredy cats
strut out in packs,
while lions roam
the sands alone.

May poets always walk like lions.
Les animaux lâches vont en troupes.
Le lion marche seul dans le désert.
Qu'ainsi marche toujours le poète.

from a diary entry, dated 1847
Alfred de Vigny (1797–1863)

Mad Mask

On my wall hangs
a Japanese mask that's
carved out of wood:
an evil demon,
laquered in gold.

I watch with compassion
its temple-veins bulge: they speak
of how much it hurts to be cruel.
An meiner Wand hängt ein japanisches Holzwerk,
Maske eines bösen Dämons, bemalt mit Goldlack.
Mitfühlend sehe ich
Die geschwollenen Stirnadern, andeutend
Wie anstrengend es ist, böse zu sein.

Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956)

High Horse

I rode a horse
over cloud-strewn fields,
submerging myself
in the smouldering day.

No stopping me going
to God knows where.
Not a horse, but a ship.
Not a ship, but desire.

It was a horse,
as never seen
before. The head
of a courser, dressed

in delirium. Wind
that neighs as it spreads.
I was still riding
and gestured my words:

“Follow my track,
my best of best friends,
come on, you can:
the route is restful,

the sky is uncast.
But who is it who speaks?
At this height, I lose track
of myself. So can you

work it out? I’m the one
who was speaking before.
Am I still the same person
I was when I spoke?

And, friends, are you
the same as you were?
As we climb, we change
and we blur, you and I.”
J’avais un cheval
Dans un champ de ciel
Et je m’enfonçais
Dans le jour ardent.
Rien ne m’arrêtait
J’allais sans savoir,
C’était un navire
Plutôt qu’un cheval,
C’était un désir
Plutôt qu’un navire,
C’était un cheval
Comme on n’en voit pas,
Tête de coursier,
Robe de délire,
Un vent qui hennit
En se répandant.
Je montais toujours
Et faisais des signes :
« Suivez mon chemin,
Vous pouvez venir,
Mes meilleurs amis,
La route est sereine,
Le ciel est ouvert.
Mais qui parle ainsi ?
Je me perds de vue
Dans cette altitude,
Me distinguez-vous,
Je suis celui qui
Parlait tout à l’heure,
Suis-je encor celui
Qui parle à présent,
Vous-mêmes, amis,
Êtes-vous les mêmes ?
L’un efface l’autre
Et change en montant. »

Jules Supervielle (1884–1960)