Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947
Chapter Seven — Italy, France, Germany
Italy, France, Germany
during my first term, the de Beers moved from Well Walk to Queen Anne's Mansions, a huge dark-red late-Victorian pile that rose just to the south of St James's Park. Queen Anne's provided comfortable flats with service, and meals in a general dining-room if you wished. It was a forbidding place to me. Through an arch from the street you entered a gloomy canyon courtyard among the very high wings of the Mansions; commissionaires in tail coats stood at the doors; inside were carpeted halls, lifts, waiters, all the deadening impersonalia of such institutions. But it was undoubtedly convenient; the de Beers made the flat they took seem partly home-like; and living there had its incidental interest. I remember two other inhabitants being pointed out to me in the dining-room, a very old man who was Sir James Frazer of The Golden Bough, and his wife. Aunt Agnes lived not so far away in Onslow Gardens; she was constantly with the de Beers.
The family love of Italy usually took the de Beers and Aunt Agnes to Rome in winter; and that year they took Lel and me with them — my father had returned to New Zealand. We stayed in one of the rather grand international hotels on the Via Veneto (Uncle Isidore's choice, I think), but I soon took the grandeur lightly — it had none of the drab depressing quality of the hotel in Northumberland Avenue; it was to be enjoyed, and we were as free as we wished. All the party were there to see Rome, and most of them were to get to know it well, only Lel and I did not know it already. Esmond especially made himself expert in the history of the city and its buildings and works of art; as part of his work on Evelyn's Diary he got together an unsurpassed collection of guide-books to Rome from the earliest down to page 155the eighteenth century. In five weeks, Rome became one of the towns I knew best; after Dunedin, Queenstown and Oamaru, London and Oxford, virtually the only one I knew.
We made excursions into the country; to the Alban Hills, where we walked from Frascati up to the ancient Tusculum and beyond, looking over the wide Campagna to the city, the Pontine marshes and the sea; to Ostia; and north into the Tiber country dominated by Mount Soracte and by Monte Gennaro in the Sabine Mountains to the east. There one day we walked from Castelnuovo on the Via Flaminia towards the loops of the river in its low valley-bed of Mentana where Garibaldi was defeated in 1867 by French and Papal troops. Another day we visited the site of Etruscan Veii, a muddy cross-country walk which brought us to tall thick woods and an ancient man-made tunnel cut through rock for the passage of a stream, Ponte Sodo — I recall no more than that. On this last expedition, and probably on others, we had the dry but alert company of Professor Arnold Wall from Canterbury College, with one of his daughters. The de Beers and Aunt Agnes had walked or driven to many celebrated places near Rome, and there was constant talk of these among us, what to see first of them and how best to reach them, until the splendid names with their tolling, clashing, resolving rhythms rang and rang in my head — Leprignano and Morlupo, Isola Farnese, Palombara-Marcellina, Fara Sabina and the Benedictine abbey of Farfa, Olevano Romano, Zagarolo, Capranica, Lanuvio, Trojan Cori above the Pontine Marshes, and Ninfa, and Sermoneta.
Strangely on that visit I made no attempt to learn Italian. I felt ashamed of it afterwards. But the succession of new impressions bursting over me in waves — first London, then Oxford, now the flood of Italy — was so powerful in its effect that I responded — I must suppose — only to immediacies, grand and trivial alike. J certainly delighted in all the small but important novelties and pleasures of daily life, manners, sights, sounds (the man singing a song from Verdi below my window as he wheeled his barrow through the streets of the Ludovisi quarter in the early morning); food above all — the excellent crusty bread, the various coffees, nero, cappuccino, al latte, the rich hot chocolate with cream (cioccolato con panna) that I regularly took at after-page 156noon noon tea, and the delicious ices of all kinds that we sampled in so many cafes and tea-rooms: Miss Babington's at the foot of the Spanish Steps (it had been run not long before that time bytwo Miss Cargills from Dunedin, daughters of Captain Cargill), Rosati's in the Via Veneto, Latour in Palazzo Colonna, those in the Hotel de Russie in Piazza del Popolo and the Castello dei Cesari on the Aventine, with its fine view across the Circus Maximus to the ruins of the Palatine and the bell towers and apses on the Caelian. Food and drink were our welcome and indeed necessary reward for two hours of walking, exploring churches, descending into crypts, climbing among ruins, looking at paintings, statues, Cosmati work on walls and pavements, mosaics which one craned one's neck to make out on ceilings or peered at in faint light in Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana and a score of other churches — and all this on cold, often grey winter afternoons, sometimes in a tramontana as bitter as any New Zealand southerly direct from the pole.
I responded to all I saw, was told, and read about as well as I was able to in my raw state. I was as ready for Italy as pictures and books and talk at Manono could make me. My taste was quite unformed: I was open to all impressions, not apparently disposed to prefer one artist or one style of architecture or decoration to another. And yet I accepted and rejected immediately, without reflection, without reason. The restrained delicate early Renaissance style of the Palazzo della Cancellaria, and the sculpture that seemed to go with it, work by Mino da Fiesole in Santa Maria in Trastevere and elsewhere, the later Palazzo Farnese, with its superb boldness and strength, still classical in its control under Michelangelo's tremendous perilous cornice — these appealed to me at once and I needed no explanation to perceive their beauty and Tightness. But everything merely formal, everything over-ripe and ornate, repelled me; so I thoroughly disliked the Gesù with its theatrical opulence, its statues and frescoes of gesticulating saints, its columns coated with lapis lazuli, the heavy stale incense, the whole intense inbred Counter-Reformation Catholicism of the architecture and decoration. The refinements of those two neighbour churches, Bernini's Sant' Andrea al Quirinale and Borromini's San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, passed me by entirely. Esmond page 157wanted me to look at all these. And yet I had no doubt about Bernini's dramatic colonnade in St Peter's Square; and none whatever about Michelangelo. True, I had grown up with Michelangelo; figures from the Sistine ceiling hung at Manono; and St Peter's Square had been familiar to me for nearly as long.
I did not respond fully to Italy on that first winter visit. It was later that it captivated me completely, when I watched it steep everything seen and heard in 'a bath of azure light', so that each time I entered the country my senses seemed to wake from a long sleep — that renewal of senses and spirit which Shelley speaks of in the preface to Prometheus Unbound but which takes place for me not only in spring but at any time of year. Italian light has a glow and bloom which I have not found in any other country, although I think Greece may claim it (I know Greece little); a glow of substantial existence, of body, which in turn lends to forms and colours an intensity that they possess nowhere else. Italy can be grey wet dark cold, but it is light by nature; its mountains, plains, sea-coasts, fields, trees seem to have been conceived in and shaped by the light, as do its buildings, and the extraordinary shades of colour that soil and rocks, trees, pastures and buildings all take on; the light gives them an eloquence, a dramatic quality, a tenderness also, that belong to Italy alone. I seemed to myself to come to life and to live more fully in Italy than elsewhere, to be alert and responsive to a degree I had not known before both inwardly and outwardly; particularly in seeing, my keenest sense.
At the end of the following year I went to Rome again, with my cousin Erik who was in his first year at Wadham. Aunt Agnes had now gone to live in Rome, in a quiet flat high up off Via del Babuino where we stayed with her. Round the corner in Via Marghetta lived Dora's friend Hazel Jackson with her mother, a maid or two, a dog or two, and a friendly handsome chauffeur, Girolamo. Hazel was an American sculptor, Dora's age, in her mid-thirties, with a little talent, great zest for living, and ardour, and generosity; one of those people whose company makes mere being alive more vivid and absorbing.
First of Aunt Agnes's other foreign friends in Rome, and page 158soon mine too, was Ethel Englefield, a delightful, hospitable, middle-aged woman who lived very modestly with her brother Tom in a block of flats across the Tiber, in a street in the bleak new quarter north of the Borgo and the Palace of Justice. They came of a family which did not turn Protestant at the Reformation or later; there were notable Catholic Englefields under Elizabeth; late last century their parents had settled in Rome, and Ethel's only sister became a nun, now stationed in England. Ethel was deeply and devoutly Catholic. The church and its services, its fasts and festivals, were the espalier on which she grew — more, they were her house of life; as lovable, exacting and unrelenting day by day as they were ample and satisfying.
My first acquaintance with Italian life from within came when I stayed with a Florentine family during the long vacation of 1929. I had chosen the Italian Renaissance as my special subject for history honours, which meant learning the language well enough to read a few writers of that time, Guicciardini, Machiavelli, Vasari, Castiglione and others. On my first morning in his house, Professore Scarafia sat me down to the first canto of Dante, and proceeded to take me through it; later he introduced me to Leopardi and found me a good annotated edition of the Canti; he also got for me a very handsome edition of Michelangelo's Rime, newly published. A reserved kindly man — there were such years, such worlds, between us — he always called me in his courteous Italian way Signorino, young sir, which was new to me and charming. He knew some English, but his wife none; only Italian was spoken in their flat. They lived a little out of the town, on the way to Fiesole. He had been a teacher (whether a university professor or not I never found out), but owing to his anti-fascist views had lost one position after another, and could live now only by taking in one or two pupils. Evidently his life would have been easier in every way had he merely conformed and kept his mouth shut, but he was Dante's fellowcountryman and not one to choose a life without either shame or praise. His experience reinforced what I had learned from Alfredo.
I bathed in Florence and the summer; walked and gazed page 159and daydreamed, drinking in so many sights half-familiar and half-strange that it seemed I was as much recollecting as discovering. I found again that I was drawn most to the stronger and more severe artists — but to some of the more tender too. In Masaccio's fresco of the Tribute Money in the Carmine - a group of figures of dramatic monumental gravity standing against a few spare trees beneath solemn towering mountains — I felt a musical rhythm of a quality rare in painting, architectural in its power; later I learned that Chinese painting has such rhythm, more lyrical and detached in feeling.
No one can walk about Rome and Florence without being dogged by Michelangelo, haunted by him, subjected to him. In both towns you meet him more often and in more roles than any other artist. Bernini makes a distant second to him in Rome. He is the one artist you cannot escape. He might (it comes to you sometimes) have created the Renaissance single-handed; but then you remember the world he grew up in, the riches that nourished him. His works compel and challenge uniquely because they outdo all others in the authority of their immediacy that unites beauty and terribilità. We may not want to live with them all the time, but once known they do not cease to pose their questions and make demands on us. They are irresistible; we are drawn back to them again and again because in them humanity is shown greater than its everyday self. It is not necessary to see Michelangelo's work itself to enjoy and appreciate it; photographs today can bring it remarkably close. And yet to see St Peter's, the Sistine Chapel, the Medici tombs, is an experience of the senses and the whole being for which there is no substitute. I am grateful that I saw them when young and in such a way that I could not ignore or refuse them; they entered into me and remained. When I went on to read Michelangelo's difficult poems, and slowly understood that his consuming, torturing love of God was inseparable from his love for other people and found compulsive expression chiefly through that love, for his demanding family, for Tommaso de' Cavalieri, for Vittoria Colonna (and the poems spell out what the sculptures, paintings and drawings state visually) I began to divine the extreme complexity of the sources of works of art, and the ambiguities of the notion of inspiration and of the nature of art.page 160
Leopardi too had come to me for life. I learned first, learned by heart, those fifteen deceptively simple lines of 'L'Infinito', whose rhythms and associations can convey to very few foreigners (certainly not to me) what they must say to Italians, but whose fusion of sound and sense told me at once that here was poetry as pure and profound as almost any I knew. One can never account for the effect that lines of poetry and musical phrases have on oneself and on others; the same lines and phrases touch many people, yet touch everyone differently. Some of Leopardi's sank into me:
Dove ogni ben di mille pene è frutto
Uscir di pena / E diletto fra noi
Viene il vento recando il suon dell' ora
Dalle torre del borgo
Solo il mio cor piaceami, e col mio core
In un perenne ragionar sepolto
Alla guardia seder del mio dolore
Come passata sei,
Cara compagna dell' età mia nova,
Mia lacrimata speme!
It is by his masterly control of the rhythm sustained through long sentences in which every word is lovingly, unerringly placed to carry the burden of his anguish and compassion and penetrating insight into the human condition, that Leopardi makes felt his incomparable sense of the beauty of the world and the ultimate calm to which overwhelming despair leads him.
The other great language I learned then was a painter's, that of Piero della Francesca, whose work I had first loved in London. There is nothing of his in Florence except the portraits of Federigo da Montefeltro and his wife. But I made a small tour of Tuscan towns, ending with Arezzo. To Pisa first — Byron's Pisa, but Shelley's far more; his swallows still skimmed the Arno that curved between the embankments and their sober palaces; the whole space a great pool and highway of tranquil, glowing light in which I seemed to walk bathed and aglow myself. Quiet streets of easy dignity led from the river to that other magnet, the Piazza del Duomo, cathedral and baptistery page 161and Leaning Tower and Campo Santo, white apparitions resting lightly on the green turf. Shelley and Byron chose well, I thought; what more appealing town for a calm life could one imagine? But Piero's work in Arezzo I was never to forget, or his Resurrection, or his tiny Flagellation which I saw at Urbino in the following year. No painter's work carries greater calm of unassertive unquestioning conviction; none carries greater majesty; its richness is both easy and severe; his men and women are earthly gods who enact the Biblical and Christian stories in serene possession of a world dazzling in its beauty, a world which is also Piero's world and ours.
Falling in love with Italy on my first visit, I found further reasons for loving it on each later visit, more to interest and excite and satisfy me. It seemed to anticipate, and to answer abundantly, all the urgencies springing up in me; the hunger for beauty of every kind, for proportion, for meaning; the need to understand. Involvement with Italy also brought me closer to Grandfather and my aunts, to all that Manono stood for. The very sound and rhythm of the name Italy rang and sang with its concentrated meaning. Its hold on me was strengthened because wherever I went lines of the English poets who had gone before me came to my mind. I could never enter Piazza di Spagna nor climb the Spanish Steps unaware of Keats's house, as if its windows were still watching with his eyes. 'Go then to Rome': and Shelley's spirit started up again and again, from the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, Palazzo Cenci, the Baths of Caracalla. I did not yet know Goethe's Roman Elegies, but I saw his son's grave not far from Shelley's, and his house stood on the Corso, and he had sat in the Caffè Greco in Via Condotti. I did not yet know Clough and his Amours de Voyage, which became very real and close to me later when his Bothie and his friendship with Tom Arnold were making him, for James and me and others, one of the elect among New Zealand's spiritual ancestors. Nor Landor. But Byron, Shelley, Browning, with Wordsworth, Tennyson, Arnold and Swinburne, and a few lines of Milton, and in a different way Shakespeare, had given to countless Italian scenes and events a life which made them English too, whether in England or New Zealand. I saw early in mind that 'castle, precipice-encurled/In a gash of the wind-page 162grieved Apennine', imagined the 'palace in Florence, the world knows well', loved the world with Pippa at Asolo. I loved it especially in Arnold's Empedocles, in the morning-clear freshness of those descriptive passages which put on me a particular spell of their own, and which I repeated to myself again and again like bars of music in the Otago mountains, identifying Sicily with New Zealand. Shelley went with me at almost every step I took in his 'Paradise of exiles', from the Venice of Julian and Maddalo and 'the quenchless ashes of Milan', to the Naples of the 'Stanzas written in Dejection'.
I can see now that while I made its past my present, I did not come close enough to its present. Fascism and all its works repelled me — the violence and falsehood, the pettiness and empty boasting, the provincial shoddiness. I knew no Italian artist or writer who witnessed against it. Silone, yes, but Fontamara was not translated until some years later, 1934, and I misread it then as an almost purely political novel, so that it did not affect me as it ought to have. Silone, too appeared to be completely isolated, a small voice alone in a wilderness of desolation. I had read virtually no Italian poetry later than Carducci; I heard of Lauro de Bosis when he flew to his death scattering anti-fascist leaflets over Rome in 1931 but did not read his poems; and I did not know of the existence of any living Italian poets until, I believe, the early forties, when I read translations of Quasimodo in Encounter.
italy drew me more strongly and persistently than any other country; it was unthinkable not to go to Italy at least once every year, to renew one's own life by drinking deep of its intenser life. But I had to spend my first long vacation in France and Germany.
I stayed for July and early August with a family in Tours. My hostess, voluminous and voluble, started talking as soon as I arrived and talked to me solidly for two days without requiring a syllable in reply; then she began asking questions, and found that I had not understood a single word. I had been fairly well grounded at Waitaki, but had not heard French spoken. Now page 163listening and talking most of the day and night, and reading French, and hearing no English, I soon learned to follow, and even to speak, fairly fast in the end although very badly. I saw the chateau country and its famous monuments, admired and enjoyed them, but was not moved as by Italy; partly because the styles of architecture were unfamiliar and did not touch me in any direct way — Chinon was poetical, Chenonceaux seemed merely elegant in a way that was little to my taste.
I was flattered one day to be asked by some Americans whether I was Italian. At night we sat in a cafe with our single drinks that lasted for the evening while Madame told me about the habitues and her neighbours and made me talk in turn. She took me to her daughter's wedding at Alençon, where I was made useful by being put in charge of a rich female relation whom none of the family liked but who had to be placated. She was squat and plain and not young — I being chosen specially for her, she was told, as a young and interesting foreigner; I had to escort her into church, and sit beside her at the feast afterwards, where I first met lobster and was baffled how to eat it. If only I had stayed in Tours twice as long, I might have solidified my grasp of French.
I went back to France a year later, and with my cousin Erik took a summer course at the Sorbonne. But I chose badly, taking a course in French history which did very little to improve my French, while Erik more wisely took one in the language. Paris in July and August is too hot for comfort; we gasped in the exhausting blinding streets by day, and wilted by night sitting naked in our airless pension room trying to prepare work for the next day. We saw all we could of Paris. I grew to love Notre Dame, and the towering, rustling poplars by the Seine, and the Musee Cluny, and admired Rodin while only half understanding him. I can recall almost no painting in Paris from that visit, although we certainly went to the Louvre a number of times. It may have been then that I so admired one body of work which was completely new to me, the wonderful Khmer figures of the Musee Guimet, and felt first the inwardness of compassion that moulds the greatest works of Buddhist art.
Paris did not win me; it seemed too self-absorbed, engrossed in its own mystique, its wholly French gloire, implicitly excluding page 164and denying everything except itself. Yet Notre Dame was part of Paris; and Chartres and Beauvais, neither far away, were allies and more than allies of Notre Dame. Colin had prepared me for Chartres, which I was to see again with him. We thought it the crowning point of Gothic; we read Henry Adams on it; we had pictures of its statues and its windows, by which for a time I measured all other works of the kind. It has greater austerity than most Italian and most English churches, due in part to its exposed wind-swept position at the top of the hilly town, amidst wide plains; that helps to give it a sense of being a sacred place, a sanctuary, which few churches possess, not Amiens, nor Bourges, nor Notre Dame, nor, I guess, Rheims. And not Beauvais. Beauvais is breath-taking, inside and out. It does in architecture what some of the figures at Chartres do in sculpture, especially the King of Judah and his companions; but it goes further still, to the perilous limits of possibility, as its history shows. I was to find men who seemed to have gone the same extreme way when I met the last of the Samaritans at their synagogue in Nablus a few years later: very tall emaciated fine-drawn men with skin of transparent ivory, slow of movement, over-refined, exhausted with inbreeding, the end of a race.
I had also seen a little of Germany. From Tours I had gone to Hamburg and then to stay with Erik's family at Krempe, about thirty miles away in Holstein, towards the Kiel canal. Erik's mother Hilda was a niece of Grandfather's, daughter of his only sister, Aunt Julia; his father Harold and Harold's older half-brother Henry owned a tannery at Krempe.
Erik had brains and ambition, but where they would take him was unpredictable. He was very handsome, with fair hair and skin and blue-grey eyes, laughed a lot, but fell easily into heavy curt moods, like his mother; practical rather than imaginative; he walked stooping forward a little with his long arms hanging down and swinging like a gorilla's. He was musical, and played the violin; he thought he would like to enter the German foreign service and become ambassador in London. Why not, today, in 1928? Look at Stresemann. And Oxford might be a good start.page 165
Holstein is low-lying country, protected from flooding by a high thick dyke which runs along the bank of the Elbe for many miles. It lies, as I see it still, in a greenish haze of fields and tall trees, poplars, elms, birches, alders, trees everywhere melting into trees, country of no features but quietly and delicately lovely; receptive to suggestion, I was ready to be drawn into its spell, which I tried to capture in a few poems written then or later. *
In the March vacation the year after, I went to Hanover and Berlin. Hanover, the capital of a small kingdom until 1866, was a musical and educational centre in which the purest German was said to be spoken. It was the provincial metropolis which had drawn those of the family who may not have been bold enough to emigrate but had grown beyond a life in semi-peasant conditions in villages and small towns scattered for sixty miles round. Mother and Emily had been sent to school there for a year while their parents were visiting Europe in the nineties. I had to see the town and meet our relations.
Uncle Richard had a family likeness to Grandfather, without his energy and intelligence; he was small, kindly, correct, a little insubstantial, and collected stamps. He held some grey clerkly job which just kept him and (perhaps with help from Grandfather) allowed him to go walking in the mountains in summer with friends; if Grandfather on visits to Europe took his relatives to Italy or elsewhere, it was at his own expense. Uncle Riphard's wife Aunt Martha had been pretty and was still feather-headed; she dressed with the good taste of her kind and paid German lip-service to a culture she did not understand — went to the opera when she could, to concerts, to the proper art galleries, and knew the names of well-known books and writers. To me she was friendly and amusing and I responded with pleasure for a time. What had to be seen in Hanover hardly excited me; but music was good, and at the excellent opera house I saw both Walküre and a fine production of ha Forza del Destino, which first persuaded me of Verdi's greatness.
Uncle Richard's son Hans took me for excursions. All I page 166remember of Hildesheim, where Grandfather had once gone to school, is the thousand-year-old rose tree growing up the apse of the cathedral. But Pyrmont — to go there was to make a kind of pilgrimage. It was a watering-place with mineral baths, thronged in spring and summer and early autumn. For Grandfather it was also a favourite family meeting place. The Michaelises, grandparents of Bendix Hallenstein and of the Melbourne family, came from the nearby village of Liigde; other relations had lived in Pyrmont itself. Bendix Hallenstein's parents had been married there and his mother later retired there with two of her daughters; my grandparents too had been married there. Set prettily between a small stream and warm wooded hills that shelter it from the north, the small town is laid out formally with tree-lined streets, park, castle, fountain, open-air music.
I went on to Berlin to stay with a German family, since I had now begun to learn the language; but I knew ludicrously little, and could use only the present tense of verbs, which led to laughable misunderstandings. The family that my teacher in Oxford had found for me lived in an orderly new suburb in Tempelhof, not far from the airfield, streets of two-storied brick houses or flats every one in the same plain clean style; well enough planned but depressingly bare and regimented, with meagre plots of garden and no trees yet — perhaps none would be allowed. Every night of my fortnight I went to the opera — Berlin's three opera houses all played continuously — or to a concert. I saw Fidelio twice, Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, Tannhäuser, Meistersinger, and The Flying Dutchman, Orpheus and Eurydice, Freischütz and The Barber of Seville; I heard Verdi's Requiem and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, and Gabrilowitsch and Huberman. Indigestion? Not at all; my appetite was excellent; I knew just what I was doing.
By day I saw the city, the galleries, and visited relations, a sister of Uncle Reuben's and her doctor husband, and another doctor, Hilda's brother Richard and his wife. It was a gloomy and frightening time; when the mark collapsed a few years before and the German middle class lost its savings, the country lost its stability; it had no anchor now, economic or political or spiritual.page 167
A few months later, when our course at the Sorbonne finished, Erik and I went by way of Strasbourg to Munich. After eighteen months at home, my father had returned to Europe for a longer stay, and set off with Lel on a tour of the continent. We joined them for a short time — as short as I could decently make it. My father and I wanted to see some of the same things, but I did not enjoy seeing them with him. Our chief object was the opera — Mozart at the Residenz Theater, a small eighteenth-century opera house, charmingly intimate; and Wagner at the big Prinz Regenten Theater. But my father fell ill; the doctor he consulted seemed to us brutal, and he had to spend a few days in hospital; he spoke no German, so we were thankful to have Erik with us. Worse, we heard at the same time that Aunt Emily de Beer was seriously ill in Dunedin and that Mary and Esmond had left for New Zealand. Esmond was to return home in January; Aunt Emily lived on until the following June.
Everywhere I went that summer, north and south, cities and country, beautiful places and ugly, Germany seemed to me dark: the sun might shine, but it called forth no answering light; and that frightened me obscurely. I did not want to linger in Germany; I could not be happy there as in Italy; I should never feel at home.
I was thankful to escape, soon after my father came out of hospital, and travelling by way of Zurich and the St Gotthard got off the train at Como and took the boat to Bellagio to spend a week there with Aunt Agnes. Bellagio stands on the narrow point where the two southern arms of Lake Como meet the northern arm. The lake might have been an Italian Wakatipu, shorter and narrower; lovelier because of the glowing white villages and villas compact among their trees at the foot of the steep mountain-sides. We made excursions, walked and idled; and I swam and boated, drifting for hours in a dinghy writing Shelleyan verse — we found the sensitive plant in a villa garden on the western shore of the lake. But it was Wordsworth whom I ought to have invoked, since I knew he had walked up the lake for two days as far as Gravedone, after crossing the Alps, as The Prelude tells.
the oxford term is so short and so crowded that undergraduates are expected to do most of their steady reading in vacation. Of course you read and discuss and write essays during term, and well-organized people manage a lot of hard work, as Reggie and Colin and others did. Colin worked regularly in his rooms between tea and dinner, and since he worked fast and with concentration and was not easily diverted he got through more than most people. Lectures and tutorials in the morning, walking and idling from lunch until tea, work between tea and dinner and often in the evening — it made an admirable division of time, and one that I have set before myself ever since. But I was not disciplined enough to follow it consistently.
I knew I had to work in my third year. I had not worked hard yet. I used to go docilely to far too many lectures, simply because they were offering. I can remember almost none of the lectures, or the lecturers, although many of them were wellknown; no lecturer, except perhaps Kenneth Bell at Balliol, seemed to communicate with his audience in the way Gilbert Murray did when Colin took me to hear him: he knew, and loved what he knew, and wished others to know and love, a man speaking to men with all the warmth and charm of his humanity. Or the non-conformist Dr Selbie, who drew large attendances to Mansfield Chapel when he preached on Sundays — a cornered rat, small and wizened and fervent.
In order to work undisturbed (I pretended) I took digs in Norham Road, in a house where I could get meals and would not have to cook for myself; the street was quiet and pleasant. But it was too far out and I should probably have worked just as well in the depressing rabbit-warrens of St John Street or Wellington Square and have seemed less singular and exclusive. I lived more than ever with my friends; we met constantly, ate walked canoed and listened to music together. And I allowed myself more general reading than I had time for.
I went abroad again only once before finals, for a week in April, to meet Colin and Brian Roberts and Reggie. I flew via Brussels to Cologne, saw Aachen, Mainz, Frankfort and the Moselle.
The Christmas vacation I spent with my Uncle Archie Hart at Heathfield. He had inherited from his uncle Maurice Hart page 169an ugly red house among Sussex pines, tame trees which I despised. There he bred pigs on a fairly large scale; fortunately they were kept out of sight and smell just over the brow of the hill, so that one could ignore them. Whether they paid I do not know, but Uncle Arch was serious about them even if we could not be, and then or a little later he became President of the Long White Lop-Eared Pig-Breeding Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the greatest dignitary in the family until Archie Michaelis was made Speaker of the Victorian Parliament.
Not that Uncle Arch boasted. He had no pretensions, and was far from being a man of the world. He had his nose to the ground, as it were, and never saw much further than the end of it. He was quite without graces, and almost without manners, chiefly I think because he lived alone and had forgotten them. He was a kindly and rather likeable man with all his exasperating habits. Lel and I had an open invitation to stay with him whenever we wished, and Heathfield was a good place to work. It was bad luck that the straggling village held nothing of interest and that the country round was unattractive, with little character. I walked in every direction, and occasionally went driving with Uncle Arch in his old staid motor car, to Eastbourne, to Hurstmonceaux to see the castle, to Burwash to pass Kipling's house.
The few people living near whom Uncle Arch knew and invited to 'Risingholme' seemed deadly to me. He had no social life; he was too uncouth. He used to go to sales and buy not single objects but miscellaneous lots, which he spread through every room. A black bear as big as a man greeted you as you entered the dark clotted front room which served as hall and living-room; a huge smoke-blackened landscape said to be by Jacob Jordaens covered most of one wall; other pictures, heavy furniture, stands, ornaments, cloisonné vases and jars, a few books, dark woolly rugs, crowded all the space; only the fire that always burned in cold weather made it tolerable to live in. The house had most things needed for comfort and yet wholly lacked comfort. Uncle Arch camped rather than lived in it; he invariably fell asleep in the evening, and woke himself snoring. page 170In 1930, a great exhibition of Italian art, brought from all over Europe, was held at Burlington House; it included many of the most famous of all paintings. I went to see it first early in January, the day after Esmond arrived back from New Zealand, and again and again until I got to know much of it well. I now had a fair acquaintance with a number of Italian painters, having seen their work not only in Italy but in several other countries. It seemed to me that I had always known it; I did not question that I should always know it in future, and live with it, seeing it constantly and being refreshed by it. And yet I had to take it in and store it up in memory, because I was going to lose it soon, when I returned to New Zealand after finals and, accepting the future prepared for me, entered the family business. Yet I recorded in April — on Shakespeare's birthday, as it happened — that I had talked to Enid of the possibility of a literary magazine in New Zealand; had James and I been corresponding about it? He was in Auckland, at university, and making literary friends.
I drank the summer air full of scent, and watched the swallows after sunset; I heard Tagore lecture twice, a square figure in a white robe, white-haired, with a long white beard. I sat schools — my final exams — in the heat. And one evening after schools (I had heard of Aunt Emily's death only two days before) I was taken to see Twelfth Night, played by the University Dramatic Society in Queen's garden, among rose-beds in front of the classical library building. It was a performance whose effect I have never forgotten. The actors and actresses had freshness and ardour, quickness of response, a genuine feeling for their lines, and all the poise and polish needed, but none of that bland or tired facility, juicy eloquence, tasteless over-acting, which vitiate most professional performances of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster and their contemporaries. No sets were needed; costumes, lamplight and music were sufficient, in that evocative setting, on a summer night, stars coming out half-way through. Our party almost belonged to the play: Colin and one or two others, Joy Scovell, who grew more exquisite every time I saw her, as if with every poem she wrote.
Leaving was failure. If I had succeeded, I would not be leaving. But what did success and failure mean? Not that I took page 171an ignominious Third in schools — it was more than I deserved. The successful took sound Seconds. The distinguished took either Firsts or Fourths — the Firsts that Colin and Reggie had taken a year ago in Mods and were to take a year after in Greats; the Fourth that Joy Scovell took in English. I had not come to Oxford to get a degree, but without any defined object, simply for a whim of my father's, on his side, and on mine, secretly, to confirm my tastes and interests, and become a poet. I had no doubt where my tastes and interests lay, but what was there, outwardly, to show that I was a poet? No book, and the merest handful of poems published. It was nothing to take a stand on; I had no conviction for a stand. To have no inward conviction was, of itself, evidence of failure, but for me alone.
Nor was that the only evidence. I had failed in love too, in a hopeless long-drawn-out devotion which came to nothing and left me defeated. I had longed for a complete impossible union of souls and bodies, physical and spiritual in one, a living together of perfect openness, absolute trust, total sharing and reciprocity. When it was over, I knew I should never love in that way again (let alone be loved), and never find what I sought; knew that such entire mutuality in love is not to be hoped for; that I was alone and would always be alone.
To go home to New Zealand was to bury myself alive, I thought. I delayed it a little by telling my father that I must have one more look at Italy before I settled down; and refused as tactfully as I knew how to travel out with him and Lel. He was hurt, but gave in. He insisted on parties I did not want for my twenty-first birthday; a family one at which I declined to say more than thank you for the good wishes and speeches; then a dinner dance at the Berkeley for my friends, who were as embarrassed as I was. My future was set before me. I was reasoned with, cajoled, preached at; Ernest Halsted was called in to exert his persuasiveness, kindly man, and puzzled no doubt at my sullen stubborn lack of response talked about the romance of business — I liked him, but his talk was a waste of time, meaningless. Then I escaped, and after brief goodbyes in Krempe and Hanover met Aunt Agnes in Munich, at the Hauptbahnhof, the most exciting station in Europe, from which trains left in every direction, for Paris and Madrid and Venice page 172and all the east, Warsaw and Moscow, Bucharest, Athens, Constantinople.
We were going to Salzburg, for the Festival, then in its early-days. Of all the fine performances there, Bruno Walter conducting Mozart, Franz Schalk conducting Fidelio, Elizabeth Schumann singing, I remember clearly only one, Reinhardt's famous production of Jedermann (Hofmannsthal's version of Everyman) before the cathedral at night, with Alexander Moissi magnificent in the title part. Especially that moment of it when from the high roofs of the buildings round us on the three dark sides of the square the awed voices of spirits or angels, one after one now here now there, ring out calling aloud to Everyman as he stands alone on the stage in front of the half-lit cathedral — their long-drawn-out cries soaring and thrilling above us, among us, contending for his soul, and perhaps mine too, Je-der-mannnnn! Je-der-mannnnn!
Then with joy I dropped, I flowed into Italy. Verona, Vicenza, Venice; Padua, Ravenna, Rimini, Pesaro, Urbino, Assisi, Perugia, Orvieto, Viterbo, Rome. Rome, where I saw all my friends again and there was much talk of political uncertainties, particularly after Hitler's election gains in Germany; and lastly, Naples. In seven weeks I had steeped myself again in the Italy which is both real and a dream. At the beginning of October I sailed from Naples in the Oronsay, travelling with Sheelagh Sadlier and her parents.
* See poem 'Wevelsfleth' in Disputed Ground