1851: A Message to Denmark Hill

The writer is John Ruskin, on his wedding journey in Venice.

My dearest father, it is the year’s First Day,
      Yet so like the Last, in Venice, no one
            Could tell this birth from the lees.
                  I know it is some while
Since you received a word of mine: there has been   
      The shabbiest sort of interruption   
            To our exchanges (to mine
                  At least) in the shape
Of a fever—nights of those imaginings,   
      Strange but shameful too, of the Infinite   
            By way of bedcovers and
                  Boa constrictors,
With cold wedges of ice, as I thought, laid down   
      At the corners of the bed, making me   
            Slip to its coiling center
                  Where I could not breathe.   
You knew from my last, I think, I had again
      Gone to the Zoological Gardens
            And seen the great boa take
                  Rabbits, which gave me   
An idea or two, and a headache. Then
      I had too much wine that same night, & dreamed
            Of a walk with Nurse, to whom
                  I showed a lovely
Snake I promised her was an innocent one:
      It had a slender neck with a green ring
            Round it, and I made her feel
                  The scales. When she bade
Me feel them too, it turned to a fat thing, like   
      A leech, and adhered to my hand, so that   
            I could scarcely pull it off—
                  And I awakened
(So much, father, for my serpentine fancies)   
      To a vermillion dawn, fever fallen,
            And the sea horizon dark,
                  Sharp and blue, and far
Beyond it, faint with trebled distance, came on   
      The red vertical cliffs in a tremor
            Of light I could not see without   
                  Recalling Turner
Who had taught me so to see it, yet the whole   
      Subdued to one soft gray. And that morning   
            I had your letter, father,
                  Telling of the death
Of my earthly master. How much more I feel   
      This now (perhaps it is worth noting here   
            The appearance of my first
                  Gray hair, this morning)
—More than I thought I should: everything
      In the sun, in the sky so speaks of him,
            So mourns their Great Witness lost.
                  Today, the weather
Is wretched, cold and rainy, dark like England   
      At this season. I do begin to lose
            All faith in these provinces.
                  Even the people
Look to me ugly, except children from eight   
      To fourteen, who here as in Italy
            Anywhere are glorious:
                  So playful and bright
In expression, so beautiful in feature,
      So dark in eye and soft in hair—creatures   
            Quite unrivalled. At fifteen
                  They degenerate
Into malignant vagabonds, or sensual
      Lumps of lounging fat. And this latter-day
            Venice, father! where by night
                  The black gondolas
Are just traceable beside one, as if Cadmus
      Had sown the wrong teeth and grown dragons, not
            Men. The Grand Canal, this month,
                  Is all hung, from end
To end, with carpets and tapestries like a street
      Of old-clothes warehouses. And now there is
            Even talk of taking down,
                  Soon, Tintoretto’s   
Paradise to “restore” it. Father, without
      The Turner Gallery, I do believe
            I should go today and live
                  In a cave on some
Cliffside—among crows. Oh what fools they are, this
      Restoring pack, yet smoothing all manner
            Of rottenness up with words.   
                  My Turner would not
Phrase like these, and only once in all the years
      I knew him said, “Thank you, Mr. Ruskin.”
            My own power, if it be that,   
                  Would be lost by mere
Fine Writing. You know I promised no Romance—
      I promised them Stones. Not even bread.
            Father, I do not feel any
                  Romance in Venice!   
Here is no “abiding city,” here is but
      A heap of ruins trodden underfoot
            By such men as Ezekiel
                  Angrily describes,
Here are lonely and stagnant canals, bordered
      For the most part by blank walls of gardens
            (Now waste ground) or by patches
                  Of mud, with decayed   
Black gondolas lying keel-upmost, sinking
      Gradually into the putrid soil.
            To give Turner’s joy of this
                  Place would not take ten
Days of study, father, or of residence:
      It is more than joy that must be the great   
            Fact I would teach. I am not sure,   
                  Even, that joy is
A fact. I am certainly only of the strong   
      Instinct in me (I cannot reason this)   
            To draw, delimit the things
                  I love—oh not for
Reputation or the good of others or
      My own advantage, but a sort of need,
            Like that for water and food.
                  I should like to draw
All Saint Mark’s, stone by stone, and all this city,   
      Oppressive and choked with slime as it is   
            (Effie of course declares, each
                  Day, that we must leave:
A woman cannot help having no heart, but   
      That is hardly a reason she should have   
            No manners), yes, to eat it
                  All into my mind—
Touch by touch. I have been reading Paradise
      Regained lately, father. It seems to me   
            A parallel to Turner’s
                  Last pictures—the mind
Failing altogether, yet with intervals
      And such returns of power! “Thereupon   
            Satan, bowing low his gray   
Disappeared.” Now he is gone, my dark angel,
      And I never had such a conception
            Of the way I must mourn—not
                  What I lose, now, but
What I have lost, until now. Yet there is more   
      Pain knowing that I must forget it all,   
            That in a year I shall have
                  No more awareness
Of his loss than of that fair landscape I saw,   
      Waking, the morning your letter arrived,
            No more left about me than
                  A fading pigment.
All the present glory, like the present pain,
      Is no use to me; it hurts me rather
            From my fear of leaving it,
                  Of losing it, yet
I know that were I to stay here, it would soon
      Cease being glory to me—that it has
            Ceased, already, to produce
                  The impression and
The delight. I can bear only the first days   
      At a place, when all the dread of losing   
            Is lost in the delirium
                  Of its possession.
I daresay love is very well when it does not   
      Mean leaving behind, as it does always,
            Somehow, with me. I have not
                  The heart for more now,
Father, though I thank you and Mother for all   
      The comfort of your words. They bring me,
            With his loss, to what I said
                  Once, the lines on this
Place you will know: “The shore lies naked under   
      The night, pathless, comfortless and infirm
            In dark languor, still except
                  Where salt runlets plash
Into tideless pools, or seabirds flit from their   
      Margins with a questioning cry.” The light
            Is gone from the waters with
                  My fallen angel,
Gone now as all must go. Your loving son,
Richard Howard, “1851: A Message to Denmark Hill” from Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Howard. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.
Source: Inner Voices: Selected Poems 1963-2003 (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004)
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