Italy, the beautiful country of fine good and wine, sun-bathed landscapes, Venetian canals, smouldering volcanoes, and sleepy lagoons, has often been immortalised and celebrated in poetry. Below, we’ve picked ten of the greatest poems about Italy written in the English language.
Samuel Rogers, Italy. Rogers (1763-1855) is not much known now, but he was an associate of a number of major Romantic poets in the early nineteenth century. In a long series of poems about Italy, Rogers describes the famous locations and landmarks in the country. Here, he celebrates Venice:
There is a glorious City in the Sea.
The Sea is in the broad, the narrow streets,
Ebbing and flowing; and the salt sea-weed
Clings to the marble of her palaces.
No track of men, no footsteps to and fro,
Lead to her gates. The path lies o’er the Sea,
Invisible; and from the land we went,
As to a floating City – steering in,
And gliding up her streets as in a dream,
So smoothly, silently – by many a dome,
Mosque-like, and many a stately portico,
The statues ranged along an azure sky…
Felicia Dorothea Hemans, ‘Sonnet to Italy’. Hemans is a less famous Romantic poet than Byron, Keats, or Shelley, but hers is an important voice. In this sonnet, Hemans celebrates Italy’s ‘glowing land’:
For thee, Ansonia! Nature’s bounteous hand,
Luxuriant spreads around her blooming stores;
Profusion laughs o’er all the glowing land,
And softest breezes from thy myrtle-shores.
Yet though for thee, unclouded suns diffuse
Their genial radiance o’er thy blushing plains;
Though in thy fragrant groves the sportive muse
Delights to pour her wild, enchanted strains;
Though airs that breathe of paradise are thine,
Sweet as the Indian, or Arabian gales;
Though fruitful olive and empurpling vine,
Enrich, fair Italy! thy Alpine vales;
Yet far from thee inspiring freedom flies,
To Albion’s coast and ever-varying skies!
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To Italy’. This short poem is brief enough to be quoted in full here. Shelley, who died off the Italian coast in 1822, had travelled extensively in the country between 1817 and his death five years later. In addition to the poem below, his ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ is well worth reading for another fine evocation of the Italian landscape.
As the sunrise to the night,
As the north wind to the clouds,
As the earthquake’s fiery flight,
Ruining mountain solitudes,
Be those hopes and fears on thee.
Emily Dickinson, ‘Our Lives Are Swiss’. Dickinson (1830-86) was a prolific poet, and although she never visited Europe, she did write about Italy in this wonderfully cryptic Alpine poem:
Our lives are Swiss,—
So still, so cool,
Till, some odd afternoon,
The Alps neglect their curtains,
And we look farther on.
Italy stands the other side,
While, like a guard between,
The solemn Alps,
The siren Alps,
Thomas Hardy, ‘To Flowers from Italy in Winter’. If one plucked flowers from Italy and transported them to England, what might those flowers say if they could speak? They probably wouldn’t think much of having been torn from their warm Italian surroundings only to end up in Hardy’s rainy Dorset! A tender poem:
Sunned in the South, and here to-day;
– If all organic things
Be sentient, Flowers, as some men say,
What are your ponderings?
How can you stay, nor vanish quite
From this bleak spot of thorn,
And birch, and fir, and frozen white
Expanse of the forlorn?
Frail luckless exiles hither brought!
Your dust will not regain
Old sunny haunts of Classic thought
When you shall waste and wane;
But mix with alien earth, be lit
With frigid Boreal flame,
And not a sign remain in it
To tell men whence you came.
Oscar Wilde, ‘Sonnet on Approaching Italy’. Although he’s now better remembered for his plays, his one novel, and his life and personality, Oscar Wilde started out as a poet and wrote a number of poems about Italy: indeed, as a student he won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for his poem ‘Ravenna’. Here, Wilde pays tribute to Italy’s reputation:
I reached the Alps: the soul within me burned
Italia, my Italia, at thy name:
And when from out the mountain’s heart I came
And saw the land for which my life had yearned,
I laughed as one who some great prize had earned:
And musing on the story of thy fame
I watched the day, till marked with wounds of flame
The turquoise sky to burnished gold was turned,
The pine-trees waved as waves a woman’s hair,
And in the orchards every twining spray
Was breaking into flakes of blossoming foam:
But when I knew that far away at Rome
In evil bonds a second Peter lay,
I wept to see the land so very fair.
A. E. Housman, ‘Far Known to Sea and Shore’. Housman (1859-1936) was five years younger than Wilde, and features as a character alongside Wilde in Tom Stoppard’s play about inhibited homosexuality in Victorian Britain, The Invention of Love. Here, in a poem Housman never published during his lifetime, the scholar-poet remembers and bids farewell to a passionate affair with a Venetian gondolier (Housman was too worried about fear of prosecution to act upon his homosexual desire in Britain). A beautiful poem, and – like so many of Housman’s – elegiac.
Far known to sea and shore,
Foursquare and founded well,
A thousand years it bore,
And then the belfry fell.
The steersman of Triest
Looked where his mark should be,
But empty was the west
And Venice under sea.
From dusty wreck dispersed
Its stature mounts amain;
On surer foot than first
The belfry stands again.
At to-fall of the day
Again its curfew tolls
And burdens far away
The green and sanguine shoals.
It looks to north and south,
It looks to east and west;
It guides to Lido mouth
The steersman of Triest.
Andrea, fare you well;
Venice, farewell to thee.
The tower that stood and fell
Is not rebuilt in me.
Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Italian Light’. A house is not a home without the warm sunlight shining on it. In this poem which is wonderfully attentive to light and vision, Jennings salutes the relationship between the form of buildings and the Italian sunlight that bathes them. Scroll down the linked blog post to read this poem.
Those are lovely. I love Italy. As for Albion’s ever-varying skies, we had blue sky and sunshine an hour ago, and now it’s grey and looks like it’s about to pour down!