Venice is a destination on many a bucket list, and the distinctive topography and geography of the city have made it a popular tourist attraction for centuries. And poets throughout the centuries have used Venice as a backdrop for their work, or have sung the city’s praises. So here are ten of the very best poems about Venice and literary depictions of this famous city-republic. If you’re visiting this ancient republic any time soon, these poems are must-reads.
Anonymous, ‘Gernutus, the Jew of Venice’. Around the same time as William Shakespeare created Shylock the Jewish money-lender of Venice in his play The Merchant of Venice, an anonymous ballad-writer gave us this poem about a Jew of Venice, named Gernutus. Indeed, this ballad may even have been written before Shakespeare’s play, and influenced it. Certainly the parallels between the story of the moneylender Gernutus and the moneylender Shylock go beyond the fact that they are both Venetians…
Samuel Rogers, ‘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…’ 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 series of poems about Italy, Rogers described the country in a sort of verse version of a travel book. His poem about Venice brilliantly captures the marine setting of the city.
Lord Byron, ‘Ode on Venice’. ‘Oh Venice! Venice! when thy marble walls / Are level with the waters, there shall be / A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls, / A loud lament along the sweeping sea!’ Many writers in the nineteenth century feared that the city of Venice, which had endured for over a millennium, would sink under the waters and be lost forever. In his ‘Ode to Venice’, Byron laments what he believes to be Venice’s imminent loss below the waters of the Adriatic.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘Venice’. ‘White swan of cities, slumbering in thy nest / So wonderfully built among the reeds / Of the lagoon, that fences thee and feeds, / As sayeth thy old historian and thy guest!’ The lagoons of Venice are a key part of the city’s topography, and the American poet Longfellow evokes them here, along with the ‘slumbering’ quality of Venice.
Emma Lazarus, ‘A Masque of Venice’. Best-known for her sonnet later inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, Lazarus (1849-1887) was, like Longfellow, an American poet. Subtitled ‘A Dream’, this poem certainly captures Venice’s otherworldly feel: ‘Not a stain, / In the sun-brimmed sapphire cup that is the sky – / Not a ripple on the black translucent lane / Of the palace-walled lagoon. / Not a cry / As the gondoliers with velvet oar glide by, / Through the golden afternoon…’
A. E. Housman, ‘Far Known to Sea and Shore’. ‘The steersman of Triest / Looked where his mark should be, / But empty was the west / And Venice under sea.’ Venice, like Paris, is a most romantic city. Inspired by a romantic liaison with a Venetian gondolier named Andrea, this Housman poem was unpublished during his lifetime, almost certainly because Housman thought it was too candid about his homosexuality.
Arthur Symons, ‘Venice’. Symons (1865-1945) was instrumental in introducing many English readers to French Symbolism, and this short poem about Venice captures the sight and feel of the city with almost proto-imagistic precision: ‘Water and marble and that silentness / Which is not broken by a wheel or hoof; / A city like a water-lily, less / Seen than reflected, palace wall and roof…’
Laurence Binyon, ‘Venice’. Binyon is remembered chiefly for writing ‘For the Fallen’, a poem familiar to anyone who has watched the Remembrance Day service in the UK every November. But this poem with its evocation of Venice’s ‘magic blue’ vision is a glorious description of the unique Venetian landscape. This poem is not readily available elsewhere online, so we include it in full here:
White clouds that rose clouds chase
Till the sky laughs round, blue and bare;
Sunbeams that quivering waves out–race
To sparkle kisses on a marble stair;
Indolent water that images
Or glides in shadow and sun, where, over
Walls that leaning crumble red,
Milky blossom and fresh leaf hover,
Or glitters in endless morning spread,
Far and faint for dazzling miles
To lonely towers and cypress isles,
Where phantom mountains hang on high
Along the mist of northern sky:
O Love, what idle tale is told
That these are glories famed and old?
For to–day I know it is all in you,
This vision, bathed in magic blue,
My sea that girdles me round and round
With winding arms in deeps profound,
And bears our thoughts like golden sails
To be lost where the far verge gleams and pales,
My sky that over the mountains brings
The stars, and gives us wondrous wings,
My dawn that pierces the secret night
To the central heart of burning light
And thousand–coloured flames and flowers
In radiant palaces, domes and towers!
A marvel born of sky and sea,
‘Tis all in you, that have given it me.
Boris Pasternak, ‘Venice’. Although Pasternak is better-known as a novelist – he wrote Doctor Zhivago – he was also a poet, and in this Venetian poem he captures the music, sounds, and sights of the city.
Erica Jong, ‘Venice, November, 1966’. Shakespeare, St Mark, gondoliers, the Doge, and, of course, lots of water all feature in this early poem from Erica Jong about ‘this most improbable of cities’.