a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Some thoughts about Europe from T.S. Eliot

Posted on the December 4th, 2013

Today while reading T.S. Eliot’s (1945) essay “The Social Function of Poetry” I came across a rich passage of thought focusing on Europe, diversity and unity. It struck me as particularly relevant to aspects of the public conversation of our present time.


…I do not believe that the cultures of the several of Europe can flourish in isolation from each other. There have been, no doubt, in the past, high civilizations producing great art, thought and literature, which have developed in isolation. Of that I cannot speak with assurance, for some of them may not have been so isolated as at first appears. But in the history of Europe this has not been so. Even Ancient Greece owed much to Egypt, and something to the Asiatic frontiers; and in the relations of the Greek states to each other, with their different dialects and different manners, we may find a reciprocal influence and stimulus analogous to that of the countries of Europe upon each other.

But the history of European literature will not show that any has been independent of the others; rather that there has been a constant give and take, and that each has in turn, from time to time, been revitalized by stimulation from outside. A general “autarky” in culture simply will not work: the hope of perpetuating the culture of any country lies in communication with others.

But if separation of cultures within the unity of Europe is a danger, so also would be a unification which led to uniformity. The variety is as essential as the unity. For instance, there is much to be said, for certain limited purposes, for a universal lingua franca such as Esperanto or Basic English. But supposing that all communication between nations was carried on in such an artificial language, how imperfect it would be! Or rather, it would be wholly inadequate in some respects, and there would be a complete lack of communication in others.

Poetry is a constant reminder of all the things that can only be said in one language, and are untranslatable. The “spiritual” communication between people and people cannot be carried on without the individuals who take the trouble to learn at least one foreign language as well as one can learn any language but one’s own, and who consequently are able, to a greater or less degree, to “feel” in another language as well as in their own. And one’s understanding of another people, in this way, needs to be supplemented by the understanding of those individuals among that people who have gone to the pains to learn one’s own language.


A note about the citation: I have broken this excerpt into paragraphs for easier reading, and placed quotations around some words that were italicized in the original.

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SPECK ‘N U (32): Autumn Sonata in the Key of D(og)

Posted on the November 30th, 2013


The falling leaves
Drift by my window
The falling leaves
Of red and gold

Although I know only the English version, the much recorded ballad “Autumn Leaves” was originally a French song “Les feuilles mortes” (1945). This version was performed by Yves Montand in a 1946 French film. The following year it was translated and recorded in English in the US and immediately became a hit (Wikipedia).

One of the most famous versions came in 1950 when Edith Piaf recorded the song using a combination of both French and English lyrics.  Of course (thankfully) it’s on YouTube, listen here.

A recent version came in 2010 on a CD from Eric Clapton. I recommend it! Listen here.

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The poet as T.S. Eliot

Posted on the October 2nd, 2013

From time to time some raise the question: “Does poetry matter?”

As counter-intuitive as it seems in a world strafed so often by brute force and brutal chaos, poetry matters most of all.

It’s the poet’s voice that reminds us, for instance, that if you have to murder children to win a war, you’ve already lost a lot more than just the war.

It’s the poet’s voice that restores heart.

From Eliot: Excerpt from “Preludes” (1917)

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled

Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing…

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Fallen leaf on cobblestones

Posted on the September 18th, 2013

Rome, September 2013, photo by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato


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SPECK ‘N U (31): Seasons

Posted on the September 16th, 2013

Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

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SPECK ‘N U (30): An encounter with Negative Capability

Posted on the July 23rd, 2013

To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

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The Butterfly upon the Lavanda

Posted on the July 9th, 2013

The Butterfly upon the Sky,

That doesn’t know its Name

And hasn’t any tax to pay

And hasn’t any Home

Is just as high as you and I,

And higher, I believe,

So soar away and never sigh

And that’s the way to grieve —

Emily Dickinson


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If you’ve never been to Ninfa

Posted on the May 26th, 2013

If you’ve never been to the Garden of Ninfa, now in the month of May is one of the best times of the year to visit. About an hour south of Rome, the English style garden is set in the ruins of a medieval town.

From the Garden of Ninfa official website:

Though in ruins, Ninfa is a rare example of a complete medieval town. Abandoned for five centuries, it was described by the historian Gregorovius in the 1880s as the ‘Pompeii of the Middle Ages’. What we see today are the significant remains of a fortified town, encircled by a double girdle of walls, which reached its peak of prosperity between the 13th and 14th centuries. The urban layout is still clearly distinguishable, giving the garden a setting that appeals to the imagination. The main buildings, not all of them in good condition, are easily identified as the castle, the town hall (converted to a Caetani family house), and the churches of S. Giovanni, S. Biagio, S. Salvatore, and S. Paolo all situated along the outer walls.

Ninfa Garden, 2

The three photos posted here are from my visit to Ninfa last year at this time.

And go here for a quick video peek of Ninfa, provided from the BBC’s Italian Gardens series, hosted by Monty Don.

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Just enough to keep us going: Diana Athill

Posted on the May 17th, 2013

Excerpt from the memoir “Stet: An Editor’s Life” by Diana Athill (Granta Publications, 2000):

Years ago, in a pub near Baker Street, I heard a man say that humankind is seventy percent brutish, thirty per cent intelligent, and though the thirty per cent is never going to win, it will always be able to leaven the mass just enough to keep us going. That rough and ready assessment of our plight has stayed with me as though it were true, given that one takes ‘intelligence’ to mean not just intellectual agility, but whatever it is in beings that makes for readiness to understand, to look for the essence in other beings and things and events, to respect that essence, to collaborate, to discover, to endure when endurance is necessary, to enjoy:  briefly, to co-exist. It does, alas, seem likely that sooner or later, either through our own folly or collision with some wandering heavenly body, we will all vanish in the wake of the dinosaurs; but until that happens I believe that the yeast of intelligence will continue to operate one way or another.

Even if it operates in vain, it remains evolution’s peak (as far as we can see): something to enjoy and foster as much as possible; something not to betray by succumbing to despair, however deep the many pits of darkness.

Publisher’s website (grantabooks.com) and book page here.

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SPECK ‘N U (29): The Cuckoo Song

Posted on the May 4th, 2013

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* Speck is paraphrasing the first two lines of an anonymous thirteenth century poem, “The Cuckoo Song.” The poem is written in Middle English, so the spellings are odd and the meanings are obscure at times, compared to present day English. (Middle English dictionary here.)

This version of “The Cuckoo Song” is from the textbook “Poems, Poets, Poetry” by Helen Vendler (Harvard University).


The Cuckoo Song

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude* sing, cuccu!    (loud)
Groweth sed and bloweth med*    (meadow)
And springth the wude nu.
Sing, cuccu!

Awe* bleteth after lomb,      (ewe)
Lhouth* after calve cu,*    (loweth/cow)
Bulluc sterteth,* bucke verteth*     (leaps/breaks wind)
Murie sing, cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu.
Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik* thu never nu!      (stop)


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Have orchids, will travel: International Orchid Exhibition

Posted on the April 24th, 2013

Orchid on display, International Orchid Exhibition, Monte Porzio Catone, Italy, photo by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato, April 21, 2003

Though these are the days of clouds and rain in Italy, on Sunday the organizers of the International Orchid Exhibition in the village of Monte Porzio Catone, near Rome, were granted lots of sunshine and fair temperatures for their annual celebration of the exotic blooms.

We dropped by for a few hours to admire the brilliantly vivid displays of exhibitors. I posted my photos of the event at Demotix.com — you can see them here.


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Commentary by Emily Dickinson

Posted on the March 26th, 2013


I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

Emily Dickinson

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Two men fishing in rough sea at Ostia Lido, Rome yesterday

Posted on the March 25th, 2013

Turbulent waves and high spray yesterday at Ostia Lido, the city of Rome’s Mediterranean seafront, didn’t deter two fishermen from tending to rod and reel. (Photo by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato)

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SPECK ‘N U (28): European Space Agency maps Big Bang

Posted on the March 23rd, 2013

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Speck is citing a Guardian newspaper article, “Planck telescope maps light of the big bang scattered across the universe” (March 21, 2013). To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

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SPECK ‘N U (27): White Heat by Brenda Wineapple

Posted on the March 12th, 2013

Speck 'N U 20130312

Speck is paraphrasing a quote from “White Heat” (2008) by Brenda Wineapple, a literary biography about the friendship between the poet Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The full quote is: “No man can measure what a single hour with Nature may have contributed to the moulding of his mind.” (Higginson)

Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series that I do. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

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SPECK ‘N U (26): Soul work

Posted on the February 9th, 2013

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Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series that I do. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

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Surveying genius: “Charles Dickens A Life” by Claire Tomalin

Posted on the January 26th, 2013

Cover of “Charles Dickens A Life” by Claire Tomalin (Penguin Books)

Just finished reading Claire Tomalin‘s lengthy biography “Charles Dickens A Life” (2011). Much recommended for anyone interested in learning more about the work, ideas, passions and human frailties of the great English novelist.

I particularly appreciated the hyper-abundance of details Tomalin lays out about the personal, professional and creative aspects of Dickens’ life. This mass of details of events great and small allows the reader to form his or her own view of Dickens, as well as receiving the particular perspective offered by the biographer.

From 417 pages, plus almost 100 more of Notes and extras, a vivid portrait-photograph emerges. It reveals a blazingly unique human being, passionate, compassionate, often generous and, at times, less than saintly in his relationships.

Click on the video screenshot below to see a short interview with Tomalin about the book.


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