Ordering books online has become an unrestrained habit—the ease of being able to click and buy (and have the material within two days sans delivery fee) is highly addictive. But I also crave the certain type of adventure remarkable bookstores provide, exploits for me that always commence in one place, Strand Book Store, and continue south to Soho where I enter the best independent bookstore I’ve ever visited, McNally Jackson.
Last month, one of these escapades came full circle fourteen years after I found a beautiful little used book titled Shelley In Italy at the Strand for $10. I can’t imagine any other way I would have come across the book at that time given the internet was not even close to the search-friendly cornucopia it is today. The book is an anthology of poetry Shelley wrote during the four years he traveled through Italy at the end of his life. The poems were selected by John Lehmann and first published in 1947 in Great Britain.
As soon as I bought it, I took the book to the diner that used to occupy the storefront across 12th Street from the Strand and sat for over an hour reading the editor’s introduction, which included a section about Shelley’s fascination with the cathedral in Milan. The church was a place the poet visited a number of times when he was in the city, and his description of the building made me dream of visiting it someday. I finally had my chance last month during a trip to Milan.
Knowing I would make this poetic pilgrimage, I packed two books to carry with me. Almost 197 years to the day after Shelley sat inside the Choir reading, in April 1818, I lowered myself into a pew in the right Transept and pulled the books from my bag, the second being Dante’s La Vita Nuova (The New Life). Here is an excerpt of the introduction quoting Shelley about his reaction to the ornate church. It also explains why I chose a Dante book as the other one to read that day:
“‘This cathedral,’ he [Shelley] wrote, ‘is a most astonishing work of art. It is built of white marble, and cut into pinnacles of immense height, and the utmost delicacy of workmanship, and loaded with sculpture. The effect of it, piercing the solid blue with those groups of dazzling spires, relieved by the serene depth of this Italian heaven, or by moonlight when the stars seem gathered away among those clustered shapes, is beyond anything I had imagined architecture capable of producing.’”
Lehmann set the scene for Shelley’s visits, “During the days which they passed in the city he haunted the cathedral, and read Dante in ‘one solitary spot among those aisles behind the altar, where the light of day is dim and yellow under the storied window.’”
As I sat reading Dante and Shelley at the Duomo di Milano, I let the idea take root that I was tethered to a long cord extending back into history, farther in that moment than I could ever have imagined. I was connected through two of my literary heroes, and it all began at the Strand in New York City on one blustery spring day fourteen years beforehand. I held the Shelley book to my chest in gratitude that I felt a part of something much bigger than myself.
When I opened it to a random page, a snippet of Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry popped from the page, giving me chills in that moment:
“But it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton had ever existed; if Raphael and Michelangelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the Ancient World had been extinguished together with its belief.”
I would add your name to that esteemed list of writers, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Thank you for inspiring such a wonderful literary adventure among the clustered shapes within the Duomo di Milano. It was an afternoon I will never forget.
Sharing this day I spent at the cathedral has made me wonder if it is vain for a writer to say she hopes to leave as powerful a legacy as Shelley did. I guess it could come off that way but how else do we express a desire to contribute something of value to the world?
Text of Dante & Shelley at the Duomo di Milano © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and journalist based in New York City. Books include Anywhere But Here and Stranded on the Road to Promise. Saxon is also the co-founder of Sharktooth Press.