Dante & Shelley at the Duomo di Milano

Anthony van Dyck painting in Milan cathedral
The Duomo di Milano is pocked with sculpture
Sculpture on the Duomo di Milano.

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.

The Duomo di Milano from the Piazza
The Duomo di Milano.

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.

Taking Shelley and Dante into the Milan cathedral
With Shelley and Dante in the Duomo di Milano.

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.’”

First stone at Duomo di Milano 1386
The first stone of the Duomo di Milano was laid in 1386; image courtesy Marco Bonavoglia.

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.

Anthony van Dyck painting in Milan cathedral
“Saint Ambrose Barring Theodosius,” by Anthony van Dyck, is in the cathedral.

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.

Horace Walpole To The Letter

In mid-April, I visited Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, the former country home of author Horace Walpole, a new section of which has recently been opened to tours after an extensive restoration effort by the Strawberry Hill Trust. Walpole began building the rambling gothic mise-en-scène at the age of 30, purchasing a pair of small houses on a large swath of property along a fashionable section of the River Thames in 1747, which had become a sprawling spired and turret-topped bon-bon of a residence by the time he died in 1797, 50 years after he’d bought it.

The Green Closet at Strawberry Hill
The Green Closet where Horace Walpole wrote many of his letters.

One of my favorite rooms on the tour was the Green Closet, but not because it was the grandest room in the house—it wasn’t by far—it was because the tiny slice of the home was Walpole’s study where he wrote most of his letters, which have gained him as much renown as his fiction has since his death. Walpole was such a firm believer in legacy that he was known to annotate his letters to make them historically complete. He asked his friends to bundle them up from time to time and send them back to him so he could organize them and add anecdotal caveats to them. That is why there is currently four volumes of them between covers—quite an epistolary legacy if I say so myself.

An example of his desire to keep everything buttoned up is a missive he wrote while on his Grand Tour through Italy, which he undertook with the poet Thomas Gray, whom he had met at Eton. Written to his pal Richard West about the then recent discovery of the town of Herculaneum, which had been buried during one of the major eruptions of Vesuvius, his letter of 1740 predated the discovery of Pompeii so he felt compelled to add a footnote years later stating that eight years after he wrote the initial piece of correspondence the most famous Vesuvius carnage was discovered!

Horace Walpole on his grand tour
A portrait of Horace Walpole while on his Grand Tour.

His notoriety as a pen pal led Carrie Frye, writing for Longreads, to call his letters “marvelous little masterpieces: subtle, witty, and dripping with description and gossip and observation. They read like the literary equivalent of a cat curling itself around your ankles, showing off, sure, but glad to see you all the same.” I agree with her and and I highly recommend the entire collection of Horace Walpole’s letters as a serious historic survey of the time in which he lived. And a quick FYI on Gray: the tercentenary of Thomas Gray’s birth is coming up in 2016 so there will be some serious attention to his legacy in the coming months.

Strawberry Hill Library Door
The Library door at Strawberry Hill is on slant to make room for more books!

The other room at Strawberry Hill that knocked me out was the Library (for those of you who know me, there’s likely no surprise there). It was a sumptuous space that must have been a treasure-trove of knowledge when he was alive. Imagine my surprise when I learned that one of the largest collectors of Walpoliana was Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, a Yale graduate who bequeathed his collection to the university. He had amassed more than half of the traceable volumes in the Walpole library before his death. His cache of the books, which numbers 32,000, are housed in the Walpole Lewis Library in Farmington, Connecticut, along with other important artifacts from the Brit’s life and home. You can bet I will be paying the library a visit in the not-too-distant future to get a peek at this fragment of Walpole’s legacy!

Seeing the wall-to-wall shelves in the room at Strawberry Hill brought the question to mind, “How many books is too many?” I’m not sure it’s possible for a writer to go overboard, especially someone intent on bringing literary history into the present in some way. I’ve been in relationships with non-writers who don’t agree but I’m betting those of you who share my passion for the written word understand this point of view.

Text of Horace Walpole to the Letter © 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.