Treasure Island

Joseph Addison

(1672-1719 / England)

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A Letter from Italy


Salve magna parens frugum Saturnia tellus,
Magna virûm! tibi res antiquæ laudis et artis
Aggredior, sanctos ausus recludere fontes.
Virg. Geor. 2.

While you, my Lord, the rural shades admire,
And from Britannia's public posts retire,
Nor longer, her ungrateful sons to please,
For their advantage sacrifice your ease;

Me into foreign realms my fate conveys,
Through nations fruitful of immortal lays,
Where the soft season and inviting clime
Conspire to trouble your repose with rhyme.

For wheresoe'er I turn my ravish'd eyes,
Gay gilded scenes and shining prospects rise,
Poetic fields encompass me around,
And still I seem to tread on classic ground;
For here the Muse so oft her harp has strung
That not a mountain rears its head unsung,
Renown'd in verse each shady thicket grows,
And ev'ry stream in heavenly numbers flows

How am I pleas'd to search the hills and woods
For rising springs and celebrated floods!
To view the Nar, tumultuous in his course,
And trace the smooth Clitumnus to his source,
To see the Mincio draw his wat'ry store
Through the long windings of a fruitful shore,
And hoary Albula's infected tide
O'er the warm bed of smoking sulphur glide.

Fir'd with a thousand raptures I survey
Eridanus through flowery meadows stray,
The king of floods! that rolling o'er the plains
The towering Alps of half their moisture drains,
And proudly swoln with a whole winter's snows,
Distributes wealth and plenty where he flows.

Sometimes, misguided by the tuneful throng,
I look for streams immortaliz'd in song,
That lost in silence and oblivion lie,
(Dumb are their fountains and their channels dry)
Yet run forever by the Muse's skill,
And in the smooth description murmur still.

Sometimes to gentle Tiber I retire,
And the fam'd river's empty shores admire,
That destitute of strength derives its course
From thrifty urns and an unfruitful source;
Yet sung so often in poetic lays,
With scorn the Danube and the Nile surveys;
So high the deathless Muse exalts her theme!
Such was the Boin, a poor inglorious stream,
That in Hibernian vales obscurely stray'd,
And unobserv'd in wild meanders play'd;
'Till by your lines and Nassau's sword renown'd,
Its rising billows through the world resound,
Where-e'er the hero's godlike acts can pierce,
Or where the fame of an immortal verse.
Oh could the Muse my ravish'd breast inspire
With warmth like yours, and raise an equal fire,
Unnumber'd beauties in my verse should shine,
And Virgil's Italy should yield to mine!
See how the golden groves around me smile,
That shun the coast of Britain's stormy isle,
Or when transplanted and preserv'd with care,
Curse the cold clime, and starve in northern air.
Here kindly warmth their mounting juice ferments
To nobler tastes, and more exalted scents:
Ev'n the rough rocks with tender myrtle bloom,
And trodden weeds send out a rich perfume.
Bear me, some god, to Baia's gentle seats,
Or cover me in Umbria's green retreats;
Where western gales eternally reside,
And all the seasons lavish all their pride:
Blossoms, and fruits, and flowers together rise,
And the whole year in gay confusion lies.
Immortal glories in my mind revive,
And in my soul a thousand passions strive,
When Rome's exalted beauties I descry
Magnificent in piles of ruin lie.
An amphitheatre's amazing height
Here fills my eye with terror and delight,
That on its public shows unpeopled Rome,
And held uncrowded nations in its womb:
Here pillars rough with sculpture pierce the skies:
And here the proud triumphal arches rise,
Where the old Romans deathless acts display'd,
Their base degenerate progeny upbraid:
Whole rivers here forsake the fields below,
And wond'ring at their height through airy channels flow.
Still to new scenes my wand'ring Muse retires,
And the dumb show of breathing rocks admires;
Where the smooth chisel all its force has shown,
And soften'd into flesh the rugged stone.
In solemn silence, a majestic band,
Heroes, and gods, the Roman consuls stand,
Stern tyrants, whom their cruelties renown,
And emperors in Parian marble frown;
While the bright dames, to whom they humbly su'd,
Still show the charms that their proud hearts subdu'd.

Fain would I Raphael's godlike art rehearse,
And show th' immortal labours in my verse,
Where from the mingled strength of shade and light
A new creation rises to my sight,
Such heav'nly figures from his pencil flow,
So warm with life his blended colours glow.
From theme to theme with secret pleasure tost,
Amidst the soft variety I'm lost:
Here pleasing airs my ravish'd soul confound
With circling notes and labyrinths of sound;
Here domes and temples rise in distant views,
And opening palaces invite my Muse.

How has kind Heav'n adorn'd the happy land,
And scatter'd blessings with a wasteful hand!
But what avail her unexhausted stores,
Her blooming mountains, and her sunny shores,
With all the gifts that heav'n and earth impart,
The smiles of nature, and the charms of art,
While proud oppression in her valleys reigns,
And tyranny usurps her happy plains?
The poor inhabitant beholds in vain
The red'ning orange and the swelling grain:
Joyless he sees the growing oils and wines,
And in the myrtle's fragrant shade repines:
Starves, in the midst of nature's bounty curst,
And in the loaden vineyard dies for thirst.

Oh Liberty, thou goddess heavenly bright,
Profuse of bliss, and pregnant with delight!
Eternal pleasures in thy presence reign,
And smiling plenty leads thy wanton train;
Eas'd of her load subjection grows more light,
And poverty looks cheerful in thy sight;
Thou mak'st the gloomy face of Nature gay,
Giv'st beauty to the sun, and pleasure to the day.

Thee, goddess, thee, Britannia's Isle adores;
How has she oft exhausted all her stores,
How oft in fields of death thy presence sought,
Nor thinks the mighty prize too dearly bought!
On foreign mountains may the sun refine
The grape's soft juice, and mellow it to wine,
With citron groves adorn a distant soil,
And the fat olive swell with floods of oil:
We envy not the warmer clime, that lies
In ten degrees of more indulgent skies,
Nor at the coarseness of our heaven repine,
Tho' o'er our heads the frozen Pleiads shine:
'Tis Liberty that crowns Britannia's Isle,
And makes her barren rocks and her bleak mountains
smile.

Others with towering piles may please the sight,
And in their proud aspiring domes delight;
A nicer touch to the stretch'd canvas give,
Or teach their animated rocks to live:
'Tis Britain's care to watch o'er Europe's fate,
And hold in balance each contending state,
To threaten bold presumptuous kings with war,
And answer her afflicted neighbours' pray'r.
The Dane and Swede, rous'd up by fierce alarms,
Bless the wise conduct of her pious arms:
Soon as her fleets appear, their terrors cease,
And all the northern world lies hush'd in peace.

Th' ambitious Gaul beholds with secret dread
Her thunder aim'd at his aspiring head,
And fain her godlike sons would disunite
By foreign gold, or by domestic spite;
But strives in vain to conquer or divide,
Whom Nassau's arms defend and counsels guide.

Fir'd with the name, which I so oft have found
The distant climes and different tongues resound,
I bridle in my struggling Muse with pain,
That longs to launch into a bolder strain.

But I've already troubled you too long,
Nor dare attempt a more advent'rous song.
My humble verse demands a softer theme,
A painted meadow, or a purling stream;
Unfit for heroes; whom immortal lays,
And lines like Virgil's, or like yours, should praise.

Submitted: Sunday, May 06, 2001
Edited: Sunday, May 06, 2001

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Comments about this poem (A Letter from Italy by Joseph Addison )

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  • Paul Brookes (11/28/2012 3:01:00 AM)

    Sorry Joseph Addison (1672 - 1719) was in fact an 17th / 18th century Brit so Mr Pruchnicki though your reading may be correct your years are out by about 100 years At the time of writing the British Empire was only a fledgling empire! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! (Report) Reply

  • Michael Pruchnicki (11/28/2009 3:38:00 PM)

    OK, we've established Harmon's maladroit critique, Straw's nit-picking as usual, and Ahearn's dismay at oh-so-many verses and lines that his mind wanders so much that the poor lad despairs of whatever! ! I don't know but what say you give this a read as to what A LETTER FROM ITALY might suggest to a more incisive reader!

    I read it as a communique from a Roman like Pontius Pilate to his emperor and the senate in the manner of a report from the governor of an occupied territory in
    the Roman empire! Of course, Addison is a 19th century Brit assuming the rank of an ancient Roman reporting to his superior, but always the reader is aware that there is a subtext - a subtle but clear critique of the British empire in the 19th century! Though the alleged Roman sings the praises of his native land, Addison's persona notes always that Britannia rules the waves and is the guarantor of freedom and liberty!

    I'd say that was pretty clear from a closer reading than those of Harmon, Straw and Ahearn! (Report) Reply

  • Michael Harmon (11/28/2009 10:29:00 AM)

    This is an end-stopped Erebus in verse, a rhyming-couplet catastrophe.
    Addison's forte was criticism, not poetry.

    The critical line here is:

    'But I've already troubled you too long, ' (Report) Reply

  • Kevin Straw (11/28/2009 5:43:00 AM)

    I like this, e.g. 'The king of floods! that rolling o'er the plains
    The towering Alps of half their moisture drains,
    And proudly swoln with a whole winter's snows,
    Distributes wealth and plenty where he flows.'
    Though I think 'swollen with a winter's snows' is better. (Report) Reply

  • Ramesh T A (11/28/2009 1:12:00 AM)

    Like heroes and artists mountains and rivers of Europe especially Italy are well expressed in classical poetry immortalising them as they have provided liberty and happiness forever to the people there! The copious out flow of verse makes it run like mountains and rivers as heavenly as heaven itself on Earth! (Report) Reply

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