I have not read many of Czeslaw Milosz's poems save for two or three, in translation of course. He was a Polish-Lithuanian poet who lived for more or less the whole span of the twentieth century, born 1911 in Lithuania which was then part of the Russian Empire and he died in 2004 in at his Kraków home, aged 93. His honours have been many, among which we may list the Nobel Prize in Literature which he won in 1980. He had long been a poet's poet. Such luminaries among the world of poets like our own Séamus Heaney looked to this great man with admiration and in awe. I have heard Heaney interviewed several times and he mentioned his poetic hero. Be that as it may, I would like to share a beautiful poem which caught my eye because of its title. It's title is a famous rectangular piazza in Rome called Campo dei Fiori. For those of you familiar with the main tourist areas of Rome it is near Piazza Navona in on the border of rione Parione (Parione region) and rione Regola ( Regola region). When you enter the square one's eyes cannot fail but focus on the statue of the great heretic Giordano Bruno. There in the square on 17 February 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt alive by the Roman Inquisition because his ideas were deemed dangerous.
Only a week or two back I heard our own wonderful science and astrophysics journalist talk about how cruelly Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake because he dared talk about the possibility of other planets like the earth in our solar system. The Roman inquisition listed as two of his faults, the plurality of worlds and his defence of the Copernican system (Sun at the centre and planets revolving) which had long toppled the Ptolemaic and Aristotelian views of the universe which decidedly had the earth at the centre. Admittedly these were only two heresies among many other theological ones which the Roman Inquisition under Cardinale Bellarmine sentenced Bruno to an ignominious death. The WIKI accounts for his final moments thus:
At his trial he listened to the verdict on his knees, then stood up and said: "Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it." A month or so later he was brought to the Campo de' Fiori, a central Roman market square, his jaw clamped in an iron gag and an iron spike driven through his tongue. He was tied to a pole naked and burned at the stake, on February 17, 1600. (See this link GB )
It is also startling to realise that poor old Bruno spent some seven years in prison in the Tower of Nona before his final sentence of execution.
Anyway, Milosz mentions Bruno in this great poem as well as the awful suffering of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, while those who survived Warsaw were to perish in the Concentration Camps. I have, in a previous post, discussed a similar connection with this Warsaw Ghetto by including a photograph from one round-up of Jews there which is extremely moving. (You will find this picture at this link here -Warsaw Ghetto Picture )
However, here is the poem for our edification. It makes sombre but wonderfully moving reading. As I've mentioned in the last post I feel the Czeslaw Milosz's use of language is wonderful because he has managed to achieve an excellent "objective correlative" in both the squares that come to his mind. They become the object or hanger on which he can literally hang his emotions and ours. Now savour the poem, and read it aloud if you can!
CAMPO DEI FIORI
In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori
Baskets of olives and lemons,
Cobbles spattered with wine
And the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
With rose-pink fish;
Armfuls of dark grapes
Heaped on peach-down.
On this same square
They burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
Close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died
The taverns were full again,
Baskets of olives and lemons
Again on the vendors' shoulders.
I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
In Warsaw by the sky-carousel
One clear spring evening
To the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
The salvos from the ghetto wall,
And couples were flying
High in the cloudless sky.
At times wind from the burning
Would drift dark kites along
And riders on the carousel
Caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
Blew open the skirts of the girls
And the crowds were laughing
On that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.
Someone will read as moral
That the people of Rome or Warsaw
Haggle, laugh, make love
As they pass by martyrs' pyres.
Someone else will read
Of the passing of things human,
Of the oblivion
Born before the flames have died.
But that day I thought only
Of the loneliness of the dying,
Of how, when Giordano
Climbed to his burning
There were no words
In any human tongue
To be left for mankind,
Mankind who live on.
Already they were back at their wine
Or peddled their white starfish,
Baskets of olives and lemons
They had shouldered to the fair,
And he already distanced
As if centuries had passed
While they paused just a moment
For his flying in the fire.
Those dying here, the lonely
Forgotten by the world,
Our tongue becomes for them
The language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
And many years have passed,
On a great Campo dei Fiori
Rage will kindle at a poet's word.
translated by Louis Iribarne
and David Brooks
It is indeed so hard to take an interest in the pain of others. If it is not my pain, then somehow I can be objective and removed. What we human beings must begin to learn is to try not alone to sympathise with others but to empathise with them if at all possible. Maybe that just means visiting the sick, that is your own family, your relatives or friends in hospital, prison or even in self-imposed isolation. Maybe it means reaching out a helping hand to some poor soul in need. Maybe it means just brightening another's day with a smile. Maybe it means just being with someone in silence before the whole mystery of the pain felt by another. There really are no words, though poets and writers do try, and its in trying that they come to a greater empathy, not sympathy, never pity for their wounded kindred souls.
Above a picture of the famous statue raised at the end of the nineteenth century to the memory of Giordano Bruno at Campo dei Fiori.