Monday, November 26, 2012

'A Sad Farewell to my Books' by Lorenzo da Ponte


Delving back into the archives of Columbia University, we find that in the 1950s they bought a handwritten poem by Lorenzo da Ponte with which many a bibliophile might have cause to sympathise. To say Lorenzo was something of a character would be, perhaps, understating the case a little. He was born a Jew in Venice in 1749, converted to Catholicism, was ordained, took up a church in Venice where he fathered two children and was charged with "public concubinage" as well as living in a brothel and organising 'entertainments' there, he moved to other parts of Europe where he became a librettist, including for three of Mozart's operas, he moved to North America where he was a bookseller and then a professor at Columbia University (and so the circle closes) and he died in America at a good age in 1838. He led, to my mind, something of an exemplary life! However, among the many ups and downs of his life he wrote about the moment that inspired this poem:

"In the year 1831 I had on the shelves of my private library 3000 selected volumes [ ... ] which contained the most beautiful pages of out literature. I sold 2000 of them [at] auction to procure the funds necessary to settle the drama of which the [pains] and expenses were left to me with volumes of nebulous pr[omises] and merchant-like generosity."

A Sad Farewell to my Books

Farewell, faithful friends, companions of both my
    happy and sorrowful days, farewell.

The ominous wrath of an adverse fate takes you
    from me, a misfortune much bitterer than death.

The nightingale, mourning his lost mate, does not
   fill the countryside with more desperate grief,

Nor does a father suffer more when from the shore
   he sees his sons take to the sea,

Than I, my heart rent, feel in giving you away; for
   in one moment I lose with you all I cherish.

It was only through you that in the changing course
   of life I was able to give respite to my sorrows
   and to turn them to joys;

And only you could have given birth to my fame,
    had your light remained whole and united.

Having you, I did not expect greater gifts from
   heaven; having you, I did not envy kings their
   riches and their thrones.

When the sun scorched the fields I would find in
   you, in a cool meadow, sweet comfort and
   charm.

When the evil wrath of winter had killed the grass
   and the flowers, through you Favonius would
   smile in my cell.

From you my soul learnt Piety and Charity, through
   you how to forget the insults of ingratitude.

Reading through the night I drank the nectar of the
  gods; often dreaming of you in my dreams were
   joys.

Alas, fate takes from me my only treasure! Death
   would have been less bitter than this last fare-
   well.

The translation into prose was done in 1958 Luciano Rebay an Italian instructor at Columbia. The final genius of this poem has to be that in the Italian it was written as an Anacreontic, an ancient Greek metre usually reserved for poems that hymn the wonders of love and wine!

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