During the course of our research into the various authors who have written about Sicily, it hasn’t escaped our notice that some never set foot on the island. They either imagined Trinacria from chilly northern climes or they grasped fragments of culture and folklore from visits to the Italian mainland. There are also those writers who put pen to paper before they actually decided to visit at a later stage in their career. Whether they are ‘never did’ers’ or ‘yet to do’ers’, they all seem to share the common themes of an attraction to the island’s legends or to its fulsome and unrestrained natural landscapes. This is not necessarily a criticism, it would be a poor world if creative imagination was limited to personal experience rather than flights of fancy or careful reading.
We have put together a small selection from the many examples, which amply illustrates this tendency.
James Henry Leigh Hunt – A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla
Did Aetna exist before the human race? Was it, for ages, a great lonely earth-monster, sitting by the sea with his rugged woody shoulders and ghastly crown; now silent and quiet for centuries, like a basking giant; now roaring to the antediluvian skies; vomiting forth fire and smoke; drivelling with lava; then silent again as before…
(James Henry Leigh Hunt, a friend of Byron, Shelley and Keats, is our prime example of the scribbler who never visited Sicily. He wasn’t content with making reference to the island in a couple of poems or a mere verse; instead, he wrote an entire book. A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla is a wonderful hodge-podge of mythology, pastoral poetics, Etnean imaginings and other Sicilian miscellanea. It was designed as a book to be given at Christmas and read around a northern fireplace. To be fair to Leigh Hunt, he did visit Byron and Shelley in the Bay of Lerici and was present when Shelley was cremated on the beach.)
John Milton – Paradise Lost
…and fuelled entrails thence conceiving fire,
sublimed with mineral fury, aid the winds,
and leave a singèd bottom all involved
with stench and smoke…
(Paradise Lost is part of the English language canon, so how could we not include an allusion to Mount Etna. Milton was so accomplished that he wrote poetry in Italian and travelled extensively through mainland Italy. The furthest south he reached was Naples, where matters were complicated by Spanish rule. Appropriately enough, his Etna is devilishly sulphuric.)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge – ‘The Mad Monk’
I heard a voice from Etna’s side;
Where o’er a cavern’s mouth,
That fronted to the south,
A chestnut spread its umbrage wide:
A hermit or a monk that man might be;
But him I could not see;
And thus the music flow’d along,
In melody most like to old Sicilian song…
(Coleridge is the first of our ‘yet to do’ers’. He travelled out to Malta and Sicily in 1804 and was to spend months on the island. He wrote ‘The Mad Monk’ in 1800 and it first appeared in the Morning Post newspaper with the title: ‘The Voice from the Side of Etna’. It is something of a Gothic novel parody, a genre abounding in lunatic clerics and ruinous landscapes. It also reflects Coleridge’s friendship with Wordsworth and his love of an inspiring natural backdrop.)
Percy Bysshe Shelley – ‘The Song of Proserpine’ (from Mary’s Proserpine)
Sacred Goddess, Mother Earth
Thou from whose immortal bosom
Gods, and men, and beasts have birth,
Leaf, and blade, and bud, and blossom,
Breathe thine influence most divine
On thine own child Proserpine.
(Shelley was, of course, very drawn to Italy and spent much time in the country, although, as Leigh Hunt pointed out, he never went to Sicily. Nevertheless, he had read extensively on Greco-Roman myth and penned the above poem to go along with Mary Shelley’s work on Proserpine.)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti – ‘Proserpine’
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once,
must thrall me here…
(Despite his Italian name, Rossetti, the son of an émigré, never reached the island. His father was a respected writer and his uncle, John Polidori, was Lord Byron’s doctor and author of The Vampyre. Given this literary background, it is no surprise that Rossetti was a poet, although he is much more famous as a painter in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood during the Victorian era. His take on the Proserpine legend is full of dark imagery.)
Algernon Charles Swinburne – ‘Hymn to Proserpine’
I have lived long enough, having seen one thing, that love hath an end;
Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.
Thou art more than the deep or the morrow, the seasons that laugh or that weep;
For these give joy and sorrow; but thou Proserpina, sleep.
Sweet is the treading of the wine, and sweet the feet of the dove…
(Swinburne was Rossetti’s friend and a poet attracted by the decadent and taboo. He lodged with the Anglo-Italian during a difficult time in his life when he was plagued by alcoholism. Swinburne’s poetry has covered everything from masochism to lesbianism and topics directly designed to enrage the church. His ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ is a lament for the demise of her kind and the rise in Christianity. Swinburne travelled throughout Italy, but we can find no evidence of a trip to Sicily.)
Oscar Wilde – ‘Theocritus – A Villanelle’
O singer of Persephone!
In the dim meadows desolate
Dost thou remember Sicily?
Still through the ivy flits the bee
Where Amaryllis lies in state;
O singer of Persephone!
(Wilde chose the Greek name for Proserpine when he penned ‘Theocritus – A Villanelle’, long before he visited Sicily towards the end of his life. This choice and the poem’s focus on Theocritus, the Siculo-Greek bucolic poet who wrote of Daphnis, the tragic herdsman beloved of Hermes, was no coincidence. Wilde’s homosexuality found expression in reference to these classical Greek figures.)
Lord Alfred Douglas – ‘Sicilian Love Song’
Will the hot sun never die?
He shines too bright, too long.
How slow the hours creep by!
Will the thrush never finish her song?
She is singing too merrily…
(Wilde’s lover, Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, took this Siculo-Greek connection a step further and wrote the above poem that envisaged the burning sun sinking so that a man could meet his male lover under the cover of darkness. It’s not difficult to see the parallels between his own life and this imagined classical encounter.)
Shakespeare – A Winter’s Tale
Leontes (King of Sicily): This sessions (to our great grief we pronounce)
Even pushes ‘gainst our heart; the party tried,
The daughter of a king, our wife, and one
Of us too beloved . – Let us be cleared
Of being tyrannous, since we openly
Proceed in justice: which shall have due course…
(Finally, we will turn to Shakespeare, to see his take on courtly justice. He set A Winter’s Tale partly in Sicily and in the above scene has King Leontes, despite his lordly words, contemplating the punishment of his wife, Hermione, for adultery. Shakespeare also set Much Ado About Nothing on the island. Shakespeare never set foot on Trinacrian soil, unless you believe the wild theory that the Bard was Sicilian, i.e. a certain Crollalanza from Messina. For a fun take on this story, take a look at Andrea Camilleri and Giuseppe Dipasquale’s Troppu trafficu ppi nenti, a Sicilian reworking of Much Ado, with an Italian translation alongside (Molto rumore per nulla)).
These authors represent an Anglo-Irish snapshot from an era that runs from the Renaissance to the time of Queen Victoria and, as such, their distant take on Sicily reflects the artist currents prevalent at various times. It’s to be expected that those who take far-flung inspiration from the island in our modern era will have very different preoccupations and conceptions based on current thinking and media coverage.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.
They are also authors of His Master’s Reflection, a travel biography in the footsteps of Lord Byron’s doctor and Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, which was also reviewed by the Times Literary Supplement: ‘a thoughtful, thoroughly researched and remarkably well-balanced scholarly guide to the literary history of one of Spain’s most eulogized regions.’ Andrew is the translator of Borges in Sicily by Alejandro Luque, a travelogue in search of the photographic locations used by Ferdinando Scianna when he took images of the Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges, during his island tour.