Friday, May 28, 2010
Saved from the Sordid Axe
We had scarcely been two hours in Rome when we walked up to the Pincian hill, near our hotel. The sun was just set, but the western sky glowed beautifully. A great part of the city of modern Rome lay below us, and St. Peter's rose on the opposite side; and, for dear Sir George Beaumont's sake, I will mention that at no great distance from the dome of the church on the line of the glowing horizon was seen one of those broadtopped pines, looking like a little cloud in the sky, with a slender stalk to connect it with its native earth. I mention this because a friend of Mr. Robinson's whom we had just accidentally met told us that this very tree which I admired so much had been paid for by our dear friend, that it might stand as long as nature might allow.Letter of William Wordsworth to Mary and Dorothy Wordsworth (May 6, 1837):
The Monte Mario commands the most magnificent view of modern Rome, the Tiber, and the surrounding country. Upon this elevation I stood under the pine, redeemed by Sir G. Beaumont, of which I spoke in my former letter. I touched the bark of the magnificent tree, and I could almost have kissed it out of love for his memory.William Wordsworth, The Pine of Monte Mario at Rome, text with some notes from The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. William Knight, Vol. VIII (London: Macmillan and Co., 1896), pp. 58-59:
[Sir George Beaumont told me that, when he first visited Italy, pine-trees of this species abounded, but that on his return thither, which was more than thirty years after, they had disappeared from many places where he had been accustomed to admire them, and had become rare all over the country, especially in and about Rome. Several Roman villas have within these few years passed into the hands of foreigners, who, I observed with pleasure, have taken care to plant this tree, which in course of years will become a great ornament to the city and to the general landscape. May I venture to add here, that having ascended the Monte Mario, I could not resist embracing the trunk of this interesting monument of my departed friend's feelings for the beauties of nature, and the power of that art which he loved so much, and in the practice of which he was so distinguished.—I.F.]"I.F." at the end of the introductory note stands for Isabella Fenwick, to whom Wordsworth dictated notes to some of his poems. According to Jared Curtis, The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1993; rev. electronic edition 2007), p. 356, this sonnet was written "between late November 1838 and 8 February 1839, perhaps in January 1839."
I saw far off the dark top of a Pine
Look like a cloud—a slender stem the tie
That bound it to its native earth—poised high
'Mid evening hues, along the horizon line,
Striving in peace each other to outshine.
But when I learned the Tree was living there,
Saved from the sordid axe by Beaumont's care,
Oh, what a gush of tenderness was mine!
The rescued Pine-tree, with its sky so bright
And cloud-like beauty, rich in thoughts of home,
Death-parted friends, and days too swift in flight,
Supplanted the whole majesty of Rome
(Then first apparent from the Pincian Height)
Crowned with St. Peter's everlasting Dome.
Within a couple of hours of my arrival at Rome, I saw from Monte Pincio the Pine tree as described in the Sonnet; and, while expressing admiration at the beauty of its appearance, I was told by an acquaintance of my fellow-traveller, who happened to join us at the moment, that a price had been paid for it by the late Sir G. Beaumont, upon condition that the proprietor should not act upon his known intention of cutting it down.—W.W. 1842.
Wordsworth's "fellow-traveller" was Henry Crabb Robinson (1775–1867). See his Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence, ed. Thomas Sadler, Vol. III (London: Macmillan and Co., 1869), pp. 116-117 (Reminiscences, April 26, 1837):
We entered Rome in good spirits. We were driven to the Europa, where, till we procured lodgings, we contented ourselves with two rooms on a third story. Before sunset we took a walk to my favorite haunt, the Pincian Hill, where I was accosted by my name. It was Theed, who informed us of the pine-tree referred to in Wordsworth's poem as the gift of Sir George Beaumont.Theed was the sculptor William Theed (1804-1891). The savior of the pine tree was painter and art patron Sir George Beaumont (1753–1827). Various guide books to Rome state that the pine tree survived, at least until the early 20th century (e.g. Baedeker, 1904).
I am indebted to Eric Thomson for most of the content of this post.