The Pen Portrait Gallery
An Assembly of Minor Characters await the more important guests who have the liberty of arriving later (for they know the party cannot take place without them.) These, by contrast, will be glad of your attention for they have been mostly ignored by history. Help yourself to wine, and mingle…..
With nubile daughters of the sun, Parmenides
Was admitted to the unnamed Goddess court,
Transcribing most precisely what she said
About the only road (less travelled by the lost)
Towards eternal life: ‘to die before your death’.
Plato, jealous, later stamped her book…
His ‘ex libris’ smudging what she meant.
Thus the first messiah who offered life eternal
Became another Father of a Church
Of Athens and its commandeering Schools…
Remembered now for ‘rationality’
When what he sold was guided ecstasy
The keeper of the keys, old Socrates
(If he was ever young it was forgot)
Ironic in sardonic disputation
To prove the Delphic Oracle mistaken.
He failed; fell in a swoon at Potidaea,
Came round much changed and evangelical,
Exhorting all he after met to heed the Soul:
(‘Know Thyself ’ his central admonition)
Life’s solemn purpose was its liberation
From the prison of the mortal coil.
Immortality could be gained by contemplation,
Moderation, justice, discipline…
As you pass his stoop take a libation,
Dress in sack-cloth; mark your brow with ash.
Sipping bitter hemlock, seated, tranquil,
Serene and unresisting, welcomed death…
The first martyr for an independent mind.
After Socrates we take a road to hell…
An inspired plumber, Vitruvius
(Are drains and heated baths your thing?)
His Cloaca Maxima flowed (unsweet),
He slept beneath mosquito nets…
(He, of all, knew Roman quagmires
Though Horace mocked his cautious ways)
I’ve seen pictures of his aqueducts,
The well-sluiced streets, the hospitals,
All politic for conquering…
Surveyors marked the marching miles,
Roads went straight, undoubtedly…
Practisch, doch, I do acknowledge, but
Ordered appearance mostly hides
The lack of more creative chaos.
We have almost reached Giotto
He’ll recast space, recalling weight
In well fed clerics, often standing
Several inches above ground…
(Holiness was natural helium
Duccio floated slabs of stone)
Perspective shouted for attention,
Men were flat-ironed, most in profile,
Movement stirred in draperies…
Obeying gravitation’s summons
For women weeping on their knees.
Pause. Stop. Repeat.
Galileo Galilei…Galileo Galilei…
Is it not an angelus bell from a Tuscan hill?
That thin and penetrating timbre
Riding high above the heavy heat
Indifferent to the tethered goat,
The still reaper that stands with his hat in his hand.
The habit as constant as rising sun
Noticed only when it fails to come…
The piazza deserted; pigeons throat in a belfry, subdued.
On Fiesole hill he sits at a table, the shutters serving
Slices of light. Imprisonment is a blanket now
(A warm enclosure for dwindling life)
The fertile uplands of his thought are liberty enough.
His eyes are dimmed, almost totally blind;
That matters less, his work is done.
Milton came but yesterday…
Poets are blind, even when they see…
Both recall a Paradise Lost
(The faultless order of man’s estate)
The lunar surface is now pock-marked
With seas and lakes and mountain range…
The Virgin orb that drove men mad
With love in its ascendant phase
Has a face diseased by looking too close;
This apple has a sour rind.
(Much more on Galileo in the book)
Hooke, now called Britain’s ‘Leonardo’
Helps Wren on the structure of St Paul’s…
Surveys London, destroyed by plague and fire…
Designs the Library of Pepys, the Hospice ‘Bedlam’…
Anticipates a gradual evolution…
(Before Comte de Buffon, Goethe, Cuvier)
Is first to liken ‘cells’ to monk’s enclosures…
Quite often (and bravely) takes on Newton,
(Light was not corpuscular but more like sound, a wave)
To relax he plays astronomer and measures
By parallax, the distance of a star…
Yet now perhaps is lastingly remembered
For fine drawings in his ‘Micrographia’
Of the minutiae of such things as fleas and lice.
Take Florence, liberated by its wealth
(Medici bankers almost a new Church)
For whom Botticelli was invited to supply
Pensive porn concealed in virtuous myth.
Lest thought facile or irreverent
Melancholy pervades, makes nudity now decent.
Even Judith, (triumphant with the head of Holofernes,
Looks as though she’s lost her trilling linnet…)
Wind wraps soft curl around caressing finger,
Flutters drapery against a shapely bosom,
Blows out the cheeks of fat and pouting putti,
Licks up wavelets shaken in a spoon.
(Breeze and passive pensive maidens
Were lucratively Botticelli’s thing)
(Just a small sample. Here is a whole book full)