Thursday, March 20, 2008

When Their Husbands Were Far Away From Home...

I've been reading through W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer's translation of Goethe's Letters from Italy for the past few days. I found a passage there that is quite beautiful. (There are several, and I will probably share more quotations from Goethe's letters in this blog at a later date.)

Goethe, in this passage, has just talked about his own experiences listening to the singers on the canals of Venice. He has mentioned often in the narrative how loudly they sing, and has explained how the perfect method of listening to the singers is to stand equidistance between them, hearing their song as a dialogue between two voices. He then describes a scene that his friend is encouraging him to witness first hand, saying:

"He wanted me to hear the women on the Lido, especially those from Malamocco and Pellestrina. They too, he told me, sing verses by Tasso to the same or a similar melody, and added: 'It is their custom to sit on the seashore while their husbands are out sea-fishing, and sing these songs in penetrating tones until, from far out over the sea, their men reply, and in this way they converse with each other.' Is this not a beautiful custom? I dare say that, to someone standing close by, the sound of such voices, competing with the thunder of the waves, might not be very agreeable. But the motive behind such singing is so human and genuine that it makes the mere notes of the melody, over which scholars have racked their brains in vain, come to life. It is the cry of some lonely human being sent out into the wide world till it reaches the ears of another lonely human being who is moved to answer it."

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