Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor
Poem Of The Week: On The Extinction Of The Venetian Republic By William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic
Once did She hold the gorgeous east in fee;
And was the safeguard of the west: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty.
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a Mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great is passed away.
Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash
The landscape of Wordsworth’s sonnet has more in common with the decaying authenticity of a Turner vision than the studied rectilinear perfection of a Canaletto canvas. John Ruskin’s lifelong championing of Turner’s work resided in just such honesty: the real Venice of the nineteenth century showed - continues to show - the rot and the cracks like bad teeth in a beautiful face.
Perspective is all. Canaletto stood a long way back from the detail, disguising the architectural erosion in a (highly marketable) illusion of grandeur. But the grandeur, as Wordsworth finds, remains, if only in the irony of a backward glance, for his poem is also a kind of elegy for the glory and metropolitan power of this city state, succumbed, like the grand dame of his sustained metaphorical thread, to age and decline.
Conceived as early as 1802 but not published until 1807, there remains a sense in which Wordsworth’s fine poem is a mirror to his own declining powers.
The resounding regularity of the poet’s use of metre lends consistency to his train of thought: tolling the magnificence of consummated ambition, of commercial hegemony and control of the seas, Wordsworth’s homage to fading glory is almost a foreshadowing of the imperial connotations of a British monarch, and a nation, heading, within a few decades, towards its own zenith.
Conceived as early as 1802 but not published until 1807, there remains a sense in which Wordsworth’s fine poem is a mirror to his own declining powers. Although still in productive thrall, he is ever cognizant of the diminishment of creative vision. To this extent, the extinction of a Republic, and the failure, elsewhere, of a Revolution, are catalysts for ennui, for an occlusion of purpose. The grieving which is predicated upon the passing away of greatness might also be a condition of personal loss.
‘On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic’ is taken from The New Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1950, chosen & edited by Helen Gardner, and is published by the Oxford University Press (1972)