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  • Angharad Rixon

Fragrant Broom


As you all know I am currently in Italy and today will begin this year's textiles in Italy tour which you will be able to follow on Instagram. Last week I was in Tuscany and was struck by the amount of wild broom still in flower and wanted to talk a little about this wonderful and sadly under used plant which was widely used in central and Southern Italy as a source of dye and fibre up until the 1950s.

It is also the title of a very beautiful poem by Giacomo Leopardi and Have pasted the full text here below, the Italian text can be found here:

Wild Broom

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by A.S. Kline)

Fragrant broom,

content with deserts:

here on the arid slope of Vesuvius,

that formidable mountain, the destroyer,

that no other tree or flower adorns,

you scatter your lonely

bushes all around. I’ve seen before

how you beautify empty places

with your stems, circling the City

once the mistress of the world,

and it seems that with their grave,

silent, aspect they bear witness,

reminding the passer-by

of that lost empire.

Now I see you again on this soil,

a lover of sad places abandoned by the world,

a faithful friend of hostile fortune.

These fields scattered

with barren ash, covered

with solid lava,

that resounds under the traveller’s feet:

where snakes twist, and couple

in the sun, and the rabbits return

to their familiar cavernous burrows:

were once happy, prosperous farms.

They were golden with corn, echoed

to lowing cattle:

there were gardens and palaces,

the welcome leisure retreats

for powerful, famous cities,

which the proud mountain crushed

with all their people, beneath the torrents

from its fiery mouth. Now all around

is one ruin,

where you root, gentle flower, and as though

commiserating with others’ loss, send

a perfume of sweetest fragrance to heaven,

that consoles the desert. Let those

who praise our existence visit

these slopes, to see how carefully

our race is nurtured

by loving Nature. And here

they can justly estimate

and measure the power of humankind,

that the harsh nurse, can with a slight movement,

obliterate one part of, in a moment, when we

least fear it, and with a little less gentle

a motion, suddenly,

annihilate altogether.

The ‘magnificent and progressive fate’

of the human race

is depicted in this place.

Proud, foolish century, look,

and see yourself reflected,

you who’ve abandoned

the path, marked by advancing thought

till now, and reversed your steps,

boasting of this regression

you call progress.

All the intellectuals, whose evil fate

gave them you for a father,

praise your babbling, though

they often make a mockery

of you, among themselves. But I’ll

not vanish into the grave in shame:

As far as I can, I’ll demonstrate,

the scorn for you, openly,

that’s in my heart,

though I know oblivion crushes

those hated by their own time.

I’ve already mocked enough

at that fate I’ll share with you.

You pursue Freedom, yet want thought

to be slave of a single age again:

by thought we’ve risen a little higher

than barbarism, by thought alone civilisation

grows, only thought guides public affairs

towards the good.

The truth of your harsh fate

and the lowly place Nature gave you

displease you so. Because of it

you turn your backs on the light

that illuminated you: and in flight,

you call him who pursues it vile,

and only him great of heart

who foolishly or cunningly mocks himself

or others, praising our human state above the stars.

A man generous and noble of soul,

of meagre powers and weak limbs,

doesn’t boast and call himself

strong and rich in possessions,

doesn’t make a foolish pretence

of splendid living or cutting a fine

figure among the crowd:

but allows himself to appear

as lacking wealth and power,

and says so, openly, and gives

a true value to his worth.

I don’t consider a man

a great-hearted creature, but stupid,

who, born to die, nurtured in pain,

says he is made for joy,

and fills pages with the stench

of pride, promising

an exalted destiny on earth,

and a new happiness, unknown to heaven

much less this world, to people

whom a surging wave, a breath

of malignant air, a subterranean tremor,

destroys so utterly that they

scarcely leave a memory behind.

He has a noble nature

who dares to raise his voice

against our common fate,

and with an honest tongue,

not compromising truth,

admits the evil fate allotted us,

our low and feeble state:

a nature that shows itself

strong and great in suffering,

that does not add to its miseries with fraternal

hatred and anger, things worse

than other evils, blaming mankind

for its sorrows, but places blame

on Her who is truly guilty, who is the mother

of men in bearing them, their stepmother in malice.

They call her enemy:

and consider

the human race

to be united, and ranked against her,

from of old, as is true,

judge all men allies, embrace

all with true love, offering sincere

prompt support, and expecting it

in the various dangers and anguish

of the mutual war on her. And think

it as foolish to take up arms against men

and set up nets and obstacles

against their neighbours as it would be in war,

surrounded by the opposing army, in the most

intense heat of battle,

to start fierce struggles with friends,

forgetting the enemy,

to incite desertion, and wave their swords

among their own forces.

If such thoughts were revealed

to the crowd, as they used to be,

along with the horror that first

brought men together in social contract

against impious Nature,

then by true wisdom

the honest, lawful intercourse

of citizens would be partly renewed,

and justice and piety, would own

to another root than foolish pride,

on which the morals of the crowd

are as well founded

as anything else that’s based on error.

Often I sit here, at night,

on these desolate slopes,

that a hardened lava-flow has clothed

with brown, and which seem to undulate still,

and over the gloomy waste,

I see the stars flame, high

in the purest blue,

mirrored far off by the sea:

the universe glittering with sparks

that wheel through the tranquil void.

And then I fix my eyes on those lights

that seem pin-pricks,

yet are so vast in form

that earth and sea are really a pin-prick

to them: to whom man,

and this globe where man is nothing,

are completely unknown: and gazing

at those still more infinitely remote,

knots, almost, of stars,

that seem like mist to us, to which

not only man and earth but all

our stars, infinite in number and mass,

with the golden sun,

are unknown, or seem like points

of misted light, as they appear

from earth: what do you seem like,

then, in my thoughts, O children

of mankind? And mindful of

your state here below, of which

the ground I stand on bears witness,

and that, on the other hand, you believe

that you’ve been appointed the master

and end of all things: and how often

you like to talk about the creators

of all things universal, who descended

to this obscure grain of sand called earth,

for you, and happily spoke to you, often:

and that, renewing these ridiculous dreams,

you still insult the wise, in an age

that appears to surpass the rest

in knowledge and social customs: what feeling is it,

then, wretched human race, what thought

of you finally pierces my heart?

I don’t know if laughter or pity prevails.

As a little apple that falls from a tree:

late autumn ripeness,

and nothing else, bringing it to earth:

crushes, wastes, and covers

in a moment, the sweet nests

of a tribe of ants, carved out

of soft soil, with vast labour,

and the works, the wealth,

that industrious race had vied

to achieve, with such effort,

and created in the summer: so the cities

of the farthest shores

that the sea bathed,

were shattered, confounded, covered

in a few moments, by a night of ruin,

by ashes, lava and stones,

hurled to the heights of heaven

from the womb of thunder,

falling again from above,

mingled in molten streams,

or by the vast overflow

of liquefied masses,

metals and burning sand,

descending the mountainside

racing over the grass: so that now

the goats graze above them,

and new cities rise beside them, whose base

is their buried, demolished walls

that the cruel mountain seems to crush underfoot.

Nature has no more love or care

for the seed of man

than for the ants: and if the destruction

of one is rarer than that of the other,

it’s for no other reason

than that mankind is less rich in offspring.

Fully eighteen hundred years

have passed, since those once-populated cities

vanished, crushed by fiery force,

yet the farmer intent

on his vines, this dead

and ashen soil barely nourishes,

still lifts his gaze

with suspicion,

to the fatal peak

that sits there brooding,

no gentler than ever, still threatening

to destroy him, his children, and his

meagre possessions. And often

the wretch, lying awake

on the roof of his house, where

the wandering breezes blow at night,

jumps up now and again, and checks

the course of the dreadful boiling,

that pours from that inexhaustible lap

onto its sandy slopes, and illuminates

the bay of Capri, the ports

of Naples and Mergellina.

And if he sees it nearing, or hears

the water bubbling, feverishly, deep

in the well, he wakes his children, quickly

wakes his wife, and fleeing, with whatever

of their possessions they can grasp,

watches from the distance, as his familiar

home, and the little field

his only defence against hunger,

fall prey to the burning tide,

crackling as it arrives, inexorably

spreading over all this, and hardening.

Lifeless Pompeii returns to the light of heaven

after ancient oblivion, like a buried

skeleton, that piety or the greed

for land gives back to the open air:

and, from its empty forum,

through the ranks of broken

columns, the traveller contemplates

the forked peak and the smoking summit,

that still threatens the scattered ruins.

And, like night’s secret horror,

through the empty theatres,

the twisted temples, the shattered

houses, where the bat hides its brood,

like a sinister brand

that circles darkly through silent palaces,

the glow of the deathly lava runs,

reddening the shadows

from far away, staining the region round.

So, indifferent to man, and the ages

he calls ancient, and the way descendants

follow on from their ancestors,

Nature, always green, proceeds instead

by so long a route

she seems to remain at rest. Meanwhile empires fall,

peoples and tongues pass: She does not see:

and man lays claim to eternity’s merit.

And you, slow-growing broom,

who adorn this bare landscape

with fragrant thickets,

you too will soon succumb

to the cruel power of subterranean fire,

that, revisiting places

it knows, will stretch its greedy margin

over your soft forest. And you’ll bend

your innocent head, without a struggle,

beneath that mortal burden:

yet a head that’s not been bent in vain

in cowardly supplication

before a future oppressor: nor lifted

in insane pride towards the stars,

or beyond the desert, where

your were born and lived,

not through intent, but chance:

and you’ll have been so much wiser

so much less unsound than man, since you

have never believed your frail species,

can be made immortal by yourself, or fate.


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