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A New Yorker in Lerici: Henry James in “Italian Hours”

In his travel book (Greenwood Press, Westport 1977) James sketches an enchanting fresco of the amazing Italian town

by Maria Luisa Eguez

Portrait of Henry James, charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent (1912) (Wikipedia)

“The great merit of La Spezia, to my eye, is that I engaged a boat there of a lovely October afternoon and had myself rowed across the gulf--it took about an hour and a half--to the little bay of Lerici, which opens out of it. "The bay of Lerici is charming; the bosky grey-green hills close it in, and on either side of the entrance, perched on a bold headland, a wonderful old crumbling castle keeps ineffectual guard. The place is classic to all English travelers, for in the middle of the curving shore is the now desolate little villa in which Shelley spent the last months of his short life..."

The great American writer Henry James (born in New York on April 15th 1843 and died in London on February 28th 1916) landed “on a pleasant October afternoon” in the Golfo dei Poeti (the Gulf of Poets) on one of his many journeys through continental Europe. The beauty of this spot deeply impressed him. This splendid page from his book seems to trace in retrospect the journalistic connection established with La Voce di New York. In Italian Hours (Greenwood Press, Westport 1977) James sketches this enchanting fresco of us:

“The great merit of La Spezia, to my eye, is that I engaged a boat there of a lovely October afternoon and had myself rowed across the gulf–it took about an hour and a half–to the little bay of Lerici, which opens out of it.

The bay of Lerici is charming; the bosky grey-green hills close it in, and on either side of the entrance, perched on a bold headland, a wonderful old crumbling castle keeps ineffectual guard. The place is classic to all English travelers, for in the middle of the curving shore is the now desolate little villa in which Shelley spent the last months of his short life… It stands directly upon the beach, with scarred and battered walls and a  loggia of several arches opening to a little terrace with a rugged parapet which, when the wind blows, must be drenched with salt spray.  The place is very lonely- all overwearied with sun and breeze and brine- very close to nature, as it was Shelley’s passion to be. I can fancy a great lyric poet sitting on the terrace of a warm evening and feeling very far from England in the early years of the century. In that place, and with his genius, he would as a matter of course have heard in the voice of nature a sweetness which only the lyric movement could translate. It is a place where an English-speaking pilgrim himself may very honestly think thoughts and feel moved to lyric utterance. But I must content myself by saying in halting prose that I remember few episodes of Italian travel more sympathetic, as they have it here, than the perfect autumn afternoon; the half hour station on the little battered terrace of the villa; the climb to the singularly felicitous old castle that hangs above Lerici; the meditative little lounge, in the fading light, on the vine-decked platform that looked out toward the sunset and the darkening mountains and, far below, upon the quiet sea, beyond which the pale-faced tragic villa stared up at the brightening moon…..”

If James could say, “I remember very few episodes of my trip to Italy that are closer to my heart than that perfect autumn afternoon”, so it behooves us  to remember his words with renewed gratitude.

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