Viva Italia, indeed. If not for the pasta, the olive oil, the architecture, the wines, the beaches, the Vespas, the fashion, the gelato, the Vatican, the footwear, the pleasant demeanor of the general populace and the dazzling superabundance of dark-eyed beauties, one could certainly love Italy for the language, and the effect it’s had on world literature. It’s an interesting irony that Italy’s foremost writer, Dante, was exiled much of his life, while many of the premier writers of the rest of Europe spent time in il bel paese, and developed their writerly personas there. Chaucer and Milton both cut their literary teeth soon after (or during) extended trips to Italy; Byron too got much of his inspiration during his travels (carting along with him a small monkey!), and Goethe, jewel of Germany, made a number of trips south, composing some of his finest verse in or about Venice and Rome.
Goethe’s Roman elegies, like the one I translated for the current issue of the Nerve print magazine, are elegant, ethereal love poems; the Venetian cousins, meanwhile, are scathing, scabrous send-ups wonderful little eyeholes to the dark side of the Meister. They’re not sweet, but they are short, so I’m going to reprint four below, to give a sense of their range. In the first, Goethe is picked up by two Venetian women; when he resists their advances, they know he’s not from Venice. In the second, he adapts the scurrilous story from Rabelais of Hans Carvel putting the wrong “finger” in the “ring”; in the third, he laments his need to use the German language to write about the penis; and in the fourth, heexplains why he prefers girls to boys (in words that will remind you of Sade). So while Goethe might be internationally famous for his immortal Faust or his exquisite, gentle, Sorrows of Young Werther, we shouldn’t forget his naughty side, which seems to have found a petite Mort à Venice.
From the Venetian Elegies of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Are you a foreigner, sir? Do you live in Venice?”
Two “lizards” asked me who’d lured me into their cave.
Guess! “You’re French! Neapolitan!” They bantered
Back and forth, meanwhile swiftly sipping their coffee.
“Let’s do something!” said the loveliest, setting her cup
Down, and at once I felt her rummaging hand.
Gently I grasped and held it; the second one stretched
Forward her delicate fingers; I restrained them too.
“Ah, he’s a foreigner!” both of them cried; they jested,
Asked me for presents which I, though sparingly, gave.
Thereafter they offered me a more secluded retreat
And the later hours of night for a warmer game.
If these creatures at once knew a stranger through signs of resistance,
O therefore you know why the Venetian creeps wanly about.
Expensive rings I own: engraved, precious gems
Of handsome design and style mounted in pure gold.
A person pays dearly for rings set with fiery stones;
Often you’ve seen them shine at the gaming table.
But I know a little ring that is excellent in another way
The one old Hans Carvel once in his sadness possessed.
Unwisely he placed the smallest of his ten fingers
Into it; only the largest, the eleventh, belonged there.
Give me not “tail” but another word, o Priapus,
For, being a German I’m evilly plagued as a poet.
I call you phallos in Greek, which rings well in the ears;
And mentula’s Latin, which can also serve as a word.
Mentula may come from mens, the tail’s something behind,
And I never as yet had very much fun from that quarter.
I’m fairly fond of boys, but my preference is girls;
When I have enough of a girl, she serves me still as a boy.