My Romance With Fiammetta

[This is taken from Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac.]

Boccaccio - Decameron

My bookseller and I came nigh to blows some months ago over an edition of Boccaccio, which my bookseller tried to sell me.  This was a copy in the original, published at Antwerp in 1603, prettily rubricated, and elaborately adorned with some forty or fifty copperplates illustrative of the text.  I dare say the volume was cheap enough at thirty dollars, but I did not want it.

My reason for not wanting it gave rise to that discussion between my bookseller and myself, which became very heated before it ended.  I said very frankly that I did not care for the book in the original, because I had several translations done by the most competent hands.  Thereupon my bookseller ventured that aged and hackneyed argument which has for centuries done the book  trade such effective service—namely, that in every translation, no matter how good that translation may be, there is certain to be lost a share of the flavor and spirit of the meaning.

“Fiddledeedee!” said I.  “Do you suppose that these translators who have devoted their lives to the study and practice of the art are not competent to interpret the different shades and colors of meaning better than the mere dabbler in foreign tongues?  And then, again, is not human life too short for the lover of books to spend his precious time digging out the recondite allusions of authors, lexicon in hand?  My dear sir, it is a wickedly false economy to expend time and money for that which one can get done much better and at a much smaller expenditure by another hand.”

From my encounter with my bookseller I went straight home and took down my favorite copy of the “Decameron” and thumbed it over very tenderly; for you must know that I am particularly attached to that little volume.  I can hardly realize that nearly half a century has elapsed since Yseult Hardynge and I parted.  She was such a creature as the great novelist himself would have chosen for a heroine; she had the beauty and the wit of those Florentine ladies who flourished in the fourteenth century, and whose graces of body and mind have been immortalized by Boccaccio.  Her eyes, as I particularly recall, were specially fine, reflecting from their dark depths every expression of her varying moods.

Why I called her Fiammetta I cannot say, for I do not remember; perhaps from a boyish fancy, merely.  At that time Boccaccio and I were famous friends; we were together constantly, and his companionship had such an influence upon me that for the nonce I lived and walked and had my being in that distant, romantic period when all men were gallants and all women were grandes dames and all birds were nightingales.

I bought myself an old Florentine sword at Noseda’s in the Strand and hung it on the wall in my modest apartments; under it I placed Boccaccio’s portrait and Fiammetta’s, and I was wont to drink toasts to these  beloved counterfeit presentments in flagons (mind you, genuine antique flagons) of Italian wine.  Twice I took Fiammetta boating upon the Thames and once to view the Lord Mayor’s pageant; her mother was with us on both occasions, but she might as well have been at the bottom of the sea, for she was a stupid old soul, wholly incapable of sharing or appreciating the poetic enthusiasms of romantic youth.

Had Fiammetta been a book—ah, unfortunate lady!--had she but been a book she might still be mine, for me to care for lovingly and to hide from profane eyes and to attire in crushed levant and gold and to cherish as a best-beloved companion in mine age!  Had she been a book she could not have been guilty of the folly of wedding with a yeoman of Lincolnshire—ah me, what rude awakenings too often dispel the pleasing dreams of youth!

When I revisited England in the sixties, I was tempted to make an excursion into Lincolnshire for the purpose of renewing my acquaintance with Fiammetta.  Before, however, I had achieved that object this  thought occurred to me:  “You are upon a fool’s errand; turn back, or you will destroy forever one of the sweetest of your boyhood illusions!  You seek Fiammetta in the delusive hope of finding her in the person of Mrs. Henry Boggs; there is but one Fiammetta, and she is the memory abiding in your heart.  Spare yourself the misery of discovering in the hearty, fleshy Lincolnshire hussif the decay of the promises of years ago; be content to do reverence to the ideal Fiammetta who has built her little shrine in your sympathetic heart!”

Now this was strange counsel, yet it had so great weight with me that I was persuaded by it, and after lying a night at the Swan-and-Quiver Tavern I went back to London, and never again had a desire to visit Lincolnshire.

But Fiammetta is still a pleasing memory—ay, and more than a memory to me, for whenever I take down that precious book and open it, what a host of friends do troop forth!  Cavaliers, princesses, courtiers, damoiselles, monks, nuns, equerries, pages, maidens—humanity of every class and condition, and all instinct with the color of the master magician, Boccaccio!

And before them all cometh a maiden with dark, glorious eyes, and she beareth garlands of roses; the moonlight falleth like a benediction upon the Florentine garden slope, and the night wind seeketh its cradle in the laurel tree, and fain would sleep to the song of the nightingale.

As for Judge Methuen, he loves his Boccaccio quite as much as I do mine, and being somewhat of a versifier he has made a little poem on the subject, a copy of which I have secured surreptitiously and do now offer for your delectation:

One day upon a topmost shelf
I found a precious prize indeed,
Which father used to read himself,
But did not want us boys to read;
A brown old book of certain age
(As type and binding seemed to show),
While on the spotted title-page
Appeared the name “Boccaccio.”

I’d never heard that name before,
But in due season it became
To him who fondly brooded o’er
Those pages a beloved name!
Adown the centuries I walked
Mid pastoral scenes and royal show;
With seigneurs and their dames I talked—
The crony of Boccaccio!

Those courtly knights and sprightly maids,
Who really seemed disposed to shine
In gallantries and escapades,
Anon became great friends of mine.
Yet was there sentiment with fun,
And oftentimes my tears would flow
At some quaint tale of valor done,
As told by my Boccaccio.

In boyish dreams I saw again
Bucolic belles and dames of court,
The princely youths and monkish men
Arrayed for sacrifice or sport.
Again I heard the nightingale
Sing as she sang those years ago
In his embowered Italian vale
To my revered Boccaccio.

And still I love that brown old book
I found upon the topmost shelf—
I love it so I let none look
Upon the treasure but myself!
And yet I have a strapping boy
Who (I have every cause to know)
Would to its full extent enjoy
The friendship of Boccaccio!

But boys are, oh! so different now
From what they were when I was one!
I fear my boy would not know how
To take that old raconteur’s fun!
In your companionship, O friend,
I think it wise alone to go
Plucking the gracious fruits that bend
Wheree’er you lead, Boccaccio.

So rest you there upon the shelf,
Clad in your garb of faded brown;
Perhaps, sometime, my boy himself
Shall find you out and take you down.
Then may he feel the joy once more
That thrilled me, filled me years ago
When reverently I brooded o’er
The glories of Boccaccio!

Out upon the vile brood of imitators, I say!  Get ye gone, ye Bandellos and ye Straparolas and ye other charlatans who would fain possess yourselves of the empire which the genius of Boccaccio bequeathed to humanity.  There is but one master, and to him we render grateful homage.  He leads us down through the cloisters of time, and at his touch the dead become reanimate, and all the sweetness and the valor of antiquity recur; heroism, love, sacrifice, tears,  laughter, wisdom, wit, philosophy, charity, and understanding are his auxiliaries; humanity is his inspiration, humanity his theme, humanity his audience, humanity his debtor.

Now it is of Tancred’s daughter he tells, and now of Rossiglione’s wife; anon of the cozening gardener he speaks and anon of Alibech; of what befell Gillette de Narbonne, of Iphigenia and Cymon, of Saladin, of Calandrino, of Dianora and Ansaldo we hear; and what subject soever he touches he quickens it into life, and he so subtly invests it with that indefinable quality of his genius as to attract thereunto not only our sympathies but also our enthusiasm.

Yes, truly, he should be read with understanding; what author should not?  I would no more think of putting my Boccaccio into the hands of a dullard than I would think of leaving a bright and beautiful woman at the mercy of a blind mute.

I have hinted at the horror of the fate which befell Yseult Hardynge in the seclusion of Mr. Henry Boggs’s Lincolnshire estate.  Mr. Henry Boggs knew nothing of romance, and he cared less; he was wholly  incapable of appreciating a woman with dark, glorious eyes and an expanding soul; I’ll warrant me that he would at any time gladly have traded a “Decameron” for a copy of “The Gentleman Poulterer,” or for a year’s subscription to that gruesome monument to human imbecility, London “Punch.”

Ah, Yseult! hadst thou but been a book!





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