Sometimes there’s nothing more pleasurable than the lucid prose of a scholar of the old school. A particular favourite of mine is Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape (1957) which brings alive the Roman poets through vivid translations and an imaginative evocation of their environment. There is, for example, Sextus Propertius, one of whose elegies includes the line
among the woods where the Clitumnus hides its lovely
springs, and white oxen bathe in the cool stream
Highet gets underneath this brief description by quoting other writings by Virgil and Pliny the younger; Pliny says in a letter to his friend Romanus: ‘There is a fair-sized hill, dark with ancient cypress-woods. Beneath this the spring rises, gushing out in several veins of unequal size. After the initial flow has smoothed out, it spreads into a broad pool, pure and clear as glass, so that you can count the coins that have been thrown into it and the pebbles glittering at the bottom.’
Highet himself provides his own description of the site, as he follows in the footsteps of the Roman writers: ‘the springs are about three feet deep. Their bed is creamy white gravel mixed with fine sand. Even in the smallest inlet, a pool the size of a little table, the gravel is constantly stirring, and the surface quivers every fifteen seconds with a tiny explosion of water… All water in motion is wonderful. Cool copious fresh water, absolutely clean, rising out of dry earth under a hot sun, is very wonderful…Willows hang over the wells, gazing into them with a soft narcissus melancholy. Poplar trees, lifting heads and arms to the sky, disdain their own reflections. Between their trunks we see the glinting sides of white oxen, and the timbre of church bells drifts faintly over the water. There is no noise: but there is, in the water and in the air, a ceaseless happy whisper, as though kind spirits inhabited the place.’
He is glad the springs are off the tourist trail and thus little-frequented, ‘… even so it was depressing to see, in one of the fountain-beds, half a dozen Coca-Cola bottles set to cool for possible sale to tourists. Only the charm and quiet of the scene made us forget the profanation’.