No Sympathy for Lucretia Borgia

By Robert Pinsky on 4.23.09

The story is that the poet Leigh Hunt showed Landor a long, blonde strand of hair—said to be stolen from an Italian museum by Byron—of the glamorous, powerful, nefarious Lucretia Borgia. (It is tempting to think that the Italians who ran the museum were accustomed to English gentlemen stealing the purported hair several times a month, and that the museum replaced it each time from an ample supply.)

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Borgia, thou once wert almost too august
And high for adoration; now thou’rt dust.
All that remains of thee these plaits unfold,
Calm hair, meandering with pellucid gold.

Landor, a great master of the epigram form, composed many dazzling poems of as few as two lines. In this one, the reach of the grammer across the rhyme-word “august” is expressive, a kind of flourish or fanfare preparing the way for the curt “Now thou’rt dust.” Different published versions have the final word as “unfold” and “enfold”—an interesting small ambiguity in itself, the hair as keeping the history it represents either unfolded to us, or enfolded away from us.

topics: Essential Pleasures