Two summers ago, I had the chance to explore Florence, Italy. A dear friend and I were on a mission, as teachers, to explore the art, history, and culture of this famous city and to bring back to our classrooms a rejuvenated sense of its beauty and a richer knowledge of its history.
Florence was not so large that we were overwhelmed by its magnitude, but also was not so small that we had exhausted its treasures within the first few days. It was the perfect size for a few weeks of exploration. It’s almost like we got to know Florence as a dear friend: familiar with its streets and facades and towers, but still pleasantly surprised and taken aback by the new treasures we discovered in churches and fountains and little shops.
On one of our last nights, we sat in the main square of the city, gazing at the glistening walls of the cathedral, watching the moon rise, basking in the hustle of the carriages and passers-by as we ate gelato for the hundredth time. And my friend said something to me that seemed to encapsulate my experience of the city in such a way that I had to continue to unpack it for a long time afterwards.
“You know,” she said, “This city speaks of God as poet.”
This was a lightbulb moment for me. Florence is one man’s poems, an ode to his cultivation of beauty – it is an homage to the cosmic poetry that orders our nights and days.
Poetry is beautiful. It aims to teach, but the art of poetry has perhaps even more importance than the lesson it provides. As an elementary teacher, I can attest to the power of a nine year old’s memory and imagination as he recites all twenty-six stanzas of Longfellow’s midnight depiction of Paul Revere. When ninety melodic voices ring out Poe’s “Bells, bells, bells!”, I wonder how many listeners, at first, are striving to grasp deeper insights at every stanza rather than just delighting in the sheer joy of the verse itself. Poetry is to be enjoyed, like a delicious meal or a fine piece of art: it does not present a straightforward lesson to us as much as it enthralls us in the moment, maybe causing us to mull over it later, but mostly just enjoying it in the moment because it is a good thing to be enjoyed. The lessons come, but they come in the vehicle of beauty.
Enjoyment is allowing ourselves to feel and experience joy, and I believe this is a profoundly human experience. Enjoyment of and gravitation toward what is beautiful defines us as human men and women. And a city like Florence incarnates this human reality. The outward structures of the city magnify the truth that man pursues beauty. It is obvious when one climbs the steps of the enormous bell tower and gazes over the colorful rooftops amidst the winding river. It is obvious when one beholds the frescoes of the church walls, for even though paintings are very old, their muted colors whisper tales that are still very much alive. It is obvious in the stone statues that reign on the street corners and bridges and city squares.
The soul of Florence dances with it: we desire beauty.
Of course, ordinary life is beautiful in its own right, and there is profundity in simplicity. But there is also a sublime power in the outside tributes that boast of the glory and spectacle of man seeking something divine. Florence, to me, is a living truth that man is a poet, and that his pursuit of beauty can reach great heights. We are called to cultivate the beautiful, and not to stay dwelling in the mundane.
All of us: we are poets.
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