Augustus Hare on Mt Soracte

Augustus Hare liked looking at Mt Soracte.

Hare was born in 1834. He made a career out of writing biographies, an autobiography, and a string of guide books. He was renowned as a raconteur of ghost stories. His works were very popular (his biography of his godmother, who adopted him and brought him up, ran into eighteen editions), but it is not always easy for modern readers to see why: his biographical and autobiographical writing offers gentle but unspectacular portrayals of upper-middle-class English life in the country (they were criticised even by some contemporary reviewers for their prolixity), and his guide books feel formulaic by comparison with the more unpredictable thrill of exploring Greece and Italy with some of the earlier eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel writers like Edward Dodwell. The difference is that Hare was writing for a growing culture of tourism, for readers who wanted practical information as well as scholarly detail and personal response. Within that context he broke new ground. In his Days Near Rome (published in two volumes in 1875) he urges his readers to go beyond the standard excursions and recounts his own travels to less frequented sites, full of colourful details about the local peasant populations unused to tourists, and practical travel advice on the practicalities and price of carriage and donkey hire, hotel rooms and train tickets.

Mt Soracte was one of those sites. Soracte stands about 30 miles north of Rome. It’s not a high mountain: only 691 metres—and not a long walk to the summit from the village of Sant-Oreste on its slopes. It is a spectacular place, and it is visible from a long way off: it stands up from the plane like a giant fin—there are no other hills anywhere near it.

But that in itself doesn’t explain the power it had over the imagination of classically educated northern European travellers like Hare.

The crucial factor was the famous Soracte ode by Horace, written in the late first century BCE, which was one of the best known and most loved of all Latin poems in Hare’s day; any classically educated person would have been familiar with it. The famous initial image is of the mountain covered in snow, followed by a description of drinking wine in front of a warm fire, and then a set of reflections on youth, old age and love: ‘You see how Soracte stands white with deep snow (vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte), and the labouring woods can no longer hold the weight, and the rivers have stopped from the sharp cold’ (Horace, Odes 1.9.1-4). After those four brief lines, the mountain fades from view: Soracte is not mentioned again in the poem.

It seems extraordinary that such a brief glimpse could have haunted the imagination of centuries of later readers. It was the opening line of this poem that Patrick Leigh Fermor’s German captive, General Kreipe, quoted to him in looking at the sunrise on Mt Ida in Crete in 1944; Leigh Fermor claims to have quoted the rest of the poem to him from memory in response, an incident which united the two men temporarily in their shared mastery of the classical heritage.

Hare’s descriptions of Mt Soracte are concentrated in his account of an excursion to the summit on 1 May 1874, but they are also spread out right through the text on either side of that section, and into his other works too. Travelling from the train station at Montorso to Farfa, he tells us that ‘we at once began to reach a new country, rich in vines and figs and olives, and with lovely views towards the noble, serrated outline of Soracte’. At the gorge of Civita Castellana, he tells us that ‘each turn is a picture more beautiful than the last, and ever and again beyond the rocky avenues, Soracte, steeped in violet shadows, appears rising out of the tender green of the plain’. On the day of the Soracte excursion, we hear that ‘no drive can be uninteresting with such an object as Soracte before one, ever becoming more defined’. Looking back on a later trip he sees ‘Volscian, Hernican, Sabine, and Alban hills, Soracte–nobly beautiful–rising out of the soft, quiet lines of the Campagna’, and then later in the day at Caprarola he admires the ‘whole glorious rainbow-tinted view, in which, as everywhere we have been, lion-like Soracte, couching over the plain, is the most conspicuous feature’. He even returns to Soracte in his mind’s eye later in his life. In his autobiography, The Story of My Life, he talks about a trip to Snowdon: ‘From Llanberis I ascended Snowdon, which in my recollection is—from its innate picturesqueness, not its views—the only mountain in Europe worth ascending, except Soracte’.

For Hare’s contemporaries, too, Soracte seems to have been special. A review of Days in Rome in the Spectator in 1875 singles out Hare’s account of Soracte for lengthy quotation (‘an eminence which to all readers of Horace holds a place of conspicuousness in their memories similar to that which the elevation itself possesses in relation to the Campagna’). Hare not only describes Soracte himself repeatedly; he also quotes over and over again from others who have done the same: in Days in Rome and the equivalent volume for excursions within the city, Walks in Rome (1871), he quotes at length from twelve different nineteenth-century authors (including novelists like Amelia Edwards, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charlotte Dempster, as well as travel writers and scholars) who had previously described the mountain.

The most telling of those is a famous passage from Byron’s Childe Harold. He too picks out the modestly sized Mt Soracte as an important place in his imaginary geography.

Athos, Olympus, Aetna, Atlas, made
These hills seem things of lesser dignity,
All, save the lone Soracte’s heights, displayed
Not now in snow, which asks the lyric Roman’s aid
For our remembrance, and from out the plain
Heaves like a long-swept wave about to break,
And on the crest hangs pausing.

Byron is here giving his impression of the Apennines, which in his view cannot match the grandeur of the Alps and of the mountains of Greece. Only Soracte can hold its own in that company.

The relationship these writers had with Horace isn’t always straightforwardly positive. Hare’s own account has a very un-Horatian quality in its emphasis on personal experience of climbing the mountain, and in his quotation of a huge range of other classical sources on the mountain in addition to Horace. That’s all the more the case for Byron, who uses an image of the mountain in explain his own inability to overcome the loathing for Horace’s poetry that he felt in the austere lessons of school days, even though he now understands intellectually the value of Horace’s poetry: ‘Then farewell Horace, whom I hated so…Yet fare thee well; upon Soracte’s ridge we part’.

But even in that negative judgement we can feel the remarkable attraction of Mt Soracte. Hare’s fascination with it, and the fascination of his contemporaries, is a good example of the dominance of the classical tradition, for nineteenth-century travellers, over their real-life encounters with the Italian landscape.


Illustration: Monte Soratte visto da Civita Castellana by Croberto68, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Leave a comment