Strawberries and Cornels
“When we were boys, born and raised in inland regions, we could already imagine the sea, after seeing some water in a little glass; but until we tasted them in Italy, the flavour of strawberries and cornels could in no way come into our minds.”(Augustine, Ep. 7.3.6)
When the first taste came…
it was, I must confess, a disappointment.
We had read, as all good schoolboys do,
of how they feasted in the age of gold:
‘Contented with created foods, they gathered
wild arbutus fruits, and mountain strawberries,
and cornels clinging to their bramblethickets.’
We were raised in that forest of images
as wild boys, fending for ourselves –
what did we know of these Italian fruits?
Now here we were, Nebridius, we two
young Africans, up-and-coming men
in Roma aeterna, home-sick and sick-sick.
We heard a hawker cry in woeful Latin
fragi, corni – his neuters masculated.
We bought some dismal samples of his wares,
picked too soon and shrivelled in the sun,
the fruit of an age of iron, not of gold.
could ever such poor flesh match the image?
Three summers passed; and there I was
in that little country house outside Milan.
Alypius came in from the fields one day
with strawberries and cornels freshly picked.
I tasted them, and all at once I knew
their true flavour. And so I came upon,
through a small explosion of created beauty,
That Which Is.
But tell me this: could I have tasted joy
without the image, or the disappointment?
This poem is based on a line in one of Augustine’s early letters, in which he writes to his friend Nebridius about whether it is possible for our minds to form images of things which we have not experienced. Elsewhere in the same letter he speaks of a ‘forest of images’ (imaginum silva), another phrase I have borrowed. A cornel (cornua mas), sometimes called a Cornelian cherry, is an acidic berry native to southern Europe, including Italy, but not found in Augustine’s native Africa. I confess that I have not tasted it myself, though I am informed that it is not dissimilar to cranberries. The quotation in the first stanza is my translation of Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.103–5, which describes how the first humans lived in the ‘Golden Age’ – essentially the Greco-Roman analogue of the Garden of Eden. Finally, in the last stanza I am echoing what Augustine writes in Confessions 7.17: ‘and so [my mind] came upon That Which Is in the flash of a wavering glance’.