‘I also like to dine on becaficas’: T.S. Eliot, epigraph to The Sacred Wood
In Beppo (written in Venice in 1817) stanza 42 Byron’s narrator says he likes ‘on Autumn evenings to ride out’ without worrying too much whether the weather will be clement, for in Italy everything is less mundane than in England. He goes on, in the next stanza, with further examples of why he finds Italy superior to England:
I also like to dine on becaficas,
To see the Sun set, sure he’ll rise tomorrow,
Not through a misty morning twinkling weak as
A drunken man’s dead eye in maudlin sorrow,
But with all Heaven t’himself: the day will break as
Beauteous as cloudless, nor be forced to borrow
That sort of farthing candlelight which glimmers
Where reeking London’s smoky Caldron simmers
We can still find genuine pleasure in the playful pararhymes in Byron’s verse; ‘becaficas’ clearly chimes visually as well as in a sonic sense with ‘weak as’ – the vowel sounds are identical if one adopts a vaguely Italian pronunciation for the ending of the first line, and the consonants are also symmetrical (although the sibilant Italian terminal ‘s’ clashes with the ‘z’ sound in ‘as’). But this pattern is subverted when, according to the rhyme scheme, we expect line 5 to chime with lines 1 and 3; instead we get ‘break as’ – which only rhymes if we pronounce this already irregularly sounded word falsely, as if it were an ‘ee’ vowel, not ‘ay’. It’s an eye-rhyme, a sonic corruption, and it thwarts the very pattern established by the preceding stanzas.
It’s this subversive teasing with words and sounds that is one of the reasons I enjoy Byron’s lighter poems: he refuses to take himself or anyone or anything else seriously; it’s the opposite of po-faced (‘smiling’?) Here’s another delightful example (he’s writing about Venetian ladies’ pretty faces):
And like so many Venuses of Titian’s
(The best’s at Florence – see it if ye will),
They look when leaning over the balcony,
Or stepping from a picture by Giorgione’…
Once more he’s teasing his pretentious readers with their smug awareness that the Italian name ‘Giorgione’ is pronounced ‘George-oh-nay’, and that therefore one’s reading of ‘balcony’ renders the next line-ending problematic – he’s forcing us to consider pronouncing the artist’s name ‘GEORGE-oh-nee’, with the stress on the first syllable, to rhyme with ‘balcony’; or else we have to consider the ridiculous possibility of retracing our readerly steps and retrospectively re-pronouncing ‘balcony’ as ‘bal-CONE- y’, with the stress on the second syllable! As the academic F.V. Bogel helpfully explains, this produces for the reader a ‘division…between visual and auditory modalities’ (The Difference Satire Makes: Rhetoric and Reading from Jonson to Byron [Cornell UP, 2001]). While we’re looking at Beppo, here’s one of my favourite lines, a beautifully balanced and modulated artifact in words: the narrator is mockingly praising England – ‘Our cloudy climate, and our chilly women’.
So what on earth IS a ‘becafica’? The OED spells it ‘beccafico’(although an ‘a’ ending is one of its variant forms), deriving from the Italian for ‘fig-pecker’: ‘A name given in Italy to small migratory birds of the genus Sylvia, much esteemed as dainties in the autumn, when they have fattened on figs and grapes: they are identified with the British Pettychaps and Blackcaps’. Marquez often writes about his characters eating such small fowl, maybe baked in pies. Conrad Aiken in an essay about Eliot defines ‘becafica’ as a small bird, a warbler, a garden oriole, loosely termed by Italians as one of the ‘uccellini’. He says that by using Byron’s line as an epigraph to this book published in 1920 Eliot was suggesting that he likes to ‘dine on song-birds’, apprizing us, ‘with a gleaming and slightly sinister politeness, that he is about to do so’. He intends, that is, to be ‘severe to the point of destructiveness’ (‘The Scientific Critic’, in Freeman, 2, [2 March, 1921], pp. 593-94).
How fitting that Eliot should choose to head his collection of essays about poetry, published in 1920, two years before The Waste Land, with this particularly ambiguous line; while delineating the modernist notions of technique, feeling and a ‘tradition’ in poetry, (here we find his famous pronouncement: ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’) Eliot illuminates the text and prepares us for the bombshell of The Waste Land with jewel-like fragments like those ‘becaficas’, which fail to sate our appetite, but charm us with their song.