A word about context: it was Auden's first visit to Italy with his lifelong friend and sometime lover, Chester Kallman. This was the first poem Auden wrote in Italy. Limestone landscape was a beloved and symbolic landscape of Auden's, an integral geology of his native Yorkshire. Limestone is also a major part of the Mediterranean landscape. It is a soft, porous, sedimentary rock, fluidly forming underground streams and lakes, caves and caverns. 'Gennel' is a Yorkshire dialect word for a narrow alleyway between houses.
But what on earth is this poem all about? I have lots of ideas, but I hope these may emerge in a general discussion about the poem with some of you.
A few of those great lines and phrases:
. . . Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard . . .
Their eyes have never looked into infinite space
Through the lattice-work of a nomad's comb . . .
'I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.'
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.