Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 918
Asa Bascomb is an eighty-two-year-old American poet living in a villa near the Italian town of Monte Carbone. Except for the fact that he is an expatriate, he resembles the American poet Robert Frost in several ways: He is from Vermont, he has unruly white hair, and he has received many international honors, though not the Nobel Prize. The story opens with him swatting hornets in his study and wondering why this greatest of all literary honors has been denied him.
The only other person living in his villa is Maria, his maid. His wife Amelia has been dead for ten years. Though one of his reasons for living in Italy is to avoid the publicity that would burden him in the United States, fans of his most popular book of poetry, The World of Apples, seek him out. Generally, though, his routine is simple and uninterrupted. He writes poetry in the morning; in the afternoon he takes a nap and walks to town to get his mail, which he then goes over at home. Several evenings a week, he plays backgammon with one of the locals.
Bascomb’s poetry is as simple and clear-cut as is his life. It has even been compared to Paul Cezanne’s paintings. Based exclusively on nostalgia, though, his poetry lacks vision and the impulsiveness that characterized the work of several American poets with whom he is often linked and who committed suicide (one drank himself to death).
The idyllic tenor of Bascomb’s life begins to crumble when his memory, the chief source of his poetry, begins to fail him in small ways. He cannot remember, for example, Lord Byron’s first name, and he cannot rest until he looks it up. A major difficulty soon presents itself. While on a sight-seeing tour with a Scandinavian admirer, he accidentally discovers a couple copulating in the woods. His memory of this event haunts him, and he is unable to rid his mind of the obscene thoughts that subsequently crowd into it. He goes to bed with his maid, Maria, but though this relieves his urges, it does not drive sex from his mind. Critically interrupting his desire for vision and the Nobel Prize, obscenity becomes the pivot and bane of his work and life. He starts writing obscene poems with literary titles and based on classical models, but he burns them at the end of each morning session. He ends up writing dirty limericks, which he also discards. He travels to Rome to distract himself. This does not work either, for a man exposes himself to him in a public toilet, the art in a gallery Bascomb visits is pornographic, and he finds himself mentally undressing the female singer at a concert.
Back at his villa, he probes for the source of the filth that has invaded his consciousness. Important events in his memory, such as his wife standing in light, his son’s birth, and his daughter’s marriage, seem linked to this invasion. The “anxiety and love” that define these events for him also seem to be the origin of his lapse from idealism.
Informed by his maid of the statue of an angel in Monte Giordano that is supposed to cleanse troubled souls, Bascomb sets off on foot with a seashell that belonged to his wife, understanding that pilgrimages require these things. He brings an offering for the angel, too—a gold medal awarded him by the Soviet Union. On the way, he watches from concealment a man, his wife, and their three daughters get out of a car. While his wife and daughters line up with their hands over their ears and in a state of delighted excitement, the man fires his shotgun into the air. Then the party gets back in the car and leaves. Bascomb falls asleep in the grass and dreams that he is back in New England, where a boy plays king and an old man gives a bone to a dog. He also dreams of a bathtub full of burning leaves.
A thunderstorm awakens Bascomb. He befriends a dog frightened by the storm and takes shelter with an old man his own age. The old man seems simple, happy, and open, surrounded by his potted plants and holding a stamp album on his lap. Envious of him, Bascomb continues to the shrine. At first the priest in charge of it does not want to let him in because of the communist medal he has brought as an offering. The priest gives in, however, when sunlight comes through a break in the clouds and reflects off the medal, for he regards this as a sign that Bascomb’s quest is legitimate. Instead of asking the angel for a personal favor, Bascomb asks it to bless a series of famous writers, all American except for the rhapsodic Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.
Staying overnight in Monte Giordano, Bascomb sleeps peacefully and awakes renewed, his old sense of clarity and goodness intact. As he walks home, he discovers a waterfall and remembers a similar one in his childhood in Vermont, in which he had once seen his old father bathe naked. He does the same now, after which the police, alerted by his worried maid, find him and bring him home. It is a triumphal return, reminiscent of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and Bascomb sets about writing a new poem in his true style, no longer with his eye on the Nobel Prize.