Sunday, February 15, 2015

While the sun continues shining over human grief - Ugo Foscolo's "Of Tombs"

In 1806, Ugo Foscolo was in exile in London, his dream of Italian unity enacted not by Italians but by the conquests of Napoleon.  The writers who had been alive at the time of The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, Alfieri and Parini, were both dead.  In retrospect, Foscolo was the greatest living Italian writer, although I do think that is how he felt about it.  He wrote a poem, “Dei Sepolcri,” “Of Tombs,” memorializing the great Italian writers, in fact memorializing memorials.

A recent Napoleonic edict had moved burials outside of cities (sensible) and required uniform plain grave markers (totalitarian).  The former does not bother Foscolo; the latter he sees as an attack on his culture.  In Jacopo Ortis, the title character practically identified the tombs of the great writers as synonymous with Italian culture.  “Of Tombs” develops the idea without Ortis’s histrionics.

On the one hand, who cares:

Oblivion draws all things into its night;
A force that never tires wears all things out,
Never at rest; and man and tombs of men,
The final shape of things, and the remains
Of land and sea are all transformed by time.

But Foscolo argues for the importance of tombs at a human scale.  A good anthropologist, he identifies tombs as an advance of civilization, part of the invention of “marriage, laws, and altars” that “[g]ave to the human animal respect.”  Tombs served as

… the cult which, through the rites may vary,
The love of fatherland and family
Transmitted through the long succeeding years.

Jacopo Ortis spent part of his novel visiting the monuments of Dante, Petrarch, and others.  Foscolo revisits them all in the poem, adding Alfieri and the English example of Admiral Nelson, a tribute to his ally and host. 

The urns of strong men stimulate strong minds
To deeds of great distinction; and these urns
Make sacred for the traveller that earth
Which holds them.

To what degree the tombs of the writers are meant to stand in for the works of the writers, and thus to what degree the poem is meant literally, remains a puzzle to me.

The last movement of the poems travels back to Classical Greece, to the Trojan War and the birth of poetry, or at least the poetry we still possess.  It ends with the vision of Homer visiting the Trojan tombs and receiving the inspiration to write his works – but this is not the historic Homer but a future Homer who will

… feel his way
Into the burial place, and clasp the urns
And question them.

This is the Homer who is inspired by our monuments to write the epic of Foscolo’s, and our, lost civilization.  Foscolo’s apocalyptic vision is more cyclical than progressive.

And you, Hector, will have your meed of mourning
Wherever men hold holy and lament
The blood shed for the homeland, while the sun
Continues shining over human grief.

I’ve used the J. G. Nichols translation published in The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis.  Several other translations exist.


  1. I did not know about the plain grave markers! I wouldn't go so far as to call that totalitarian (seems harmless enough to me, and in the sort of Enlightenment spirit of Joseph II's funeral reforms) but it certainly explains what Foscolo was so upset about!
    Really enjoying these Italian posts.

  2. Modern totalitarianism is in part very much in the Enlightenment spirit, I am afraid. I would love to blame it all on Romanticism, but such is not the case.

    The destruction of human individuality is a totalitarian impulse, always of course justified in the name of reason and efficiency.