Giosuè Carducci may not be the best Italian poet of the 19th century – he might be the fourth best – Leopardi, Foscolo, Belli, Carducci; how does that sound – as if I have read any others, as if I have any idea – but my point is that he is the one who lived at the right time and barely long enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906.
There are a number of English translations of Carducci from around that time, but there has only been one in the last 65 years, the 1994 Selected Verse of David H. Higgins. I have read it a couple of times. It is pretty good: functional, informative, and at times even poetic. Sometimes functional is enough:
Un bello e orrible Both beautiful and awful
Mostro si sferra, a monster is unleashed,
Corre gli oceani, it scours the oceans,
Corre la terra: it scours the land:
Corusco e fumido Glittering and belching smoke
Come i vulcani, like a volcano,
I monti supera, it conquers the hills,
Divora i piani it devours the plains.
We are approaching the end of “A Satana / To Satan” (1865). Those punchy little Italian lines fly along like a steam train, which is what the “it” is. The train is also Satan, which here is meant as a compliment. Satan is reason, anti-clericalism, technology, and progress, everything that will defeat superstition and drag poor, backwards Italy into the 19th century. Carducci’s is the least Satanic Satanism I have ever encountered, but still, he was thirty years old making what we now might call a punk gesture with his toast to Satan.
That Carducci was a classicist who believed in progress may give a hint as to why he died off in English once the Modernists arrived. Even in Italian, he seems to have become a figure like Longfellow, Tennyson, or Hugo, someone for later advanced poets to reject and fight. In a poem from the 1887 Rime nuove Carducci is so anti-Romantic that he criticizes the moon:
Ma tu, luna, abellir goli co ‘l raggio
Le ruine ed i lutti;
Maturar nel fantastico viaggio
Non sai né fior né frutti.
But they delight, O moon, is adorning ruins
and tombs with thy rays;
yet in thy fabled voyage thou art helpless
to ripen either flower or fruit.
Then thou fallest upon graveyards where vaingloriously
thy tired light, competing in the cold glow
with shinbones and skulls.
I hate thy idiotic, rounded face,
thy starched whote petticoats,
thou lewd, prudish, impotent,
hevaenly hypocrite. (“Classicism and Romanticism”)
Carducci favors the useful sun. The poet is a craftsman, like a blacksmith. What, though, is this if not a great Romantic gesture?
But for himself the poor craftsman
fashions a golden shaft,
and hurls it towards the sun:
he watches as it flashes upwards;
he watches and rejoices;
nothing more is his desire. (“Congedo / Envoi” from Rime nuove)
As Carducci ages, he deepens, or so the selection fooled me into thinking. The punk mellows. He tempers his rejection of the Catholic Church, withdraws a bit from immediate political concerns, discovers nature, and discovers Rome, which is what I want to look at tomorrow.