Giosuè Carducci’s best book is Odi barbare (1877+), The Barbarian Odes, inspired in part by his first visit to the city of Rome and its ruins at age 42, several years after Italian unification.
It is his best title, at least. A rich title.
The ruined tombs stand in the drab winter scene, clad still with their ivy
and laurel, along the Appian Way.
Shining white clouds scud across the pale blue sky, which gleams
still with the rain when the sun catches it.
Egle stands there, and gazes up at that clear promise of Spring.
watching clouds and sun.
She watches; and the clouds above the ancient tombs reflect more the light
of her pure brow than of the sun itself. (“Egle,” 1889)
“Egle” is a naiad, and the embodiment of spring, and also a young woman with who is acting as Carducci’s muse – I said the ruins were part of Carducci’s inspiration.
Put simply, the heritage of Rome (ancient Rome) is the heritage of Italy, but are we not also the barbarians? Sometimes the ruins are just piles of stone. Perhaps they have no significance at all.
As he aged, Carduccis’s hatred of the Catholic Church eased. Still a champion of reason and enemy of superstition, he began to see it more as an imperfect carrier of culture, a vessel that preserved some part of Roman culture for his own time, part of the path from ancient Rome to Dante and Petrarch and then on to himself, the Classicist.
Febris [a minor Roman divinity], hear me. Drive from here the new men
and their trivial works: they outrage
my religious sense: the goddess
Rome sleeps here. (“By the Baths of Caracalla”)
The younger Carducci would not have admitted to any kind of religious sense. It is strange to see Carducci imagine the death of the sun, previously his symbol of Reason, observed by
woman and man,
who palely standing in the middle of flattened mountains
and dead forests, will numbly watch you,
O Sun, as you set for the last time over one
interminable icefield. (“On Monte Mario” – this poem begins with a view of Rome)
Or to see Carducci treat the railroad, his Satanic symbol of progress, more skeptically as it carries away his muse (“At the Station, One Autumn Morning”).
Rome even reconciles Carducci with Romanticism, most movingly in “By the Funeral Urn of Percy Bysshe Shelley,” when, after a tedious invocation of too many relevant mythic figures ranging from Homer to Wagner, the poet collapses back into the scene in front of him, into Rome, into nature or some simulacrum of it:
O heart of hearts, the sun, our divine father, enwraps
that poor silent heart of yours [Shelley’s] in the radiance of his love.
The pine-trees coolly tremble in the broad-blowing winds of Rome:
Where are you now, O poet of the free world?
Where are you? Do you hear me? With welling tears I gaze
beyond the Aurelian walls, towards the mournful plain.
I do not know how much of the narrative I have built on top of Carducci’s poems is an artifact of the selection, translation and notes of David Higgins, but I will work with the text I have. There is a translation of The Barbarian Odes, complete, from 1950 that I read several years ago along with the Higgins Selected Verse. That book is one of the two worst books of translated poetry I have ever read. The English poems were quite bad. But in some thin, weak sense, I have read the entire book.