Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Giosuè Carducci hated the moon yet won the Nobel Prize

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
thou rekindlest
thy tired light, competing in the cold glow
with shinbones and skulls.

I hate thy idiotic, rounded face,
thy starched white 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.


  1. I once foolishly tried to explain to my high school literature teacher why Carducci was a good poet (this opinion was unsoundly based on too much faith on Grolier's encyclopedias and the Swedish Academy). My teacher just laughed and laughed...

  2. Ah, you make me weep for the idea of a high school literature teacher who knows the poetry of Carducci.

    He was writing poetry for a future that did not take place. Leopardi was on the right side, meaning the one that actually happened.

    I will see if I can find some goodies in the Odi barbare, aside from its outstanding title, and the poems of old age. Well, no, I am just going to right about Rome. This week is, vaguely, Rome week.

  3. Carducci certainly seems to pop up an awful lot in my reading of later Italians, but maybe more as emblem of "the great poet" than as anything else. I poked around in some of his poems but wasn't nearly as patient as you. My loss, as you've managed to make him sound quite a bit more interesting than those cursory glances suggested.

  4. Ah, Carducci is interesting. I am not sure how often he is much more than interesting.

    I realized I needed to revisit him as I was filling in my idea of Italian pessimism. But what about Carducci, Mr. Progress, Mr. Enlightenment? And, yes, "A Satana" stands as an important rebuke to a lot of the literature around Carducci, even if it has now turned into a period piece, or something close to it.

    But as he ages, even Carducci succumbs a bit to the spirit of his literature.

  5. Carducci may not be a great poet, but he's immortal for "Pianto antico" if for nothing else. Maybe Italians have had it forced on them so often they get as irritated by it as I do by most Great Nineteenth-Century Symphonies, but "L'albero a cui tendevi..." is pure essence of poetry.

  6. Ah, that is the saddest Carducci poem I have seen. My Italian does not have to be much of anything to hear this:

    Sei ne la terra fredda,
    Sei ne la terra negra;
    Né il sol piú ti rallegra
    Né ti risveglia amor.

    Thou art in the cold earth,
    thou art in the darkling earth;
    nor doth the sun cheer thee,
    nor love awake thee more. (tr. Higgins)

    The poem is about the death of Carducci's young son.

  7. Yup, every time I read those lines a chill goes down my spine.

  8. Hanc tibi, Fronto pater, genetrix Flaccilla, puellam
    Oscula commendo deliciasque meas,
    Parvola ne nigras horrescat Erotion umbras
    Oraque Tartarei prodigiosa canis.
    Inpletura fuit sextae modo frigora brumae,
    Vixisset totidem ni minus illa dies.
    Inter tam veteres ludat lasciva patronos
    Et nomen blaeso garriat ore meum.
    Mollia non rigidus caespes tegat ossa, nec illi,
    Terra, gravis fueris: non fuit illa tibi.

    To you, my father Fronto and my mother Flaccilla,
    I commend this little girl, my pet and my darling.
    May little Erotion not be frightened by the dark shades
    or the monstrous mouths of the Tartarean hound.
    She would have completed her sixth cold winter
    if she had not lived that many days too few.
    Let her now play and frolic with her old friends
    and lispingly chatter my name.
    May it not be hard the turf above her soft bones,
    Earth be not heavy upon her, she was not heavy on you.

  9. Wow, I didn't know Martial could be that moving. That last couplet...

    1. Echoed in the epitaph on Vanbrugh: "Lie heavy on him, Earth! For he
      Laid many heavy loads on thee!"

      Jan Kochanowski's Lamentations came from the death of his daughter Urszula and it's been suggested that the death of his daughter Anne confirmed Darwin in his atheism and his belief that "the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature" functioned without outside intervention.

  10. Yeah, I was also surprised the first time I read Martial's poems about Erotion. To add a couple more samples of poems on this theme, this time by Japanese poets who tend to be a little bit more reticent when writing about the death of their children:

    tombo tsuri kyou wa doko made itta yara.
    My little dragon-fly hunter,
    I wonder how far
    has he gone today


    Tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara
    This dewdrop world
    is just a dewdrop world,
    And yet, and yet . . .


  11. James Michie translates the end of the Martial poem in a lighter tone:

    Lie lightly on her, turf and dew:
    She put so little weight on you.

    Which is perhaps why I had no memory of the poem.

    That Issa poem is pretty darn oblique.

  12. That Martial is amazing.

    Lewys Glyn Cothi wrote a wonderful poem on the death of his son; I've translated it quite plainly here.

    On The Guardian's Poster Poems several years ago, a contributor calling himself stoneofsilence wrote a remarkable poem in memory of his niece. You can find it here, on page 2 of the comments section.

  13. As if guided by these sad poems, today I chanced upon a Chekhov story on the same subject, "Misery" (1886): "He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son's clothes."