Poems of Italy: selections from the Odes of Giosue Carducci/Giosue Carducci

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THE life of Giosue Carducci, the foremost of living Italian poets, spans an epic period. He was born in 1835, when Italy was indeed little more than a "geographical expression," an aggregation of states separated from each other by wide differences in customs and even language, united only by common suffering under foreign tyranny. He is alive to-day, when the seemingly impossible fusion of these states has become an accomplished fact, and the kingdom of Italy is free not only as Napoleon III promised it should be, "from the Alps to the Adriatic," but from the Alps to the extremest tip of Sicily, and from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean.

It would hardly be possible for any man of strong feeling and quick imagination to have lived through such a struggle as that for Italian unity without having his character deeply influenced thereby. Carducci, moreover, was brought up in an environment and amid circumstances that still further tended to breed in him a peculiarly passionate love of country and hatred of foreign domination. His father was a physician in the Government service, but a devotee of Manzoni and an ardent Liberal. He had suffered imprisonment as a "Carbonaro" after the insurrectionary movement of 1831, and he only awaited an opportunity again to identify himself with the revolutionists. This opportunity offered itself in 1848, and his active participation in the events of that and the following year led to the loss of his position. The family moved to Florence in consequence, and there Giosue was sent to the Scolopi Fathers to school.

The war of 1848-49 left an indelible impression on the boy's mind. Austria had been braved by the little kingdom of Sardinia, and though disaster and defeat had followed the gallant demonstration against the foreigner, yet through all Italy a long awakening breath had been drawn. In the eager young student of these days, whose first fourteen years had been passed in the midst of the melancholy and suggestive charm of the Tuscan "Maremma" (fens), who had learned Latin at his father's knee, and at his mother's the tragedies of Alfieri and the revolutionary poetry of Berchet, we may find a prophecy of the man. Impetuous, bitterly impatient of shams of any kind, with a devouring passion for books, an ardent worship of the great classic writers and of those modern Italian authors who dreamed a new life for Italy—such Carducci showed himself, during these four years in Florence, to his companion Chiarini, who in his turn has drawn the portrait for us.[1] An incident that occurred a little later, while Giosue was studying at the Normal School of Pisa, throws further light on his character.

In the summer of 1855, a severe epidemic of cholera broke out at Pian Castagnaio, the little village where the Carducci family was then settled. Giosue, home for his holidays, instantly laid aside his books and his writing, and, aided by his brother and two acquaintances, threw himself with enthusiastic devotion into the business of caring for the sick. So much practical ability did he display that the Municipality put him at the head of a commission for sanitary measures and public assistance, and until the epidemic was at an end, late in September, he gave his time and energy to the work entrusted to his hands. "I have put aside, as is the duty of a good citizen, the meditative life for the active," he wrote to a friend during this period, "which latter, as our great Leopardi teaches us, is more natural to man and more worthy of him than the other."

The next year saw Carducci's entrance into the literary lists—an entrance which was, however, anonymously made. A short while before, one Gargani, a school comrade of Giosue's in Florence, had published a booklet entitled "Remarks on the Ultra Modern Poets" ("Diceria su i poeti odiernissimi"), which attacked without mercy the servility and degradation to which poetry had been reduced by the verse-makers of the day. The "Remarks" created a considerable stir among Florentine critics, and were assailed with every sarcasm and opprobrious epithet that the editorial pen could furnish. Gargani, however, was one of a group of friends all the members of which had participated in the compilation of the volume and were eager to defend it from attack; and there presently appeared a second pamphlet under the title: "Interest on the Principle; the Pedantic Friends to the Ultra Modern Poets and their Defenders" ("Giunta alia derrata; ai poeti odiernissimi e lor difensori gli amici pedanti.") The four sonnets contained therein were all from the hand of Carducci, and the same touch is discernible in much of the main discourse.

That same autumn (1856), we find the poet installed as Instructor of Rhetoric in the Ginnasio of San Miniato al Tedesco. While there he published (1857) his first volume of poetry—by the persuasion of one of his friends and fellow teachers and for the sole purpose, as he himself tells us,[2] of paying his and the said friend's debts for lodging and at the café. Soon after, he left San Miniato, "and the 'Verses' remained exposed to the pity of Franceseco Silvio Orlandini, to the scorn of Paolo Emilano Giudici, to the insults of Pietro Fanfani."[3]

Graver responsibilities now devolved upon Carducci. In 1858 his father died, and he was left alone to support his mother, a sister, and a younger brother. Undismayed, he entered the battle. Florence was the home of his choice; there, when he married in 1859, he brought wife and family; there he studied, gave lessons, edited various books for the publisher, Barbèra, and eagerly kept "his ears and his heart open to all the voices that seemed to give hope of the speedy liberation of Italy."[4]

These voices during 1859 and 1860 grew ever louder till they swelled into a mighty chant of triumph. The King of Sardinia and Piedmont, Vittorio Emanuele, declared war against Austria with France as his ally. Tuscany threw off the yoke of her Grand Duke and established a provisional government of her own; Parma and Modena followed suit, so did the Papal State of Romagna; finally the plébiscite of March 11, 1860, united all these provinces of Central Italy with Piedmont. In the same year came Garibaldi's triumphant expedition into Sicily and Naples; Southern Italy was added to Northern and Central; the Papal States, except Rome, were conquered; and on February 18, 1861, the first parliament of United Italy met at Turin. All these events live in the poetry of Carducci. "To the Cross of Savoy" ("Alla Croce di Savoia"), "Plébiscitum" ("Plébiscite"), "The Rock of Quarto" ("Scoglio di Quarto"), are examples of a collection that forms a lyric epitome of the Italian struggle, from the first faint dawn to the golden morning.

But the making of Italy was not to be completed, perhaps naturally, as gloriously as it had been commenced. Carducci, who, when Vittorio Emanuele first flung down the gauntlet of defiance before Austria had hailed the Piedmontese king as the hero-liberator of his country, watched with small patience the dallyings and pettiness displayed by the monarchical party after its accession to power. The transference of the capital from Turin to Florence, with the implied abandonment of Rome, was the first blow to his loyalty. The acceptance of Venice from the hands of France, the treatment inflicted on Garibaldi, the long delay that intervened before the Government could be driven, with manifest unwillingness, finally to occupy Rome—all these political intrigues and calculations were abhorrent to the poet. He had been given the Chair of Italian Literature at the University of Bologna in 1860, and had moved to that city in consequence. Gradually he became affiliated with the Republican party there, and the poem "After Aspromonte" ("Dopo Aspromonte") written in 1863, put the seal upon his change of political creed. In 1868, he was suspended from his professorship on account of the part he had taken in an address sent to Mazzini, but so great was his popularity in Bologna that the suspension was of short duration. In 1871, appeared a volume entitled "Poems of Giosue Carducci" ("Poesie di Giosue Carducci"), but his name only came into wide prominence with the publication in 1873 of the "New Poems" ("Nuove Poesie"). The "Barbaric Odes" ("Odi Barbare"), the first of which appeared in 1877, completed the establishment of his fame in Italy—a fame which ever since has been steadily increasing and spreading beyond the confines of his own land. In 1887, the poet was offered the newly instituted Dante Chair at the University of Rome, but declined the honor in order to remain in Bologna—to which city he had become by this time intimately attached, and in which he still makes his real home.

In glancing over the record of Carducci's life, as reflected both in his acts and in his work, one is impressed chiefly, I think, by the unity of principle which underlies its many phases. His poetry and prose voice, through all variety of form and subject, one creed; his actions, often contradictory in appearance, spring from one source. He is always the poet—the challenger of the world's smallnesses, compromises, hypocrisies; the seeker after the beautiful, the high, the true, whether found in king's palace or peasant's hut, in Christian church or pagan temple. Because the Papacy appears to him a thing of corruption and tyranny, he turns from the dark cathedral to the boundless purity of the open air and the arms of the great earth-mother. Because, in the early days, Vittorio Emanuele presents himself as the symbol of Italy's salvation, he sings the Cross of Savoy; the monarchy, triumphant, grows careless of its ideals, and Carducci passes to the Republicans with "After Aspromonte;" the great personalities that had been the glory of the Republican party disappear, the standard is lowered, and he draws near once more to the throne that has been sanctioned by the people's voice. It is with spiritual values, not with external forms, that he concerns himself; and in one of the prose essays, "Raccoglimenti," he gives us the key to his attitude.

"The poet should not feel himself obliged to obey certain exigencies, as one may call them, of his time. Because, if the harp of his soul instead of vibrating beneath the wing of the fleeting Psyche, instead of answering to each echo of the past, to each breath of the future, to the solemn murmur of the centuries and of preceding generations, allows itself to be caressed by zephyrs from a lady's fan or soldier's plume, shrinks at the rustle of the professorial toga or the babblings of the gazette—then woe, woe to the poet, if poet indeed he be! To plant one's self at the window with every variation in temperature in order to ascertain what garb is assumed by the taste of the legal majority is to distract, to chill, to fossilize the soul. The poet should express himself and his moral and artistic convictions with all the sincerity, the clearness, the resolution in his power; the rest is no concern of his."


THE following half dozen poems have been selected from the "Odi Barbare,"[5] on the two volumes of which Carducci's fame most clearly rests. The first edition of these Odes appeared in 1877, and owing to certain metrical innovations gave rise to a storm of discussion among the critics. Stronger, however, than the Italian reverence for established form is the Italian responsiveness to beauty. It was recognized that the Odes presented a thoroughly harmonious whole, however unlawfully attained, and the contest ended in the establishment of Carducci as the foremost among living Italian poets and of the Odes as a triumphant assertion, not only of his maturest poetic thought, but of his mastery of a scheme of versification which, on first consideration, might appear somewhat alien to the genius of the language.

Of the wonderful variety and beauty of this versification, I realize that my translations give no conception. Because the originals are unrhymed, and because of a certain gravity and stateliness in their metre, I have uniformly made our English blank verse the instrument of my renderings. To do so, I am well aware, is to incur the risk of monotony; but the attempt to reproduce with unskilled touch the complex music of the master would, I believe, be even more misleading in its result. In the single case of "Miramar," I have held to the original form to the extent of preserving the short line at the close of every stanza.

It may be that the accusation of sameness will be brought against the substance as well as the structure of the following poems. Carducci's genius has an extraordinarily wide range; it is satirical, patriotic, classical, but its most characteristic and subtile quality is its impressionism—its power of creating atmosphere through the medium of words. This quality is apparent to a greater or less degree in all our poet's work, but chiefly so in such descriptive poems as those which are here selected. "Miramar," "Rome," "Before the Old Castle of Verona," are not specific word-pictures, but rather poetic evocations of the significance latent in castle, campagna, and river. And because it seems to me that this interpretative faculty, this power to present "the living soul" of things is a peculiarly precious literary attribute, I have taken for translation poems that offered striking examples of its presence without regard to the fact that, in substance, they nearly all belonged to one type. In translation, of course, much of the original charm must be lost. One may preserve the thought, but to make another language recreate the same atmosphere, borders upon the impossible. In the present instance I have aimed simply at being as literal as was consistent with the chosen form of verse, trusting that in such wise some virtue of the original might still cling to its English rendering.

Washington, D. C, December, 1905.

  1. See "Impressioni e Ricordi di Giosue Carducci," by G. Chiarini.
  2. In that charming bit of prose, "Le 'Risorse' di San Miniato al Tedesco."
  3. Writers of the day.
  4. Chiarini.
  5. A considerable number of the poems of Carducci have already been translated and published in book form by the Rev. Frank Sewall. In his collection, however, comparatively few of the "Odi Barbare" find place, and none of those which I have here chosen.