May 12 2023
THEIR SMILE AND THEIR TEARS: Alan Price considers two recent compilations of poetry by Giovanni Pascoli
The Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli Princeton 2019 . . Convivial Poems Giovanni Pascoli Italica 2022
“Poetry is finding within things – how can I say it? – their smile and their tears.” Giovanni Pascoli (1855 – 1912)
It may seem surprising to think that the beginnings of modernism in poetry are not confined to the alienating city landscape of the 19th century but that they also quietly emerged from the observation of everyday objects in a pastoral setting. The city and the countryside can provide imagistic lyrics that describe mental states of rapture or apprehension. To the poetically disturbed company of Baudelaire and Rimbaud I think we should now add the much saner Giovanni Pascoli. Seamus Heaney, who translated some of Pascoli’s verse, called him “One of the greatest poets of all times.” In Italy Pascoli is regarded as the godfather of Italian Modernism and his work is part of the school syllabus. Yet he’s relatively unknown to English speaking readers.
Behind the naturalistic surface of Pascoli is a precise looking at things that for me chimes with William Carlos Williams (“No ideas but things.”) or even Rilke (“Are we, perhaps, here just for saying : House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Fruit tree, Window – possibly: Pillar, Tower?…”). And the filmmaker and the poet Pier Paolo Pasolini said, in his university thesis on Pascoli, “ultimately the poetic language of this century is derived from the work of Giovanni Pascoli, contradictory and intricate as it was.”
Hide every distant thing, you wan, impalpable fog, you smoke still blossoming at dawn from flares of lightning and landslides of air. Hide every distant thing: from me. Hide the dead. That I might see only this hedge in the garden and the valerian that rims the garden wall.
These are the opening verses of “Fog” written in 1903. I love the way Pascoli describes the way fog obscures him from fully seeing his own real garden but in a more general sense conceals Pascoli’s hold on identity. For him it’s only the essentials that matter (Pascoli’s garden hedge and valerian). And maybe only what can console the poet – ‘That bear smooth honey for my hard bread.’ “Fog” seems to imply that much of life is unknowable yet in this fog of confusion we are presented with things – signs to alert us to the possibility of knowing ourselves more clearly.
Pascoli’s father was murdered when the poet was eleven. The grieving family was forced to leave their farm without money. A year later Pascoli’s mother and sister died of a sudden illness. Five years later Pascoli’s eldest brother also died. These searing tragedies never left Pascoli’s thoughts. You can hear them clearly in his autobiographical poem “Home.”
My mother stood by the gate. She was sobbing. For hours she cried under the mimosa’s green tent, covered in flowers.
A melancholy frequently accompanies Pascoli’s imagery. Yet his sensitive concern for minutiae often expands out to larger forces in order to keep his sadness in check as in the poem “Night-Blooming Jasmine” that had me thinking of the poetry of D.H.Lawrence.
A last bee hums in the lull of air, having flown home to find the hive full. The Pleidaes steer chirping stars through the sky’s blue barnyard.
This edition of Selected Poems from Princeton has many such exquisite poems. Lyrical first shoots of modernism are finely translated by Taije Silverman and Marina Della Putta Johnston.
‘Where is the present of a language? How could we give expression to thought, especially meaningful thought, for even one generation, if we did not turn back while moving forward? Ancient literature!…What literature is not ancient, if what we call new continues to stir up ancient life.’ “A Poet of Dead Language” – 1898 commemorative speech of Giovanni Pascoli.
In Pascoli’s Convivial Poems we find a searching exploration of the ancient past and the present. The book’s back cover states that like Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses, Convivial Poems revisits the classical world to draw new symbols for the modern condition. This is a large claim and I unequivocally agree. Pascoli was not only a poet but a renowned teacher of the classics. The collection is a history of antiquity that includes the ancient Greek poets (Sappho and Homer) then continues towards Alexander the Great, the Roman empire and the birth of Christ: with major players like Ulysees mingling with lesser known characters. Pascoli has the ability to make the ancient world live intensely in the modern with a profundity only matched, though very differently, by the great Alexandrian poet C.P.Cafavy. Convivial Poems is probably Pascoli’s greatest achievement and possesses a wonderful narrative drive. They are seventeen long poems containing many characters but principally poets, beggars and old rejuvenated adventurers where poetry is viewed as a blessing and a curse.
Amongst my favourite poems of the group are: “The Sleep of Odysseus” (Odysseus falls asleep on his boat as he leaves his homeland that appears to fade as in a dream); “The Poet of the Helotes” (Hesiod is rebuked by an old slave –‘Then you are a wandering poet, and you turn falsehood into truth, but you can’t sing the truth’); “The Last Journey” (Odysseus is now a bored old man living in Ithaca. He sets sail again, with his aged crew, to undertake the journey of his youth and replay his adventures yet it’s not the same as ‘old age is a calmer sea’); and “The Good Tidings” (The end of paganism and the beginnings of Christianity viewed with ironic uncertainty). And yet all seventeen are wonderful achievements that have been magnificently translated by Elena Borelli and James Ackhurst. If I have one specially favourite poem then it is probably “The Last Journey” and though it’s impossible, to extract lines from such integral journey poetry like this, I’ve chosen twenty seven lines of Pascoli from the section entitled “The Truth”.
The old man saw the Sirens open up their heavy eyelids and stare at the new sun or at him on his black ship. And on the deadly calm of the sea, he raised his voice, loud and steady: “I’m the one who returns to know! I have seen much, as you see me now. But everything I looked on in the world looked back and asked: “Who am I?” That secret force, silent and gentle, pushed the ship on, ever forward. the old man saw a great pile of human bones and wrinkled skins wrapped about near the two Sirens, their motionless bodies standing out on the shore like rocks in the sea. “I see that these old bones of mine will increase that heap. Yet speak to me, Sirens! Tell me one truth, only one truth before I die, so that I can say I’ve lived.” But the secret force was inexorably pushing the ship forward, faster and faster. Already the high brows of the Sirens rose over the ship, their gaze fixed. “I have but one instant! I beg you! Tell me at least who I am, who I was!” But the ship broke against the rocks in the sea.
Pascoli is a complex yet very approachable poet. You could first try Seamus Heaney’s translation of “The Kite”, one of Pascoli’s most famous and loved poems; absorb his beautiful Selected Poems; throw yourself into the haunting imagery of Convivial Poems. And let’s not forget The Last Walk of Giovanni Pascoli a finely translated selection of his poems by Danielle Hope that was reviewed in London Grip in 2019.