Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Strangely Familiar: The Uncanny Poetics of Giovanni Pascoli

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Strangely Familiar: The Uncanny Poetics of Giovanni Pascoli

Article excerpt

"Siamo sette" Vidi una cara contadinella, ch'aveva ott'anni, come mi disse bionda, ricciuta, bella, assai bella con le due grandi pupille tisse.

Presso il cancello stava. Ed io; "Figlia, quanti tra bimbi, siete, e bimbette?" chiesi. Con atto di meraviglia, ella rispose: "Quanti, noi? Sette".

"E dove sono? di, se ti pare" le dissi, ed ella mi disse: "Ma ... noi siamo sette: due sono in mare; altri due sono nella citta;

altri due sono nel camposanto, il fratellino, la sorellina: in quella casa che c'e daccanto io sto, con mamma, loro vicina."

(Opere 2, 34)

In addition to his nine volumes of Italian poetry, his prize-winning Latin poetry, and his critical essays, most notably on Dante and Leopardi, Pascoli also translated much poetry, both from the classics (such as passages form the Iliad and Odyssey) and from modern poets such as Tennyson, Shelley, and Hugo. The Italian rendering of "We Are Seven," the beginning of which is reproduced above, is the only published translation from William Wordsworth's poetry that Pascoli undertook. Pascoli seems to have chosen to translate this particular poem not because it was Wordsworth's best-known piece, but because it resonates so strongly with Pascoli's own life experiences and poetic philosophy.

The eight-year-old girl who speaks in the poem has suffered the deaths of two siblings. The biographical connections to Pascoli are clear. The fourth of ten children, he too suffered the deaths of several family members. Two sisters died in early childhood. His father, Ruggero Pascoli, was killed on August tenth, 1867, when Giovanni was only eleven, and his mother, Caterina Allocatelli Vincenzi, died in December of the following year. Within the space a few years, Giovanni also lost his older sister Margherita to typhus, his brother Luigi to cerebral meningitis in 1871, and finally his oldest brother Giacomo, who had assumed the paternal role in the family, in 1876. (1) These tragic losses pervade and indeed motivate a great part of Pascoli's Italian poetry. He dedicated his first collection, Myricae, to the memory of his father, and his later Canti di Castelvecchio to his mother, and explicitly bases several of his best-known poems (such as "X agosto," "La cavalla storna," and "La voce") on these deaths. Even the poems that do not speak explicitly about the various lost family members are infused or haunted with the idea of unjust, premature death. We can think of "Orfano" and "In ritardo" to name just two such poems. The haunting of Pascoli's poetry by the ghosts of his family members reveal that the poems are not an exercise in "working through" their deaths. (2) On the contrary, the poems are neither the symptoms nor the staging of an effective mourning, but rather a resistance to mourning. Wordsworth's "contadinella," who resists the speaker's logical conclusion that there are only five in her family, personifies this active refusal to mourn and to work through the deaths of family members. She, like Pascoli, creates a psychic space for the living on of these undead loved ones.

The young girl's insistence that "we are seven" in spite of the fact, admitted by herself, that two of her siblings are dead and buried in the "camposanto" demonstrates a seeming failure of reason: the correct response, of course, would be "we were seven," or, as the grown-up and rational interlocutor explains, "se que' due sono in cimitero, / cara bambina, cinque voi siete." It becomes clear through the course of the poem that the two protagonists are speaking at rather than with each other: despite a shared language, they are operating with two incompatible conceptualizations of the world. As readers, we are brought into sympathy with the transrational thought of the child, who continues to bring her dinner to the cemetery to eat with her two siblings that "sleep" together a mere ten paces from the home. The poem refigures her inability to see the truth as an ability to see more, and represents the reasonableness of the adult interlocutor as unsympathetic obtuseness. …

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