Magazine article New Criterion

Four Poems by Giosue Carducci

Magazine article New Criterion

Four Poems by Giosue Carducci

Article excerpt

Giosue Carducci (1835-1907) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906. He was the first Italian to have done so. Since then, he has fallen into obscurity, despite his onetime eminence as something of a national poet, a trumpeter of Italian unification. Traces of him remain: there is a handsome plaque to him in the church of Santa Croce in Florence (where his family was from) alongside memorials to Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini. In Bologna, where he became a professor in 1860, his house has been turned into a museum for history buffs. But he has lost the youth market: now forced to study him in school, students develop a distaste for his poems bordering on contempt, while the professoriate has vastly preferred the poetry of Carducci's contemporary Giovanni Pascoli, whose work provides a bridge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Carducci, with his dated syntax and arcane allusions, is firmly rooted in the late 1800s: he does not sound the way Italians talk today, and his passion for the classical past makes him seem even more remote. In his numerous poems on Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, he comes off more as an artifact than as a living voice.

But at one time he was the most famous poet in Italy. He embodied the hope of a generation and sang in classical meters of mythic visions diat connected the Italian landscape to its roots in the ancient world. His poetry, criticism, and translations ran to a score of volumes. It was in his late volume, Odi Barbare (1877-1899), that he arrived at a transcendent, death-marked music. To my ear, a kind of Symbolist sonority emerges as die poems counter Romantic impulses with classical poise. In the four poems here, the past and the present overlap, occasionally in equal measure. In "Snowfall" ("Nevicata"), ghosts from die speaker's past beckon to him, and he answers that he will be with them soon. "Kingfisher" ("Cerilo") incorporates part of the Greek poet Alcman's Fragment 26, which describes the fearless flight of a seabird in a storm. The poem begins with an image of the writing desk, with its dreary scribbling, and soars up to the mountaintops and out to sea. Alcman's fragment stands here at a double remove, translated first from the ancient Greek by Carducci nearly 140 years ago, and then from Carducci's Italian.

"At the Station in an Autumn Morning" ("Alla stazione in un mattina d'autunno") is a nightmarish look at modernity, juxtaposed with the delicate sweetness of the beloved, who appears ghosdike in a freezing late-autumn landscape. "Death During a Diphtheria Epidemic" ("Mors nell'epidemia difterica") achieves an almost Dantean level of horror and pathos in its depiction of how, with their fathers looking on, children succumb to a deadly outbreak of disease. Death, the diva or goddess, descends as another ghostly presence in the landscape in this sequence of haunted poems. Carducci clearly felt a romantic's longing for the spring, but he knew that winter was quickly, inexorably approaching.


   A light snow falls through an ashy sky.
   From the city no sounds rise up, no human cries,

   not the grocer's call or the ruckus of his cart,
   no light-hearted song of being young and in love.

   From the tower in the piazza, the quinsied hours
   moan, sighing as if from a world far off.

   Flocks of birds beat against the misted glass:
   ghosts of friends returned, peering in, calling to me.

   Soon, O my dears, soon--peace, indomitable heart--
   I will sift down to silence, in shadow rest.

   January 29, 1881


   Not under a steel nib that scratches in nasty furrows
   its dull thoughts onto dry white paper;

   but under the ripe sun, as breezes gust
   through wide-open clearings beside a swift stream,

   the heart's sighs, dwindling into infinity, are born,
   the sweet, wistful flower of melody is born.

   Here redolent May shines in rose-scented air,
   brilliant the hollow eyes, hearts asleep in their chests;

   the heart sleeps, but ears are easily roused
   by the chromatic cries of La Gioconda. … 
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