The Last Voyage: Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli
Published by Red Hen Press, November, 2010
Gemmea l’aria, il sole così chiaro
che tu ricerchi gli albicocchi in fiore,
e del prunalbo l’odorino amaro
senti nel cuore
Ma secco è il pruno, e le stecchite piante
di nere trame segnano il sereno,
e vuoto il cielo, e cavo al piè sonante
sembra il terreno.
Silenzio, intorno: solo, alle ventate,
odi lontano, da giardini ed orti,
di foglie un cader fragile. È l’estate,
fredda, dei morti.
The jeweled air: the clear sun:
you look for the f lowering apricot tree,
and smell the bitter scent of hawthorn
in your heart.
But the thorn has dried out, and skeletal plants
weave black threads into the clear blue sky,
into the empty vault of heaven, and the hollow earth
rings with every footstep.
Silence, all around: from far away you hear
only the gusting of the wind, and from the orchards
and gardens, the fragile descent of leaves. It is
the cold summer of the dead.
In his preface to Myricae (1891), the young Pascoli (1855-1912) suggests that his early lyrics comprise an elegy for his father, and elegy that both laments his father’s untimely death and asks forgiveness of him, and the reader: “They are like flapping of birds, rustling of cypresses, far singing of bells: they don't scorn a graveyard. For some tears, for sobbing, I hope to find forgiveness, since here less than elsewhere the reader will be able or will want to say: what do I care of your sorrow?” This dark tone, the rural images, the orientation around death, and indeed the colloquial texture of the verses themselves, prefigure Cesare Pavese. While Pascoli incorporated the hills around Barga, north of Lucca, into the texture and theme of his poems, Pavese used the hills around Santo Stefano Belbo south of Torino to do the same thing half a century later.
Born near Rimini, Pascoli was the product of a simple home, but one touched several times by death, including the assassination (never solved) of his father in 1867. He studied at the University of Bologna where he later was professor of Italian literature. he had begun writing early but did not publish a book until he was 36. From early on his poems show a remarkable sense of linking everything into a kind of mysterious oneness where rocks and people, trees and animals all partake of the same essence. Overall, his philosophy might be characterized as a materialistic Platonism: indeed, an essay on “The Child” suggests that children, in resisting adult hierarchies, in taking an idealistically Platonic view of reality, arrive at the same mysterious essence his poems search for.
Pascoli’s early poems owe something to the Romantic poet Leopardi (and to Wordsworth) in his desire to find a mysterious essence in the commonplace world. The poems are filled with precise observations, elemental images of rocks, country lanes, trees, flowers, birds, country churches and houses, animals in a way that had not been seen before in Italian poetry, and which Pavese (and Montale) later developed even further. His style, often onomatopoetic, filled with sudden leaps, changes in point of view, non standard grammar, a penchant for the colon, all attempt to give a sense of the drama of the mind in the act of discovering itself. It often suggests the unconventional rhythms and language of Thomas Hardy. While all this illustrates a highly individual mind, and indeed a dramatic change in Italian poetry, Pascoli also saw in his country settings a tradition that offered safety and protection in a changing world.
As his poems developed, the specter of death seems to become more intense and overcomes a brief period of hope. For Pascoli, the very nature of poetry seems threatened. A number of analytic poems relating to artists and writers attest to his concern. The poems from the last part of his life, after he moves to Barga in 1895, struggle to make sense of this deteriorating world. Elegiac narrative tends to replace elegiac lyric as the complex world he describes tends to burst the lyric’s seams.
In this last period, which the half of this selection focuses on, Pascoli makes use of his considerable classical learning (he wrote a number of eloquent poems in Latin). The Banquet Songs (1904) suggest a Greek or Roman setting, but a setting that Pascoli completely transforms for he is not interested, finally, in recording the past or even revisiting it, but in absorbing it into the fabric of his own life. The poems, especially the poems of “The Last Voyage,” provide him an opportunity to voice his own concerns through the character of Ulysses as he, as in Tennyson’s famous poem, sets out on his last assigned voyage to bury Poseidon’s oar far from land. Ulysses retracing his famous first voyage in The Odyssey becomes an image for Pascoli’s own retreat into his past to evaluate his triumphs and his mistakes. (Again, something Pavese will do with his own invented characters.)
The translation of these poems is a group project: one of the three of us would offer a rough version that the others would then ‘workshop’ and critique until a second, third, and fourth draft were done. In the end, these ‘final’ versions were checked and smoothed. In all, we followed Samuel Johnson’s dictum that a translation must first of all be good in its “target language.” As a result, some good poems in Italian were left out because they either did similar things as other poems, or they didn’t sound as good in English. As a whole we tried to follow the general form and stanzaic patterns of the poems, especially when line breaks seemed crucial.
For this selection, we have included in the first section some brief lyrics followed by several longer lyrics, several of them taken from sectioned poems but including one long representative sequence, “A Country Walk.” The second section includes three longer poems, generally narrative in nature, one of which is quite formal (“The Sleep of Odysseus”). The last section is Pascoli’s imaginative return journey back through the Odyssey with an aging Odysseus (an idea borrowed from Tennyson and Dante). We feel that this gives a good introductory sense of the range and evolution of Pascoli’s style and concerns.
While Pascoli was a prolific writer, also publishing many Latin poems, we have taken our selections from Myricae (1891), Primi Poemetti (1897), Canti di Castelvecchio (1903) and Poemi Conviviali (1904).