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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Giovanni Pascoli (1855–1912)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Gertrude Elizabeth Taylor Slaughter (1870–1963)
 
WHEN Pascoli died, in 1912, Italy mourned as a nation her greatest lyric poet. The village of San Mauro in Romagna where he was born in 1855 and Castelvecchio di Barga where his villa stands among the Tuscan hills contended for the honor of his burial, while the official orator on the Roman Capitoline and critics and journalists throughout the country proclaimed him the worthy successor to Carducci not only in the chair of poetry at Bologna but as a great humanist and poet who united the beauties of Latin classicism with the glories of modern Italy. He was called the “poet of the birds,” the “great poet who sang of little things,” the “lover of nature and humanity,” the “Saint Francis of modern times,” the “latest-born son of Vergil.” D’Annunzio pronounced him “the greatest and most original poet of Italy since Petrarch.” Certain of his critics—the Pascoliani—wrote as devotees. “He led us away,” said one of them, “from the sombre austerity of Carduccian art and the unrestrained exuberance of D’Annunzio into a world of unknown beauties where we heard the voices of the humblest things and questioned their mysteries and drew forth their secrets.” Among the anti-Pascoliani were those who condemned his over-simplicity—his use of dialects and his childlike repetition of the actual sounds of nature—and others who objected to his over-subtlety and refinement of style (“Elegant verses, perhaps too elegant,” said Carducci), and to a certain vague, suggestive, often illusive quality of many of his poems, their lack of clear outlines and their obscurity.  1
  One of his earlier critics, Dino Mantovani, commented upon the combination in Pascoli of the genuine rustic with the artist and scholar:—
          “This solitary dreamer who knows all the life of the country, who listens to the conversations of birds and hears all the sounds that vibrate in the open air, is also an artist of exquisite perceptions and a skilled workman in the industry of style. When he writes he forgets the example of others and writes in his own way. But into that writing is distilled the innumerable precepts of a learned art governed by a delicate taste.”
  2
  Pascoli was called the son of Vergil not because he wrote Latin poems in the manner of the Georgics and won the international prize for Latin verse at Amsterdam no less than sixteen times but because, when he invites his readers into the country, he makes the peasant life of Italy as close to the life of flocks and herds and bees and flowers as it was in Vergilian or Theocritean days. It is a country of rough, incessant toil, far removed from soft Arcadias. Yet the peasants love the beauty even while they bend under the labor of the country. They are near the invisible spirits of things. The bells bring them a thousand messages of joy or sorrow while “white dawn scatters the flocks over the fields” or “a star leads them clambering home.” Spirits come down from the mountain side at the twilight hour and join in their prayers for a blessing on their crops. The fountain talks to them in the shady valley. The grain and the vine sing to the old farmer, “I am thy life, I am thy joy.” One is never in remote solitudes in this poetry. The village street and church and market-place are never far away. The sounds of life are everywhere. Nature and man are working together for the same end.  3
  But Pascoli did more than depict the country life of Italy and the peasants of “sunny Romagna.” Although he called his first volume ‘Myricæ’ and himself the “lowly poet of the lowly myrtle” and his poems “The flutter of wings, the rustle of cypresses, the echo of bells,” he had a deep humanitarian purpose which sprang from his own experience. The tragedy of his childhood—the mysterious murder of his father which was the cause of his mother’s death and the ruin of the family—became in his sensitive mind the crime that the cruelty of human nature is always inflicting upon the world, without which life would be all beautiful, even in sorrow and death. He sings of the affliction of his family many times. In ‘Il Giorno dei Morti’ they utter their lamentations and prayers in the dark, stormy Campo Santo. As his grief becomes universalized, he sings ‘Il Focolare,’ in which masses of human creatures make their lonely way toward a single light in the darkness and arrive to find the fire is spent; and as they huddle together they learn the comfort of a common destiny. In a similar poem, two orphans have quarreled in the daylight, but in the darkness they draw together and fall asleep in each other’s arms; and then the poet turns from the children and says:—
          “O Man! think of the darkness of the unknown destiny that surrounds us, of the deep silence that reigns beyond the clashing of our wars. Only he that seeks out brothers in his fear errs not.”
  4
  What might have been bitterness is pity. Yet the poet suffered under a double weight, the memory of misfortune and a tormenting sense of the mystery of things.
  “My soul hast thou tormented and my body
With so great grief and pain that now at last
Sweeter than any sweetness is oblivion.”
Nothing is more characteristic than the stanzas entitled, ‘Sapienza.’

  “Climb high in thought the steep and lonely fastness
Where nests the eagle and the mountain stream
And stand remote mid solitude and vastness,
            O man of wisdom!
  
“Send far adown the obscure, unfathomed spaces
Of the abyss thine eye’s most piercing beam.
Ever more near will draw what thine eye traces—
            Shadow and mystery.”
  5
 
  The child’s unconscious intimacy with nature and alarm at a sudden blow are reflected in the philosopher’s mind pondering the meaning of things and seeking for a cure. The philosopher finds the cure where the child instinctively seeks it, in nature—madre dolcissima, in whom the poet trusts. Often he searches out her lessons. Often he merely takes delight in what he sees or hears, as in the ‘Song of April’:—

  “A phantom you come
And a mystery you go.
Are you near? Are you far?
For the pear-trees are bursting,
The quince-trees are budding
        Anew.
  
“The bank is resounding
With tomtits and finches;
Are you there in the ash-trees?
Is it you in the brushwood?
A dream or a soul or a shadow—
        Is’t you?
  
“I call you each year
With a heart palpitating.
You come and I smile;
You depart, and you leave
Only tears and my sorrow
        Renew.
  
“This year, ah, this year,
A joy has come with you.
Already I hear
If my senses deceive not
That echo of echoes.
It is you I hear singing
        Cu-Cu!”
  6
 
  Often there is a very definite symbolism either suggested or expressed. ‘The Great Aspiration’ represents the trees as struggling away from their roots in the earth toward the radiant liberty of the sun.

  “O trees enslaved, you turn and twist like one
In desperation, spreading across the heavens
The slow, imprisoned shadow of your limbs.
  
“‘Ah! had we wings instead of branches, feet
Instead of ignorant, blindly groping roots!’
Your flowers seem to chant melodiously.
  
“And man, O trees, man, too, is a strange tree.
He has, ’tis true, the power to move but naught
Beside of all his longing. We, too, are slaves.
Our vain dream is of flowers, yours of words.”
  7
 
  More often than literal description or definite symbolism Pascoli’s poetry conveys a mystical feeling or a weird suggestiveness, as in the terza rima poem, ‘In the Mist.’

  “I looked into the valley. Every form
    Was lost, immersed in a vast level main
Waveless and shoreless, gray and uniform.
  
“No sound emerged from out the misty plain
    Save wild thin voices crying on the air
Of lost birds wand’ring through the world in vain.
  
“In the dim sky above I was aware
    Of skeletons of trees and shadows drear
Of hermit solitudes suspended there
  
“And shades of ancient ruins. I could hear
    A distant bay of hounds, and, down below,
A sound of footsteps neither far nor near.
  
“Footsteps that echoed neither fast nor slow
    Eternally. No form could I discover
Of living creature moving to and fro.
  
“The skeletons of trees were asking: ‘Never
    Will he arrive?’ The ruins seemed to say:
‘And who art thou that roamest thus forever?’
  
“And then I saw a shadow wandering alway
    And bearing on its head a burden. Again
I looked and it had vanishèd away.
  
“Only the unquiet birds calling in vain
    And distant baying hounds I seemed to hear
And ever through the waveless, shoreless main
  
“Echoes of footsteps neither far nor near.”
  8
 
  Pascoli’s faith is in nature and reality. Yet he is not concerned with the poetry of sight and touch alone. His ‘Hermit’ says, “The shadow of things is darkness for him who would see. The shadow of dreams is grateful shade for weary eyes.” And Alexander the Great halts in the midst of mighty deeds and says:—
  “O azure-tinted mountains! and you, too,
O rivers! blue as skies and seas are blue;
Better it were to stand by you and dream
Nor look beyond.
Dream is the infinite shadow of the true.”
  9
  Having early learned that the fruits of life are bitter, Pascoli could not fail to find that its flowers are sweet. As the black regrets are softened the sentiment of universal pity more and more predominates, whether his subjects are chosen from classical mythology or from contemporary life. One of the poems most widely known in Italy, ‘In the Prison of Geneva,’ represents the father of that anarchist who assassinated Elizabeth of Austria, Lucheni by name, as coming back from the grave and entering his son’s cell and speaking to him. He tells him that perhaps the crime is his, the father’s, and not the child’s. For the child was an outcast from home and country. And yet, outcast as he was, as long as he was innocent he shared the noble fate of suffering humanity. Only when he stained his hands with blood did he discard his human heritage and throw in his lot with beasts. ‘From the abode of Death,’ he tells him,
        “from that supremest height of truth—one sees no high nor low nor rich nor poor, no kings nor subjects, but only a swarm of ant-like creatures crawling through the plain and sending up a wail of misery. In such a world, where all are but shadows of brief flight, hatred is folly and stupidity. Pity is what man owes to man, pity for kings, pity for you, Lucheni.”
  10
  As Pascoli’s vision was enlarged his aim was nothing less than to “enclose the turbid universe in lucid words.” No detail was too small, no theme too difficult. He sang of the faithful broom and of the myriads of suns to be destroyed by the slow snows of eternity; of the duck on the shining pond and of popes and kings, of Homer and Alexander. Every subject is treated in the mood of one who has “dipped his hands in the river of sorrow.” Even his ancient heroes are transferred into a modern atmosphere of sentimental tenderness. In ‘The Blind Bard of Chios,’ the aged Homer speaks to the young girl who leads him:—
  “O Delias! O thou slender branch of palm
At lofty Cynthus feet, close by the stream
Of singing Anapus, O child of Palma!
What gift of mine can bring thy heart delight?
For thou didst shake thy locks indifferently
When young men sought thee, and didst turn from them
To find thy joy even in this gray old man
Whose strength recedes while his desire advances.
Him hast thou led beside thine own light footsteps
To cool and shady lawns and to soft beds
Of murmuring leaves in midst of sounding pines
Whose rustle as of freshening summer rain
Is mingled with the music of the sea.
Nor couldst thou all conceal thy beauty from him—
Thy beauty seen of none but him, a blind man,
And the silent, solitary halcyons.
What gift of mine, O Delias, ere I go
Whithersoever the black ship shall bear me—
What gift of mine can gladden thy young heart?
For I have nothing left in all the world
Except mine ancient torn and empty wallet
And this mine ivory lyre. The gift of song
Has yielded nought for all my labor save
A flowing cup of wine, a morsel of fat
Boar’s flesh and, when the song I sing is ended,
A long, long echo of joy within my soul.”
  11
  Pascoli’s fellow-countrymen like to remember that he wrote his latest words in praise of a greater Italy—he who had once been a socialist and in prison. His address to the soldiers of the Tripoli campaign and the hymns that he read in Rome and Turin at the celebration of fifty years of Italian unity received popular applause. But there was no change in his purpose which was always the humanizing of men by opening their eyes to beauty. His four volumes of Dante criticism have enlarged the place he holds in Italian letters. A few essays, especially ‘La Ginestra,’ have formulated with delicate art his favorite ideas. But his fame will rest upon the “poetry of earth” in his six large volumes of lyrics. Whatever its faults, his poetry never fails to convey the sense of a close, an almost mystical union between nature and man. Sometimes it spins too fine a thread of symbolism. Sometimes it rises to the simple dignity of noble verse. It springs from a genuine poetic impulse. However finely wrought, it has the clearness of sincerity. The lines in which the Spirit of Poetry speaks indicate the poet’s aim and the nature of his achievement:—
  “I am the lamp that burneth tranquilly
In thy darkest and loneliest hours,
In the saddest and heaviest shadows.
The gleam of my pure ray shineth
Afar on the wanderer treading
By night with a heart that is weeping
The pallid pathway of life.
He stops, and anon he beholdeth
The gleam of my light in his soul.
He takes up again his dark journey
And lo! he is singing.”
  12
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
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