A century ago, in early 1906, the fifty-year-old Giovanni Pascoli succeeded his ailing mentor Giosuè Carducci as Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Bologna, a position so prestigious it might as well have come with a laurel crown. Carducci would receive the Nobel later that year, but his grandiloquent neoclassicism had already given way to his student’s humbler, plainer style; the nineteenth century had given way to the twentieth. Though Pascoli soon lapsed into the role of “national poet,” he had by then produced a major body of innovative work, one that has been read, studied, and passionately debated ever since.
At least in Italy. Despite his stature there, he remains obscure in English. The sharp disparity between his national and international fortunes has been ascribed, as such disparities often are, to “untranslatability”: Cesare Garboli, editor of the exquisite Meridiani edition of Pascoli’s selected work (2002), called him “a profoundly Italian poet [who] isn’t easy to translate”; Montale called him “as untranslatable as Leopardi.” Neither explained what makes him untranslatable. Is he steeped in some strain of Italianicity that, like certain wines, simply doesn’t travel well? The mawkishness of several of his anthology pieces (“La cavalla storna” and “X Agosto” come to mind) may have, at one time, played better in Italy than elsewhere, but his best poems are free of that vice, and their unsettling mysteries can survive translation. Is his poetry untranslatable because its virtues are inextricable from the materiality of its language? Again, no: he does have an exquisite ear, but he’s not some Mallarmé pushing toward pure sound.
Perhaps our neglect of Pascoli stems more from the vicissitudes of literary history than from untranslatability. His poetic moment—the last decade of the Italian nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth—is not a sexy one, nor was he part of a movement with a catchy name. Translators today troll their contemporaries; Dante gets a new suitor every week or two; even lonely Leopardi is now occasionally being courted, chastely. But I suspect most translators of Italian poetry will continue to be drawn to the enormously seductive modernist period, with Pascoli remaining just beyond their gaze. His misfortune, and ours.
I stared into the valley: it was gone—
wholly submerged! A vast flat sea remained,
gray, with no waves, no beaches; all was one.
And here and there I noticed, when I strained,
the alien clamouring of small, wild voices:
birds that had lost their way in that vain land.
And high above, the skeletons of beeches,
as if suspended, and the reveries
of ruins and of the hermit’s hidden reaches.
And a dog yelped and yelped, as if in fear,
I knew not where nor why. Perhaps he heard
strange footsteps, neither far away nor near—
echoing footsteps, neither slow nor quick,
alternating, eternal. Down I stared,
but I saw nothing, no one, looking back.
The reveries of ruins asked: “Will no
one come?” The skeletons of trees inquired:
“And who are you, forever on the go?”
I may have seen a shadow then, an errant
shadow, bearing a bundle on its head.
I saw—and no more saw, in the same instant.
All I could hear were the uneasy screeches
of the lost birds, the yelping of the stray,
and, on that sea that lacked both waves and beaches,
the footsteps, neither near nor far away.
Translation by – Geoffrey Brock – source
Giovanni Pascoli was born at San Mauro di Romagna (in his honor renamed “San Mauro Pascoli” in 1855), into a well-to-do family. He was the fourth of ten children of Ruggero Pascoli and Caterina Vincenzi Alloccatelli. His father was administrator of an estate of farm land of the Princes Torlonia on which the Pascoli family lived.
On the evening of Aug. 10, 1867 as Ruggero Pascoli was returning home from the market at Cesena in a carriage drawn by a black and white mare (una cavalla storna), he was shot and killed by an assassin hiding in a ditch by the road. The mare continued slowly on her way and brought home the body of her slain master. The murderer was never apprehended.
Giovanni Pascoli had a tragic childhood, struck by the murder of his father and the early deaths of his mother, sister and two brothers, and the subsequent financial decline of the family. The father’s assassination echoes in particular in one of his most popular poems, “La cavallina storna” . His whole first work, Myricae (1891), reflects his unhappy childhood.
In 1871 he moved to Rimini with six of his brothers. Here he made friends with Andrea Costa, and began to participate in Socialist demonstrations. This led to another key event in Pascoli’s life, his brief imprisonment in Bologna following a protest against the capture of the anarchist Giovanni Passannante.
Pascoli studied at the University of Bologna, where his teacher and mentor was Giosuè Carducci. He graduated in 1882, and began to teach in high schools in Matera and Massa. He lived next to his sisters Ida and Maria, in an attempt to renew the original family, building a “nest” (as he called it) for the sisters and himself. Although he was almost married, it is speculated that he never did because of an immature and perhaps ambiguous relationship with his sisters.
In the meantime he began to collaborate with the magazine Vita nuova, which published his first poems later collected in Myricae. In 1894 Pascoli was called to Rome to work for the Ministry of Public Instruction, and there he published the first version of Poemi conviviali. Later he moved between cities living in Bologna, Florence and Messina, but remained always psychologically rooted to his original, idealized peasant origins.
In 1895 he and his sister Maria moved into a house at Castelvecchio, near Barga, in Tuscany, bought with money gained from literary awards. The political and social turmoil of the early 20th century, which was to lead to Italy’s participation in World War I and to the advent of Fascism, further strengthened Pascoli’s insecurity and pessimism.
From 1897 to 1903 he taught Latin at the University of Messina, and then in Pisa. When Carducci retired, Pascoli replaced him as professor of Italian literature at the University of Bologna. In 1912, already ill of cirrhosis (from alcohol abuse), Giovanni Pascoli died of liver cancer at the age of 56 in Bologna. An atheist, he was entombed in the chapel annexed to his house at Castelvecchio, where his beloved sister, Maria, would also be laid to rest.
His earlier poems look simple, and focus particularly on domestic life and nature. However, Pascoli, even in that period of Positivism and scientism, believes that life is a mystery; only symbolic associations discovered in the humble things of nature can lead man to catch a glimpse of the truth behind mere appearances.
His later poems share similar themes but are more experimental, and reflect his knowledge of classical antiquity. They were a great influence on later Italian poets, who incorporated his melancholy themes into their own works. He wrote in both Italian and Latin; he also translated English poetry. His numerous poems in Latin gained many international awards.
In 1897 Pascoli issued a detailed definition of his poetical stance, which he called poetica del fanciullino (“poetics of the child”) and which showed the influence of Sully and von Hartmann. Poetry, according to Pascoli, would be the unceasing capability to get stunned by the world, typical of childhood, secondarily connected to the expressive capabilities of the aged. In a refusal of both Classicism and Romanticism, Pascoli opposed both the renunciation of self-analysis and the abandonment of the self-centered point of view, in favour of a semi-irrational comfort which the poet gives himself through poetry.
Pascoli’s poetry shows interesting affinities with European symbolism, even if direct influences cannot be demonstrated. A wide use of analogy and synesthesia, a very subtle musicality, a lexicon open both to foreign languages and to vernacular or onomatopeic voices are major signs of a literary research oriented towards modern poetical language.
Part of Pascoli’s work was translated into English by Lawrence Venuti, who in 2007 was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Humanities for that reason. In 2010 Red Hen Press published first appearance of Pascoli’s poems in English translation, under the title “Last Voyage: Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli.” Pascoli was also known as a prose essayist and for his Dante studies. – source – Wikipedia
The Iron Road
Between embankments, where the cattle graze
in peace, the railroad stretches out in a straight,
dark brown line that glimmers from afar;
in the pearl sky, the telegraph poles create
another line in their aerial plot beside
the tracks, and in shrinking order, disappear.
What sort of rumbling moans and roaring howls
crescendo, then vanish, like a women’s wail?
An immense, resounding harp, from time to time,
these metal lines ring out across the wind.