Ora è là, come in croce, che tende
quel verme a quel cielo lontano;
e il suo nido è nell’ombra, che attende,
che pigola sempre più piano.
Translation Dia Tsung
The tenth of August is when Italians commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. It is the night when meteor showers are expected to be most intense, and a magical night, when it is believed that such wishes as are ‘wished upon a star’ are likely to come true.
For twelve year-old Giovanni Pascoli, the tenth of August was a night on which his wishes were blighted. His father was killed while on his way home from a local fair, and the mare came home pulling the cart with the dead man in it. The murderers were never apprehended.
This poem was (and perhaps still is) standard fare for generations of Italian school-kids, many of whom are likely to cry their little eyes out when they first read it. It also serves as an excellent way in which to introduce these hapless mites at an early age, to the fact that life is uncertain, unpredictable and unfair.
The sense of tragedy and grief that pervades this poem was something Pascoli carried with him for the rest of his life. His father was killed in 1867, and several bereavements followed. His sister Margherita died in 1868, and soon thereafter, his mother and three brothers. One of these brothers was the oldest, who had been supporting the family, and after his death the family fell into severe financial difficulty.
I cannot help comparing Pascoli with another Italian ‘poet of pessimism’ Giacomo Leopardi. I admit this is unfair to Pascoli and no doubt unjust, but it is exceedingly tempting to compare the work of these two tormented men, erudite philologists who both loved nature, were preoccupied by loss, and who lived darkly unfulfilled lives.
Pascoli’s particular strain of melancholy clearly lacks the mordant acerbity of Leopardi’s. Pascoli, due to his academic credentials and success as a latinist, (he was a university professor, and won a significant sum in prize-money for his Latin publications) was professionally and financially successful during his lifetime, whereas Leopardi barely managed to scrape by.
Leopardi, by far the greater intellect, was brilliantly despairing and clear-eyed about his deformity and doomed existence, but Pascoli, with his fervent idealisation of childhood and without Leopardi’s capacity for falling in love, seems to have sunk into a stupour of weak pessimism and resignation, from which no sparks seemed to fly. His alcoholism – and perhaps his success – seemed to have diverted him from taking the next step of staring unblinkingly into the abyss, something that Leopardi repeatedly and unflinchingly did throughout his literary life.
One wonders about the internal emotional traumas Pascoli sustained, that prevented him from finding any satisfaction – or consolation even – in his life. Though his appearance suggests a jolly, portly, country-gentleman, his writing is full of grief and loss and bereavement, and an unassuageable unhappiness with his life and what it had to offer. Pascoli dismissed religion as well as science, and deprecated politics. He fostered his affinity with the natural world, and dwelt lovingly on the beauty of nature, but this love was never sufficient to sustain him. To read his poetry is to feel muddled and sad and damply depressed. I prefer the salt and acid Leopardi seems to revel in pouring into the same sort of wound.
The religious symbolism in this poem – and the sense of passive resignation to the gratuitous cruelties and vicissitudes of existence – belie the fact that Pascoli was an atheist. His uneasy mind seems to have been held the captive of a profound and troubled melancholy throughout his life. He never married, perhaps due to a reluctance to disrupt the ‘family’ life he had contrived to foster with his two sisters Ida and Maria, who had at first been intended for convent life, though neither took religious vows.
It has been elsewhere suggested that Pascoli’s attachment to his sisters was not altogether filial, a suggestion that finds some support in Pascoli’s description of the year preceding his favourite sister Ida’s marriage, as being the most terrible of his life. His almost hysterical outpourings at the prospect of their separation and the thought of forfeiting her affection, attest to an intense attachment and a profound sense of loss.
In 1895 he set up house with his sister Maria (Mariù), in Castelvecchio, in Tuscany, where he lived for the next 17 years, until his death of liver cancer in 1912.
Mariù survived him by some forty years, and the two share adjacent tombs in the Castelvecchio cemetery.