Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1860
The “D’Annunzio phenomenon” has stirred a century-long argument between Gabriele D’Annunzio’s admirers and detractors, and his reputation has endured alternating periods of favor and disfavor, often related to historical circumstances. Later, under the impetus of a revival both in Italy and abroad, his works were reevaluated in the light of new critical methods.
Considering the number of D’Annunzio’s poetry collections, novels, plays, and memoirs, it would be unrealistic to expect a consistent artistic level throughout his oeuvre, but it should be recognized that, in its vastness and diversity, his work is an invaluable documentation of half a century of European intellectual life. In this perspective, it is difficult to isolate certain verse collections from the context of his entire production. The pattern of receptivity and experimentation that characterizes D’Annunzio’s poetry can only be appreciated by following the arc of his poetic achievement from Primo vere to Le laudi, where the voice of the poet reaches the plenitude of his expressive means.
In Primo vere, the choice of language, images, and versification is clearly inspired by Giosuè Carducci’s model. A second edition of the work in 1880, enriched with fifty-nine new poems, offers greater insight. The delicate musicality of certain verses, the attention devoted to the description of landscapes as the privileged scenery for love encounters, anticipate the distinctive tone which D’Annunzio was to achieve in Canto novo. The driving inspiration of this collection is the poet’s yearning for identification with nature. A pervasive pagan sensuality saturates the atmosphere as nature and man vibrate with the same impulses: A woman’s breath has the perfume of the forest, and her haunches are like those of an antelope; lovers are entwined like “virgin trees interlacing their branches.” The metaphors unify Earth, sea, and man in a vitalistic élan in which all forms merge.
Canto novo establishes the alternation between two themes which constitutes a favorite pattern of D’Annunzio’s dialectic: an unresolved conflict between the vitalistic impetus and a fin de siècle introspection and sadness. The tendency to magnify the elegiac and melancholic component in the poet’s writings is evident in the prevalent interpretation of the collection’s most celebrated poem, “O falce di luna calante” (oh, sickle of waning moon), which has often been read as an expression of weariness and consuming despair; as Barberi Squarotti has noted in Invito alla lettura di D’Annunzio (1982), this interpretation takes the poem out of its context in the collection, for the next poem is an invitation to another day of joyous life and love.
Intermezzo di rime
D’Annunzio’s negative note decidedly does prevail, however, in Intermezzo di rime, which was later revised and published under the shorter title Intermezzo. This new collection presented a sharp change in versification, tone, and inspiration. Influenced by the French Parnassian school, D’Annunzio abandoned Carducci’s versification for the traditional meters of sonnets and ballads. The volume also reveals a renewed taste for mythological reminiscence, while the polished elegance of the compositions suggests a new concern with aestheticism. Here, closed gardens substitute for natural landscapes, bucolic pagan eroticism gives way to a refined experimentation with morbid sensuality, and vitalism turns into sadistic cruelty. The entire collection is informed by a spirit of willful transgression. The protagonist, “l’Adolescente,” dissipates his vital energies in enervating lust. His attempt to achieve full control of life through the exaltation of the senses results in failure, as the satisfaction of pure sensuality rapidly wears out in disgust.
Several other important themes make their first appearance in this collection: the promenade, a privileged moment for erotic emotions; woman, the luxurious female whose castrating power destroys man’s energies; art, the fruit and carrier of corruption; the poet, the supreme artificer, the jeweler chiseling the hard, resistant metal of language. Other, less significant sections of Intermezzo reveal a taste for the macabre and the sadistic, quite in fashion at that time.
Following several collections of poems which refined the manner of Intermezzo, Poema paradisiaco (pb. as part of Poema paradisiaco—Odi navali) introduced a new style. Here, following the French Symbolists and influenced as well by Giovanni Pascoli’s Myricae (1891; tamarisks), D’Annunzio proposes a new musicality studiously built on a rhythm of verses broken by enjambments and interrupted by exclamations, questions, and invocations, where rhymes are hidden and assonance prevails. Memory, contemplation, and melancholy govern this poem of gardens (from the Greek paradeisos, “of the garden”), where “gardens” signify the closed space of interiority and meditation away from intellectual and sensual turmoil.
Poema paradisiaco evokes the languid melancholy of things that are no more, of sentiments that could have been. The memory of a brief encounter rouses a longing for an opportunity forever lost. The poet recalls flowers that have not been gathered, loves that have not been lived, privileged moments that have not been enjoyed. In “La passeggiata,” the poet prefers a sweet and melancholy relation with a woman to the ardor of love, concluding with a subtly ironic comment: “o voi dal dolce nome che io non chiamo!/ perchè voi non mi amate ed io non vi amo” (“You, with the sweet name I do not call!/ because you do not love me and I do not love you”). Poema paradisiaco remains one of the fundamental works of nineteenth century Italian poetry for its innovative language and rhythm and for its influence on the following generation of poets.
While all the preceding poetic works of D’Annunzio have provoked contrasting critical opinions, Le laudi has by general agreement been recognized as the poet’s masterpiece. This vast work was to include seven books dedicated to the seven stars of the Pleiades, but only four books of the projected seven were published during D’Annunzio’s lifetime: Maia, Elettra, Alcyone, and Merope. A fifth book, Asterope, published posthumously in 1949, includes the poems which D’Annunzio wrote during World War I.
Maia is mainly devoted to “Laus vitae,” a long poem based on D’Annunzio’s voyages in Greece in 1898 and 1899. In this poem, he celebrates the creative power of the classical world, comparing the vital drive of Greek civilization with the sterility of contemporary society. Hymns to Hermes, the creator, alternate with descriptions of modern cities where corruption and vice dominate, culminating with a vision of the “Great Demagogue,” a mass leader who preaches the destruction of everything that is beautiful and noble. The populace is portrayed as an instinctively violent and somehow innocent animal, exploited by demagogues and sacrificed without pity. Destruction and suffering, the poet-prophet predicts, will be followed by the birth of a new society in which work and beauty will be equally respected and loved.
In these fiery images, D’Annunzio expresses his antidemocratic and aristocratic sentiments, inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, but the complex system of the philosopher is narrowed down to serve a limited political program. The poem concludes with an invocation to Nature, the immortal Mother, who is the source of creation and renewal.
Elettra, named for the second star in the constellation, is divided roughly into two parts. In the first part, the celebratory and commemorative inspiration of many of the poems and their oratorical manner reveal D’Annunzio’s ambition to create a new mythology, to become the epic bard of the new Italian nation. This effort is not always sustained by authentic inspiration, and in many poems rhetoric and artificiality prevail. The second part, “Le città del silenzio,” is a celebration of the old Italian cities, silent and forgotten in the enclosure of their glorious past. Evocations of ancient events and descriptions of splendid monuments and palaces, dissolve into a subdued musicality tinted with melancholy.
In the third volume of the series, Alcyone, D’Annunzio reached his highest lyric expression. After the heroic tension of Maia and Elettra and their fervid affirmations and denunciations, Alcyone stands as a pause, a moment of total participation in the joyous blossoming of nature in its fullest season. The book opens with “La tregua,” an invocation to “il magnanimo despota” (the generous despot), Nietzsche, the master of willpower. After a period of intense commitment to the fight against brutal ignorance, corruption, and vulgarity, the poet asks for a respite. He wants to be reinvigorated, forsaking public squabbles for the pure sources of life. The poem concludes with a celebration of pagan nature, the realm of fauns, nymphs, and satyrs.
In the following poems, a series of mythological passages translates the introductory hymn to nature into the apotheosis of poetry. In the poem “Il fanciullo,” the divine flute player who modulates the most delicate murmurs of nature is the image of the youthful god of poetry: Here, poetry is the privileged activity where art and nature meet and merge. In “Lungo l’Affrico nella sera di giugno dopo la pioggia,” a description of the fresh calm of nature in the twilight after a summer rain evolves into a meditation on the power of poetry. Nature offers itself like ductile clay to the poet, who shapes it into a durable work of art. In the following poem, “La sera fiesolana,” this concept evolves into a conception of poetics which is central to an understanding of the collection. The landscape vibrates with a secret urge to express itself; hills and rivers, leaves and drops of rain, all of nature utters silent words that only the poet can hear. The voice of nature is the language of poetry itself. “La spica” and “Le opere e i giorni” carry the message even further, affirming that all forms of nature live only as a function of the poetic word, which, by naming them, calls them into existence.
After Alcyone, D’Annunzio was chiefly concerned with other literary genres. He seldom returned to poetry and then only for occasional lyric fragments. Merope, the fourth book of Le laudi, includes ten canzones composed on the occasion of the Italo-Turkish war. These poems do not add anything to D’Annunzio’s reputation, the flamboyant rhetoric of the volume betrays its essentially political function.
With Alcyone, D’Annunzio’s poetic inspiration achieved its fullest expression. The feeling of joyful participation in nature which informed his early verse reappeared in Alcyone, decanted, refined, and enriched by the variety of D’Annunzio’s painstaking experiments with new forms and techniques and by his unrelenting meditation on poetry. Themes, motifs, and discoveries of the preceding collections merge in Alcyone. Mythology, no longer an artificial ornament, is integrated with nature, which speaks through myths and transfers to the poet its creative force. In this world created by poetic language, everything harmonizes in a unique song celebrating the eternal beauty of life and nature in their multiform aspects.
D’Annunzio’s art, based on classical culture yet renewed by the European avant-garde, represents the link between traditional and modern forms of poetry. Like all great writers, D’Annunzio created a personal poetic language to give life to his imaginative world; at the same time, his verse transcended personal concerns to serve as a testing ground for modern Italian poetry.
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