When granting Giosuè Carducci the 1906 Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy stated that the award was given “not only in consideration of his deep learning and critical research, but above all as a tribute to the creative energy, freshness of style, and lyrical force which characterize his poetic masterpieces.” Carducci’s works are exceptional in their synthesis of literary qualities often seen as opposites. Though his life coincided with the height of Romanticism in Italy, he took the classical mode as his paradigm of artistic creation. This might have made him a curious anachronism, but his passion and his agility with classical form kept his works free of the servility that mars much neoclassical poetry. Carducci had too great a heart to let formal considerations neuter him and too much poetic skill not to exploit the opportunities of form.
Indeed, Carducci’s great learning gave him the ability to scrutinize his own work, to evaluate and revise it with a living sense of literary history. Full of the passions of the Risorgimento and the nationalism of the new Italian state, he nevertheless viewed his work as part of a long historical tradition; whatever the Romans had been in essence was still in the Italian landscape, soil, and blood. Though Italy had drifted from the unity and glory of its past, it was always possible to restore those qualities, which were not dead but merely submerged. Classicism thus became a way of restoring to the Italian nation and people their rightful identity and heritage. Carducci himself wrote:
Great poetry aspires ceaselessly to the past and proceeds from the past. The dead are infinitely more numerous than the living, and the spaces of time under the Triumph of Death are incomparably more immense and more tranquil than the brief moment agitated by the phenomenon of life.
Carducci collected his earliest poetry (that written between 1850 and 1860, including that published in Rime) in Juvenilia. In these early poems, the young Carducci was searching for his voice, but he had already adopted many of the values which inform his mature work. Juvenilia reveals a familiarity with Greek and Latin models as well as with Italian poetry; the values that antedate Romanticism are stressed, along with a natural humanism free of the sentimentality and egotistic aberrations of Romanticism. Juvenilia is highly patriotic in tone and often violently anti-Catholic because of the Church’s opposition to the reunification of Italy. Carducci revives the memory of ancient poetry and pagan strength by saluting the ancient gods; he praises ancient Greece, “Mother Rome,” and “free human genius.” He reminds Italy of the greatness of Rome and the heroic example of the French Revolution. He salutes the heroes of Italian unity, such as Garibaldi, Mazzini, and Victor Emmanuel II, the latter in a joyous celebration of the imminent war with Austria in 1859. Many of the poems are violently emotional: Carducci attacks those whom he perceives as the enemies of Italy and plunges into depression over the contemporary state of the country and its people.
One of Carducci’s most famous and controversial poems was “Hymn to Satan.” Later in his life, the poet would disavow the poem and call it “vulgar sing-song,” but he stood defiantly behind it when it was published, astounding the public and causing great outrage at the University of Bologna and elsewhere. The critic Querico Filopanti, for example, asserted that it was not a poem at all but an intellectual orgy. In it, Carducci gives full vent to his anticlerical feelings, seeking to shock Italians out of their spiritual apathy. Satan becomes the symbol of nature and reason: He is Lucifer, carrier of light, enemy of asceticism and of a Church which denies the natural rights of man. Free thought, progress, and physical vitality are Satan’s promises. Curiously, the poem praises Girolamo Savonarola for his...
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