(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Much of Giovanni Pascoli’s poetry is autobiographical and touches upon his family, his home, the simple maritime and peasant folk he knew, his patriotism, his pessimism, and his obsession with death. His was a child’s world of small actualities, and he wrote tenderly of children themselves. Predictably, some of his work borders on, or even crosses over into, the realm of the unabashedly sentimental.

Unlike Carducci, who unequivocally rejected Christianity, Pascoli called it “the poetry of the universe,” and kept a candle lit before the Virgin’s picture above his hearth. His attitude toward the Christian religion has been characterized by Ruth Shepard Phelps as indulgent rather than devout; she points out that when his dead speak to him, as in “Il giorno dei morti” (“All Souls’ Day”), they address him from the tomb and not from Heaven. Nevertheless, he does not shy away from traditionally Christian themes: “La buona novella” (“The Good News”), appropriately placed at the end of his Hellenic Convivial Poems, heralds the age of a new humanitarianism and spares pagan Rome, “drunk with blood,” no embarrassing details. In his Latin poetry especially, persecuted Christians figure prominently, as does Christ Himself. In “Centurio,” for example, an old centurion who has returned to Rome is surrounded by boys begging for tales of adventure; instead, he tells them of the four times he saw and heard One Whom he last saw nailed upon the Cross.

Pascoli’s classical interests are evident throughout his work, but his devotion to Greece and Rome functions not so much as a proud material possession, as it was for Carducci, or as a means to self-aggrandizement, as it was for D’Annunzio, but more as a wistful vision of a lost Eden to be recovered by a strategy as simple as assembling and savoring in a single work those Italian words that clearly mirror their Greek and Latin origins. As much as he loved the classical heritage of Greece and Rome, he could write in “Il fanciullino”: “In our literary style we have taken the Latins for our model, as they did the Greeks. This may have helped to give concreteness and dignity to our writings, but it has suffocated our poetry.” Despite a few isolated attempts to pattern his verse on Greek and Latin cadences, Pascoli generally adheres to the prosody of Italian, excelling in his treatment of the traditional hendecasyllable.

Romantic love did not interest Pascoli (it is not love of beautiful women, he wrote in “Il fanciullino,” that interests the child but rather tales of adventure: “bronze shields and war-chariots and distant journeys and storms at sea”), nor was he concerned with politics, his own psychology, or syllogistic reasoning. In place of romantic love, Pascoli substitutes love of nature and concerns himself with the entire gamut of natural phenomena, observing and interpreting their varying states with the touch of a master. This emphasis on the natural world sometimes involves a vein of mysticism, and, despite his avowal that philosophy is too adult a matter for poetry, such poems as “Il ciocco” (“The Blockhead”; literally, “the log”) and “La vertigine” (“Vertigo”) are philosophical poems of cosmic imagination.

Much of his verse follows the pattern of common speech in its simplicity, novelty, and hesitation, and could be rewritten as prose. His unconventional rhythms resemble in some respects the poetry of Alexander Pushkin and the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Pascoli enjoyed using familiar forms but felt equally comfortable with forms of his own invention. He used alliteration and assonance extensively. Characteristic of his syntax (regarded at the time as daringly modern) is his oxymoronic pairing of contradictory words or ideas, such as “glauco pallore” (greenish pallor) or “la Vergine Maria piange un sorriso” (the Virgin Mary weeps a smile).

Pascoli stands out in the Italian poetic tradition for the quality of his language and for the individual words which he savored with the delight of a lexicographer. He does not hesitate to identify the humbler things of life by their even humbler dialectal designations, and he makes bold use of archaic Italian words and Latinate borrowings for special effect, of the pidgin Italian of returning emigrants, of childlike expressions, and of onomatopoeia. In the preface to the second edition of Canti di Castelvecchio, Pascoli thought it necessary to add an apologia for his use of so many dialectal words, insisting that the peasants speaking their dialects “speak better than we do,” with their crude and pithy utterances. Pascoli thus anticipated by half a century the more extreme indulgences of descriptive linguistics.

Birds are important in the poetry of Pascoli—not only the...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)