Italian Poetry Since 1800 Analysis

The Scapigliatura movement

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the 1860’s, there flourished a movement in Milan called thescapigliatura, from the disheveled or Bohemian appearance of its members, who reacted against the traditional forms of late Romanticism in their desire to achieve a spontaneous artistic expression. They looked toward such non-Italian poets as Gérard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire, Henri Murger, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Heinrich Heine, and their work exhibited overtones of Decadence (art for art’s sake), realism, and Satanism. At their worst, they substituted allegory and symbol for genuine thought and feeling.

Emilio Praga (1839-1875), a painter as well as a poet, wrote in the style of Baudelaire and died of alcoholism. The nostalgic motifs of his poetry are couched in pessimism and sensuality and can hardly be classified as examples of realistic writing. Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), offspring of an Italian father and a Polish mother, who ranks second after Giuseppe Verdi among Italian composers of the late nineteenth century, wrote poetry that sadly and sternly evokes the past, but his best lyric work, such as the legend of Re orso (king bear), has today been forgotten. Giovanni Camerana (1845-1905), also a painter, who committed suicide at the age of sixty, wrote landscape poetry with a painter’s eye for color and form.

Peripheral to the scapigliati were Vittorio Betteloni (1840-1910), who was drawn to realism—a translator of Lord Byron and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and a forerunner of the crepuscular movement—and his friend Olindo Guerrini (pseudonym of Lorenzo Stecchetti; 1845-1916), known for his peculiar brand of realism that approached pornography and for his satirical view of politicians.

While the scapigliatura movement failed to produce any great work of poetry, it created a commotion of new ideas from which other rebellious movements arose. Indeed, it could be argued that the decadent aspect of the poetry of Giovanni Pascoli and Gabriele D’Annunzio represents a continuation of the precepts of the scapigliati.

Giosuè Carducci

At that time, there arose a giant of a poet who would command and receive such respect from the Italian people as is rare in modern times, and who would receive the first Nobel Prize awarded to an Italian (1906). The Tuscan Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907)—rebellious, republican, and anticlerical—presented a drastic contrast to Abbe Zanella, who had fought for the Catholic ideal of a confederated Italy under the authority of a liberal pope. Carducci instead wrote “Inno a Satana” (“Hymn to Satan”); although Carducci’s Satan is a progressive “avenging force of Reason” rather than a prince of darkness, Carducci continued for many years to harbor a grudge in response to what he deemed Pope Pius IX’s betrayal of Italy in the...

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Other neoclassicists

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

There were other Italian neoclassicists at that time, many of whom were devoted followers of Carducci and many, like Carducci himself, who were professors in the new lay university system. This group gave rise to the term “professorial poetry,” characterized by its solemn tone and pedagogical intent. Carducci’s lifelong friend Giuseppe Chiarini (1833-1908), with whom he had founded the literary society of the Amici Pedanti in 1856, is known for his Lacrymae (1879; tears), a collection of simple verses on the premature death of his son, Dante. Other carducciani, such as Enrico Panzacchi (1840-1904), Giovanni Marradi (pseudonym of G. Labronio, 1852-1922), Severino Ferrari (1856-1905), and Guido Mazzoni (1859-1943), were evokers of historical landscapes or poets of personal fantasies uninterested in realism. Another poet of rebellious spirit, but one antagonistic to Carducci, was the Sicilian Mario Rapisardi (1844-1912), professor and translator of Lucretius and Catallus and singer of the fatal unhappiness of humans and of the assault of science on long-accepted dogma. The same concern for the problem of human destiny is found in the poetry of Arturo Graf (1848-1913), the son of a Bavarian father and an Italian mother and, like Rapisardi, a professor.

Giovanni Pascoli

Toward the end of the century, Carducci’s position as unofficial poet laureate was assumed by his former student Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912), who, like Carducci, was a professor and was interested only in the genre of poetry. As a humanist, he even surpassed Carducci, writing the finest Latin poetry since the age of Poliziano (1454-1494). By his emphasis on everday objects and activities, he shifted the focus of Italian poetry from the bourgeois to the petite bourgeoisie. As an outgrowth of his appreciation for the language of the common people, he incorporated many common and dialectal words into his Italian, and his example led to a more hospitable atmosphere for the ultimate acceptance of dialectal words into the standard language. His use and sometimes abuse of the onomatopoeic resources of language (for example, the tellterelltellteretelltell of sparrows, the siccecce siccecce of stonechats) was widely imitated. Because of his great love for little things, his poetry has been loosely termed “religious,” yet, in his conception, religion was hardly more than a cause around which people could rally in order to become closer to one another.

In his youth, Pascoli was for a brief time partial to socialism, and in his maturity he lived always without material pretensions. However, the long years of prosperous peace that followed the unification of Italy were materialistic years during which social and religious concerns played a minor role, and Pascoli’s message of simplicity and appreciation for small things had to be tempered somewhat. It was to Italy’s classical past and to its more recent patriotic and historical themes that he turned in his last years. His treatment of the classical world, however, was peculiarly his own; his classical heroes are not remote ideals but rather real people with the problems of all people. Thus, Alexander the Great is portrayed not as a conqueror but as a man who laments that there are no more worlds to conquer. Pascoli also acted as spokesperson for the hopes and dreams of the Italian people for an empire in Africa. When the Italians were repulsed by the Ethiopians at Adua in 1896, Pascoli mourned the defeat in a poem, and when Italians wished to annex Libya in 1912, he wrote a treatise in agreement with their imperialistic ideals.

Pascoli presented his ideas about poetry in an essay called “Il fanciullino” (1897; the little boy), where he argues that the true poet sees things as a child sees them, spontaneously finding the analogies necessary to express his wonder. Pascoli, himself a child at heart, found fault with literary Italian, cramped by classical tradition and a limited poetic vocabulary, and he led a campaign for a “svecchiamento del lessico” (“updating of the poetic lexicon”).

About the same time, Edmondo De Amicis (1846-1908), who also esteemed the childlike sense of wonder that is so often stifled in adulthood, was finding similar fault with literary Italian. In L’idioma gentile (1905; the noble language), he recommended that aspiring poets study the specialized vocabularies of the peasant trades; the aesthetician Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), who valued ideas above the words that dress them, asked in rebuttal if young Italians should become cooks in order to become poets. Croce, like other...

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Regional and dialectic poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Traditional Italian poetry before the unification of Italy, as Ruth Phelps has noted, often lacks the “feeling of place” so evident in English poetry. Pascoli was the first of many modern Italian poets to convey this “English” love for a particular corner of the world. Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968), in Il falso e vero verde (1954), notes that Italian poets who are engaged most intensely by a world gathered up in a narrow landscape are often from the South, the tragic and much maligned South that has inspired even Northern poets to reflect on its destiny. Quasimodo himself wrote a “Lamento per il sud” (“Lament for the South”) in which he noted that “the South is tired of hauling the dead/ on the banks of...

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Other regional poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Having produced Di Giacomo and a host of other poets during its centuries as the largest city in Italy (a distinction it retained for several decades even after the Risorgimento), Naples has been the most prolific source of dialectal literature. Next to Di Giacomo is his contemporary and competitor for recognition, the verista Ferdinando Russo (1866-1927), whose poetry portraying Neapolitan life is more dramatic and less tragic than that of Di Giacomo. His poems, like those of Di Giacomo, often deal with unrequited or impossible love. Other Neapolitan poets, less accomplished than Di Giacomo or Russo, clung to the melic tradition and contributed to the repertory of Neapolitan canzonette.

After Naples,...

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Crepuscolari, Futuristi, and Vociani

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the twentieth century, Italian poetry escaped the provincialism that had dominated it for some time. Even the great figures Carducci and D’Annunzio came to represent a limiting classicism and an overblown rhetorical nationalism. To be sure, such figures exercised an influence on poets following them, but on the whole, the turn of the century saw a reaction against them. Of the triad, only Pascoli can be said to have anticipated contemporary poetry. The reaction took three forms: the style of the crepuscolari (crepuscular poets), that of the futuristi (Futurists), and the poetics of the writers associated with the magazine La voce, the vociani.

The crepuscular poets never...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

There are many ways of understanding the phenomenon calledErmetismo, or Hermeticism. Essentially an extension of Symbolism into Italy, the movement nevertheless developed distinctively Italian features. The term “hermetic” was first used in a 1936 article by the Crocean critic Francesco Flora (1891-1962), who deplored the lack of clarity in the poetry of Ungaretti and his fellow spirits. Flora criticized Ungaretti in particular for practicing an art that was French, an “analogical art”; like the French Symbolists, Ungaretti employed metaphor and ellipsis to bring out an inherent richness in words that went beyond any logical order. Flora’s analysis, however, failed to acknowledge the native Italian influences...

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Religious poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The patriotism that produced the Risorgimento and the prosperity that followed it were not conducive to the writing of lofty religious poetry. An exception is the poetry of the Calabrian Antonino Anile (1869-1943), a neoclassicist and follower of Carducci as well as a university professor of anatomy who saw no irreconcilable conflict between science and faith. Always deeply religious, his poems portray the beauty of nature as a manifestation of God.

Many of the vociani wrote what might be called religious poetry. Papini converted to Catholicism after the trauma of World War I and wrote his famous La storia di Cristo (1921; The Life of Christ, 1923), a work neither theological nor scientific...

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La Ronda and the Rondisti

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The review La ronda, founded by Cardarelli and published in Rome between 1919 and 1923, represented an attempt to encourage a renewal of Italian letters after World War I. The rondisti wished to restore good writing in poetry and prose by a return to classical tradition, well-constructed syntax, clear style, and a literary vocabulary. The creation of literature was once again to be viewed as a craft with as few infractions of the rules as possible. In their task of reeducating Italians in the art of writing, they chose as their model Leopardi, ultimately emphasizing his prose over his poetry. They failed for the most part to achieve these goals, for the world was changing, and although they rejected fascism, the...

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Poetry of the Resistance

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

It is an understatement to say that for the Italian people, the experience of World War II was traumatic and that they emerged from it with changed values. The fact that virtually all postwar literary movements are introduced with the prefix “neo-” (for example, neorealism, neoexperimentalism) is but a single example of the rupture caused by the war. A great polemic arose after the war over charges that Italian poets had done little or nothing to stop the rise of Fascism. One result of the charges was that previously Hermetic poets such as Quasimodo, Sereni, and Luzi underwent profound changes of attitude; another was that poetry reflecting on the mission of the Resistance movement came to be highly esteemed. In an attempt to...

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Hermetics versus neorealism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The passions released by the ordeal of World War II and the bitter civil strife of the Resistance could not help but spill over into literary debate, and this was especially the case in Italy, where poetry aligned itself with schools in which political ideology was explicitly or implicitly supported. Because of their passive resistance, the Hermetic poets came under attack from the Left; the attack was initiated in an article published in La rinascita in 1944 and went on for several years, finally wasting itself in mere verbal exercise. In the meantime, the political realities of Italy had changed considerably, for the Italians, along with other Europeans, entered a period of economic well-being.

Several of...

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Avant-garde and later poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Other changes in poetry in the 1950’s all centered on the role of language. The avant-garde focused on the absurdity of any rational philosophy—even worldviews as diverse as those of Croce and Gramsci—in the modern world. The poets of this avant-garde, such as Antonio Porta (1935-1989), Alfredo Giuliani (1924-2007), Nanni Balestrini (born 1935), Edoardo Sanguineti (1930-2010), and Elio Pagliarani (born 1927), are reminiscent of Surrealism in their insistence that art must reflect the schizophrenia of modern society. They also employ the open form of American poets such as Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams. Influenced by literary theory, often to a crippling degree, the avant-garde poets reflect the ideas of the New...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Blum, Cinzia Sartini, and Lara Trubowitz, eds. and trans. Contemporary Italian Women Poets: A Bilingual Anthology. New York: Italica Press, 2001. Selections from the works of twenty-five women poets published in the last half of the twentieth century. Though they represent various literary traditions and different regions of Italy, they are alike in having produced memorable poetry. Introduction, notes, and bibliography.

Bohn, Willard, ed. and trans. Italian Futurist Poetry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. A bilingual collection of more than one hundred poems, arranged in chronological order, reflecting the diversity...

(The entire section is 534 words.)