The Poetry of Carducci by Giosuè Carducci

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The Poetry of Carducci Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Rarely has a poet in modern times been awarded the admiration and adulation that Italians accorded to Giosuè Carducci during his lifetime. Regarded as a national prophet as well as the unofficial poet laureate of Italy, he was something of an Italian institution. In addition to his career as poet and essayist, he was a highly successful academic. Although derided in his time by some groups, he served as a professor of literature at the University of Bologna for more than forty years. In 1906, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, one of the earliest recipients of the prize.

For most of his career, Carducci was, until converting to monarchism, a nonconformist, a republican supporter of Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini during the unification wars. As a poet, he was an outspoken anti-Romantic and an anticleric. These stances contributed to his popularity in Italy. His importance in the history of Italian literature rests on the quantity and quality of his neoclassical poetry, which is rife with references to Roman glory, and a vocabulary to match. When he began his career in the middle of the nineteenth century, Romanticism was in full flower and entering its decadent phase. Carducci’s neoclassical poems represent a different poetic, one addressing political topics and advocating political vigor for the Italians engaged in the unification movement—poetry that stressed the greatness of Rome over the theocratic Roman Catholicism of medieval Italy.

Carducci fervently believed that his, if not all, poetry should be an effective instrument in the great awakening—political, religious, and literary—that was taking place in Italy against the papacy and foreign occupiers. Carducci was dogmatically convinced that his neoclassical verses, vocabulary, and references would revitalize Italian poetry and put it back on the right and true track furnished by its Romano-classical ancestry. Literary history has proven his program misguided. His purely neoclassical poems are restrained, controlled, and intellectual. The bulk of his poetry is too often occasional, polemic, sententious, or tied to places and bygone people and events—factors that account for his poetry lacking a high readership today. Many readers dislike Carducci’s grandiloquence, but his Romantic poetry is often exquisite.

Carducci continued writing in the spirit of the neoclassical movement that was initiated by J. J. Winckelmann and his groundbreaking Gedanken über die Nachamung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (1775; Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, 1987). Winckelmann wrote this work after he discovered, as a librarian in Rome, what he assumed were Greek works of art. Carducci, however, chose ancient Rome, and not the Greeks, as his model. To modern readers, his neoclassical poetry rings stentorian and lacks, to compare it with another art form by neoclassical artists, the grace and charm of the neo-Greek statuary of fellow Italian Antonio Canova. Nevertheless, Carducci outshone his contemporaries and was, in the absence of other signal poets, the major Italian poet of the nineteenth century; he was a successor to the greats Ugo Foscolo and Giacomo Leopardi and a precursor to Giovanni Pascoli and Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Carducci’s second published poem is the still-famous “Hymn to Satan” (1857). It shocked Italy and reaped outcries of blasphemy from his continual enemy, the Catholic Church. The poem ascribes, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did half a century earlier in his Faust: Ein Fragment (1790; Faust: A Fragment , 1980), creative and constructive power to the revolutionary, fallen fourth archangel and invokes Satan as other poems had invoked the Muses. In the hymn, Carducci complains that Christianity is moribund and is carrying the world to destruction. He invokes paganism as a means of freeing the human mind. Satan in the poem is presented as a spirit of paganism, the spirit that evoked the...

(The entire section is 1,241 words.)