(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The Romantic movement dominated Italian literature during the first half of the nineteenth century, and Ugo Foscolo, along with other writers, such as Vincenzo Monti and Alessandro Manzoni, was part of it, though at a rather different level. Foscolo’s personal life and his involvement in the political, social, and literary history of Italy are closely meshed in his poetry.


Foscolo’s twelve sonnets (known collectively as the “Sonetti”), which combine the strength of Dante and the melancholy of Petrarch, have much in common with his novel Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis: the oppressive influence of Fate on politics and personal life, hints of suicide, the pleasures and despair of love, and a sense of hostility against the invaders of Italy. There is in these sonnets, however, a new sense of nature, a more ironic and melancholic approach to the political problems of Italy, and a more lyric treatment of autobiographical themes such as love, exile, death of loved ones, and exhortations to achieve glory through poetry.

In the sonnet “Te nudrice alle muse” (“You Nurturer of the Muses”), addressed to Italy, Foscolo complains about the proposed abolition of the Latin language, a proposal made by the legislature of the Cisalpina Republic. This sonnet at first appears to be academic and traditional in structure, theme, and style, reflecting the influence of Alfieri and the neoclassical literary forms of the late eighteenth century. There is, nevertheless, an innovative element in this sonnet: the first use by Foscolo of a technique, later perfected in On Sepulchers, by which the various sections of a poem are related by larger, “historical” logic rather than by conventional syntactic logic. The two quatrains of this sonnet refer to the past, while, without any apparent connective tissue, the tercets ironically address Italy on the inconveniences that would be caused by the abolition of the Latin language. The logic which related quatrains and tercets reflects the overlying concept that there can be no contemporary Italian language and culture without reference to the language and culture of the past.

The sonnet “E tu?” (“And You?”) also contrasts quatrains and tercets: The quatrains have an abba-abba rhyme scheme and are historical in content, while the tercets rhyme aba-cbc and are erotic in theme and mood. The poet starts by using heroic, quasi-Ossianic terminology to recall the medieval fights in Florence; then, in a more lyric fashion, he praises Florence as the dwelling place of his beloved.

“Ne più” (“Never Again”), another sonnet from this collection, speaks of the tragedy of the exiled Foscolo. The poet, though Italian by birth and education, will never be able to forget that he was born of a Greek mother in the luminous and wooded Zacinto, and that his poetry echoes Homer and Theocritus. Foscolo recalls his island and the myths of Venus and Ulysses with a surge of melody in full rhymes. The first statement nostalgically affirms that he will never again set foot on the sacred shore of his native island and, unlike Ulysses, will not be granted burial in his native land. The last tercet, however, brings the consolation that, if not his body, at least his song will return to Zacinto: Poetry will be his means of immortality.

The Foscolo of the “Sonetti” reaches a climax of poetic inspiration when he turns from history and mythology to treat his personal life or naturalistically perceived objects. A vein of melancholy emerges in sonnets such as “Perché taccia il rumor di mia catena” (“To Hush the Clangor of My Chain”), “Forse perché della fatal quiete” (“Perhaps Because of the Fateful Quiet”), and “Un dì, s’io non andrò sempre fuggendo” (“One Day, Should I Not Always Flee”). In these sonnets, for example, there are autobiographical references to his unfortunate love for the Florentine Isabella Roncioni and to the death of his brother John, which reminds him of his exile.

The sonnet “Perhaps Because of the Fateful Quiet” is a dialogue with the evening; it moves in a thickly harmonious structure from the proposal of the theme through a central part to the conclusion. Its merit, as Foscolo himself said, lies in producing, through a broken structure, the same effects that musicians achieve through dissonance and painters achieve through shading. The poem starts with monosyllables and bisyllables, pauses at the fourth line in perfect lyric hendecasyllables until the eighth line, and then begins again the tormented rhythmic pattern. In a fashion reminiscent of Edward Young and Giuseppe Parini, Foscolo writes of the evening that is dear to him because it is the image of death; it keeps the secret paths of his heart, promising rest for his ever-warring spirit.

“To Louise Pallavicini Fallen from a Horse” and “To the Healed Friend”

During the same years in which these sonnets were composed (1800-1802), Foscolo also wrote two odi: “A Luigia Pallavicini caduta da cavallo” (“To Louise Pallavicini Fallen from a Horse”) and “All’amica risanata” (“To the Healed Friend”), for Antonietta Fagnani Arese. These two odes praise the beauty of and virtually deify the two women to whom...

(The entire section is 2169 words.)