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His Homelands

By (March 1, 2010) No Comment


Ugo Foscolo
Oneworld Classics, 2009 (translated by J.G. Nichols)

I spent a year of college far from Italy, and I viewed it as no hardship. I was young and hungry for new experiences, but every so often a sentimentality would come upon me almost by surprise, and one such moment happened in a friend’s apartment crowded with boisterous fellow students after a tumultuous local basketball game. There was much wine and food, much laughter, and at one point I found myself in a small kitchen with several other students, including another exchange student from Italy. He looked at me across a cluttered table and said, “e me, che i tempi e il desio d’onore …”

In amazement, I stared at him. I was not struck dumb, far from it – I responded immediately, “Fan per diversa gente ir fuggitivo…”

And we finished together, “Me ad evocar gli eroi chiamin le Muse/De mortale pensiero animatrici.”

And in the midst of our happiness, we both sighed just a bit. There, in such a cheerful setting, prompted no doubt by the underdog exploits of our basketball team, we had both remembered our Foscolo:

I, whom the times and appetite for honor

Impel through diverse peoples as an exile,

I pray the Muses help me call up heroes,

The Muses who enliven mortal thought.

That’s part of the long poem that forms the centerpiece of Ugo Foscolo’s great work De’ sepolchri, here translated by J.G. Nichols as “Sepulchres,” issued by the British publisher Oneworld Classics (in a handy volume that also includes some sonnets and translations). The book is a pretty, slim little volume sporting a photograph of a pensive statue on the cover, facing-page Italian and English throughout, and some brief notes at the end. It’s an attractive book, and bless Oneworld Classics for choosing Foscolo, who is far too often neglected, even by students of poetry, outside of Italy.

The poet did not write lightly of exile: almost from the moment of his birth in 1778 (under the name Niccolo, which he himself changed to Ugo when he was in his teens) on the island of Zante in Ionia, he was forced to be a wanderer. His mother was Greek and his father a Venetian, and by the time Ugo was 10, he had lived in three countries. In 1792 his mother settled with him in Venice, and the boy continued his studies. Classical literature in general and ancient Greece in particular fascinated him, and politics fired his soul – he believed passionately in the unification of Italy and its freedom from the dominion of Austria.

He looked to Napoleon to bring both of these things about and joined his army to help him do it. So naturally, 1797’s Treaty of Campoformio, in which Napoleon handed Venice over to the Austrians like a cheap wedding present, came as something of a shock. Foscolo had criticized Napoleon publicly in the past – warning him against tyranny, as it happens – but his admonitions had always been fraught with hope as well, and they continued to be. 1800 found him a captain in Napoleon’s army, and from 1804 to 1806 he was in northern France as part of a force amassed for an invasion of England that never happened. The whole time, he kept up a steady stream of literary work, mistresses, and illegitimate children. All three of these created a certain amount of trouble, but only the first created trouble with Napoleon’s government.

And it must be said that if ever a soulless, monomaniacal despotism furnished perfect fodder for poetic ire, it was the Napoleonic Edict of Saint Cloud in 1804, which mandated that all burials be conducted well outside of inhabited areas, and that all graves themselves be plain and unadorned (the whole ‘distant from town’ part was for long-overdue sanitary reasons; the ‘plain and unadorned’ part was just a little bit of Napoleonic priggishness). This was about as grave a misreading of Italian culture as anybody would make until Rocky – in Italy, it’s only the elaborateness of your funeral and tomb that inform you unequivocally that you’ve made something of yourself – and Foscolo (who was at this time finishing the final version of his largely autobiographical political novel The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis) responded in 1806 with De’ sepolchri, at once his most heartfelt and beautiful work of verse.

Heartfelt and beautiful, but fairly inaccessible, at least to most modern audiences. Steeped in classical literature as he was (and although Foscolo’s own professed fascinations were with the ancient Greeks, there is more than a little Horace in his verses), Foscolo reproduces in his songs and cycles a world where every rock is alive, where every road has a long and articulate history, and where every human act is attended by the gods. And virtually all of this is accomplished by a classicist for others classically trained – Aphrodite is never Aphrodite but always “the Cytherean,” Apollo is almost always “Latona’s son,” and so forth. A student coming to all this and knowing not much of Greek mythology will find himself spending a great deal of time thumbing to the back of the book. In that back section, readers will find clarifications like these:

Bellosguardo: Hill to the south-west of Florence, where Foscolo lived during the first half of 1813

‘Your priest, O Thalia’ – the poet Giuseppi Panni (1729-99)

To Leopold Cicognara: translated from the UTET edition of Foscolo. Included in a letter of 1813 to Cicognara, who was a politician and soldier, the poem is directed against the priest and journalist Urbano Lampredi, who made a habit of attacking Foscolo

In addition to identification of such personages as Bacchus, Ceres, ‘false’ Laomedon, a host of Roman gods, the Guelfs and Ghibelliines, Erichthonius and Ilus, two descendants of Electra … enough people, in other words (several of whom never appear by name in the poems that are about them), so that Oneworld Classics should certainly have taken these end notes, broken them up, and sprinkled them directly at the page-bottoms of all the poems that call for them. A few such allusions must not be allowed to mar the clean simplicity of the page – this I understand. But so many of them! Surely you serve your readers better to have the clarifications right at hand.

Not that all of Foscolo demands such diligence. A great many of these poems stand as simply and elegantly as the day he wrote them. His lampooning of literary silliness, for instance, is always direct and funny, and his compassion is always right next to us. In his third sonnet he sings to the night herself:

Is it because you seem the very sister

Of our fatal quiescence you are dear,

O Evening? Whether courted by a cluster

Of summer clouds and gentle zephyrs, or

Whether from snow-filled skies you slowly loose

Long-lasting shadows on the trouble world,

You always come invoked, and softly trace

Those secret ways in which my heart’s enthralled.

You sent my contemplations wandering

Toward eternal nothingness. Time flies,

This bad time flies, and with it bears along

This band of cares, killing me as it dies.

And while I look upon your peace, you bring

Peace to the spirit that within me roars.

What Nichols here translates as “toward eternal nothingness” (“al nulla eterno”) I might rather see as something less wooden (“toward an endless nothing,” or some such, but I am no poet), but the quiet power of the verses, the longing, comes through quite clearly. Likewise the central point of “Sepulchres” itself, tweaking Napoleon for what he does not understand about the grand art of being dead:

Only who leaves no legacy of love

Has little joy in urns; and should he look

Beyond the funeral rites, he sees his spirit

Straying lamenting in the infernal regions

Or sheltering underneath the enormous wings

Of God’s forgiveness: but he leaves his dust

To nettles spreading on untended turf,

Where neither loving woman offering prayers,

Nor solitary traveller hears the sigh

Which nature sends to us out of the tomb.

(I again here quibble with Nichols, who translates “tumulo” as “tomb” in the final line of this segment but then uses “tomb” again in the next line to translate “sepolchri,” when the rhythm – and of course the sense – of the two are not interchangeable)

In 1815 Foscolo’s love affair with that most obstinate of mistresses, Napoleon, was finally at an end, and the poet left Italy for England – not as part of an invasion force, but once again as a solitary exile. Foscolo knew English well (his translation of Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey into Italian had met with great success), and the English cheered him for all those repeated public criticisms of Napoleon. He found lucrative work writing and speaking on Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio, and other Italian writers, but he spent himself out of any profits from that work and died in poverty in 1827. He was buried in Chiswick Cemetery, and you can still see his grave there – but he wasn’t done with wandering even then. Fifty years later, a united Italy called its exile home: in 1871, his remains were moved to Santa Croce in Florence, and you can imagine the tired ghost happily sighing his famous lines:

“Bless you Florence for your gentle

Breezes so full of life, and for your waters

Running from the ridges of the Apennines!”

Happy in such an atmosphere the moon

Clothes with her clearest light your clustered hills

Where grapes are gathering; and from your valleys,

Crowded with houses and with olive-groves,

The incense of a thousand flowers goes up.

Ascanio Tedeschi is a graduate student in the classics, born and raised in Rome. This is his fourth publication for Open Letters.