On Translating Italian Poet Gabriele D’Annunzio
“O beati quelli che più hanno, perché più potranno dare, più potranno ardere.”
— Gabriele D’Annunzio
Sometimes when we first meet a person who is to change the course of our lives, we don’t even realize it. And yet, this sort of phenomenon — more or less the opposite of love at first sight — though it is perfectly ordinary, in accord with the bulk of human experience, deeply offends our common sense. When it comes to matters of destiny, we have a strong, irrational, and all-too-telling preference for the clarity of fate. We would like such momentous meetings to be neatly written in the stars: for such things to be as obvious as Orion in the night sky. After all, how could we fail to see the very light that’s to lead us?
But long before things like common sense took hold there was a time when man looked up without recognizing the constellations or even the names of the stars. We looked up like a bunch of know-nothings, like children. To be blind one day to what we’ll never forget the next is human. Half of what we do with our eyes is close them. Thus in the wending course of our lives, we so find our bright stars and our spouses-to-be — as well as enemies, mentors, proteges, divorce lawyers, interns, real estate brokers, and even poets who seem worth translating.
I do not remember when I first came across the name, Gabriele D’Annunzio. It was probably sometime in college. Then and for years after what I knew of him is probably what most people with a casual interest in interwar Europe know of him:
He had been a journalist, poet, novelist, soldier, pilot, serial lover, and was known variously as Il Vate (“The Poet”), Il Profeta (“The Prophet”), and, for a period, Il Duce (which needs no translation) in connection with the Italian Regency of Carnaro, also known as the Impresa di Fiume (“Endeavor of Fiume”) – a year after the poetic air raid over Vienna in the final stages of WWI – which ordered the life of a little city in the Austrian Littoral in an area belonging to modern-day Croatia, now going by the unassuming name, “Rijeka.”
In 1919, the Paris Peace Conference (confirming the terms of the Treaty of London signed during WWI) left the city then known as “Fiume” out of the Kingdom of Italy’s control. D’Annunzio and some soldiers patriotically seized it and offered it back. But the Kingdom of Italy, somewhat baffled, refused. So, after some diplomatic back and forth, when it seemed Italy would agree to a modus vivendi that would pave the way to annexation, D’Annunzio became wary, rejected the offer, declared the city’s independence, and coauthored a constitution with Alceste De Ambris (who would later become famous for coauthoring the Fascist Manifesto) reflecting a daring amalgamation of then popular syndicalist, corporativist, and democratic-republican notions.
Music was made the fundament of the whole State. Daily poetry readings were mandatory. There were fireworks virtually every night. The bold and brilliant poet-prophets in its borders were legally accounted supermen. Venereal diseases spread like wildfire. Enemies of the state were dosed with laxatives. But contrary to reason and right, this new state did not last long. In November 1920, the Kingdom of Italy signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, granting Fiume its independence (from D’Annunzio). D’Annunzio thus declared war on Italy and the latter responded on the 24th of December with a full-scale attack wherein after several hours of war the two sides, practically composed of brothers, in the spirit of Christian fraternity, declared a truce for Christmas. Afterward, a pair of Italian dreadnoughts firebombed the city for three days straight until D’Annunzio relented.
The once-Il Duce retired to his palatial estate overlooking Lake Garda and though considered a rival of sorts with the future Il Duce, Mussolini, he stayed on the sidelines. In August 1922, he fell from an open window. Some historians consider this incident an attempted assassination via defenestration, others think he was drunk. (It remains a matter of open and jovial debate.) In any case, Mussolini occasionally siphoned cash his way to make sure he was comfy. According to one oft-quoted source, on the topic of D’Annunzio, Mussolini once remarked, “When you have a rotten tooth you have two possibilities open to you: either you pull the tooth or you fill it with gold.”
In 1924, the gilded D’Annunzio was given the hereditary title of Prince of Montenevoso by King Victor Emmanuel III, and after about a decade of luxuriating over Lake Garda, D’Annunzio looked down and noticed to his horror that Mussolini was about to make a terrible mistake in allying with Hitler. He tried to convince him not to get involved, going so far as to write a satirical pamphlet. Later in 1937, in an effort to convince Mussolini to leave the Axis, he met with him for a talk of sorts at Verona’s train station. A year afterward, he died of a stroke, was given a state funeral, and was buried in a grand tomb of white marble on his estate where he lies till this very day among the remains of those who fought with him at Fiume.
Today, his fatherland honors his memory with two institutions bearing his name: a public research university in Chieti, ranking among U.S. News and World Report’s “Top 1,000 Universities” (at 935) and a small airport southeast of the city of Brescia in Montichiari, which has not scheduled any passenger flights since 2018, but has lately become a hub for e-commerce cargo. In September 2009, D’Annunzio’s grandniece wrote an article for the New York Times honoring the legacy of his love, titled, “The Randy Dandy.” In March 2015, as part of some sort of publicity lark, an Italian police department’s forensics lab extracted his DNA from fluids he had affectionally reserved in a handkerchief, which had been loaned to them by his estate’s historical foundation, the chief of which speculated to a Guardian reporter that in the future people might want to clone him. In a November 2016 essay in The American Interest, Tara Burton compares him to Donald Trump.
This is all to say, that based on what I knew of D’Annunzio, cribbed from Wikipedia pages and mainstream articles, he seemed to have been one of many swashbuckling aesthetes-turned-statesmen who lived and loved in the lurching throes of what’s now abridged in polite circles as ‘the modern turn’. He had an endearingly incoherent-though-romantic political agenda, a titan’s share of trials and travails, wore a monocle, had a mustache, &c. He was yet another fancifully costumed little figure in the patchwork drama of the history of a country I had first been introduced to by way of iced desserts served with miniature tongue depressors prone to splintering. I had never read a single word he had written.
That is, until 2018 or ‘19, when I was lying on my bed contemplating the lunar surface-like irregularities of my ceiling listening to Italian composers on YouTube, and a new piece started. Glancing across the room to my laptop on my desk, I saw the composer was Paolo Tosti. The algorithm was playing some of his canzoni, one after the other. Then “In van preghi” started playing. At first, it seemed par for the course: the sort of usual late-romantic schlock I thoroughly enjoy (and on its own terms).
In van preghi, in vano aneli,
in van mostri il cuore infranto.
Sono forse umidi i cieli
perché noi abbiamo pianto?
But as it ended, it became apparent this was something else:
In un Ade senza dio
dormi quanto puoi profondo.
Tutto è sogno, tutto è oblìo:
l’asfodèlo è il fior del Mondo.
In The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading, Harold Bloom lays out an elaborate notion involving six “revisionary ratios,” the last of which he calls “Apophrades,” appropriating the term Athenians used for those days on which their dearly departed would return to their old haunts. Poets operating at such a stage, Bloom argued, having already achieved aesthetic maturity, open themselves up to the influence of their predecessors and create works eerily akin to theirs, though purer to such a degree that in comparison the latter appear like degenerations (e.g., there are pieces by Bruckner that seem more Wagnerian than Wagner).
As I heard that last quatrain of “In van preghi,” this haunting notion came to mind. The painted flower arrangements of kitsch yielded to the fragrance of something, a bloom — the plant of a garden I’d heard of, but long since given up on. What’s more, while half intoxicated by the fragrance of the verse, I felt a tug. There are times we are drawn out of ourselves, the age of our lives; we are tugged at and as we are that which we are tugged by and we ourselves jointly draw down a bell that rings out, and if we could translate this ringing from the most ancient of languages, it would say, “You are bound. Chance has knit you together, if only for its own amusement. It cannot be undone. Doubt this? But how? Though you are tugged from without, what it is that is tugged is in your heart of hearts.”
I looked into Tosti’s piece and found that I was already familiar with the text’s author — that it was none other than the colorful fellow I had read about years earlier. Immediately, I read a good deal of his poetry and decided to start translating some of it.
On that note, I found the challenge of introducing D’Annunzio’s poetry to an anglophone audience to be something like trying to introduce a foreign friend, who strikes you as impressive and whom you would assume your friends would be more than pleased to know, at a dinner party. At first, you talk him up. You tell people who you know will be present that you are bringing a guest. You tell them he is a great romantic with a storied career. Of course, they listen to you and are very polite.
At last, you arrive at the party with your friend in tow. As far as the other guests are concerned your foreign friend seems a bit strange: he is bald, is wearing a monocle, has an outré little mustache, &c. He does not look like the sort of person who votes Republican. Worse, you hear a whisper. Someone has googled him and is mentioning unsavory rumors about his love life, career failures, and dubious political associates. You are perspiring. You begin telling your friends of the marvelous things this man can say, going so far as to quote him verbatim. But his language is foreign. No matter, you figure: he’s a bright man, an occasional diplomat, he can make his own case. You tap your glass and tell everyone to listen up. You nudge your impressive foreign friend’s shoulder and make a gesture to indicate that he should start making himself clear. But it turns out your impressive friend is dead.
Yes, you realize that you have brought a corpse to a dinner party. You begin to worry you might not get invited back. In a last-ditch attempt to save your own social reputation, you set this corpse on your lap, and using its oily little handlebar mustache like marionette strings, you begin an audacious ventriloquy act. It is ridiculous, you imagine: everyone will know it is you. After all, you are nothing like your friend. In a sense what you are doing is even obscene. And yet, the act comes off. Your fellow guests are clapping. They yell, “another, another!” And then once again, you skillfully articulate your friend’s mustache such that his lips move properly. The host raises his glass and toasts, “His Royal Highness the Prince of Montenevoso!” Afterward, your hostess is even so kind as to ask if you and your charming foreign friend are free Monday next.