Skip to main content

Giovanni Pascoli: Poetry in the Italian Decadent Movement

Giovanni Pascoli

Giovanni Pascoli

Main Aspects of the Decadent Movement

Between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the Decadent cultural movement developed in France in opposition to the principles of naturalism.

These were the main characteristics of this artistic and literary movement:

  • The exaltation of human fantasy over logic and scientific rationality;
  • A nonconformist attitude towards a society excessively linked to the values of positivism and naturalism;
  • The exaltation of beauty according to the principles of aestheticism;
  • The exaltation of individualism according to the concept of Übermensch expressed by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

The decadent movement started in France and rapidly knew popularity throughout Europe. In Italy, it established itself above all in poetry. In particular, one of the most important decadent poets in Italy was Giovanni Pascoli.

Table of Contents

  1. Biography of Giovanni Pascoli
  2. Introduction to Giovanni Pascoli's Poetry
  3. Three Poems That Symbolize the Poet's Mood
    • "Lavandare"
    • "La Mia Sera"
    • "Sogno"
  4. Conclusions

1. Biography of Giovanni Pascoli

Giovanni Pascoli was born on December 31, 1855, into a wealthy family: his father, Ruggero, was the administrator of "La Torre," an estate of farmland of the Princes Torlonia.

In 1857, Ruggero got killed while returning home from the market. The reason and instigator of the murder remained unknown, even if the Pascoli family was suspicious about a criminal who would have wanted to manage the estate of farmland administered by Ruggero. This suspicion is made even more explicit by a famous line from "La Cavalla Storna," a poem centered on the dialogue between Giovanni's mother and the only witness to the crime, the horse carrying Ruggero at the time of the killing:

My mother raised a finger in the great silence:

she said a name... A loud neigh sounded

— English Translation From “La Cavalla Storna” by Giovanni Pascoli

A few years after his father's death, Giovanni will also lose his mother and see other family members die a few years later. The misfortunes that haunted his family led the poet to experience a deep sense of unease and to develop a depression that is accentuated by the political and social events of the end of the century. The poet's mood will also influence much of his poetic production.

The poet died in Bologna in 1912 due to alcohol abuse.

2. Introduction to Giovanni Pascoli's Poetry

Giovanni Pascoli has published several collections of poems, the most known of which is Myricae (1891). The title comes from a verse of the Eclogues by Virgil:

Non omnis arbusta iuvant humilesque myricae

— Virgil's Eclogue IV

The meaning of the verse wanted to symbolically state that not everyone likes to read about frivolous and everyday topics. "Myricae" is the Latin word for "tamarisk," a plant that Virgil describes as simple and low. With this title, Pascoli announces a kind of poetry that is apparently simple and close to everyday life but which is actually rich in content and concepts expressed, often employing analogies and other rhetorical figures.

Other collections of poems worthy of mention are:

  • Canti di Castelvecchio (1903)
  • Primi Poemetti (1897)
  • Poemi Conviviali (1904)

3. Three Poems That Symbolize the Poet's Mood

Below is the analysis of some of the most famous poems by Giovanni Pascoli, which symbolically reflect his mood following the misfortunes he faced in his life, which started from the loss of his father and his mother and the breakup of his family. Since the original poems are in Italian, I paraphrased their stanzas in English, analyzing them individually.

"Lavandare"

Appeared in: Myricae

Year Published: 1891

Description: "Lavandare," which means "Washerwomen," is one of the most known poems from Myricae. It is a madrigal made of two triplets and a quatrain. A strong sense of abandonment predominates in the poem, symbolically representing what the poet felt following the killing of his father and the breakup of his family. The rural setting, instead, recalls the simplicity of rural life, and so, the meaning of the title "Myricae."

Scroll to Continue
A Rural Setting

A Rural Setting

In the half-gray and half black-field, there is a plow without oxen, which seems to have been forgotten in the middle of the fog.

— Paraphrase of the first stanza in English

The poem begins with the description of a plow left in the middle of a field. The stanza symbolically introduces the sense of abandonment felt by the poet, represented by the plow. The field is partially plowed, and this image is expressed by describing the rural setting as half-gray and half-black. The use of dark colors highlights, even more, the poet's state of mind.

And as the water flows from the canal, you can hear the laundresses rinsing the laundry in the water, singing long singsongs.

— Paraphrase of the second stanza in English

If the first stanza, with the image of the abandoned plow, manages to convey in a few verses a sense of desolation with which one would instinctively associate silence, in the second stanza, auditory elements prevail. In fact, the verses describe the noise of the clothes washed by the river by the washerwomen, who at the same time sing sad singsongs. The sadness of the singing of the washerwomen contributes to the representation of the poet's mood.

The wind blows, the leaves fall like snow, and you still haven't come home. How was I when you left? I was left alone, like the plow in the middle of the fallow.

— Paraphrase of the third stanza in English

Two possible interpretations of the content of this stanza are valid:

  • It describes what the washerwomen sing about: a woman suddenly abandoned by her lover;
  • It describes the direct experience of one of the washerwomen, abandoned by her lover.

The description is emphasized by the presence of a similitude, which compares the abandoned woman to the forgotten plow in the middle of the fields described in the first verse.

"La Mia Sera"

Appeared in: Canti di Castelvecchio

Year Published: 1903

Description: "La Mia Sera," which means "My Evening," describes the contrast between a stormy day and a clear evening. This description recalls, by analogy, the poet's state of mind: restless but able to calm down in the evening, in which Pascoli recalls a childhood memory: that of his mother who sang lullabies to him in the cradle.

Sunset in the Countryside

Sunset in the Countryside

The day was filled with lightning, but now the silent stars will come out. You can hear a short croaking of frogs in the fields. The poplar leaves are gently shaking in a light wind. What a lightning, what a thunder, during the day! What a peace in the evening!

— Paraphrase of the first stanza in English

The first stanza describes the calm of the evening after a day of storm. The silent stars contrast with the lightning and thunder of the day, while the only sounds you hear are those of the light wind and the softly croaking frogs. In the original poem, the verse of the frogs is described with an onomatopoeia: "gre gre."

The stars must appear in the sky so tender and alive. There, near the happy frogs, a stream sobs monotonously. Of all that gloomy tumult, of all that harsh storm, all that remains is a sweet sob in the humid evening.

— Paraphrase of the second stanza in English

The second stanza remarks on the difference between a stormy day and the tranquility of the evening. Other auditory elements are introduced: the noise of the flowing stream and the faint sob of a storm that has almost entirely ended. Both sounds are relaxing and contribute to the description of the peace of the evening.

That endless storm ended up in a singing stream. Of the brittle lightning, nothing remains but purple and gold clouds. O weary pain, rest! The blackest cloud during the day is the one I see most pink in the evening.

— Paraphrase of the third stanza in English

The third stanza highlights what happens after the thunderstorm ends: the lightning is gone, and the clouds are no longer black but purple and gold. The change in weather symbolically represents the mood of the poet: here, the expression "O weary pain, rest!" finds a meaning, as in the evening, the poet regains that serenity that he seems to have lost during the day.

What flights of swallows around! What cries in the clear air! The poor day's hunger makes the garrulous supper longer. Of the small portion, the chicks did not have it whole, and neither did I. And what flights, what screams, my clear evening!

— Paraphrase of the fourth stanza in English

The fourth stanza focuses on the flight of the swallows and their verses. Two metonymies can be identified in the stanza:

  • The hunger attributed to the day is actually that suffered by the birds, which will eat more in the evening;
  • Dinner is described as "garrulous," while this adjective refers to birds.

The poet later suggests that even he is not always able to get plenty of food for the day. It must be remembered that following the death of the father, the mother, and many other members of the Pascoli family, the same has progressively lost its economic and social status, so much so that it was forced to abandon the estate administered by the poet's father.

The verse ends with a further exaltation of the evening, the flights, and the cries the swallows emitted.

Don… Don… And they tell me, Sleep! They sing to me, Sleep! They whisper to me, Sleep! These voices of blue darkness seem to be cradle songs, which make me go back to how it was... At the end of the evening I heard my mother, then nothing.

— Paraphrase of the fifth stanza in English

The fifth stanza explains why the poet's mood finds serenity in the evening: in the evening, the poet recalls when he was a child, and her mother sang lullabies to him, hearing the bells ringing in the background.

"Sogno"

Appeared in: Myricae

Year Published: 1891

Description: "Sogno" tells of a dream of the poet: he was a child and was returning home after a long day out: his father was waiting for him, while his mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner for him. A poem that describes a happy moment, but from which the sadness of reality shines through: the father is described as "the dead." In the dream, Pascoli doesn't even see his mother in time, as she is in the kitchen.

For a moment I was in my village, in my home. Nothing had changed. I came back tired, like from a trip. Tired, I had returned to my father, to the dead.

I felt a great joy, a great pain, a sweetness and a silent anguish.

"Mom?" "He's there, he's warming up some dinner for you."

Poor mom! I haven't even seen her.

— Paraphrase of the poem in English

4. Conclusions

The frequent representations of the elements of nature, the peasant world, and everyday life characterize Pascoli's poetry. A representation which, however, is not limited to a mere description of natural phenomena or of events concerning daily life or childhood but which, on the contrary, is full of various symbolic meanings.

The key to better understanding Pascoli's poetry, even in the most profound symbolic meanings, consists of knowing the mourning and difficulties that characterized the poet's life and influenced his literary production.

References

  1. Hollingdale, R. J. (2001). Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Gioanola, E. (2000). Giovanni Pascoli: Sentimenti Filiali di un Parricida. Italy: Jaca Book.
  3. Distante, C. (1968). Giovanni Pascoli: poeta inquieto tra '800 e '900. Italy: L. S. Olschki.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2023 Alessio Ganci

Related Articles