Giovanni Pascoli
Convivial Poems

Translated by
Elena Borelli & James Ackhurst

Reading in Translation

London Grip

Gradiva

Annali d’Italianistica

Alexandros (video clip, August 1, 2023)


Reading in Translation (February 27, 2023)

A foundational figure in the history of modern Italian poetry, Giovanni Pascoli (1855–1912) is known for his unsettling modern mythography that stages the frictions between the classical tradition and the modern world. Translations of his verses into English have increased in number in the last decade and a half, in part after Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney paid homage to the Italian poet who always defied straightforward classifications. After Heaney translated some of Pascoli’s poems in 2009 (some issued posthumously in 2013), several new translations were published in a relatively short succession. In 2010, Richard Jackson, Deborah Brown, and Susan Thomas published Last Voyage: Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli; in 2017, Alessandro Baruffi published The Poems of Giovanni Pascoli; in 2019 Taije Silverman and Marina della Putta Johnston brought out Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli; and in the same year, Geoffrey Brock translated Last Dream. Joining this group of Pascoli’s translators, Elena Borelli and James Ackhurst render into English the author’s 1904 collection Convivial Poems, in an elegant dual-language edition out from Italica Press in 2022. 

Like their predecessors, Borelli and Ackhurst are faced with the daunting assignment of translating Pascoli’s somewhat paradoxical modernist classicism, written in a literary language that is both simple and sophisticated, archaicizing, and yet fresh and innovative. They succeed admirably in their task, adopting a thoughtful translation strategy that successfully delivers Pascoli’s poetic idiom in all its musical crispness and evocative force. The translation is the result of a well-matched duo: Ackhurst is a poet and translator, while Borelli is a scholar of modern and contemporary Italian literature, in particular of Pascoli and Gabriele D’Annunzio, authors associated with the fin de siècle movement of Decadentism. Borelli explains in her insightful introduction — part translator’s note, part scholarly assessment — how the translators in reality opted to implement a variety of strategies. Pascoli flaunts his deep and extensive knowledge of classical literature, whose genres, styles, and meters he reproduces with erudite gusto.

The collection of poems therefore presents the translators with the great rhythmical variety of different meters found in ancient Greek poetry; a heterogeneous style that imitates alternatively Homer, Hesiod, and Sappho; the insistently paratactic syntax of ancient epic poems; the semantic and onomatopoetic richness of Pascoli’s verses; and the etymological puns, archaic spellings, and the highly specialized jargon and technical terminology of his lexicon. Borelli and Ackhurst’s translation carefully avoids those semantic and syntactical peculiarities that could impede a smooth reading experience for a modern audience but without sacrificing the collection’s clearly recognizable classical genealogy. Homeric epithets, quotes, and formulaic expressions are preserved within metric contexts that remain highly readable. Meter is adapted to specific circumstances. The translators sometimes decide to render Pascoli’s verses with a rhyme scheme, sometimes with a prose-like flow, and occasionally preserve the original’s metric structure of hendecasyllables.

The overall result of the translators’ considerate choices and attention to detail is an extremely enjoyable rendering of Pascoli’s verse, an elegantly sophisticated and balanced translation that is philologically sensible and yet attentive to the needs of contemporary Anglophone readers, a translation that renders justice to one of the most exciting works of modern Italian poetry. In addition, readers are guided with a welcome apparatus of support. Borelli and Ackhurst provide a glossary of terms that readers will undoubtedly find useful. Particularly felicitous is the addition of footnotes, always appropriately measured and never intrusive, wherever an explanatory annotation of the text is required. 

For all its homage to classical antiquity, Pascoli’s collection reads like an extraordinarily innovative text. Far from presenting a stale imitation of ancient lore, the Convivial Poems engage with tradition to represent a modern sense of tragedy, attempting to offer a secular palliative to the profound social and cultural transformations of modernity and the ravaging rise of industrial capitalism. Pascoli’s ancient heroes are often enigmatic figures dwelling on the threshold of two worlds, always caught in some sort of mysterious metamorphosis that propels them into an unknown future. Their inner turmoil and intimate aspirations, described by Borelli’s previous scholarship in the context of an ethics of desire, reflect and refract the social anxieties of Pascoli’s own time. One suspects that precisely the historical significance of Pascoli’s modern mythography is what encouraged Borelli and Ackhurst to embark upon their translation odyssey in the first place. With almost radiophonic precision, they capture and amplify Pascoli’s voice, a voice that still speaks to readers who ponder our own current paradigm shifts. 

Pascoli’s engagement with the Greek classics is a spirited dialogue in which different approaches are discernible. His poems either explore less famous or peripheral episodes from mythological lore, integrate well-known tales with his own story, or introduce alternative endings to familiar myths. In “The Blind Man of Chios,” a bard resembling Homer reveals to a maiden, reminiscent of Nausicaa, the story of how he acquired both his poetic prowess and his blindness when he unknowingly challenged a goddess. Divine gift and curse are accepted with great modesty as he offers to sing, not with the voice of divine inspiration, but simply with the best of his human abilities. Similarly, in “The Lyre of Achilles,” the Homeric hero spends the final night before his death playing the instrument, the last distraction before accepting his fate. Another Trojan hero is Anticlos, a warrior briefly mentioned in The Odyssey, hiding in the wooden horse with the other Greek soldiers. Helen, suspecting foul play, calls out their names, imitating the voices of the enemies’ wives. No one falls for the trick, except Anticlos, who succumbs to his yearning for home and his wife.

The psychological complexity of these fictional characters is embodied by Pascoli’s Odysseus who declares to his comrades, “Compagni, come il nostro mare io sono, / ch’è bianco all’orlo, ma cilestro in fondo,” beautifully rendered “Friends, you see, I am like our sea / white on the edge, but blue deep down” (108–109). In terms of style, these two verses are a good example of the translators’ dexterity: the inserted direct address “you see” illustrates how Borelli and Ackhurst draw out from the original verse a modulation in linguistic register that is clearly present but implicit in Pascoli’s phrasing and syntax. The final double alliteration of the two occlusives suggests the bubbling of rough sea waters, compensating here for Pascoli’s interspersed onomatopoeia in the original.  

Pascoli’s Odysseus is certainly worth following in his final and mostly inward voyage. The author imagines the Homeric hero grown dissatisfied with his sedentary life in Ithaca in “The Last Journey,” a longer poem contained in Convivial Poems. Odysseus leaves hearth and home, in the hope to relive his youthful adventures, only to be disappointed by what he discovers. The Sirens remain silent, Circe is absent, and Polyphemus never existed. Was Odysseus’ adventurous voyage the product of a fanciful imagination, the result of vacuous braggadocio, or a tale of crafty inventions? The text makes a nod to a long tradition of retellings, sequels to the Trojan war hero’s checkered homecoming. But differently from Dante’s ambivalent moralizing of Ulysses’ folle volo or Lord Alfred Tennyson’s more autobiographical wanderlust, Pascoli’s unorthodox version of the Homeric figure is characterized by a persistent melancholy and a profound identity crisis. Odysseus asks the mute Sirens, to whom he supposedly returns, “Solo mi resta un attimo. Vi prego! Ditemi almeno chi sono io! Chi ero!” / “I have but one instant! I beg you! Tell me at least who I am, who I was!” (144–145). Pascoli endows Odysseus with a disconcerting longing, a nostalgia without nóstos, a search for meaning, knowledge, and identity that ends with Odysseus’ death on the shores of the island of spurned Calypso the concealer, who now withholds secrets forever.     

Borelli and Ackhurst’s translation restores the knotty and convulsive energy that animates Pascoli’s figures, less epic heroes and more fragile human beings, who stare into the abyss of modern life with bubbling restlessness, existential angst, and occasionally serene resignation. Their effective rendition, a delight of interpretive acumen and stylistic grace, delivers into English an essential literary work that will appeal to anyone interested in Pascoli, Italian literature, and modern poetry. 

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London Grip (2023)

‘Where is the present of a language? How could we give expression to thought, especially meaningful thought, for even one generation, if we did not turn back while moving forward? Ancient literature!…What literature is not ancient, if what we call new continues to stir up ancient life.’  “A Poet of Dead Language” – 1898 commemorative speech of Giovanni Pascoli.

In Pascoli’s Convivial Poems we find a searching exploration of the ancient past and the present. The book’s back cover states that like Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses, Convivial Poems revisits the classical world to draw new symbols for the modern condition. This is a large claim and I unequivocally agree. Pascoli was not only a poet but a renowned teacher of the classics. The collection is a history of antiquity that includes the ancient Greek poets (Sappho and Homer) then continues towards Alexander the Great, the Roman empire and the birth of Christ: with major players like Ulysees mingling with lesser known characters.

Pascoli has the ability to make the ancient world live intensely in the modern with a profundity only matched, though very differently, by the great Alexandrian poet C.P.Cafavy. Convivial Poems is probably Pascoli’s greatest achievement and possesses a wonderful narrative drive. They are seventeen long poems containing many characters but principally poets, beggars and old rejuvenated adventurers where poetry is viewed as a blessing and a curse.

Amongst my favourite poems of the group are: “The Sleep of Odysseus” (Odysseus falls asleep on his boat as he leaves his homeland that appears to fade as in a dream); “The Poet of the Helotes” (Hesiod is rebuked by an old slave –‘Then you are a wandering poet, and you turn falsehood into truth, but you can’t sing the truth’); “The Last Journey” (Odysseus is now a bored old man living in Ithaca. He sets sail again, with his aged crew, to undertake the journey of his youth and replay his adventures yet it’s not the same as ‘old age is a calmer sea’); and “The Good Tidings” (The end of paganism and the beginnings of Christianity viewed with ironic uncertainty). And yet all seventeen are wonderful achievements that have been magnificently translated by Elena Borelli and James Ackhurst.

If I have one specially favourite poem then it is probably “The Last Journey” and though it’s impossible, to extract lines from such integral journey poetry like this, I’ve chosen twenty seven lines of Pascoli from the section entitled “The Truth,”

The old man saw the Sirens
open up their heavy eyelids
and stare at the new sun
or at him on his black ship.
And on the deadly calm of the sea,
he raised his voice, loud and steady:
“I’m the one who returns to know!
I have seen much, as you see me now.
But everything I looked on in the world
looked back and asked: “Who am I?”
That secret force, silent and gentle,
pushed the ship on, ever forward.
the old man saw a great pile of human
bones and wrinkled skins wrapped about
near the two Sirens, their motionless bodies
standing out on the shore like rocks in the sea.
“I see that these old bones of mine
will increase that heap. Yet speak to me, Sirens!
Tell me one truth, only one truth
before I die, so that I can say I’ve lived.”
But the secret force was inexorably
pushing the ship forward, faster and faster.
Already the high brows of the Sirens
rose over the ship, their gaze fixed.
“I have but one instant! I beg you!
Tell me at least who I am, who I was!”
But the ship broke against the rocks in the sea.

Pascoli is a complex yet very approachable poet. You could first try Seamus Heaney’s translation of “The Kite”, one of Pascoli’s most famous and loved poems;… throw yourself into the haunting imagery of Convivial Poems.

— Alan Price

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Gradiva 64.1 (2023): 244–45

Though Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) was important in bridging the literary sensibilities between the 19th and 20th centuries, his work is not well known to the English reading public. Until recently, Pascoli has been so ignored outside of Italy that Egidio Lunardi and Robert Nugent’s philologically sound and highly competent two-volume dual-language translation of the Poemi conviviali (Convivial Poems, Lake Erie College Press, 1979-1981) seems to have faded into obscurity. I hope that Borelli and Ackhurst’s 2022 dual-language version finally brings these poems firmly into the light.

Both versions, the Lunardi-Nugent and the Borelli-Ackhurst, maintain the syllabic basis of the original. Lunardi and Nugent’s version is highly readable, but since the translators preserve a more literal sense of the poems, reflecting the archaic style of Pascoli, it is not quite as lyrical and rhythmic as that of Borelli and Ackhurst, whose English equivalents flow smoothly and are immensely theatrical and entertaining, as promised in Borelli’s introduction where she mentions their aim “at increasing the reading enjoyment of these beautiful poems” (xiv).

In the Convivial Poems Pascoli attempted to modernize the past — to reestablish our relationship with the classics — as a counter-measure to Positivism. Thus, he supersedes the “folle volo” of Dante’s Ulysses and the heroic struggle of adventure with a return to Odysseus’ past, while reattaching contemporary values to the poems. In his essay, La mia scuola di grammatica, Pascoli tells us that the classics were transcendent; they were not separate from our biblical teachings and morality but a form of “Testamento giapetico” for our civilization — a syncretic Bible in their own right that can be useful in the here and now.

Borelli and Ackhurst’s glossary is a mere eight pages, but it proves invaluable in tracking the characters and literary allusions that run from roughly 700 BCE to the Christian age. However, because of Pascoli’s technical exactness, including more footnotes might have benefited the reader. In fact, a well-placed annotation might help readers understand certain strategies that the translators employed. Thus, a reader would understand the prioritization of the aesthetic qualities of Pascoli’s verses, for the translators’ dedication to meter and cadence is exemplary, as seen in the Sapphic ode in Solon, where for “bello, ma bello come / sole che muore,” we read “a beautiful man, yes, like a / beautiful sunset” (10- 11). At the expense of syllabic excellence, we lose the melancholic, crepuscular “like a dying sun,” for a more oddly cheerful English equivalent. An annotation might have also proved useful, for instance, where the translation(s) of the word “cetra” is rendered as “zither,” “lyre,” “harp,” and “lute” interchangeably, and without explanation.

The highlights of this book are too numerous to be listed, so I will give a brief recount. In her introduction, Borelli claims that Alexandros is an “exquisite poem” (xii), and it remains thus in English, as well. The translators artfully represent the cinematic side of Pascoli in Poems of Ate; they provide an amazing syncopation of rhythms, enjambments, and near-rhymes in Poems of Psyche; and they offer intricate faithfulness to poetic style in Solon and Tiberius. In Anticlos, their linguistic solutions proved intriguing, and they employed assonance to great effect in Birds of Memnon. Readers will find their excellent Gog and Magog as haunting and vivid as the original. This is not to speak of their sublime rendering of Pascoli’s surprisingly ironic, even modern, sensibility found in The Sleep of Odysseus and The Last Journey.

On balance, the translations are excellent. However, I would be remiss as a reviewer were I to forgo pointing out some examples of mistranslation. For instance, on page 19, “eburnea” is translated as “ivory,” when it means “black.” On page 21, “giogo” is translated as “hill” when, indeed, it is the “crossbar” that holds the strings at the head of the “cetra” in question. On p. 151, “orecchiuto tripode” becomes an “ear-shaped tripod” but the tripod itself is not ear-shaped; instead, its ringed handles inspire that adjective. On page 163, we see “E lei guardava coi mille occhi il Cielo” translated as “She’d watch the Sky with her thousand eyes,” when, in fact, the subject is the Sky watching “her”; “lei,” in this case, is an oblique pronoun and, if Earth (She) had been the subject, Pascoli would have used “ella.” Another example occurs on page 235: the use of “questo” and “quello” (“the latter” and “the former”) is inverted in the English and leads to a misnumbering of petals and to a misattribution of the “egli” and “ella” of the allegorical flowers. These may seem like minor things — and in such an extensive, challenging endeavor of translation, they are — but Pascoli’s precision in his portrayal of the world was extreme and needs to be respected, regardless of one’s adaptation strategy.

However, as I have already made clear, I firmly extoll the work of Borelli and Ackhurst and feel that it will be responsible for a surge in the study of Pascoli among English speakers. Their translation has provided the world with entertaining reading and solid insights, both of which will lead to new interpretations and scholarly discussions of the original. What more could two translators ask for?

— Gregory Pell

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Annali d’Italianistica 41 (2023): 636–38

The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney first encountered Giovanni Pascoli’s poetry when in Urbino to receive a laurea Honoris causa in 2001. So taken was he by the landscapes and evocations of child-wood memories that, in 2009, he translated — though Heaney preferred the descriptors imitated, paraphrased, and transfused — the sixth section of Myricae, the sixteen-poem sequence L’ultima passeggiata, published posthumously as The Last Walk (2013), and the poemetto “L’aquilone” (“The Kite”). Heaney was hardly alone in his late-found discovery of Pascoli. The Romagnol poet is enjoying a new appreciation in the Anglosphere as evinced by five other post-2010 translations: Last Voyage: Selected Poems, transl. Deborah Brown, Richard Jackson, and Susan Thomas (2010); The Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, transl. Alessandro Baruffi (2017); The Last Walk of Giovanni Pascoli, transl. Danielle Hope (2018); Last Dream, transl. Geoffrey Brock (2019); and Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, transl. Taije Silverman and Marina Della Putta Johnston (2019).

The preference in these editions is for Pascoli’s elegiac and bucolic poems from Myricae and Canti di Castelvecchio even though both 1904, annus mirabilis in Pascoli’s creative production, and epigraphical variants of Virgil’s verse non omnes arbusta iuvant humilesque myricae conjoin the three collections. The one exception to this indifference to Pascoli’s Classical-Christian Italian Bookshelf 637 myth cycle is Last Voyage: Selected Poems, which includes translations of “Solon,” “Il sonno di Odisseo,” “L’etèra” (the second poem in “Poemi di Ate”), and the 24-poem sequence “L’ultimo viaggio.” Nevertheless, these various publications, despite their many merits, take an anthological approach that divorces the single compositions from their poetic context.

Anthologies are literary museums: the works in the collection stand on their own but are decontextualized from their referential frames. Elena Borelli and James Ackhurst recognize this misrepresentation and rectify the need for an integral dual-language volume. Their source text appears to be the 1905 Zanichelli edition, which is reliable except for the typographical error in part XVII of “Gog e Magog” where “Assum” should be “Assur” (284–85).

Pascoli came to the title through the felicitous and fortuitous linguistic convergence of carmina convivalia, which he had studied in the early 1890s, and the literary journal Il Convito, in which he had published three poems and to whose editor, Adolfo De Bosis, he then dedicated Poemi Conviviali. Whereas classical and biblical literature declaratively inspire the form and content of the collection, Giacomo Leopardi and Giambattista Vico almost surreptitiously inform the poetic anthropology of these compositions. They guide Pascoli’s vision of classical genealogy to inspire an innovative mythography that shrouds antiquity in a pall of pessimism to speak to the drama and to the crises of the modern world.

Poemi Conviviali’s current critical stature owes much to the authoritative re-evaluations of the late Mario Pazzaglia and Giuseppe Nava. Pazzaglia noted that “i Conviviali sono […] un momento essenziale della poesia pascoliana […] si assiste ad una piena rivalutazione di essi, che qualcuno giunge a considerare la più alta prova del poeta” (Giovanni Pascoli, Poemi e canzoni, ed. Mario Pazzaglia, Roma: Salerno Editrice, 2003, 9). Nava went even further than Pazzaglia by calling the collection: “il capolavoro della poesia pascoliana e una delle più alte espressioni della cultura letteraria di fine Ottocento” (Giovanni Pascoli, Poemi Conviviali, ed. Giuseppe Nava, Torino: Einaudi, 2008, xxx).

Borelli’s concise, erudite, and engaging introduction (ix–xv) provides a similar assessment while also articulating the translators’ methodology. The introduction eschews any biographical references as though the target audience were initiated readers, yet this handsome volume should appeal to the uninitiated as well.

Poemi Conviviali presents numerous challenges to translators because Pascoli’s poetic idiom has an artificial patina and incorporates loan words and classical metric forms while still evoking a sense of novelty and innovation. Borelli and Ackhurst refute archaisms and convoluted sentence structure in favor of modern terminology and standard syntax to enhance the text’s accessibility. They adopt a flexible approach to meter: for example, utilizing a fixed rhyme scheme in “The Birds of Memnon” and “Gog and Magog” and imbuing “Anticlos” with a prose rhythm. In several poems, Borelli explains, they created “lines of four beats, which provide the English reader with the same familiar rhythm that the hendecasyllable presents to the Italian ear” (xv). At times, they replicate the meter (e.g., the Sapphic stanzas in “Solon” and the hendecasyllables in “Alexandros”) but replace the rhyme scheme with slant rhymes and alliteration.

Simplifying Pascoli’s complicated syntax and favoring concision facilitates readability. For example, in the closing couplet of “Solon” (“Questo era il canto della Morte; e il vecchio / Solon qui disse: ‘Ch’io l’impari, e muoia”), they eliminate the enjambment and create two short declarative sentences: “This was the song of Death. / He said: ‘I will learn it and die.” (13). Understated transparent vocabulary replaces archaisms and punctilious language to similar effect in “Alexandros”: “Pezetèri”–“soldiers,” “mistofori di Caria”—“mercenaries and pikemen,” “fiume Oceano” — “stream,” “Figlio d’Amynta” — “Philip, my sire” (260–63). Perhaps to avoid a visual shout, in “The Courtesan” (“L’etèra”) the funerary epigram (177) downgrades the font to lower-case letters.

Curiously, the volume does not acknowledge the translation that first brought Anglophones to the banquet: Egidio Lunardi and Robert Nugent’s Convivial Poems: Text and Translation (1979). Lunardi and Nugent employed a quasi- verbum pro verbo translation. To use Lawrence Venuti’s terminology (The Translator’s Invisibility, New York: Routledge, 1995), Lunardi and Nugent favored a foreignization strategy to signal textual differences. In stark contrast, Borelli and Ackhurst tend toward a domestication strategy to produce poetry that conforms to contemporary culture and reads as though there were no source text. Lunardi and Nugent’s text emphasized the referential qualities of Pascoli’s language; Borelli and Ackhurst’s text modernizes and post-modernizes Pascoli’s poetics. Each interpretation informs and enriches the other.

Convivial Poems imbues vibrancy and life into Pascoli’s verse through a refreshing diction that speaks to the present. Judicious notes and a detailed glossary (305–13) clarify and elucidate specific textual references, but the beauty and prescience of this translation lies in its subtle and eloquent pliancy. Convivial Poems is a sumptuous banquet. Welcome and drink.

— Piero Garofalo, University of New Hampshire

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