Sunday, 1 April 2012

Portsmouth Point Poetry: La Quercia Caduta

by George Laver

   Hello again!
   This fortnight, I have selected a short work by the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli (December 31, 1855—April 6, 1912) entitled La Quercia Caduta (meaning “The Fallen Oak” in English), written in 1900. Having recently begun studying Italian myself, I came across this poem while looking for this Sunday’s blog entry and thought that a foreign language work would make an intriguing change. I have provided readers with the poem in its original Italian as well as my own original translation (others do exist!)
   Pascoli was born the fourth of ten children to Caterina Vincenzi Alloccatelli and Ruggero Pascoli, the administrator of an agricultural estate, at San Mauro di Romagna. Despite being born into a wealthy family, he suffered a tragic childhood, enduring the assassination of his father at the age of eleven and, shortly after, the untimely loss of his mother, sister and two brothers. A few years after his father’s death, Pascoli moved to Rimini with six of his brothers and became involved in the Socialist movement. He was briefly imprisoned following a demonstration against the capture of anarchist Giovanni Passannante, who had attempted to assassinate Humbert I.  
He studied at the University of Bologna under his teacher and mentor Giosuè Carducci (the first Italian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906), graduating in 1882 and going on to teach at high schools in Matera and Massa. The magazine Vita Nuova, to which he had previously contributed, published his first poems and, after being called to Rome to work for the Ministry of Public Instruction, he published the first version of Poemi Conviviali. Pascoli travelled between cities although he felt that his roots lay in his peasant origins, and he became increasingly insecure and pessimistic upon the advent of Fascism. Several years after replacing Carducci as professor of Italian Literature at the University of Bologna, Pascoli died of liver cancer, already weakened by alcohol abuse, at the age of 56. He was entombed in the chapel of his house at Castelvecchio.
   La Quercia Caduta is an observation of man’s willful creation of a dichotomy with nature and growing obsession not only with self-aggrandizement but also with cold economy and practicality. This becomes evident in the first lines of the third tercet through the prosaic bluntness of the language used, contrasting with the mournful poeticism with which the work opens and closes. We may interpret some degree of remorse or at least consideration on man’s part in the closing lines of the first two stanzas, yet this proves tragically insufficient in the face of the daily destruction of which the quercia caduta is but a single victim itself.  The final cry of the stranded blackcap is both deeply moving and highly disturbing; we are, in the closing lines, urged to consider the fragility of the natural world and the horrifying plight of its defenseless inhabitants in the face of a human race to whom nature has become little more than a commodity to be divided and shared for the gratification of the individual.

La Quercia Caduta

Dov’era l’ombra, or sé la quercia spande
morta, né più coi turbini tenzona.
La gente dice: Or vedo: era pur grande!
Pendono qua e là dalla corona
i nidietti della primavera.
Dice la gente: Or vedo: era pur buona!
Ognuno loda, ognuno taglia. A sera
ognuno col suo grave fascio va.
Nell’aria, un pianto… d’una capinera
che cerca il nido che non troverà.

English Translation (by George Laver)

Now where shade once was, the oak itself sprawls
In death, vying no longer against the winds.
The people say: I see now; it was high!

And here and there the little nests of the spring now find
Themselves hanging from the severed canopies.
The people say: I see now; it was kind!

Each man praises; each man cuts. At evening
Each man hauls his great load off.
Through mid-air . . . the lament of a blackcap

Who seeks a nest which he shall now never find

Alternative English Translation* (by Robert Bendell)

Where the shade once was, the oak itself now spreads,
A corpse, no longer struggling with the wind.
The people say: I see now, it was tall!

So here and there the little nests of spring depend
Upon the branches, from their fallen heights
The people say: I see now, it was a friend!

They all praise, they all cut. At twilight.
They all come and haul their loads away.
Then, in the air, a blackcap’s cry.

Seeking its nest, lost for today.
* added May 2nd, 2013.

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