The poet, Gabriel d’Annunzio (1863-1938), is a legend, but his notoriety often has less to do with his poetry than with his life.
He was a ‘decadent’ and had affairs with many women, including celebrated actress Eleonora Duse, and took delight in scandalising the defenders of public morals. He also seemed fond of duelling. He was – without doubt – a man of action. His most famous exploit came after the First World War. D’Annunzio had supported the allies during the war and lost an eye in the fighting, but was furious when the city of Fiume was taken from Italy at the Treaty of Paris. He marched with 2000 men on the city and forced the Allied Powers to withdraw. However, Italy didn’t want to support his irregular action, blockaded the city, and demanded his surrender. D’Annunzio’s reaction was to declare the city an independent state with himself as autocratic leader. Incredibly, he held onto Fiume for more than 18 months and declared war on Italy before being booted out. He was disarmed and allowed to walk free.
JG Nichols, in 1988, called his exploits “a sort of elegant hooliganism.” However, in a 1922 speech to the Chicago Literary Club, Rudolph Altrocchi said that “the epic of his record during the war must, we repeat, redeem, in the sight of all, his previous lyric and moral shortcomings and prove besides that they had not fatally undermined his virile stamina.” Original newspaper reports (you can read them in full by clicking on the .pdf button at the link) from the New York Times in 1920 give some idea of the crisis he caused.
His politics were ambiguous, to say the least. The Italian fascist movement cite his ideas as a prime influence, but he often seemed hostile towards the fascists. He’s described (in the Wikipedia article at the link) as Mussolini’s mentor, but the article is also clear that Mussolini greatly feared d’Annunzio’s popularity and regularly paid him stipends not to enter the political arena. He opposed Hitler and all attempts to align Italy with the German Nazi regime. On the other hand, in Fiume, he “popularised the black shirts, the balcony speeches, the promulgation of ambitious charters and the entire choreography of street parades and ceremonies,” and some have accused him (without any hard evidence) of originating the practice of poisoning opponents and prisoners with an excess of castor oil, which Mussolini picked up on and used with relish. Although d’Annunzio never tiptoed around Mussolini, it would be foolish to suggest that his own ideas didn’t have much in common with the fascism that built on their foundations. D'Annunzio died in a large villa provided for him by Mussolini himself.
He was the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to get too close to. He’d double-cross you as soon as look at you and his main principle seemed to be to get what he wanted using any means necessary, as long as the price was right. His ego must have been huge. His first poem, written in school, was dedicated to the King of Italy. From 1923 until his death in 1938, he collected items for his own museum to ensure his commemoration beyond his own lifetime. Just try that one!
What about the poetry? Well, he is one of Italy’s greatest poets although comparatively little attention has been paid to his work in the English-speaking world.
I translated one of his poems recently, quite a ‘free’ interpretation, and I hope to work on several more in the next few months. My translation is below and, for those who read Italian, the original poem is below that. On one level, it’s about the Icarus story. But I think it’s really about poetry, the singular “mad flight” that only the greatest and most innovative artists make, by which even their common destination must be arrived at “alone”. With reference to the poem, it might be useful to know that Daedalus, father of Icarus and maker of the fatal wings, also made a wooden cow for King Minos's wife to hide in. She was in love with a bull (a curse sent by the god, Poseidon) and the contraption enabled her to satiate her lust in relative safety. She then gave birth to the Minotaur, but that's another story:
The Wing in the Sea
Ardi, in the sea’s haze a wing,
cast adrift, shudders like a wreck.
The feathers, severed and scattered,
ripple in the air’s uneven breath.
Ardi, I see wax, the wing of Icarus!
When its creator served the king’s court
he built a hollow, wooden cow –
with far from innocent import.
Who will raise it? Who can reunite
feathers with strength greater than before
and again attempt the mad flight?
Such exalted destiny for Daedalus’s son!
Courage drove him high above normal frontiers
and he dropped to the whirlpools alone.
L'Ala sul Mare
Ardi, un'ala sul mare è solitaria.
Ondeggia come pallido rottame.
E le sue penne, senza più legame,
sparse tremano ad ogni soffio d'aria.
Ardi, veggo la cera! E' l'ala icaria,
quella che il fabro della vacca infame
foggiò quando fu servo nel reame
del re gnòssio per l'opera nefaria.
Chi la raccoglierà? Chi con più forte
lega saprà rigiugnere le penne
sparse per ritentare il folle volo?
Oh del figlio di Dedalo alta sorte!
Lungi dal medio limite si tenne
il prode, e ruinò nei gorghi solo.