Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Italy, Whitman in
Author:
Sanfilip, Thomas
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The first translation of Whitman into Italian appeared in 1887 by Luigi Gamberale. This small selection contained forty-eight poems and was published under the title Canti Scelti. In 1890 a new edition was published with the addition of seventy-one more poems. In 1907 a complete translation was completed by Gamberale and published as Foglie d'erba e Prose. In 1950 a complete edition of Leaves of Grass—which also included Specimen Days, the 1855 Preface, and "A Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads" translated by Enzo Giachino and dedicated to Cesare Pavese—was published by Guilia Einuadi of Turin. This edition is considered the most complete in any foreign language edition to date.

In 1879 the first critical appraisal of Whitman was published by the Italian critic Enrico Nencioni in the newspaper Il Fanfulla della Domenica, followed by three more articles written in 1881, 1883, and 1884. In his 1881 article he praised Whitman as being impressive even in his faults, a needed antidote to the narrow scope of the boudoir literature of the time. Nencioni's article caught the attention of the Italian poet Giosuè Carducci, who became interested in Whitman's work. He considered Whitman on equal footing with Homer, Shakespeare, and Dante, and described him enthusiastically as "immediate and original" (qtd. in Miller 29). Nencioni's 1883 article caught the interest of Gabriele D'Annunzio, who was said to have drawn inspiration from Leaves of Grass for his poetic work Laus Vitae. In a final essay on Whitman published in 1891, Nencioni believed Whitman had the largest grasp of humanitarianism and democracy out of all previous advocates such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Burns, Friedrich von Schiller, Guiseppe Mazzini, and others. For him, Whitman was in the same class with Thomas Carlyle, Jules Michelet, and Victor Hugo as one of the four greatest poetical imaginations of the time.

The earliest and most astute critical evaluation of Whitman's poetic technique was by Pasquale Jannaccone, a scholar familiar with primitive forms of Greek and Latin poetry. In 1898 he published a study of Whitman's poetic technique under the title La Poesia di Walt Whitman e L'Evoluzione della Forme Ritmiche. Jannaccone saw Whitman's poetry more as a revival of older, more ancient poetic forms than as the evolution of any new poetic techniques. In his view these archaic poetic forms provided a rationale and aesthetic framework for the meter of his language and his organic rhythms, along with what he considered Whitman's reluctance to be limited by conventional poetic forms.

Giovanni Papini, the critic and essayist, claimed his discovery of Whitman was one of the most important of his early years. He felt Whitman was a precursor to Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, and had the same Dionysiac passion as Friedrich Nietzsche. He believed Whitman's work had the power to purge Italians of their dilettantism and return them again to some degree of primality whereby they would be able to rediscover the roots of real poetry reborn again from an earlier "barbarism" (Papini).

Cesare Pavese, the Italian novelist, published in 1933 what is still considered in Italy the most perceptive evaluation of Whitman written by an Italian. He believed that by sheer force of will Whitman had clarified and liberated the accepted poetic form of his time in order to realize his self-assumed mission to make Leaves of Grass the definitive expression of America. Although he thought Whitman unsuccessful in this attempt, he believed the poet had successfully created a "poetry of the discovery of a world new in history and of the singing of it" (Pavese 193), a unique poetry made out of deliberate design. In addition, he thought Whitman's originality had been minimized by commentators reducing the significance of Leaves of Grass to the "Calamus" poems. He contended this misguided assessment tended to negate Whitman's mature accomplishment as a poet evident in the songs of the first and second editions of the work. Whitman's artistic intentions, he contends, can be argued to have been "worked consciously and with a certain critical sense" (193).

According to Eugenio Montale, there has been no direct influence of Whitman on twentieth-century Italian poetry other than on Dino Campana and his Canti Orfici, published in 1914. Considered the most important poetic work produced this century in Italy, it showed Whitman's influence in both language and persona. Campana attributed great significance to Whitman's concept of freedom and liberation, attaching at the end of Canti Orfici probably the first and only quotation from Leaves of Grass appended to a poetic work by an Italian poet. If there has been any influence by Whitman on Italian poetry since then, Montale asserts, it has been under the surface and adjusted to the nature of Italian language and tradition, contributing "not a free verse, but a more liberated verse" (Montale 188).

With the rise in fascism in Italy, critical writing on Whitman declined until after the end of World War II. A number of prominent Italian critics then turned their attention to analyzing him. Mario Paz compared him to Proust, seeing his poetry as born out of an infantile psyche, but having more basic freshness and purity. Carlo Bo described Leaves of Grass as a single discourse alive to the whole panoply of human emotions. Glauco Cambon contends Whitman was the major player in creating a new tradition of American poetry. He disagrees with psycho-sexual interpretations of Whitman, finding them "a little too decadent," asserting instead that his authentic self-discovery was a recognition of Adamic innocence and "the paradise of the liberated senses" (qtd. in Miller 30).

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom, eds. Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Campana, Dino. Orphic Songs and Other Poems. Trans. Luigi Bonaffini. New York: Lang, 1991.

Jannaccone, Pasquale. Walt Whitman's Poetry and the Evolution of Rhythmic Forms and Walt Whitman's Thought and Art. Trans. Peter Mitilineos. Washington, D.C.: NCR Microcard Editions, 1973.

McCain, Rea. "Walt Whitman in Italy." Italica 20 (1943): 4–16.

Miller, James E., Jr. "Whitman in Italy." Walt Whitman Review 5 (1959): 28–30.

Montale, Eugenio. The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale. Ed. and trans. Jonathan Galassi. New York: Ecco, 1982.

Papini, Giovanni. "Whitman." Trans. Roger Asselineau. Walt Whitman Abroad. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1955. 189.

Pavese, Cesare. "Whitman—Poetry of Poetry Writing." Trans. Roger Asselineau. Walt Whitman Abroad. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1955. 189–198.

Raffaniello, William. "Pasquale Jannaccone and 'The Last Invocation.'" Walt Whitman Review 14 (1968): 41–45.


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