The Large Piccolo Cose (small things) of Giovanni Pascoli

Giovanni Pascoli (1855 - 1912)

Giovanni Pascoli (1855 – 1912)


Out in a field half-fallow and half furrowed,
A plough is standing, no oxen-team in sight,
Forgotten looking, half-hid in a mist-cloud.
From the mill-pond comes the wet slapping and surge
And rhythmic rinsings of the washerwomen,
Each splish-splash keeping time with their sing-song dirge:
The wind is blowing, the bush is snowing,
You’ve not come back to your native heath:
When you went you left me sorrowing
Like a plow left out in a fallow field.

Giovanni Pascoli (1855 – 1912), trans. from the Italian, by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), The New Yorker, November 8th, 2013

The best poetic craft is never self-conscious or obvious. And that’s why the craft of Giovanni Pascoli , as translated by Seamus Heaney, intoxicates me. Pascoli is a new discovery but made familiar through Heaney’s voice which obviously echoes inside the Pascoli poems he translates. I owe the discovery to the American poet Marie Howe at a workshop this summer in Venice where she introduced us to two  of Heaney’s translations. Venice was intoxicating enough without the spells cast by Pascoli whose popularity internationally is so opposed to his obscurity here. Pascoli’s spare images dogged me in Venice and dog me still.

On the Poetry Foundation website  Pascoli is described as arguably the greatest Italian poet writing at the beginning of the twentieth venture. While certainly no modernist, his almost imagistic focus on piccolo cose (small things) and his scaling back of the era’s grandiose language and rhetoric both contributed to the modernization of Italian poetry.

It’s Pascoli’s deceptively simple images, his piccolo cose, that so engaged me. Especially the images in the first three lines:

Out in a field half-fallow and half furrowed,
A plough is standing, no oxen-team in sight,
Forgotten looking, half-hid in a mist-cloud.

If ever there was a series of images to describe time stopped, mellow fruitfulness unfulfilled, these are it. What should be a scene of vibrant growth is instead a scene of desolation, a field abandoned, ploughing unfinished, no oxen team in site to finish it and worse still, the field is forgotten looking, half hid in a mist cloud! Talk about life unfulfilled. I think this is what gutted me in Venice; this palpable sense of forward motion arrested. And so powerfully amplified by the triple repetition, the hammer blows  of  half-fallow, half furrowed, half-hid. Nothing complete. Without realizing it I think these lines somehow, below my consciousness, filled me with a sense of regret and loss. My my own fallow fields, half plowed, then abandoned. Forward momentum frozen.

The arrested motion in the first three lines is made even more obvious by the contrast with the motion, life and energy of the washerwomen. In those next three lines I sure hear Heaney-like cadences and musicality! The poem erupts into life with all the alterations ( r’s and s’s) in conjunction with all the percussive p sounds  and all the imbedded sibilant s sounds. The motion continues with the single line that comes next, the first line of the dirge sung by the washerwomen. It also conjurs the fullness of spring – the bush snowing: spring blossoms falling. This makes the opening images seem even more stunted.

If all the elements of craft so evident so far in the poem aren’t enough Pascoli hits me in the chops with one of the critical elements of a great poem — the use of surprise: the utter surprise of the introduction of the intimate address of one person to another through the song the washerwomen sing, the obvious grief and loss from a loved one’s absence. A relationship cut off it seems before it was completed.

Then Pascoli slams me with the repeated image of the plough in the song which echoes back the first images in the poem like a body blow. All the unfulfilled longing, all the half-this and half-that from the poems beginning adds to the heart-cry of loss in the last line. Unlike the couple in the song, the key symbol of the first part of the poem (the plough) is linked to the key symbol of the dirge (also the plough) in the last line. But Pascoli is not finished. We end with another “half” , implied so subtlety. The narrator in the song is one half of a couple. And in this way the last part of the poem adds another echo from the beginning.

The symbol of the plow which seems so straightforward and literal at the poem’s beginning takes on a not-so-subtle erotic overtone when it is used as a direct metaphor for the abandoned lover in the song. Just another way Pascoli adds layers of meaning and richness to this seemingly simple poem.

What a joy when two masters of the craft, in this case Pascoli and Heaney, come together from different centuries and different languages and the result is a poem in English so layered and rich. You might say, in this case, two halves do join in the most fruitful way!

When I began to search for the connection between Heaney and Pascoli on-line I discovered they were first linked by a kite! More about that in Part Two of this post.


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