A Mythographer of Modernity: Giovanni Pascoli’s “Convivial Poems,” Translated from Italian by James Ackhurst and Elena Borelli

By Salvatore Pappalardo

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. 

Pascoli, Giovanni. Convivial Poems. Translated by James Ackhurst and Elena Borelli. Italica Press, 2022.

Salvatore Pappalardo is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Towson University, where he teaches courses in English, Comparative, and World Literature. His research interests include nineteenth- and twentieth-century European literature, Italian and Austrian modernism, and Mediterranean Studies. He has published articles and book chapters on James Joyce, Italo Svevo, Robert Musil, Bernard Bolzano, Fulvio Tomizza, Scipio Slataper, Claudio Magris, and Leonardo Sciascia. He is the author of the monograph Modernism in Trieste: The Habsburg Mediterranean and the Literary Invention of Europe, 1870–1945 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021). He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University and a B.A. in Translation Studies from the Advanced School of Modern Languages for Interpreters and Translators (SSLMIT) in Trieste, Italy. He is currently writing a book about Sicily as an Arab-Italian crossroads of Mediterranean cultures in twentieth-century Sicilian literature.  

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