Sunday 11 January 2009

“And only death will give me fame and rest.” (Foscolo)

Another of my pet projects for 2009 is the first English translation of a collection of poems by the Italian poet Ugo Foscolo, to be published in March 2009 under the Oneworld Classics imprint. Foscolo cuts quite a remarkable figure in the history of Italian literature. He’s perhaps the most studied poet in Italy after Dante and Leopardi. He was born in the Ionian island of Zakynthos – then under Venetian dominion – in 1778. He had a very adventurous life, and ended up living in England as an exile fleeing from political persecution. Some of his works were published here by John Murray during his lifetime, and for a while he corresponded and hung around with Byron and the crème de la crème of English society. He got into serious debt and died in abject poverty in 1827 in the small village of Turnham Green, now part of London. If you have a chance, go and visit his tomb in Chiswick’s old cemetery – it’s a very moving experience. Foscolo’s masterpiece is a 295-line poem called ‘Of Tombs’ (‘Carme de’ sepolcri’), but I am going to offer you, as a taster of his work, one of his best sonnets, a self-portrait in verse:

A furrowed brow; eyes staring and sunk deep;
Hair tawny; cheek-bones showing through; bold-faced;
Lips that are full and red, with gleaming teeth;
Head bent; a fine-set neck; and a broad chest;

Good limbs; clothes that are choice and plain and neat;
Rapid in walking, thoughts, deeds, what I say;
Sober, humane, loyal, prodigal, and straight;
Cold to the world, which turns away from me;

Sometimes in speech, and often brave in deed;
Sad most days and alone, thoughtful at best,
Prompt, and quick to be angry, restless, strong;

Rich in virtues and vice, I praise and laud
Reason, but, where my heart goes, go along:
And only death will give me fame and rest.
[translated by JG Nichols]

At his best, Foscolo is second to none of our poets. His verse can be incredibly pithy and poignant. The trouble with him is that he is a rather uneven poet – some of his lines don’t seem to scan properly, however hard you try to read them, and his use of language (perhaps because, as some critics claim, Italian wasn’t his mother tongue after all) is sometimes irritatingly rugged, although he is at other times wonderfully polished.

Foscolo was also a fine prose writer (I published his only novel, The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, based on Goethe’s Werther, with Hesperus in 2002) and an excellent translator. Among other things, he translated – or rather adapted – Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, which is still read in his version to this day.

If you are in the mood, please give old Foscolo a try. He deserves to be better known in this country.


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