Tuesday 18 January 2011

One hundred and seventy-eight years ago

I have been reading and rereading with increasing pleasure and admiration the poems of Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli recently – both the originals and the English translations by Mike Stocks, which I think are unparalleled. I agree with Alberto Moravia when he said: "If we think of Belli as the contemporary of the first Romantic generation and the first naturalists, we can assess what an extraordinary phenomenon his poetry is." Here's a poem he wrote on 18th January 1833, exactly one hundred and seventy-eight years ago:

La vita dell’omo

Nove mesi a la puzza: poi in fassciola

tra sbasciucchi, lattime e llagrimoni:

poi p’er laccio, in ner crino, e in vesticciola,

cor tórcolo e l’imbraghe pe ccarzoni.

Poi comincia er tormento de la scola,

l’abbeccé, le frustate, li ggeloni,

la rosalìa, la cacca a la ssediola,

e un po’ de scarlattina e vvormijjoni.

Poi viè ll’arte, er diggiuno, la fatica,

la piggione, le carcere, er governo,

lo spedale, li debbiti, la fica,

er zol d’istate, la neve d’inverno…

E pper urtimo, Iddio sce bbenedica,

viè la Morte, e ffinissce co l’inferno.

The Life of Man

Nine months in a bog, then swaddling clothes

and sloppy kisses, rashes, big round tears,

a baby harness, baby walker, bows,

short trousers and a cap for several years,

and then begin the agonies of school,

the ABC, the pox, the six of the best,

the poo-poo in the pants, the ridicule,

the chilblains, measles, fevers on the chest;

then work arrives, the daily slog, the rent,

the fasts, the stretch inside, the government,

the hospitals, the debts to pay, the fucks…

The chaser to it all, on God’s say-so,

(after summer’s sun and winter’s snow)

is death, and after death comes hell – life sucks.

I've said it once – I've said it twice and I'll say it a full third time: Belli is one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century, and the beauties and originality of his poetry are unique both in Italy and in the context of European literature.

And apart from anything else, anyone who gets an endorsement from Nikolai Gogol (when he still had his wits about him) has to be the best of the best.

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