Dino Campana

Tuesday 21 October 2014 11:47

Born in Marradi, in the northern part of the Province of Firenze, in 1885, Dino Campana led the life of the wandering poète maudit, although it must be said that he did not choose his misery. He was committed on several occasions to mental institutions because he chose to live an extra-communal existence, often living on the edge of society and shunning his own family. He wandered much of northern Italy, spending time in particular in the port cities of Genoa and Livorno and also Florence which he regarded as the pinnacle of literary society in Italy of the time, and there is considerable internal evidence in his work that he travelled to Argentina. The slang of sailors and ports forms a sort of sub-language in his work. He formed a relationship with the feminist author Sibilla Aleramo (their relationship is the subject of the film Un Viaggio Chiamato Amore (dir. Michele Placido, 2002). He died in a mental institution. Whether he was, in fact, mentally ill is a matter of considerable dispute; and even among those who accept the diagnoses (there were several, including dementia praecox) the severity is itself disputed in a country much influenced by the Anti-Psychiatric theories of Franco Basaglia.

I was introduced to the work of Campana (in essence one controversial book - Canti Orfici) by my friend Enrico Gurioli who describes himself as a Recovering Campanista, and whom I would like to thank for his enthusiasm and good advice - not to mention several excellent glasses of his Ronco del Suffragio!

I also wish to express my gratitude to the staff of Centro Studi Campaniani “Enrico Consolini” in Marradi and to its President Mirna Gentillini whose hospitality and willingness to educate will not be forgotten.

The wrecked ships

Le vele le vele le vele*

that shock and lash at wind

useless backing and filling

le vele le vele le vele

tack & tack: lamentation

loud of the wave’s brilliance

of the growling wave that kills

of the last brutal flail

le vele le vele le vele

* The sails the sails the sails. See note after the Italian text.

Barche amorrate

Le vele le vele le vele

Che schioccano e frustano al vento

Che gonfia di vane sequele

Le vele le vele le vele!

Che tesson e tesson: lamento

Volubil che l''onda che ammorza

Ne l''onda volubile smorza

Ne l''ultimo schianto crudele

Le vele le vele le vele

Note: Enrico Gurioli, who has edited an edition of Campana’s maritime poems (Dino Campana: I Canti Marini, Pendragon, 2013), suggests that the title of this poem is widely misunderstood. Previous editions have ‘corrected’ it, believing it to be a misprint, but he suggests that the word ‘amorrate’ comes from sailor’s lingua franca or port slang, and means ‘wrecked’. I follow his interpretation here. He also suggests that the line ‘le vele le vele le vele’ appeals to Campana because it is partly a palindrome and sailors slang is often constructed by reversing words. He has suggested that I leave it untranslated  for effect and I have followed his advice.

Distant ships on passage’ appears to have been written in 1915 at the entry of Italy into the First World War - in Italy it is often referred to as ‘the war of 1915-1918’.

Distant ships on passage

distant the faithless

black & silent ships pass

but your insatiable mouth

calls to them in one savage shout

in the channels hidden cannons

smoky glittering channels

powerful cannons in ambush

on the smiling dazzling sea

the fury of the land

you call over the endless seas

on the ancient powers to gather

a smoky lightning like a dream

alive & terrible in the ruins

the unconscious voice of liberty

a titanic heroic love

or the rumbling heart of the world

how the sea smiles at you

young again, like the earth, & fresh

sharp & bitter dancing & gasping in the smoke

that corrodes & debrides your youth

pungent bitter urgent unsatisfied

Lontane passan le navi

Lontane passan le navi

Nere perfide silenziose

Ma la tua bocca insaziabile

Le chiama in ruggito violento

Cannone roggia appiattata

Fumida roggia che abbaglia

Cannone potenza in aguato

Sul mare che ride e abbarbaglia

Furore della terra

Che chiami sui mari infiniti

Le antiche potenze a raccolta

Lampo fumido come un sogno

Vivo e terribile sulla rovina

Voce inconscia di libertà

Amore titanico eroico

O voce rombo del cuore del mondo

Come il mar ti sorride

Ringiovanito, come la terra, e fresca

Aspra e acerba e balza ed anela tra il fumo

Che rode e scoglie la sua giovinezza

Acre aspera urgente insaziata.

This lyric has given me particular difficulty. Although Campana is not a hermetic poet, there are certainly times when he feels like that. The problem is compounded by erratic punctuation - sometimes completely absent where the sense seems to require it - throughout the collection. Canti Orfici was first published by a local printer in the small town of Marradi and the text is acknowledged to be seriously flawed. The history of Campana’s attempts to have his collection published is intricate, to say the least. He made the fatal mistake, for a writer, of consigning the only fair and accurate copy to a ‘friend’ and fellow-writer who carelessly ‘lost it’. After much anguished pleading, Campana then set about reconstructing the entire text from memory. The original (lost) text was called Il Più Lungo Giorno (The Longest Day). The new text was published as Orphic Songs. hence, this lyric is The Song of The Night, or as I prefer, since it begins at twilight, The Song Of the Gloaming.

The song of the gloaming

The gloaming softened by its own light:

Unquiet spirits sweeten darkness

For the heart that loves no more!

Springs springs we are required to hear,

Springs springs that know

Springs that know what spirits they are

What spirits they are, what spirits they are

What spirits are listening….

Listen: Twilight is softened by its own light

And for unquiet spirits dark is sweet:

Listen: Fate has beaten you:

But to light hearts another life stands at the door:

There is no sweetness equal to Death.

More more more

You mean the one who still cradles you:

You mean the sweetheart

Who whispers in your ear: More, more

And here stands the wind

And here dies: here the tide turns

And we can hear beating

The heart that loved us best!

Let us look: already the landscape

The trees, the water are of the night

The river goes its way silently

Boom! Mammy, that guy up there!

Il canto della tenebre

La luce del crepuscolo si attenua:

Inquieti spiriti sia dolce la tenebra

Al cuore che non ama più!

Sorgenti sorgenti abbiam da ascoltare,

Sorgenti sorgenti che sanno

Sorgenti che sanno che spiriti stanno

Che spiriti stanno che spiriti stanno

Che spiriti stanno a ascoltare….

Ascolta: la luce del crepuscolo attenua

Ed agli inquieti spiriti è dolce la tenebra:

Ascolta: ti ha vinto la Sorte:

Ma per i cuori leggeri un’ altra vita è alle porte:

Non c’è di dolcezza che posso uguagliare la Morte

Più più più

Intendi chi ancora ti culla:

Intendi la dolce fanciulla

Che dice all’orecchio: Più più

Ed ecco si leva e scompare

Il vento: ecco torna dal mare

Ed ecco sentiamo ansimare

Il cuore che ci amó di più!

Guardiamo: di già il paesaggio

Degli alberi e l’acque è notturno

Il fiume va via taciturno….

Púm! Mamma quell’ omo lassù!

Fragment (Florence)


And the little feet go musically

Carrying the battlemented hair

That arms like a wing the fierce eyes

In their languor on a good day


And Easter hits the road


Frammento (Firenze)


Ed I piedini andavano armoniosi

Portando I cappelloni battaglieri

Che armavano di un’ ala gli occhi fieri

Del lor languore solo nel bel giorno


Scampanava la Pasqua per la via…


This fragment, published in Canti Orfici alongside ‘Barche Amorrate’ seems to be part of a longer poem that was contained in the collection Il Più Lungo Giorno. Since this manuscript was eventually discovered in the effects of the fellow-writer and friend who had ‘lost’ it, we now know what the full poem was like. However I prefer the mysterious fragment. The full text of Campana’s unpublished work can be found here. The following is the text of the full poem.

Scampanava la Pasqua per la via

Calzaioli, le donne erano liete
Quel giorno ed innocenti le fanciulle

Di sotto ai cappelloni ultima moda,
E ingiovanito mi sembrava il duomo...

Ed i piedini andavano armoniosi

Portando i cappelloni battaglieri

Che armavano di un''ala gli occhi fieri

Del lor languore solo, nel bel giorno.

Il cannone tuonò ma non riscosse
Le signorine che andavano a messa

E continuava il calmo cicaleggio.

Una colomba si librava molle.

A Genovese woman

Long ago you brought me a little seaweed

In your hair, and the scent of the sea wind,

That has come from far away and is seriously

Hot, it was on your bronze body:

Oh the divine simplicity

Of your slender form –

Not love, not pain, a phantom,

A shadow of necessity so pale

Serene and irresistible to the soul

And there dissolves in joy, in serene enchantment

Because for an infinity

If she can wear the sirocco,

How little the world is and light in your hands.

Una donna Genovese

Tu mi portasti un po'' d''alga marina

Nei tuoi capelli, ed un odor di vento,

Che è corso di lontano e giunge grave

D''ardore, era nel tuo corpo bronzino:

– Oh la divina

Semplicità delle tue forme snelle –

Non amore non spasimo, un fantasma,

Un''ombra della necessità che vaga

Serena e ineluttabile per l''anima

E la discioglie in gioia, in incanto serena

Perché per l''infinito lo scirocco

Se la possa portare.

Come è piccolo il mondo e leggero nelle tue mani!

More to follow....

The translations are Creative Commons