Summary · Giovanni Pascoli · Onomatopoeia and illusion · The syntax of sounds · The sounds of things Articles
Literature
Giovanni Pascoli

Pascoli and onomatopoeia

How the 'tamarisk poet' restores the sounds of the world

Thinking about Pascoli's poetry inevitably brings to mind a whole series of lyrical images of great visual and sound suggestion. But how the 'child poet' arrives at these extremely fine elaborations is a subject that is little discussed and, in reality, very important: the music of the words, the phonic and analogical links that weave between them, the visionary dynamics that spring from them, are at the basis of Pascoli's poetic discourse that rests on this dense network.

This will be discussed through the efforts of three authoritative critics interested in investigating the poet's complex compositional workshop: Cesare Garboli, Gian Luigi Beccaria and Luciano Anceschi.

painting:Allegory of music

Onomatopoeia and illusion

Uno degli aspetti sul quale si pone l'accento quando si intraprende lo studio di Pascoli è quello del singolare uso che egli fa delle onomatopee.
It is not a question of simple verbal elements formulated to express a precise sound or the cry of an animal, or at least not only that. The distinctive novelty of Pascoli's onomatopoeia lies above all in its 'syntactic' application, that is to say, in embedding the single phonosymbolic formulas within the traditional language, thus welding them to its rhythm and 'grammaticalising' them, transforming them into proper parts of speech.

Garboli (in his commentary on the poet's complete works, published by Mondadori) summarises this process by speaking of «"dilation of semantic elements for phonosymbolic purposes" in which we can now recognise, [...], the root of Pascoli's language», arriving at the conclusion that the author, starting from the well-known binomial of "Seeing and hearing" as the poet's only duty (Il sabato, II), resolves the latter by privileging hearing, so that «the acoustic fact cancels out the visual representation».

💡 Did you know? The verse of Pascoli's assiuolo, placed at the end of each stanza, becomes more and more defined in its identity through the climax procedure to which it is subject: at first it is "a voice from the fields" (v. 7), then it is "singulto" (v. 15), finally "pianto di morte" (v. 23). In La mia sera (My Evening), on the other hand, the bells arouse memory, producing a sort of inversion of time until the ego's consciousness returns to the womb.

In Garboli's words, «Pascoli, [...], behaves like a cubist painter who does not put a "real" piece of cardboard or a stamp in his painting, [...], but one endowed with a materially insoluble ambiguity», with an attitude whereby if «on the one hand he provokes the staging, on the other he breaks it».

canva: Catherine M. Wood old books

The syntax of sounds

The figurative role that musicality plays within Pascoli's compositions significantly affects their construction.
As Beccaria notes (in his essay L'autonomia del significante. Figure, ritmo, sintassi), instead of the traditional 'progressive' structure, based on the classic syntax of coordinated and subordinated propositions, Pascoli opts for a 'non-progressive' construction of the poetic text, made up of sound recalls arising from the repetition of recurring words or syntagms in various rhetorical combinations (from anaphora to alliteration, consonance, parallelisms etc.).

If, on the one hand, such a choice leads to the fragmentation of the poem into disjointed sequences, on the other, this dispersion of the exposition is contained precisely by the repetition of the same stylistic elements, which in this way link stanzas and entire parts of the poem, creating a dense musical weft with which the author brings everything back to unity.

In short, in Beccaria's words, Pascoli's is "a procedure whereby the constructive factor of the discourse, rather than semantic association, seems to result primarily from the rhythmic proximity (metric and phonic) of the members of the discourse".

To the question of what the image of Penelope spinning suggests to the poet in the course of the narrative montage, whether the figure of her "leaning against the other wall" or the extension in these verses of a single dominant sound theme (that given by the alliteration in /s/: fisso;stelle;sonno;soave;sentiva se;sibiliare;sartie;stragli;assiduo;sibilare;fuso), the answer comes quite clear: that Odysseus' bride wires "do not fit into a design [...] of images and prefigured narration, but the choice of that specification, [...] is but the result of a choice [...] that the poet fixes on the page because formal coherence with what precedes suggests it to him". Hence, that 'faceva assiduo sibilare il fuso' is a necessary completion 'on the level of the form of expression and not of the content'.

💡 Did you know? L'ultimo viaggio (The Last Voyage), part of the Poemi conviviali (1904-05), is a poem in 24 cantos (modelled on the Odyssey) in which Pascoli, looking to Homer, Dante and Hesiod, presents the image of a restless Ulysses, ready to leave everything to set off once again, even in the advanced maturity of his years. But this second voyage is marked by disillusionment: the routes already taken are no longer the same, nor does he meet the figures of the past. Only death, in the end, will welcome him on the beach of the nymph Calypso.

It follows that 'words evoke ideas, and not only ideas the words': it is language that stimulates the creative imagination from which Pascoli's lyrics originate. He was the first in Italy to believe that poetry is based not in what it says (the message), but in how it says it (the style, the form).
However, it is wrong to think that sound and sense are two separate realities: sound derives from words, and from "words perceived as a unity semantically welded into the unity of the verse". Therefore, the expressions present in Pascoli's compositions are similar on a phonic level, but they also attract each other in terms of their meaning.

canva: "musical instruemnts" by Evaristo Baschenis, Museum of Fine Arts, Italy

The sounds of things

One might wonder whether Pascoli's care for the music of verse is not in some way attributable to his childlike conception of poetry, whether this attention to the voices of reality is not the result of his fundamental exercise in wonder at the individual objects of life (the starting point of every good poet, as he states in an interview with Ugo Ojetti in 1892).

On the other hand, this interest seems to be in continuity with the equally prodigious necessity of the exactness of the name, that is, of the proper use of words so that they speak naturalistically of the objects indicated without licence, without sacrificing them in favour of the aesthetic face of the text. Hence the author's invitation to be open (which in his case is an act of listening full of childish curiosity) to the use of lexicons and registers little frequented by the lyrical repertoire (such as dialect, forced by literary tradition to be a product of popular enjoyment only and mostly associated with inferior genres such as comic-goliardic poetry) or completely banned (for example the technical-scientific ones of botany, zoology, etc.).

💡 Did you know? On the question of the nominal generality that poetic tradition pursues in the indication of poetic objects, Pascoli fought with critical commitment, even going so far as to clash with great literary personalities both previous (such as Leopardi, to whom he reserved - in 1897 - a lecture in nine chapters on the naturalistic inaccuracies of his poetry) and contemporary (such as D'Annunzio, to whom he implicitly advised to freshen up his courtly and precious language with some dialectal and not strictly lyrical grafts).

But, the critic Anceschi well observes in Le poetiche del Novecento in Italia. Studi di fenomenologia e storia delle poetiche, if it is true that the particular eye turned to sound would derive from Pascoli's importance for the things of the world, the opposite is also admissible: in fact, the analogical proceeding dictated by the phonic frame mentioned earlier, in eliminating the typical logical nexuses of regular syntax, does nothing but "exalt[re] and raise[re] the precision, the exactitude, the particularity of emotion" before the small great facts of the surrounding space, the image that the poet manages to draw from them with the genuine complicity of the eyes and ears of the child self. Also because only in this way is it possible to reveal the "essences hidden in the phenomenon": Pascoli, "in taking on a datum, perceived as poetic in itself, [...] will work on the object with infinite shrewdness to reveal its particular essence, to make it ever more poetically active, more charged".

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