Carducci, Italy’s first Nobel laureate in literature, was one of Italy’s premier poets in his time and deserves to be better remembered. He was a prolific poet best known for his work Odi Barbare. “Virgil” is a Petrarchan sonnet in honor of one of Italy’s greatest writers of all time. There is a calmness and clarity to the order and precision of imagery in the poem. Carducci wrote a famous poem in praise of “Phoebus Apollo”. This poem partakes of an Apollonian composition of the kind Nietzsche contrasted to Dionysian frenzy in his Birth of Tragedy. There is a lull after the storm to “Virgil”.
‘Virgil‘ uses nature imagery to evoke historical and mythical themes and events. The title is a reference to an epic poet who wrote his masterpiece, the Aeneid, in Latin around 20 BCE. The Aeneid is the story of the journey of the hero Aeneas from the fallen walls of Troy to the seven hills of Rome. It is a foundational myth for Rome like the myth of the twins Romulus and Remus suckled by the she-wolf. “Virgil” is also steeped in the fall of Troy without even once alluding to it.
As when above the heated fields the moon
Hovers to spread its veil of summer frost,
The brook between its narrow banks half lost
Glitters in pale light, murmuring its low tune;
The opening lines contain five feet. The feet are made up of iambs, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. There are four lines with an abba rhyme scheme. The iambic pentameter meter with a stanza of four lines in this rhyme scheme suggests a sonnet form.
The hero of the first stanza is the moon. To the heat of the fields, it brings a veil of frost. It finds out even the half-lost brook in its narrow banks to cast a glitter upon it. The moon may be the light of peace that casts a cooling veil of peace over the bloody fields of Troy. Hints of conflict yet remain – summer frost, pale light, and especially the inversion in the line of the moon above and field below.
At the end of the stanza, the brook takes over, managing a low tune. But there seems to be some trouble getting into motion. The moon moves, but at a hover. Water should flow quicker in narrow banks but can manage but a murmur. It is half lost. Troy is completely lost. Perhaps it is Aeneas who is half lost.
The nightingale pours forth her secret boon,
Whose strains the lonely traveler accost;
He sees his dear one’s golden tresses tossed,
And time forgets in love’s entrancing swoon.
The second stanza exactly repeats the meter and rhyme scheme of the first. When conjecturing about the nightingale’s secret boon, Ovid’s fable will help us more than Shelley’s ode. Ovid was another Latin poet of Rome who wrote etiological stories in his Metamorphoses.
Ovid tells the story of Philomela and Tereus, her sister’s husband. Tereus rapes Philomela, cuts out her tongue, and locks her away. She manages to weave a message for her sister who rescues her. The sisters then feed Tereus his own son and escape as birds, Philomela as a nightingale. The theme of morbidness is one that Carducci finds undergirding much of Italian literature from Tasso to Leopardi.
Despite the morbid context, the poem refers to the nightingale’s “boon” or benefit. Could it be an escape, artistic communication (weaving), or revenge? Its pouring forth would seem to indicate its song, and so expression. Strain carries a further connotation that the sound implies an effort. Indeed, it accosts the lonely traveler.
Might the clue lie in that word lonely? The traveler is so lonely that even this strained company of birdcall is welcome. It brings a dream of blond tresses tossed. They are not wind tossed but in love’s entrancing swoon. That time forgets also seems to suggest that the love image is both present and absent, a memory.
And the orphaned mother who has grieved in vain
Upon the tomb looks to the silent skies
And feels their white light on her sorrow shine;
The third stanza changes up the flow a bit. It continues in iambic pentameter but there are only three lines now – in a cde lack of rhyme.
If we have been imagining a romantic love, the introduction of the orphaned figure suggests we ought to have considered a maternal love swoon instead. If Virgil is to be the father of Rome, is orphaned Troy the mother? The theme of loneliness is reinforced by the orphaned mother and her grief.
It is clear that we are still in smoldering Troy upon the tombs. The silent shies are full of ghosts. But there is some glory to the fallen as white light upon her sorrow shines.
Meanwhile the mountains laugh, and the far-off main,
And through the lofty trees a fresh wind sighs:
Such is thy verse to me, Poet divine!
This stanza exactly repeats the meter and rhyme scheme of the third stanza just as the second stanza exactly repeated that of the first stanza. There is a shift in tone, however. The mountains laugh. Could they be the seven hills of Rome? All roads lead to the far-off main?
Although it brings a sigh, an echo of the murmur of the first stanza, it is a fresh wind that blows. It can fill the sails that lead on to Rome at last. The wind is also the wind of inspiration – not just for Virgil, Poet divine (with a capital P), but for Carducci as well.
Structure and Form
This poem is indeed a sonnet, and it is the type of sonnet that is called a Petrarchan sonnet. The Petrarchan sonnet is an Italian form, but it is not classical. It was developed during the Renaissance. Sonnets have fourteen lines. Unlike other sonnet forms which end in a heroic couplet after three stanzas of four lines, the Petrarchan sonnet ends with two stanzas of three lines which are technically one stanza called the sextet (set of six). The two stanzas of four lines that proceed them are technically one stanza as well called the octet (set of eight).
The two stanzas of “Virgil” then would have the rhyme scheme abbaabba (octet) followed by cdecde (sextet). There is often a shift in tone and theme between the octet and the sextet which is called the volta, or the turn. In “Virgil” the volta actually takes place in the middle of the sextet after what we have called the third stanza, another reason we have preferred this division.
Carducci clearly loved the Petrarchan sonnet form for poems of praise. He also wrote a Petrarchan sonnet in honor of “Homer” in abababab cdedce form. He chose this form over the more classical elegiac couplets. He even used the Petrarchan sonnet in his praise of “Dante” rather than use tersa rima as Dante himself preferred.
Yes, for instance in Odi Barbare, he writes:
“The forests feel thee and with a cool shiver awake;
Up soars the falcon flashing in eager joy. Meanwhile amid the wet leaves mutter the garrulous nests,
And far off the grey gull screams over the purple sea.”
Yes, for instance in Odi Barbare, he writes: The dead are saying: “Blessed are ye who walk along the hillsides Flooded with the warm rays of the golden sun. “Cool murmur the waters through flowery slopes descending. Singing are the birds to the verdure, singing the leaves to the wind.”
Yes, for instance in Odi Barbare, he writes: I hate the accustomed verse. Lazily it falls in with the taste of the crowd, And pulseless in its feeble embraces Lies down and sleeps. For me that vigilant strophe Which leaps with the plaudits and rhythmic stamp of the chorus, Like a bird caught in its flight, which Turns and gives battle.