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The Living Stream

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Warwick Gould

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Fiorenzo Fantaccini, W. B. Yeats e la cultura italiana (Firenze: Firenze University Press, 2008), 359 pp.1

K. P. S. Jochum

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  • 1 The book is available both as book-on-demand and as an internet resource (free access) through the (...)
  • 2 One of the few studies is The Reception of W. B. Yeats in Europe (London: Continuum, 2006), a coll (...)

1There is no end of studies charting the various influences on the work and thought of W. B. Yeats, or the importance which English and Irish writers, but also those from non-English speaking countries, had for him. Leaving aside the more exotic areas of Indian theosophy and Japanese theatre and concentrating on continental European countries, one will find an extensive literature on the traces of French symbolist poetry, German and Italian literature and philosophy, and even Scandinavian drama in Yeats’s writing. The reverse process, the impact he had on European literature and culture, has not been studied as extensively. There are two main reasons for this neglect: The impact is less pronounced, and there are not many scholars capable of, or interested in, undertaking such an investigation.2

2For this reason, W. B. Yeats e la cultura italiana by Fiorenzo Fantaccini, an Italian academic based in Florence, is a welcome addition to Yeats scholarship. Both in thoroughness and comprehensiveness his book advances considerably on the few previous and much shorter attempts (some by Fantaccini himself) to account for the Italian Yeats reception.

3Fantaccini proposes to deal with both sides of this literary traffic. In the first of the book’s three parts, he considers Yeats’s knowledge and use of five Italian poets and writers: Dante, Castiglione, Vico, Croce, and Gentile. To this he adds a discussion of another representative of Italian culture, Mario Manlio Rossi, about whose relationship with Yeats very little has been written, and to whom Fantaccini pays considerable attention. The second part discusses Yeats’s influence on four Italian poets and their Yeats translations, Eugenio Montale, Lucio Piccolo, Sergio Solmi, and Giovanni Giudici. These translations or, in the case of Piccolo, appropriations, have not had the critical attention which they deserve. The third part is an extensive research report, covering one hundred and one years of Italian Yeats reception, ranging from the strictly academic to the popular and ending in 2005.

  • 3 Brian Arkins, Builders of My Soul: Greek and Roman Themes in Yeats (Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1990); (...)

4There are several aspects of Italian culture, which are deliberately excluded from Fantaccini’s account, partly because they have been dealt with by others. Italian art was of great interest to Yeats, but this area has been a well-researched subject since Giorgio Melchiori’s ground-breaking The Whole Mystery of Art (1960). The reflection of the classical tradition in Yeats’s work has been described extensively by Brian Arkins and Peter Liebregts.3 Yeats’s view of Italian politics, however, remains a somewhat uncharted terrain and would merit a separate study.

5According to Fantaccini, Yeats’s use of Dante was governed by his search for unity in a fragmented modern world. His famous concepts of Unity of Being and Unity of Culture are directly related to his reading of medieval and Renaissance Italian literature, of which Dante is the ‘figura centrale’ (20). Fantaccini notes, however, that other modernist writers, such as Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, had a more direct access to Dante than Yeats, who had to rely on translations. By comparison, Yeats’s approach was somewhat ‘naive’ (21). At its centre stands the idea that ‘the poet has need of a guide and of a vision’ (22). Much of the Dante chapter is concerned with tracing Dantean echoes and images in Yeats’s works from the early narrative prose to the late poems. Special attention is given to A Vision and ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’.

6Fantaccini begins his chapter on Castiglione by pointing out that the beginning of Yeats’s interest in the Italian Renaissance coincides to some extent with the creation of an Irish national theatre in the early years of the 20th century and with formulating the ideas underlying the enterprise. The new theatre should pave the way for a new Irish society, whose ‘model [is] Renaissance society’ (34). Significantly, this was also the time when Yeats began to read Castiglione’s The Courtier (in translation) and made his first visit to Italy (in April-May 1907). Castiglione’s influence is discernible in such poems as ‘To a Wealthy Man’, ‘The People’, and ‘For Anne Gregory’. In Yeats’s eyes, Castiglione’s aristocratic world had its counterpart in Lady Gregory’s Coole Park. The Italian Renaissance provided him with the idea of the union of artist and aristocrat; from Castiglione in particular Yeats derived the cherished notions of recklessness and nonchalance (‘sprezzatura’). Reading him ‘appears to have constituted a crucial moment in the process of refinement of [Yeats’s] style and formal choices’ (44).

7As is well known, Yeats discovered Vico not directly, but in Croce’s interpretation and was influenced by it. He owned Croce’s The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (English translation of 1913); he underlined several passages, which are quoted by Fantaccini. Regrettably, he quotes the Italian originals, not the translation; it would have been instructive to see the exact phrases, which caught Yeats’s attention. Yeats adopted Vico’s concept of Man the Creator (‘uomo creatore’), who ‘made up the whole’, as he expresses it in ‘The Tower’. Yeats also marked Croce’s definition ‘of the spirit as development or, to use the terminology peculiar to Vico, as process or unfolding’ (46). Various poems, ‘Vacillation’, ‘Remorse for Intemperate Speech,’ and others, as well as A Vision are linked by Fantaccini to Viconian concepts as transmitted by Croce and annotated by Yeats. Fantaccini pays due attention to Vico’s cyclical theory and its reverberations in Yeats’s philosophy; finally, he discusses the opposition which Yeats set up between Vico and another of his literary ancestors, Jonathan Swift.

8Croce’s importance was not only that of an interpreter of Vico; Yeats also read several other of his books, because he was attracted by Italian idealist philosophy. Croce’s books in his library show extensive marks of perusal. ‘Many are the similarities’ between Croce’s and Yeats’s ‘system’, Fantaccini asserts on the evidence of relevant passages in A Vision (57), which he explains in detail. Yeats’s annotations are valuable glosses on some poems (‘The Tower’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, and ‘Death’); moreover, they confirm that reading Croce helped him to clarify his view of Berkeley.

  • 4 See ‘“Among School Children” and the Education of the Irish Spirit’, in A. Norman Jeffares and K. (...)

9While Croce provided support for Yeats’s philosophical speculations, Gentile inspired educational ideas. These were both practical and in a general sense political. Yeats’s remarks suggest that he admired Gentile’s success in remodelling a national educational system; evidently he hoped that something similar could be achieved in Ireland. Predictably, much of the chapter on Gentile is devoted to his importance for an understanding of ‘Among School Children’. Fantaccini is aware of the superb treatment of this relationship by Donald T. Torchiana, but he advances on it by presenting a more systematic analysis of Gentile’s ideas and by citing those passages which Yeats underlined, again in the Italian original and not in the English translation, of The Reform of Education (1922).4

10The most original chapter in the first part of Fantaccini’s book is that on Mario Manlio Rossi, whose relationship to Yeats he is the first to discuss comprehensively. He makes good use of the Yeats-Rossi correpondence, preserved in the Archivio Rossi of the Biblioteca Municipale in Reggio Emilia. All of Yeats’s letters are now available in CL InteLex. With one exception, all of Rossi’s letters are in LTWBY; the exception being a letter of 28 June 1934, in which Rossi answers a previous request by Yeats to give his opinion of J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time (94). Fantaccini also quotes at length from a letter written by Rossi to Austin Clarke on 2 October 1968, recording his first impression of Yeats and Lady Gregory, and later visits to Coole Park in the 1950s and 1960s, when he saw the ruins of everything Yeats and Lady Gregory had stood for (74-75, 90-91). To conclude the chapter Fantaccini prints most of a long letter from Elizabeth Corbet Yeats (‘Lolly’) to Rossi, written a few days after her brother’s death (95-96).

  • 5 Rossi’s ‘Yeats — and Philosophy’ was published in Cronos, 1: 3 (1947), 19-24.

11The biographical connections between Yeats and Rossi are, however, less important than the philosophical discussions conducted by both, especially since Yeats was first attracted to the Italian by a common interest in Berkeley. Rossi, a professional philosopher from a different cultural background, gives a first-hand account of a poet struggling with philosophical problems. In a little-known article published in an obscure periodical and quoted at length by Fantaccini, Rossi explains that Yeats ‘offered poems— and asked for philosophical theories, for an explanation. He wanted to know how a philosopher sees the world, how his philosophical problems might be shaped into logical problems’ (77).5 The philosophical problems discussed in the exchange of letters are mainly those of time and circularity or recurrence, themes which are present in Yeats’s poetry from the very beginning. Rossi’s work on Berkeley and Swift was in part responsible for strengthening Yeats’s interest in the sages of the Irish eighteenth century. There are, however, in these letters no references to political issues such as Italian fascism or Yeats’s preoccupation with Irish fascist ideas; there is a nice irony in the fact that, as Fantaccini notes, Rossi was denied an academic position in Italy because he refused to join the Fascist party.

  • 6 W. B. Yeats: L’opera poetica (Milano: Mondadori, 2005).

12According to Fantaccini, Italian translations of Yeats’s texts began to appear in 1905. Preference was given to the plays, while the poetry had to wait until 1933. Fantaccini’s bibliography contains more than 270 items (including reprints), among them several of book length. The last entry is a massive bilingual edition of the entire poetry, translated by Ariodante Marianni and running to 1600 pages. It includes a preface by Piero Boitani of 100 pages and more than 600 pages of notes and bibliography by Anthony L. Johnson.6 Fantaccini reviews this edition in the third part of his book; the second part is dedicated to four eminent poet-translators, who were influenced by Yeats and strengthened their reputation in twentieth-century Italian literature by the very fact that they turned their attention to the Irish poet. Inevitably, therefore, this chapter is mainly (but not exclusively) relevant to an understanding of these writers.

13Eugenio Montale met Yeats twice and experienced ‘a certain discomfort, a barely concealed distrust’, when confronted with a man ‘incapable of being completely at ease’ (114). He did not write much about him; nevertheless, he assigned Yeats ‘un posto altissimo’ in modern English poetry. In particular, he admired Yeats’s formal mastery and his musicality; he did not appreciate Yeats’s ‘misteriosofia’ and thought that it was mere ‘dawdling’ (‘gingillato’, 115). Although he considered Yeats untranslatable, he produced Italian versions of ‘The Indian to His Love’, ‘When You Are Old’, ‘After Long Silence’, and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. They are reprinted by Fantaccini face-to-face with the English originals. Carefully and extensively comparing original and translation, Fantaccini notes that Montale rewrites and adapts rather than producing literal versions. In fact, the translations are shown to be full of the idiosyncrasies of Montale’s poetic style. Fantaccini concludes that Yeats (and Eliot, whom he also translated) helped Montale to ‘adopt the lesson of Anglo-American modernism’ and to ‘inaugurate a new era’ of Italian poetry (123-24).

  • 7 CL InteLex prints and summarizes the same letters.

14Lucio Piccolo’s interest in Yeats was of a completely different nature. He wrote to Yeats, asking for clarification of esoteric and occultist matters (the letters are apparently lost). Yeats responded in three letters (1919-24), of which one is printed; the other two are summarized by Fantaccini.7 Piccolo’s poetry shows explicit traces of Yeatsian symbols, such as tower, winding stair, gyre, and rose and their esoteric connotations. Fantaccini argues that, as in the case of Montale, reading Yeats enabled Piccolo to align himself with European modernism of the 1920s and 1930s.

15Fantaccini begins his chapter on Sergio Solmi by rescuing him from critics who considered him second-rate, and continues to describe his thoughts on poetic translation. Solmi translated only two of Yeats’s poems, ‘The Scholars’ and ‘The Rose of the World’ which, Fantaccini affirms, meant much to him. The translations are placed next to the originals and scrutinized minutely, especially with respect to their phonic patterns. Fantaccini concludes that they are superior to all other Italian translations and establish Solmi as one of the major Italian poets of his time.

16Giovanni Giudici has always considered translation the proper business of a poet; it is ‘perhaps above everything, a conscious creative act, capable of perfection’ (145). But when commissioned by the publisher Rizzoli to translate The Tower, he found himself unable to comply and handed the job over to Ariodante Marianni. Eventually he produced four translations, ‘Among School Children’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, ‘The Road at My Door’, and ‘Politics’; all analyzed by Fantaccini with customary throroughness, emphasizing Giudici’s adherence to formal properties. He judges the third translation to be the best, since here Giudici finds an Italian vocabulary that matches Yeats’s casualness, thus preserving the ‘strangeness’ of the original without losing ‘legibility’ and ‘clarity’ (153).

17The survey of Italian translations and criticism in part 3 is arranged chronologically and subdivided into four chapters (1905-46, 1947-69, 1970-89, 1990-2005). The material is keyed to the entries in the following primary and secondary bibliography of almost 100 pages. A key figure in the early years was the novelist, essayist, and travel writer Carlo Linati. He met Yeats in London in 1913; subsequently, he translated several plays and wrote about Yeats (superficially, according to Fantaccini). Linati also translated works by Synge, Lady Gregory, Joyce, and O’Casey and was an important force in the dissemination of English-language literature in Italy. A famous name among the early Italian Yeats critics is that of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa; he sees in Yeats a national, not a nationalist poet, who also drew on Elizabethan lyrical poetry. Yeats’s Italian reputation as a dramatist was further enhanced by his participation in the Fourth Conference of the Fondazione Alessandro Volta in October 1934, where he spoke on ‘The Irish National Theatre’, one of the very few occasions when he lectured on the European continent.

18Yeats’s poetry did not fare well in the early Italian reception. It was only in 1933 that Francesco Gargaro published Italian versions of eight early poems. In 1935 he ventured as far as Responsibilities. The later poetry had to wait until 1938/39, when Leone Traverso, a respected professor of German, published versions of, among others, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and parts of ‘Blood and the Moon’. In 1949 Traverso collected 26 translations into book form, simply entitled Poesie; it is the first substantial bilingual selection. Fantaccini, following earlier Italian readers, bestows high praise on the translations.

19Since then, the number of translations and critical studies has increased enormously. A rough count yielded as many as 19 book-length studies on Yeats. Thanks to the labours of Giorgio Manganelli, Roberto Sanesi, Giorgio Melchiori, Anthony L. Johnson (who teaches at the University of Pisa), and many others, almost every aspect of Yeats’s works has been presented to an Italian readership: poetry, plays, narrative prose, the autobiography, even A Vision. Nevertheless, more could be done. Fantaccini notes that the majority of Yeats’s essays has not been translated; he also hopes for an Italian edition of selected letters.

20Fantaccini’s meticulous and evenhanded survey is without doubt useful, but it tends to overwhelm the reader who, confronted with a chronological parade of so many names and titles, might wish for a different, more instructive approach. It would have been a good idea to separate translations from criticism, but then many translations, especially those in book form, contain noteworthy critical material. A more thematically oriented survey of criticism might have been a viable option.

  • 8 Bagno a Ripoli (Firenze): Passigli, 2008.
  • 9 Roma: NUA, 2007.

21At one point Fantaccini seems to detect a slowing-down of the relentless grind of the Italian Yeats industry, but this turns out to be wishful thinking. Shortly before the publication of his book yet another selection of poems and a new collection of critical essays appeared. Under the title I cigni selvatici a Coole, Alessandro Gentili presented a bilingual cross-section of more than 30 poems.8 Giuseppe Massari edited Di specchio in specchio: Studi su W. B. Yeats ; the title translates as ‘From mirror after mirror’ and is a quotation from ‘Before the World Was Made’.9 One of its seven essays detects traces of Japanese haiku in Yeats’s poetry; another seeks to place Yeats and Sylvia Plath between modernism and postmodernism; a third compares the political poetry of Oscar Wilde and Yeats. Fiorenzo Fantaccini might well wish to keep the internet version of his bibliography open-ended. But for the time being, he has produced in all its parts a very useful standard work.

Notes

1 The book is available both as book-on-demand and as an internet resource (free access) through the publisher’s website at: http://www.fupress.com/index.asp

2 One of the few studies is The Reception of W. B. Yeats in Europe (London: Continuum, 2006), a collection of essays, edited by the present reviewer, to which Fantaccini has contributed an earlier version of parts of his book.

3 Brian Arkins, Builders of My Soul: Greek and Roman Themes in Yeats (Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1990); Peter Th. M. G. Liebregts, Centaurs in the Twilight: W. B. Yeats’s Use of the Classical Tradition (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993).

4 See ‘“Among School Children” and the Education of the Irish Spirit’, in A. Norman Jeffares and K. G. W. Cross (eds), In Excited Reverie (London: Macmillan, 1965), 123-50.

5 Rossi’s ‘Yeats — and Philosophy’ was published in Cronos, 1: 3 (1947), 19-24.

6 W. B. Yeats: L’opera poetica (Milano: Mondadori, 2005).

7 CL InteLex prints and summarizes the same letters.

8 Bagno a Ripoli (Firenze): Passigli, 2008.

9 Roma: NUA, 2007.

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