Gabriele D’Annunzio

The Papyrus, June 1909

pp. 16-19

The best hated man to-day in Italy is Gabriele D’Annunzio, a poet who has done more for his native language than any man since Dante. It was said of Goethe that he gave speech to his country. It may be said of D’Annunzio that he has given his country a triple tongue of fire. The magic of his genius has penetrated to the very roots of language; he can take words, words, words and make of them subtle moods, airier than springtime dreams; or touch the soul with a nameless horror, infusing nightmare into the eye and brain of the reader.

He and Duse have given more fame to Italy than all the politicians put together. For him only two things are worth [16] while, Beauty and Truth. For her, Art is the all, the thing worth while, the golden moment. Like all types of true greatness, they are abnormal; they do not conform. They surpassed in the particular form of activity that Fate has chosen them to follow. And meanwhile the little dogs bark and the cats mew.

All art is an adventure of the intellect. Great artists are marauders. There are no shut doors to a Shakespeare, a Balzac, a Dante, a D’Annunzio; the universe has no forbidden places to the cosmic report. D’Annunzio in his superb egotism has declared that the world exists for him; that all that is seen, heard, felt, known has value only as materials for his art; that the world has only meaning in so far as it can be written about, sung about, put to music or stuck on canvas. It is his first and last tenet—the world for Art’s sake. All is loot to him: note-book in hand, he stands wherever he can see a human emotion—a race track or a church, it matters not. His passion is the human soul and its giant reflection—the material universe. He is the untiring searcher of the secret chambers and magazines of our nature.

That the analytical and imaginative—the scientific and poetic—faculties may exist side by side in the brain is sufficiently proved in the cases of Balzac and D’Annunzio. There are pages of the most wonderful analysis in “The Intruder” and “The Triumph of Death,” analyses so minute and cunning, so surgically precise, that one can fancy that he smells the odor of the dissecting room. There are imaginative flights in “The Flame” and “The Maidens of the [17] Rocks,” mighty descriptive passages, that cannot be paralleled in literature. The mind reels, lost in a riot of images, newer imaginative heavens; is swamped in shoreless seas of colored light and sound. The pomp of words—is it only that, we ask ourselves; or is the man D’Annunzio a magician, a demon of black art, a prestidigitator of ideas, working on us through a sixth sense?

His characters are ultra-modern, neurotic, demons of passion, slaves of forbidden dreams. Drawn with the classic touch, they are as impossible as gods. They do not live in the real world, but seem like spectres struggling in Chaos. There is what wonderful exposé of Duse in “The Flame”—she is called La Foscarina and he, D’Annunzio, poses Stelio Effrena, the Light-Giver. Of the great Italian actress he has made a gorgeous fiction, spun out the real woman to her last fibre of sensibility, turned her soul inside out as one turns out a stocking. And still it is a glorified haze-shrouded Duse, a poet’s Duse, a Duse raised to immortality—and spiritual nudity.

Edgar Allan Poe, the one American who has affected the literature of Europe profoundly, has influenced D’Annunzio. This influence is apparent in some parts of “The Triumph of Death” and “The Maidens of the Rocks.” In “The Triumph of Death” there is depicted the life-and-death struggle in a human soul between the higher and lower natures of man. Aurispa is poet and sensualist, a philosopher and still the child of earth. In the chamber of his uncle, who too had been a philosopher and who had chosen not to be, young Aurispa is overcome by the sinister influences that vibrate in that room of death. The subtlety, weird beauty and morbidity of this scene carry one straight to Poe. Aurispa followed his uncle—his higher nature triumphed in death.

“The Maidens of the Rocks” is an allegory of a man’s impossible attempt to scale the heights where sit enthroned abstract Power and Beauty. There is lunacy in this book—the lunacy of Poe and Baudelaire; there is poison, in the book—a sweet poison that ravishes, lulls and kills. Its beauty blasts; it is a superb flight into the Unknown.

[19] In “The Dead City” D’Annunzio has written one of the great dramas of the world. One must go back to Greece—to Aeschylus and Sophocles—to find its equal. Out of the soil of “Argolis the Thirsty,” where a party of archaeologists and their wives are digging for the Homeric heroes—out of this fetid, rotten, parched earth comes the moral disease that seizes them all and works out to its classic conclusion the drama of conscience and incest. No modern play is so imbued with that stupendous idea of Fate that the Greeks so clearly perceived as “The Dead City.” The characters in this awful tragedy are the mere playthings of blind gods, the sport of that unspiritual, eyeless Thing we call circumstance.

D’Annunzio is great because of his artistic transgressions, not in spite of them. His work is the unique record of one of the most extraordinary poets the world has known. It is the stuff out of which posterity fashions immortals.

Benjamin de Casseres.