The four lives of Gabriele D’Annunzio

I’ve been reading Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio for months, and she immersed me in what must have been one of the most extraordinary lives ever lived. I wonder if her brain wasn’t turned by all the reading she must have done to write the book. Much of the book comes in short sections—and often it reads as if you are reading the same thing again again—stories of self-publicity, sexual extravagance, daring do, insanity, politics, wild nationalism, war, death, rich perfumes, art, music, self-deception, work, work, work, and decadent, lyrical poetry.

Hughes-Hallett won a major prize for her biography, and she solves the problem of the predictable structure of a biography by beginning with a series of scenes from the whole of  D’Annunzio’s life. The first is of his arrival in Fiume, the city on the Adriatic, where just after the First World War he was the Commander of a city where every kind of political ideology and artistic movement flourished briefly amid bells, flags, orgies, songs, dancing, marches, freedom, and violence.

She ends the book with overlapping scenes from D’Annunzio’s final years with the rise of Mussolini, showing clearly how much Mussolini learnt from D’Annunzio but emphasising that D’Annunzio never unequivocally supported Mussolini. D’Annunzio was too indecisive and other worldly to be an effective fascist leader.

I must confess that I’d hardly heard of D’Annunzio before reading the book. I knew he was an Italian poet, but I’d never read any of his poems. I knew nothing of the other parts of his life. I read the book because so many people had said it was good and partly (a silly reason) because I know the author’s brother. Perhaps I read it too because one review talked about how despite being short, bald, diseased, and ugly D’Annunzio was a “prodigious shagger.”

The shagging, poetry, hard work, love of luxury, perfumes, flowers, and music, and gift for self-publicity ran through D’Annunzio’s life. He must have had hundreds of sexual partners, and generally as he got older they got younger. Cocaine and other drugs helped him as he aged. But he also had many great loves, often of women as strong and creative as him. He usually abandoned them, but many, including his wife, never left his life completely.

Most of us live one life, but D’Annunzio lived at least four. We perhaps shouldn’t be surprised, as he famously said: “I cannot understand why the poets of our day wax indignant at the vulgarity of their age and complain of having come into the world too early or too late. I believe that every man of intellect can create his own beautiful fable of life.”

He succeeded, creating many different fables.

Born in the Arezzo, across the Apennines from Rome, he always loved the mountains and sea. His first life was as a lyrical poet, novelist, and playwright. Shelley was an inspiration as was Dante. He looked backwards to the Renaissance and the great days of Italy but also forward to modernism.

I’ve been able to find a few of his poems translated into English, but here is the one that seems to be best known:

Rain in the pinewoods

Be silent. At the edge

of the woods I do not hear

the human words you say;

I hear new words

spoken by droplets and leaves

far away.

Listen. It rains

from the scattered clouds.

It rains on the briny, burned

tamarisk,

it rains on the pine trees

scaly and rough,

it rains on the divine

myrtle,

on the bright ginestra flowers

gathered together,

on the junipers full of

fragrant berries,

it rains on our sylvan

faces,

it rains on our

bare hands

on our light

clothes,

on the fresh thoughts

that our soul, renewed,

liberates,

on the beautiful fable

that beguiled you

yesterday, that beguiles me today,

oh Hermione.

Can you hear? The rain falls

on the solitary

vegetation

with a crackling noise that lasts

and varies in the air

according to the thicker,

less thick foliage.

Listen. With their singing, the cicadas

are answering this weeping,

this southern wind weeping

that does not frighten them,

and nor does the grey sky.

And the pine tree

has a sound, the myrtle

another one, the juniper

yet another, different

instruments

under countless fingers.

And we are immersed

in the sylvan spirit,

living the same

sylvan life;

and your inebriated face

is soft from the rain,

like a leaf,

and your hair is

is fragrant like the light

ginestra flowers,

oh terrestrial creature

called Hermione.

Listen, listen. The song

of the flying cicadas

becomes fainter

and fainter

as the weeping

grows stronger;

but a rougher song

rises from afar,

and flows in

from the humid remote shadow.

Softer and softer

gets weaker, fades away.

One lonely note

still trembles, fades away.

No one can hear the voice of the sea.

Now you can hear the silver rain

pouring in

on the foliage,

rain that purifies,

its roar that varies

according to the thicker,

less thick foliage.

Listen.

The child of the air

is silent; but the child

of the miry swamp, the frog,

far away,

sings in the deepest of shadows

who knows where, who knows where!

And it rains on your lashes,

Hermione.

It rains on your black lashes

as if you were weeping,

weeping from joy; not white

but almost green,

you seem to come out of the bark.

And life is in us fresh

and fragrant,

the heart in our chests is like a peach

untouched

under the eyelids our eyes

are like springs in the grass

and the teeth in our mouths

green almonds.

And we go from thicket to thicket,

at a time together, at a time apart

(the vegetation, thick and vigorous,

entwines our ankles

entangles our knees)

who knows where, who knows where!

And it rains on our sylvan

faces,

it rains on our

bare hands

on our light

clothes,

on the fresh thoughts

that our soul, renewed,

liberates,

on the beautiful fable

that beguiled me

yesterday, that beguiles you today,

oh Hermione.

And here’s another:

To An Impromptu Of Chopin

When thou upon my breast art sleeping,

I hear across the midnight gray–

I hear the muffled note of weeping,

So near–so sad–so far away!

All night I hear the teardrops falling–

Each drop by drop–my heart must weep;

I hear the falling blood-drops–lonely,

Whilst thou dost sleep–whilst thou dost sleep.

Rain, teardrops, water, symbols of life and love.

D’Annunzio’s second life was war. He loved war. Like many other poets and writers at the beginning of the 20th Century (which I didn’t know), he longed for war to purge what he saw as an enfeebled, putrid society. A fervent nationalist he thought war could make Italy strong again. The First World War saw as senseless a mass slaughter in Northern Italy as  in Flanders, but D’Annunzio revelled in the blood and killing. He saw it as sacrifice for Italy. Fearless, he was often at the front, urging the troops on. He made flowery, poetic speeches shot through with religious imagery that inspired the troops even though few probably understood him.

Flying was another obsession of D’Annunzio, combining with his love of machines, speed, and war. He was one of the first people to fly in Italy. He wrote: “Until now I have never really lived! Life on earth is a creeping, crawling business. It is in the air that one feels the glory of being a man and of conquering the elements. There is an exquisite smoothness of motion and the joy of gliding through space. It is wonderful!”  He flew highly dangerous missions to bomb the Austrians in Trieste and even Vienna (he dropped poems rather than bombs on Vienna). Once he crashed and was blinded in one eye.

D’Annunzio was sad at the end of the war, but then his adventure in Fiume began. His “legionnaires” wore black shirts, and it was at Fiume that the dress, militarism, high blown speeches, marches, flags symbolism, religious imagery, and violence of fascism was born, making D’Annunzio a hate figure to many. To some biographers the lyrical poet and “fascist” are different people, but Hughes-Hallet makes clear how they are one.

The final, fourth phase of D’Annunzio’s life was twenty years largely confined to his house on the mountain above Lake Garda. As he was a potent, if ambivalent and reluctant, symbol to the fascists who had taken over Italy, Mussolini indulged him with the state paying for the complex of temples he built there for himself. He continued to have sexual adventures to the end of his life at 73, with both his chief of staff and concert pianist mistress playing roles as nurse, sexual partner, and procurer of young women, many of them prostitutes. (You couldn’t help but think of Berlusconi and his bunga bunga parties.) The world, including Russian revolutionaries and Nazis, came to see him, and he is buried on the site in a fascist mausoleum that doesn’t fit with his actually exquisite if flamboyant taste.

Hemingway thought him a “jerk,” but his life makes a great story.

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