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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938)

AN ITALIAN poet and novelist of early promise, who has become a somewhat unique figure in contemporary literature, Gabriele d’Annunzio is a native of the Abruzzi, born in the little village of Pescara, on the Adriatic coast. Its picturesque scenery has formed the background for more than one of his stories. At the age of fifteen, while still a student at Prato, he published his first volume of poems, ‘Intermezzo di Rime’ (Interludes of Verse): “grand, plastic verse, of an impeccable prosody,” as he maintained in their defense, but so daringly erotic that their appearance created no small scandal. Other poems followed at intervals, notably ‘Il Canto Nuovo’ (The New Song: Rome, 1882), ‘Isotteo e la Chimera’ (Isotteo and the Chimera: Rome, 1890), ‘Poema Paradisiaco’ and ‘Odi Navali’ (Marine Odes: Milan, 1893), which leave no doubt of his high rank as poet. The novel, however, is his chosen vehicle of expression, and the one which gives fullest scope to his rich and versatile genius. His first long story, ‘Il Piacere’ (Pleasure), appeared in 1889. As the title implies, it was pervaded with a frank, almost complacent sensuality, which its author has since been inclined to deprecate. Nevertheless, the book received merited praise for its subtle portrayal of character and incident, and its exuberance of phraseology; and more than all, for the promise which it suggested. With the publication of ‘L’Innocente,’ the author for the first time showed a real seriousness of purpose. His views of life had meanwhile essentially altered:—“As was just,” he confessed, “I began to pay for my errors, my disorders, my excesses: I began to suffer with the same intensity with which I had formerly enjoyed myself; sorrow had made of me a new man.” Accordingly his later books, while still emphatically realistic, are chastened by an underlying tone of pessimism. Passion is no longer the keynote of life, but rather, as exemplified in ‘Il Trionfo della Morte,’ the prelude of death. Leaving Rome, where, “like the outpouring of the sewers, a flood of base desires invaded every square and cross-road, ever more putrid and more swollen,” D’Annunzio retired to Francovilla-al-Mare, a few miles from his birthplace. There he lives in seclusion, esteemed by the simple-minded, honest, and somewhat fanatical peasantry, to whose quaint and primitive manners his books owe much of their distinctive atmosphere.

In Italy, D’Annunzio’s career has been watched with growing interest. Until recently, however, he was scarcely known to the world at large, when a few poems, translated into French, brought his name into immediate prominence. Within a year three Paris journals acquired rights of translation from him, and he has since occupied the attention of such authoritative French critics as Henri Rabusson, René Doumic, Édouard Rod, Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, and, most recently, Ferdinand Brunetière, all of whom seem to have a clearer appreciation of his quality than even his critics at home. At the same time there is a small but hostile minority among the French novelists, whose literary feelings are voiced by Léon Daudet in a vehement protest under the title ‘Assez d’Étrangers’ (Enough of Foreigners).

It is too soon to pass final judgment on D’Annunzio’s style, which has been undergoing an obvious transition, not yet accomplished. Realist and psychologist, symbolist and mystic by turns, and first and always a poet, he has been compared successively to Bourget and Maupassant, Tolstoï and Dostoïevsky, Théophile Gautier and Catulle Mendès, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Baudelaire. Such complexity of style is the outcome of his cosmopolitan taste in literature, and his tendency to assimilate for future use whatever pleases him in each successive author. Shakespeare and Goethe, Keats and Heine, Plato and Zoroaster, figure among the names which throng his pages; while his unacknowledged and often unconscious indebtedness to writers of lesser magnitude,—notably the self-styled ‘Sar’ Joseph Peladan—has lately raised an outcry of plagiarism. Yet whatever leaves his pen, borrowed or original, has received the unmistakable imprint of his powerful individuality.

It is easy to trace the influences under which, successively, D’Annunzio has come. They are essentially French. He is a French writer in an Italian medium. His early short sketches, noteworthy chiefly for their morbid intensity, were modeled largely on Maupassant, whose frank, unblushing realism left a permanent imprint upon the style of his admirer, and whose later analytic tendency probably had an important share in turning his attention to the psychological school.

‘Il Piacere,’ though largely inspired by Paul Bourget, contains as large an element of ‘Notre Cœur’ and ‘Bel-Ami’ as of ‘Le Disciple’ and ‘Cœur de Femme.’ In this novel, Andrea Sperelli affords us the type of D’Annunzio’s heroes, who, aside from differences due to age and environment, are all essentially the same,—somewhat weak, yet undeniably attractive; containing, all of them, “something of a Don Juan and a Cherubini,” with the Don Juan element preponderating. The plot of ‘Il Piacere’ is not remarkable either for depth or for novelty, being the needlessly detailed record of Sperelli’s relations with two married women, of totally opposite types.

‘Giovanni Episcopo’ is a brief, painful tragedy of low life, written under the influence of Russian evangelism, and full of reminiscences of Dostoïevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment.’ Giovanni is a poor clerk, of a weak, pusillanimous nature, completely dominated by a coarse, brutal companion, Giulio Wanzer, who makes him an abject slave, until a detected forgery compels Wanzer to flee the country. Episcopo then marries Ginevra, the pretty but unprincipled waitress at his pension, who speedily drags him down to the lowest depths of degradation, making him a mere nonentity in his own household, willing to live on the proceeds of her infamy. They have one child, a boy, Ciro, on whom Giovanni lavishes all his suppressed tenderness. After ten years of this martyrdom, the hated Wanzer reappears and installs himself as husband in the Episcopo household. Giovanni submits in helpless fury, till one day Wanzer beats Ginevra, and little Ciro intervenes to protect his mother. Wanzer turns on the child, and a spark of manhood is at last kindled in Giovanni’s breast. He springs upon Wanzer, and with the pent-up rage of years stabs him.

‘L’Innocente,’ D’Annunzio’s second long novel, also bears the stamp of Russian influence. It is a gruesome, repulsive story of domestic infidelity, in which he has handled the theory of pardon, the motive of numerous recent French novels, like Daudet’s ‘La Petite Paroisse’ and Paul Marguerite’s ‘La Tourmente.’

In another extended work, ‘Il Trionfo della Morte’ (The Triumph of Death), D’Annunzio appears as a convert to Nietzsche’s philosophy and to Wagnerianism. Ferdinand Brunetière has pronounced it unsurpassed by the naturalistic schools of England, France, or Russia. In brief, the hero, Giorgio Aurispa, a morbid sensualist, with an inherited tendency to suicide, is led by fate through a series of circumstances which keep the thought of death continually before him. They finally goad him on to fling himself from a cliff into the sea, dragging with him the woman he loves.

‘Le Vergini della Rocca’ (Maidens of the Crag), his next story, is more an idyllic poem than a novel. Claudio Cantelmo, sickened with the corruption of Rome, retires to his old home in the Abruzzi, where he meets the three sisters Massimilla, Anatolia, Violante: “names expressive as faces full of light and shade, and in which I seemed already to discover an infinity of grace, of passion, and of sorrow.” It is inevitable that he should choose one of the three, but which? And in the dénouement the solution is only half implied.

D’Annunzio planned a somewhat ambitious series of romances—a triple trilogy. The first set of three, the Romances of the Rose, comprised ‘Il Piacere,’ ‘L’Innocente,’ and ‘Il Trionfo della Morte,’ noticed above. ‘Le Vergini delle Rocce’ was to have been the first novel of the Romances of the Lily, but had no successor. In the third set also, the Romances of the Pomegranate, only one novel, ‘Il Fuoco’ (The Flame of Life) appeared (1900). It had a tremendous succès de scandale, for its hero-poet was everywhere identified with D’Annunzio himself, its heroine, the tragic actress La Foscarina, with the great Duse, who had been appearing in D’Annunzio’s plays and had expended, so it was said, large sums in giving them sumptuous mountings. Their quarrels and subsequent separation were the subject of much newspaper discussion and gossip in literary circles and gave ‘Il Fuoco’ a passing celebrity; for a time it was the most talked of novel in Europe. Its permanent fame rests upon its magnificent descriptions of Venice and its highly rhetorical and elaborate style, wrought in curious images, metaphor heaped on metaphor till the reader turns dizzy in the attempt to follow the poet’s meaning. It is perhaps D’Annunzio’s best novel, for the later one, ‘Forse che si, forse che no’ (1910), in spite of sensational descriptions of automobile rides and aeroplane ascents, is of inferior interest.

Long before the date of its publication, D’Annunzio had turned his main attention to the drama. Two short plays had appeared in 1897–8, but it was in ‘La Gioconda’ (1898), as interpreted by the supreme art of Eleanora Duse, for whom the play was written and to whom it is dedicated, that he first won international fame as a dramatist. It deals with the old issue of the conflict between art and duty, the artist’s struggle to reconcile the conflicting claims of a wife who is devoted to him and a mistress who is the source of his inspiration, and his inevitable failure, bringing disaster upon all concerned. Other dramas followed: ‘La Citta Morta’ (The Dead City), which reproduced with all D’Annunzio’s morbidity the atmosphere of the buried city of Mycene; ‘La Gloria’ (Glory), a political drama in which the influence of Nietzsche was specially prominent; ‘Francesca da Rimini,’ an elaborate setting of the episode which Dante has immortalized in a few lines of the ‘Inferno’; but none of these equaled ‘La Gioconda’ in interest of plot, character, and situation, and the poet’s fame as a dramatist rather receded than advanced until a visit to his native Abruzzi produced ‘La Figlia di Jorio’ (1904). The title rôle was passionately presented by a talented Sicilian actress, and the play was both a literary and dramatic success. Its heroine is a girl accused of witchcraft, who seeks refuge from her peasant-pursuers with an Abruzzi bridal party. Local color is freely and effectively employed in the setting, and the quaint superstitions of the Abruzzi furnish a romantic background for the moving situations and incidents of the drama. Act I passes in “a room on the ground floor of a farm house. The large entrance door opens on a large sunlit yard. Across the door is stretched, to prevent entrance, a scarlet woolen scarf, held in place at each end by a forked hoe and a distaff. At one side of the door jamb is a waxen cross to keep off evil spirits…. Suspended from the ceiling by ropes is a wide, broad board laden with cheeses. Two windows, iron-grated and high up from the ground, give light, one at each side of the large door, and in each of the gratings is stuck a bunch of red buckwheat to ward off evil.” Mila, the daughter of Jorio the Sorcerer, finds reluctant and temporary protection with the women of the house, but stays long enough to cast her spell over the young bridegroom, Aligi, shepherd and craftsman, who goes with her to the mountains. The scene shifts in Act II to a cavern, beyond which are seen green pastures, snow-clad peaks, and passing clouds. The cavern is rudely furnished, and a prominent object is the figure of an angel hewn into shape to the waist, with the two wings almost finished. This carving is Aligi’s handiwork, and we learn that he has been living in a state of innocence with Mila, intending to take the angel as a present to the Pope and obtain a dispensation from his half-completed marriage. This project is interrupted by a visit from Aligi’s lascivious father, Lazaro, who binds his son and is about to offer violence to Mila, when Aligi, released by his sister Ornella, rushes in and slays his father with his graver’s axe. Act III is largely taken up with the strange funeral customs of the Abruzzi peasants, who form a chorus of lamentation round Lazaro’s bier, and are about to exact vengeance on the parricide. But Mila intervenes to take Aligi’s guilt upon herself; stupefied by a potion, he fails to realize her self-sacrifice, and curses her as she goes to be burnt at the stake. Only his sister, Ornella, understands and hails the daughter of Jorio as her “sister in Jesus” as Mila goes to her self-appointed end, saying, “The flame is beautiful! The flame is beautiful!”

After this tragedy, no less remarkable for the magnificence and variety of its versification than for its romantic plot and setting, D’Annunzio wrote half a dozen other dramas, the last two in French, but nothing of equal interest and beauty. These, with a biography of Cola di Rienzo (1913), and a cinematograph scenario ‘Cabiria’ (1914), completed his achievement up to the outbreak of the War. His fervid oratory was a potent element in swaying the people of Rome to urge the Government to take part in the great struggle on the side of the Allies, and he at once enlisted for active service. He lost an eye in an aeroplane accident and received the French War Cross. Both in literature and in politics (he was for a time a member of the Italian Chamber) he has been one of the greatest forces in Italian life of the last half century.