The Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo (1901–68) was born in Modica, Sicily. His first collection, Acque e Terre (Water and Earth), published in 1930, was a nostalgic homage to his Mediterranean birthplace. His next works were more of subjective impressions but, with the outbreak of war, however, Quasimodo began, instead, to address the contemporary political struggle and its effect on the lives of ordinary men and women. This change of tone and direction can be seen in his translations of Ancient Greek lyrics by Sophocles and Euripides (Lirici Greci, 1940) and Virgil (Il Fiore delle Georgiche, 1944), from which he acquired an interest in classical style and the deeper feeling for the relationship between life and art evident in much of his post-war work.
“The Ferry” (“Il Larghetto”), appeared in Quasimodo’s collection Giorno dopo Giorno (1946; Day after Day) – described by one critic as “a diary of the tragedy of the war years”. This was the poetry for which he first became known outside Italy and for which, in 1959, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. But, although it may mark a new departure, it also heralds a return to the civic eloquence and measure of his native tradition. Based on Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Charon ferries the souls of the dead across the River Styx, “The Ferry” (from Jack Bevan’s Complete Poems of Salvatore Quasimodo, 1983) looks back into Italy’s mythical past in order to capture, in the words of the Nobel judges, “the tragic experience of life in our times”. (from SLT)
From where are you calling? The fog
echoes you faintly. It is time;
again from the huts the ravening dogs
leap to the river on the scent:
shining with blood on the far shore
a polecat leers. This is a ferry I know:
there, on the water, black
stones rise up; and all those ships
that pass in the night with sulphur torches.
Already now you are far away
though your voice has the myriad tones of echo,
and I hardly hear its cadence.
But I see you: you have violets clasped
in your hands, so pale, and lichens
near your eyes. So you must be dead.
Translated by Jack Bevan (1980)