Q & A: Geoffrey Brock
What were the challenges of translating in tetrameter quatrains?
Anytime I try to translate a poem into a particular form, the challenges are the same: to do so in a way that reflects the spirit of the original yet seems fluent and vital in English. Pascoli’s line is the hendecasyllable, which mostly corresponds to our pentameter. And I usually prefer pentameter to tetrameter, all things being equal. But all things, of course, are not equal, and our pentameter line usually wants to contain slightly more than its Italian sibling. So I often find, as I did here, that making pentameters out of hendecasyllables requires padding the English, either with superfluous words or with polysyllables where monosyllables would be best. This vexes the muses terribly. For a blank verse poem, I might use pentameter and reduce the number of lines, but you can’t do that with rhymed quatrains. So I chose the four-beat line, which in the end felt just right for this poem.
The fourth line of the poem says “I was healed.” The ending, though, suggests otherwise—on several levels. What is your take on this?
The poem is both a dream about death and a depiction of death as an entering into, or perhaps an awakening from, an ultimo sogno—a final (and ultimate) dream. In any case, the healing in the first stanza is death: life is the sickness. The tragic details of Pascoli’s childhood are so well known in Italy that readers realize at once that the sight of his mother, who died when he was a boy, signals his entrance into some beyond, one in which the painful cacophony of life softens into the sort of soothing white noise that fills empty shells.