The nocturnal poetics in Dino Campana

Marco Montagnin

Dino Campana was a traveller, a madman, a dreamer, an elusive interpreter of life and, most importantly, a poet. Never recognized by his contemporaries, abandoned to the vagueness of his poetry, he was appreciated after his death by a few admirers of his art including Eugenio Montale ‒ a poet very distant from him but with a similar passion. The musicality of their verses was obtained in opposite ways: in the latter with an impeccable balanced juxtaposition of syllables, rhymes, assonances and alliterations; in Campana with a desperate and obsessive repetition, with contrasts, with verses apparently lacking in balance but with a strong impact in sound.

And yet we would not be able to offer any other key to the new readers of Orphic [Songs] than the recommendation to grasp the poet’s music in its nascent state. Music found in all his works, especially in those sketches of myth – the way back, Mediterranean night, the figure of Michelangelo, the backgrounds of the “divine primitive, Leonardo” – where Campana stops at the threshold of a door that does not open, or sometimes opens for him alone.[1]

Dino Campana was a traveller, a madman, a dreamer, an elusive interpreter of life and, most importantly, a poet.

Campana was born in Marradi in 1885. For his entire life he tried to run away from Marradi but he always went back. He was declared insane and was interned in an asylum from which he escaped several times and his last escape ‒ in 1932 ‒ cost him his life.

In 1913 Campana completed his prosimetro[2]: The Longest Day. The manuscript was given to Giovanni Papini and Ardengo Soffici but it was lost and rediscovered only sixty years later, when Soffici died. The poet was forced to rewrite the entire work from memory and so he created the Orphic songs.

Campana was an innovative poet, but he took a different direction from the Futurists and chose to turn to the past. Thanks to European and American influences, his poetry was compared to that of artists such as Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire. It is in the poem’s title that he found the very meaning of his poetry: mystical, cryptical, initiatory, rooted to antiquity. The ‘betrayed Orpheus’ is the figure that best interprets Campana’s ‘Eurydice-poem’: the greatest musician of all time, who bent mortals, sirens and gods to his will with his lyre ‒ an Orpheus totally different from Pavese’s present only thirty years later, in his Dialogues with Leucò.

The subtitle Die Tragödie des letzen Germanen in Italien ‒ over and above the various problems it caused when published during the First World War ‒ is linked to the tragic death of Orpheus, torn to pieces, ‒ according to Virgil ‒ by the women of the Ciconi. This same link can be found in the Walt Whitman’s quote at the end of the work: “They were all torn / and cover’d with / the boy’s / blood”; [3] The tragic conclusion of the life of Orpheus and the poet himself appears here.

«Who watches /doors that Night / opens to infinity?».[4]
Night in Campana is a key figure, it is the moment in which space and time collide, allowing us to take a glimpse of common images of villages and fairs where we can find mystical figures and works of art that he so skilfully juxtaposes in his poetic visions. Night is the progenitor mother, a prostitute-Queen of Dante; poetry is the daughter, composed of different parts like a chimera: legendary animal and dream.

THE CHIMERA is also a Dionysian proem, a hymn to the night and an invocation of poetry.
Poetry is a woman but not the stilnovistic one; it is the Nun of the Gioconda,[5] her gaze is not redemptive, it does not reveal any mystery, on the contrary it is quite the opposite: it conceals. Poetry and the woman of Campana both exist, they coexist by exchanging identities in the poet’s nocturnal visions, they are multiform. Campana does not invoke the muses of romantics but poetry itself as Baudelaire did.

Night, the best time for the artist, as Novalis suggests in his Hymns to the Night: the defined outlines fade, flickering and transform; the poet is nocturnal, he tries to grasp the night’s timelessness in vain and can only submit to poetry.
By stating “I don’t know”, the author starts the text, and then repeats it in verses 21 and 24, indicating the ineffability of poetry, of dreams; and the chimera is what best expresses the ambiguity of poetry. The night in Campana has the same value as the hedge in Leopardi: “And this hedge creeping, always concealing/The view, of the distant horizon ”;[6] but with a big difference: for the poet from Recanati it has a positive value – “And it is sweet to shipwreck in such a sea”[7] ‒ while for the author of the Orphic Songs, night is uncertainty, it is disturbance.
In its closing, the proem is transformed, it is alterable like poetry itself, from invocation to evocation: “I look at the white rocks, the mute sources of the winds / And the immobility of the firmaments / And the swollen shores that weep / And the shadows of human work curves there on the cold hills / And again for tender skies far away, clear current shadows / And again I call you I call you Chimera”.[8]
The poem is therefore summoned.

In AUTUMN GARDEN (Florence) the poet depicts the dying Boboli. In autumn everything disappears, the river, the colours, nature extinguishes – with a crimson sunset everything is coloured in blood. In the distance you can hear the sound of the river Arno, the laurel scent reaches the poet and suddenly the poem appears: “Her presence appears before me”.[9] He is overwhelmed by the poem, he cannot control it, it is she who controls him, she is present even if only for an instant.
It is precisely in THE HOPE (on the nocturnal torrent) that the poet’s fears prove to be correct: “The hours bend:with the dream vanished/Bows the pale fate. …/……………/For the love of poets, doors/Unlocking Death / On infinity! / For the love of poets / Princess my dream has vanished / In the whirlpools of Death!”.[10]
Poetry vanished, as it had arrived without warning, like Campana, the solitary voice of Italian poetry, with a strong Symbolist accent, went away silently.
“With Her who was not born yet died / Left me my heart without love: / And yet the heart leads in pain: / Leaving my heart from door to door”.[11]


[1] D. Campana, Canti Orfici e altre poesie, Einaudi, Cles 2014, p. V

[2] Ivi, p. 134

[3] Ivi, p. 28

[4] G. Leopardi, Canti, B.U.R., Trebaseleghe 2011, p. 268
Ivi, p. 274

[5] Ivi, p. 274

[6] D. Campana, Canti Orfici e altre poesie, Einaudi, Cles 2014, pp. 25-26

[7] Ivi, p. 27

[8] Ivi, p. 28

[9] Ivi, p. 32