X August: a poem

X August  (by Giovanni PASCOLI)

Saint Lawrence, I know why so many
stars in the peaceful air
catch fire and fall out,
why such great weeping lights in the sky.

A swallow was returning to the roof:
she was killed and fell into thorns;
she had an insect in her beak:
the dinner of her little ones.

Now she is there, as on a cross, stretching
that worm to that distant sky;
and in her waiting nest, in the shadows,
the peeping gets fainter and fainter

Also a man was returning to his nest:
he was killed – he said: I forgive
with a scream stuck in his open eyes:
he was carrying two dolls as a gift.

Now there, in his lonely home,
they’re waiting, waiting in vain;
he is motionless, astonished, and points
the dolls to the distant sky.

And you, Sky, from thigh above
the serene worlds, infinite, immortal,
oh! you flood with tears of stars
this opaque atom of Evil!

The tenth of August is when we Italians commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, who was burnt alive on a gridiron, in 258 A.D. It is the night when meteor showers are expected to be most intense, a magical night, when wishes that are ‘wished upon a star’ are likely to come true. We call the Perseids the “tears of Saint Lawrence”, since they resemble the sparks of fire produced when the martyr was burnt.

However, for twelve year-old Giovanni Pascoli, that date meant tragedy. On the evening of 10 August 1867 his father was killed while on his way home from a local fair in a cart drawn by a black and white mare (“la cavalla storna”), who continued slowly on her way home with the dead man in it.

In the poem “X August” (with the date written in Roman numbers to represent a cross) the poet compares the killing of his father, who was returning home carrying two dolls to his daughters, to the killing of a swallow, returning to the nest with some food in its beak. Both of them were victims of a shotgun, a senseless human violence, in a world where injustice and evil prevail. Even the sky on that night, the night of Saint Lawrence, covers the earth with the tears of the stars.

 

 

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