1800 A.D. to Present

Gabriel D'Annunzio at Fiume

By Jacques Vaunois

[From: The Living Age, Eighth Series, Vol. XXI, January, February, March 1921, The Living Age Co. (Boston 1921), p. 626-634. Reprinted from La Grande Revue (Liberal Literary Monthly), January]

D'Annunzio's speeches and messages at Fiume form an integral part of his work as a poet and writer. At present, we know only a few of these compositions, which form a curious chapter in literary history. I propose to study them here solely from the standpoint of their art, entirely apart from their political and diplomatic significance.

Many of D'Annunzio's speeches were impromptu. They were never recorded. Doubtless, the most beautiful of them were not written — those of the vibrant days of September, when a delirious people acclaimed its liberator; when the poet, intoxicated with the joy of action, inspired by his accomplished dream, poured forth over the multitude the floods of his lyric eloquence. This man is a perfect incarnation of Italian genius. He is conscious of the fact, and he carries love for his fatherland to the point of adoration. It is not a patient, platonic love, but an impetuous, uncontrollable passion. Like those poets of old, whose lyre summoned the sons of their city to combat, he hastened in the hour of crisis to dedicate to his country all his genius and all his heart. He was conscious of his mission. -He was the spokesman, the very voice of Italy.

Fiume, as we can well believe, was thrilled by D'Annunzio. The great man held it enslaved by his charm. How? By his speeches and proclamations. He had no other means of government. It was an absolute triumph of the word!

When he desired to make some communication to the people, to announce some decision he had made and wished approved, he spoke to the multitude, in the great hall where the National Council assembled, from the stage of the Fenice Theatre, or from a high balcony, whence he addressed the populace assembled in the public square.

How does he speak? Slowly. He draws out his words, giving all their value to the harmonious syllables of the Italian language. He does not gesture. He keeps his eyes fixed above the audience, as though addressing an invisible auditor. The people would listen, literally fascinated, breaking forth sometimes into applause, and when he concluded, absolutely identifying their own will with that of the orator. It is a wonderful country, where the humblest citizens can be so moved by the beauty of speech, by literary form, by the music of words — under their kindly sky and within hearing of the murmur of their harmonious sea!

When D'Annunzio speaks, it is not for pure love of speaking — not with the vanity of a rhetorician who thirsts for applause. His purpose is to debate or to persuade; to attain a definite object which never escapes his view. His lyric flights always aim to guide his auditors to a predetermined point. His speeches are usually brief. They resemble proclamations. When what he had to communicate passed these limits, when he wished to have his thoughts and aspirations reach every household and every heart, he [626] addressed a message to the citizens of Fiume through the press. It would be impossible to summarize or describe all these proclamations or messages, or even to quote a few lines from each, within the limits of a single article. We shall not try to reproduce the history of Fiume as it was written at the time by D'Annunzio, but to draw a picture of the author of Laudi with his own pencil. We do not aspire to contribute a page to political annals, but to the history of literature.

Passing over the first months, when the idol of his people exchanged his first professions of eternal love with them, let us come to the famous events of December, 1919, which seemed to predict a rupture between the Commandant and the citizens of Fiume, but which eventually united them even more closely than before. During this critical period D'Annunzio's proclamations and messages followed each other in quick succession.

This is what had occurred. On the 11th of December, 1910, after three months of tedious negotiating with the government at Rome, the dawn of deliverance seemed finally at hand. D'Annunzio's envoys brought back a draft of an agreement which secured nearly everything the dictator of Fiume had demanded. Italy's officials agreed to defend Fiume's cause, providing the legionaries would evacuate the city. It looked as if the task were completed, and the town would soon be annexed to the mother country. D'Annunzio's enterprise would be crowned with success.

All the poet's advisers wished to ratify this project. They were men of influence: Luigi Rizzo, famous for his great deeds in the Adriatic, the man who sank the Austrian dreadnaught Vvribus Unitis in Pola harbor; Giurati, the Commandant's premier, honorably wounded during the war; Colonel Repetto, and Major Reina, who had organized the Fiume expedition. All these favored accepting the proposed agreement. Last of all, the Fiume National Council, by a vote of forty-eight to six, ratified that measure.

What passed during those hours in the soul of the poet? He, who at first seemed delighted with this easy victory, suddenly turned around. He declared that he would consult directly the people. Then, discovering that a popular vote would be against him, he refused to permit a plebiscite, and put his soldiers in charge of the ballot boxes. For several days, Fiume, divided into two camps, was in a state of turmoil. Up to December 20, the date set by the Italian government for the acceptance of its proposal, the people thought D'Annunzio would reconsider. But the latter, instead of making the reply expected, issued a message to the citizens in which he explained his doubt, his uncertainty, and his anxiety. He said he feared the government at Rome had set a trap for them. The truth is, perhaps, that he found such an epilogue unworthy of his epic. Had he not said one day: 'What a tragedy, if such a marvel of the Middle Ages should finish thus!'

Here is his message:

'People of Fiume, my brothers, why these cries? Why this furor? Why this distress? The voice of Fiume has become shrill and harsh. Why is the fountain of our waters troubled, when in beautiful September its stream flowed as clear as crystal? They, then, were healing waters. I, too, was at once healed of my fever. Do you not remember? Do you not remember that night of ecstasy when I appeared before you here, when we set up again the ancient tribune, and when our discourse was but a mighty dialogue between the voice of an individual and the voice of the multitude? When our [648] strength and our joy mingled in a harmonious chant to heaven, and when we laughed together and sang together, and together defied man and destiny? Do you not remember? Never has the world seen such loving harmony as was ours. The fonts of our hearts overflowed like your historic urn.'

How perfectly he led his people! He started out by recalling what it was time to forget, the miracle of the Fiume ad venture, the fever of agitation allayed as by enchantment; then the days of discussion, the memories of their political honeymoon, and finally the very significance of the name of Fiume. Fiume means, in fact, river, and the city preserves in its treasury a monument which symbolized in ancient days the source of that river: a fountain flowing from an urn.

Continuing, D'Annunzio explained at length the reasons for his attitude, and all that the proposed agreement passed over in silence. He explained this in terms at once precise and poetic.

'They say that the legionaries are weary. That is not true. They say that the people are weary. Tell me if that is true. They say that it is a victory, when we consider that the Italian government up to yesterday opposed us. They say that it is my victory. But for me, it is not a question of victory; it is a question of whether our light is to be extinguished.

Is it a glorious treaty for the head of the state who signs it? Then I, who have laid at your feet all that remained of myself after four years of battle, lay at your feet this glory. It is not much, a very petty thing.

"By this treaty Fiume is saved, Italy is saved." Are you convinced of this? In those clear-visioned days of our faith and constancy, we said: Forsooth, Italy does not live by its flesh, but by its soul! It cannot be saved by the flesh, but only by the spirit! And we have seen what is the power of the spirit. Comprehend, and pity my agony and that of my legionaries. Why are my two great heroic companions who have brought this document from Rome so sad?

Ah! Giovanni Giurati, you of noble Latin blood, you, who though crippled, are the most complete of men, how much sweeter were our hours of hardship in the slime of the trenches than those of the present. Ah! Luigi Rizzo. thou pure and valiant hero, how much happier we were when we were facing death in our frail bark of Buccari, watching the sparkling coast of Voloeca at Zurcovo during that February night, as though bound for a votive festival! Let us face our tragedy frankly, eye to eye.'

Further on, speaking of his legionaries, he explains: 'Nothing is more bitter than heroism betrayed.' That was true, above all, of himself. Next, passing to the deliberation of the National Council and explaining that the project had been opposed from the first by three of the most eminent members, he adds:

'They called it discussing our victory. But after the vote was taken, the councilors left the hall with faces whose sorrow said:" It is not a victory, but a burial." That was the voice of unerring instinct. Something was ended, something was dead. As I just said: We were extinguishing a beacon light...

Once there was a saint in Italy who wept at the point of death, and when asked why he wept, he replied: "I weep because love is not loved." For days which have been longer than centuries, love has not been loved in our [649] city of sacrifice, where its flame formerly blazed highest upon our altars. Love is discredited, is repudiated. My brothers, let us pray for pardon, let us make amende honorable. Let us look each other directly in the eye, let us scan our hearts. Let us, again, see ourselves as we are. We carry within our bosoms our guiding stars, as during those great nights of September and October, when the city, exalted beyond itself, was its own heaven. What fraud and violence lurk around those unhappy ballot boxes, which stand there guarded by bayonets like criminals! Men of Fiume, to-day and for evermore, your only ballot box is that urn which is preserved in your ancient treasure house; that reminder of your heroic age, that symbol of overflowing faith and inexhaustible love. I and my companions have drunk from that alone. Drink ye likewise. "Hope is eternal" said an ancient sage. We say, "Victory is eternal."'

Eloquence and genius worked a miracle. The voice was heard. When the city's liberator appealed to its citizens, almost implored them, with: 'My heart is broken. Must we part, must we lay down our task unfulfilled? Pity me as I pity you,' the multitude responded with a single voice: 'No! the crisis is over, harmony dwells again among us.'

But a certain hesitation, possibly a regret, still hovered in the hearts of the people. D'Annunzio exerted himself to restore confidence, and in his subsequent speeches and messages he insisted upon the need of constancy and faith — faith in the destiny of the city, faith in its ties with Italy, faith in the aims and acts of the Commandant. Constancy to resist insidious proposals, to support blockade and privation;— these are the qualities which D'Annunzio urges in the two following quotations. The first is from a letter which he wrote to the Podesta of Fiume, on Christmas of 1919. He accompanied the letter with a gift of twenty-five thousand lire to be distributed among the poor of the city:

' In making this gift to the poor people of Fiume I cannot overcome a feeling of timidity and almost of shame.

To give little to those who have given bountifully is indeed almost a cause of shame.

Are not the poor of Fiume the favorites of Saint Francis? Like that holy man, they have clothed poverty with the garb of opulence.

When Italy's prisoners sank exhausted before your doors, too weak even to whisper their distress, you emulated that Fiume widow, addressing her starving children in the sombre November of Caporetto: "My children, we are poor, but there are those who are poorer than we. Shall we not aid them with the little that we have? Let us offer this little flower to Italy."

 Every threshold and window-seat in the poorer quarters of the town was decorated with this little silent flower. Like the Saint of Assisi, the poor people of Fiume have always fed others more needy than themselves. Each merits the Franciscan cord, and that Paradise where he who has nothing has everything.

Even to-day the full burden of sacrifice rests on them. But they do not complain nor protest. Among you, even to-day, are those who are anxious to give more; to give more bountifully.

I once saw, painted on the walls of an old Venetian palace, symbolical figures representing all the virtues. No one of them was crowned. Faith was not crowned, Charity was not crowned, Prudence was not crowned, neither was Temperance, nor Vigilance, nor Hope.

[630] But Constancy was crowned. Among them all, Constancy alone was crowned, and that solitary distinction pleased me.

Who shall to-day bestow the crown of Constancy on Fiume? Those who merit the city's crown of Constancy today are the poor, who give their all.

Is this silver? It is more than silver. Is it gold? It is more than gold. What metal is it then? It is a treasure which only the poor possess. And what is that? The poor know, and do not tell; they smile in silence.

How, then, can one offer without abashment anything to these who thus smile in their wealth?

The other day, one of them wished to kiss my hand, and as I withdrew it, he fell to his knees. Then I, too, knelt with him. We remained thus, face to face, like those givers we see in ancient altar pictures. I was less than he; that is why I would not rise except after him.

So, to-day, I crave pardon of the poor people of Fiume. I do not offer them silver, which is little and common. I offer them my love, which prostrates itself before them.'

Nothing more typical of D'Annunzio appears among these papers than this letter and the following proclamation, addressed to the cities of Istria, but really intended for Fiume. Voluntarily, he dispensed for a moment with the treasures of his magnificent vocabulary and metaphor. He used only the most simple words, those in daily use among the poor and simple. However, with what art they were used! How perfectly he understood how to touch the heartstrings of the soul! He still remains the Imaginifique of Fire and of More than Love —the most magnificent builder of images, perhaps, since Victor Hugo. Consider this message To the Cities of Istria, and pause a moment to appreciate the dream and poesy of these syllables: From the olive trees of Semedella to the cypresses of San Canziano. Here, we have that quality in proper names which intoxicated the god of French romanticism, and of which D'Annunzio knows the secret better than any other. They are names which possess even more charm in Italian than in our language. There they have a physiognomy, a living glance, a life.

'Fair cities of Istria, gems of the sea! Four months have passed since the night of Ronchi, since the legionaries gathered'in that arid Carso cemetery, where the shades of our Istrian precursors seemed to renew for us, amidst its ruins and its moldering bones, the fertility of their sacrifice. A year of suffering and fighting draws toward its close. Another year begins, already disturbed by unpropitious signs and untimely stirrings, like the starting of a premature spring.

Where is our faith? Who has hidden our faith under a violet cloth, as the crucifix is hidden during the Week of Shadows?

To testify the faith of Fiume, to declare the hope of Fiume, to suffer the passion of Fiume, that was the glory and joy of all, when the laurels of September were still green. It was the pride of every heart which wore the seal of Fiume. That was the visible sign of constancy and fidelity.

Was that constancy a pretense? Was that fidelity an expedient? We are told that everything has an end, and that weariness comes to all.

Ask the poor Istrian volunteers who carried the remains of Anna Sauro from the olive trees of Semdella to the cypresses of San Canziano, whether the bier was heavy. Its burden was as though the mother and child were of the same lead and the same oak as the [681] coffin which contained them. Ask these four infantry men if it ever occurred to them to drop their burden from the bridge of Capodistria into the silent waters beneath.

Some one has said: "Here is the flame which was a man, here is the light which was a hope, here is the voice which was the cry of despair at hope too long deferred." The light is extinguished. The voice is dumb.

Fair cities of Istria, you who also have felt the flame, you who also received its inspiring touch, maintain the faith of Fiume!

In the Plaza of Capodistria, between the two Ghibelline towers, under the Roman Cybele, pledge again, today* your faith to Fiume!

In the golden basilica of Parenzo, under the Arch of the Twelve Virgins, pledge again, to-day, your faith to Fiume!

From Rovigno to Laurana, from Umago to Albona, from Cittanova to Fianona, in every town and marketplace of Italian Istria, pledge again, to-day, your faith to Fiume.

And in the great Pola of the Caesars, before the great monument of Sergei, built by the piety of a noble woman, pledge again your faith to Fiume.

Last of all, beyond, on the silent shores of that island which has chastised treason with blood, before the arch where the sad poet of the Besenghi sleeps, and with him his songs which were never sung, pledge, to-day, your faith to Fiume.

And may all your lions, and all your gates, roar forth: Victoria tibi, civitas Dei!'

Here, a new aspect of the poet is revealed, the mystical aspect, I might almost say the apocalyptic. It is easy to show how D'Annunzio has always loved short phrases, recurring like a prayer, like a litany.

The final paragraphs of his famous Quarto oration, in 1915, are merely a transposition of the Sermon on the Mount; the beatitudes of a warrior. Are not all great lyricists mystics? Is not lyric poetry religious in its inspiration? Does it not preach its own evangel?

Alas! the treaty of Rapallo has not respected the vows of Fiume. The city is not joined to Italy; the isles of Arba and Veglia have gone to the Yugoslavs. The city of Carnaro could not accept what it considered an unjust denial of its righteous aspirations. It made ready, with a heart deadened by despair, for its last resistance. With agony, and yet with resolution, it saw the approach of Christmas Eve, which was to be the signal for fratricide instead of peace and good will. The voice of the poet was raised once more:

'Companions, and again brothers — those who for fifteen months have been, under compulsion, traitors to us, and our jailers, to-day are ordered to attack us, and are making ready to overwhelm us.

By order of the royal government, a nation's funeral pyre, and a nation's execution ground, are to be set up on the soil of Fiume.

Those who are not willing to face death have until to-morrow to leave our lines.

Legionaries, each of you is free to violate his oath and to obey his fears. All that is asked of him is to leave here his arms, his equipment, and his Rone hi medal. He will receive from the other side paternal commendation, an appropriate pourboire, and the promise that he shall be honorably enrolled in the association of pardoned deserters, one of the most flourishing and profitable of the kingdom.

To those who have the courage to [632] remain with me, I can promise nothing more than the bread, black with dirt and vermin, which you have already tasted; the bread of sorrow, and the crown of glory.

We shall have the glory of suffering together for fair Italy.

After all we have suffered, we are willing to suffer more.

For fifteen months, poorly fed, poorly clothed, poorly shod, treated as men afflicted with a pestilence, quarantined like patients confined to a pest house, we have suffered, with songs in our hearts.

Now, we must suffer in silence.'

But the latter injunction was not to apply to the poet. The following day, a shell from a cruiser struck the palace of the Commandant, and slightly wounded D'Annunzio. Thinking that the shell had been directed against him personally, his irony changed to wrath:

'The warship Andrea Doria has tried to visit on me personally the vengeance decreed by Rome. Oh! cowards of Italy! I still live, and do not yield. Yesterday, I prepared myself for sacrifice. I rallied the strength and fortitude of my soul. To-day, I shall defend myself with all my might. I offered my life hundreds and hundreds of times in the war with a smile. But it would be an unworthy sacrifice, to throw it away for a people who carelessly forget themselves in Christmas merriment, when their rulers are slaughtering with cold design an heroic band of citizens, ennobled by Fiume's sublime virtues, who for sixteen months have stood heart to heart by our side, and have never faltered in suffering and service.'

A little later, he concluded an appeal to the Italians with these words.

'Christmas brings Fiume new bloodshed. The city offers itself for sacrifice, like an immortal victim, over whose corpse the Italian fatherland it loved so devotedly is summoned to shed the bitterest of tears, and whom it will mourn with a remorse that knows no ending.'

Let us stop here: 'The Italian fatherland loved so devotedly.' These words summarize the spirit of the Fiume adventure. They might likewise serve as an epilogue to the speeches and messages of Gabriel D'Annunzio at Fiume. Despite appearances, despite certain traits of vanity which go with the pride of genius, D'Annunzio has always preferred the glory of his fatherland to his own glory. The Fiume expedition was not the exploit of a handful of madmen. It was a plan deeply matured. It was designed as a clarion call to an Italy gorged with victory. To be sure, the poet did not efface his personality behind the demands of Italian policy. He did make difficulties for those who guided Italy's official courses, and a stranger might be tempted to consider him an enfant perdu. But this would be unjust. He personified the revolt of Italian public opinion against the abdication of the government.

Is it surprising, then, that his personality always holds the centre of the scene in these Fiume orations? The expedition was his, the soul of the resistance was himself. The enthusiasm of the people of Fiume, he, alone, created and sustained. That spirit spoke through his mouth — and how happily! The miracle of his enterprise was his own creation, and what a glorious one! Fiume and D'Annunzio are henceforth inseparable. It is D'Annunzio everywhere. Has he ever in his life done ought but paint himself? What else could we expect from the author of Fire and The Child of Pleasure?

 [633] Thus, the Fiume epic was merely his last masterpiece — as much a literary as a political feat — and, of all his works, it is the one dearest to his heart. He could not easily part with it. He is like an artist, who, having produced an immortal masterpiece and cherished it in his soul, recoils from abandoning it to the judgment of the world. Quite possibly, he dreamed of dying on the walls of Fiume, as Byron died amidst the ruins of Missolonghi. But, was it not one of his dreams to realize in action the verses of another Italian poet, which D'Annunzio doubtless knew by heart from childhood:

Donato un Regno al eopraggiunio Re
Or se ne torna.

(He returns after giving a kingdom to his king.)

We have called it the Fiume epic. In truth, the history of Fiume for more than a year is a poem, in which D'Annunzio's speeches and messages are the songs.

We sometimes forget that D'Annunzio is first and always a poet. He is not a dramatist, neither is he a romanticist; he is not even what certain blockheads have called him, an adventurer, a sabre-rattler, a movie actor. He is, with Carducci, the greatest living Italian poet; he is, with Kipling, the only living poet whose reputation is as wide as the world.

While he is best known abroad, perhaps, by his romances, his real merit is in his poems. It is the author of Laudi who speaks at Fiume; the man who sang with unequalled fervor and beauty, the land, the sea, and the sky of Italy. That sky, that sea, that land, he rediscovered at Fiume. They inspired his eloquence, illumined his metaphor, evoked in the people of that most Italian city the responsive chord of a race gifted by nature with sensibility for artistic form.

It is hardly necessary to say that such speeches lose in translation. Those poems are veritable symphonies. No other language can reproduce their sweetness, their seriousness, their sonority. It can only copy them in faulty and less harmonious chords.

Whatever may become of these addresses, let them not be forgotten as literature. The future will tell their political value. But, already, they form the most interesting monument of an episode which will remain famous in history.

Three hundred years ago, a little group of men and women, one hundred and twenty to be exact, not finding in their homeland the possibilities of spiritual life which they sought, embarked for a new continent, that they might found there an ideal fatherland. They carried with them their faith, their beliefs, their traditions, and their hopes. The dissenters of 1620 have become a great nation. Who knows but what these legionaries, likewise, bore in their hearts the image of Fiume, as the home of a greater Italy. Did not D'Annunzio, himself, write, a few days before the expedition: 'The history of heroes is the history of their race'? Those to whom it was granted to spend a few days at Fiume, will never deny that one breathed there an atmosphere of heroism, of medievalism, and of the spirit of Italy. Some will say: 'He rebelled against his fatherland.' Others will say:

'He converted an enterprise which many considered desperate, into a reality, for fifteen months. If he failed to give Fiume to Italy, at least he preserved it from the Yugoslavs. If he sinned against his fatherland, it was because he loved it over much. He has sweetened with Latin charm the coast of "the bitter sea." But most important of all, excelling others in courage, he staked his faith in favor of an ideal. His breath gave new life to all who [634] neared him. He showed that in a century of factions and skepticism a single man may start a new crusade, providing he be a poet, and a poet of genius. He communicated his enthusiasm and faith to others. He sowed broadcast, beauty, and love of beauty. He shed about himself the radiance of that inner light which illumines life, and without which life is scarcely worth the living.'


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