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Foscolo Sepolcri Critical Thinking

Back to the Body of the Mother: Foscolo's "A Zacinto"

f Ugo Foscolo's twelve sonnets, critics generally rank four sonnets as "superior" to the other eight: "AlIa Sera" (I), "A Zacinto" (IX), "In morte del fratello Giovanni" (X), "Alla musa" (XI).1 As with Shakespeare's and Petrarch's sonnets, Foscolo's sonnets continually invite investigation, and are generously responsive to scholarly examination. Indeed, the concise and rigorous formal structure of the sonnet seems to entice infinitely interesting interpretation. How much of this is due to the rigors of the sonnet form itself, or to its especial heritage in the Western literary world? How might we best characterize the precise nature of the lyric space that the sonnet, with its many prosodic constraints and precursor-models, provides? And how might it reveal to us the operations of the construction of the self and of the social?

These queries were suggested by remarks made by Professor Susan Stewart in her contribution to the Presidential Forum at the 1993 MLA convention.P The topic of the Forum was "Multiculturalism: The Task of Literary Representation in the Twenty-first Century." On the topic of multiculturalism, Stewart offered rather startling comments. Against the grain of much that had been said on this panel-against the grain not so much in rebuttal as in the fact that her comments originated from a divergent orientation to the entire issue of culture and its formal representations-Stewart directed attention to the epistemological power of literary forms in general, and of the lyric in particular. Her claim, put simply, is that the practice of literary art "creates a site of transformation wherein the self and the social might be continually recognized and remade" (12). Thus, and not really paradoxically, I would add that the more formally restrictive the form, the more radical its transformative potential.

Rather than considering literary production and its forms as marginal to culture, Stewart suggests that "aesthetic forms might be taken as central to the epistemological and ethical possibilities of culture's emergence" (14). And against the trend in multicultural and postmodern criticism (literary, anthropological, philosophical) to validate realism as some zero degree of authenticity, Stewart cautions us about the limitations of realism: "... there is no good reason to limp

ITALICA Volume 74 Number 2 (1997)

along with realism's fiction of approximation and its naive epistemology that limits aesthetic forms to a secondary and imitative position" (14). Indeed, Stewart calls for a "multicultural formalism" in which the lyric form above all should be re-evaluated:

We might remember that, as the lyric has come forward in language, it has appeared as a constant querying of the boundary between the somatic and the social. Rhythm, pattern, alternation, repetition, and variation both reinforce and undermine the creation of the inter-subjective semantic field. Lyric's distribution and administration of pronouns from Thomas Wyatt to John Berryman have helped determine the positions of subjects, the frames of desire, and the possibilities for recognition and apprehension of and by others. And lyric's appearance has repeatedly been necessitated by processes of cultural transformation.


Invoking the spirit of Stewart's comments, let me adumbrate some of the cultural frames within which Ugo Foscolo's sonnet "A Zacinto" (1802) might be situated. Foremost among such frames would be the history of the birth of the European nation, in general, and in particular, the political upheavals of the late 1700s and the early 1800s, the period in which the vision of Italy as a separate nation emerges. Italy begins to conceive of itself as a potentially separate political subject in reaction to an especially intense period of subjection to the powerful states of France and Austria, a period of great political instability which followed centuries of invasions and control by foreign powers. From the French Revolution on, the concept of nationhood is intimately linked to violence and to revolution, expressed in images of severing and separation as well as those of patricide. Yet at the same time, the lexeme "nation" is drawn etymologically and synecdochically from the birthing of the individual; each individual "natio" is thus valorized as a somatic as well as a political event. To belong to a nation was to be able to identify the spatial coordinates of one's bodily birth. To be a citizen was to be a son of a nation, through female parturition. However, the two contending cultural codes of the epoch, Classical and Romantic, offered different models of the self and the community.

This, too, becomes a frame within which to read the sonnets of Foscolo. We need to remember to what extent the rise of the nation in early Romantic culture was intimately tied to the rise in the relatively new notion of the individual self. While it is true that the nation and the individual self were often construed in mutually exclusive terms, as entities each characterized by a telos oppositional to the other, both became the privileged objects of Romantic theory, political and aesthetic. Interestingly, both entities come to be represented by means of gendered metonyms and metaphors. The political separation, the revolution of the polis or community, designated as the preliminary step to nationhood, was often figured as a killing of a male tyrant and a reclaiming of the maternal native soil. The foundational myth of the Roman Republic is perhaps the paradigmatic model: the killing of the tyrannical Tarquin and the establishment of political freedom was played out over the body of the ravaged Lucretia. An equally influentialliterary figuration of this pattern is to be found in Petrarch's famous "AIl'ltalia": the exhortation to a renewed Italic "virtu" presumes the violation and reclamation of the national maternal body. And for the genesis of the individual self, the separation was equally an exile from the mother, the female womb: from an edenic state of undifferentiated symbiosis, through a painful and violent emergence or exile, into differentiation. The conception of nation is indeed the form of differentiation taken by the social-political order, while the notion of the individual self is the psychological counterpart of that same experience of differentiation.

Both the collective self-the linguistic-geographical group that desires to be authenticated as a nation-and the individual self are often represented in the Romantic period in terms of the hypostasized phases of the development of the individual psyche. Nation and self each passes from somatic birth and separation anxiety through an Oedipal phase, and each fashions for itself an appropriate Family Romance. My invocation of such psychoanalytic terms returns us once again to the remarks of Susan Stewart, who notes with some regret that "psychoanalysis has been the method least used in current cultural study" (14). I take Stewart's remarks to be an invitation to contemporary cultural critics to rethink in psychoanalytic terms the ways in which both the subject (marginalized by deconstructive and postmodernist discourse) and the formal properties of the lyric (equally marginalized by cultural criticism) are imbricated in the construction of culture itself, and to interrogate why a given culture might turn to the lyric precisely at those moments when it needs to reformulate boundaries, selves, and society. As thus envisaged, the lyric might be considered iconic of the modes of the construction of the self, above all the containment of its libidinal drives within the constraints of cultural institutions and powers. The lyric functions, thusly, as a microcosmic arena in which the surge of libidinal desire butts up against the boundaries of syntactic and metric laws, and in so doing, experiments with radical solutions to the production of the self within and against society.

Turning more specifically now to Foscolo, in the following pages I want to frame my discussion of "A Zacinto" by, first, placing the sonnets within the larger context of the representations of the female in Foscolo's literary opera in general, and, next, by placing this particular sonnet within the frame of the twelve early sonnets considered as a group. Finally, I will examine some of the formal properties of "A Zacinto" (lexicon, metrics, phonemic patterning, morphosyntactical structures) as encodations both of a specific problem-the struggle of nation and individual self for differentiation by means of a loss of the material maternal-and of that problem's solution-poetic language configured as the means by which the exiled son returns back to the body of the mother. To this end I will invoke in my comments the well-known Kristevian notion of the semiotic "Chora" (Revolution 27) and the lesser-known theories of Luisa Muraro in L' ordinesimbolico della madre. Muraro argues that the word ("la parola") is the gift of the Mother, not of the Father; the word of the mother, however and most importantly, is pre-phonational (pre-symbolic, that is to say), a notion that allows us to analogize Muraro's lila parola" to Kristeva's semiotic Chora.f

In Kristeva's formulation, the Chora represents the inchoate presymbolic experiences and expressions that envelop the infant while in union with the mother's body. As such, the Chora represents a form of signification prior both to the advent of subjectivity and to the entry into the symbolic order. Characterized by somatic rhythm and pulsation, the Chora in fact resists the splitting between self and other that defines the field inhabited by the logic of the symbolic. As thus envisaged, the Chora comes to stand for the phase of pre-differentiation preceding the binarism of the imaginary and symbolic orders. Within the Chora, the infant registers somatic signals (voice, timber, kinesis, light, and color patterns) that "signify" even before the advent of subjectivity and language. Significantly, these terms evoke the very language used by Susan Stewart in her definition of the reformulative powers of the lyric itself.

Luisa Muraro has commented that the only theory similar to hers is that of Julia Kristeva. Muraro goes on to state that the

esperienza creatrice delle origini ... non ereferibile a un soggetto in senso ordinario. El'esperienza di un soggetto in relazione con la rnatrice della vita, soggetto indistinguibile dalla rnatrice rna non dalla sua relazione can essa. (41)

Rather than a relationship between two things, it is a relationship of "l'essere con l'essere" (41). Significantly Muraro considers "the word" to be the gift of the mother, thereby diminishing the importance of the Symbolic conceived of as the originary or prime site of signification.

Kristeva's interest in the Chora and its signifying potential, then, resembles Muraro's conception of lila parola." We might characterize Kristeva's project as an attempt to bring the bodily drives back into language and subjectivity, and Muraro's, to valorize a somatic signification before differentiation. Foscolo's best sonnets, in an uncannily proto-feminist vein, intuitively seek to bring language and the subject back to the body of the mother.


Foscolo's major literary (as opposed to critical) works written in Italian fall into four groups: (1) his youthful sonnets, twelve in number (1789-1803); (2) Leultime lettere di[acopo Ortis, his epistolary novel (written contemporaneously with the sonnets, but appearing in its first definitive edition in 1802; (3) a 295-verse political poem (carme) on sepulchers, Dei sepolcri (1807), occasioned by the Napoleonic Edict of St. Cloud (1804), which forbade the burial of the dead within cities and regulated the marking of sepulchral inscriptions; and (4) Foscolo's final poetic project, Le Grazie, a neoclassical hymn to the three graces. Rhetorically considered, these four moments might profitably be viewed as tropological, moving from metaphorical figurations of the relationship of self to cosmos in the sonnets through a metonymic distancing by means of the fragmented prose pages of the novel, discontinuous and contiguous; to the brilliant Dei sepolcri, which envisions the sepulcher as the synechdochal sign of human consciousness; to, finally, an unintended ironic (and, as unfinished, failed) attempt to portray the forms of Beauty everlasting from within a Lucretian apprehension of the materiality of all things. This cursus is also elaborated by specific representations of the figure of woman.

Foscolo's last poetic project, Le Grazie, a neoclassical hymn in three parts to the three graces (Venere, Vesta, Pallade), begun in 1812 and left unfinished, is an explicit encomium to the female figure, and was inspired by a sculpture of Canova. And yet, Foscolo's most powerful explorations of the seductive and constructive powers of the female appear in his earlier works. Without doubt, all of Foscolo's poetry reflects a positive cathexis onto what are conventionally regarded as female attributes. Writing at a historical moment when the concepts of nation, citizen, and individual self were being elaborated, Foscolo intuited that the work of women-birthing, burial, mourning-had functional counterparts in the constitution of a new political consciousness. In virtually every one of Foscolo's literary works, the notions of death, mother, mourning, nation, poetry, the sepulcher, and exile are conjoined. This conjunction reflected both biographical and cultural exigencies. Foscolo's own political life was tumultuous, and marked especially by a triple exile (from his native Hellenic-Venetian island of Zacinto, from the Republic of Venice, and finally from Italy to England). Each exile was a leave-taking from a mother-land, and occasioned an interrogation into the ontology of national identity.s

Foscolo's "superior" youthful sonnets (1802-03) are characterized by what I will call his "thanato-eroticism": the dream of a pre-Oedipal reunion with the mother as chthonic womb in which death is figured as a return to the maternal body and to a plenitude of pre-linguistic signification. In the sonnets "A Zacinto" and "In morte del fratello Giovanni," the poet as weary exile/son yearns to return to his maternal island of Zacinto, in Greece, as final resting place: the return is posited as being possible only by the poet's death or, alternatively, by offering up his song as surrogate for his death. In the sonnet "Alia sera," Foscolo describes the evening as the female "immago" of that fatal (and desired) repose which is Death: "Forse perche della fatal quiete / Tu sei l'immago a me SI cara vieni / 0 sera!" (vv 1-3). The sonnet traces the poet's seduction by lila sera," and concludes with a scene of the poetic subject's dissolution within the female body.f The hallmark of these three sonnets (usually ranked above the fourth of that sub-group, "AlIa musa") is, in fact, their shared representation of the dissolution of an agonistic poetic self (constructed as Masculine within the domain of the Symbolic) by means of a return to an amniotic peace identified with the Mother.

In Foscolo's epistolary autobiographical novel, Le ultime lettere di [acopo Ortis (1802), based on both The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe (1774) and Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), the female figurations function differently: the two females desired by [acopo, Teresa the beloved heroine, and Italy the motherland, are always absent, violated, or possessed by another male. Teresa's future is promised to another man, the odious Odoardo, while her present life is circumscribed by the power of her father, Signor T. So, too, in the case of the historical Italy: in the late eighteenth century, Northern "Italy" (its Republics, that is to say) was handed back and forth between France and Austria, both imperial governments par excellence. Indeed, the opening date of the novel, 1797, is already a sign of betrayal in that it marks the "Trattato di Campoformio" in which Napoleon handed Venice over to the Austrian government, a literal exchange or "traffic" of the body politic of Italy (see Rubin). The biological mother of the hero [acopo Ortis is absent from the scene of action, while her son battles Italy's oppressors for possession of the motherland. The explicit object of [acopo's passion, the beloved Teresa, is endowed with maternal attributes, especially in her relationship with her younger sister Isabellina. The many female figures (mother, beloved Teresa, Isabellina, mother-land), become affectively identified with the tomb, functioning as an amalgamated object of desire, for the possession of which [acopo becomes the rival of the "fathers" (the French and Austrian governments; the father of Teresa and Isabellina; Teresa's future husband, Odoardo), In Foscolo's Le ultime letiere di lacopo Ortis, then, Teresa and Italy function as objects of exchange between men, and consequently serve to construct the type of male "homosocial bonding" which constitutes the ground of cultural-discursive practices in the Symbolic order.e

We might choose to see Foscolo's early sonnets and epistolary novel as two stages in his own Oedipal negotiations: as a move from an infantile attempt to return to the mother by means of self-annihilation (the sonnets) to the desire to find and destroy the Symbolic father. Although in the epistolary novel Le ultime lettere di [acopo Ortis the eponymous hero eventually commits suicide, the novel focuses primarily upon his ambivalent relations and competition with his literary, political, and psychological father-figures.

Le ultime lettere di lacopo Ortis, along with Foscolo's other works, has not wanted for psychoanalytical interpretations. Franco Ferrucci maintains that the attempt to find the Symbolic father is represented negatively in the novel by the weight of the classical literary tradition, and is tied to the actual premature death of Foscolo's own father in 1788 (63).7 This "anxiety of influence," to use Harold Bloom's term, was acknowledged even by Foscolo himself, although of course in slightly different terms. No poet was more aware of his own belatedness than Foscolo. In a letter of 24 August 1802, Foscolo bemoaned his own belatedness ("rna io nacqui tardi ..."), lamenting the fact that he was born in the same year that Voltaire and Rousseau died (Opere 2: 1957).

In another psychoanalytic study of Le ultime lettere di [acopo Ortis,

G. B. Amoretti outlines this familiar triangulated Oedipal scene:

Eccoci, pure schematicamente, di fronte a una situazione non nuova: il padre, immagine negativa (causa delle sventure della moglie e del figlio): la madre, immagine positiva (privata dell'affetto coniugale, cerca compenso nell'affetto filiale): il figlio in dissenso col padre, ama la madre, rna ecostretto a starne lontano. (33)

Amoretti goes on to note that Foscolo's protagonist [acopo is impelled, in true Oedipal style, toward the desire to kill the father and to take his place. Symbolically, this is represented in the novel by [acopo's murder of an anonymous father-figure. One stormy night, while riding a horse in a narrow street, [acopo accidentally runs over and kills a male stranger. This homicide haunts the protagonist [acopo throughout his increasingly tormented letters, as an only slightly displaced version of the Oedipal scenario. Narratologically and psychoanalytically the most distinguishing characteristic of this male figure is his "fatherhood," that is to say, his death (like that of Foscolo's own father) leaves a bereft widow and children. The guilt that arises from this dark deed is internalized by [acopo into the desire for self-punishment: "Dal parricidio al suicidio," concludes Amoretti (36). Importantly, the first enactment of [acopo's desire for Teresa, their first reciprocal and very Dantesque kiss, is contemporaneous with this murder, as both events occur on 14 May 1799. We learn that [acopo first kisses Teresa on 14 May 1799 from a letter of that date; however, we only learn that the murder occurs on that very same day in a later letter dated 14 March 1800. That trembling Thanato-erotic kiss, so reminiscent of the equally fatal one of Paolo and Francesca in Dante's infernal circle of lust, leads to death.8

For a different configuration of the relationship between the female figure and the thematics of Thanatos, let us recall again Foscolo's famous political poem Dei sepolcri (1806).9 Here Foscolo envisions "female" functions, especially those of mourning and tending the grave, as fundamental to the bringing forth of history and the construction of nationhood. While the poem seems to be "about" the power of male virtu to incite to heroic action, upon a closer look we recognize that Foscolo constructs a scenario in which male heroism is the subject of the songs sung by the female mourner. Indeed, this difficult poem actually performs a gender switch itself: the last verses are not only about two archetypal female mourners (Electra and Cassandra), but are in fact enunciated by Cassandra herself. The visionary, political prophesy of the poem's closure is voiced by a female.l'l

Thus, alongside the autobiographical speaking subject's elencation of the great male luminaries of Italian culture, Foscolo valorizes especially the female voice; he "envoices," that is to say, that liminal moment when female mourning nourished the spirits of the dead. Foscolo thus recreates a Vichian version of the primal scene of the inception of historical consciousness itself. As is well known, Giambattista Vico, in his New Science (1744), posits that religion, marriage, and burial are the three institutions that separate men from the bestial state, and thus which serve to found nations:

Osserviamo tutte Ie nazioni cOSI barbare come umane, quantunque, per immensi spazi di luoghi e tempi tra loro lontane, divisamente fondate, custodire questi tre umani costumi: che tutte hanno qualche religione, tutte contraggono matrimoni solenni, tutte seppelliscono i loro morti.U

Vico goes on to point out what a great principle of humanity burial is ("Finalmente, quanto gran principio dell'umanita sieno le seppolture," 482) because it allows men to create fellowships beyond th.e materiality of life and the body.

And in 1802, even before the composition of Dei sepolcri, Foscolo utilizes the structure and thematics of the traditional Italian sonnet form to rejoin the body of the mother. For, to return to Vico's insight, if human burial is the liminal act beyond which we may envision a future-collective and political-death may also be figured as the threshold of the passage back to the womb, to the before which of exile itself. In Foscolo, poetry and culture have as their scene of ontology, death. We write to return to a promised land, to mourn the dead, or to bridge the chasm that separates us from a maternal space. Foscolo's entire opus, in fact, is the scripted poiesis of a compulsive exilic. Like Dante's Florence, Foscolo's native land becomes the absent city, and for both poets, poetry maps the journey home. As with Italo Calvino's Ciiia invisibili, the memory of a city generates an exchange of signs over space and time, and the production of desire. Calvino's cities are gendered female, and they engender desire. Dante scripted a return to his maternal city of Florence over the exegetical great chain of being, from the literal, to the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogic. Anagogy knows no exile. Foscolo, on the other hand, writing in a post-anagogic time, sought other modes to return to his motherland.


In considering the twelve sonnets by Foscolo, I will begin by assuming that a sonnet "sequence" tells a tale, or better yet, leaves a trail. 12 That is not to say that such a sequence is a narrative, or narrative poetry, understood in the conventional sense. In fact, one of the difficulties with reading poetic sequences in a "narrative" frame is that we are tempted to project upon each of the individual poems the value of a structuralist "function." Thus, as in Vladimir Propp's famous The Morphology of a Folktale,13 we may be tempted to ascribe to each poem a specific role of agency in a diachronic development, so as to complete the telos of the respective generic form. The complex histories of the criticism of Shakespeare's sonnets, or Petrarch's Canzoniere, or Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Dark Sonnets," to name only a few sequences, evidence our attraction to the possibility of a latent telos imbedded in lyrics sharing the sonnet form. Yet since our readings of the individual sonnets occur within the materiality of their textual frames-the materiality of the actual page-any notions of "before" and "after" necessarily derive in great part from the temporality of our reading process and the spatiality of the typography. This form of imbrication is not necessarily developmental or causal. Similar pitfalls appear when we posit a lyric history ordered primarily on the trajectory of the author's biography; biography, like typography, ineluctably unfolds along the syntagmatic axis.

My readings of the Foscolo sonnet sequence entail of course a certain sequentiality, but one that maps the movements of the psyche, rather than those of Chronos. A more profitable cartography for our voyage out into Foscolo's lyric continent might be, therefore, the tension between the "Law of the Father" and the "Lure of the Mother." Using these as cardinal points, we could then recognize that certainly three of the four "superior" sonnets (Alla Sera," "A Zacinto," "In morte del fratello Giovanni" ) are odes to the lost body of the mother, and culminate in self-annihilation as opposed to self-assertion. This is not to deny that we can-as the majority of Foscolo critics do-read the sonnets either as an aid to the understanding of Foscolo's epistolary novel, Le ultime lettere di [acopo Ortis, or as mimetic of the occasions of Foscolo's own life. Clearly, the eponymous hero of the Le ultime lettere, [acopo, is an alter ego of Foscolo himself, and the majority of the sonnets do refer to biographical occasions in the poet's life. But the best of Foscolo's sonnets also bear witness to the cultural negotiations in which the concepts of self and nation were to be articulated. To put it briefly, Foscolo attempts to configure a space in which language is one with the maternal body, where language, born from exile, returns to a state of plenitude. Post-exilic union with the maternal body is achievable only through death: thus Foscolo's thanatological fixation on suicide (we must not ignore, nor over-determine, the biographical datum of his brother Giovanni's suicide in 1803).

Foscolo's twelve sonnets do not constitute a homogeneous corpus. As I have noted, the last four have traditionally been grouped together by critics as the highest examples of his lyric (sonnet) achievement: "AlIa sera" (I), "A Zacinto" (IX), "In morte del fratello Giovanni" (X), and"AlIa musa" (XI). In contrast, the earlier eight are occasional in inspiration and more traditional in their execution. The first eight sonnets were written between 1798 and 1801; the last four, between 1802 and 1803. It is important to note that the hiatus between these two groupings represents the completion of the first definitive redaction of Le ultime lettere di [acopo Ortis.14 Three of the final four sonnets, "AlIa sera," "A Zacinto," and "In morte del fratello Giovanni," offer a radically new solution to the formal and semantic properties of the sonnet precisely because they are posited on an explicit desire for death and the body of the mother-in biographical, mythical, and political terms. The three sonnets identify the locus of language and desire as the maternal body.

The first eight sonnets, along with the ode "A Luigia Pallavicini caduta da cavallo," appear in print first in Pisa, in the joumal"Nuovo Giornale dei Letterati" (tomo IV), in October, 1802.15 They are republished in "opuscolo" in Pisa, 1803; then, with four new poems, reappear in the Milanese edition of Destefanis, sometime between April 2 and 9, 1803. Finally, in Milano, June 1803, with the title Poesie di Ugo Foscolo (ed. Agnello Nobile) the twelve sonnets with the two odes (the second, "AlIa arnica risanata") are printed in a group. Note that the two odes, traditionally published with the twelve sonnets, are also encomia to the female body.

While the ordering of the sonnets in the various editions underwent change, "AlIa sera" was eventually placed as the opening sonnet by Foscolo himself. Anchored in the proemial position, this powerful love song to the evening, invoking the beloved "Sera" as the "immago" of death, casts a metaphysical and unifying light on the grouping of all twelve sonnets.16This typographical strategy constitutes an editorial hysteron-proteron of sorts, not unlike Petrarch's first sonnet, "Voi che ascoltate in rime sparse," which although written later in chronology, attempts to establish the psychological tone of conversion for the entire Canzoniere. Set as the proemial sonnet, Foscolo's "AlIa sera" casts a shadowy, erotic veil over the entire group of sonnets and masks somewhat the tensions underlying the acquisition of what we might call Foscolo's "maternal metaphysics." In other words, the "end"-a poiesis of reincorporation into the mother-was achieved only after experimenting with other "means" of fashioning a self.

The twelve sonnets may be seen as the "twelve steps" in a trajectory that travels from what I call the "Poetic Autobiographical" to the "Poetic Sublimational." The first eight lyrics work to delineate the self, while the last four efface the self within the Eros of death. Death, once the enemy to be contested in an agonistic rite, becomes in these last sonnets the right desired object of the poetic journey. To die is to be reborn. We can find in these sonnets traces of the working out of the transition from "Death as the Judgment" (the final sealing of the self) by the Name of the Father (the Lacanian Non/Nom-du pere), to "Death as a Dissolution" of the Self within the body of the mother. In fact, of the eight early sonnets written under the aegis of the Father in an attempt to consolidate the self, five are conventionally entitled with the appellation "self" or "self-portrait." While some editions of Foscolo's lyrics utilize the sonnet's first lines as titles, numerous others employ the following traditional titles: II: "Di se stesso"; IV: "Di se stesso"; V: "Di se stesso all'amata"; VII: "II proprio ritratto"; XII: "A se stesso."17

Let us note some of the particulars of the first eight sonnets that display the insistence on the construction of an iterative Self within the domain of the Father, or of the Symbolic. Sonnet IV, "Perche taccia il rumor di mia catena," treats with Romantic Irony the Petrarchan trope of the solitary lovesick poet, far from the madding crowd, able to converse only with Nature. The poem contains eight instances of predicates in the first-person present tense (vivo/ parlo / penso / scrivo / affido / descrivo / verso / narro), a literal dissemination of the self (-0-), the narrating "io. " The "semantic" field that unites these predicates is precisely the confluence of subjectivity and meta-narrativity: the predicates feature first-person verbs of describing, thinking, speaking, writing, confiding, and "pouring out" in verse. In fact, the poet narrates the very fact that he is narrating about his own powers of narration ("E narro che ...," v. 9).

To turn to another example from the early sonnets, the linguistically complex sonnet VIII ("Meritamente"), a structural tour de force within the tradition of the Italian sonnet, exhibits the consistency of a self consistently dispersed within and reflected back by Nature (a Petrarchan topos utilized frequently in the Ultime lettere di [acopo Ortis). Yet the self is not lost: the landscape reiterates the self, and in so doing, reconstitutes it. So, too, with Petrarch's poetic persona, whose wandering, weeping presence hovers over Foscolo's early sonnets: the solitary self "errando" in the landscape that is its double, while appearing to dissolve the self, reproduces this very selfhood. It is Laura who is forever scattered; Petrarch the poet deftly puts back the pieces of his own poeticizing self. Foscolo's sonnet VIII, in many ways more self-dramatizing than a Petrarch sonnet, utilizes the vast chiaroscuro landscape of early Ottocento Cisalpine Italy: rugged Alpine peaks, purple storm-tossed skies. So, too, the sonnet utilizes the vast versescape of all 14 verses, with sweeping enjambments and embedded phonemic correspondences. Yet Sonnet VIII, despite its breathtaking Romantic sublimity, still mirrors and contains the self, re-inscribing it within the Symbolic. But Foscolo's great trilogy of sonnets writes itself, and the narrating subject, out of the Symbolic into the Semiotic Chora, to use Julia Kristeva's term. "A Zacinto" provides an especially eloquent example of how the poet writes his way back to the womb.


Let me frame our discussion of "A Zacinto" by calling upon the work of Alvaro Valentini, a structuralist critic of poetics whose work contains a psychoanalytic foundation. Valentini makes an important distinction by differentiating between a "semantic field" and what he calls an "onomastic field" (17). The onomastic field contains essentially synonyms, words which are united by the fact that on the manifest lexical level they are connected by a common area of referents ( a category similarity). On the other hand, the semantic field is comprised by a heuristic union: a nexus of words that, because of the subjective valence accorded them by the poet, assume the provisional "function" of synonyms within a specific text. The very important distinction proposed by Valentini here runs somewhat along the lines of Roman [akobson's famous insight (357-59) that in poetry, the principle of equivalence is projected from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination. Thus, the breath-taking power of the poetic text resides in its epistemological function-and in that function's seductive ephemerality. In the brief span of 14 verses, for example, we reaggregate our deepest sense of the lexical potentials of language and phenomena. Words that on the manifest level bear little or no resemblance to each other are suddenly revealed here, held in momentary suspension, to bear the most profound relationship of similarity; to reveal, that is, the deep structural meaning of existence. The contiguous, the sequential, the random, all shed their mundane exteriority, and the Adamic nucleus of metaphoricity shines forth. After this epiphanic recathexis (the poem itself), words fall back into their "onomastic" fields, united merely by manifest referents. Would it be possible to invoke here the Thomistic distinction between accident and substance? On the poetic axis, the accident is trans-figured, and new lexemes emerge figured precisely as substance.

Alvaro Valentini prefaces his discussion by invoking a proverbial Lacanian affirmation that the unconscious is not to be considered the seat of the instincts, but, rather, the privileged place of the word (17). Reality is structured by means of language. Thus it follows that the onomastic fields will be of less interest than the semantic ones: the former, the provenance of the dictionary, are predictable; the latter are made and displayed only within the poetic text. In illustration of this point, Valentini notes several of the lexemes in "A Zacinto" that belong to the onomastic field of the aqueous: spondekmdelgreco marlisolelacquelliaca, etc. The relations between these terms are to be found at the surface level of the text. But, continues Valentini, the semantic field of "exile" is the true matrix or unconscious binding mechanism in the sonnet: the following lexemes become synonymous or mutually imbricated: mai piultoccherolspondekicque fatali/ diverso esiglio/ Itaca/Ulisse/fato/prescrisse illacrimata sepoltura. Lyric's transformative powers can be measured by the fact that, having once read "A Zacinto," we are convinced of the necessity of this referential cohesion. Importantly, the cohesion is constructed internally within the poetic text, not by external lexicographic order. Expanding on Valentini's suggestion, I want to suggest that at a deeper level than even exile, in "A Zacinto" the semantic field of "Poiesis" commands all other fields. Simply put: exile is separation from the mother, from her protective amniotic fluids, the loss of the Semiotic Chora. Poiesis becomes the analogue of that prenatal liquidity and language.

Valentini's discussion illustrates another point: Foscolo has constructed interactive or polysemous semantic fields. Clearly, the poem works through the semantic field of exile to construct an identification between the two wandering heroes, Ulysses and Foscolo. Both pass through "diverso esiglio" (v, 9), which renders each "bello di fama e di sventura" (v. 10); both journey across waters so as to return to their native island soil. Both follow the Greek notion of the Nostos, the journey of return. However, at the same time and more latently (the unconscious as the seat of language), Foscolo uses this same semantic field of exile to construct difference: Ulysses will kiss the stony shores of his Ithaca, but Foscolo will not return to Zacinto, even dead.

But there is more to this semantic field of exile than first meets the eye, or ear. The true latent identification, that of which the unconscious speaks, is only revealed by the pronominal switch in verse 13: "... a noi prescrisse / II fato illacrimata sepoltura" (emphasis mine). To what does the "noi" refer? The "we" is no longer the wandering duo, Foscolo and Ulysses. It is the singerof the tale of the wandering Ulysses-Homer himself-that is Foscolo's alter ego. He who sang of the fatal waters in the renowned verses ("L'inclito verso di colui che l'acque / Canto fatali ...," vv. 8-9) will share with Foscolo the destiny of an unwept grave. More importantly, both are fated to sing of fatal waters, and thus to be immortalized by means of their verse (and its liquidity). Foscolo doubles himself here, becoming both his own protagonist, Ulysses, and his alter ego's immortalizer, Homer.If Fatality, destiny, poetry: it is fitting that the mother-island-womb, which gave the primal gift of "la parola," will only receive poiesis-"la parola"from the son. In the economy of this sonnet, language alone offers the possibility of re-incorporation into the body of the mother. Here we should note the syntactical and accentual reinforcement of that doubling by means of the deployment of the two "passato remoto" verbs, "canto" (v. 9) and "bacio" (v. 11), united by enjambment and thus by their prepositionality at the beginning of each verse. While Homer is the subject of "canto" and Ulysses is the subject of "bacio," Foscolo is the implicit subject of both: by means of poetry his verses will kiss the shores of his Zacinto. Foscolo as adult will never touch those shores C'tocchero") but as poet/son, his word/kiss will come home again.

What is the desired state of Edenic reunion with the mother if not the return to a primal form of language itself, or to a communication before language? Significantly, Luisa Muraro posits language as the gift of the mother, rather than the Rule of the father. We need to remember that according to Muraro, it is a voiced language which becomes possible under the aegis of the Father, the Symbolic; Muraro distinguishes this from the "word." Before birth, according to Muraro, there were no articulatory possibilities only because of the lack of air and breath, which are indispensable to phonation itself. Yet "la parola" is the gift of the mother. Intrauterine life, then, must be thought of as the "vita di ascolto della voce, in primis quella della madre, invogliante forse a poter imitarla e quindi a voler nascere" (43). We desire to be born so as to become the articulation of the mother's voiceless voice; or to evoke Kristeva again, of the mother's somatic Chora.

These same insights are offered by Marcello Pagnini in another detailed study of the sonnet "A Zacinto." While explicitly a "structuralist" analysis, it dovetails with the psychoanalytic and cultural issues we have been discussing. Focusing on the intersection of diverse codes in the poem (psychological, archetypal, religious, political, economic, etc.), Pagnini reminds us that in "A Zacinto" we have numerous examples of the "semanticization of the form," a specific hallmark

of poetry-or what we call, in Hjelmslevian terms, "the substance of expression"-(42-44)· Pagnini notes that "water" is the symbolic nexus of the poem, and as such becomes an index to the point of intersection between two codes, one Classical and the other Romantic. According to the Classical model, the fatal exile and journey of Ulysses must end positively, with Fate a friend to the hero, while according to the Romantic model, the fatal journey of Foscolo must necessarily end in tragedy, with Fate destroying the hero. This is thematically inscribed in the sonnet by means of its formal aspects, which are "semanticizations" of this topos. I would argue that we indeed should extend these formal semanticizations noted by Pagnini to the external, cultural conflicts as well. The construction of the self, which is documented in Foscolo's lyrics, especially in the early sonnets, evidences how the eighteenth-century reinvention of nation poised the individual psyche between the Classical model of individuality (in which one is an anonymous and obedient citizen) and its Romantic counterpart (the self as passionate rebel, exile, and poet). Two opposing notions of exile, of the hero, and of the larger community exist in conflict, then. Pagnini concludes that in "A Zacinto," the notion of "Maternita-poesia" signals a "riposo euforico." The island is thus a paradise lost, potentially to be regained:

... l'inizio come grembo materno; la fine come grembo ctonico ... il ritorno all' isola natale sarebbe, per "regressione," un ritorno al grembo materno, e quindi alIa felicita primeva, fonte anche del mito e della poesia. (57)

In Foscolo's sonnet, ostensible conflicts between contrasting codes of both the hero and of the significance of the existential journey resolve themselves, so to speak, by means of this regression back to the body of the mother.

The sonnet"A Zacinto" perfectly blends the autobiographical, the cosmological, the mythological; it has been called "un piccolo epos" by Amoretti. And so it is. Every element of the poem is cast in a double or triple dimensionality. On the spatial dimension, for the most obvious example, Zacinto is at once the native island of Foscolo's birth, the home of the wandering Ulysses, the birthplace of Venus/ Love, the inaugural site of poiesis itself, and of human culture writ large. In fact, this palimpsest lends itself well to the fourfold exegesis that Dante refers us to in his letter to Can Grande as the appropriate mode of interpretation of the Paradiso, and by extension, of all the three cantiche of the Divina commedia.t" Zacinto, then, the mother of all mothers, becomes the sacred site that initiates, contains, and closes the life of each individual human, and of civilization itself.

The Greek island of Zacinto, from which the poet Foscolo is in exile, is immediately portrayed in its sacrality ("sacre sponde," v. 1) and its maternity ("ove il mio corpo fanciuletto giacque," v. 2). It is this same Greek sea (ligreco mar") that gave birth to Venus-a cosmological parthenogenesis of sorts-"Da cui vergine nacque I Venere, e fea quelle isole feconde" (vv, 4-5). The alliteration [IvI] of "vergine" and "Venere" fuses in a single identity apparent antinomies, divine and profane love; and along with the rhyme of "giacque"-"nacque," re-enforces .he association of universal love, the poet's uterine home, and the maternal peace. The semantic opposition of vergine and feconde underscores this cosmoiogical/maternal referent: Venus, Love, is both virgin and fecund. Love fecundates the waters which surround Zacinto.20 So too, the fetal Foscolo is protected by the maternal Damantina's amniotic waters. Foscolo's imagery fuses autobiography with the ancient myth of the earth mother (Ceres, Demeter) and the Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary.


Foscolo utilizes the very form and tradition of the sonnet as a semanticization of these themes. The fourteen-line sonnet IIA Zacinto" consists of two sentences, in a relationship of intentional imbalance. The first eleven verses comprise the first hypotactical sentence; the last three verses comprise the second sentence. The inverted, sinuous syntax of the first sentence comes to rest on the lapidary isolation of the paratactical syntax of the last terzina. While it may be obvious, it is nonetheless breathtaking: the eleven verses actually perform the arduous journey of the wanderer-exile, Foscolo-Ulysses; the concluding terzina iconically signals both the stony shore of Ithaca kissed at last by Ulysses, and absent presence of the sepulchral inscription, as well as their symbolic variation, the poetry-this poem-of Foscolo which in place of the poet's body returns to the mother-island of Zacinto. The overflowing syntax of the first sentence is indeed fecund, generating clause after clause, or wave after wave.21 Within this aqueous imagery, waves ("onde") are phonologico-semantically embedded within waves: the end rhymes of verses 1, 3, 5, 7 enact this intesseration: sponde, onde, feconde, [ronde.

Foscolo not only "subverts" (Cambon 143) the classical structure of the sonnet by this overflowing and continuously enjambed syntax, but also subverts its logico-discursive tradition. From its inception, with II Notaro, [acopo da Lentini the notary at the thirteenth-century (1210 ca.-1260 ca.) Sicilian court of Frederick II, the sonnet has for the most part presented itself as a love song with a tripartite division of form and content. The plasticity of this highly restrictive poetic form resides in whether the divisions between parts 2 and 3 fall between the two quartine or between the first terzina and the final one. Surprisingly, "A Zacinto" sublimates its first section. Or, to put it differently, the site of the discourse is "sub-limine"-in the unconscious, that is. Cambon speaks of "the rapturously unfolding stanzas" (142) and I think that raptus is indeed the mystical state of this island-union. The incipit places us in medias res: "Ne mai pili." Nor ever again. Not only do we have three rapid, incisive negative particles, we have a poetry "interruptus." This "ne" metaleptically gestures to a previous discourse, a voice perhaps unvoiced, from below the threshold, the limine. The unconscious, as the seat of a language, may also be unvoiced, as is the uterine "word" of the mother. Let us remember Foscolo's uncanny ability to project his voice from uncanny places: from the tomb, in the incipit of his long political poem, "Dei sepolcri"; and from the womb, perhaps, in "A Zacinto."

In other words, Foscolo has valorized the Chora itself as the site of the incipit of this sonnet. This explicit syntactico-semantic gesture of "in medias res" suggests that there is indeed an implicit mytho-psychological "nexus rerum" from which all language originates, and to which it desires to return: a place where the word remains unvoiced, perhaps, but fully communicative with the body of the mother, and, most importantly, still undifferentiated from that body. A more detailed analysis of the morpho-syntactic, metric elements of "A Zacinto" would confirm even more precisely to what extent in this sonnet the Lure of the Mother wins out over the Law of the Father. A further analysis of the three "superior" sonnets in relation to the eight other sonnets by Foscolo would demonstrate that in the latter, the Law of the Father reigns.

But I would like to close with a return to my opening remarks, and invite my readers to examine Foscolo's sonnets in terms of what Professor Stewart calls a renewed cultural-critical "formalism." How do the formal aspects encode the cultural negotiations of the poet's day? How do the formal features of the lyric serve as semanticizations of larger cultural tensions, whether they be the conflict between the Classical and the Romantic conceptions of the hero, or the clash between the exigencies raised by the development of the notions of nation and the self, or the psychoanalytic opposition between the modes of communication in the Semiotic versus the Symbolic realms? Finally, how does the sonnet form especially lend itself to Foscolo's poetics of thanatology?


University of California-Santa Cruz


1While critics usually add the fourth sonnet, "Alla musa" (XI), to this group, there appears to be wide consensus that the first three sonnets cohere in an especial manner; I refer to this as their shared "thanato-eroticism." I will return to the discussion of the subgroupings of the twelve sonnets in the body of this article. All citations from Foscolo's poetry are from Foscolo, Opere.

2Stewart's presentation, entitled "The State of Cultural Theory and the Future of Literary Form," was published along with the other papers in the Forum, in the 1993 issue of the MLA publication, Profession '93. References to her paper are from that printed version.

3For an in-depth discussion of the Chora in Luce Irigary and Plato, see Butler. 4Foscolo was born in 1778 on the island of Zacinto (the Greek Zacynthos, under Venetian rule at that time) to an Italian father and a Greek mother; he underwent multiple exiles until his death at Turnham Green near London in 1827. When he was a child of ten Foscolo's father died and the family was forced to move from Zacinto to Venice. Foscolo, a political radical, became bitterly disappointed when Napoleon, after putting an end to the one thousand-year-old Venetian Republic, handed over its territories to the Austrian Empire at the bargaining table of Campoformio (1797). Foscolo had to leave his adoptive city and ancestral homeland to escape political persecution at the hands of the pro-Austrian police. This second exile-the return of the repressed of the earlier one of his childhood (the loss of the mother-island Zacinto)was an exile that required a separation from his "biological" mother as well. Foscolo fought in Napoleon's army, but openly criticized the Emperor's political impositions on democratic ideals. Foscolo continued to take an active role in political life while holding the Chair of Eloquence at the University of Pavia (1809). But when the Empire fell in 1815, Foscolo underwent a third exile, this time to England, where he wrote literary and political essays in English (having already translated Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey under the pseudonym of Didimo Chierico while in Italy). He died in exile in England, destitute. 5For an insightful study of Foscolo's "AlIa sera" and its relationship to the Ro

mantic sense of space (verbal and pictorial), see Biasin.

6This useful term comes from Sedgwick.

7Ferrucci associates the solar imagery in Foscolo with sites of paternal authority. See also Derla, and Manacorda. 8Jacopo first kissed Teresa on 14 May 1799; we learn from his later letter of 14 March 1800 that ten months prior to the writing of that letter, he had committed the atrocious "murder." As for the Dantesque frame, see Dante's description of the fatal kiss of Paolo and Francesca, Inferno V: 136, which is echoed in Le ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis: "... e Teresa mi abbracciava tutta tremante" (Opere 1: 618). See also the interesting study of Le ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis by Sante Matteo, which discusses the psychological, narratological, and political implications of both the homicide and the attraction for Teresa. 9The history of the critical response to the Sepolcri offers suggestive insights about the malleability of this work. Much like the history of Leopardi criticism, that of Foscolo criticism functions like a litmus test of sorts, since both poets have been reappropriated for differing ideological concerns. Walter Binni's balanced assessment, "Foscolo oggi: proposta di una interpretazione storico-critico," suggests that against the earliest detractors of Foscolo's so-called materialist and anti-religious Classicism, the Sepolcri was valorized in the 19th century as the poetry of the resurrection of the new Italian nation. For Francesco De Sanctis, for example, the Sepolcri

represented the highest union of consciousness and imagination ("coscienza e fantasia," Binni 333). The early twentieth-century readers, however, reacting against this "Risorgimental hagiography" focused primarily on the aesthetic value of Foscolo's work. As a result, Le Grazie, which had been categorically condemned by De Sanctis as overly intellectualistic and allegorical, becomes revalorized in the 1930s and 1940s as the acme of all of Foscolo's works: as a pure and metahistorical hymn to harmony. After World War II, Dei sepo/cri is once again reappropriated, this time against both the Risorgimental hagiography of the nineteenth century and the Crocean myth of pure poetry. One of the first efforts in this direction was the two-part essay by Luigi Russo, "Foscolo politico," published in 1946. Significantly, we witness in Foscolo criticism the same impulse that had rescued Giacomo Leopardi from the excessively positive valorization of his idyllic phases (against the heredity of Benedetto Croce, and his dichotomized "poesia/non-poesia"). Beginning in 1947, Leopardi was reclassified as "eroico" and "progressivo," under the banner of Walter Binni's 1947 ground-breaking La nuova poetica /eopardiana (here I am thinking also of the work of Bruno Biral and Cesare Luporini). Foscolo, like Leopardi, was being rescued from the ideal of pure poetry. Here Mario Fubini's fine discussion of the Sepo/cri in Ugo Foscolo: saggi, studi, note deserves mention (179-214), as well as his Romanticismo ita/iano. Binni himself, in the 1978 essay "Foscolo oggi" mentioned above, aspires to a rehistoricization of Foscolo, brought to "una dimensione storica, all'individuazione della persona concreta e storicamente valida, alla sua poetica in movimento" (337). Binni proposes the frame-concept of "sradicamento" within which to historicize Foscolo, who was, he continues, "sradicato" in terms of national affiliation; in terms of family unity; in terms of any precise social extraction or collocation; in terms of his military condition; "sradicato" linguistically; and, finally, uprooted by his long sojourn in England. As a result of this rehistoricization of Foscolo, Binni concludes (surprisingly) that Le Grazie, far from being a-historical, profoundly evokes its historical reality: "Tutta la direzione piu nuova delle Grazie e COSt legata alla profonda evocazione della realta storica contemporanea" (348). Yet the invocation of the category of "sradicamento" seems to call equally for a psychoanalytic and/or gender studies interpretation. Arguably, the primal "sradicamento" is birth itself; thus the importance of the Oedipal configuration in probing both the modes of gender figuration and their place within a particularly Foscolian mythology of the mother.

10See Brose. For an insightful essay on the thanato-erotics of mourning, see Riva; Riva notes especially the "il segreto della assoluta devozione al lutto che caratterizza tanto la passione politica che la passione erotica di Jacopo Ortis" (19).

11See "Sezione Terza"-"De' principi"-of"Libro primo" of La scienza nuova in Vico, Opere (480). On Vico and Foscolo, see Fubini (263-93).

12Although the term "sequence" may be misleading, in that it suggests a priori some form of sequentiality, we need to remember that these twelve sonnets were consistently published together, as a group, upon their completion. The titles of the sonnets, except the third, have appeared since the Orlandini edition.

13See especially chapters III and VI on the "functions" of the dramatis personae. 14That this interval between the eight and the four sonnets represents some form of catharsis has been noted by several critics. Let me quote Fubini as a particularly intelligent example: "Ricordiamo che i due gruppi di sonetti sono separati da uno spazio di tempo ben maggiore che non pochi mesi trascorsi tra Ie due pubblicazioni, ricordiamo che tra i primi e gli altri stanno due anni fondamentali della vita di Foscolo, it 1801 e il 1802, e sopra tutto sta la redazione definitiva delle Ultime lettere, che permise al poeta uno sfogo piu completo dei suoi torbidi sentimenti e 10 prepare in tal modo ad una visione piu chiara di se e del mondo" Ugo Foscolo: saggi, studi, note (141).

15For a detailed discussion of the early editions of the sonnets, see Foscolo, Opere

I: 159-67. 16The privileged position of"AlIa sera" has been been noted by critics. For an interesting structuralist-metric analysis of this poem, see Sansone (197-215). Sansone utilizes a "metrico-ritmico" analysis to demonstrate how on the segmental and suprasegmental levels the sonnet moves from the subjective to the universal. 17Although Foscolo himself did not title the sonnets, the conventional usage of these titles indicates their success as indices to the poems' respective contents. I have taken my examples from the 1974 Garzanti (Milano) "I grandi libri" edition of Foscolo Le poesie, a cura di Marcello Turchi. 18Yalentini notes: "Foscolo a questo punto, si sdoppia chiaramente, diventa personaggio di se stesso, COS} come Ulisse e personaggio di Omero" ( 19). 19The well-known four-fold exegetical levels are the literal, the allegorical, the moral and the anagogic. 20In his Dei sepo/cri (1807), Foscolo attributes to Petrarch the de-profanation of love, in an image which also evokes the womb: "Che Amore in Grecia nudo, e nudo a Roma / Di un velo candidissimo adornando, / Rendea nel grembo a Venere Celeste" (vv. 177-79). Herein lies a certain irony, since Laura's famous "velo" is perhaps the most fetished metonym for her dismembered body parts. In his "Note" to the Sepolcri, Foscolo glosses these verses thusly: "Gli antichi distingueano due Veneri; una terrestre e sensuale, l'altra celeste e spitituale; e aveano riti e sacerdoti diversi." (Opere 1: 332) 210ne of the most perceptive readings of this poem is by the late Glauco Cambon (see especially 142-51). Our readings have much in common. Cambon also notes the wave-like rhythm of the hypotactical syntax of the first sentence, the amniotic imagery, and the fact that Zante is a "lost insular Eden" wherein "the mythical equation island-womb-bosom parallels the equation Zacynthos-Diamantina-Venus" (146). However, Cambon reads the final terzina of the sonnet as a "negative prophecy" (149), thus interpreting the attempt to journey back to the mother as failed. Literally, this much is so; but Foscolo carefully sets up the counter metaphorical valence of the poem, so that the word succeeds where the poet's body fails. Although Cambon does

not sense this possibility, his reading is quite consonant with a psychoanalytical and feminist analysis.


Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Charles S. Singleton. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.

Amoretti, Giovanni B. Poesia e psicanalisi: Foscolo e Leopardi. Milano: Garzanti, 1979.

Biasin, Gian-Paolo. "Nel primordio della sera." leone italiane. Roma: Bulzoni, 1983. 29-63.

Binni, Walter. "Foscolo oggi: proposta di una interpretazione storico-critica." Rassegna della letteratura italiana 82 (1978): 333-51.

_. La nuova poetica leopardiana. Florence: Sansoni, 1971.

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Dei Sepolcri is a poem written by the Italianpoet, Ugo Foscolo, in 1806, and published in 1807. It consists of 295 hendecasyllabic verses. The carme (as the author defined it) is dedicated to another poet, Ippolito Pindemonte, with whom Foscolo had been discussing the recent Napoleonic law regarding tombs.

Political and Cultural Background[edit]

The idea behind the poem can be traced to 1804, when the Napoleonic edict of Saint-Cloud was issued. On September 5, 1806, the edict was applied to Italy. In short, it stated that all burials must take place outside the city walls; that, for democratic reasons, the burial monuments must all be of the same size; and that their inscriptions would be controlled by a special commission. The edict's implementation caused Foscolo to meditate upon the nature and philosophy of death.

Irreligious, Foscolo did not share the view of his fellow poet Pindemonte, who defended the Christian view, as opposed to the new Enlightenment ideas introduced by the French regime. Even so, Foscolo was critical of the decree, mostly for civic reasons; he acknowledges that human beings aspire to transcend death. Tombs, monuments for fallen heroes and virtuous men from the past, may inspire those living today, including artists and poets. he strongly affirmed the value of tombs as memorials to noble souls or bright intellects. Long after the marble monuments are destroyed by time, those memorialized can survive in artworks they have inspired, and can in turn inspire virtue in new generations.


  • Opere di Ugo Foscolo, a cura di Mario Puppo, Ugo Mursia editore, Milano 1962.
  • Storia della Letteratura Italiana; direttori: Emilio Cecchi e Natalino Sapegno, vol. 7. L'Ottocento. ed. Garzanti, Milano, 1969.

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