d'Annunzio and the New World


I WAS standing in a Venice drawingroom, between Commander D’Annunzio and Judge Lindsey of Colorado. Acting for the moment as interpreter between them, I was repeating the words of one to the other, while the guns were thundering a few miles away, and the old house shook and the windows rattled, and instinctively we looked out of the glass doors as if we hoped to catch a glimpse, through the flaring pomegranates and drooping cedar branches, of the battle that was hourly gaining force.

‘One thing the war has taught us,’ D’Annunzio was saying — ‘that there is no death. The old distinction between life and death exists no longer. We do not mourn our dead as formerly, because the dead, we know, live on. And we no longer fear to die.’

His manner of speaking would have commanded the attention of any audience in the world. The strange unattractiveness of his little bullet-head, close-shaven, of his pale face with its one seeing eye and its straight, graceless mouth, of his rather haughty, indifferent, introspective look — this was forgotten from the moment he began to speak. His expression had changed without any change in the lines of his face, without a smile. Only, from under his brow, that penetrating look, now turned outward, and that fibre of his quiet voice which riveted the group around him as I have seen it hold vast audiences in a Roman amphitheatre and in open fields of the war-zone.

In the sultry air, tense with expectation, one could have believed anything. Yet one knew that the tragedies announced by every thud of the guns could not be wiped out by the calm words of the erect little man in olivegray, with the immaculate collar of white cloth about his throat.

But I was not deeply concerned just then with the meaning of his words. One could read similar statements in his latest novel. What impressed me was the amazing difference between the two men. Standing there between them, I felt myself planted between two worlds — the Old World and the New. These two might talk across the gap — for the time being inadequately filled — of such eternal verities as life and death. But what could they say to each other of the actual motives that govern life and persuade men to offer it voluntarily in exchange for death? The war, I reflected, had brought together two divergent worlds in the superficial contact of a great emergency. But when the war was ended, then what new developments should we see?

Our talk fell upon the ‘Ode to America’ which D’Annunzio was writing. It was to be cabled from the American Embassy in Rome, and was to appear on the Fourth of July in all of our papers. The poet, it was clear, was elated over this his newest adventure. He had refused an invitation to join his son in America, ‘because,’ he said, glancing in the direction of the guns, ‘I cannot leave my country now.’ Meanwhile he would send a message in divine verse; and he had given up who knows how many trips with his flying squadron, to remain in his little red palace on the Grand Canal while he refreshed his mind with a review of our history and directed the flights of his fancy and rhetoric to the formation of an ode. No doubt he thought his words would be taken as seriously in America as in Italy and France and beyond the Adriatic. And, of course, he was deceived.

His message, I knew later, was almost unheeded: it fell flat with crumpled wings; and I was reminded of the difference between the Old World and the New, of which I had been conscious that day over the teacups on the edge of the battle of the Piave. Moreover, the Armistice was scarcely signed before I was aware of the new developments that had been vaguely foreshadowed in my mind.

In the meantime the poet-aviator had made his famous flight to Vienna, and the final victory of Vittorio Veneto had fulfilled his most glowing prophecy, causing him to exclaim, ‘Now for the first time I believe in God!’ Yet he envied those who could rejoice over the victory. As for himself, he longed ‘to go apart in a high mountain and be alone.’ Instead of which, he went among the people and began to talk.

With all the faults of his stupendous ego, D’Annunzio, if anyone, deserved a hearing. His words had raised the minds of the people to a high pitch of moral enthusiasm in two great crises of the national life. When the sentiment of the country was converging toward war, and in the stern days of recovery after the retreat from Caporetto, the discourses he pronounced were so exalted in tone and so important for their power of leading that, in the small and unpretentious volumes that contain them, they seem confined within too narrow limits. D’Annunzio’s surcharged style is a medium of astonishing efficacy for the expression of righteous indignation, and his prose has the poetic power, so dear to his fellow countrymen, of resolving into high symbol the episodes of dull existence. Just as he transmuted the official title of the armed motor-boats on which Rizzo and Pellegrini performed their naval feats, — interpreting ‘MAS’ (Motoscafi Anti Sommergibili) to mean Memento Ardere Semper, — so he translated the humdrum events of war and the task of patient resistance into ‘a song and a story,’ and fired the imagination out of which springs courage.

But his power is not of words alone. Nor is his popularity due entirely to the susceptibility of the Italian people to rhetoric and poetry. The Garibaldian tradition of deeds is no less a reality than the tradition of the Rostrum. To that complex people, in whom the fiery ideals of youth combine mysteriously with age-old habits of inexorable logic, deeds of valor have the force of conclusive arguments. And D’Annunzio the volunteer, the aviator, and the wounded soldier of the Carso, had a power after the war incomparably greater than when, returning from France, he bent himself to gird the nation for war. Whether men of lesser fame deserve the credit for his exploits is another question. The glory is his. And it is a glory of deeds.

If among his other endowments D’Annunzio had possessed the qualities of a statesman, he would have been a great leader of his people in the difficult months between war and peace. But in his ‘Letter to the Dalmatians,’ as in every word he uttered after the Armistice, he showed himself lacking in the conciliatory spirit which the hour demanded. He appealed to high motives of loyalty and courage. But he failed to touch the vital needs of the present time and to understand how he might accommodate them to his opportunity. His vision was of the Old World.

He had long aspired to be the national poet. The praise he most coveted was the saying that the mantle of Carducci had fallen upon him. During the Tripoli campaign he sang of heroes through many pages of verse, and at the end lamented that he had not ten battleships instead of ten poems to offer to his country. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘in this war we are only whetting our steel for the supreme conflict.’

The supreme conflict was to restore the glorious days of Rome and Venice in a Greater Italy, and to make the Adriatic Sea once more the Gulf of Venice. Now the conflict — so much greater and less grandiose than he had imagined it — was ended, and he was demanding a ‘Roman peace.’

At the other extreme of Italian feeling was Bissolati, who urged the government not to insist upon the terms of the secret pact, and advocated a frontier that should exclude Dalmatia and the German Tyrol and end with the Julian Alps east of Fiume. And the government, vacillating as usual, compelled Bissolati to resign and attempted to silence D’Annunzio. The poet, promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, was forbidden to appear before audiences that awaited him, his speeches were censored, he was ordered back to his military duties, he was irritated until he too resigned and surrendered his commission. But he continued to foment nationalistic feeling, defying the government. He said to the Dalmatians, ‘If my skin was tough before the war, it is ten times tougher now. And more than ever I know how to choose my means and my moment.’

The two extremes of national feeling met on the subject of Fiume. And if the Conference of Paris had given heed to that fact, instead of acting as if the very opposite were the truth, all would have been different. There had never, indeed, been any question about Fiume except the question how it had ever happened that any Italian government had ever consented at any time, even under pressure from Russia, to put Fiume into the hands of the Croatians. When Orlando reminded the public that national concessions must be made for the general good, he felt constrained to add, ‘This does not mean that we shall ever be called upon to surrender the inalienable rights of Italian Fiume.’


On a public so minded President Wilson’s open letter, announcing the disposition of Fiume in terms so humiliating to Italy, fell like a bolt. To appreciate what it meant, one must understand how far-reaching had been the influence of the Wilsonian ideas during the last years of the war.

The truth is that the words of Mr. Wilson had sunk far deeper into the consciousness of the Italian people than any words of D’Annunzio’s ever did; and for this clear and simple reason. Wilson spoke to them of a new world, a world of peace and justice and equality. D’Annunzio spoke to them of a revival of Rome, of the resurrection of the Latin race, of the defense of Italy’s national rights and the completion of her liberation from a foreign yoke. He spoke to them of the glory of war, of the magnificence of Italy’s resistance, of the beauty of her sacrifice. Wilson spoke to them of peace on earth. D’Annunzio spoke the words needed to urge them to war and to sustain their courage through the long conflict. But at the end, tired as they were, exhausted as they knew the country to be, and weary with hope deferred, what could an appeal to further resistance mean to them compared to the prospect of permanent peace? In the first, flush of victory, one of the sturdy, muscular bersaglieri, distributing the plumes of his helmet to an applauding crowd, exclaimed, ‘We are all one people now; the nations are united in friendship and peace, now and forever. Wilson has said it.’

The poet D’Annunzio, standing on the Roman Capitoline, kissing the warstained flag of Trieste for each of the unredeemed cities of the Adriatic coast, and then binding it in crêpe until the day they should be liberated—what had he to offer in comparison to this new religion of unity among the peoples? Yet he had the power to hold many: and already on that day, three months before he led his ten thousand volunteers into Fiume, officers of the army and navy, combatants of all ranks, had declared themselves ready to answer his call if he decided to ‘do anything more for Italy.’

Nothing but the deep disillusionment of the people could have made this possible. Whatever may have been D’Annunzio’s motive, — whether, having failed to win an epic death, he now sought fame as the protagonist in a drama of life; whether, having made Dalmatia his mistress, he was burning to lay a living sacrifice at her feet; whether it was true patriotism that moved him or inflated selfishness,—it is certain that he won the approval of much of the best element of the nation. Idealists and liberals, disappointed over the Conference of Paris, had lost their faith in the future. The cause for which they had led the country into war against the materialists who stood for the greater gain of neutrality was being dragged in the dust. And it is not altogether strange if the Old-World ideals for which D’Annunzio stands — chivalrous resistance, fearless defiance, and the determination never to yield — seemed to them more noble than all the compromises of the peacemakers. Italy had fought with the Allies for the rights of small nations, for the principle of self-determination, for democracy against autocracy. That she was now wronged, misunderstood, and treated as an enemy, was only the culminating stroke of disillusionment. The principles of the Allies had been flaunted — and for what purpose? If Mr. Wilson had denied Italian irredentism, miscalling it imperialism, then why had he yielded to Japan? It was clear that might was still right, in spite of the hard struggle to disprove it. The ideal of the New World had failed.

The reaction of the Italian mind against any form of deception is immediate and uncompromising. Italians will sacrifice anything to a cause. They are always ready to fight for a point of honor, and their power of endurance has no limit. But they are too proud to be imposed upon, and they will not endure that the idol they bow before should bear the least suspicion of a sham. They see things in clear outlines, all the details in bold relief, after the manner of the Latin race. They have not the advantage of a northern mist, which dulls the edges of wrong lines and makes compromise easier. It is harder for Italy than for England to see in the Covenant ‘whatever we shall will to make of it.’

And now this strange situation has come about. Across the unity of sentiment in regard to Fiume, across the general resentment, there has sprung a new cleavage. A young captain of infantry, writing from the centre of Istria, expresses it thus, —

‘And so the outcome of the war for Italy is that Italians are doomed to combat Italians, one side to defend the rights of Italy and Fiume, the other for the safety of that other Italy to which the Allies say, “Yield Fiume to Croatia or we will let you die of hunger.”

‘Our government,’ he goes on, ‘was obliged to compromise, yielding on account of our poverty. But there were those who would not yield, and so we have had a D’Annunzio and an army of volunteers. ... I do not know what will become of those brave heroes, but I say to Mr. Wilson, if the auto-decision of Fiume is not the self-determination of a people, then we must deny the existence of God. . . . We Italians can understand the Croatians, though they were the most desperate defenders of Austria against us to the end, they who now sit in Paris, not in the seats of the condemned, but on the bench of the judges. Yet we can forgive them and live at peace with them. For was not one of the great reasons why we fought the war the desire to give liberty and a fatherland also to the Croatians? . . . If only the Americans could understand! If they could know what the Allies have done on the disputed frontiers! They would not then believe that Italy wants what is not her own, that Italy will not be fair to the Jugoslavs. . . . You, signora, who have lived among us, you know that we love Italy because the name Italy spells to us liberty, respect, independence of justice and right, and above all, love of humanity.’

Another Italian, an enlightened liberal who, though depressed over the dark outlook, has faith that Italy will rise greater for her troubles, writes from Milan, —

‘ D’Annunzio has been making an ass of himself as usual. And Wilson is obdurate! How will it ever end? Our nerves are on the verge of a collapse.’

Is there a deadlock between the Old World and the New?

Watching the deliberations at Paris, we saw, or thought we saw, that Europe and America were falling apart because of different aims and traditions. American ideals, we were told, were encountering a recrudescence of the old European nationalistic spirit. We were persuaded that the light of leading was all on our side, and that the density of Europe, especially of the Continent, was too dark to be quite penetrated by even so clear a light. What I felt that day in Venice — that D’Annunzio and Judge Lindsey represented two worlds that would inevitably show themselves to be fundamentally at variance with each other — seemed a presentiment of the truth. Yet to-day we are forced to acknowledge that the Old World is not all on the other side of the Atlantic; and my supposition that those two worlds were Europe on the one side and America on the other was based on a misconception.

We are asking ourselves to-day whether, as a people, we are endowed with an international conscience. The desire to reform all nations, great outbursts of generosity toward foreign peoples in all parts of the globe, even the throwing of ourselves into the world-conflict, may not imply that sense of a permanent international responsibility which, until the term ‘international’ is rescued from its abuse by the communists, must be called the ’new nationalism.’

If our eyes are now being opened, we ought to look far enough to see that the New World is no less real beyond the seas than upon our own soil. Where, indeed, should we look for a conviction of international responsibility, for the hope of uniting the nations in the service of humanity, if not to the fellow countrymen of Mazzini? I will not maintain that Orlando is possessed of it, nor yet Sonnino. ‘Mazzini has been an exile from Italy for ten years,’ said a prominent Italian, impatient with a government that does not represent the governed. I do not maintain that a fair vote would show the majority of Italians to be Mazzinians. But I should like to bear witness to the fact that, having spent in America one half of the time we were at war and the other half in Italy, I saw as much enthusiasm for a league of nations in Italy as in America. It could hardly be otherwise, one can believe, if one thinks of what Italy has had to endure from the old combinations that were to be destroyed. If America had been bought and sold as often as has Italy, she would have been willing to take up as great a burden as Italy took upon herself, that such things might be possible no longer.

Immediately after the invasion of Belgium, a Milan periodical devoted to the ideas of Mazzini organized the first of many committees that were formed at that time to work for the cause of Italian intervention on the side of the Allies. The spirit of Mazzini lives and grows among the people, even though Orlando was an obstructionist at Paris, even though D’Annunzio at Fiume and Zara is a Renaissance figure against a background of debased Machiavellianism.

The line of cleavage between the Old World and the New is neither geographical nor ethnological nor national. It is a cleavage of the spirit.