Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Albizzi's prolonged sonnet; a poem to end all war poems

Niccolo Degli Albizzi composed the following poem in the 13th century. The English translation is by the Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).
Millions of young men who rushed in patriotic waves 'to do their bit' in the great European adventure on the slaughter fields of Belgium and France had not read it. What many of them had read, and many times on English railway station platforms and barber shop corners, was Kitchener's poster 'Your Country Needs You!' or in Austria and Germany 'Your Kaiser Needs You!'. The power of propoganda is immense.

Prolonged Sonnet:
When the troops were returning from Milan

If you could see, fair brother, how dead beat
The fellows look who come through Rome today,-
Black yellow smoke-dried visages,- you'd say
They thought their haste at going all too fleet.
Their empty victual-waggons up the street
Over the bridge dreadfully sound and sway;
Their eyes as hang'd men's, turning the wrong way;
And nothing on their backs, or heads, or feet.
One sees the ribs and all the skeletons
Of their gaunt horses; and a sorry sight
Are the torn saddles, cramm'd with straw and stones.
They are ashamed, and march throughout the night;
Stumbling, for hunger, on their marrowbones;
Like barrels rolling, jolting, in this plight.
Their arms all gone, not even their swords are saved;
And each as silent as a man being shaved.


  1. Not sure what a prolonged sonnet is but my goodness what a strong poem - no glorification of war, no sentiment - just plain, awful facts. Brilliant.
    Thanks for visiting. Glad Pendragon castle reminded you of a holiday! Call again.

  2. It's sad to think that Albizzi's poem is 800 years old and that nothing has much has changed.
    Enjoyed Pendragon. Will call again. Thanks for the invitation.

  3. I enjoyed our little meeting at Harry's Place, so I thougt I'd drop in on you at home.
    Gosh, the two opening lines of that poem took me by surprise, if they are really translated by Rosetti! Amazing that a Victorian used language like "dead beat" in formal verse-making - it takes one forward to Owen or Sassoon!
    Thanks for that!

  4. Thanks for having a look and please do come again. It's a wonderful translation for its time. I feel also that those last six words bring in a very strong image; the barber with his cut-throat razor, just about to lay it on a man's bare neck. Great way to finish such a poem!

  5. Hello again - also it seems to summon up a gaunt expressionist picture of the 1910s-1920s.
    My granny remembered the 1914 recruiting rush well: she was the daughter of a cow-man, and there was much unemployment in the countryside.
    Do you know Hilaire Belloc's heartbreaking "Ha'nacker Mill"? - a picture of rural desolation after the war. On YOUTUBE there's a recording of the old boy actually singing his "Miranda". (M. was a Spanish nobleman, according to A.N.Wilson, not some young doxy that HB had picked up to go rambling with in the Pyrenees.)
    The form of this translation is interesting: two octets, I suppose, but only the second concluding with a couplet.
    The syncopation of "over the bridge dreadfully" in an iambic context so well summons up the sound of stumbling hooves!
    Thanks again!

  6. dammitall!, Thanks for visiting and for the info. I'll see if I can google Belloc's poem; I can't bring it mind but maybe it'll be one of those "ah, yes" moments. Both my grandads were at the Somme. Taid, my Welsh one, came back with trench knee. My Geordie one came back with gangrene. Both considered themsleves lucky to get their discharge papers. Reality and propoganda are strange bedfellows.


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