Poetry within Fiction: sometimes, for the sake of fully portraying a character, a writer may invent the poetry, stories or art made by the fictional character that they have created. In the case of The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the Afterword by Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi in the paperback edition reveals that the author had “…written a number of poems, attributed to Don Fabrizio”, the “Prince of Salina” and main protagonist in The Leopard, and that “…in these he had revealed his love for Angelica”, the gorgeous wife of the adopted son of the Prince, called “Tancredi” in the novel.
These documents expand the depiction of the main protagonists in The Leopard, the Prince of Salina, also called Don Fabrizio, and Tancredi and Angelica.
Two parts of this real historical document, the Salina Canzoniere (“canzoniere” means “songbooks”) are included in the paperback edition, referred to as Fragment A and Fragment B. One of the three poems written by Tomasi that have been reproduced here is by the character “Father Pirrone”, and two are by the character of Don Fabrizio.
When an author does this, it changes the reader’s perception of the character – for instance, the character’s skill as a poet is only as good as the author’s skill as a poet. In some instances the author’s skill at a different form of Literature equals or betters their skill in writing Fiction. However, I have also read many Art Novels where this has not gone well, and since I hate to pan a book I’ll not mention any names here.
After Tomasi’s death, and after the publication of the novel, these documents turned up and are now considered important and authentic enough to be considered part of the narrative of the novel. Why would Tomasi want to create additional evidence that the Prince felt desire for the bride of his favourite relative? In the novel, it is quite clear from the way Tomasi describes Angelica and the Prince’s reaction to her looks, manners and voice (cooing “Nuncle” flirtatiously in his ear at every turn, with sex appeal just oozing out of every virginal pore in her statuesque body).
I think Tomasi added the poem to demonstrate that the Prince was aware of the age difference between him and Angelica, and that he strongly felt the decay of his own virility.
Bad or good poetry?
Is the poetry invented by Tomasi for Don Fabrizio any good, bearing in mind of course the style of poetry of the 19th century, and the subsequent influence of the translator? And how well-written should such poems be, if they were to reflect the skills of a fictional nobleman of the mid-nineteenth century?
They are classified as sonnets, and sonnets are devilishly difficult to write in any case due to the demanding specifics of their form and rhyme scheme.
It must have been difficult for Tomasi, with his lifelong passion for Literature and expertise on the subject, to write these and then measure them against the sonnets that he had studied. As for the subsequent translation, I can imagine that to keep to a specific sonnet form when translating it, while maintaining the meaning both literally and idiomatically, would have been ever harder.
Thus I can only assume that for Tomasi to have gone to all this trouble, he must have felt that the characters in the novel were real and complete to him, and that not giving them their own voices through poetry would have diminished that realism.
The character of Don Fabrizio is of course closely based on Tomasi’s ancestor, a real person – and I wonder if that person did not also write poetry, as the nobility of the time commonly did to show their sophistication, and where those poems are, and whether they are any good or better than the ones produced for the novel.
But that would be a whole different subject for investigation.
The sonnets, as wholes, I did not find particularly memorable. But some verses in them were quite well written, quite edgy and evocative. Here is one of the poems, a sonnet. You be the judge:
Don Fabrizio’s Sonnets
SONNET NO. 1 Compact and smooth beneath the August glare The water in the cistern would appear To be a marble block, green and discreet, Last barrier to the fierce sirocco's heat. But stay! A tiny fissure, and this chink Permits the secret treasure out to slink - A solitary trickle, an unsought for shimmer Flows out amid the pebbles in a sparkling glimmer. Slowly the level drops and keeps revealing All that is filthy slime, all one despises, That on the bottom lies: worms, muddy clay, The drowning sun's last spasm, our unappealing Impotence that up to the surface rises: Safety we sought, but found only decay.
Source: The Leopard, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Vintage Books, 2007, p. 229
Analysis of the poem
Form and rhyme scheme
My comments on the poem should be read whilst bearing in mind that these poems are recreations from the original Italian.
The poem consists of two four-line stanzas (an octave) followed by two triplets (three-line stanzas, a sestet), but the rhyme scheme is not typical of classical sonnet schemes – which typically does not feature coupled rhyme schemes like in this poem. This sonnet’s rhyme scheme is: AABB AABB//CDE CDE. It is not in the form of a Petrarchan, Spenserian or Shakespearean Sonnet.
The rhyme scheme is perfect, meaning that the words rhyme exactly, except for a half-rhyme (near-rhyme or imperfect rhyme) which weakens the first stanza: in “glare” and “appear” the stressed vowels are not the same.
Nor is the meter precisely iambic, which would have been recognizable in a Shakespearean sonnet. An iambic line is a standard line of iambic pentameter, five iambic feet in a row: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.
This poem’s meter varies per line, but the first line, showing the odd-accented feet in bold, is:
“COMpact / and SMOOTH / beNEATH / the AUGgust / GLARE“.
In terms of imagery, the line, “an unsought for shimmer”, I would have written as “unsought-for”, with a hyphen, to definitely make it an adjectival phrase, not an odd-sounding noun or verb. It can be read two ways – I read it at first as “an unsought [thing], for shimmer flows out amid the pebbles…”.
The run-on lines in the sestets, and the use of the colon two times to introduce a reason or evidence – making it reason within reason – is typical of Tomasi’s writing style. However, the metaphor is clear: The dirt at the bottom of the leaking fountain is like the poet’s impotence, and the like, which he despises. The slow process of revealing of the dirt as the water seeps out, is a search which reveals or produces not safety, but decay.
This is quite appropriate for Don Fabrizio considering how he loses his power and how his estates become shabby and rundown during his lifetime. From being an untouchable member of the nobility, physically strong and immensely wealthy, he ends his days not as a prince, but as a simple “Don”, like any other man, weak and ill. The fountain as a whole, with water, leaks, mud and all, is a metaphor for the life of Don Fabrizio. To reference the title of Chinua Achebe’s novel, all things fall apart in the life of the Prince.
More books with embedded poems and poetry
Here are a couple more novels which I have read, in which the authors wrote poetry of one kind or another for their characters, and did it well (I’ll not mention the bad ones):
- Chinese poetry by a detective in a detective novel: Shanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong (The poems in Shanghai Redemption, by Qiu Xiaolong)
- Japanese waka in a novel about Japanese novelist: The Tale of Murasaki, by Liza Dalby
- Character speaking in rhyme in a Sci-Fi novel: The One-Eyed Man, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
- Rock opera concepts and lyrics in a novel about musicians: The Age of Anxiety, by Pete Townshend
- Prayer or hymn by “the Reverend Eli Jenkins” in Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas
- Poetry collection attributed to a doctor-poet in a novel: The Poetry of Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (1967)