LA GUIDA by Trilussa commented by Canon Jim Foley
LA GUIDA by Trilussa commented by Canon Jim Foley
Inconclusive observations on a poem by Trilussa (1870-1950)
by Canon Jim Foley
When I first came across this elusive little poem I imagined that it must be the poet’s attempt to piece together a dream he once had. Like most dreams it seemed completely unattached to reality. The scene suddenly floats before our eyes and disappears from sight just as quickly as it had appeared. Maybe it would be better described as a mirage than as a dream, it is so fugitive. It may be very vivid but it doesn’t exist and the reader, like the disillusioned traveller, is in for a big disappointment if he ever reaches his destination, to find that there is nothing there.
The poem really takes too much for granted. There is an assumption from the outset that the reader knows more than he does. I had never heard of the blind protagonist of the poem, yet she is presented as ‘Yon blind old woman …’ as if I had had some dealings with her or the poet or had been told about her nocturnal encounter with the author of the poem on some previous occasion. She is not presented as a total stranger and I feel at a disadvantage. There are other assumptions. The journey will take them past a cypress tree at the bottom of a ravine and will end at a Cross on the top of a hill, as if the poet is lost in a cemetery. Perhaps the biggest anomaly is the fact that his guide is blind. The poet himself can’t let this detail go unchallenged. How on earth can a blind person guide my steps? As if that was not enough to stretch our credulity to the limit, the old dear assures the poet that she will give him a shout from time to time if he finds it hard to keep up with her!
Is there nothing more to this poem than a simple autobiographical detail from the life of Trilussa, dreamt up from the past as a kind of curiosity, or have I missed something? He remembered being lost at night in a wood and, to his surprise, being helped to find his way home by a blind old woman who is finally identified as Faith, one of the three theological virtues. If we could only call the pair of them back on stage and look for a few answers. Nice one Trilussa. You have left us all in the dark.
Let me offer my first ‘inconclusive observation’. The date of the poem. The poem was published as part of a collection of Trilussa’s poetry composed between 1930 and 1942. It carries the year 1942 almost in the form of a seal attached to an ancient document. 1942 was a bad year for Trilussa as it was for most Italians. Italy’s journey into darkness had rached its lowest point. It had reached the cypress tree, one of the many classical symbols of death, at the foot of a ravine. Trilussa knew personally what it meant to be censored and even silenced. On occasion he had accepted the need to change a few words in his satirical poetry aimed at Fascism or end his days in prison or worse. On one occasion he is believed, all six feet of him, to have refused to give the Fascist salute as Mussolini passed by. His silent protest pleased the crowd around him but it could easily have cost him his freedom. Is it just possible that La Guida is the story of Trilussa’s journey into the dark night of political intrigue, loss of freedom of speech and perhaps even death? A steep incline separated him from the cross of redemption high on the hill with, as yet, no hope of resurrection.
As a second observation I would draw attention to the title Trilussa chose for this poem, ‘La Guida’. This title establishes the primacy of the guide who offers to lead him through the darkness to his destination. In the wider context of Italian Literature the guide par excellence is of course the Roman Poet Virgil. From the outset of his epic journey through hell and Purgatory, Dante had a sure guide in Virgil. We are free to speculate on this choice. Why did such an eminent Christian poet choose a pagan to guide his steps? Surely somebody of the calibre of St Augustine could have led the way and knocked down every obstacle in their path. He would certainly have been a match for a whole regiment of disgruntled scholars who found themselves among the damned in hell. Could it be that Dante chose Virgil as a noble pagan who would, with a clear mind and with perfect detachment from any form of Christian prejudice, face the endless physical and intellectual obstacles that would bar the way to paradise? In the eyes of Dante, a man of Christian faith, Virgil was the embodiment of a man of sound reason.
Anyway, Virgil had already covered some of the ground himself. In the sixth book of his Epic Aeneid he ventures into ‘the underworld’ himself and describes, in considerable detail, his experience there. Dante made no secret of his profound affection for the Roman poet and there is every reason to believe that he took Virgil’s visit to the underworld as the blueprint for his own journey through hell. Virgil would have an answer for every doubt raised by the damned in hell, for every regret in the mind of those in purgatory and perhaps even an eye for the birth of a prince of peace. Virgil’s credentials are impeccable.
The case can be convincingly argued in favour of a close connection between Dante’s journey into hell and Trilussa’s journey into darkness of political strife and human treachery. The opening lines of our poem do their best to avoid the vocabulary of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno but serve only to draw us into an almost identical situation for both.
There is a journey to be undertaken. In both cases the traveller has lost his way. Darkness prevails. A guide is to hand and here the comparison seems to end. Dante’s guide is as trustworthy, competent and sympathetic as is Trilussa’s handicapped, ill-equipped and abrupt.
A third observation suggests itself. The poet plunges us into the description of an encounter during the dead of night between himself and a blind old woman who realises that the poet is lost in a dark forest. She offers to be his guide. What kind of nonsense is this? She is blind and can’t see him whatever about the road ahead. To reassure him she invites him to take her by the hand and undertakes to harangue him from time to time along the way.
It is hard to imagine a worse choice of guide than this blind woman. Without offering him any reason to trust her than her word that ‘I know the way’ she issues what can only be described as a perfunctory command: Get moving!
The poem ends abruptly by revealing that the old woman is one of the theological virtues in disguise. ‘She is Faith’. Has Trilussa really allowed himself to be guided through life by blind faith?
For my fourth observation I would draw attention to a short critique from the pen of Albino Luciani, future Pope John Paul I. Luciani wrote a series of letters addressed to distinguished literary figures. These included a letter to Trilussa whom he clearly admired. He gently chides Trilussa for entrusting his destiny to ‘blind faith’ when his Catholic belief asked much more of him. It is the first step that counts and that first step was not a step in the dark, as implied in La Guida, but is a gift from God and a step into the light. After that, everything that follows is an act of free cooperation with the will of God. Luciani compares this primordial gift of faith to the love of parents for their child, to the concern of doctors and nurses for the sick. Without that love everything that follows is flawed.
The future Pope offers the classical description of vocations from the life of Jesus placing the emphasis on the grace of God at work in calling the prospective Christian disciple in the first instance. No rational explanation is offered for the first step taken by Levi when he immediately left his custom’s desk when called to follow Jesus. There was no rational explanation. It was a response to grace, and, in Levi’s case, an immediate response to the voice of authority (Matthew 9.9). The man who would ‘follow Jesus wherever he went’ is never heard of again. Jesus told him to count the cost. He counted the cost and declined the offer. Another must ‘first bury his father’. He too disappears from view. The first step was a step too far for him and was not taken. Yet another needs the impetus, not of God’s grace alone, but of his friends’ applause to speed him on his way. The bands were playing away but the candidate was nowhere to be seen (Luke 9.57-62).
There is nothing in the Gospel to support the existence of blind faith. In fact Jesus had something to say about the dangers ahead for the blind who aspired to lead the blind: ‘When one blind man leads another one, both fall into a ditch’ (Matthew 15.14).
In mitigation we must admit that Trilussa had something akin to the Christian virtue of faith and equally precious and that was trust. He was courageous in the face of life-threatening attacks on his cherished vocation as a journalist and a poet. Some inner gift allowed him not to despair in the face of a journey that threatened to take him and his co-nationals through hell. The reference to the distant cross on the hill fails to look beyond the cross to the resurrection and ascension.
Our little poem grows in stature at every reading. If only Trilussa had gone on to compose a trilogy including all three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity. In Christian theology they are inseparable. In Christian art and poetry they belong together.
Quela Vecchietta ceca, che incontrai Yon blind Old Woman whom I met
la notte che mi spersi in mezzo ar bosco, on the night that I got lost in the wood,
me disse: Se la strada nu’la sai said to me: if you are not familiar with the route
te ciacompagno io, che la conosco. I will accompany you, for I know the way.
Se ciai la forza de venimme a presso, If you are able to keep up with me
de tanto in tanto daro una voce I will raise my voice from time to time
fino la infonno, dove c’e un cipresso, till we get down as far as the cypress tree
fino la in cima, dove c’e la Croce. and back up again to where stands the Cross.
Io risposi: Sara…ma trovo strano I replied: Fair enough…but I find it odd
che me possa guida chi nun ce vede… that one who can’t see me should be my guide…
La Ceca, allora, me pijo la mano The Blind Woman then took me by the hand
e sospiro – Cammina! and with a sigh said: Get moving!
Era la Fede. She was Faith