CAPN Abstract 3: Sabrina Mancuso on Cardarelli’s “Ajace”

The Italian poet and journalist Vincenzo Cardarelli (1887-1959) is the subject of Sabrina Mancuso’s paper at the Classics and Poetry Now Workshop, held at Senate House on 2 November 2017. Mancuso, a PhD student in ancient Greek at the University of Tübingen (Germany), summarises her paper as follows:

“Ajax — compared to the other plays of Sophocles — is a work close to Homeric ethics because of its exaltation of self-affirmation and keen interest in public opinion. The character of the Greek hero Ajax is defined again and again by terms related to “shame”. This paper is a comparison between the concept of shame in Sophocles’ Ajax and in the poem ‘Ajace’ by Vincenzo Cardarelli.

The comparison is done through lexicographic analysis of both works. In ‘Ajace’ Cardarelli handles the concept of shame very differently to Sophocles. Where Sophocles uses abundant terminology to stress the sleight made against Ajax when the Achaeans denied him his due rights, the Italian poet pares back the description, making its absence speak for itself.

The aim of this paper is to show how concepts that are ancient and dear to the likes of Homer and Sophocles – such as αἰδώς, τιμή and γέρας – are evoked by Cardarelli without being named. This is done in interesting ways, including by allusion to another unnamed protagonist, Diomedes.

I intend to show that by his portrayal of the shame of Ajax, Cardarelli reaches back to Sophocles and through him to Homer, because this concept is typical of the archaic and individualistic ethics of epic and tragic poetry. In order to sanction the continuity of a heroic lexicon which is consubstantial to Ajax, Cardarelli expresses the same agonistic and desperately lonely force as Homer and Sophocles.”

Here is an English translation, kindly offered by Mancuso herself. One thing the workshop will have to explore is the way in which the classical reception scholar might profitably discuss poems in languages other than those in which they were written.

Ajace

You always forgot, Telamonian Ajax,
every prudence in the war, every prayer.
You never thought of invoking the help
of a benign goddess
who could enhance your strength
or lift you promptly away from the enemy.
You did not have such a mother,
to let Olympus take pity on your fate,
most discreet of heroes.
And you were not allowed
to carry out stupendous and gratuitous deeds,
to knock down Mars or Hector,
or to hurt Aphrodite’s little finger,
but rather to take part in the horrid, huge fight,
among overwhelming opponents,
in days, that no one loves to remember.
Every time that Jupiter fretted
about the Achaeans,
you rose up to take the field,
worthy offspring of Sisyphus,
descendant of Titans.
When furious Mars led
the Trojan phalanxes
to burn the ships,
you saved them and Teucer.
You were the great reserve
in extreme danger,
the resistance, the wall, the fortress.
Every night, you were welcomed
by the unadorned tent
with no scents or amorous slaves.
There, by the sea,
all smeared with dust and blood,
you slept an bestially hard sleep.
First among your men,
among those heroes who convened at Ilios,
second to no man.
But truly alone
and unique you were
in the misfortune.
No god protected you,
no glory smiled undisputed on you,
only your valour was a protection for you,
ancient infantryman.
And the Greeks denied you that award,
for which you yearned:
the weapons of Achilles. A master of deception
extorted them from you. But in the sea
he lost them. And the pitiful wave,
the changing wave, more sagacious
than human judgment, more constant
than fate,
on your mound finally laid them.
May your inferior soul
rest in peace, Ajax.

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