Isabella

Isabella Morra (c1520-1545/6) was born into an impoverished aristocratic family in Southern Italy. Forced to live in strict isolation in the family castle in Valsinni on a steep cliff above the Ionian Sea, she devoted herself to writing a series of extraordinary poems, ‘amaro, aspro e dolente’ (‘bitter, harsh and sorrowful’), about her longing for escape. When she was twenty-six she was brutally murdered by three of her brothers in an honour killing. She was buried in an unmarked grave, and her poetry was forgotten for several hundred years. Today Isabella Morra is regarded as a unique and powerful voice in sixteenth-century Italian literature, a precursor of Leopardi and a possible influence on Tasso. Benedetto Croce wrote her biography, praising her poetry for its ‘passionate immediacy’. Two plays about her life and work have recently been staged in Paris and in Rome. The Io Isabella International Film festival is dedicated to her memory. This is the first complete UK edition of Isabella Morra’s poetry, and includes a series of poems written by translator Caroline Maldonado about the life and brutal death of this remarkable young woman in the context of femminicidi and honour killings in our own time.

Sample Poems

I (Italian)

I fieri assalti di crudel Fortuna
scrivo piangendo, e la mia verde etate;
me che ‘n si vili ed orride contrate
spendo il mio tempo senza loda alcuna.

Degno il sepolcro, se fu vil la cuna,
vo procacciando con le Muse amate,
e spero ritrovar qualche pietate
malgrado de la cieca aspra importuna;

e col favor de le sacrate Dive,
se non col corpo, almen con l’alma sciolta,
essere in pregio a piu felice rive.

Questa spoglia, dov’or mi trovo involta,
forse tale alto Re nel mondo vive,
che ‘n saldi marmi la terra sepolta.

I (English)

I write weeping about the fierce assaults
on me by cruel Fortune and the lost days
of my youth, how in this vile, odious hamlet
I spend my life without a word of praise.

My cradle was cursed but I will earn a tomb
for I pursue a dream with my sweet Muses
and despite the interfering, blind goddess
one day I hope to find pity again.

And by the grace of my sacred spirit, at least
my soul, if not my body, will be set free
and valued more highly in some happier place.

As for this mortal frame that now confines me,
perhaps a great king, elsewhere on the globe,
will have it buried in a fine, marble grave.

III (Italian)

D’un alto monte onde si scorge il mare
miro sovente io, tua figlia Isabella,
s’alcun legno spalmato in quello appare,
che di te, padre, a me doni novella.

Ma la mia adversa e dispietata stella
non vuol ch’alcun conforto possa entrare
nel tristo cor, ma, di pieta rubella,
la calda speme in pianto fa mutare.

Ch’io non veggo nel mar remo ne vela
(cosi deserto e lo infelice lito)
che l’onda fenda o che la gonfi il vento.

Contra Fortuna alor spargo querela,
ed ho in odio il denigrato sito,
come sola cagion del mio tormento.

III (English)

From this high peak with its view over the sea
I, your daughter Isabella, often look out
hoping for a wooden ship to appear,
Father, that will bring me back news of you.

But my stars, hostile and without mercy,
will not allow the smallest drop of comfort
to enter my sad heart and, despising pity,
they convert my burning hope to tears.

For when I see no oars cut through the waves
nor a single sail billow in the wind
(the shoreline is so abandoned, so alone!),

then must I speak out against my fate
and nurse my hatred for this forsaken place
that is the one and only cause of my torment.

VII (Italian)

Ecco che’un’altra volta, o valle inferna,
o fiume alpestre, o ruinati sassi,
o ignudi spirti di virtute e cassi,
udrete il pianto e la mia doglia eterna.

Ogni monte udirammi, ogni caverna,
ovunqu’io arresti, ovunqu’io mova i passi;
che Fortuna, che mai salda non stassi,
cresce ogn’or il mio male, ogn’or l’eterna.

Deh, mentre ch’io mi lagno e giorno e notte,
o fere, o sassi, o orride ruine,
o selve incolte, o solitarie grotte,

ulule, e voi del mal nostro indovine,
piangete meco a voci alte interrotte
il mio piu d’altro miserando fine.

VII (English)

Here once again, O hell-like wasted valley,
O Alpine river, shattered heaps of stone,
spirits stripped bare of all goodness or pity,
you will hear the voice of my endless pain.

Every cave will hear me, every hill,
wherever I stay or my footsteps lead me,
for Fortune, who never rests or holds still,
steps up my pain each hour to last eternally.

And as I cry out through the nights and days,
you, wild beasts, rocks, infernal ruins,
untamed forests and solitary caves,

even you, hawk owls who presage ill,
come howl with me in your loud, broken voices
for what is to come, my saddest fate of all.

VIII (Italian)

Torbido Siri, del mio mal superbo,
or ch’io sento da presso il fine amaro,
fa’ tu noto il mio duolo al Padre caro,
se mai qui ‘l torna il suo destin acerbo.

Dilli come, morendo, disacerbo
l’aspra Fortuna e lo mio fato avaro,
e, con esempio miserando e raro,
nome infelice e le tue onde servo.

Tosto ch’ei giunga a la sassosa riva
(a che penar m’adduci, o fiera stella,
come d’ogni mio ben son cassa e priva!)

inqueta l’onde con crudel procella,
e di’: – Mi accreber si, mentre fu viva,
con gli occhi no, ma i fiumi d’Isabella.

VIII (English)

Muddy, swollen Siri, scornful of my pain,
now that I sense my wretched end come near,
let my dear father learn of my despair
if his destiny allows him home again.

Tell him how, by my death, I appease
my bitter fortune and the misery of my fate,
and with the lesson of my strange, pitiful tale
bequeath my unlucky name to your waves.

As soon as he arrives at this stony riverside
(O cruel stars, what you lead me to think of
now I am robbed and stripped of everything good!),

whip up your restless waves with violent storms,
say, I swelled so great when Isabella was alive,
not from her eyes alone, but from her streams.

IX (Italian)

Se a la propinqua speme nuovo impaccio
o Fortuna crudele o l’empia Morte,
com’han soluto, ahi lassa, non m’apporte,
rotta avro la prigione e sciolto il laccio.

Ma, pensando a quel di, ardo e agghiaccio,
che ‘l timore e ‘l desio son le mi scorte;
a questo or chiudo, or apro a quel le porte
e, in forse, di dolor mi struggo e sfaccio.

con ragione il desio dispiega i vanni
ed al suo porto appressa il bel pensiero
per trar quest’alma da perpetui affanni.

Ma Fortuna al timor mostra il sentiero
erto ed angusto e pien di tanti inganni,
che nel piu bel sperar poi mi dispero.

IX (English)

If either unholy Death or cruel Fortune
should yet again obstruct my rising hopes,
worn down as I am it will do me no harm,
I will have smashed my prison, slipped my noose.

Yet, thinking of that day, I freeze and burn
for both fear and longing are my escort;
I shut out the first only to let in the second,
consume myself in doubt and fall apart.

With good reason desire spreads out its wings
and draws my hopes closer into its port,
leading my soul away from constant cares.

But Fate shows fear a steep and dangerous route,
a narrow path strewn with so many snares
that when my hope is highest I most despair.

X (Italian)

Scrissi con stile amaro, aspro e dolente
un tempo, come sai, contra Fortuna,
si che null’altra mai sotto la luna
di lei si dolse con voler piu ardente.

Or del suo cieco error l’alma si pente,
che in tai doti non scorge gloria alcuna,
e se de’ beni suoi vive digiuna,
spera arricchirsi in Dio chiara e lucente.

Ne tempo o morte il bel tesoro eterno,
ne predatrice e violenta mano
ce lo torra davanti al Re del cielo.

ivi non nuoce gia state ne verno,
che non si sente mai caldo ne gielo.
Dunque, ogni altro sperar, fratello, e vano.

X (English)

You know, in those days, how bitterly I wrote,
with what anger and pain I denounced Fortune.
No woman under the moon ever complained
with greater passion than me about her fate.

Now my soul repents of its blind mistake,
no longer finding glory in gifts such as these
and though starved of all that is good while it lives,
it hopes to grow rich in the light of God’s grace.

Neither time nor death, nor some violent,
rapacious hand will snatch away the eternal,
beautiful treasure before the King of Heaven.

Nor will summer or winter ever do harm,
for there, no-one feels heat or icy cold.
You see, brother, all other hope is vain.

Reviews

‘Beautiful, evocative poems with a lightness to them and a careful precision – nothing seems excess, all the words feel weighed, placed... a consummate performance, altogether.’

Sasha Dugdale

‘These are exquisite poems, lyrical, enticing and profound.’

Mandy Pannett

‘an outstanding compilation.’

Agenda

‘powerful testimony to the transcendence of art in even the most dourly unfavourable circumstances.’

The North