Italy – Epic Days

NEVER had I expected in the twentieth century to be plunged into an heroic situation and live in epic days. For many years when I became over-tired with the high pressure of American life and worn with trying to understand the subtleties of surrounding persons trained by conventional society to think one thing in their heart and say another with their lips, I had taken down my Homer and reading aloud the beautiful hexameters had seemed again to hear

“The surge and thunder of the Odyssey,”

had seemed to

“See the stars, and feel the free Shrill wind beyond the close of heavy flowers,”


“Athwart the sunrise of our western day The form of great Achilles, high and clear.”

And the sights and sounds of Homeric times had in-variably made that heroic life in its close contact with nature, its simple expression of feeling and its ready action seem larger and grander. So it was with such preparation of recurrent mood that I visited Mycenae and Fiume.

Memorable is the twenty-first of April when at dusk a party of Americans came riding down the valley to Mycenae. In a golden sunset lurid under dark clouds, Mount Arachnaeon’s gray ridge had looked high enough for the flashing of the signal to the watchman on the top of Agamemnon’s palace which announced that the Trojan war was over. Now in the twilight down all the roads into the valley the flocks of sheep were tinkling home and high over Mycenae’s rock between the two gray peaks of Mount Elias and Mount Szara arose a full white moon. Here at the foot of the mountains we were welcomed at the “Hôtel la belle Elene de Menelas,” a little two-story, rose-pink house with green shutters set in the shade of feathery pepper-trees, and here our host Demetrius assisted by his two sons, Agamemnon and Oreste, and a charming young daughter with two long brown braids, Helen herself, served us as delicious a dinner as though Mycenae were still rich in gold. The unbelievable event of sleeping there was made more Homeric by our having to divide the tiny hotel into men’s quarters and women’s quarters, and by Helen spreading the fair purple blankets and coverlets above for some of us in the portico and trying to assist at our ablutions, standing solemnly by basin, holding towel in hand.

Then in the early morning there was the walk up to the Treasury of Atreus and to the old citadel on the hill. Only one who has been there can imagine the sense of splendor that falls as one enters that huge bee-hive tomb with its perfect dome, or passes through the great gate where the two rampant lions guard the stronghold of the king of men, or stands in the sacred circle of the royal shaft-graves, or views the strength of the Cyclopean city-walls, or peers down into the secret subterranean well which gave water in time of siege, or passes over the stone threshold into the palace Epic Days to the central hearth, surrounded by columns, where some Clytemnestra may have sat plotting the death of her returning Victor-Lord. The glamour of the heroic civilization hangs over those stone ruins on the mountain’s side and it is very fitting that the only occupants of ancient Mycenae today are the eagles who have built their nests on top of the ramparts above the sheer gorge between the mountain-peaks.

Very remote though real, seemed Mycenae, the city of fourteen hundred years before Christ. Very near, but unreal seemed the city of Fiume which I visited be-fore the occupation of D’Annunzio was over. Or shall I say that Fiume seemed not unreal, but incredible? As I look back at my five October days there and at the five days which two months later ended the epic of the Fiumani, I have still the sense of amazement that in the twentieth century there could have been events so Homeric in character, so unrelated to realities, an expedition led by a poet, an army of boys worshipping their Commandante, a tiny city defying the world. Though the facts of the history of Fiume are an old story now, feeling still runs so high at the mention of D’Annunzio’s name and the issues though believed dead by those far away are still so lively a subject of controversy, that I will not concern myself with them here. Suffice it to say that the tiny town at the head of the Adriatic when it was abandoned by the Hungarians after the great Italian victory at Vittorio Veneto, believed itself in danger of being swallowed up by neighbors, enemies or allies, and unable to maintain its cherished and historic corpus separatum and its Italianità. This I say was the belief of the city and the tragic calls which it. sent to the outer world caught the ear not of statesmen, or of assembled nations, or of philanthropists, but of a poet fed on that strange mixture of classicism and romanticism which sometimes produces action. Just what was in the complex, subtle mind of the Aviator-Commandante when he adopted the cause of Fiume, no other can declare, but the call of the holocaust city somehow appealed to him as it did later to the writer of these youthful verses :


“Blockaded, starved and bartered, this fair Maid Had still maintained her ‘body separate’ And stood against her hill inviolate Her poignard in her hand, but undismayed.

“Now chained to the lone rock, the unfailing streams Denied her thirst, her plight is desperate. Yet lift your eyes, Andromeda, and wait! Lo! In the sky unconquered Perseus gleams.”

So Perseus flew down to fair maiden-in-distress, the incredible march of D’Annunzio upon Fiume took place, and from that “night of Ronchi,” September the twelfth, 1919, to the terrible “five days” at Christmas time in 1920 which ended the D’Annunzian occupation, the epic days of Fiume lasted.

It was in the midst of the Epic that, in spite of the blockade, the unpopularity of American passports, and the presence of the Bubonic plague, I was given safe conduct into the city and had a chance to see its small, but beautiful personality: the caerulean bay, girt by high hills, the city climbing the rocks, the Frangipani castle guarding the river which gave name to town and legend “Indeficienter,” “never failing” to the city’s crest, the little bridge across which the Italian regulars in Susak and D’Annunzio’s legionaries in Fiume touched hands, the little harbor divided by a mole into Porto Baross and the inner bay, in short, the diminutive loveliness of all that fed so high a flame. And it was while I was in Fiume, talking day after day to boys of seventeen and eighteen in D’Annunzio’s army, that I sensed that their amazing deeds could be fittingly recorded only in Homeric strains. With apologies to certain distinguished translators, let me try to begin in English an Homeric version of an Italian epyllion.

Sing, I pray, ye muses who inhabit Olympian dwellings, sing of the march of the Hero, the little man of the winged words, and the winged service, who marshalled a band of youths to seize a beleaguered city. Youngsters they, but valiant, many were sons of the mighty, yea, and perhaps better the sons than the weary and home-staying fathers. Dark was the night and quiet when the silver-tongued orator of the rocky Abruzzi bethought himself of impetuous valor. Sudden he leapt in his armor from the earth where he stood to his chariot; terribly flashed the words from the poet’s lips as he darted. “Italy and Life,” he cried, and at the sound joy came upon all the Young-hearted. And as many as the birds that flee from the coming of winter and sudden rain, or as many as the tribes of thronging bees that issue from some hollow rock, ever in fresh procession and fly clustering among the flowers of spring, or as many as the tearless phantoms that flit about the shore of the river of forgetfulness, even so many were the stalwart young heroes who mounted on their chariots or marched in serried ranks after the flying captain, and as they rushed onward, there was heard a strange sound of singing, “Eia, eia, alalà ! To the holocaust city!”

So might the march to Fiume be recorded. And there were other later events as “irregular” that, set down in cold newspaper reports, would be dubbed acts of brigandage or highway robbery, or sentimental twaddle, but which slip strangely into Homeric phraseology. Let us try the seizure of the ship, the taking of the horses, the conversation at the Susak bridge.

Now so long as the legions of the Fiumani still had corn and red wine, they refrained them from seeking for vessels laden with food upon the high seas, for they were fain of life. But when the corn was now all spent, and hunger gnawed at the belly, then secretly in the dark they loosed the hawsers of a decked ship and climbed on board themselves. Then laid they hands on the tackling, and they raised the mast of pine tree and set it in the hole of the cross plank, and made it fast with forestays and hauled up the white sails with twisted ropes of oxhide and gray-eyed Athene sent them a favorable gale, a fresh North wind singing over the wine-dark sea. The wind filled the belly of the sail, and the dark wave seethed loudly round the stem of the running ship and she fleeted over the wave accomplishing her path. And right soon before the sun arose and left the lovely mere, they came in sight of another vessel and quickly they spied her cargo, many kine that she bear, fair kine of shambling gait and broad of brow. And the Fiumani quietly hove their curved ship to beside the vessel which carried the cattle and leaping on board more quickly than nimble thought darts from mind to mind, they began slaying on this side and on that, until the sailors begged them to take the precious cattle, sparing so their lives for to each man his own is precious. And all the company consented thereto, and quietly in the cover of the darkness both the seafaring ships sped back into the harbor for well did their pilots guide them. Then they stayed their well-builded ships in the hollow harbor, and the company went forth from out the ship and deftly got ready supper. Forthwith they drove off the best of the kine, and the Fiumani gathered in throngs on the seashore, rejoicing greatly, for they knew that soon they would satisfy their gnawing hunger.

Now there was need also of horses for the soldiers in the little city, for all their horses had sickened and died and since the city lay on a hillside, there was need of beasts of burden to carry the guns up the hill, and to bear their scanty provisions. So to the Commandante spake a youth of the loud war-cry : “Commandante, my heart and manful spirit urge me to enter a town of the foemen hard by, even of the enemy; but and if some other man will follow with me, more comfort and more courage will there be.” Then him again answered the volatile, brilliant commander : “Ah, ye sons of Fiume, how shall I speak my thanks to you ! Volentes, O willing ones, ye bear in your hearts our motto ‘ the next thing always.’ One for all, all for one, shoulder to shoulder, go forth for the night is waning. Near is the dawn, and the stars have gone onward. If the spirit is for us, who can be against us?”

So spake he, and up started two stalwart young heroes and when they had prayed to San Vito, they went forth on their way, like two lions through the dark night, to find the steeds that were needed. And quickly they came to the city of the enemy. Now they were slumbering, foredone with toil, but near each man were his steeds. And the Fiumani spied them from afar and spake one to the other : “Here are our men and here are the horses. Come now, put forth thy great strength. Do thou slay the men, and of the horses will I take heed.”

And like as a lion cometh on flock without a herdsman, on goats or sheep, and leaps upon them with evil will, so set one Fiuman on the enemy and slew the guardians of the horses. Meanwhile his hardy companion loosed the whole-hooved horses and bound them together with thongs and drove them out of the press, smiting them with a green branch since he had no shining whip to smite them. And when they stole secretly out of the crowded press of the enemy, swiftly they sprang upon the steeds and sped to the city of life. And in the palace of the Commandante the sentinel at the door listened and said to himself softly: “Shall I be wrong or speak sooth? for my heart bids me speak. The sound of swift-footed horses strikes upon mine ears. Would to god our two brave soldiers may even instantly be driving the whole-hooved horses from among the enemy.” Not yet was his whole word spoken when they came themselves and leaped down to earth, and gladly the others welcomed them with hand-clasping, and with honeyed words. But they lifting their eyes hoped only to hear the praise of the Commandante.

Now Italian regular soldier and legionary Fiuman met in the mid-space of the bridge that crossed the river between Fiume and Susak, and there where the strange barrier of a barbed wire kept them asunder, the twain were come nigh in guard duty to each other.

To the Italian Regular first spake the Fiuman of the loud war-cry: “Who art thou noble sir, of mortal men? For never have I beheld thee on guard duty ere this, yet now hast thou far outstripped all men in thy hardihood, seeing that thou approachest the poignard of an Ardito.”

Then the glorious son of the regular army made answer to him : “Great-hearted Fiuman, why enquirest thou of my generation? Even as are the generations of leaves such are those likewise of heroes. You and I and all our dear comrades tomorrow may be scattered on the earth in the battle. For a bitter order has come and brother is fighting with brother. Know, O Fiuman, that I like you am Italian. I too have sworn an oath, to my King and my country. And you I hear have sworn to make Fiume Italian,–have pledged your word in blood to your great-hearted Commander.”

So said he and straightway answered the youthful Fiuman: “Surely thou art to me a guest-friend of old time, for our fathers both have served the same king, the same country. Yet, O my brother-in-arms, how can we shun each other’s spears in the conflict? For you stand on the wrong side of the bridge and I on the other side with Fiume. And here we shall remain.” Just then there sounded a terrible breaking of timber, a crashing explosion, thudding things hitting the water, booming from ships in the harbor. Presently all was quiet, but there was no bridge over the river.

So I might go on with the amazing story, but I hope I have written enough to show how easily the episodes of the life in Fiume drop into epic narrative. What ever your opinion of the abstract “Fiume question,” whatever your Anglo-Saxon condemnation of the social standards of D’Annunzio, I would have challenged any man or woman with red blood to talk with the young legionaries of Fiume and not believe that they, the rank and file, were of the stuff of the heroic age. Their flaming worship of their leader, their passionate be-lief that they were fighting for the liberty of a little Italian city, their disregard of their impuissance and their sublime faith in the truth of D’Annunzio’s motto :

“If the spirit is for us, who can be against us?” led many to fight to the death. Why, anyone who had been to Fiume and seen the legionaries’ small numbers, their slight equipment, their isolation, their poverty, knew at once that they could not resist any regular army for a day, but to the last those boys believed in their cause and in their power.

Think of the foolhardy things they did! Now, hearing a rumor that little Zara on the Dalmatian coast might lose her Italian identity in the final treaties manoeuvred by the Allies, they manned a boat, dashed out of the harbor and arrived before Zara to assist the Governor of Dalmatia, were gravely and courteously received by his Excellency, given barracks in Zara, and the freedom of the city as honored guests, and kept there until the end of D’Annunzio’s command. Then when in the night the little company first tried to tunnel its way out, then seized a boat in the harbor and were about to start northward, they were of course easily made prisoners.

Or think of the little bands that escaped the blockade of Fiume and seized the tiny, jewel-like islands of Veglia and Arbe, summoned by appeals from the Italians there. And when the end of the life of the legions in Fiume came, and the regular army ordered them to withdraw from Veglia and Arbe, few though they were-and mighty the warships before them, they refused to stir until a command in D’Annunzio’s own hand was brought to them and their lives were mercifully spared by the indulgence of the desired letter from their Hero. Then at the beginning of their last fatal “five days,” think how on the outskirts of the town the Fiumani put up placards of appeal to the Italian regulars, believing those would disarm the cannon :

” Brothers ! If you wish to avoid the great misfortune, do not pass this limit.

“If your leaders blind you, may the God of Italy give you light.”

Such simple faith in the possibility of superhuman deeds, such spirit, such dash, such courage, and such dying are the qualities of epic heroes, and seem to be-long in an age when the world was younger. Even as I write of them in this after-war time of disillusion and self-seeking normality, I catch my breath and think that those young intellectuals who so ardently dared all for the magic word “Liberty” had their great day. In the height of their adventures, a young Florentine lawyer, just married, said to me nonchalantly after speculating on the industrial and financial crisis of his country: “Oh well! If there is a revolution in Italy, my wife and I will go to live under D’Annunzio’s constitution in Fiume !” Such a stronghold of the spirit did the little city seem to many devotees. There will be, however, no revolution in Italy, as all who live there are aware. D’Annunzio is no longer in Fiume. And the epic days of the world are perhaps over.