Winged Words: Flight in Poetry and History

Winged Words: Flight in Poetry and History

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by Piero Boitani

Flight has always fascinated human minds, but until a century ago it remained a dream—the exclusive domain of birds, gods, and mythological heroes. From the myths of the ancients to the poetry of Pindar and Yeats, Winged Words traces the imprint of the human impulse to fly from premodern times to the age of terrorism in both literature and

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Flight has always fascinated human minds, but until a century ago it remained a dream—the exclusive domain of birds, gods, and mythological heroes. From the myths of the ancients to the poetry of Pindar and Yeats, Winged Words traces the imprint of the human impulse to fly from premodern times to the age of terrorism in both literature and history.

Piero Boitani begins his analysis with an account of the way the myths of Pegasus and Icarus have persisted from classical to twentieth-century politics and literature. He then takes up the figure of Hermes; the roles of halcyons and eagles in classical, biblical, and later literatures; and literary response to Pieter Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus. Honing in on modern figures and concerns, Boitani also offers a fascinating discussion of author-pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and concludes with a meditation on the flight of the hijacked airliners on 9/11. Throughout, Winged Word brings a remarkable range of men of action, politicians, theologians, writers, and artists into dialogue with each other: Shakespeare with T. S. Eliot, Horace with Ovid, Leonardo with Milton, Leopardi with Mallarmé, Saint-Exupéry with Faulkner and Rilke, and the Ulysses of Homer with the Ulysses of Dante. Ultimately, by showing how writers and fliers have looked to the ancients for inspiration, Boitani testifies to the modern relevance of poetry and the classics.

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Editorial Reviews

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"This enjoyable book is an imaginative survey of the role of flight in literature . . . . and what we might term the 'cultural history' of the West. . . . A work of comparative literature at its most wide-ranging."

— Victoria Moul

"In this wide-ranging, entertaining thematic study, Boitani examines humans' fascination with flight, both real and imagined, as manifested in canonical and noncanonical work of literature and visual art in Western culture from classical antiquity to 9/11.... Few will argue with the book's stated premise: explorations of flight and the appeal of flight across time can teach one about history, culture, and being. These learned and often delightful discussions will likely appeal to those interested in comparative literature, philosophy, and ethics, as well as to readers interested in flight as a thematic focus of literary criticism."
Robin Kirkpatrick

Winged Words soars in flight over the widest range of subjects. Boitani brings great erudition, wit, and moral seriousness to his theme, demonstrating how comparative literature can express and animate the most vital of our concerns, from Homer to 9/11.”

Rachel Jacoff

“Piero Boitani’s range of references, the fascinating and unexpected juxtapositions, the imaginative energy of the conceptual frames for each chapter, and the sheer delight in the literature discussed make the reading experience itself a delight. There are many ways to take literature seriously, and Boitani’s work consistently engages important questions of the relationship between literature, myth, history, and vision. For me Boitani’s work is exemplary and, like the books of Robert Harrison and Susan Stewart, reaffirms my faith in the illuminating power of literature.”

Bryn Mawr Classical Review - Victoria Moul

"This enjoyable book is an imaginative survey of the role of flight in literature . . . . and what we might term the 'cultural history' of the West. . . . A work of comparative literature at its most wide-ranging."

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University of Chicago Press
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Winged Words Flight in Poetry and History
By Piero Boitani
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-06561-8

Chapter One Pegasus

"To-morrow at three o'clock, in a meadow on the Côte d'Azur, I have a rendezvous with Pegasus." Thus opens a letter entitled The Story of My Death written in French in 1931 by a young Italian named Lauro de Bosis in a Marseilles hotel the evening before boarding a recently purchased aircraft that he had renamed Pegasus. De Bosis was about to embark upon what he had come to consider his supreme mission: to fly over Rome and drop upon the city some hundreds of thousands of anti-Fascist leaflets. The manuscript of his Story was sent to the editor of the Belgian newspaper Le Soir so that it might be published in the event of its author's death. On 3 October 1931, two months before his thirtieth birthday, de Bosis departed from Marignane aboard his aircraft and flew to Rome. Arriving around eight o'clock that same evening, he dropped the leaflets from his plane, undisturbed by antiaircraft artillery and the Italian Air Force for at least half an hour. He then turned westward and disappeared, never to be seen again.

Under the censors' vigilance, the Italian press reported the episode in just a few lines. The foreign press, however, immediately investigated the event, which was shrouded in mystery from the start. Subsequently, Le Soir and the New York Times published The Story of My Death in its entirety. The London Times and München Post were among the newspapers that devoted considerable attention to de Bosis's Story. It was not the first time that someone had undertaken an action of this kind. On 9 August 1918, at the height of the First World War, Gabriele D'Annunzio had flown over Vienna to drop his Italian nationalist pamphlets. On 11 July 1930, one-and-a-half years before de Bosis, Giovanni Bassanesi had flown from Switzerland in order to drop Giustizia e Libertà leaflets over Milan. In the case of de Bosis, however, what caused an uproar was the fact that an aircraft flown by an amateur pilot should actually succeed in reaching Rome, Mussolini's capital, in a country whose air force was considered one of the strongest in the world, thanks also to the transatlantic flights of Fascist hero and minister Italo Balbo.

Moreover, the name of Lauro de Bosis was rather well known, surrounded as it was by a romantic literary aura. Born in Rome of an Italian father, Adolfo de Bosis, and an American mother, Lillian Vernon, the young Lauro had grown up among intellectuals and writers. His father was a poet and translator of Shelley and had founded and edited the literary review Il Convito, publishing work by Italian authors Carducci, Pascoli, and D'Annunzio. The young Lauro had attended the Torquato Tasso Liceo of Rome, one of Italy's most prestigious schools for humanistic studies, and had taken a degree in chemistry at the University of Rome. He spoke several languages and was equally at ease in France, England, Switzerland, Germany, and the United States. He had lectured at Harvard, had been secretary of the Italy America Society in New York, and had a wonderfully happy relationship with the well-known American actress Ruth Draper. Among his acquaintances were Thornton Wilder, Prezzolini, Croce, Santillana, and Pound. He had translated classical works by Aeschylus (Prometheus Bound) and Sophocles (Oedipus Rex and Antigone) into Italian, had published in Italy an abridged translation of Frazer's Golden Bough and was about to publish the Golden Book of Italian Poetry in England. In 1928 he had won Amsterdam's Olympic Award for his 1927 play, Icaro. He was thoroughly acquainted with literature, philosophy, and science and had the thirst for learning that one might expect of someone coming from a family so dedicated to the arts and receiving the classical, humanistic education of the time.

Lauro de Bosis was cultivated and intelligent but by no means only an aesthete. Imbued with the values of poetry and idealism, and a follower of D'Annunzio, he had at first enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of Mussolini and Fascism. As he gained experience of life and politics, however, he became aware of the increasingly dictatorial nature of the Fascist regime and gradually began to dissociate himself from it. At the time, the other Western European countries and the United States were governed by liberal democracies. Neither revolutionary nor left-wing but a self-defined "enlightened conservative," De Bosis considered these countries as relevant models for post-Risorgimento Italy. He disagreed with the positions of both Giustizia e Libertà and Gaetano Salvemini, with whom he nevertheless maintained a close friendship and lively ongoing debate. De Bosis believed that in order to overthrow Fascism, Italians would have to unite under the flags of the monarchy and the Church, and that the king, Victor Emmanuel III, would have to restore the constitutional guarantees of Italy's Statute. The National Alliance for Liberty, the movement founded by de Bosis in 1930, aimed to promote such developments and, to this end, to sensitize opinion among the highest and most politically aware echelons of the Italian bourgeoisie. Already caught up in a whirlwind of commitments, the young poet spun into action. Upon his return to Rome from New York for the summer of 1930, he devoted himself, together with journalists Mario Vinciguerra and Renzo Rendi, to drawing up, printing, and distributing six hundred copies of eight anti-Fascist "circulars" (the Alliance produced eleven in all). Each letter contained an invitation to the addressee to reprint and distribute at least another six hundred copies, including two Fascists as recipients, in what resembled a chain-mail letter of sorts.

The system worked, but the Italian secret police did not simply stand by and watch. De Bosis returned to the United States in October, both to deliver his resignation as secretary of the Italy America Society, since he wanted to sever his ties with Italy's Fascist regime, and to obtain the post of director of the Rome branch of the Institute of International Education, an agency of the New York-based Carnegie Foundation. To support de Bosis's nomination for this post, the Italian ambassador requested a written declaration of his support for Fascism. The hapless de Bosis complied.

The following month, he departed for Europe. As his ship pulled in to Southampton on 1 December 1930, he received a telegram with the news that Vinciguerra and Rendi had been arrested, along with his mother, sister, and brother. The police had seized the envelopes with the Alliance circulars and had traced those responsible for mailing them. They had found copies of the material at de Bosis's home in Rome and printing apparatus underneath Lillian Vernon's bed.

Mussolini's police-judiciary apparatus had also been busy. De Bosis's friends convinced him not to give himself up, and he fled from England to Switzerland. Meanwhile, the trial of those arrested went rapidly ahead. Lauro's brothers and sisters dissociated themselves from him, and his mother was persuaded by her lawyer to seek pardon directly from the Duce. When the Special Tribunal opened its hearings, in full presence of the foreign press, the prosecution, having obtained evidence and confessions from all the defendants, read out the mother's letter to Mussolini and de Bosis's letter to the Italian ambassador. Just before Christmas, Lillian Vernon was "pardoned" and released, Vinciguerra and Rendi were each given a fifteen-year sentence, and Lauro de Bosis was deliberately ignored in order to avoid any publicity that might work to his advantage.

Meanwhile, de Bosis moved to Paris, where Ruth Draper helped him to recover from the events of the previous weeks. Following her departure, de Bosis started work in February 1931 as a doorman at the Hotel Victor Emmanuel III. He continued to plan his flight to Rome, an idea he had already been mulling over for a couple of years. Moving constantly between France, Germany, and England, de Bosis continued to write and to develop a political strategy. He started work on The Story of My Death, took flying lessons, purchased his first aircraft (the first Pegasus), and made his first attempt at flying, which ended in near-disaster in Corsica. In Munich in August 1931, he purchased his second Pegasus. After various setbacks, on 2 October that year the plane was finally delivered to him. The next day, shortly after midday, the author of Icaro departed for Rome aboard his Pegasus.

* * *

The life and death of Lauro de Bosis are history now, history that is already turning into myth. He shaped his destiny through myth and literature by writing a play about Icarus, by flying an aircraft named Pegasus, and by writing A Story about his own death. Today, seventy years after his death and a century after his birth, he appears to be the very stuff of myth. Bright and handsome-in a photo taken on the Adriatic shore he resembles Hermes, or Icarus, ready to fly off. In the photos taken of him in Munich in 1931 standing next to his plane, he looks like a Bellerophon controlling his winged horse. He is truly passionate about Pegasus: he produces drawings of it, giving the same name to two aircraft. When he announces at the start of his Story that he has a rendezvous with Pegasus in a meadow on the Côte d'Azur, he shows his awareness of the bond between myth and the present, between the winged horse and the flying machine:

It [my aircraft] has a russet body and white wings; and though it is as strong as eighty horses, it is as slim as a swallow. Drunk with petrol, it leaps through the sky like its brother of old, but in the night it glides at will through the air like a phantom.

Moreover, this bond stems from his own personal experience, from the evolution of his sensibility. Prior to his flight that ended in near-disaster in Corsica, de Bosis recalls in an unposted letter to his mother the days when she used to tell him the story of Bellerophon and his horse Pegasus. Myth and life are one and the same.

To understand this, let us turn our attention first to the myth. The mythical winged horse, offspring of Poseidon, was born close to the ocean sources from the blood of the Gorgon Medusa as she was beheaded by the hero Perseus. This horse, Pegasus, was tamed by either Athena, or Bellerophon, who killed the monstrous Chimera while astride the soaring steed and tried to reach Mount Olympus, only to be sent back to the earth by Zeus. Once Bellerophon was dead, Pegasus returned to the dwelling place of the gods and to the greatest among them. Zeus used Pegasus once more, this time to punish Mount Helicon, which had swollen up excessively out of pride for the Muses, who dwelt there. With a stamp of his hoof, Pegasus convinced the mountain to shrink back to size. But as it struck the ground, Pegasus's hoof caused a fountain named Hippocrene or Castalia to spring forth on Mount Helicon. This fountain became sacred to the Muses and is thought to inspire poetry in all those who drink from it. According to Ovid, Pegasus, who flies amid the clouds and stars with the sky as his earth and with wings for feet, was awarded the supreme metamorphosis: he now dwells rapturous in the skies, which previously he had tried to reach in flight, and shines brightly within a constellation of fifteen glittering stars.

The elements gathered together in the Pegasus myth are profound and powerful constructs of the imaginary of the Western world: the mystery of the sources of the sea; the hypnosis, enchantment, and terror of the petrifying Medusa; blood, the rich nourishment for life and the human body; the constant aspiration to flight, air, and light, to an existence that is not merely material; the purity of inspiration, the water from the spring; the enchanted voice of the Muses; the brightness of the stars. It is impossible to forget the winged horse: it passes from Hesiod to Pindar right up to Ovid, reemerging in the Middle Ages in a trail of light (and in the process acquiring monsterlike features, complete with horns, flaming tongue, and iron hooves, and turning into a winged vehicle); it shines brightly throughout the Renaissance, with poets or Apollo himself astride it, and transformed by Ariosto into the hippogryph; it comes alive in the minds of Voltaire, Schiller, and Blake; it achieves modernity through the eyes of Picasso, De Chirico and Dali.

The winged horse has been perceived as a figure of fame in a tradition lasting for over a thousand years, combining pagan wisdom with Christian morality. As Fulgentius comments, Pegasus was born of the blood of the Gorgon (terror), who was killed by Perseus with Minerva's help-in other words, born of virtue assisted by wisdom. And, by eliminating terror, virtue generates fame, which, like Pegasus, flies. Fear, on the other hand, as maintained in Proverbs, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, is the beginning of wisdom. Bellerophon, bona consultatio, cannot avoid mounting Pegasus: indeed the very name, derived from pegaseon, means "eternal source," and wisdom is the eternal source of good counsel. Pegasus has wings: he moves throughout the universe, across all of nature, in a swift procession of thought. He creates the spring of the Muses with a kick of his hoof, on the one hand because the Muses show how to describe the fame of the ancient heroes, and on the other because wisdom alone is the source of poetry.

Glory, thought, wisdom, poetry: this is the Pegasus constellation. In one of the most subtle and solemn moments in Paradiso, Dante invokes the heavenly Muse as a diva Pegasëa, a "Pegasean goddess," who renders poetic inspiration glorious and lasting. Giordano Bruno, who wrote a "Cabala del cavallo pegaseo," describes its nature thus: "ecco il Furor divino, Entusiasmo, Rapto, Vaticinio e Contrazzione, che versano nel campo de l'Inspirazione" [here are divine Frenzy, Enthusiasm, Rapture, Prophecy and Concentration, which belong to the field of Inspiration]. In 1918 Paul Valéry evoked the "ambitious hind leg of the Horse," in which he combined the memory of the imaginary beast, symbolizing the traditional work of poets, with a new ambition to caress lovingly, in rivalry with the Dryads, the smooth body of the sycamore-vegetable, candid, shadowy, airy, yet grounded in the earth's immobility. William Butler Yeats, too, celebrated "our colt," which had "holy blood" and "leaped from cloud to cloud"-Pegasus as inspiration. More typically perhaps, shortly before this Ruben Darío had imagined himself astride Pegasus naked but crowned with the laurel of the sun. Knight of human energy, tamer of the diamond-shod steed, he goes forth "in great flight," never stopping, with the dawn light to guide him like an icon of the unbridled energy that inebriated so much of Western culture at the end of the nineteenth century.

* * *

The Story of My Death begins here, on Mount Helicon. But de Bosis is well aware that his flight of October 3, 1931, belongs to reality and to political struggle. As he writes in his opening lines, "And yet we are not going in search of chimeras, but to bear a message of liberty across the sea to a people in chains." "Leaving aside figures of speech," he adds, clearly aware that he is moving away from the realm of poetry, he and Pegasus "are flying to Rome to scatter from the air these words of liberty which, for seven years now, have been forbidden as though they were a criminal act." The Story of My Death is a letter that many have read and continue to read as emerging from the threshold between life and death. It is in fact a testament initiated by poetry and bound for history. The heroic political gesture it describes, the deadly engagement with reality, would have been impossible without twenty-five centuries of imagination.


Excerpted from Winged Words by Piero Boitani Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Piero Boitani is professor of comparative literature at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and the author of many books.

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Winged Words: Flight in Poetry and History 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Manirul More than 1 year ago
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