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Giambattista Basile: “To war, to war”: Tavern warriors

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Italian writers on war and militarism

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Giambattista Basile
From Il Pentamerone
Translated by Sir Richard Burton

And now hearken to this, and gape with wonder;
Some folk praise war,
And lift it to a high pinnacle,
And when the time cometh
That from afar they sight the standard flying,
And listen to the tramping and neighing of steeds,
They sign their names to the roll,
Feeling themselves drawn to the fight
By sighting a few medals laid on a bench:
They take a few new coppers,
And dress in Jewish garb,
And don a rusty sword,
And look as mules of burden,
With drooping plume, and foot in stirrup.
If a friend asketh, ‘Where do we go?’
They answer cheerfully,
With foot aloft,
‘To war, to war,’
And go from tavern to tavern,
Bespeaking triumphs in advance,
Run to their lodgings
Bid farewell to all,
Kick up a shindy, overthrow all things,
And would not stand aside even for a Gradasso.

Thou speakest sooth, and cuttest out the rotten –
Naught can be said:
‘Tis truth, and more than truth,
As a poor soldier’s fate
Is to return a beggar, and crushed down.

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And now for the man of valour,
The first of Spartan braves,
The chief of all swashbucklers,
The prompter of all disputes,
Fourth in the art of neck-breaking,
Bravest of the brave,
Commander-in-chief of the valiant:
He pointedly presumeth
To frighten all the folk,
To make thee tremble
With a side-glance of his eyes ;
He walketh with a swagger,
He weareth a slashed coat,
His hat drawn over his eyes,
His hair disorderly,
His mustachios twisted on end,
His eyes fiercely rolling,
One hand on side,
Swearing, and stamping with his feet;
Even a straw causeth him to be wroth,
And he squabbleth with the flies;
He companieth with soldiers and brigands;
If thou hearken to his speech,
He speaketh of naught, but of cutting,
Of slashing, and piercing, and hanging,
Of killing, and running through the body;
Of one he draweth out the heart,
Of another the liver,
Of one he draweth out the entrails,
Of another the kidneys,
He trampleth on one,
Another he heweth in quarters.
If thou listen to his boasting,
The earth is too small to hold them :
This one, he writeth his name in the book,
That other, he sendeth out of the world,
This one, he sendeth unto his friends,
That other, he emptieth his pockets of gold,
This one, he salteth,
That other, he striketh to earth,
Of this one, he maketh mince-meat:
An hundred he turneth, and an hundred he gathereth,
And always passing truth, and with havoc,
Splitting heads, and breaking limbs.
But the sword hung by his side,
No matter how strong and sharp its edge,
Is virgin of blood, and widowed of honour:
And this crucible will to thee make clear,
That the big words carried so high
Hide the heart’s trembling;
The rolling of the eyes,
Retreat of feet;
The eastern thunderclaps,
Looseness of ice;
The visionary boastings
Indicate the wakeful hours of night;
And the swearing and stamping
Is but an excuse to keep sword in sheath,
Which, like an honoured woman,
Feeleth ashamed to show itself naked.
Seemeth he bitter as gall,
He hath but a chicken’s heart;
Seemeth he an eater of lions,
He is but a catcher of rabbits;
Challengeth he, he gaineth a thrashing;
Threateneth he, he receiveth annoyance double weight;
Gambleth he with his boasting dice,
He always meeteth his equal;
In words he is brave,
But in actions brief;
Layeth hand on hilt,
But draweth not sword;
Seeketh quarrel, and withdraweth from it;
And he lifteth heel easier than show valour,
If he lighteth upon one who bendeth him down,
Or one who sets his coat to rights,
And dealeth him a rain of blows with change,
Who settleth his accounts,
Who cardeth out his wool,
‘Who beateth well his sides,
Who whistleth in his ears,
Who knocketh down his teeth,
Who pusheth him down a pit,
Who bravely throttleth him,
Who passeth his blood through a sieve,
Who breaketh his lantern to pieces,
Who giveth him a good dressing,
Who prepareth him for a feast,
Or casteth him with the box,
Or boxeth well his ears,
Or giveth him back-handed cuffs,
Kicks, pushes, knocks, and cuts,
Or thrusteth a knife in his side.
Enough for him to cut and thrust,
And speak in manly voice:
He steppeth deal faster than a deer;
He soweth spittle, and gathereth marrows;
And when thou thinkest
That he is about to lay waste an army,
Then it is that the scene changeth;
Goodby, farewell, and good-day,
He disappeareth, weigheth anchor, is gone,
And shooting the parting shaft,
Lifteth his heels, and runneth a way;
Taketh with him his saddle-bags well-filled,
‘And help me, 0 my feet, because I cover ye,’
His heel toucheth shoulder,
And rivalleth hare in speed;
And well he playeth with his two-legged sword,
And like a great poltroon
In haste he flieth: is caught, and taken in gaol!

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