Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of English Literatures and Philosophy


Italian poet Sandro Penna (1906-1977) has been considered one of the twentieth century’s finest poets on the subject of homosexual love and has been compared to Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy and the Greek lyrical poets, notably Sappho. Penna’s unique literary code is a peculiar combination of melancholy and exhilaration, in the manner of the Italian lyrical tradition from Petrarch’s Canzoniere to Leopardi’s Romanticism, but also with the clarity, the precision and the musicality of an Imagist.

Piero Bigongiari, whose long career in Italian poetry and literary criticism has been characterized by a strong commitment to innovation, poetically defined Penna “un fiore senza stelo apparente” ‘a flower with no visible stem’which suggested the title for this study. Penna himself created his myth of isolation and loneliness, writing – as most critics define it – a timeless lyrical poetry, with no apparent external influences. Nevertheless in the diaries, letters and notes found in his archives, Penna reveals himself as a reader of contemporary literature and poetry, familiar with modern Italian, European and American literature and modern visual arts.

In recent times, awareness and appreciation of Penna’s poetry in Italy and abroad have grown, mainly focusing upon his lyric treatment of homoerotic love. Few critics so far have identified connections between Penna’s poetics and the idea and practice of modernity in the European and international poetry of the twentieth century. In the literature review of this study I consider different points of view by critics, scholars and writers such as Roberto Deidier, Giulio di Fonzo, Peter Robb, William Riviere, Giorgio Luti and Pierfranco Bruni who acknowledged modernity and innovation in Penna’s oeuvre. Also, an in depth study over the European literary movements and authors who affected Penna’s poetic work and his life are still lacking and long overdue, as pointed out by literary critic Roberto Deidier. This study aims to give its contribution to remedy this lack of investigation, but will also try to understand why Penna denied his influences and concealed his readings.

Another purpose of this dissertation is to object to the critical “stereotype” of Penna as a purely lyric poet (for it limits and narrows the greatness and depth of his literary corpus) and to rescue him from the position of an isolated poet, relegated to a representative of the lyric tradition insisting on a mere Italian context.

Following T.S. Eliot’s belief that “[h]onest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry”, I demonstrate that part of the greatness of Penna’s poetry lies in its unique synthesis of “Tradition” - as defined by Eliot in“Tradition and the Individual Talent” - and “innovation” as the artist’s desire to reinterpret tradition in a personal, original tone.

By investigating notes and letters from Penna’s archives, connections to the twentieth century literary and cultural movements such as French Symbolism, Modernism and Imagism are investigated. Through the analysis of Penna’s corpus, Ishow similarities and connections to the works of the major personalities of the twentieth century literary scene such as T.S.Eliot, T.E.Hulme and Ezra Pound, as well as representatives of the ancient lyric tradition such as Greek poetess Sappho and modern Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy. This work, written in the English language, is an invitation to consider and view Penna’s work beyond its national boundaries addressedtoreaders who do notwish tothink ofItalian poetryas‘provincial’, readers who manage tofindand enjoyin Penna’s versesuggestions and echoes of an international poetry.

Sandro Penna’s poetry may be challenging as it offers an unusual insight into the complex world of feelings and emotional experience of the poet, but with its freshness, its modern format and its suggestive imageryit has the quality of imperishable art.