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Obedience

by Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (1791-1863)
translated from Romanesco by Joseph S. Salemi

It’s not true, Christians, what you have been told—
That you need endless patience to obey.
Obedience gives great rest to man, I say.
That’s why the custom of obeying’s old.

Listen: God blessed and joined you in this league—
A lovely truth: the Sovereign thinks and plans;
The subject carries out His strict commands.
By doing half, you’re saved from deep fatigue.

And who would ever dream (except a fool)
To pay what doubled tax-bills would be costing
If the Pope had not made this same rule?

One example, and I’ll shut up faster:
At theaters, whose part is the more exhausting?
Tell me: the puppet, or the puppet-master?

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Original Romanesco

L’ubbidienza

Nò, vveh, ccristiani, nun è vvero mica
Che ppe ubbidí cce vò ttanta pazienza.
È un gran riposo all’omo l’ubbidienza;
E ppe cquesto in ner monno è ccusí antica.

Ma ssentite, ch’Iddio ve bbenedica,
Che bbella verità: er Zovrano penza,
E er zúddito esiguissce; e in conzeguenza
Oggnuno fa ppe ssé mmezza fatica.

E a cchi de noi saría venuto in testa
De pagà la dativa ariddoppiata
Si er Papa nun penzava puro questa?

Un essempio e ffinisco. Ar teatrino
Chi la sostiè la parte ppiú ssudata?
Dite, er burattinaro o er burattino?

—Volume II, poem 1637

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Translator’s Note:

Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (1791-1863) was an amazingly prolific poet who wrote in Romanesco, the dialect of his native city of Rome and its environs. His massive two-volume collected works contain over two thousand sonnets in this dialect, composed largely between the years 1824 and 1849. These sonnets, in Petrarchan form, are satirical, comic, anticlerical, erotic (grossly obscene at times), and meant to display the attitudes and vulgarity of the Roman lower classes. But they show a strong sympathy for the tribulations of those lower classes, and a contempt for the ecclesiastical hierarchy that oppressed them. Despite this, Belli was never impious or anti-Catholic, and in fact he served in the Papal government for some time. He was a strong conservative, and defended the independence of the Papal States when the Risorgimento occurred.

Belli’s appeal is worldwide, despite the obscurity of Romanesco. He was loved by the Russian Nikolai Gogol, the Frenchman Charles Sainte-Beuve, the Irishman James Joyce, and some of his work was translated by the American William Carlos Williams and the Englishman Anthony Burgess. The latter poet even attempted to put Belli’s Romanesco into a strong north-country Lancastrian dialect. Some of Belli’s work was translated into Australian “Strine,” though I cannot recall the translator.

Belli’s poetry is enjoying a renaissance in Rome today, where the malignant stupidities and arrogance of the current Antipope have enraged many Italian Catholics and Roman citizens. A very healthy anticlericalism, which had largely been absent from Rome since the Lateran Concordat of 1929, is now coming back with a vengeance. Bergoglio’s financial corruption, his protection of pedophiles, his open favoring of paganism and sodomitic perversion, his hatred of the traditional contemplative Orders, and his attempt to suppress the Latin Mass, have all raised anticlericalism to staggering new levels among real Roman Catholics. I call this healthy, because antibodies are a healthy reaction to disease. Bergoglio is a spiritual disease. It makes perfect sense that Belli’s reputation and work should rise up again in our blighted time.

The above sonnet on “Obedience” is typical of Belli’s satiric style. The poem ostensibly supports resignation and acceptance of one’s political subordination, by arguing that it is established by God and traditional. But it also argues that such subordination aids the lower classes by exempting them from the fatigue of having to think. Since the Pope has established the same rule for his sovereignty, we Romans don’t have to pay the double tax of both thinking, and carrying out orders. The sonnet ends with the sardonic image of the lucky puppet on strings, who doesn’t have to work as hard as his puppet-master pulling the strings.

Belli’s orthography is idiosyncratic, since he was anxious that the correct pronunciation be understood by readers of his Romanesco text. The unusual initial double consonants are meant to reinforce the harsh friction of certain Romanesco words, especially when they are preceded by vowels.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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16 Responses

  1. James Sale

    A very fine sonnet indeed, and I particularly like the last line with its distant echo of Yeats and telling the dancer from the dance. I also like the rhyme of faster/master – it always reminds me of those lines from Tolkien about Tom Bombadil: for Tom he is the master/his songs are stronger songs/and his feet are faster. Wonderful work.

    Reply
  2. Joshua C. Frank

    I guess I don’t understand Belli’s satirical style, because I read the last six lines as supporting the first eight. As a Catholic, I agree with such pro-obedience sentiment; Catholic theology teaches, based on Sacred Scripture, that unless it is sin to obey (an example being Roman emperors ordering Christians to deny Jesus), a Christian must obey all lawful authorities. Man is not meant to compete to rule like animals, but to rule or be ruled according to his station.

    That being the case, I take issue with your commentary bashing the Pope. I don’t like him any more than you do, for the same reasons, but calling him an antipope or a spiritual disease is not the decision of the laity to make. There have been bad Popes throughout Church history who were still valid.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Is the unelected Biden a lawful authority?

      A great many learned Roman Catholics are seriously questioning whether this Argentine creep is really a validly elected Pope. But I have no wish to ignite another firestorm of religious argument here, so I’ll let the issue drop.

      If you read a great many of Belli’s sonnets, you see that he is almost always sardonic in his satire. No one would seriously celebrate the idea that “we don’t have to think.” Those last six lines are deeply sarcastic.

      Reply
  3. Sally Cook

    I sense thiis Pope is full of corruption, defense of wrong, and I see the nasty workings of destruction from the inside out.
    Thank you Joe, for raising issues many know are true deep in their hearts, just as Mr. Belli knew so many years ago…

    Reply
  4. Margaret Coats

    Thanks, Joe, for an excellent translation with a cocky plebeian touch, and for the introduction to Belli and his work. I’ll make a little suggestion that you might change line 11 to “If the Pope had not thought up this rule.” That echoes the “thinking” of the sovereign in line 5, as the original does.

    I’m very glad to hear that Italian Catholics and Roman citizens are becoming enraged at Bergoglio’s doings. However, when due outrage takes the form of anticlericalism, they are actually participating in Bergoglio’s own plan to destroy as much of the Church as he can. They are puppets letting him manipulate the strings! His Synod 2021-2023 is heavily promoting anticlericalism. At the Synod opening Mass in the diocese of San Bernardino, Bishop Alberto Rojas identified clericalism with racism, discrimination, and power struggles as something absolutely wrong, and to be struggled [sic] against. This is a call to struggle against the influence of holy priests in Catholic life (yes, I know some), and against sacred hierarchy (in other words, against the Church as founded by Christ). In the Synod “listening sessions” now being conducted throughout the world, everyone attending (and attendees don’t have to be Catholic) lists what he or she does or doesn’t like about the Church. Complaints against priests are undoubtedly the main feature of whatever report has already been drafted in Rome. We can expect Satanic persecution against priests from the Pontiff–and you know it is the good ones who will suffer. As will every faithful Catholic trying to save his soul. We will have shamans saying Mass (one conducted a long, feather-waving altar desecration before Bishop Rojas’s said his Synod opening Mass). The ordination rite will be changed to invalidate it, and laymen and women will hear confession if anyone does. Forget about last rites. This is our parlous state!

    This translation is indeed a great presentation of this on your part, Joe. Still, I recommend that Catholic poets now write something clerical, in support of priests, the other Christs among us.

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    • Joshua C. Frank

      What a great idea, Margaret! I’d love to write something like that… I used to live in California, the things that go on in churches there are so awful, I can’t repeat some of the stories I’ve heard!

      I think your ideas about anticlericalism make a lot of sense.

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    • Joseph S. Salemi

      The term “anticlericalism” covers a wide range of territory. As used by a Freemason or a Communist, it is of course directed against the entire hierarchy and priesthood, and is employed as a weapon of blunt force to hurt the Church.

      But our situation today is unprecedented. The Antipope, and large majority of his cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests are now practicing anti-Catholics! Are we supposed to show THEM respect? Not me, honey.

      Sometimes in combat, a beleaguered unit will call in artillery strikes directly on their own position, if they are being overrun by the enemy. Like them, we need any weapon we can get at this point.

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    • Margaret Coats

      Joe, what a hoot you can be! You know perfectly well I’m not suggesting you respect anti-Catholic clerics. But I will say that traditional gestures of respect for the priesthood turn them hostile, so these are good practical ways to draw their attention, and that of others, to their hypocrisy. And these gestures or poems can be a welcome sign of support to the beleaguered real Catholic priests. They are in a much more difficult position than the laity.

      Successfully firing the artillery against friends, in order to kill the enemies overrunning them, takes judgment few officers can boast. Eisenhower refused to blast Chartres Cathedral towers even when subordinates said it would save Allied lives. In our unprecedented situation, we know the pontifical foe is planning an onslaught using the weapons of anticlericalism. It will take the most skilled sharpshooters to use the same weapons at the same time and not accomplish his purposes. He intends the destruction of our spiritual supply lines.

      Joe, you have the skills. Your translation of Belli is not against thinking or against obedience, but against unthinking obedience. That’s the vice of servility. Real religious obedience (the most difficult of the evangelical counsels) is rarely easy.

      Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Your comment is simply not clear to me.

      First off, Margaret, you complain that the Synodal initiative that Bergoglio is pushing all over the world attacks “clericalism,” and is therefore “anticlerical,” and therefore bad. But has it occurred to you that the people supporting him in this and making all the speeches against “clericalism” are nearly the whole damned bloody hierarchy? In other words, CLERICS. So whose anticlericalism are you opposing: that of the clericals like Bishop Rojas who are the Synod-pushers, or the healthy anticlericalism of fed-up laity who are sick and tired of taking woke garbage from their modernist bishops?

      Second, anti-Catholic clerics are ALREADY hostile to us! You talk about “traditional gestures of respect for the priesthood.” Gimme a break! Most of these modernist Novus Ordo clerics already strut around demanding respect, donations, and deference from the sheep in their parishes, and abject obedience to the latest Diktats from the chancery. And they usually get it all from the unthinking little old ladies in the pews. So who the hell are we supposed to respect? The Vat 2, Novus Ordo Church is no longer a religion, but a racket.

      Third, as I have said many times, I am not here to follow anybody’s directions or battle-plan. So please do not tell me that I have to obey a heretical Antipope, or a woke homosexualist hierarchy of timeservers and fake Catholics. Or that I should “write something clerical, in support of priests.” I don’t write for anybody but myself.

      Reply
  5. Brian Yapko

    Thank you for this quite interesting poem and translation, Joseph. This is my first encounter with Romanesco and it’s quite intriguing as is Belli’s decision to use double consonants and such. In the process of translating, did you ever consider using similarly idiosyncratic spelling for the English? Or would that have been too distracting? As for the substance, since I’m not Catholic I don’t feel qualified to comment on criticism of Church leaders past or present. However, I very much enjoy the wry sense of humor that Belli offers and that you interpret so well. It’s almost so earnest that its tongue-in-cheek message might be taken literally. That’s the best kind of satire.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Using double consonants in an English translation would indeed be too distracting. Romanesco writers use them only as a means of emphasizing the very intensive consonants that mark the dialect. The same distinctive consonants are present in Sicilian, but Sicilian orthography usually doesn’t take note of them in this way. The attempts by some translators to capture Belli’s style by using a dialectal variant of English (the patois of Lancashire, or Australia, for example) are quaint and humorous, but they too can be distracting for the reader of standard English.

      Reply
  6. Geoffrey S.

    A new poet for me. Thanks for the translation and the bio. Well done putting it in the Petrarchan rhyme scheme rather than freeversing it. (BTW, the present Pope completely cured me of my “popolatry” which I didn’t even know I had until about one month after his election. But who am I to judge?)

    Reply
  7. Roy E. Peterson

    A great connection between your wonderful translation of Belli and the present puppet/puppet=master Biden regime in the theater of the absurd.

    Reply
  8. Yael

    Fascinating translation of a poem by a poet in an Italian dialect I never knew existed. Thank you for broadening my horizon today by making me aware of their existence. I quite enjoy the comments about the inner workings of Catholicism too; it’s all very interesting to read.

    Reply
  9. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I’m sorry I’m a bit late in joining this thread… not too late, I hope. Joe, thank you for this translation which seems so appropriate for the times we find ourselves in now. I particularly like the mordacity the closing stanza.

    I’ve read the comments thread with interest and concern. I’m particularly interested in Margaret’s idea of the best way to treat anti-Catholic clerics: “…traditional gestures of respect for the priesthood turn them hostile, so these are good practical ways to draw their attention, and that of others, to their hypocrisy.” Do they turn them hostile? I have a feeling this will play into the anti-Catholic clerics’ hands. They still need the congregations. They still need their huge tithes and huge donations to keep the show on the road. Wouldn’t showing respect where respect isn’t warranted just inform those of nefarious deed that their strategy is working? They’re replacing Catholicism with Wokeism and getting paid in the process. I think it will be evident who is true, who is false, and where the Church stands in society when money is removed from the equation. This will sort the wheat from the chaff, and it may be more in keeping with Jesus’s ideals for getting the Truth out there. I may have overstepped the mark. I don’t mean to offend, I’m just curious and worried. This may be because I have witnessed Wokeism at work, and I couldn’t, wouldn’t, and felt I shouldn’t promote it for whatever reason. I left my job because I wouldn’t use false flattery to keep a building open. I couldn’t buy the lie. I’ve seen many churches close in England. It broke my heart, so this was tough for me to do.

    I have written poems that warn against churches that twist the scripture to fit their very human idea of what justice means. I hoped in doing so, eyes, ears and hearts would open to the Lord instead of the misleading voice in the pulpit. I felt I was doing the right thing. Surely, we’re better off without the building if the costs are too high, monetarily and morally. As proven in anti-religious communist countries throughout the world, the Truth still lives on. Doesn’t the evil at the top need to stop, otherwise won’t we end up like China… with Catholicism in name only all down to a Pope who has lost his way?

    Reply
  10. Joseph S. Salemi

    Susan, your contribution to the discussion is valuable and important, and I am grateful that you said something. The example of your own courage and sacrifice in leaving your job on the principle that left-liberal politics and Wokeism are not the same as religion is one that a helluva lot of Catholic bishops and priests could follow.

    The crux of the matter is this: the cries against “clericalism” coming from this fake Pope and his toadies world-wide are merely a tactic in a campaign. They use it to undermine the authority of their enemies, BUT NOT THEIR OWN AUTHORITY. In actual fact, Bergoglianists are extremely authoritarian and high-handed in their treatment of devout, traditional Catholics. Bergoglio has used an iron fist to wreck and degrade any bishop, cardinal, religious order, or Catholic organization that opposes his will (example: he has totally broken and subordinated the ancient order of the Knights of Malta to suit his left-liberal bigotries, and also to seize control of their substantial finances). Like all South American Peronistas, Bergoglio is a liar, an authoritarian, and a thief.

    My argument with Margaret hinges on an ambiguity in the word “anticlerical.” Originally the term referred to the attitude of Freemasons, apostates, liberals, Communists, and social democrats in Catholic nations who resented the authority and influence of the Church and its hierarchy in civil affairs. Many honest Italian Catholics also developed a streak of anticlericalism after the unification of Italy in 1870, because of the papal resistance to the new arrangement. A major achievement of Mussolini was the Lateran Concordat of 1929, which finally settled the dispute (although the royal House of Savoy remained anticlerical right to the end of the monarchy).

    Today, however, things are completely reversed. The Catholic Church no longer has any determinative influence in the political life of any Western nation. So the “anticlericalism” of the groups mentioned above is pretty much obsolete. But what REALLY IS growing is the hyper-clericalism of the regime of Bergoglio and his appointees, and their army of sympathizers in the left-liberal laity. The sheer arrogance and de-haut-en-bas contempt that many left-liberal bishops show for ordinary traditional Catholics is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

    So that is why I argue for a NEW “anticlericalism” that should be directed against these creeps — one that is unrestrained by the pious, unthinking authority-worship that too many timorous Catholics still cherish as part of their training. It has nothing at all to do with the older “anticlericalism” which was a phenomenon of leftism, anti-Catholicism, or Italian patriotism. That is the reason I took the time to translate Belli’s sonnet on obedience.

    Margaret says in one of her posts above that she wants “thinking obedience” in Roman Catholics. I bit my tongue when I read that, and restrained myself from answering. But I’ll answer now: If your “thinking” is not in accord with your external “obedience,” then the correct phrase for your condition is cognitive dissonance. I don’t think R&R Catholics understand that.

    Reply

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