The National Poet, Lexicographer and Translator

Dun Karm was born at Żebbuġ, the son of Filippo and Annunziata née Pisani and relative of Lazzaro Pisani*, and was educated at the Seminary (1885-1894) and then proceeded to study philosophy (1888-1890) and theology (1890-1894) at the UM. He was ordained priest in 1894. From 1895 to 1921 he taught various subjects at the seminary: Italian, Latin, English, arithmetic, geography, cosmography, ecclesiastical history, and Christian archaeology. In 1921 he was appointed assistant librarian at the National Library and in 1923 director of circulating libraries, a post he held till his retirement in 1936.

In 1921, Dr A.V. Laferla*, the director of education, asked Dun Karm to compose some verses to a music score by Dr Robert Samut. The Innu Malti was sung for the first time at the Manoel Theatre in 1923. In 1941 it was officially designated the national anthem and in 1964 re-affirmed in the Independence Constitution.

In 1921 Dun Karm was one of the founding members of the Għaqda tal-Kittieba tal-Malti (later Akkademja tal-Malti) and on the death of Ġużè Muscat Azzopardi* in 1927, he was elected president of the Għaqda and then editor of its official organ, Il-Malti. He carried out these functions till 1942 when he was nominated honorary president of the Għaqda for life. In recognition of his contribution to Maltese literature, he was granted a DLitt (honoris causa) by the RUM in 1945 - the first time the University granted such an honour. A year later he was awarded the Ġużè Muscat Azzopardi gold medal.  Queen Elizabeth II decorated him with the CBE in 1956. In 1957 the Maltese government issued him an ex gratia pension in recognition of his services to Maltese literature. During his lifetime he was also honoured as the National Poet of Malta.

Before 1912 Dun Karm wrote only in Italian. His first known published poem is ‘La Dignita Episcopale’ (1889), after which he published Foglie d’Allora (1896) and Versi (1903), another collection of Italian poems. These poems show his literary background dominated, in accordance with his times, by Virgil, Horace, Dante, Shakespeare, Petrarch, Milton, Voltaire, Keats, and Manzoni. In 1912 Mgr, Pawl Galea and Ġużè Muscat Azzopardi started publishing the Maltese periodical, Il-Ħabib, and Dun Karm wrote ‘Quddiem Xbieha tal-Madonna’, his first poem in Maltese, which appeared in its first issue. His best poems include ‘Il-Musbieħ tal-Mużew’ (1920), ‘Non Omnis Moriar’ (1927), and a translation of Ugo Foscolo’s poem, ‘L-Oqbra’ (1936). This was followed by his poetic masterpiece ‘Il-Jien u lil Hinn Minnu’ (1938) and the three volumes published between 1939 and 1940: Il-Għana ta’ Dun Karm Vol.I - X’Ħabb u X’Ħaseb il-Poeta; Il-Għana ta’ Dun Karm Vol. II - X’Emmen il-Poeta; and Il-Għana ta’ Dun Karm Vol. III, X’Għamel Iżjed il-Poeta. He published another volume in Italian, Liriche (1954).

Dun Karm often found poetic expression in his solitude which was eventually accompanied by a high degree of spiritual balance. His poetry reflects a background of village life crowned with an atmosphere of family feeling and it also portrays the Maltese countryside with a perspective imagination. It synthesizes the popular culture of the Maltese, which is quite evident from the rural characteristics that furnish its local identity, with the literary culture based largely on Italian romanticism. His first works in Italian reveal an early life of peace and calm; after the death of his mother, solitude became his companion. When he decided to make Maltese the medium of his creativity, he explored poetically Malta’s history to confirm its cultural and national identity. At the same time some of his best poems illustrate an inner journey of sentimental and moral experience. His poetry exhibits great subjectivity but it also expresses his country’s collective aspirations. Both the personal and the national sentiments are treated from a deep religious viewpoint that discusses existentialism. The spiritual crisis in ‘Il-Jien u Lil hinn Minnu’ is analysed in universal human terms that illuminate man’s existence and insist on the inexplicability of the relations between God and man, except for the latter’s absolute acceptance of the former’s hidden power.

Dun Karm’s writings include Żewġ Anġli: Ineż u Emilia (translated, 1934, from an Italian novel by D. Caprile), ‘Il-Lsien Malti: għaliex baqa’ lura (1929), ‘Il-Lsien Malti: ortografija waħda meħtieġa bħall-ħobż (1929), ‘Għaliex ma jitgħallmux il-Malti’ (1930), ‘Il-poeżija Maltija fl-iskejjel aħjar minn kull waħda oħra’ (1930), ‘Dizzjunarju tas-sinonimi Maltin’ (1933), ‘Il-Letteratura tagħna’ (1937), ‘Ġużè  Muscat Azzopardi’ (1927), and ‘Dun Mikiel Xerri’ (1937). Besides these he wrote a few critical works. He also compiled a dictionary between 1947 and 1955 in three volumes, Dizzjunarju Ingliż u Malti.   

This biography is part of the collection created by Michael Schiavone over a 30-year period. Read more about Schiavone and his initiative here.

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