The history of Maltese literature can be said to reflect the image of a nation in search of itself, and eventually one which became more and more conscious of its unique identity. Part of this discovery surely consisted of the prioritisation and added value given to the Maltese written language. This would perhaps never have come about as swiftly, had it not been for the work and involvement of the writer and poet Dun Karm Psaila.
Dun Karm, whose real name was Carmelo Psaila, was born in 1871 in the small village of Ħaż Żebbuġ on the island of Gozo. His mother was a farmer and his father, a sailor. His humble rural origins may perhaps account for the great importance he gave to the landscape around him, which was reflected in his poetry. Dun Karm in fact, used the local landscape as a metaphor to deal with more transcendental issues.
Known as ‘the bard of Malta’, Dun Karm lost both his father and mother at an early age. He studied philosophy and theology at the University of Malta, and was ordained a priest at the age of 23. Later on, he was appointed assistant librarian at the National Library of Malta, and in 1923 he became Director of circulating libraries, a post he held till his retirement in 1936.
Apart from his inspiring poems and Petrarchan sonnets, Dun Karm Psaila is mostly known for writing the verses of the Maltese National Anthem, the ‘Innu Malti’, that is, the Maltese Hymn, which was sung for the first time in 1923. In 1921 Dun Karm became one of the founding members of the ‘Għaqda tal-Kittieba tal-Malti’, that is, the Association of Writers of Maltese. In 1927, he was elected President and in 1942 he became Honorary President for life. Today, the association is known as the ‘Akkademja tal-Malti’, which was the primary regulatory body responsible for the Maltese language up to the end of the millennium, and is Malta’s oldest literary society.
In 1945, Dun Karm was the first person ever to be granted a Doctorate in Literature by the University of Malta. In 1956, Queen Elizabeth II decorated him with the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire and during his lifetime he was also honoured with the title of Poet Laureate of Malta (National Poet of Malta).
Although Dun Karm was born in Gozo, he lived the greater part of his life in Sliema, Malta. As a student, he wrote poetry solely in Italian. His first poetry book, which was published in 1896, was entitled ‘Foglie d’Alloro’, that is, ‘Laurel Leaves’. He had previously published his first poem, ‘La Dignita Episcopale’ (‘The Episcopal Dignity’), at the age of 18. As of 1912, he started writing in Maltese, and from that date onwards, he wrote most of his works using his native language, covering all aspects of Maltese life.
Dun Karm Psaila influenced generations of Maltese writers and is considered to have been instrumental in paving the way for the adoption of Maltese as the official language of the island in 1934. His standardization of certain environmental elements, as well as his perception of the local landscape, contributed to the development of a national identity which embraced both the traditional heritage of Malta, as well as the spirit of modern development prevalent on the island. Dun Karm Psaila is generally considered to be the best interpreter of his country’s natural and historical culture.
His writings are distinguished by the use of the recurring elements in his poems, such as the sea, the skiff (‘id-dgħajsa’), and the ash and carob trees, in order to refer to such issues as the passage of time, old age, the loss of a loved one, and the evanescence of life. Like many great Maltese writers, Dun Karm Psaila favoured philosophical thematic content achieved through the use of an environmental symbolic structure.
Dun Karm, Malta’s National poet, died in 1961 in Sliema, and was buried at his birthplace in Żebbuġ. The house where he used to live in Valletta (between 1910 and 1936), was later restored and prized as part of Malta’s cultural heritage. Numerous translations of a number of his works were done by various writers, who wished to share his talent and insight with the world.