At the beginning of his career as a writer, Psaila wrote in Italian. This was fairly common at the time because Malta had long held close cultural affinities with Italy. His first published work, Foglie d’Alloro (1896), was a collection of poems in Italian. It took him several years to start writing in Maltese. In his brief introduction to L’euuel uard jeu gemgha tal poezijiet li ctibt bi lsien taghna (1914), his first published verses in Maltese, Psaila writes that he had never previously believed that he would ever write in Maltese because, despite having been born with a poet’s sensibility, he really couldn’t imagine himself publicly expressing his thoughts in his native tongue.
This concern related to a raging linguistic debate current among Maltese intellectuals of the time, who argued over Malta’s choice of an official language: English, since Malta was under British rule; Italian, because of close historical ties; or Maltese, the island’s endemic tongue. Choosing one language over another carried huge political, social and cultural implications, and it was against this backdrop that Psaila started writing in Maltese.
Despite switching languages, Psaila’s outlook remained firmly embedded in Italian Romanticism, and was possibly inspired by the movement’s socio-political ethic to voice Malta’s collective aspirations. He researched thoroughly the Island’s history and wrote about key moments and important figures in order to establish a national identity. In “Il-Għanja tar-Rebħa”, Psaila recalls the bloody skirmishes of the Great Siege when the island was under attack from the Ottoman Empire. His language is ornate and the imagery is intentionally flamboyant, making a case for the unwavering and righteous spirit of the Maltese.
However, Psaila’s body of work also contains several poems which chronicle a very intimate inner journey marked by extreme solitude. This solitude became his constant companion after the death of his beloved mother. In “Waħdi” Psaila reminisces about his youth, a time of innocent carefree abandon lived in the present moment. However, memories of his lost mother bring about feelings of extreme loneliness which place him on the brink of an existential crisis.
This solitude is at the forefront of his masterpiece, “Il-Jien u lil hinn Minnu”, a poem in which Psaila questions his spiritual experience as he seeks to come to terms with a God whose silence is the ultimate human test of faith.
Written by Noel Tanti
Project co-ordinator: Clare Azzopardi
With the help of: Kirsty Azzopardi, Leanne Ellul and Albert Gatt
Proofreader: Dwayne Ellul