Vella is deservedly considered to be one of Malta’s foremost poets. The Catholic faith, naturally, features prominently in his work; he strives to harmonise the intimate with the cosmic, believing that even the most mundane of occurrences can be a manifestation of the sacred.
Birds are a recurring image in Vella’s poetry. To him they are fundamentally terrestrial creatures because they feed and breed on earth. However, they are also beings of the air and the sky, and thus Vella sees them as closer to God than humans. Sometimes, this implicit closer relationship of theirs with God frustrates Vella, birds seemingly being granted access to an aspect of the divine which is beyond the poet. In ‘Qatt’ (‘Never’) birds represent the mystery of one’s rapport with God. Vella is mystified by the sight of a flock of tired and weary seagulls, whose presence is usually an omen of bad weather. And yet the sky is clear and the sea is calm. He doesn’t know where they came from or the purpose of their visit. They are there on the stroke of three in the afternoon, a bleak reminder of the hour of Christ’s death on the cross, bringing about a puzzling sense of gloom on an otherwise peaceful day. This reticence on God’s part preoccupies the poet intensely given his belief that one’s yearning to understand and to meet God constitutes the pinnacle of human experience.
Yet God remains silent most of the time, suggesting a certain indifference to Vella’s anxiety and suffering. In ‘Issa’ (‘Now’) the poet demands an immediate answer to his existential dilemma (“Jien min jien?” – “Who am I?”) because, despite his efforts, he cannot find a satisfying solution. He is shackled by his intellect and his physicality, trapped between heaven and earth, tormented by his thoughts and doubts. This is the antithesis of the comfort one is said to find when trusting blindly in a higher being. However, Vella’s many supplications directed at God morph into an intimate contemplation of his relationship with the divine and he finally achieves a state of harmony between his insistent doubt and relentless faith. It is paradoxically his torment at being separated from God that connects him to the divine.
Suffering and loneliness condition Vella’s spiritual reality. Christ relinquished the companionship of his apostles when the time had come for him to die and redeem human sin, and Vella demands nothing less of himself. He expects to incarnate the paradox at the centre of the Roman Catholic faith: ultimate bliss achieved by means of profound hardship.
Marjanu Vella died on the 25th of February 1988.
Biography written by Noel Tanti
Arts Council Malta
Creative Industries Platform
Project co-ordinator: Clare Azzopardi
With the help of: Kirsty Azzopardi, Leanne Ellul and Albert Gatt
Proofreader: Dwayne Ellul