E-text prepared by Eric Eldred, Marc D’Hooghe, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
MODERN ITALIAN POETS
ESSAYS AND VERSIONS
W. D. HOWELLS
FRANCESCO DALL’ ONGARO
FRANCESCO DALL’ ONGARO
This book has grown out of studies begun twenty years ago in Italy, and continued fitfully, as I found the mood and time for them, long after their original circumstance had become a pleasant memory. If any one were to say that it did not fully represent the Italian poetry of the period which it covers chronologically, I should applaud his discernment; and perhaps I should not contend that it did much more than indicate the general character of that poetry. At the same time, I think that it does not ignore any principal name among the Italian poets of the great movement which resulted in the national freedom and unity, and it does form a sketch, however slight and desultory, of the history of Italian poetry during the hundred years ending in 1870.
Since that time, literature has found in Italy the scientific and realistic development which has marked it in all other countries. The romantic school came distinctly to a close there with the close of the long period of patriotic aspiration and endeavor; but I do not know the more recent work, except in some of the novels, and I have not attempted to speak of the newer poetry represented by Carducci. The translations here are my own; I have tried to make them faithful; I am sure they are careful.
Possibly I should not offer my book to the public at all if I knew of another work in English studying even with my incoherence the Italian poetry of the time mentioned, or giving a due impression of its extraordinary solidarity. It forms part of the great intellectual movement of which the most unmistakable signs were the French revolution, and its numerous brood of revolutions, of the first, second, and third generations, throughout Europe; but this poetry is unique in the history of literature for the unswerving singleness of its tendency.
The boundaries of epochs are very obscure, and of course the poetry of the century closing in 1870 has much in common with earlier Italian poetry. Parini did not begin it, nor Alfieri; it began them, and its spirit must have been felt in the perfumed air of the soft Lorrainese despotism at Florence when Filicaja breathed over his native land the sigh which makes him immortal. Yet finally, every age is individual; it has a moment of its own when its character has ceased to be general, and has not yet begun to be general, and it is one of these moments which is eternized in the poetry before us. It was, perhaps, more than any other poetry in the world, an incident and an instrument of the political redemption of the people among whom it arose. “In free and tranquil countries,” said the novelist Guerrazzi in conversation with M. Monnier, the sprightly Swiss critic, recently dead, who wrote so much and so well about modern Italian literature, “men have the happiness and the right to be artists for art’s sake: with us, this would be weakness and apathy. When I write it is because I have something _to do_; my books are not productions, but deeds. Before all, here in Italy we must be men. When we have not the sword, we must take the pen. We heap together materials for building batteries and fortresses, and it is our misfortune if these structures are not works of art. To write slowly, coldly, of our times and of our country, with the set purpose of creating a _chef-d’oeuvre_, would be almost an impiety. When I compose a book, I think only of freeing my soul, of imparting my idea or my belief. As vehicle, I choose the form of romance, since it is popular and best liked at this day; my picture is my thoughts, my doubts, or my dreams. I begin a story to draw the crowd; when I feel that I have caught its ear, I say what I have to say; when I think the lesson is growing tiresome, I take up the anecdote again; and whenever I can leave it, I go back to my moralizing. Detestable aesthetics, I grant you; my works of siege will be destroyed after the war, I don’t doubt; but what does it matter?”
The political purpose of literature in Italy had become conscious long before Guerrazzi’s time; but it was the motive of poetry long before it became conscious. When Alfieri, for example, began to write, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, there was no reason to suppose that the future of Italy was ever to differ very much from its past. Italian civilization had long worn a fixed character, and Italian literature had reflected its traits; it was soft, unambitious, elegant, and trivial. At that time Piedmont had a king whom she loved, but not that free constitution which she has since shared with the whole peninsula. Lombardy had lapsed from Spanish to Austrian despotism; the Republic of Venice still retained a feeble hold upon her wide territories of the main-land, and had little trouble in drugging any intellectual aspiration among her subjects with the sensual pleasures of her capital. Tuscany was quiet under the Lorrainese dukes who had succeeded the Medici; the little states of Modena and Parma enjoyed each its little court and its little Bourbon prince, apparently without a dream of liberty; the Holy Father ruled over Bologna, Ferrara, Ancona, and all the great cities and towns of the Romagna; and Naples was equally divided between the Bourbons and the bandits. There seemed no reason, for anything that priests or princes of that day could foresee, why this state of things should not continue indefinitely; and it would be a long story to say just why it did not continue. What every one knows is that the French revolution took place, that armies of French democrats overran all these languid lordships and drowsy despotisms, and awakened their subjects, more or less willingly or unwillingly, to a sense of the rights of man, as Frenchmen understood them, and to the approach of the nineteenth century. The whole of Italy fell, directly or indirectly, under French sway; the Piedmontese and Neapolitan kings were driven away, as were the smaller princes of the other states; the Republic of Venice ceased to be, and the Pope became very much less a prince, if not more a priest, than he had been for a great many ages. In due time French democracy passed into French imperialism, and then French imperialism passed altogether away; and so after 1815 came the Holy Alliance with its consecrated contrivances for fettering mankind. Lombardy, with all Venetia, was given to Austria; the dukes of Parma, of Modena, and Tuscany were brought back and propped up on their thrones again. The Bourbons returned to Naples, and the Pope’s temporal glory and power were restored to him. This condition of affairs endured, with more or less disturbance from the plots of the Carbonari and many other ineffectual aspirants and conspirators, until 1848, when, as we know, the Austrians were driven out, as well as the Pope and the various princes small and great, except the King of Sardinia, who not only gave a constitution to his people, but singularly kept the oath he swore to support it. The Pope and the other princes, even the Austrians, had given constitutions and sworn oaths, but their memories were bad, and their repute for veracity was so poor that they were not believed or trusted. The Italians had then the idea of freedom and independence, but not of unity, and their enemies easily broke, one at a time, the power of states which, even if bound together, could hardly have resisted their attack. In a little while the Austrians were once more in Milan and Venice, the dukes and grand-dukes in their different places, the Pope in Rome, the Bourbons in Naples, and all was as if nothing had been, or worse than nothing, except in Sardinia, where the constitution was still maintained, and the foundations of the present kingdom of Italy were laid. Carlo Alberto had abdicated on that battle-field where an Austrian victory over the Sardinians sealed the fate of the Italian states allied with him, and his son, Victor Emmanuel, succeeded him. As to what took place ten years later, when the Austrians were finally expelled from Lombardy, and the transitory sovereigns of the duchies and of Naples flitted for good, and the Pope’s dominion was reduced to the meager size it kept till 1871, and the Italian states were united under one constitutional king–I need not speak.
In this way the governments of Italy had been four times wholly changed, and each of these changes was attended by the most marked variations in the intellectual life of the people; yet its general tendency always continued the same.
The longing for freedom is the instinct of self-preservation in literature; and, consciously or unconsciously, the Italian poets of the last hundred years constantly inspired the Italian people with ideas of liberty and independence. Of course the popular movements affected literature in turn; and I should by no means attempt to say which had been the greater agency of progress. It is not to be supposed that a man like Alfieri, with all his tragical eloquence against tyrants, arose singly out of a perfectly servile society. His time was, no doubt, ready for him, though it did not seem so; but, on the other hand, there is no doubt that he gave not only an utterance but a mighty impulse to contemporary thought and feeling. He was in literature what the revolution was in politics, and if hardly any principle that either sought immediately to establish now stands, it is none the less certain that the time had come to destroy what they overthrew, and that what they overthrew was hopelessly vicious.
In Alfieri the great literary movement came from the north, and by far the larger number of the writers of whom I shall have to speak were northern Italians. Alfieri may represent for us the period of time covered by the French democratic conquests. The principal poets under the Italian governments of Napoleon during the first twelve years of this century were Vincenzo Monti and Ugo Foscolo–the former a Ferrarese by birth and the latter a Greco-Venetian. The literary as well as the political center was then Milan, and it continued to be so for many years after the return of the Austrians, when the so-called School of Resignation nourished there. This epoch may be most intelligibly represented by the names of Manzoni, Silvio Pellico, and Tommaso Grossi–all Lombards. About 1830 a new literary life began to be felt in Florence under the indifferentism or toleration of the grand-dukes. The chiefs of this school were Giacomo Leopardi; Giambattista Niccolini, the author of certain famous tragedies of political complexion; Guerrazzi, the writer of a great number of revolutionary romances; and Giuseppe Giusti, a poet of very marked and peculiar powers, and perhaps the greatest political satirist of the century. The chief poets of a later time were Aleardo Aleardi, a Veronese; Giovanni Prati, who was born in the Trentino, near the Tyrol; and Francesco Dall Ongaro, a native of Trieste. I shall mention all these and others particularly hereafter, and I have now only named them to show how almost entirely the literary life of militant Italy sprang from the north. There were one or two Neapolitan poets of less note, among whom was Gabriele Rossetti, the father of the English Rossettis, now so well known in art and literature.
In dealing with this poetry, I naturally seek to give its universal and aesthetic flavor wherever it is separable from its political quality; for I should not hope to interest any one else in what I had myself often found very tiresome. I suspect, indeed, that political satire and invective are not relished best in free countries. No danger attends their exercise; there is none of the charm of secrecy or the pleasure of transgression in their production; there is no special poignancy to free administrations in any one of ten thousand assaults upon them; the poets leave this sort of thing mostly to the newspapers. Besides, we have not, so to speak, the grounds that such a long-struggling people as the Italians had for the enjoyment of patriotic poetry. As an average American, I have found myself very greatly embarrassed when required, by Count Alfieri, for example, to hate tyrants. Of course I do hate them in a general sort of way; but having never seen one, how is it possible for me to feel any personal fury toward them? When the later Italian poets ask me to loathe spies and priests I am equally at a loss. I can hardly form the idea of a spy, of an agent of the police, paid to haunt the steps of honest men, to overhear their speech, and, if possible, entrap them into a political offense. As to priests–well, yes, I suppose they are bad, though I do not know this from experience; and I find them generally upon acquaintance very amiable. But all this was different with the Italians: they had known, seen, and felt tyrants, both foreign and domestic, of every kind; spies and informers had helped to make their restricted lives anxious and insecure; and priests had leagued themselves with the police and the oppressors until the Church, which should have been kept a sacred refuge from all the sorrows and wrongs of the world, became the most dreadful of its prisons. It is no wonder that the literature of these people should have been so filled with the patriotic passion of their life; and I am not sure that literature is not as nobly employed in exciting men to heroism and martyrdom for a great cause as in the purveyance of mere intellectual delights. What it was in Italy when it made this its chief business we may best learn from an inquiry that I have at last found somewhat amusing. It will lead us over vast meadows of green baize enameled with artificial flowers, among streams that do nothing but purl. In this region the shadows are mostly brown, and the mountains are invariably horrid; there are tumbling floods and sighing groves; there are naturally nymphs and swains; and the chief business of life is to be in love and not to be in love; to burn and to freeze without regard to the mercury. Need I say that this region is Arcady?
One day, near the close of the seventeenth century, a number of ladies and gentlemen–mostly poets and poetesses according to their thinking were assembled on a pleasant hill in the neighborhood of Rome. As they lounged upon the grass, in attitudes as graceful and picturesque as they could contrive, and listened to a sonnet or an ode with the sweet patience of their race,–for they were all Italians,–it occurred to the most conscious man among them that here was something uncommonly like the Golden Age, unless that epoch had been flattered. There had been reading and praising of odes and sonnets the whole blessed afternoon, and now he cried out to the complaisant, canorous company, “Behold Arcadia revived in us!”
This struck everybody at once by its truth. It struck, most of all, a certain Giovan Maria Crescimbeni, honored in his day and despised in ours as a poet and critic. He was of a cold, dull temperament; “a mind half lead, half wood”, as one Italian writer calls him; but he was an inveterate maker of verses, and he was wise in his own generation. He straightway proposed to the tuneful _abbes, cavalieri serventi_, and _precieuses_, who went singing and love-making up and down Italy in those times, the foundation of a new academy, to be called the Academy of the Arcadians.
Literary academies were then the fashion in Italy, and every part of the peninsula abounded in them. They bore names fanciful or grotesque, such as The Ardent, The Illuminated, The Unconquered, The Intrepid, or The Dissonant, The Sterile, The Insipid, The Obtuse, The Astray, The Stunned, and they were all devoted to one purpose, namely, the production and the perpetuation of twaddle. It is prodigious to think of the incessant wash of slip-slop which they poured out in verse; of the grave disputations they held upon the most trivial questions; of the inane formalities of their sessions. At the meetings of a famous academy in Milan, they placed in the chair a child just able to talk; a question was proposed, and the answer of the child, whatever it was, was held by one side to solve the problem, and the debates, _pro_ and _con_, followed upon this point. Other academies in other cities had other follies; but whatever the absurdity, it was encouraged alike by Church and State, and honored by all the great world. The governments of Italy in that day, whether lay or clerical, liked nothing so well as to have the intellectual life of the nation squandered in the trivialities of the academies–in their debates about nothing, their odes and madrigals and masks and sonnets; and the greatest politeness you could show a stranger was to invite him to a sitting of your academy; to be furnished with a letter to the academy in the next city was the highest favor you could ask for yourself.
In literature, the humorous Bernesque school had passed; Tasso had long been dead; and the Neapolitan Marini, called the Corrupter of Italian poetry, ruled from his grave the taste of the time. This taste was so bad as to require a very desperate remedy, and it was professedly to counteract it that the Academy of the Arcadians had arisen.
The epoch was favorable, and, as Emiliani-Giudici (whom we shall follow for the present) teaches, in his History of Italian Literature, the idea of Crescimbeni spread electrically throughout Italy. The gayest of the finest ladies and gentlemen the world ever saw, the _illustrissimi_ of that polite age, united with monks, priests, cardinals, and scientific thinkers in establishing the Arcadia; and even popes and kings were proud to enlist in the crusade for the true poetic faith. In all the chief cities Arcadian colonies were formed, “dependent upon the Roman Arcadia, as upon the supreme Arch-Flock”, and in three years the Academy numbered thirteen hundred members, every one of whom had first been obliged to give proof that he was a good poet. They prettily called themselves by the names of shepherds and shepherdesses out of Theocritus, and, being a republic, they refused to own any earthly prince or ruler, but declared the Baby Jesus to be the Protector of Arcadia. Their code of laws was written in elegant Latin by a grave and learned man, and inscribed upon tablets of marble.
According to one of the articles, the Academicians must study to reproduce the customs of the ancient Arcadians and the character of their poetry; and straightway “Italy was filled on every hand with Thyrsides, Menalcases, and Meliboeuses, who made their harmonious songs resound the names of their Chlorises, their Phyllises, their Niceas; and there was poured out a deluge of pastoral compositions”, some of them by “earnest thinkers and philosophical writers, who were not ashamed to assist in sustaining that miserable literary vanity which, in the history of human thought, will remain a lamentable witness to the moral depression of the Italian nation.” As a pattern of perfect poetizing, these artless nymphs and swains chose Constanzo, a very fair poet of the sixteenth century. They collected his verse, and printed it at the expense of the Academy; and it was established without dissent that each Arcadian in turn, at the hut of some conspicuous shepherd, in the presence of the keeper (such was the jargon of those most amusing unrealities), should deliver a commentary upon some sonnet of Constanzo. As for Crescimbeni, who declared that Arcadia was instituted “strictly for the purpose of exterminating bad taste and of guarding against its revival, pursuing it continually, wherever it should pause or lurk, even to the most remote and unconsidered villages and hamlets”–Crescimbeni could not do less than write four dialogues, as he did, in which he evolved from four of Constanzo’s sonnets all that was necessary for Tuscan lyric poetry.
“Thus,” says Emiliani-Giudici, referring to the crusading intent of Crescimbeni, “the Arcadians were a sect of poetical Sanfedista, who, taking for example the zeal and performance of San Domingo de Gruzman, proposed to renew in literature the scenes of the Holy Office among the Albigenses. Happily, the fire of Arcadian verse did not really burn! The institution was at first derided, then it triumphed and prevailed in such fame and greatness that, shining forth like a new sun, it consumed the splendor of the lesser lights of heaven, eclipsing the glitter of all those academies–the Thunderstruck, the Extravagant, the Humid, the Tipsy, the Imbeciles, and the like–which had hitherto formed the glory of the Peninsula.”
Giuseppe Torelli, a charming modern Italian writer, in a volume called _Paessaggi e Profili_ (Landscapes and Profiles), makes a study of Carlo Innocenzo Frugoni, one of the most famous of the famous Arcadian shepherds; and from this we may learn something of the age and society in which such a folly could not only be possible but illustrious. The patriotic Italian critics and historians are apt to give at least a full share of blame to foreign rulers for the corruption of their nation, and Signor Torelli finds the Spanish domination over a vast part of Italy responsible for the degradation of Italian mind and manners in the seventeenth century. He declares that, because of the Spaniards, the Italian theater was then silent, “or filled with the noise of insipid allegories”; there was little or no education among the common people; the slender literature that survived existed solely for the amusement and distinction of the great; the army and the Church were the only avenues of escape from obscurity and poverty; all classes were sunk in indolence.
The social customs were mostly copied from France, except that purely Italian invention, the _cavaliere servente_, who was in great vogue. But there were everywhere in the cities coteries of fine ladies, called _preziose_, who were formed upon the French _precieuses_ ridiculed by Moliere, and were, I suppose, something like what is called in Boston demi-semi-literary ladies–ladies who cultivated alike the muses and the modes. The preziose held weekly receptions at their houses, and assembled poets and cavaliers from all quarters, who entertained the ladies with their lampoons and gallantries, their madrigals and gossip, their sonnets and their repartees. “Little by little the poets had the better of the cavaliers: a felicitous rhyme was valued more than an elaborately constructed compliment.” And this easy form of literature became the highest fashion. People hastened to call themselves by the sentimental pastoral names of the Arcadians, and almost forgot their love-intrigues so much were they absorbed in the production and applause of “toasts, epitaphs for dogs, verses on wagers, epigrams on fruits, on Echo, on the Marchioness’s canaries, on the Saints. These were read here and repeated there, declaimed in the public resorts and on the promenades”, and gravely studied and commented on. A strange and surprising jargon arose, the utterance of the feeblest and emptiest affectation. “In those days eyes were not eyes, but pupils; not pupils, but orbs; not orbs, but the Devil knows what,” says Signor Torelli, losing patience. It was the golden age of pretty words; and as to the sense of a composition, good society troubled itself very little about that. Good society expressed itself in a sort of poetical gibberish, “and whoever had said, for example, Muses instead of Castalian Divinities, would have passed for a lowbred person dropped from some mountain village. Men of fine mind, rich gentlemen of leisure, brilliant and accomplished ladies, had resolved that the time was come to lose their wits academically.”
In such a world Arcadia nourished; into such a world that illustrious shepherd, Carlo Innocenze Frugoni, was born. He was the younger son of a noble family of Genoa, and in youth was sent into a cloister as a genteel means of existence rather than from regard to his own wishes or fitness. He was, in fact, of a very gay and mundane temper, and escaped from his monastery as soon as ever he could, and spent his long life thereafter at the comfortable court of Parma, where he sang with great constancy the fortunes of varying dynasties and celebrated in his verse all the polite events of society. Of course, even a life so pleasant as this had its little pains and mortifications; and it is history that when, in 1731, the last duke of the Farnese family died, leaving a widow, “Frugoni predicted and maintained in twenty-five sonnets that she would yet give an heir to the duke; but in spite of the twenty-five sonnets the affair turned out otherwise, and the extinction of the house of Farnese was written.”
Frugoni, however, was taken into favor by the Spanish Bourbon who succeeded, and after he had got himself unfrocked with infinite difficulty (and only upon the intercession of divers princes and prelates), he was as happy as any man of real talent could be who devoted his gifts to the merest intellectual trifling. Not long before his death he was addressed by one that wished to write his life. He made answer that he had been a versifier and nothing more, epigrammatically recounted the chief facts of his career, and ended by saying, “of what I have written it is not worth while to speak”; and posterity has upon the whole agreed with him, though, of course, no edition of the Italian classics would be perfect without him. We know this from the classics of our own tongue, which abound in marvels of insipidity and emptiness.
But all this does not make him less interesting as a figure in that amusing literarified society; and we may be glad to see him in Parma with Signor Torelli’s eyes, as he “issues smug, ornate, with his well-fitting, polished shoe, his handsome leg in its neat stocking, his whole immaculate person, and his demure visage, and, gently sauntering from Casa Caprara, takes his way toward Casa Landi.”
I do not know Casa Landi; I have never seen it; and yet I think I can tell you of it: a gloomy-fronted pile of Romanesque architecture, the lower story remarkable for its weather-stained, vermiculated stone, and the ornamental iron gratings at the windows. The _porte-cochere_ stands wide open and shows the leaf and blossom of a lovely garden inside, with a tinkling fountain in the midst. The marble nymphs and naiads inhabiting the shrubbery and the water are already somewhat time-worn, and have here and there a touch of envious mildew; but as yet their noses are unbroken, and they have all the legs and arms that the sculptor designed them with; and the fountain, which after disasters must choke, plays prettily enough over their nude loveliness; for it is now the first half of the eighteenth century, and Casa Landi is the uninvaded sanctuary of Illustrissimi and Illustrissime. The resplendent porter who admits our melodious Abbate Carlo, and the gay lackey who runs before his smiling face to open the door of the _sala_ where the company is assembled, may have had nothing to speak of for breakfast, but they are full of zeal for the grandeur they serve, and would not know what the rights of man were if you told them. They, too, have their idleness and their intrigues and their life of pleasure; but, poor souls! they fade pitiably in the magnificence of that noble assembly in the sala. What coats of silk and waistcoats of satin, what trig rapiers and flowing wigs and laces and ruffles; and, ah me! what hoops and brocades, what paint and patches! Behind the chair of every lady stands her cavaliere servente, or bows before her with a cup of chocolate, or, sweet abasement! stoops to adjust the foot-stool better to her satin shoe. There is a buzz of satirical expectation, no doubt, till the abbate arrives, “and then, after the first compliments and obeisances,” says Signor Torelli, “he throws his hat upon the great arm-chair, recounts the chronicle of the gay world,” and prepares for the special entertainment of the occasion.
“‘What is there new on Parnassus?’ he is probably asked.
“‘Nothing’, he replies, ‘save the bleating of a lambkin lost upon the lonely heights of the sacred hill.’
“‘I’ll wager,’ cries one of the ladies, ‘that the shepherd who has lost this lambkin is our Abbate Carlo!’
“‘And what can escape the penetrating eye of Aglauro Cidonia?’ retorts Frugoni, softly, with a modest air.
“‘Let us hear its bleating!’ cries the lady of the house.
“‘Let us hear it!’ echo her husband and her cavaliere servente.
“‘Let us hear it!’ cry one, two, three, a half-dozen, visitors.
“Frugoni reads his new production; ten exclamations receive the first strophe; the second awakens twenty _evvivas_; and when the reading is ended the noise of the plaudits is so great that they cannot be counted. His new production has cost Frugoni half an hour’s work; it is possibly the answer to some Mecaenas who has invited him to his country-seat, or the funeral eulogy of some well-known cat. Is fame bought at so cheap a rate? He is a fool who would buy it dearer; and with this reasoning, which certainly is not without foundation, Frugoni remained Frugoni when he might have been something very much better…. If a bird sang, or a cat sneezed, or a dinner was given, or the talk turned upon anything no matter how remote from poetry, it was still for Frugoni an invitation to some impromptu effusion. If he pricked his finger in mending a pen, he called from on high the god of Lemnos and all the ironworkers of Olympus, not excepting Mars, whom it was not reasonable to disturb for so little, and launched innumerable reproaches at them, since without their invention of arms a penknife would never have been made. If the heavens cleared up after a long rain, all the signs of the zodiac were laid under contribution and charged to give an account of their performance. If somebody died, he instantly poured forth rivers of tears in company with the nymphs of Eridanus and the Heliades; he upraided Phaethon, Themis, the Shades of Erebus, and the Parcae…. The Amaryllises, the Dryads, the Fauns, the woolly lambs, the shepherds, the groves, the demigods, the Castalian Virgins, the loose-haired nymphs, the leafy boughs, the goat-footed gods, the Graces, the pastoral pipes, and all the other sylvan rubbish were the prime materials of every poetic composition.”
Signor Torelli is less severe than Emiliani-Giudici upon the founders of the Arcadia, and thinks they may have had intentions quite different from the academical follies that resulted; while Leigh Hunt, who has some account of the Arcadia in his charming essay on the Sonnet, feels none of the national shame of the Italian critics, and is able to write of it with perfect gayety. He finds a reason for its amazing success in the childlike traits of Italian character; and, reminding his readers that the Arcadia was established in 1690, declares that what the Englishmen of William and Mary’s reign would have received with shouts of laughter, and the French under Louis XIV, would have corrupted and made perilous to decency, “was so mixed up with better things in these imaginative and, strange as it may seem, most unaffected people, the Italians,–for such they are,–that, far from disgusting a nation accustomed to romantic impulses and to the singing of poetry in their streets and gondolas, their gravest and most distinguished men and, in many instances, women, too, ran childlike into the delusion. The best of their poets”, the sweet-tongued Filicaja among others, “accepted farms in Arcadia forthwith; … and so little transitory did the fashion turn out to be, that not only was Crescimbeni its active officer for eight-and-thirty years, but the society, to whatever state of insignificance it may have been reduced, exists at the present moment”.
Leigh Hunt names among Englishmen who were made Shepherds of Arcadia, Mathias, author of the “Pursuits of Literature”, and Joseph Cowper, “who wrote the Memoirs of Tassoni and an historical memoir of Italian tragedy”, Haly, and Mrs. Thrale, as well as those poor Delia Cruscans whom bloody-minded Gifford champed between his tusked jaws in his now forgotten satires. Pope Pius VII. gave the Arcadians a suite of apartments in the Vatican; but I dare say the wicked tyranny now existing at Rome has deprived the harmless swains of this shelter, if indeed they had not been turned out before Victor Emmanuel came.
In the chapter on the Arcadia, with which Vernon Lee opens her admirable Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, she tells us of several visits which she recently paid to the Bosco Parrasio, long the chief fold of the Academy. She found it with difficulty on the road to the Villa Pamphili, in a neighborhood wholly ignorant of Arcadia and of the relation of Bosco Parrasio to it. “The house, once the summer resort of Arcadian sonneteers, was now abandoned to a family of market-gardeners, who hung their hats and jackets on the marble heads of improvvisatori and crowned poetesses, and threw their beans, maize, and garden-tools into the corners of the desolate reception-rooms, from whose mildewed walls looked down a host of celebrities–brocaded doges, powdered princesses, and scarlet-robed cardinals, simpering drearily in their desolation,” and “sad, haggard poetesses in sea-green and sky-blue draperies, with lank, powdered locks and meager arms, holding lyres; fat, ill-shaven priests in white bands and mop-wigs; sonneteering ladies, sweet and vapid in dove-colored stomachers and embroidered sleeves; jolly extemporary poets, flaunting in many-colored waistcoats and gorgeous shawls.”
But whatever the material adversity of Arcadia, it still continues to reward ascertained merit by grants of pasturage out of its ideal domains. Indeed, it is but a few years since our own Longfellow, on a visit to Rome, was waited upon by the secretary of the Arch-Flock, and presented, after due ceremonies and the reading of a floral and herbaceous sonnet, with a parchment bestowing upon him some very magnificent possessions in that extraordinary dreamland. In telling me of this he tried to recall his Arcadian name, but could only remember that it was “Olympico something.”
In 1748 began for Italy a peace of nearly fifty years, when the Wars of the Succession, with which the contesting strangers had ravaged her soil, absolutely ceased. In Lombardy the Austrian rulers who had succeeded the Spaniards did and suffered to be done many things for the material improvement of a province which they were content to hold, while leaving the administration mainly to the Lombards; the Spanish Bourbon at Naples also did as little harm and as much good to his realm as a Bourbon could; Pier Leopoldo of Tuscany, Don Filippo I. of Parma, Francis III. of Modena, and the Popes Benedict XIV., Clement XIV., and Pius VI. were all disposed to be paternally beneficent to their peoples, who at least had repose under them, and in this period gave such names to science as those of Galvani and Volta, to humanity that of Beccaria, to letters those of Alfieri, Filicaja, Goldoni, Parini, and many others.
But in spite of the literary and scientific activity of the period, Italian society was never quite so fantastically immoral as in this long peace, which was broken only by the invasions of the French republic. A wide-spread sentimentality, curiously mixed of love and letters, enveloped the peninsula. Commerce, politics, all the business of life, went on as usual under the roseate veil which gives its hue to the social history of the time; but the idea which remains in the mind is one of a tranquillity in which every person of breeding devoted himself to the cult of some muse or other, and established himself as the conventional admirer of his neighbor’s wife. The great Academy of Arcadia, founded to restore good taste in poetry, prescribed conditions by which everybody, of whatever age or sex, could become a poetaster, and good society expected every gentleman and lady to be in love. The Arcadia still exists, but that gallant society hardly survived the eighteenth century. Perhaps the greatest wonder about it is that it could have lasted so long as it did. Its end was certainly not delayed for want of satirists who perceived its folly and pursued it with scorn. But this again only brings one doubt, often felt, whether satire ever accomplished anything beyond a lively portraiture of conditions it proposed to reform.
It is the opinion of some Italian critics that Italian demoralization began with the reaction against Luther, when the Jesuits rose to supreme power in the Church and gathered the whole education of the young into the hands of the priests. Cesare Cantu, whose book on _Parini ed il suo Secolo_ may be read with pleasure and instruction by such as like to know more fully the time of which I speak, was of this mind; he became before his death a leader of the clerical party in Italy, and may be supposed to be without unfriendly prejudice. He alleges that the priestly education made the Italians _literati_ rather than citizens; Latinists, poets, instead of good magistrates, workers, fathers of families; it cultivated the memory at the expense of the judgment, the fancy at the cost of the reason, and made them selfish, polished, false; it left a boy “apathetic, irresolute, thoughtless, pusillanimous; he flattered his superiors and hated his fellows, in each of whom he dreaded a spy.” He knew the beautiful and loved the grandiose; his pride of family and ancestry was inordinately pampered. What other training he had was in the graces and accomplishments; he was thoroughly instructed in so much of warlike exercise as enabled him to handle a rapier perfectly and to conduct or fight a duel with punctilio.
But he was no warrior; his career was peace. The old medieval Italians who had combated like lions against the French and Germans and against each other, when resting from the labors and the high conceptions which have left us the chief sculptures and architecture of the Peninsula, were dead; and their posterity had almost ceased to know war. Italy had indeed still remained a battle-ground, but not for Italian quarrels nor for Italian swords; the powers which, like Venice, could afford to have quarrels of their own, mostly hired other people to fight them out. All the independent states of the Peninsula had armies, but armies that did nothing; in Lombardy, neither Frenchman, Spaniard, nor Austrian had been able to recruit or draft soldiers; the flight of young men from the conscription depopulated the province, until at last Francis II. declared it exempt from military service; Piedmont, the Macedon, the Boeotia of that Greece, alone remained warlike, and Piedmont was alone able, when the hour came, to show Italy how to do for herself.
Yet, except in the maritime republics, the army, idle and unwarlike as it was in most cases, continued to be one of the three careers open to the younger sons of good family; the civil service and the Church were the other two. In Genoa, nobles had engaged in commerce with equal honor and profit; nearly every argosy that sailed to or from the port of Venice belonged to some lordly speculator; but in Milan a noble who descended to trade lost his nobility, by a law not abrogated till the time of Charles IV. The nobles had therefore nothing to do. They could not go into business; if they entered the army it was not to fight; the civil service was of course actually performed by subordinates; there were not cures for half the priests, and there grew up that odd, polite rabble of _abbati_, like our good Frugoni, priests without cures, sometimes attached to noble families as chaplains, sometimes devoting themselves to literature or science, sometimes leading lives of mere leisure and fashion; they were mostly of plebeian origin when they did anything at all besides pay court to the ladies.
In Milan the nobles were exempt from many taxes paid by the plebeians; they had separate courts of law, with judges of their own order, before whom a plebeian plaintiff appeared with what hope of justice can be imagined. Yet they were not oppressive; they were at worst only insolent to their inferiors, and they commonly used them with the gentleness which an Italian can hardly fail in. There were many ties of kindness between the classes, the memory of favors and services between master and servant, landlord and tenant, in relations which then lasted a life-time, and even for generations. In Venice, where it was one of the high privileges of the patrician to spit from his box at the theater upon the heads of the people in the pit, the familiar bond of patron and client so endeared the old republican nobles to the populace that the Venetian poor of this day, who know them only by tradition, still lament them. But, on the whole, men have found it at Venice, as elsewhere, better not to be spit upon, even by an affectionate nobility.
The patricians were luxurious everywhere. In Rome they built splendid palaces, in Milan they gave gorgeous dinners. Goldoni, in his charming memoirs, tells us that the Milanese of his time never met anywhere without talking of eating, and they did eat upon all possible occasions, public, domestic, and religious; throughout Italy they have yet the nickname of _lupi lombardi_ (Lombard wolves) which their good appetites won them. The nobles of that gay old Milan were very hospitable, easy of access to persons of the proper number of descents, and full of invitations for the stranger. A French writer found their cooking delicate and estimable as that of his own nation; but he adds that many of these friendly, well-dining aristocrats had not good _ton_. One can think of them at our distance of time and place with a kindness which Italian critics, especially those of the bitter period of struggle about the middle of this century, do not affect. Emiliani-Giudici, for example, does not, when he calls them and their order throughout Italy an aristocratic leprosy. He assures us that at the time of that long peace “the moral degradation of what the French call the great world was the inveterate habit of centuries; the nobles wallowed in their filth untouched by remorse”; and he speaks of them as “gilded swine, vain of the glories of their blazons, which they dragged through the mire of their vices.”
This is when he is about to consider a poem in which the Lombard nobility are satirized–if it was satire to paint them to the life. He says that he would be at a loss what passages to quote from it, but fortunately “an unanimous posterity has done Parini due honor”; and he supposes “now there is no man, of whatever sect or opinion, but has read his immortal poem, and has its finest scenes by heart.” It is this fact which embarrasses me, however, for how am I to rehabilitate a certain obsolete characteristic figure without quoting from Parini, and constantly wearying people with what they know already so well? The gentle reader, familiar with Parini’s immortal poem—-
_The Gentle Reader._–His immortal poem? What _is_ his immortal poem? I never heard even the name of it!
Is it possible? But you, fair reader, who have its finest scenes by heart—-
_The Fair Reader._–Yes, certainly; of course. But one reads so many things. I don’t believe I half remember those striking passages of—-what is the poem? And who did you say the author was?
Oh, madam! And is this undying fame? Is this the immortality for which we waste our time? Is this the remembrance for which the essayist sicklies his visage over with the pale cast of thought? Why, at this rate, even those whose books are favorably noticed by the newspapers will be forgotten in a thousand years. But it is at least consoling to know that you have merely forgotten Parini’s poems, the subject of which you will at once recollect when I remind you that it is called The Day, and celebrates The Morning, The Noon, The Evening, and The Night of a gentleman of fashion as Milan knew him for fifty years in the last century.
This gentleman, whatever his nominal business in the world might be, was first and above all a cavaliere servente, and the cavaliere servente was the invention, it is said, of Genoese husbands who had not the leisure to attend their wives to the theater, the promenade, the card-table, the _conversazione_, and so installed their nearest idle friends permanently in the office. The arrangement was found so convenient that the cavaliere servente presently spread throughout Italy; no lady of fashion was thought properly appointed without one; and the office was now no longer reserved to bachelors; it was not at all good form for husband and wife to love each other, and the husband became the cavalier of some other lady, and the whole fine world was thus united, by a usage of which it is very hard to know just how far it was wicked and how far it was only foolish; perhaps it is safest to say that at the best it was apt to be somewhat of the one and always a great deal of the other. In the good society of that day, marriage meant a settlement in life for the girl who had escaped her sister’s fate of a sometimes forced religious vocation. But it did not matter so much about the husband if the marriage contract stipulated that she should have her cavaliere servente, and, as sometimes happened, specified him by name. With her husband there was a union of fortunes, with the expectation of heirs; the companionship, the confidence, the faith, was with the cavalier; there could be no domesticity, no family life with either. The cavaliere servente went with his lady to church, where he dipped his finger in the holy-water and offered it her to moisten her own finger at; and he held her prayer-book for her when she rose from her knees and bowed to the high altar. In fact, his place seems to have been as fully acknowledged and honored, if not by the Church, then by all the other competent authorities, as that of the husband. Like other things, his relation to his lady was subject to complication and abuse; no doubt, ladies of fickle minds changed their cavaliers rather often; and in those days following the disorder of the French invasions, the relation suffered deplorable exaggerations and perversions. But when Giuseppe Parini so minutely and graphically depicted the day of a noble Lombard youth, the cavaliere servente was in his most prosperous and illustrious state; and some who have studied Italian social conditions in the past bid us not too virtuously condemn him, since, preposterous as he was, his existence was an amelioration of disorders at which we shall find it better not even to look askance.
Parini’s poem is written in the form of instructions to the hero for the politest disposal of his time; and in a strain of polished irony allots the follies of his day to their proper hours. The poet’s apparent seriousness never fails him, but he does not suffer his irony to become a burden to the reader, relieving it constantly with pictures, episodes, and excursions, and now and then breaking into a strain of solemn poetry which is fine enough. The work will suggest to the English reader the light mockery of “The Rape of the Lock”, and in less degree some qualities of Gray’s “Trivia”; but in form and manner it is more like Phillips’s “Splendid Shilling” than either of these; and yet it is not at all like the last in being a mere burlesque of the epic style. These resemblances have been noted by Italian critics, who find them as unsatisfactory as myself; but they will serve to make the extracts I am to give a little more intelligible to the reader who does not recur to the whole poem. Parini was not one to break a butterfly upon a wheel; he felt the fatuity of heavily moralizing upon his material; the only way was to treat it with affected gravity, and to use his hero with the respect which best mocks absurdity. One of his arts is to contrast the deeds of his hero with those of his forefathers, of which he is so proud,–of course the contrast is to the disadvantage of the forefathers,–and in these allusions to the past glories of Italy it seems to me that the modern patriotic poetry which has done so much to make Italy begins for the first time to feel its wings.
Parini was in all things a very stanch, brave, and original spirit, and if he was of any school, it was that of the Venetian, Gasparo Gozzi, who wrote pungent and amusing social satires in blank verse, and published at Venice an essay-paper, like the “Spectator”, the name of which he turned into _l’Osservatore_. It dealt, like the “Spectator” and all that race of journals, with questions of letters and manners, and was long honored, like the “Spectator”, as a model of prose. With an apparent prevalence of French taste, there was in fact much study by Italian authors of English literature at this time, which was encouraged by Dr. Johnson’s friend, Baretti, the author of the famous _Frusta Letteraria_ (Literary Scourge), which drew blood from so many authorlings, now bloodless; it was wielded with more severity than wisdom, and fell pretty indiscriminately upon the bad and the good. It scourged among others Goldoni, the greatest master of the comic art then living, but it spared our Parini, the first part of whose poem Baretti salutes with many kindly phrases, though he cannot help advising him to turn the poem into rhyme. But when did a critic ever know less than a poet about a poet’s business?
The first part of Parini’s Day is Morning, that mature hour at which the hero awakes from the glories and fatigues of the past night. His valet appears, and throwing open the shutters asks whether he will have coffee or chocolate in bed, and when he has broken his fast and risen, the business of the day begins. The earliest comer is perhaps the dancing-master, whose elegant presence we must not deny ourselves:
He, entering, stops
Erect upon the threshold, elevating Both shoulders; then contracting like a tortoise His neck a little, at the same time drops Slightly his chin, and, with the extremest tip Of his plumed hat, lightly touches his lips.
In their order come the singing-master and the master of the violin, and, with more impressiveness than the rest, the teacher of French, whose advent hushes all Italian sounds, and who is to instruct the hero to forget his plebeian native tongue. He is to send meanwhile to ask how the lady he serves has passed the night, and attending her response he may read Voltaire in a sumptuous Dutch or French binding, or he may amuse himself with a French romance; or it may happen that the artist whom he has engaged to paint the miniature of his lady (to be placed in the same jeweled case with his own) shall bring his work at this hour for criticism. Then the valets robe him from head to foot in readiness for the hair-dresser and the barber, whose work is completed with the powdering of his hair.
At last the labor of the learned comb Is finished, and the elegant artist strews With lightly shaken hand a powdery mist To whiten ere their time thy youthful locks.
* * * * *
Now take heart,
And in the bosom of that whirling cloud Plunge fearlessly. O brave! O mighty! Thus Appeared thine ancestor through smoke and fire Of battle, when his country’s trembling gods His sword avenged, and shattered the fierce foe And put to flight. But he, his visage stained, With dust and smoke, and smirched with gore and sweat, His hair torn and tossed wild, came from the strife A terrible vision, even to compatriots His hand had rescued; milder thou by far, And fairer to behold, in white array
Shalt issue presently to bless the eyes Of thy fond country, which the mighty arm Of thy forefather and thy heavenly smile Equally keep content and prosperous.
When the hero is finally dressed for the visit to his lady, it is in this splendid figure:
Let purple gaiters, clasp thine ankles fine In noble leather, that no dust or mire Blemish thy foot; down from thy shoulders flow Loosely a tunic fair, thy shapely arms Cased in its closely-fitting sleeves, whose borders Of crimson or of azure velvet let
The heliotrope’s color tinge. Thy slender throat, Encircle with a soft and gauzy band.
Thy watch already
Bids thee make haste to go. O me, how fair The Arsenal of tiny charms that hang
With a harmonious tinkling from its chain! What hangs not there of fairy carriages And fairy steeds so marvelously feigned In gold that every charger seems alive?
This magnificent swell, of the times when swells had the world quite their own way, finds his lady already surrounded with visitors when he calls to revere her, as he would have said, and he can therefore make the more effective arrival. Entering her presence he puts on his very finest manner, which I am sure we might all study to our advantage.
Let thy right hand be pressed against thy side Beneath thy waistcoat, and the other hand Upon thy snowy linen rest, and hide
Next to thy heart; let the breast rise sublime, The shoulders broaden both, and bend toward her Thy pliant neck; then at the corners close Thy lips a little, pointed in the middle Somewhat; and from thy month thus set exhale A murmur inaudible. Meanwhile her right Let her have given, and now softly drop On the warm ivory a double kiss.
Seat thyself then, and with one hand draw closer Thy chair to hers, while every tongue is stilled. Thou only, bending slightly over, with her Exchange in whisper secret nothings, which Ye both accompany with mutual smiles
And covert glances that betray, or seem At least, your tender passion to betray.
It must have been mighty pretty, as Master Pepys says, to look at the life from which this scene was painted, for many a dandy of either sex doubtless sat for it. The scene was sometimes heightened by the different humor in which the lady and the cavalier received each other, as for instance when they met with reproaches and offered the spectacle of a lover’s quarrel to the company. In either case, it is for the hero to lead the lady out to dinner.
With a bound
Rise to thy feet, signor, and give thy hand Unto thy lady, whom, tenderly drooping, Support thou with thy strength, and to the table Accompany, while the guests come after you. And last of all the husband follows….
If to the husband still
The vestige of a generous soul remain, Let him frequent another board; beside Another lady sit, whose husband dines
Yet somewhere else beside another lady, Whose spouse is likewise absent; and so add New links unto the chain immense, wherewith Love, alternating, binds the whole wide world.
Behold thy lady seated at the board: Relinquish now her hand, and while the servant Places the chair that not too far she sit, And not so near that her soft bosom press Too close against the table, with a spring Stoop thou and gather round thy lady’s feet The wandering volume of her robe. Beside her Then sit thee down; for the true cavalier Is not permitted to forsake the side
Of her he serves, except there should arise Some strange occasion warranting the use Of so great freedom.
When one reads of these springs and little hops, which were once so elegant, it is almost with a sigh for a world which no longer springs or hops in the service of beauty, or even dreams of doing it. But a passage which will touch the sympathetic with a still keener sense of loss is one which hints how lovely a lady looked when carving, as she then sometimes did:
Swiftly now the blade,
That sharp and polished at thy right hand lies, Draw naked forth, and like the blade of Mars Flash it upon the eyes of all. The point Press ‘twixt thy finger-tips, and bowing low Offer the handle to her. Now is seen
The soft and delicate playing of the muscles In the white hand upon its work intent. The graces that around the lady stoop
Clothe themselves in new forms, and from her fingers Sportively flying, flutter to the tips Of her unconscious rosy knuckles, thence To dip into the hollows of the dimples That Love beside her knuckles has impressed.
Throughout the dinner it is the part of the well-bred husband–if so ill-bred as to remain at all to sit impassive and quiescent while the cavalier watches over the wife with tender care, prepares her food, offers what agrees with her, and forbids what harms. He is virtually master of the house; he can order the servants about; if the dinner is not to his mind, it is even his high prerogative to scold the cook.
The poet reports something of the talk at table; and here occurs one of the most admired passages of the poem, the light irony of which it is hard to reproduce in a version. One of the guests, in a strain of affected sensibility, has been denouncing man’s cruelty to animals:
Thus he discourses; and a gentle tear Springs, while he speaks, into thy lady’s eyes. She recalls the day–
Alas, the cruel day!–what time her lap-dog, Her beauteous lap-dog, darling of the Graces, Sporting in youthful gayety, impressed The light mark of her ivory tooth upon The rude foot of a menial; he, with bold And sacrilegious toe, flung her away.
Over and over thrice she rolled, and thrice Rumpled her silken coat, and thrice inhaled With tender nostril the thick, choking dust, Then raised imploring cries, and “Help, help, help!” She seemed to call, while from the gilded vaults Compassionate Echo answered her again, And from their cloistral basements in dismay The servants rushed, and from the upper rooms The pallid maidens trembling flew; all came. Thy lady’s face was with reviving essence Sprinkled, and she awakened from her swoon. Anger and grief convulsed her still; she cast A lightning glance upon the guilty menial, And thrice with languid voice she called her pet, Who rushed to her embrace and seemed to invoke Vengeance with her shrill tenor. And revenge Thou hadst, fair poodle, darling of the Graces. The guilty menial trembled, and with eyes Downcast received his doom. Naught him availed His twenty years’ desert; naught him availed His zeal in secret services; for him
In vain were prayer and promise; forth he went, Spoiled of the livery that till now had made him Enviable with the vulgar. And in vain
He hoped another lord; the tender dames Were horror-struck at his atrocious crime, And loathed the author. The false wretch succumbed With all his squalid brood, and in the streets With his lean wife in tatters at his side Vainly lamented to the passer-by.
It would be quite out of taste for the lover to sit as apathetic as the husband in the presence of his lady’s guests, and he is to mingle gracefully in the talk from time to time, turning it to such topics as may best serve to exploit his own accomplishments. As a man of the first fashion, he must be in the habit of seeming to have read Horace a little, and it will be a pretty effect to quote him now; one may also show one’s acquaintance with the new French philosophy, and approve its skepticism, while keeping clear of its pernicious doctrines, which insidiously teach–
That every mortal is his fellow’s peer; That not less dear to Nature and to God Is he who drives thy carriage, or who guides The plow across thy field, than thine own self.
But at last the lady makes a signal to the cavalier that it is time to rise from the table:
Spring to thy feet
The first of all, and drawing near thy lady Remove her chair and offer her thy hand, And lead her to the other rooms, nor suffer longer That the stale reek of viands shall offend Her delicate sense. Thee with the rest invites The grateful odor of the coffee, where It smokes upon a smaller table hid
And graced with Indian webs. The redolent gums That meanwhile burn sweeten and purify The heavy atmosphere, and banish thence All lingering traces of the feast.–Ye sick And poor, whom misery or whom hope perchance Has guided in the noonday to these doors, Tumultuous, naked, and unsightly throng, With mutilated limbs and squalid faces, In litters and on crutches, from afar
Comfort yourselves, and with expanded nostrils Drink in the nectar of the feast divine That favorable zephyrs waft to you;
But do not dare besiege these noble precincts, Importunately offering her that reigns Within your loathsome spectacle of woe! –And now, sir, ’tis your office to prepare The tiny cup that then shall minister, Slow sipped, its liquor to thy lady’s lips; And now bethink thee whether she prefer The boiling beverage much or little tempered With sweet; or if perchance she like it best As doth the barbarous spouse, then, when she sits Upon brocades of Persia, with light fingers The bearded visage of her lord caressing.
With the dinner the second part of the poem, entitled The Noon, concludes, and The Afternoon begins with the visit which the hero and his lady pay to one of her friends. He has already thought with which of the husband’s horses they shall drive out; he has suggested which dress his lady shall wear and which fan she shall carry; he has witnessed the agonizing scene of her parting with her lap-dog,–her children are at nurse and never intrude,–and they have arrived in the palace of the lady on whom they are to call:
And now the ardent friends to greet each other Impatient fly, and pressing breast to breast They tenderly embrace, and with alternate kisses Their cheeks resound; then, clasping hands, they drop Plummet-like down upon the sofa, both
Together. Seated thus, one flings a phrase, Subtle and pointed, at the other’s heart, Hinting of certain things that rumor tells, And in her turn the other with a sting Assails. The lovely face of one is flushed With beauteous anger, and the other bites Her pretty lips a little; evermore
At every instant waxes violent
The anxious agitation of the fans. So, in the age of Turpin, if two knights Illustrious and well cased in mail encountered Upon the way, each cavalier aspired
To prove the valor of the other in arms, And, after greetings courteous and fair, They lowered their lances and their chargers dashed Ferociously together; then they flung
The splintered fragments of their spears aside, And, fired with generous fury, drew their huge, Two-handed swords and rushed upon each other! But in the distance through a savage wood The clamor of a messenger is heard,
Who comes full gallop to recall the one Unto King Charles, and th’ other to the camp Of the young Agramante. Dare thou, too, Dare thou, invincible youth, to expose the curls And the toupet, so exquisitely dressed This very morning, to the deadly shock Of the infuriate fans; to new emprises Thy fair invite, and thus the extreme effects Of their periculous enmity suspend.
Is not this most charmingly done? It seems to me that the warlike interpretation of the scene is delightful; and those embattled fans–their perfumed breath comes down a hundred years in the verse!
The cavalier and his lady now betake them to the promenade, where all the fair world of Milan is walking or driving, with a punctual regularity which still distinguishes Italians in their walks and drives. The place is full of their common acquaintance, and the carriages are at rest for the exchange of greetings and gossip, in which the hero must take his part. All this is described in the same note of ironical seriousness as the rest of the poem, and The Afternoon closes with a strain of stately and grave poetry which admirably heightens the desired effect:
Behold the servants
Ready for thy descent; and now skip down And smooth the creases from thy coat, and order The laces on thy breast; a little stoop, And on thy snowy stockings bend a glance, And then erect thyself and strut away
Either to pace the promenade alone,– ‘T is thine, if ‘t please thee walk; or else to draw Anigh the carriages of other dames.
Thou clamberest up, and thrustest in thy head And arms and shoulders, half thyself within The carriage door. There let thy laughter rise So loud that from afar thy lady hear,
And rage to hear, and interrupt the wit Of other heroes who had swiftly run
Amid the dusk to keep her company While thou wast absent. O ye powers supreme, Suspend the night, and let the noble deeds Of my young hero shine upon the world
In the clear day! Nay, night must follow still Her own inviolable laws, and droop
With silent shades over one half the globe; And slowly moving on her dewy feet,
She blends the varied colors infinite, And with the border of her mighty garments Blots everything; the sister she of Death Leaves but one aspect indistinct, one guise To fields and trees, to flowers, to birds and beasts, And to the great and to the lowly born, Confounding with the painted cheek of beauty The haggard face of want, and gold with tatters. Nor me will the blind air permit to see Which carriages depart, and which remain, Secret amidst the shades; but from my hand The pencil caught, my hero is involved Within the tenebrous and humid veil.
The concluding section of the poem, by chance or by wise design of the author, remains a fragment. In this he follows his hero from the promenade to the evening party, with an account of which The Night is mainly occupied, so far as it goes. There are many lively pictures in it, with light sketches of expression and attitude; but on the whole it has not so many distinctly quotable passages as the other parts of the poem. The perfunctory devotion of the cavalier and the lady continues throughout, and the same ironical reverence depicts them alighting from their carriage, arriving in the presence of the hostess, sharing in the gossip of the guests, supping, and sitting down at those games of chance with which every fashionable house was provided and at which the lady loses or doubles her pin-money. In Milan long trains were then the mode, and any woman might wear them, but only patricians were allowed to have them carried by servants; the rich plebeian must drag her costly skirts in the dust; and the nobility of our hero’s lady is honored by the flunkeys who lift her train as she enters the house. The hostess, seated on a sofa, receives her guests with a few murmured greetings, and then abandons herself to the arduous task of arranging the various partners at cards. When the cavalier serves his lady at supper, he takes his handkerchief from his pocket and spreads it on her lap; such usages and the differences of costume distinguished an evening party at Milan then from the like joy in our time and country.
The poet who sings this gay world with such mocking seriousness was not himself born to the manner of it. He was born plebeian in 1729 at Bosisio, near Lake Pusiano, and his parents were poor. He himself adds that they were honest, but the phrase has now lost its freshness. His father was a dealer in raw silk, and was able to send him to school in Milan, where his scholarship was not equal to his early literary promise. At least he took no prizes; but this often happens with people whose laurels come abundantly later. He was to enter the Church, and in due time he took orders, but he did not desire a cure, and he became, like so many other accomplished abbati, a teacher in noble families (the great and saintly family Borromeo among others), in whose houses and in those he frequented with them he saw the life he paints in his poem. His father was now dead, and he had already supported himself and his mother by copying law-papers; he had, also, at the age of twenty-three, published a small volume of poems, and had been elected a shepherd of Arcadia; but in a country where one’s copyright was good for nothing across the border–scarcely a fair stone’s-throw away–of one’s own little duchy or province, and the printers everywhere stole a book as soon as it was worth stealing, it is not likely that he made great gains by a volume of verses which, later in life, he repudiated. Baretti had then returned from living in London, where he had seen the prosperity of “the trade of an author” in days which we do not now think so very prosperous, and he viewed with open disgust the abject state of authorship in his own country. So there was nothing for Parini to do but to become a _maestro in casa_. With the Borromei he always remained friends, and in their company he went into society a good deal. Emiliani-Giudici supposes that he came to despise the great world with the same scorn that shows in his poem; but probably he regarded it quite as much with the amused sense of the artist as with the moralist’s indignation; some of his contemporaries accused him of a snobbish fondness for the great, but certainly he did not flatter them, and in one passage of his poem he is at the pains to remind his noble acquaintance that not the smallest drop of patrician blood is microscopically discoverable in his veins. His days were rendered more comfortable when he was appointed editor of the government newspaper,–the only newspaper in Milan,–and yet easier when he was made professor of eloquence in the Academy of Fine Arts. In this employment it was his hard duty to write poems from time to time in praise of archdukes and emperors; but by and by the French Revolution arrived in Milan, and Parini was relieved of that labor. The revolution made an end of archdukes and emperors, but the liberty it bestowed was peculiar, and consisted chiefly in not allowing one to do anything that one liked. The altars were abased, and trees of liberty were planted; for making a tumult about an outraged saint a mob was severely handled by the military, and for “insulting” a tree of liberty a poor fellow at Como was shot. Parini was chosen one of the municipal government, which, apparently popular, could really do nothing but register the decrees of the military commandant. He proved so little useful in this government that he was expelled from it, and, giving his salary to his native parish, he fell into something like his old poverty. He who had laughed to scorn the insolence and folly of the nobles could not enjoy the insolence and folly of the plebeians, and he was unhappy in that wild ferment of ideas, hopes, principles, sentiments, which Milan became in the time of the Cisalpine Republic. He led a retired life, and at last, in 1799, having risen one day to studies which he had never remitted, he died suddenly in his arm-chair.
Many stories are told of his sayings and doings in those troubled days when he tried to serve the public. At the theater once some one cried out, “Long live the republic, death to the aristocrats!” “No,” shouted Parini, who abhorred the abominable bloodthirstiness of the liberators, “long live the republic, death to nobody!” They were going to take away a crucifix from a room where he appeared on public business. “Very well,” he observed; “where Citizen Christ cannot stay, I have nothing to do,” and went out. “Equality doesn’t consist in dragging me down to your level,” he said to one who had impudently given him the _thou_, “but in raising you to mine, if possible. You will always be a pitiful creature, even though you call yourself Citizen; and though you call me Citizen, you can’t help my being the Abbate Parini.” To another, who reproached him for kindness to an Austrian prisoner, he answered, “I would do as much for a Turk, a Jew, an Arab; I would do it even for you if you were in need.” In his closing years many sought him for literary counsel; those for whom there was hope he encouraged; those for whom there was none, he made it a matter of conscience not to praise. A poor fellow came to repeat him two sonnets, in order to be advised which to print; Parini heard the first, and, without waiting further, besought him “Print the other!”
Vittorio Alfieri, the Italian poet whom his countrymen would undoubtedly name next after Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso, and who, in spite of his limitations, was a man of signal and distinct dramatic power, not surpassed if equaled since, is scarcely more than a name to most English readers. He was born in the year 1749, at Asti, a little city of that Piedmont where there has always been a greater regard for feudal traditions than in any other part of Italy; and he belonged by birth to a nobility which is still the proudest in Europe. “What a singular country is ours!” said the Chevalier Nigra, one of the first diplomats of our time, who for many years managed the delicate and difficult relations of Italy with France during the second empire, but who was the son of an apothecary. “In Paris they admit me everywhere; I am asked to court and petted as few Frenchmen are; but here, in my own city of Turin, it would not be possible for me to be received by the Marchioness Doria;” and if this was true in the afternoon of the nineteenth century, one easily fancies what society must have been at Turin in the forenoon of the eighteenth.
It was in the order of the things of that day and country that Alfieri should leave home while a child and go to school at the Academy of Turin. Here, as he tells in that most amusing autobiography of his, he spent several years in acquiring a profound ignorance of whatever he was meant to learn; and he came away a stranger not only to the humanities, but to any one language, speaking a barbarous mixture of French and Piedmontese, and reading little or nothing. Doubtless he does not spare color in this statement, but almost anything you like could be true of the education of a gentleman as a gentleman got it from the Italian priests of the last century. “We translated,” he says, “the ‘Lives of Cornelius Nepos’; but none of us, perhaps not even the masters, knew who these men were whose lives we translated, nor where was their country, nor in what times they lived, nor under what governments, nor what any government was.” He learned Latin enough to turn Virgil’s “Georgics” into his sort of Italian; but when he read Ariosto by stealth, he atoned for his transgression by failing to understand him. Yet Alfieri tells us that he was one of the first scholars of that admirable academy, and he really had some impulses even then toward literature; for he liked reading Goldoni and Metastasio, though he had never heard of the name of Tasso. This was whilst he was still in the primary classes, under strict priestly control; when he passed to a more advanced grade and found himself free to do what he liked in the manner that pleased him best, in common with the young Russians, Germans, and Englishmen then enjoying the advantages of the Academy of Turin, he says that being grounded in no study, directed by no one, and not understanding any language well, he did not know what study to take up, or how to study. “The reading of many French romances,” he goes on, “the constant association with foreigners, and the want of all occasion to speak Italian, or to hear it spoken, drove from my head that small amount of wretched Tuscan which I had contrived to put there in those two or three years of burlesque study of the humanities and asinine rhetoric. In place of it,” he says, “the French entered into my empty brain”; but he is careful to disclaim any literary merit for the French he knew, and he afterward came to hate it, with everything else that was French, very bitterly.
It was before this, a little, that Alfieri contrived his first sonnet, which, when he read it to the uncle with whom he lived, made that old soldier laugh unmercifully, so that until his twenty-fifth year the poet made no further attempts in verse. When he left school he spent three years in travel, after the fashion of those grand-touring days when you had to be a gentleman of birth and fortune in order to travel, and when you journeyed by your own conveyance from capital to capital, with letters to your sovereign’s ambassadors everywhere, and spent your money handsomely upon the dissipations of the countries through which you passed. Alfieri is constantly at the trouble to have us know that he was a very morose and ill-conditioned young animal, and the figure he makes as a traveler is no more amiable than edifying. He had a ruling passion for horses, and then several smaller passions quite as wasteful and idle. He was driven from place to place by a demon of unrest, and was mainly concerned, after reaching a city, in getting away from it as soon as he could. He gives anecdotes enough in proof of this, and he forgets nothing that can enhance the surprise of his future literary greatness. At the Ambrosian Library in Milan they showed him a manuscript of Petrarch’s, which, “like a true barbarian,” as he says, he flung aside, declaring that he knew nothing about it, having a rancor against this Petrarch, whom he had once tried to read and had understood as little as Ariosto. At Rome the Sardinian minister innocently affronted him by repeating some verses of Marcellus, which the sulky young noble could not comprehend. In Ferrara he did not remember that it was the city of that divine Ariosto whose poem was the first that came into his hands, and which he had now read in part with infinite pleasure. “But my poor intellect,” he says, “was then sleeping a most sordid sleep, and every day, as far as regards letters, rusted more and more. It is true, however, that with respect to knowledge of the world and of men I constantly learned not a little, without taking note of it, so many and diverse were the phases of life and manners that I daily beheld.” At Florence he visited the galleries and churches with much disgust and no feeling, for the beautiful, especially in painting, his eyes being very dull to color. “If I liked anything better, it was sculpture a little, and architecture yet a little more”; and it is interesting to note how all his tragedies reflect these preferences, in their lack of color and in their sculpturesque sharpness of outline.
From Italy he passed as restlessly into France, yet with something of a more definite intention, for he meant to frequent the French theater. He had seen a company of French players at Turin, and had acquainted himself with the most famous French tragedies and comedies, but with no thought of writing tragedies of his own. He felt no creative impulse, and he liked the comedies best, though, as he says, he was by nature more inclined to tears than to laughter. But he does not seem to have enjoyed the theater much in Paris, a city for which he conceived at once the greatest dislike, he says, “on account of the squalor and barbarity of the buildings, the absurd and pitiful pomp of the few houses that affected to be palaces, the filthiness and gothicism of the churches, the vandalic structure of the theaters of that time, and the many and many and many disagreeable objects that all day fell under my notice, and worst of all the unspeakably misshapen and beplastered faces of those ugliest of women.”
He had at this time already conceived that hatred of kings which breathes, or, I may better say, bellows, from his tragedies; and he was enraged even beyond his habitual fury by his reception at court, where it was etiquette for Louis XV. to stare at him from head to foot and give no sign of having received any impression whatever.
In Holland he fell in love, for the first time, and as was requisite in the polite society of that day, the object of his passion was another man’s wife. In England he fell in love the second time, and as fashionably as before. The intrigue lasted for months; in the end it came to a duel with the lady’s husband and a great scandal in the newspapers; but in spite of these displeasures, Alfieri liked everything in England. “The streets, the taverns, the horses, the women, the universal prosperity, the life and activity of that island, the cleanliness and convenience of the houses, though extremely little,”–as they still strike every one coming from Italy,–these and other charms of “that fortunate and free country” made an impression upon him that never was effaced. He did not at that time, he says, “study profoundly the constitution, mother of so much prosperity,” but he “knew enough to observe and value its sublime effects.”
Before his memorable sojourn in England, he spent half a year at Turin reading Rousseau, among other philosophers, and Voltaire, whose prose delighted and whose verse wearied him. “But the book of books for me,” he says, “and the one which that winter caused me to pass hours of bliss and rapture, was Plutarch, his Lives of the truly great; and some of these, as Timoleon, Caesar, Brutus, Pelopidas, Cato, and others, I read and read again, with such a transport of cries, tears, and fury, that if any one had heard me in the next room he would surely have thought me mad. In meditating certain grand traits of these supreme men, I often leaped to my feet, agitated and out of my senses, and tears of grief and rage escaped me to think that I was born in Piedmont, and in a time, and under a government, where no high thing could be done or said; and it was almost useless to think or feel it.”
[Illustration: Vittorio Alfieri.]
These characters had a life-long fascination for Alfieri, and his admiration of such types deeply influenced his tragedies. So great was his scorn of kings at the time he writes of, that he despised even those who liked them, and poor little Metastasio, who lived by the bounty of Maria Theresa, fell under Alfieri’s bitterest contempt when in Vienna he saw his brother-poet before the empress in the imperial gardens at Schonbrunn, “performing the customary genuflexions with a servilely contented and adulatory face.” This loathing of royalty was naturally intensified beyond utterance in Prussia. “On entering the states of Frederick, I felt redoubled and triplicated my hate for that infamous military trade, most infamous and sole base of arbitrary power.” He told his minister that he would be presented only in civil dress, because there were uniforms enough at that court, and he declares that on beholding Frederick he felt “no emotion of wonder, or of respect, but rather of indignation and rage…. The king addressed me the three or four customary words; I fixed my eyes respectfully upon his, and inwardly blessed Heaven that I had not been born his slave; and I issued from that universal Prussian barracks … abhorring it as it deserved.”
In Paris Alfieri bought the principal Italian authors, which he afterwards carried everywhere with him on his travels; but he says that he made very little use of them, having neither the will nor the power to apply his mind to anything. In fact, he knew very little Italian, most of the authors in his collection were strange to him, and at the age of twenty-two he had read nothing whatever of Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, Boccaccio, or Machiavelli.
He made a journey into Spain, among other countries, where he admired the Andalusian horses, and bored himself as usual with what interests educated people; and he signalized his stay at Madrid by a murderous outburst of one of the worst tempers in the world. One night his servant Elia, in dressing his hair, had the misfortune to twitch one of his locks in such a way as to give him a slight pain; on which Alfieri leaped to his feet, seized a heavy candlestick, and without a word struck the valet such a blow upon his temple that the blood gushed out over his face, and over the person of a young Spanish gentleman who had been supping with Alfieri. Elia sprang upon his master, who drew his sword, but the Spaniard after great ado quieted them both; “and so ended this horrible encounter,” says Alfieri, “for which I remained deeply afflicted and ashamed. I told Elia that he would have done well to kill me; and he was the man to have done it, being a palm taller than myself, who am very tall, and of a strength and courage not inferior to his height. Two hours later, his wound being dressed and everything put in order, I went to bed, leaving the door from my room into Elia’s open as usual, without listening to the Spaniard, who warned me not thus to invite a provoked and outraged man to vengeance: I called to Elia, who had already gone to bed, that he could, if he liked and thought proper, kill me that night, for I deserved it. But he was no less heroic than I, and would take no other revenge than to keep two handkerchiefs, which had been drenched in his blood, and which from time to time he showed me in the course of many years. This reciprocal mixture of fierceness and generosity on both our parts will not be easily understood by those who have had no experience of the customs and of the temper of us Piedmontese;” though here, perhaps, Alfieri does his country too much honor in making his ferocity a national trait. For the rest, he says, he never struck a servant except as he would have done an equal–not with a cane, but with his fist, or a chair, or anything else that came to hand; and he seems to have thought this a democratic if not an amiable habit. When at last he went back to Turin, he fell once more into his old life of mere vacancy, varied before long by a most unworthy amour, of which he tells us that he finally cured himself by causing his servant to tie him in his chair, and so keep him a prisoner in his own house. A violent distemper followed this treatment, which the light-moraled gossip of the town said Alfieri had invented exclusively for his own use; many days he lay in bed tormented by this anguish; but when he rose he was no longer a slave to his passion. Shortly after, he wrote a tragedy, or a tragic dialogue rather, in Italian blank verse, called Cleopatra, which was played in a Turinese theater with a success of which he tells us he was at once and always ashamed.
Yet apparently it encouraged him to persevere in literature, his qualifications for tragical authorship being “a resolute spirit, very obstinate and untamed, a heart running over with passions of every kind, among which predominated a bizarre mixture of love and all its furies, and a profound and most ferocious rage and abhorrence against all tyranny whatsoever; … a very dim and uncertain remembrance of various French tragedies seen in the theaters many years before; … an almost total ignorance of all the rules of tragic art, and an unskillfulness almost total in the divine and most necessary art of writing and managing my own language.” With this stock in trade, he set about turning his Filippo and his Polinice, which he wrote first in French prose, into Italian verse, making at the same time a careful study of the Italian poets. It was at this period that the poet Ossian was introduced to mankind by the ingenious and self-sacrificing Mr. Macpherson, and Cesarotti’s translation of him came into Alfieri’s hands. These blank verses were the first that really pleased him; with a little modification he thought they would be an excellent model for the verse of dialogue.
He had now refused himself the pleasure of reading French, and he had nowhere to turn for tragic literature but to the classics, which he read in literal versions while he renewed his faded Latin with the help of a teacher. But he believed that his originality as a tragic author suffered from his reading, and he determined to read no more tragedies till he had made his own. For this reason he had already given up Shakespeare. “The more that author accorded with my humor (though I very well perceived all his defects), the more I was resolved to abstain,” he tells us.
This was during a literary sojourn in Tuscany, whither he had gone to accustom himself “to speak, hear, think, and dream in Tuscan, and not otherwise evermore.” Here he versified his first two tragedies, and sketched others; and here, he says, “I deluged my brain with the verses of Petrarch, of Dante, of Tasso, and of Ariosto, convinced that the day would infallibly come in which all these forms, phrases, and words of others would return from its cells, blended and identified with my own ideas and emotions.”
He had now indeed entered with all the fury of his nature into the business of making tragedies, which he did very much as if he had been making love. He abandoned everything else for it–country, home, money, friends; for having decided to live henceforth only in Tuscany, and hating to ask that royal permission to remain abroad, without which, annually renewed, the Piedmontese noble of that day could not reside out of his own country, he gave up his estates at Asti to his sister, keeping for himself a pension that came only to about half his former income. The king of Piedmont was very well, as kings went in that day; and he did nothing to hinder the poet’s expatriation. The long period of study and production which followed Alfieri spent chiefly at Florence, but partly also at Rome and Naples. During this time he wrote and printed most of his tragedies; and he formed that relation, common enough in the best society of the eighteenth century, with the Countess of Albany, which continued as long as he lived. The countess’s husband was the Pretender Charles Edward, the last of the English Stuarts, who, like all his house, abetted his own evil destiny, and was then drinking himself to death. There were difficulties in the way of her living with Alfieri which would not perhaps have beset a less exalted lady, and which required an especial grace on the part of the Pope. But this the Pope refused ever to bestow, even after being much prayed; and when her husband was dead, she and Alfieri were privately married, or were not married; the fact is still in dispute. Their house became a center of fashionable and intellectual society in Florence, and to be received in it was the best that could happen to any one. The relation seems to have been a sufficiently happy one; neither was painfully scrupulous in observing its ties, and after Alfieri’s death the countess gave to the painter Fabre “a heart which,” says Massimo d’Azeglio in his Memoirs, “according to the usage of the time, and especially of high society, felt the invincible necessity of keeping itself in continual exercise.” A cynical little story of Alfieri reading one of his tragedies in company, while Fabre stood behind him making eyes at the countess, and from time to time kissing her ring on his finger, was told to D’Azeglio by an aunt of his who witnessed the scene.
In 1787 the poet went to France to oversee the printing of a complete edition of his works, and five years later he found himself in Paris when the Revolution was at its height. The countess was with him, and, after great trouble, he got passports for both, and hurried to the city barrier. The National Guards stationed there would have let them pass, but a party of drunken patriots coming up had their worst fears aroused by the sight of two carriages with sober and decent people in them, and heavily laden with baggage. While they parleyed whether they had better stone the equipages, or set fire to them, Alfieri leaped out, and a scene ensued which placed him in a very characteristic light, and which enables us to see him as it were in person. When the patriots had read the passports, he seized them, and, as he says, “full of disgust and rage, and not knowing at the moment, or in my passion despising the immense peril that attended us, I thrice shook my passport in my hand, and shouted at the top of my voice, ‘Look! Listen! Alfieri is my name; Italian and not French; tall, lean, pale, red hair; I am he; look at me: I have my passport, and I have had it legitimately from those who could give it; we wish to pass, and, by Heaven, we _will_ pass!'”
They passed, and two days later the authorities that had approved their passports confiscated the horses, furniture, and books that Alfieri had left behind him in Paris, and declared him and the countess–both foreigners–to be refugee aristocrats!
He established himself again in Florence, where, in his forty-sixth year, he took up the study of Greek, and made himself master of that literature, though, till then, he had scarcely known the Greek alphabet. The chief fruit of this study was a tragedy in the manner of Euripides, which he wrote in secret, and which he read to a company so polite that they thought it really was Euripides during the whole of the first two acts.
Alfieri’s remaining years were spent in study and the revision of his works, to the number of which he added six comedies in 1800. The presence and domination of the detested French in Florence embittered his life somewhat; but if they had not been there he could never have had the pleasure of refusing to see the French commandant, who had a taste for literary people if not for literature, and would fain have paid his respects to the poet. He must also have found consolation in the thought that if the French had become masters of Europe, many kings had been dethroned, and every tyrant who wore a crown was in a very pitiable state of terror or disaster.
Nothing in Alfieri’s life was more like him than his death, of which the Abbate di Caluso gives a full account in his conclusion of the poet’s biography. His malady was gout, and amidst its tortures he still labored at the comedies he was then writing. He was impatient at being kept in-doors, and when they added plasters on the feet to the irksomeness of his confinement, he tore away the bandages that prevented him from walking about his room. He would not go to bed, and they gave him opiates to ease his anguish; under their influence his mind was molested by many memories of things long past. “The studies and labors of thirty years,” says the Abbate, “recurred to him, and what was yet more wonderful, he repeated in order, from memory, a good number of Greek verses from the beginning of Hesiod, which he had read but once. These he said over to the Signora Contessa, who sat by his side, but it does not appear, for all this, that there ever came to him the thought that death, which he had been for a long time used to imagine near, was then imminent. It is certain at least that he made no sign to the contessa though she did not leave him till morning. About six o’clock he took oil and magnesia without the physician’s advice, and near eight he was observed to be in great danger, and the Signora Contessa, being called, found him in agonies that took away his breath. Nevertheless, he rose from his chair, and going to the bed, leaned upon it, and presently the day was darkened to him, his eyes closed and he expired. The duties and consolations of religion were not forgotten, but the evil was not thought so near, nor haste necessary, and so the confessor who was called did not come in time.” D’Azeglio relates that the confessor arrived at the supreme moment, and saw the poet bow his head: “He thought it was a salutation, but it was the death of Vittorio Alfieri.”
I once fancied that a parallel between Alfieri and Byron might be drawn, but their disparities are greater than their resemblances, on the whole. Both, however, were born noble, both lived in voluntary exile, both imagined themselves friends and admirers of liberty, both had violent natures, and both indulged the curious hypocrisy of desiring to seem worse than they were, and of trying to make out a shocking case for themselves when they could. They were men who hardly outgrew their boyishness. Alfieri, indeed, had to struggle against so many defects of training that he could not have reached maturity in the longest life; and he was ruled by passions and ideals; he hated with equal noisiness the tyrants of Europe and the Frenchmen who dethroned them.
When he left the life of a dissolute young noble for that of tragic authorship, he seized upon such histories and fables as would give the freest course to a harsh, narrow, gloomy, vindictive, and declamatory nature; and his dramas reproduce the terrible fatalistic traditions of the Greeks, the stories of Oedipus, Myrrha, Alcestis, Clytemnestra, Orestes, and such passages of Roman history as those relating to the Brutuses and to Virginia. In modern history he has taken such characters and events as those of Philip II., Mary Stuart, Don Garzia, and the Conspiracy of the Pazzi. Two of his tragedies are from the Bible, the Abel and the Saul; one, the Rosmunda, from Longobardic history. And these themes, varying so vastly as to the times, races, and religions with which they originated, are all treated in the same spirit–the spirit Alfieri believed Greek. Their interest comes from the situation and the action; of character, as we have it in the romantic drama, and supremely in Shakespeare, there is scarcely anything; and the language is shorn of all metaphor and picturesque expression. Of course their form is wholly unlike that of the romantic drama; Alfieri holds fast by the famous unities as the chief and saving grace of tragedy. All his actions take place within twenty-four hours; there is no change of scene, and so far as he can master that most obstinate unity, the unity of action, each piece is furnished with a tangible beginning, middle, and ending. The wide stretches of time which the old Spanish and English and all modern dramas cover, and their frequent transitions from place to place, were impossible and abhorrent to him.
Emiliani-Giudici, the Italian critic, writing about the middle of our century, declares that when the fiery love of freedom shall have purged Italy, the Alfierian drama will be the only representation worthy of a great and free people. This critic holds that Alfieri’s tragical ideal was of such a simplicity that it would seem derived regularly from the Greek, but for the fact that when he felt irresistibly moved to write tragedy, he probably did not know even the names of the Greek dramatists, and could not have known the structure of their dramas by indirect means, having read then only some Metastasian plays of the French school; so that he created that ideal of his by pure, instinctive force of genius. With him, as with the Greeks, art arose spontaneously; he felt the form of Greek art by inspiration. He believed from the very first that the dramatic poet should assume to render the spectators unconscious of theatrical artifice, and make them take part with the actors; and he banished from the scene everything that could diminish their illusion; he would not mar the intensity of the effect by changing the action from place to place, or by compressing within the brief time of the representation the events of months and years. To achieve the unity of action, he dispensed with all those parts which did not seem to him the most principal, and he studied how to show the subject of the drama in the clearest light. In all this he went to the extreme, but he so wrought “that the print of his cothurnus stamped upon the field of art should remain forever singular and inimitable. Reading his tragedies in order, from the Cleopatra to the Saul, you see how he never changed his tragic ideal, but discerned it more and more distinctly until he fully realized it. Aeschylus and Alfieri are two links that unite the chain in a circle. In Alfieri art once more achieved the faultless purity of its proper character; Greek tragedy reached the same height in the Italian’s Saul that it touched in the Greek’s Prometheus, two dramas which are perhaps the most gigantic creations of any literature.” Emiliani-Giudici thinks that the literary ineducation of Alfieri was the principal exterior cause of this prodigious development, that a more regular course of study would have restrained his creative genius, and, while smoothing the way before it, would have subjected it to methods and robbed it of originality of feeling and conception. “Tragedy, born sublime, terrible, vigorous, heroic, the life of liberty, … was, as it were, redeemed by Vittorio Alfieri, reassumed the masculine, athletic forms of its original existence, and recommenced the exercise of its lost ministry.”
I do not begin to think this is all true. Alfieri himself owns his acquaintance with the French theater before the time when he began to write, and we must believe that he got at least some of his ideas of Athens from Paris, though he liked the Frenchmen none the better for his obligation to them. A less mechanical conception of the Greek idea than his would have prevented its application to historical subjects. In Alfieri’s Brutus the First, a far greater stretch of imagination is required from the spectator in order to preserve the unities of time and place than the most capricious changes of scene would have asked. The scene is always in the forum in Rome; the action occurs within twenty-four hours. During this limited time, we see the body of Lucretia borne along in the distance; Brutus harangues the people with the bloody dagger in his hand. The emissaries of Tarquin arrive and organize a conspiracy against the new republic; the sons of Brutus are found in the plot, and are convicted and put to death.
But such incongruities as these do not affect us in the tragedies based on the heroic fables; here the poet takes, without offense, any liberty he likes with time and place; the whole affair is in his hands, to do what he will, so long as he respects the internal harmony of his own work. For this reason, I think, we find Alfieri at his best in these tragedies, among which I have liked the Orestes best, as giving the widest range of feeling with the greatest vigor of action. The Agamemnon, which precedes it, and which ought to be read first, closes with its most powerful scene. Agamemnon has returned from Troy to Argos with his captive Cassandra, and Aegisthus has persuaded Clytemnestra that her husband intends to raise Cassandra to the throne. She kills him and reigns with Aegisthus, Electra concealing Orestes on the night of the murder, and sending him secretly away with Strophius, king of Phocis.
In the last scene, as Clytemnestra steals through the darkness to her husband’s chamber, she soliloquizes, with the dagger in her hand:
It is the hour; and sunk in slumber now Lies Agamemnon. Shall he nevermore
Open his eyes to the fair light? My hand, Once pledge to him of stainless love and faith, Is it to be the minister of his death? Did I swear that? Ay, that; and I must keep My oath. Quick, let me go! My foot, heart, hand– All over I tremble. Oh, what did I promise? Wretch! what do I attempt? How all my courage Hath vanished from me since Aegisthus vanished! I only see the immense atrocity
Of this, my horrible deed; I only see The bloody specter of Atrides! Ah,
In vain do I accuse thee! No, thou lovest Cassandra not. Me, only me, thou lovest, Unworthy of thy love. Thou hast no blame, Save that thou art my husband, in the world! Of trustful sleep, to death’s arms by my hand? And where then shall I hide me? O perfidy! Can I e’er hope for peace? O woful life– Life of remorse, of madness, and of tears! How shall Aegisthus, even Aegisthus, dare To rest beside the parricidal wife
Upon her murder-stained marriage-bed, Nor tremble for himself? Away, away,– Hence, horrible instrument of all my guilt And harm, thou execrable dagger, hence! I’ll lose at once my lover and my life, But never by this hand betrayed shall fall So great a hero! Live, honor of Greece And Asia’s terror! Live to glory, live To thy dear children, and a better wife! –But what are these hushed steps? Into these rooms Who is it comes by night? Aegisthus?–Lost, I am lost!
_Aegisthus._ Hast thou not done the deed?
_Aeg._ What, stand’st thou here, wasting thyself in tears?
Woman, untimely are thy tears; ‘t is late, ‘T is vain, and it may cost us dear!
_Cly._ Thou here? But how–woe’s me, what did I promise thee! What wicked counsel–
_Aeg._ Was it not thy counsel?
Love gave it thee and fear annuls it–well! Since thou repentest, I am glad; and glad To know thee guiltless shall I be in death. I told thee that the enterprise was hard, But thou, unduly trusting in the heart, That hath not a man’s courage in it, chose Thyself thy feeble hands to strike the blow. Now may Heaven grant that the intent of evil Turn not to harm thee! Hither I by stealth And favor of the darkness have returned Unseen, I hope. For I perforce must come Myself to tell thee that irrevocably
My life is dedicated to the vengeance Of Agamemnon.
He appeals to her pity for him, and her fear for herself; he reminds her of Agamemnon’s consent to the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and goads her on to the crime from which she had recoiled. She goes into Agamemnon’s chamber, whence his dying outcries are heard:–
Thou, wife? O headens, I die! O treachery!
Clytemnestra comes out with the dagger in her hand:
The dagger drips with blood; my hands, my robe, My face–they all are wet with blood. What vengeance Shall yet be taken for this blood? Already I see this very steel turned on my breast, And by whose hand!
The son whom she forebodes as the avenger of Agamemnon’s death passes his childhood and early youth at the court of Strophius in Phocis. The tragedy named for him opens with Electra’s soliloquy as she goes to weep at the tomb of their father:–
Night, gloomy, horrible, atrocious night, Forever present to my thought! each year For now two lusters I have seen thee come, Clothed on with darkness and with dreams of blood, And blood that should have expiated thine Is not yet spilt! O memory, O sight!
Upon these stones I saw thee murdered lie, Murdered, and by whose hand!…
I swear to thee, If I in Argos, in thy palace live,
Slave of Aegisthus, with my wicked mother, Nothing makes me endure a life like this Saving the hope of vengeance. Far away Orestes is; but living! I saved thee, brother; I keep myself for thee, till the day rise When thou shalt make to stream upon yon tomb Not helpless tears like these, but our foe’s blood.
While Electra fiercely muses, Clytemnestra enters, with the appeal:
_El._ What voice! Oh Heaven, thou here?