Dionysius Lardner.

Eminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) online

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crously imperfect was this, that, when he showed his
sonnet to a literary man, the first advice he received
was to learn to spell. Orthography, grammar, and
rhythm were alike defective in his production. He was
not discouraged. This same friend, father Paciaudi,
had given him the " Cleopatra" of cardinal Delfino.
Alfieri fancied that he could write a better tragedy him-
self ; and he began one on the same subject. He consulted
his friends upon it, and tried to gain some instruction
as to style and poetic laws, of which, hitherto, he had
remained in profound ignorance. His house became a
sort of academy ; while he, desirous of learning, but
proud and indocile, wearied himself and all around him
by his alternate fits of industry and despondency. At
length, a tragedy and a farce were the result of his en-
deavours, and both were acted on the same nights, at the
theatre of Turin, with applause, on two consecutive even-
ings, and were given out for a third representation. But
Alfieri by this time began to discover the entire want of
merit of these productions : which prove, as we may judge
from the passages he has preserved, that ideas and feel-
ings are of no avail in composition, where there is a total
absence of style, and an absolute incapacity of finding
language in which to clothe the naked and unformed
conceptions of the brain. On the third night, there-
fore, Alfieri prevented the representation; and on the
same night he was seized by so vehement and burning
a wish to deserve the applause of an audience, that, he
tells us, no fever of love had ever assailed him with simi-
lar impetuosity.

" And thus," he says, " at the age of seven and
twenty, I entered into the difficult engagement with
the public and myself to become a writer of tragedies ;
and these were the props I had to sustain me in my
undertaking, a resolved, obstinate, and untamed spirit;
a heart boiling over with all sorts of emotions, among
which predominated the transports of love, and a pro-
found and indignant abhorrence of every species of

T 2


tyranny ; a very slight recollection of the French trage-
dies I had seen acted, having read and studied none;
an entire ignorance of the rules of the drama ; and a
total incapacity to command the language of which I
made use; all this was surrounded by a husk, not so
much of presumption, as of petulance, and an impetuosity
of character which stood in the way of my ever, except
with reluctance, acknowledging, investigating, or giving
ear to truth."

The first thing he found he had to do, was to apply
himself to a spelling-book and grammar : this necessity
was not admitted without a struggle ; but the ardour of
his enthusiasm enabled him to triumph over these
petty but perplexing and irritating obstacles; and he
gave himself up to the study of language with a mixture
of impatience and perseverance that kept his mind in
a perpetual tumult. He was under the necessity of
driving away all French words and forms of speech
from his mind, and of imbuing his thoughts in the idiom
of Tuscany, a work of unspeakable labour, uniting the
studies of a man with those of a child, and sufficient
to have overcome the resolution of any temper less
ardent and ambitious than his own. After all, it must
be acknowledged that it was to a great degree an in-
superable difficulty ; and, though overcome, in appear-
ance, by Alfieri, yet in composition he had always two
labours, that of giving birth to ideas, and that of ex-
amining with the attention and scepticism of a foreigner
the words in which he clothed them. This, perhaps,
is the cause, that although, in process of time, his prose
style became unexceptionable, and that of his tragedies
full of fire and strength, his lyrics are such lamentable

For nearly a year he was given up to the ungrateful
task of clearing away the rubbish of another language,
and placing the r oundation stones of a pure and
classic Italian. He retired to a village near Turin,
that his attention might not be called off; and there,
with a literary friend, he laboured at all that nauseates


a schoolboy, with the still greater disgust of mere
verbal difficulties which is felt by a man. After a year
of much industry, he began to be aware that he should
never attain his object as long as he merely translated
himself from the French, which had become the lan-
guage of his thoughts ; and he resolved to pass six
months in Tuscany, to learn, to hear, speak, think, and
feel Tuscan only.

In this journey he sought the acquaintance of the first
literary men, and exerted himself strenuously to acquire
the knowledge of which he was so deficient. He never
deceived himself by fancying his deficiencies were less
than they were. He was born endowed with genius ;
uncultivated and empty of all knowledge as his mind was,
yet it was filled with thought and feeling, and, during his
solitary journeys and long incommunicative days of re-
verie, he had studied his own character. At one time he
had kept a journal, in which he put down not only his
actions, but their motives, investigating his moral nature
in its inmost recesses. This was an exercise of mind
which, joined to his natural talent, peculiarly adapted
him to developement of feeling and motive, which is the
essence of the tragic art ; and it was towards this species
composition that, from the first, he felt himself irre-
sistibly impelled.

He had now fully entered on his dramatic enterprise.
Several months before, he had written his tragedies of
"Philip " and i( Polinices," in French prose, which with
unwearied industry, he put into Italian verse three or
four several times ; endeavouring to form a rhythm
adapted to dialogue, and to concentrate and simplify
his style as much as possible. While studying Italian,
he had also applied himself to re-learning Latin ;
and the tragedies of Seneca suggested other subjects.
' Antigone," "Agamemnon," "Orestes," and "Don
Garzia," were all conceived, and in part written, while he
was indefatigable in the labour, it cannot so well be said
of polishing his language, asof modelling and remodelling

T 3


it, as his greater use of Tuscan, and his critical taste

He had now an aim in life, from the pursuit of
which he never deviated, but followed it up with in-
credible enthusiasm and perseverance. His labours
were great in literature, yet confined chiefly to the form-
ation of style ; and he translated Sallust, and other Latin
authors, for the sake of improving in force and con-
ciseness. He did not continue in one place : after a few
months spent at Florence, he returned to Turin, recalled
, by the love of his friends and his stud : but during the

J i i t

-Krat. following spring he obtained the necessary permission
28. of the king to quit Piedmont and return to Tuscany,
for the purpose of imbibing at the purest source that
energetic and concise language, which he considered
yielded in elegance and force of expression to no other
m the world.

As the city where the purest Tuscan is spoken, Al-
fieri visited Siena, and spent the summer there. He
there formed an intimacy which served to encourage
him in his laborious pursuits ; for he tells us he was
never capable of arduous and sustained undertakings,
except when the feelings of his heart were exercised by
an intercourse of friendship or love. Francesco Gori
was of ignoble birth, and his ostensible pursuits were
those of traffic, which he pursued more for the sake of
pleasing his family tfyan for gain. In the obscurity
of his warehouse he occupied himself w r ith classical liter-
ature, and nurtured an admirable and delicate taste for
the fine arts. Extreme philanthropy formed the es-
sence of his character, and a warm-hearted sympathy, that
led him to forgive and love all mankind. The idle and
opulent nobles of the city could not, by their worth-
lessness, excite his hatred or contempt. With Tacitus
in his hand, and the pure love of liberty in his heart,
how could he hate the victims of tyranny ? he
might exclaim, with a poet of modern days, whose
political principles were equally derived from the sensi-
bility of his heart,


" I hate thy want of love and truth :
How should I then hate thee '( "

Self-knowledge deracinated pride in himself, and con-
tempt for others ; and thus, humbly occupied in his
<ihop, he could extend forbearance to all, except the
primal causes of the degradation of his countrymen ;
while his only happiness was derived from books, and
his chief grief from comparing himself and his times
with the men and times of which he read.

There is a simplicity in Italian manners that ren-
ders the friendship between count Alfieri and Gori, the
mercer, by no means extraordinary. To the sympathy
produced by an agreement in opinions was added the
respect which Alfieri felt for the virtuous qualities of his
unpretending friend. Their talk was of the ancient glory
of their country, and of the literary ambition of Alfieri.
In the course of conversation, Gori suggested the con-
spiracy of the Pazzi as a good subject for a tragedy.
Alfieri was ignorant of the history of the republic of
Florence, and had never heard of the Pazzi. Gori
placed the Florentine annals of Machiavelli in his hands.
Machiaveili (whatever his motives were for writing
" The Prince") was an enthusiastic republican. He tells
us in his letters, that while writing the history, he de-
lighted himself by exposing the conduct of the princes
who had ruined Italy : his spirit of freedom found an
echo in Alfieri's heart, and so sharpened his hatred of
despotism, and his love of liberty, that, throwing aside
his tragedies, he wrote a treatise on tyranny, a work
of eloquence, but rather a juvenile ebullition of feeling,
than an argumentative essay.

On the advance of winter, Alfieri transferred himself
to Florence; and here an event happened that altered
die colour of his future life, through the influence of
a constant attachment, which, accompanied by esteem
for the good qualities and talents of its object, remained
fixed in his heart to the end of his life.

Louisa de Stolberg, countess of Albany, was at that
time twenty-five years of age, beautiful and full of

T 4-


talent. Her rank and wealth gave her a distinguished
place in society. She was the wife of the last of the
Stuarts who made pretensions to the throne of England,
who unfortunately disgraced his illustrious house, and
even the private station to which he was reduced, by
habits the most deplorable. Alfieri now regarded his
future prospects as fixed : he had long determined never
to marry, considering that, under the despotic govern-
ment to which he was a subject, the ties of husband
and father would add weight to the chains imposed
upon him : attached for life to a woman whom he es-
teemed worthy of him, and beyond all things ambitious
of distinguishing himself as an author and a defender
of the cause of liberty, he began to put into execution
the schemes which had long presented themselves to
his imagination, for acquiring entire personal freedom.
The nobles of Piedmont were in a peculiarly enslaved
state : they could not quit the territories of their sove-
reign except by especial leave, granted for a limited time;
nor could they publish any writings in a foreign coun-
try, without the licence of their native prince, under
penalty of a fine, and even imprisonment,, " if" (so the law
was expressed) " it was necessary to make a public ex-
ample." These shackles were intolerable to a man of
independent mind, bent upon giving testimony of his
abhorrence of despotic rule : but few men would have
freed themselves at the cost that Alfieri paid. He came
to a resolve to make a donation of the whole of his
property to his sister Julia, reserving to himself only
the annual income of 1400 sequins, or about 6007. a
year, the half of his actual receipt. To execute this
design, the king's permission was necessary, who readily
gave it, cc being," says Alfieri, ' ' as willing to get rid
of me as I was to emancipate myself from his au-

The transfer, however, was not completed without
a good deal of annoyance ; and Alfieri was irritated, at
one time, into making a declaration, that, if his brother-
in-law would not receive the donation he must the


count's abandonment of his whole property ; and that
he would resign his claim to every possession rather
than be fettered by the laws attendant upon keeping
it. In the exaltation of his imagination, he almost
imagined that this latter offer would be acted on ; and,
finding himself reduced to merely a few thousand
sequins of ready money, he fell into his second fit of
avarice, selling his horses, and all his superfluous plate,
furniture, and even dress, renouncing the Sardinian
uniform, to which he had adhered, from boyish vanity,
even after quitting the service. He spent a good deal
of money in books ; but this was his sole expense ;
while his abstemiousness of living, directed by economy,
became of the most rigid kind. Thus, even in extremes,
resolved never to marry, resolved to be an author, he
completed sacrifices, which a thousand circumstances
might afterwards have caused him to regret, but which,
he assures us, he never for a moment repented. He
did not confide the secret of this change in his affairs
to the countess until it was past recal ; for, as their
ultimate effect was to render their union more stable
and permanent, he felt that she might consider it right,
as a mark of her disinterestedness, to oppose them.
When all was over, her blame was of no avail, and she
forgave the mystery he had practised.

These various annoyances, joined to the perturbations
of love, and the ardour of his literary application, oc-
casioned an illness from which he only recovered when
the season of summer brought that healthiness of feeling,
that lightness of spirit, and that energy for composition,
which summer and its heats always imparted to his consti-
tution. During this summer, Alfieri, as he tells us, " in a
frantic delirium of a love of freedom," wrote his tragedy
of the " Pazzi," and that of "Mary Stuart" (Mary Queen
of Scots) ; the latter at the request of the countess of Al-
bany. During the following year he completed these and
made the first sketch of (< Rosmunda," " Ottavia," and
" Timoleon." Since his tragedies have become so numer-
ous, and many of his best are written, it will be as well to


glance over them, and to give some account of his pro-
gress and success in an art to which he devoted his life
and fortune.

Energy and conciseness are the distinguishing marks
of Alfieri's dramas. "Wishing to bring the whole action
of the piece into one focus, he rejected altogether the
confidantes of the French theatre, so that his dramatis
personse are limited to the principals themselves. The
preservation of the unities of time and place also contri-
buted to curtail all excrescences ; so that his tragedies
are short, and all bear upon one point only, which he
considered the essence of unity of action. Thus, in the
" Merope," there are but four interlocutors, the queen
and her son, his foster-father, and the tyrant. Instead,
therefore, as is the case in the French dramas, of the
action being carried on by a perpetual talk about it, at
once tedious and unnatural, the interest is always at its
height between the parties themselves ; and it is singu-
lar, in the (< Merope " in particular, with what talent and
success he keeps the action in perpetual progress, and the
passions developed by such slender means. It was the
turn of Alfieri's character to consider it a duty in an
author rather to conquer difficulties than to acquire
facilities. He would read no other tragedians, for fear of
imitating them, and abstained from a perusal of the
great master of the art, Shakspeare, from the same
mistaken notion. Genius need not fear to be imitative ;
but genius, unaided by cultivation, and by a study of
what has gone before, can never surpass what is already
written : it were as if a scientific man were to refuse
to be initiated in the discoveries of science, that he
might pursue his labours in a new and original path.
Thus he might, we will say, re-invent gunpowder and
printing, but never a new law and a new power. To
use a more homely illustration, it were as if an agri-
culturist refused to manure the ground, and was bent
on forcing the native soil, to produce by labour what
would arise with greater fertility and ease if aided by


extraneous nutriment. It is a lav/ of mechanics, never
to waste power, but to proportionate on all occasions
tiie means to tho end. If, instead of refusing to read
die finest dramatic w T orks, Alfieri had studied in them
die genius and essence of the art, he might, instead of
simply restricting his invention to the bald and inconclu-
sive expedient of contracting the personages of his drama,
have invented some original method of combining the
simplicity of design consequent on an observance of
the unities, with a more natural and inforced arrange-
ment of plot, and with a greater variety and truth of

The great distinction between Shakspeare and almost,
every other dramatic writer arises from his developement
and variety of character : all his personages are indivi-
duals. In other authors, we have a lover, an ambitious
man, a tyrant, or a victim of tyranny; but in Shakspeare
it is not the passion that makes the man, but the pecu-
liar character of the person that gives reality and life to
the passion. Thus Richard III. and Macbeth are both
ambitious; but how differently do their respective dispo-
sitions modulate their conduct and feelings ! The cruel,
remorseless Richard can never, in a single line he utters,
be mistaken for the weak, vacillating usurper, whose
cruelties result from the necessities of his situation, and
not from inborn ferocity of character. Juliet, Imogen,
and Rosalind, are alike girls in love ; but how variously
do they display their sentiments ! the ardent Italian, the
fond, devoted wife, and the sprightly, spirited daughter
of an exiled prince, are all individuals characterised by
distinctive marks ; so that a painter would give to each
a physiognomy utterly dissimilar the one from the
other. If Alfieri had read Shakspeare, he might
have discovered and appreciated this incomparable
mark of his excellence ; and his knowledge of the
human heart would have led him to imitate a model
which, if succeeded in, could not, from its very nature,
bear any resemblance to mere plagiarism. He him-
self felt that one tyrant should not quite resemble
another, nor one lover be but the mirror of another :


but so it is with him, with few exceptions - - situation,
not character, forms the interest of his pieces.

Besides this, Alfieri was not an imaginative poet :
his sonnets and longer poems are failures ; his tra-
gedies are vacant of ideal imagery ; his sensible objects
are never animated by a soul infused into them by the
speaker ; his daggers and poisons, and all the other
tragic paraphernalia, are the mere things themselves
the poet's eye never gives " to airy nothing a local
habitation and a name." His inventive powers con-
sisted in being able to conceive situations of passion and
interest, and giving to his personages feelings and lan-
guage at once natural, powerful, and pathetic.

His mode of writing his tragedies shows, indeed,
how spontaneous was his conception of the action of a
piece, how mechanical the effort by which he clothed
it in verse. He was accustomed to throw off the de-
sign of the intended action in a sketch of a few pages,
and then to lay it by : after an interval, he read this
sketch, and, if it pleased him, he arranged the plot into
acts, and scenes, and speeches, putting down every idea
that presented itself, and the whole in prose ; and
again he put aside his labour for future consideration.
If, on reading it over, he felt his imagination warmed
and excited, and the ideas renew themselves in his
mind vividly and forcibly, then he completed his work
by versifying it. This is not the routine which a genuine
poet follows : something of the improvisator's art is
inherent in him, and he writes " in numbers, for the
numbers come."

ff Philip " was the first of Alfieri's tragedies : it was
originally written in French prose ; and he was so well
pleased with its conduct, that he was never weary of
composing and recomposing it in Italian verse, till he
was satisfied that the language was equal in vigour to
the ideas it expressed. The subject of " Philip " is
the death of don Carlos, prince of Spain ; and the con-
trast of character in the three principal persons is finely
conceived and well executed. There is the obdurate,


deceitful, cruel tyrant. His son, educated near him, in
perpetual fear and suspicion,, is never his dupe : he
sees through all his subterfuges, and perceives the snares
laid for him in his pretended mercies ; and love, while
it causes him to expose himself to his father's ven-
geance, only renders him doubly watchful and cautious.
Isabella, on the contrary, a daughter of France, at the
same time that, from feminine delicacy, she is more re-
strained in her feelings, yet is unsuspicious, unguarded,
and ready to give credit to the professions of those
around. Her heart opens itself readily to hope ; while
that of her lover is impassive to every delusion, and he
regards with terror and grief the peril to which, in her
generous trustingness of nature, she heedlessly exposes

As the genius of Alfieri led him to depict the pas-
sions in their simplest though most energetic form,
unaccompanied by the influence of manners, the meta-
physical subtleties of Shakspeare, or the wild, but deeply
interesting intricacy of plot of Calderon and our old
dramatists, so classical subjects were treated by him
with peculiar felicity. " Agamemnon " and " Orestes "
are among his best dramas : the dignity and tender-
ness of Electra, the remorse and struggles of Cly-
temnestra, and the haughty, rash disposition of Orestes,
have more of truth, of nature, and grace than is to
be found among any modern tragedies on similar
subjects : but this very simplicity becomes, to a cer-
tain degree, baldness in modern subjects ; and though
the conspiracy of the ( ' Pazzi " was written, he says,
with a delirious enthusiasm for liberty, there is a want
of developement and relief that renders it more like the
sketch of a tragedy, than one rilled out in all its parts.
(( Virginia," equally pregnant with the spirit of liberty,
has more grace and more pathos.

While the mind of Alfieri was thus fully occupied
by the composition of his dramas, he was happy in the
enjoyment of the friendship and love of the persons
dearest to him in the world. He was the amico di


of the countess of Albany ; that is, he spent his
in her society, and attended her in mornings
during her. visits and excursions : he kept up a con-
stant correspondence with Gori, at Siena; and the ab-
bate CalusOj the friend who had first awakened his desire
for literary composition, many years before, at Lisbon,
and to whom he was warmly attached, came from
Turin, and spent a whole year at Florence, that ht
might enjoy his society. But the tranquil course of
happiness is seldom allowed to human beings, especially
when they feel and acknowledge their perfect well-
being, and repose content on the accomplishment of their
desires. The conduct of the unfortunate prince, who
was the countess of Albany's husband, poisoned every
enjoyment, and, at last, forced his w r ife to separate herself
from him. Given up to the most degrading vice, in
his drunken fits his ferocity and madness endangered
her life, and she lived night and day, haunted by the
terror inspired by his outrages. Alfieri exerted himself
to obtain permission from the government for their
separation ; and, that being obtained, she retired to a
convent in Florence, and afterwards, under the sanction
of the pope, she removed to another convent at Rome.

Alfieri found that thus he had succeeded in saving the
life of his friend; but the separation necessary to prevent
any injurious opinions being formed as to the motives of
his interference, was a cruel reward for his exertions.
Florence grew hateful to him in her absence; he became

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 24 of 34)