Dionysius Lardner.

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incapable of every occupation, and his whole thoughts
were bent on contriving their re-union : it was matter
of difficulty, but not insuperable to his earnest erudea-
vours. After some months, the pope allowed her to
quit her convent, and to take up her abode in the palace
of cardinal York ; and Alfieri, having already quitted
Florence and spent some time at Naples, ventured at
last to fix himself at Rome also, having, as he tells
us, paid court, made visits, and employed a thousand
servile and humiliating arts, from which his nature
revolted, to obtain the sufferance of the pope for his


residence in the same city as the countess. No honours,
no glory, no worldly advantage, could have induced
him to submit to what he considered the excess of
meanness and degradation ; love alone exalted the de-
basement in his eyes.

Now again he was happy : he lived at the vilk
Strozzi, near the baths of Dioclesian. He spent the
long mornings in study, never leaving his house except
to ride over the solitary and uncultivated country around
Rome, whose immense and lonely expanse invited him
to reverie and poetic composition. He spent the even-
ings with the countess, retiring at eleven to his tranquil
home, which, divided from all others, rural though in
the city, and surrounded by objects of antique grandeur
and natural beauty, was an abode such as Rome only
in the world can afford, and peculiarly adapted to the
noble poet's temper, character, and occupations.

His imagination received its happiest inspirations
during this period. Besides continual labour on his
former compositions, he wrote the tragedies of "Merope"
and " Saul," both conceived and executed with a fervour
of inspiration that allowed him no pause between the
various operations into which he divided the composi-
tion of a tragedy. The ee Merope" was written in a sort
of indignant burst, to prove that the tragedy of
Maffei on the subject, could be easily surpassed. The
{f Saul" emanated from reading the Bible, in the study
of which he at that time occupied himself, and which
awoke in him a desire to write several dramas on scrip-
tural subjects ; had it not been that, fond of forming
resolutions and of adopting voluntary chains, since he
cast away and abhorred all others, he had determined to
limit his tragedies to twelve. The " Saul" and " Me-
rope" caused him to exceed this number by two ; but
he would not be allured to go beyond.

The " Saul" is, there can be little question, the chef-
d'oeuvre of Alfieri : character forms the basis of the
interest, and the situations are deeply pathetic. Saul, in
some degree, reminds the reader of king Lear. The


Hebrew king is not, like Shakspeare's dethroned mon-
arch, thrust from his state, and turned out by his
children, a victim to the pitiless elements, and, more
bitter still, the sense of undeserved injury from those
whose duty it was to foster and shelter him. The
children of Saul, and his son-in-law David, surround
him with protestations of duty and a heartfelt wish to
soothe him by their affection and care ; but he is struck
by God ; prosperity has departed from his house, vic-
tory from his banner ; and his vacillating reason dis-
cerns rebellion and dethronement in the very submissions
of those around him. He struggles with the sense of
ill-fortune, and the sad consciousness of the occasional
aberrations of his intellect ; now lamenting the days of
his prosperous youth, now melted to tenderness by the
caresses of his children ; and again, seized upon by sus-
picion, envy, and pride, he wildly and madly casts from
him every support and hope, to find himself, in the end,
alone, defeated, lost ; till in a transport of shame and
despair, he ends a life so tarnished and abhorrent.
ee Saul" is the best of Alfieri's tragedies ; and, if we
were called upon to point out his best scene, we should
select the second act of that play.

1782. Alfieri felt proud and happy when he had completed
/Etat. his fourteen tragedies. " That month of October,"
33. he writes, " was memorable to me, since I enjoyed a
repose no less delicious than necessary, after so much
labour : full to the brim of vainglory, I breathed no
word of my achievements to any but myself, and,, with
a sort of veiled moderation, to her I loved ; who,
through her affection for me, probably, seemed well
inclined to believe that I was capable of being a
great man, and always encouraged me to do all I could
to become one." His works, also, were becoming
known. A few of the nobility of Rome formed them-
selves into a company, and acted his " Antigone," in
which he took the part of Creon : the representation
was crowned with success. He was, besides, in the
habit of reading his tragedies in society, partly for the


sake of the mute criticism displayed by the attention
and interest they excited in his audience ; and, under
the superintendence of his friend Gori, four among his
dramas were printed at Siena.

But this very celebrity was the cause of the disaster
that hung over his head, and, by drawing attention to
him, engendered enmity and disturbance. His familiar
intercourse with the countess, and the daily habit of his
life, in forming a part of the society she gathered
around her, began to excite censure : this roused at
once his fears and indignation. His mode of life was in
strict accordance with the notions of propriety, as they
rule manners in Italy. Injurious and to be deprecated
as the system of society is, no individual thinks, when
he follows the example of the whole of his countrymen,
that he should be selected as an object for blame.
However, in a moral and religious view, the so-named
friendship of the countess and Alfieri was blameable,
vet they scrupulously attended to the rules of decorum,
which form the whole of an Italian's conscience, gene-
rally speaking, and believed that they had every right
to be happy in each other. As we have said in another
place, we are not inclined to bestow vehement blame
on individual conduct, resulting from a system of
manners which has endured for ages, while that system
itself merits the utmost abhorrence, and, we are happy
to be able to say, is in progress of being extirpated in
Italy : until it is, there can be no hope of moral re-
generation, or for the happiness and improvement of its

However, it must be remembered that though, espe-
cially in those days, no one would have been so unrea-
sonable or barbarous as to prevent a lady from having
a cavaliere servente, yet the peculiar cavaliere she selects
is usually forbidden ; and as much misery is often pro-
duced by an interference in the lady's choice as by a
total prohibition to be allowed a friend at all. In the
present instance, the husband of the countess com-
plained to his brother, the priests of the holy city were



roused to a perception of the scandal, and the pope
induced to consider it right to interfere. Alfieri found
only one mode of mitigating the violence of the menaced
storm, which was to meet it: he voluntarily quitted
Rome, and, to prevent any actual measures of prohi-
bition and banishment, went into voluntary exile.

Affections and habits which had subsisted so long
could not be thus rudely torn up without intense suffering.
After several years of happiness, Alfieri found himself
cast, from the shelter he had selected, wherein to place
his warm and sensitive heart, upon solitude, uncertainty,
and bitter regret. Poetry and composition became dis-
tasteful to him ; he could not even enjoy his friend
Gori's society, whom he visited immediately upon quit-
ting Rome : he was ashamed to annoy him Tby his
melancholy, and his restlessness and desire for travel
returned. He visited Venice, and wandered for some
time in Lombardy, and then again returned to Siena,
to attend to the printing of six other tragedies, although
1-783. he had become indifferent even to the lately engrossing
JEtat- desire of fame ; and then he suddenly resolved to Visit
34. England, for the sole purpose of buying horses. He
had long put himself on short allowance with re-
gard to these favourite animals; but, having saved a
large sum of ready money, during several years, at
first of parsimony, and then of economy, he determined
to spend it on the purchase and maintenance of a
number of English horses of the best breed. A journey
thus undertaken, with "but one object, was executed
with a mixture of impetuosity and persevering pa-
tience characteristic of Alfieri. He went to England ;
he bought his horses, fourteen in number, to equal
that of his tragedies; he transported them safely
across the straits of Dover, conducted them with un-
wearied care through France, and led them across
Mont Cenis with a success they being injured neither
in wind or limb on which he for the moment prided
himself scarcely less than on his dramatic labours.

On his return to Italy, he remained a few weeks.


at Turin ; and the king showed a disposition to employ
him under government. His minister sounded the
count : but he refused to entertain any proposition
on the subject ; for, although he acknowledges that
the sovereigns of the house of Savoy were not tyranni-
cally inclined, but showed every inclination to bene-
fit their subjects, his uncompromising, and even fierce,
ppirit of independence spurned every shackle, and he
felt to breathe more freely when he had quitted the
territories of Piedmont. The countess of Albany was
now on her way to Baden for the summer. She passed
northwards along the shores of the Adriatic, while
Alfieri proceeded south, by Modena and Pistoia, to
Siena. He had resisted the temptation of crossing the
narrow portion of Italy between them, and obtaining a
brief interview ; but when she had arrived at Baden,
and he at Siena, this fortitude gave way, and he suddenly
left his horses, and his friend Gori, and posted with all
haste to Alsatia, there for three months to enjoy her

During the two years of absence which he had
endured, Alfieri had forgotten poetry, study, glory, and
his tragedies. But the countess's presence awoke every
dormant energy, and scarcely had he arrived, before he
conceived and wrote "Agis," "Sofonisba,'' and "Mirra."
The last deserves to be pavticulaly mentioned as one of
the best of his dramas, particularly as he overcomes
difficulties of the most appalling description. " I had
never thought," he says, " either of Myrrha or JBiblis
as subjects for the drama. But, in reading Ovid's
t( Metamorphoses," I hit upon the affecting and divinely
eloquent speech of Myrrha to her nurse, which caused
me to burst into tears, and, like a flash of lightning,
awoke in me the idea of a tragedy. It appeared to me
that a most original and pathetic piece might be written,
if the author could contrive that the spectator should
discover by degrees the, horrible struggles of the burning
but pure heart of the more miserable than guilty
Myrrha, without her betraying the half, nor scarcely

\. ^w


owning to herself so criminal a passion. My idea was,
that she should do in my tragedy what Ovid describes
her as relating, but do it in silence."

There is something touchingly beautiful in the
first description of Myrrha, in a scene between her
mother and her nurse. She is described as so gentle,
docile, soft, and pliable of nature so fearful of doing
wrong so sweetly earnest to please her parents and
now to be labouring under a melancholy so dark and
gloomy, as to deface her beauty, and bow her in appear-
ance to the grave. As the action is developed, the
notion that she is under a supernatural curse adds to
the awe and pity of the reader ; but, at last, it must be
confessed, her violence and frenzy pass the bounds of
modest nature, and the passion she nurtures fails in
exciting our sympathy. This is the fault of the sub-
ject; inequality of age adding to the unnatural incest.
To shed any interest over such an attachment, the
dramatist ought to adorn the father with such youthful
attributes as would be by no means contrary to pro-
bability : but then a worse evil would ensue ; and the
more possible such criminal passion becomes, the more
violently does the mind revolt from dwelling on it.

While at Baden, Alfieri received the afflicting intel-
ligence of the unexpected death of his friend Gori.
This misfortune disturbed his enjoyment of the last
days of his visit, which of themselves were sad, from the
approximation of so painful and bitter a separation.
With reluctance and grief he left the countess and
returned to Siena ; but his sorrow was too acute to
admit of a prolonged stay in a town where he had
enjoyed the company of a friend lost for ever. He
removed to Pisa; while the countess took up her abode
at Bologna. The Apennines only di vided them, but he
dared not cross them. The gossip of the small Italian
towns is unconceivably eager and pertinacious ; and it
was necessary for her future liberty to guard their con-
duct from ah 1 remark. Early in the following spring,
the countess departed for Paris, resolving to fix herself


in France, where she had friends, relations, and resources.
In the month of August she again visited Baden, and
Alfieri joined her. Again his mind was vivified and
warmed by happiness, and again two tragedies were the
result of the inspiration. The subjects were the Brutus
of the monarchy of Rome and the Brutus who died
at Philippi. In the first he displays great force and
energy ; but the second, we must be permitted to say, is a
complete failure. To make a perfect equality of sacrifice
between the two heroes, as Lucius Junius Brutus
caused his sons to be decapitated, so he makes his de-
scendant, Marcus, assassinate his parent. The idea that
Ceesar was the father of Brutus is so totally devoid of
foundation, and so little in consonance with the simple
majesty of the character of the patriot, that it deteriorates
from the interest of the drama, and, instead of exalting
him, the discovery, the resolution he declares neverthe-
less to persist in the assassination, the sympathy and
admiration he gains, is all so feeble, so puerile, and so
false, that it is astonishing that Alfieri did not detect
his mistake. To us, who possess the most admirable
portrait ever .irawn of magnanimous and single-minded
virtue in Shakspeare's delineation of the character of
Brutus, this failure becomes more glaring, and gives
further proof of the Italian poet's error in not studying
the pages of the greatest writer the world ever pro-

After some months spent at Colmar, the countess re-
turned to Paris ; while Alfieri remained at the former
place, \vriting letters and sonnets, mourning over his
separation, and correcting his tragedies. He passed two
or three years at this place, the countess joining him
during the summers. In that of 1 78 1, he had a most dan-
gerous illness. His friend, the abbate Caluso, came from
Turin to visit him ; and but for this illness, he had
been perfectly happy. On the approach of winter that
year, he accompanied the countess back to Paris, and
established himself there. The death of her husband
restored her to liberty ; but a number of circumstances

u 3


led them to continue for some time in France. Whether
they were married now, is a secret that never has been
revealed ; but their union was acknowledged, and it was
understood that their constant, inviolable attachment
had received from time a sanction which prevented any
blame from being cast on it by their relations and
friends. Alfieri mourned over the necessity that brought
him back to his abjured Gallicisms ; but he was some-
what consoled, during a three years' residence in Paris,
by superintending and bringing out an edition of his
tragedies, on which he bestowed the last labours of cor-
rection with regard to style, and brought the language
as near to his standard of perfection as he was capable
of attaining.

The disagreeable and, to his sensitive temperament,
irritating task of correcting the press, seems to have
exercised an injurious influence over his temper and
genius. According to his own account, it dried up
his brain, quenched the fire of youthful enthusiasm,
and prevented his ever again writing with equal vigour
and felicity. After terminating the correction of his
tragedies, he fortunately betook himself to writing the
memoirs of his life, which are the groundwork from
which the present pages are taken. It is written un-
affectedly, and with great frankness and self-knowledge ;
the style is unstudied, and the egotism of feeling which
produced it imparts extreme interest to the details.
After bringing down the history of his life till the year
1790, when he was forty-one years of age, he still
felt an utter inability to any high flight in literature,
and he occupied himself in translating the " JEneid" and
the Comedies of Terence. He had long enthusiastically
admired the versification of Virgil, and tried to model
his own upon it, adapting it, at the same time, to dra-
matic dialogue. This circumstance is curious, since no
style can be so opposite ; the mellifluous, dignified, and
graceful flow of the Latin poet being a contrast to the
rough arid concise energy of the modern Italian, This
observation regards, however, only his tragedies ; less

ALF1ERI. 295

praise must be bestowed on his other productions in
verse : his translation of the "-ZEneid " is feeble in the
extreme ; his longer original poems are devoid of even
secondary merit ; and his love sonnets are, to say all in
a word, the very antipodes of his immortal master, Pe-
trarch. Alfieri is a great tragedian : it is impossible to
read his best dramas without being carried away by
the eloquence and passion of the dialogue, and deeply
interested by the situations of struggle or peril in which
his personages are placed. The rapidity of the action,
and the earnestness arid life with which every scene is
instinct, renders it impossible to close the volume till
the catastrophe ends all. Alfieri was also an excellent
prose writer : his treatise on " Princes and Literature"
is full of power ; the style is correct, flowing, yet
simple, and without meretricious ornament. The pure
spirit of independence burns like a holy lamp throughout,
and gives a charm to every sentiment and expression.
But never was line so distinctly drawn between the
poetry of circumstance, so to speak, and ideal poetry :
In all the pages of Alfieri there is not one imaginative
image; and we feel this most in his lyrics, since ideality
is the soul of lyric poetry. He seems never to have
been conscious of this defect. He would readily have
admitted that Dante and Petrarch were superior to him
in genius ; but he seems unaware that they possessed a
quality of which not one glimmering ray is to be found
in the whole course of the flood of rhymes to the
composition of which he alludes frequently as being
the overflowings of poetic inspiration. It is possible
that Alfieri might have been a great novelist, had he
ever turned his attention to that species of composition.
Or had he continued to invent, instead of drying his
brain up with the irksome task of correcting what he
had already written, he might have bestowed on us
tragedies finer than any we have of his, or, at least,
several equal to the C( Saul." But, with all his phi-
losophy and self-examination, he did not understand the
texture and capabilities of his intellect.


To return to his life in Paris. The disquietude
arising from the French revolution added to the irri-
table state of Alfieri's mind. We all see the visible
universe through a medium formed by our individual
peculiarities ; but it is curious to find the advocate
of liberty lay most stress on his fear lest the tumults of
Paris should interrupt the completion of Didot's edition
of his works. Probably his intense abhorrence of the
French prevented his fostering rational hopes for the
ultimate advantages to be gained by the overthrow of
the time-worn and corrupt monarchy of France, at
the same time that it prevented his ever being blinded
by any illusion as to the real character of the events
passing around him. He prides himself on never having
seen or conversed with any one of the revolutionary
leaders, and on having always regarded the rise of a
lawless democracy as the stepping-stone to military des-
potism. From the first, he was eager to get away from
these scenes of bloodshed and horror, and in the spring
of 1791 accompanied the countess of Albany to Eng-
land. This country did not please her ; and he, grown
querulous and subject to the gout, was quickly disgusted
by the climate, and annoyed by the peculiar habits of
life of the English. A great portion of his and the
countess's fortune was in the French funds ; and the
fall of the assignats made it advisable for them to live
in the country where they still bore a value. This cir-
cumstance induced them to return to Paris; and, resolving
to fix themselves there, they took a house, furnished it,
and Alfieri collected a voluminous library : but the
whirlwind that swept over unhappy France included
them in its devastations. They became alarmed by the
increase of lawless violence ; and when, on the 10th of
August, 1792, Louis XV 7 !. was dragged from the Tuil-
leries and imprisoned in the Temple, they determined
to fly from a city, where it appeared that no one of
rank or wealth could remain in safety. The impetuosity
of the poet's character was of great advantage on this
occasion. With infinite difficulty passports were ob-


tained for the countess and himself ; and they fixed on
the 20th of August for their departure. The impatience
of Alfieri caused them to anticipate their journey, and
they set out on the 1 8th. With a good deal of difficulty
they passed the barrier of St. Denis, and hastened to a
place of safety. Two days after,, on the 20th, the mu-
nicipality of Paris sent to arrest the countess : had she
remained, she would have been thrown into prison, and,
in all probability, have fallen a victim during the mas-
sacres of the 2d of September. Not finding her, their
income arising from the French funds was sequestrated,
their furniture, horses, and books confiscated, and though
foreigners, they were both declared emigrants. Alfieri
chiefly lamented his library, and the edition of his works.
Some years after, a French general, then at Turin, with a
good deal of ostentation, offered to obtain the restoration of
his books, a list of which he sent him. Alfieri has left
about 1600 volumes: the list contained the names of
150 of the least valuable. He refused to avail himself
of what he ironically calls a " French restitution;" and
surely, if national contempt and hatred is ever pardon-
able, it was to be excused in an Italian, who saw his
country over-run by soi-disant liberators, who displayed
their friendly intentions by a thousand acts of plunder
and arrogance.

Burning with an unquenchable hatred for all things
French, Alfieri returned to Florence with the count-
ess of Albany, in which city he remained till his death.
In the tranquillity of his position, his love of study
awoke with renewed force. But whether it was that
his fiery temperament burnt itself quickly out, or that
the ardour of his studies, joined to ill health and intem-
perate abstemiousness, exhausted him, Alfieri appears to
have grown prematurely old. The spirit of invention
was dead within him ; and nothing can be more deplor-
able than that which he mistook for such, under whose
influence he wrote laughterless comedies and toothless
satires, the most dolorous and innoxious that can be
imagined. Still, though original invention was dead.


industry, perseverance, and fervour in the pursuit of
learning were as warm as ever in his heart. He
brought to a conclusion his translations of Terence, the
"^Eneid," and Sallust : the latter is an excellent specimen
of style ; but his poetic translations are languid and
unworthy. As to the unlucky " Misogallo," in which he
accumulates, in prose and verse, the whole force of his de-
testation of the French, it remains a monument of how
little men know themselves, and the mistakes to which
genius is liable, when it exchanges the nobler pursuit of
the good and beautiful, to soil itself by the pettier
passions of our nature.

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 25 of 34)