Dionysius Lardner.

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scious worth and independence. But no people need so
much sympathy as poets. The interchange of thought
and feeling, the fresh spirit of inquiry and invention,
that springs from the collision or harmony of different
minds, are with them a necessity and a passion. And
though solitude is named the mother of ah 1 that is truly
sublime, yet this solitude ought not to be that of deso-
lation, but retirement to meditate on the stores heaped
up in our intercourse with our fellow-creatures. Monti,
among the uncultivated peasantry of Romagna, might
have found his glowing enthusiasm grow cool from the
absence of appreciation, and the want of sympathy and
equal intercourse.

Yet servitude at the court of Rome was no good
moral school. To the years he spent in the service of
the pope's nephew, the habits of dependence, and his
daily intercourse with courtiers, may be attributed that
want of political integrity, and ready worship of ruling
powers, which was the great blot of Monti's character.
The genuine glow of real talent, the ambition natural
to conscious genius, and the instinct of one, in whom in-
vention and the power of expression were indigenous, to
pour forth his ideas and sentiments, qualities which
indefeasibly belonged to him, would, in almost any
situation, have made Monti a writer. He might have
been less refined in the farms of Romagna, but more
useful as a moral and dignified asserter of truth and
independence. Yet we must reflect that the germ of
each man's character is born with him, to be checked
or fostered by education, but still there to colour the tide
of thought and influence the motives of conduct. And
as independence and strength of principle never dis-

MONTI. 311

played themselves as a part of Monti's character, tempt-
ation might have found him as willing a slave in the
poverty of his farm as in the luxurious servitude of
papal Rome.

At Rome, at least, he continued to cultivate his poetic
tastes. He produced several poems which kept alive
his fame. On occasion of the marriage of his patron,
the duke of Braschi, he wrote an ode entitled " Beauty
of the Universe ;" and he celebrated the journey of
Pius VI. to the imperial court in a poem entitled the
fe Apostolic Pilgrim." But he aspired to signalise
himself by some greater work, and long meditated
writing a tragedy. As early as 1779 he writes to
a friend. " I am weary of writing verses on frivo-
lous subjects. A tragic drama is the notion that most
delights me. But how can I satisfy the craving I have
to write a tragedy, since I am not able to tranquillise
my mind, and am occupied by affairs which have no
connection with poetry ? An hundred times I have
begun, and as often broken off." And in another letter
he expresses a feeling which has often entered the mind
of any one deeply interested in carrying on some literary
labour : Ci I have a ravenous desire," he says, " to
write tragedies, which preys upon me. This is my
madness; and I am in despair, because I fear to die
before I finish one."

His ambition was further excited by the emulation
inspired by Alfieri. This great tragedian was now re-
siding at Rome ; and Monti was present when he read his
(f Virginia" in a society composed of the most celebrated
literati of the day. Monti listened with transport, and,
burning with a desire to rival this production, he in-
stantly began his tragedy of cc Aristodemo," founded on
a story he had read a few days before in Pausanias.
He was the more eager to accomplish his purpose, as
he perceived the faults of Alfieri's style, and hoped to
avoid them. The fecundity of his imagination rendered
it easy for him to rise above the baldness and unideal
versification of his rival ; so that it has been pronounced,

x 4


that a perfect tragedy would be produced, were " the
grandeur and penetration of Altieri adorned by the style
of Monti." "Aristodemo" was acted with the gre.v
success at Rome in JT^T- Monti writes to a friend,
" .My tragedy was represented yesterday evening at the
theatre of Valle. 1 was not present; but when it was
over, my house was inundated by my acquaintances,
who seemed mad with delight. I ought not to mention
this, but I write to a friend, and I assure you that every
one agrees that so great a success and so much enthu-
siasm was never known at Rome before."

And here it is impossible not to remark the different
feelings of Alfieri and Monti. Alfieri entered upon his
literary career when the more brilliant portion of the
fire of youth was pacing away. He had sufficient en-
thusiasm to animate him to mental labour, and to warm
his imagination to the conception of fictitious situations,
but not enough to foster the delusion of success. While
he pretended stoicism and disdain, he was very sensi-
tive to criticism ; but when applause was afforded, he
scanned the merits of his judges, was annoyed by the
faults of the actors, and never reaped the just reward
of his toils the sense of triumph. While the more
youthful Monti, early catching the spark of enthusiasm
from his audience and his friends, enjoyed, to its full
extent, the celebrity which a successful tragedy, more
than any other species of literary composition, is able
to confer.

The genius of Monti, however, was not that of a
tragedian : lyrical and imaginative rhapsodies, rather
than the concatenation of a plot and the impersonation
of human passion, were the native bent of his mind. The
story of " Aristodemo" is eminently simple in its con-
struction; the interest is entirely confined to the principal
character, and there is almost no action to support the
piece. Aristodemo had, to acquire the popular favour,
and his election to the throne of Mycene, resolved to
sacrifice his daughter, when some angry god required
that the blood of a virgin should be shed on his altar.


To save the girl, her lover declares that she has yielded
to him, and is about to be a mother. In his fury the
father destroys her, and afterwards discovers that she is
innocent. To add to his misfortunes he loses his only
other child, a little girl of three years old, in a skirmish
with the Spartans. Henceforth he is pursued by re-
morse ; the spectacle of his murdered daughter for ever
haunts him, and horror and despair darken his soul.
The tragedy opens, fifteen years after these events, at
the conclusion of a war with Sparta, with the discussion
for a treaty of peace, when the prisoners on both sides
are to be given up. Among those taken by Aristodemo
is a girl, to whom he has attached himself with paternal
fondness, and who devotes herself to mitigating his suf-
ferings. She, of course, is discovered to be his long
lost daughter ; but this is not made known to him till
the last scene, when the agonies of remorse, joined to
sorrow at losing his last consolation, have driven him to
destroy himself. The pure but warm attachment be-
tween him and his unknown child is delicately and
sweetly described, while his passionate and remorseful
ravings, though they rise to sublimity, shock us by going
beyond ideal terrors into images palpably disagreeable.
From this sketch it may be seen how deficient in action
the piece is. Aristodemo comes before us to lament
and to rave. Still, despite his woe, he is a hero and
a king ; and, when the interests of his country require
it, he can dismiss his private griefs, and assert the ma-
jesty of the crown. His character is conceived in the
truth and sublimity of tragic nature ; and the interest that
hovers over him, the dim but harrowing horrors of his
spectral visions, the mingled remorse, terror, and love
that tear his heart, and the poetry in which these over-
powering passions are expressed, take absolutely from the
languor which the want of action might otherwise impart.
The success of e< Aristodemo" induced Monti to write
another drama. " Galeotto Manfredi " is, however, a
failure. It is founded on the passion of jealousy. In his
preface the poet mentions that it is wanting in tragic dig-


nity : such is not of necessity the fault of his subject,
but it decidedly is of his method of treating it, and
there is no poetry to redeem it from the charge of me-

He married, about this period, the daughter of the
celebrated cavaliere Giovanni Pickler, who had died a
short time before. It is a singular fact, that he made
choice of his wife without having seen her, and not on
account of her extraordinary beauty, of which he was
ignorant, but from respect for the reputation of her
father, and a w r ish to console his afflicted family ; while
she accepted him on account of her admiration for the
author of " Aristodemo." And now we enter on a new
epoch of Monti's life, when he composed his most
celebrated poem, and at the same time gave to his pro-
ductions that political groundwork which, from his
vacillation of principle, has not redounded to his

The French revolution was at its height ; and the
time-worn and absolute governments of every country
of Europe were shaken, as by an earthquake, by the
mere echo of the Parisian tocsin. The French, drunk
with enthusiasm, were eager to call the whole world
into a fraternity of liberty and equality ; and many were
the Warm young hearts, long bowed down by the yoke
of the continental systems of slavery, that beat respon-
sive to the caE. One of the persons sent by the French
to spread their revolutionary tenets beyond the Alps was
Hugh Basseville. He was the son of a dyer at Ab-
beville ; the talents he early displayed induced his
father to wish him to pursue a more dignified career,
and he educated him for the church, as the only pro-
fession then open to the lowly born. But Basseville
studied theology only to find doubts as to his creed; he
soon abandoned the clerical profession, and, going to
Paris, gave himself up entirely to literature. He here
fell in with two Americans, who engaged him as their
companion, or tutor, in a journey they made through
Germany. At Berlin, Basseville became acquainted

MONTI. 315

with Mirabeau. Leaving his Americans he visited
Holland, and wrote a work on the Elements of My-
thology, and a volume of amatory poems. When
the revolution began, he attached himself to the royal,
or rather constitutional, party, and instituted a journal
which took that side. He wrote also a " History of the
French Revolution," dedicated to La Fayette, with whom
he was intimately acquainted ; and the views he deve-
lopes are moderate and rational. He was naturally elo-
quent, and his manners were agreeable, while he joined to
these fascinating qualities the more solid ones of industry,
intelligence, and boldness, so that he acquired the confi-
dence and friendship of several of the Girondist leaders.
General Demourier named him secretary to the embassy
at Naples ; and while there he visited Rome, for the
purpose of secretly propagating revolutionary doctrines.
This imprudence cost him his life. On the night of the
13th of January, 1793, he was assailed by the popu-
lace, and received a stab, of which he died thirty-four
hours after. In his last moments, it is said that he
was induced to regard his conduct, in endeavouring to
raise sedition against the pope, as criminal, and to have
exclaimed several times that he died the victim of folly.
Monti, who lived in the service of the pope's nephew,
and was thus attached to the papal court, and without that
ardour for liberty which is so natural to many hearts,
and which appears at onoe senseless and even wicked
to those who do not feel independence of thought to be
the greatest of human blessings, of course looked on the
French revolution as a series of crimes, and saw no re-
deeming good in the madness that urged a whole nation
to so terrific a mixture of heroism and guilt. He was
acquainted with Basseville, and, hearing the recanta-
tions of his dying moments, celebrated at once the re-
pentance of his friend, and the awful tragedy acted
almost at the same moment (Louis XVI. was beheaded
on the 19th of January, 1?'93), in a poem entitled the
(( Basvilliana." In this he feigns that the great enemy
of mankind contended with the angel of God for the


soul of the murdered man. His death-bed remorse
caused the good spirit to remain triumphant ; hut as the
crime-tainted soul could not, according to the tenets of
Catholicism, be received at once into Paradise, the dis-
embodied spirit of Basseville was condemned to visit
once more the banks of the Seine, and to view the
horrors there perpetrated, as the consequence of his
guilty and impracticable theories. The imagination of
Monti developed itself in the happiest manner in
treating this theme ; and the mingled emotions of
horror and grief that pervade the poem take a shape
at once sublime and pathetic. The soul of Basseville
hovers over Paris at the moment that Louis XVI. loses
his head by the guillotine. The imagery with which
he adorns the scene is original and majestic. Four mighty
shadows rush on the scaffold, and hover over the dying
monarch ; shadows of former regicides, who glory in
the companionship of crime. Ravaillac, Ankerstrom,
Damiens, and one (the executioner of our Charles I.)
who veils his face with his hand, proudly assist in
giving the fatal blow. Louis dies, and before his
beatified ghost Basseville prostrates himself; but his
penance is not got over, and he is forced to view other
scenes of greater bloodshed and more frightful vio-
lence ; but as the poem enters upon these, it breaks off
abruptly, and is left unfinished.

The style of this poem does not resemble modern
Italian poetry, but is modelled on that of Dante ; so
faithfully modelled, that many expressions, ideas, and
even whole lines are, as it were, transfused, into Monti's
verses. It is a singular fact that no poet was ever
a greater plagiarist than the author of the ' 'Basvilliana; "
but the verses of others, which he thus employs, are
framed, as it were, so magnificently by original ones,
and are placed with such propriety, and acknowledged
with such frankness, that, as an English author ob-
serves, ' ' so far from accusing him of plagiarism, we are
agreeably surprised by the new aspect which he gives
to beauties already familiar to every reader." And

MONTI. 317

thus transfusion expresses his imitations better than the
word borrowing : for though the form of expression
is the same, a new soul and a new sense not better,
certainly, but different from their former one are
breathed into them. In some sort Dante and Monti re-
sembled each other in the cast of their ideas. They were
both painters of the mind's images. Dante was the more
faithful, delicate, and heartfelt ; but there is a shadowy
grandeur joined to a perfection of taste and fire of sen-
timent in Monti, which renders his poetry highly fasci-
nating and beautiful.

The ( i Basvilliana '' at once raised Monti's reputation
higher than that of any poet who had for centuries ap-
peared in Italy ; and he might have been considered the
laureate of royalty, but that his character was not
adorned by that sincere and exalted enthusiasm, without
which no man can, with any success, advocate any
cause which embraces the interests of human nature.

The tide of French republicanism, checked a little in
its first advances, now swelled by Bonaparte's victories,
overflowed the Alps and deluged Italy. The Austrians,
defeated at Montenotte, Lodi, and Arcoli, were driven
from Lombardy : and the Italians hoped to exchange
servitude to a foreign power for national independence ;
forgetting that liberty, when given., may also be with-
drawn, and that it is only by force that any real freedom
can be acquired. While resistance was made to the
French arms, the requisitions of the victor, and the
seizure of the finest works of art, might have opened
their eyes to the real views of their soi-disant deliverers.
Napoleon himself himself had but one idea with regard
to liberty, which was a free scope to the exercise of his
own will. When that was given him, he could be
generous, magnificent, and useful ; but when his mea-
sures were obstructed, no tyrant ever exceeded him in
the combinations of a despotism which at once crushed
a nation, and bore down with an iron hand every in-
dividual that composed it. Bonaparte's ambition,
however, could only be gratified in France, and the


conquest of lialy was but the stepping-stone to the
French empire. Still, when all the north of the pe-
ninsula was subjected to him, when the pope had sub-
mitted to his terms, and the haughty queen of Naples
had been induced to enter into a treaty with her sister's
destroyers, he could no longer with any grace refuse
the shows of freedom so often promised. On the 3d
of January, 1 797, the Cisalpine republic was erected.

Monti had been before invited to accept a professor's
chair in the university of Pa via, w r hich he had refused.
In the month of February 1797, general Marmont was
sent to Rome on occasion of the treaty of Tolentino, to
carry letters from Bonaparte to the pope. Monti be-
came acquainted w r ith him ; being then in a bad state of
health, and advised to change the air of Rome for that
of Tuscany, he accepted Marmont's invitation, who
offered him a seat in his carriage, and proceeded to
Florence. It may be imagined, that familiar inter-
course with one of Napoleon's generals was the found-
ation of Monti's admiration for the French hero, and
the cause of his opening his eyes to the good to be de-
rived from adhering to the new order of things in his
native country. At first he entertained the delusive
hope that the blessing of liberty had really been con-
ferred on Italy by the French arms, and that his coun-
trymen would rise from chains and slavery to the
enjoyment of national independence under national in-
stitutions ; and yet the extravagant praise of Napoleon,
which he indulges in, in ah 1 his poems written at this
time, does not bear the marks of a sincere patriotism.
Besides this, he had to struggle with many personal
mortifications. The " Basvilliana " was not forgotten.
French exactions and French assumptions had already
alienated the minds of the noble born among the
Italians. They feared the conqueror, but disdained the
masquerade of liberty in which they were invited to play
a part : thus the better classes shrunk from forming a
part of the new governments, and the offices devolved
upon men who had little to lose either in possessions or


character. They regarded Monti with envy and aver-
sion, and, instead of receiving him as a convert with
open arms,, his superior claims as a man of talent caused
them to persecute him as an interloper and almost as a
spy. The heads of the government, indeed, at first
favoured him : he was invited to Milan, and elected
central secretary of foreign affairs ; but he was soon dis-
turbed by persecutions. " My arrival/' he writes
several years afterwards, " was hailed by the usual
abuse of the republican journals, who censured the
directory for employing an enemy of the republic. I
loved liberty ; but the object of my love was the freedom
described in the writings of Cicero and Plutarch : that
which was adored on the altars of Milan appeared to me
a prostitute, and I refused to worship her. Hence my
excommunication, hence the public burning of the
' Basvilliana.' On this I was obliged to prostrate my-
self before the idol. I sang her virtues, and became
a revolutionary poet : I grew insane with the rest, and
my conversion procured me patronage and grace."

It was not without a struggle that he stooped" to these
abject submissions, and several events first intervened.
The hatred of the democrats, then the rulers of the
Cisalpine republic, caused them to pass a law which
decreed that no one should be permitted to hold any
public employment who, since the year 1 of the
French republic, had published any books tending to
throw odium on democracy. Monti's poem was the
principal object of this law; and one of his adversaries
exclaimed, (e Let us get rid, not of the author of some
foolish sonnet in praise of kings, but of those who, with
powerful enthusiasm and Dantesque imagination, have
inspired a hatred for democracy." This law being passed,
Monti lost his situation. He had published other poems
since the C Basvilliana;" but even these were not con-
sidered sufficiently democratic.

The " Musogonia/' or Birth of the Muses, is almost
entirely mythological ; but, in the concluding verses, he
apostrophises Bonaparte. He implores him .to be at

320 LITERARY AND SUKNMlir ',u;\.

once the Alexander and Numa of Italy: he beseeches

him to bestow laws upon IKT, and to unite- her scattered
members ; and, with a noble viler, he calls upon the
Italians to cultivate concord and unanimity. " Bro-
thers!" he exclaims, "hear the voice of your brother!
What do you hope from divided opinions and counsels?
Ah, let there be in our country, in its danger, one mind,
one courage, one soul, one life !" The republicans per-
ceived a hankering for royalty and tyranny in his dislike
of their measures.

The " Prometeo" is a finer poem, or rather fragment,
for but few of the cantos are written. The subject of
it is the history of Prometheus ; but we have only a
small portion of it in the poem as it stands. It opens
with the foolish act of Epimetus. Jupiter had sent to
him a casket containing the various intellectual attri-
butes and moral qualities, to be distributed among the
new creation on earth. Epimetus begins by bestowing
various qualities on animals, and is so prodigal of his
gifts, that when he comes to man he finds the casket
empty. On this, he has recourse to his wiser brother
Prometheus, who reprimands him for his folly. This
opening is the weaker part of the poem. Lyrical out-
bursts were more accordant to Monti's genius. The
appearance of Constancy before Prometheus is sublime,
and the hero's prophecy of the future state of man is
full of fire and grandeur. It ends, however, by a pro-
phecy of Napoleon, on whom is heaped every epithet
that admiration or adulation could suggest. Jupiter
gives him his lightning, which loses none of its terrors
in the young hero's hands. He shakes the bolts over
Germany, and the Rhetian Alps resound with the hoofs
of the Gallic cavalry. One after the other, Prometheus
celebrates the glorious victories achieved in Italy, and
hails with enthusiasm French Liberty, as the mother of
heroes who shiver the chains that bound Ausonia, and
wipe the tears from universal Europe obstructed in its
beneficent career only by the English robber. Bonaparte
must have exulted in the bitter and venomous abuse that

MONTI. 32 1

Monti never fails to heap upon England. He tells us,
in the preface to this poem, that its scope is to bring
into favour the neglected literature of Greece and Rome,
and to merit well from a free country by speaking in
the accents of freedom. There is something in the ap-
plause heaped on the conqueror that jars with our notions
of real independence and patriotism.

Monti, at this time, entertained the idea of returning
to republicanised Rome. But his friends dissuaded him ;
and his reputation, and probably his adulation of the
victor, caused him soon after to be named commissary
of the province of the Rubicon. But a poet makes a
bad politician; and Monti's integrity stood in the way of
his success, and he was obliged to give up his office. He
made many enemies, and, naturally timid and fearful for
the welfare of his family, he was terrified into making
a complete amende to the democrats of his country by
writing odes, whose violent sentiments went beyond those
of the most furious demagogues : and it is to these
poems that he alludes when he speaks of the wor-
ship he was forced to pay to the mockery of liberty ;
and ever after he regretted his pusillanimity, and de-
spised himself for his concessions.

At the time they gained this point, his enemies were
pacified ; and the survivorship of the professor's chair of
belles lettres in Brera, then occupied by Parini, was
bestowed on him. But scarcely had he overcome the
enmity of the friends of liberty and equality, than their
star was eclipsed, and their reign came to an end.
During the absence of Bonaparte in Egypt, Suvaroffl799.
and the Austrians crossed the Alps, and the French ^tat.
were driven from Italy. Her republics vanished like a
forgotten dream ; and their partisans, Monti among

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 27 of 34)