Dionysius Lardner.

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

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them, were forced to follow the retreating army of
France, and to take refuge beyond the Alps.

Monti fell into a state of deplorable destitution. He
had left his wife and young daughter in Italy, and he
roamed alone and friendless among the mountains of
Savoy. His sufferings during the brief period of his



exile were frightful. He wandered about, subsisting
on the fruit he picked up under the trees. Often seated
on the rugged banks of a torrent, he satisfied his hunger
with roots and nuts., and wept as he thought of Italy
and his ruined fortunes. The benevolence of his heart
manifested itself in the midst of this adversity. It is
related of him, that, as he was wandering one evening
in a narrow lane, near Chamberi, a stranger accosted
him and asked charity, relating that he had a sick
mother and five children. Monti's heart was moved:
two sequins w r as all that he possessed in the world ; he
gave one of them to the suppliant. His health failed
through the hardships that he endured ; the labour of
collecting his food became intolerable, and he forced
himself to gather at one time sufficient for two days, so
as to secure himself one of uninterrupted rest. His wife,
who had remained to put their affairs in some order,
now joined him. She found him stretched on a wretched
bed, weak from inanition, but disdaining to apply to
any one for relief in his need. She brought money
with her, and proper food soon restored his strength ;
nor did he again fall into such an extremity of dis-
aster, though it was long before the fickle goddess smiled
upon him.

The minister, Mareschalchi, invited him to Paris; and
the new victories of Bonaparte in Italy, on his return
from Egypt in the following year, revived his hopes of
better times. Mareschalchi obtained that he should be
employed to write a hymn and an ode in celebration of
the victory of Marengo, which had driven the allies
from Italy and restored it to the French. He w T as to
have been paid 1500 francs for these two poems, with
the further reward of the professorship of Italian liter,
ature in the French university. But fortune was not
weary of persecuting him ; and this remuneration was
withheld, on its being represented to government that
he was, at heart, inimical to the French. Mareschalchi
continued to befriend him,, and obtained 500 francs, or
about 20/. "No small relief to me/' he writes, "in

MONTI. 323

my necessitous circumstances." He was very eager to
return to Italy,, and he writes to his brother., " Of the
many thousand refugees who were here, almost all have
returned to their country, because all have instantly re-
ceived the necessary succour from home. I alone find
myself abandoned by my relations,, in a s,trange country,
without friends, and without resources ; unless, indeed,
I can make up my mind to renounce my country for
the sake of earning my bread in some office. But an
irresistible sentiment is. linked to the name of my native
land. I possess in Italy the objects dearest to my
heart my child, my mother, brothers, friends, stu-
dies, habits ; all, in short, that renders life dear. I
pant, therefore, to return ; and I implore you to send
me assistance in the shape of a remittance for my
journey, and to discharge my debts here. Every delay
injures my interests, particularly at this moment. Di-
rect to ' Citizen Vincenzo Monti, Post-office, Paris/ I
shall count the days and moments make my account
short, if my happiness is dear to you."

Soon after his wishes were fulfilled, and he celebrates
his return to his beloved Italy by a beautiful hymn,
which begins

" Bella Italia, amate sponde,
Pur vi torno a riveder,
Trema il petto, e si confonde
L' alma oppressa di piacer."

He does not forget the victor in this song of joy and
triumph. Marengo is mentioned with exultation ; and
Bonaparte celebrated with enthusiasm, as liberating Italy
from the barbarians, and again bestowing upon her the
blessings of freedom.

On his arrival at Milan, Monti employed himself in
correcting his poem, entitled the ff Mascheroniana,"
which he had begun amidst the Alps, when over-
whelmed by misery, an exile, weeping over the disasters
of his country and his own wrongs. Lorenzo Masche-
roni, a celebrated mathematician as well as an elegant
poet, was forced to quit Italy at the same time as Monti,
and died in France shortly after. In this poem the

Y 2


poet vents all his spleen against his democratic enern'u
In his preface he exclaims, " Reader,, if you really hr.
your country, and are a true Italian, read ! but throw
aside the book if, for your and our misfortune, you ar^
an insane demagogue, or a cunning trafficker in the-
cause of liberty." The poem opens with the death of
Mascheroni, and the ascent of his soul to heaven. He
here meets Parini, who laments the unhappy condition
of Italy. " When I saw her misery," he cries, " I de-
sired to die, and my wish was fulfilled. I first beheld
her woe when dressed in her new freedom, which was
called liberty, but which, in truth, was rapine. I then
beheld her a slave, alas ! a despised slave, covered with
wounds and blood, complaining to heaven that she was
betrayed by her own children by the many foolish,
base, and perverse tyrants, not citizens ; while the few
remained mute or were destroyed. Iniquitous laws
were given her ; discord waited on her, and pride, and
hate, and madness, ignorance and error ; while the
tears and sighs of the people remained unheard. O,
wretches ! who spoke of virtue in high-sounding words,
and called themselves Brutus and Gracchus, while they
proved themselves traitors and monsters. But short-lived
was their joy. I saw the Russian and the Austrian
swords destroy the hopes of the fields of Italy, and the
armed people commit crimes exceeding the supper of
Atreus and the vengeance of Theseus ! " While Parini is
thus pouring out his angry and bitter denunciations,
Mascheroni interrupts him. "Peace, austere spirit!''
he exclaims, ee your country is again saved. A deity has
caught her by the hair, and drawn her from the abyss :
Bonaparte ! " At this name, the frowning Parini raises
his head, and a smile illuminates his countenance. The
victories of Egypt, of Marengo, and Hohenlinden, are
commemorated ; and the " British felon" assailed with
the usual violence of hate. In the midst of the convers-
ation of the friends, God appears with his cherubim,
one the herald of peace and pardon, the other of war
and vengeance : they are sent out on the earth to assist

MONTI. 325

and wait on the Gallic hero. This poem, like so many
others of Monti, which celebrated what was then the
present, and is therefore truncated of its catastrophe, is a
fragment. Such praise, dressed in all the magnificence
of poetry, must have sounded sweetly in Napoleon's
ear. The " Mascheroniana," whose chief object is to
bestow on him new wreaths of victory, is one of Monti's
finest compositions. It is full of strength, vehemence,
and beauty. His imitation of Dante is even more ap-
parent than in the " Basvilliana." The machinery of
the poem, and the peculiar versification, are borrowed
from the ' f Divina Commedia." But, as we have before
observed, Monti's was too original a mind to be a pla-
giarist. What he took from another, he remoulded and
brought forth in a new form, in fresh and brilliant
hues, all his own. He has not the sublimity, the
sweetness and pathos, nor the distinct yet delicate paint-
ing, of his prototype ; but no one can read his verses
without feeling that the true spirit of poetry breathes in
every line, and that the author pours out the overflow-
ings of a genuine and rapt inspiration.

His third tragedy of " Caius Gracchus " had been
written at Paris, and he occupied himself in finishing
and correcting it on his return to Milan. This tragedy
has been praised by some as superior to " Aristodemo,"
but it is difficult to coincide in this opinion. It pos-
sesses fine passages and some energy, but it is wanting
in poetry ; and the characters want the simple heroism
of antiquity, and resemble rather violent Italians of
modern days. The defects of monotonous dialogue and
often repeated situations flow also from an observation
of the unities, which, by confining the subject in narrow
limits, permit no variety of action, and, except in pe-
culiar instances, force the poet to repeat himself ; mak-
ing one scene frequently little else than a repetition
of what had gone before.

Monti had begun his literary and poetic life by ser-
vitude, when he became secretary of the duke of Braschi.

y 3


In his present desperate circumstances he saw no hope,
except in conciliating the ruling power of the continent,
and entering on the service of the man who looked on
all men as merely engines to fulfil his vast and illimit-
able projects. S T apoleon had hy fresh victories driven
1802; the Austrians from Italy; and a congress, called the
.Ktat. Cisalpine, was held at Lyons, to fix on a form of
1$' government for the north of the peninsula. This was
a kind of mockery that Bonaparte was fond of en-
couraging in the early days of his elevation, since,
under some of the forms of popular election, new pow-
ers, were, with a show of legality, bestowed on him.
The Italians of the congress fixed on a plan of govern-
ment, at the head of w r hich was to be a president : they
entreated Napoleon to accept this office, as the disunited
state of the country rendered it unadvisable to elect an
Italian to it. Napoleon consented. This w r as a happy
moment to bring himself before the supreme power,
and Monti seized on it. He wrote an ode to Bona-
parte, in the name of the Cisalpine congress ; he chose
the motto from Virgil, and it was a happy one,

" Victorque volentes
Per populos dat jura."

The verses are very beautiful, and worthy of a better
cause than laying the liberties of his country prostrate at
the first consul's feet. Still Monti was aw r are that, de-
graded by long servitude and disunited by petty pas-
sions, the Italians were ignorant of the nature of true
liberty. He saw party spirit, oppression, and rapine as
the result of any attempt on the part of his countrymen
to govern themselves ; he knew also how vain it was to
contend with the conqueror, and he was very probably
sincere in his belief that the welfare of his country was
safest in his hands. Still, while we admire the harmony
of the verses and the beauty of the imagery, we repine
at the slavish spirit that lurks within them. Bonaparte,
who loved to be borne up by the wings of men's ima-
ginations into a superior sphere of glory and success^

MONTI. 327

must have been pleased by the halo of poetry with
which Monti stooped to adorn his name.

He did not go unrewarded. When peace was re-
stored to Italy, the institutions for public education be-
came objects of interest to the government, and a pro-
fessorship was offered Monti, either at Milan or Pavia,
at his choice. Monti preferred the latter, for the sake
of enjoying the society of the able professors who filled
the chairs of that university. He was diligent and
conscientious in his attendance to the duties of his
situation, and his lectures were fully attended : the
best of his prose writings being his inauguration lecture,
which had for its subject the praise of the literary men
of Italy, and the claiming for them the merit of many
discoveries usually attributed to the natives of other
countries. After three years spent at Pavia, he was in-
vited by the governor to Milan, and a number of offices
and honours were bestowed on him. He was made as-
sessor to the minister of the interior for the department
of literature and the fine arts ; he was named court poet
and historiographer, and made cavalier of the iron
crown, member of the institute, and of the legion of
honour. Monti was no laggard in fulfilling the duties of
the first of these places. He wrote a variety of poems in
praise of Napoleon, and in celebration of his victories.
In the " Bard/' a fictitious personage, Ullino, attended
by the maiden Malvina, while watching with enthusiastic
admiration the advance of the French arms, falls in with
a young wounded warrior ; they, of course, take him
home, and watch over his recovery, when he relates, at
their request, the events of the expedition to Egypt and
the battles that illustrated Napoleon's return to Europe.
There is the merit of enthusiasm and glowing descrip-
tion in portions of this poem. The canto on the ex-
pedition to Egypt contains the best passages.

When Napoleon was crowned king of Italy, Monti 1805.
was commanded to celebrate the event. He writes
to Cesarotti, ff While you are robing the magnificent
spleen of Juvenal in beautiful and dignified Italian,

Y 4


I am sounding the Pindaric harp for the emperor
Napoleon. The government has commanded me, and I
must obey. I hope that love of my country will not
make my thoughts too free ; and that I may respect the
hero, without betraying my duty as a citi/en. I am in
a path where the wishes of the nation do not accord
with its political necessities, and I fear to lose myself.
St. Apollo help me ! and do you pray that I may be
endowed with sagacity and prudence." This poem, in
which he tries to trim his sail so nicely between patriot-
ism and servitude, is called " II Benificio ; " or, The Be-
nefaction, a vision. It has great merit. All that Monti
ever wrote is graced with such a happy flow, and with so
much beauty of imagery and expression, that it is impos-
sible not to admire as we read. He describes Italy as
appearing to him in a vision; she is personified by a
woman,, wounded and drooping, the victim of grief and
slavery. The poet, struck with compassion and horror,
evokes the shades of mighty Romans from their tombs to
assist the degraded queen of the world ; but they turn
in scorn from the fallen and lost one. Then a warrior,
godlike and majestic, descends from the Alps, Vic-
tory attends him, yet he disregards her, and prefers
the olive to the laurel (a most unfortunate compliment
to a man whose whole soul -was war). He approaches
the unfortunate prostrate being, raises her, and bids
her reign ; nor could the livid glare cast by the
British cannon over the Tyrrhene sea avail against him.
The warrior smiles, and at his smile all danger va-
nishes. Then the austere and noble spirit of Dante
arises and apostrophises Italy, telling her that the
regal power of Napoleon was exactly the restraint and
law he had wished her to fall under ; and, taking the
crown from her head, places it on that of the French
emperor. Spain salutes the new diadem. The Ger-
man, still crimson with his own blood, acknowledges
the victor, and bends his eyes to earth ; while the
British pirate, powerful in fleets and fraud, curses
aloud. " I send you a copy of the Vision," Monti

MONTI. 329

writes to a friend,, Ci which I have written for the
coronation of our king : it has succeeded perfectly, and
no work of mine, since I began to w r rite verses, has pros-
pered so well." It is impossible not to congratulate
him on his success in attaining prudence. Assuredly
there was nothing too free in these verses ; and Napoleon
might accept them without an unpleasant thought being
awakened as to his usurpation, tyranny, and rapacious,
unbounded ambition.

Every fresh victory, every new conquest, was a
theme for the venal muse of Monti ; venal we have
a right to call it, since he acknowledges the bond of a
salary and the necessity of obedience. Thus, on occa-
sion of the battle of Jena, he brought out the " Spada
di Federico ;" or, the Sword of Frederic, the most
popular of his odes of triumph. In this poem he
images the spectral hand of the warrior king of Prussia
disputing with Napoleon the possession of his sword,
and yielding to the proud assumptions and tenacious
grasp of the Gallic victor. Ten editions of this work
were sold in the space of five months, and it was trans-
lated into the French and Latin languages.

The attempted usurpation of the Spanish throne did
not go uncelebrated. The " Palingenesi" has for its
subject the regeneration of mind and of political insti-
tutions wrought in Spain, under the auspices of the
French emperor and his brother Joseph. If we could
dismiss from our minds the truth, and fancy, as Monti
assumes, that a great and generous nation had sunk into
the depths of slavery and degradation through the evil
influence of a corrupt government, and that Napoleon
was bent on loosening its fetters and raising it to free-
dom and knowledge, it would be impossible not to
be filled with enthusiasm by the noble ideas and grand
imagery of this poem. But the taint of falsehood pre-
vents any sympathy, and our admiration of the imagi-
nation displayed is checked by our contempt of the
flatterer ; while we smile at the bitter and violent
curses poured upon the English, whose motives for


assisting the Spaniards in resisting the French are
painted in the most odious colours.

We wonder as we read. There is fire, sublimity,
and power in every line. Can these be inspired, as we
are assured by Monti's friends, by the mere desire of
acquiring the loaves and fishes, if not for himself
individually, for his wife and daughter ? Are the
shadowy forms which he invests with so much beauty
the conceptions into w r hich he infuses so much energy
and seeming sincerity the mere playthings of his
thought, and not the genuine offspring of a mind teem-
ing and overflowing with a sense of usefulness and
truth ? We cannot believe it ; w r e are so apt to forget
what our feelings were when the occasion that called
them forth has vanished like morning mist. When
Napoleon fell, men forgot the wonder and admiration
with which they had regarded him during his pros-
perity. He had come on the time-worn world like an
incarnation of the memories of antiquity. The greatest
sovereigns, who traced their descent from the middle ages
the thrones of the world, so long the objects of
worship and fear the crowns and sceptres which had
been looked upon as the sacred and inviolable symbols
of divine right were all at his feet, dispossest, trans-
ferred, and broken. It could be no wonder that men
looked upon the cause of these things as something
prodigious and superhuman. Monti may be excused
that he joined in the common feeling of awe and ad-
miration ; w r hile, afterwards, seeing how little good
arose from the breaking up of the ancient tyrannies, and
how the indomitable will of one man was enforced by
means of treachery and slaughter, he might forget that
he could ever have been so blinded, and fancy that
acknowledged fear was the cause of an inspiration which
really sprung from the slavish worship of success, which
is too naturally inherent in human beings.

Although Monti brought forward this disingenuous
plea to excuse his celebration of the hero of the age, he
was sincere in one feeling, an attachment to the off-

MONTI. 331

spring of his brain, and in the indignation he felt
against those who depreciated his poetic merits. The
" Sword of Frederic" was attacked by the critics with
great asperity, and he replied with still greater acrimony.
He had been charged with mannerism and sameness,
especially in the machinery of his poems, in whirh
visions, spectres, and cloudy spiritual essences play for
ever a principal part. He would not allow this to be a
defect, and railed at the unimaginative minds who con-
ceived it to be such. He tries to be jocose in his
indignation, but his laugh is bitter ; and he heaps the
accusations of ill faith and envy, as well as of ignorance
and bad taste, on those who attack him. There may be
justice in this, but there is no dignity. There is
always a degree of degradation in noticing the enmity
of a race of ephemera, and not calmly relying on the
award of the public.

Besides the poems above mentioned, Monti wrote
several other poems in praise of the conqueror. e< The
Jerogamia" and the " Api Panacridi" were compo-
sitions which, whatever their apparent subject might
be, turned, after all, on the praise of the emperor.
They maintained, if they did not increase, the poet's
fame. His best works were already written; and these
may be named to be the " Aristodemo," the " Bas-
villiana," passages in the " Prometeo," the " Maschero-
niana," and the (e Palingenesi ;" and of his shorter odes,
that to Bonaparte, on occasion of the Cisalpine con-
gress, and his hymn on his return to Italy.

Years began to tame the fire of his imagination,
and he felt the spirit of original composition fail
him. His active mind turned to other subjects on
which to exercise it : his love of classical learning led
him to works of criticism and erudition, and he wrote
" Remarks on the Winged Horse of Arsinoe." A want
of knowledge of the Greek language must, however, have
been a great drawback to this species of study ; but we
must regard with still greater wonder, considering this
defect, his next enterprise, which was the translation of


the Iliad. lie bad been looking out for a subject, and
meditating in what way he could employ his powers,
when a word, spoken by chance by Ugo Foscolo, at
once awoke in his mind the desire and the energy re-
quisite for so arduous a task. Not being acquainted
with Greek, he applied himself to every kind of literal
translation, and was, besides, mainly assisted by his
friend Mustoxidi, who explained passages, compared his
version with the original, and bestowed a degree of
labour which, barren as it was of reputation to himself,
must be regarded as a singular proof of disinterested
attachment. Monti applied himself so vigorously to
the task, that, in spite of all his disadvantages, in less
than two years he brought it to a conclusion.

This new labour yielded him a large harvest of re-
putation. Other Italian translations of the Iliad already
existed : that of Salvini is valuable, from his profound
knowledge of the Greek and Italian languages. It is ele-
gantly and faithfully translated, but it wants spirit ; and
the sublime Homeric fire, which renders the Iliad the
greatest of human works, glimmers feebly in his version.
The translation of Ceruti is as faithful as is compatible
with his ignorance of Greek ; but, besides the want of the
true spirit of the original, his style, modelled on that
of Metastasio and Rolli, wants vigour and versatility.

Monti possessed, beyond any other poet, the faculty
of 'warming himself with his subject, of penetrating
himself with its soul, and imparting, by the vivacity of
his language and the glowing brightness of his ima-
gination, his own sentiments to the reader. The very
act of versifying seemed to be to him what the sound
of song is to the sensitive, in elevating and moving the
soul. His mind possessed the qualities of the harp,
which gives forth sweet music when swept by the
breezes : thought with him \vas always pregnant with
harmonious and animated expression, with glowing and
various imagery. On this has been founded his excuse
for writing w r ith such apparent fervour on subjects that
did not really interest his feelings; and this facility

MONTI. 333

is a good quality in a translator. Monti could con-
ceive and imbibe the spirit of the original,, and give
it out, in his o\vn language, with vigour and life. Vis-
canti, in writing to the poet, says, " The choice and
variety of diction and phrases, the equal and sustained
tone of the verses, and the noble simplicity of the style,
place your work among the few that transmit the poetic
name with honour to posterity." This praise was ac-
companied by a few judicious criticisms which showed
the care and zeal with which he had examined the trans-
lation. Monti paid attention to them, and endeavoured
to amend all the errors pointed out in the subsequent
editions of his work.

When Napoleon was overthrown, and the north of 181 4.
Italy fell under the yoke of the Austrians, Monti of^^ 1 -
course lost all his public employments, and he was
menaced in his old age by the miseries of hopeless
poverty. But his submissive disposition and plastic
opinions were just of that sort which kings delight to
honour ; and the emperor of Austria bestowed such
pensions on him as enabled him to pursue his studies in
leisure and competence. No doubt Monti felt glad, in
common w r ith all his countrymen, to get rid of the anti-

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 28 of 34)