William Everett.

The Italian poets since Dante online

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Copyright, 1904, by
William Everett

Published November, 1904

The DeVinne Press

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illius memoriae

e cunctis ausoniae poetis

quem omnes qui ei successerunt

principem reverenter salutaverunt

PvblI VergilI Ma bonis

haec folia humllime













The following pages formed a course of lectures
delivered at the Lowell Institute in Boston in the
spring of 1904. No attempt has been made to recast
them in a less rhetorical form.

They do not profess to be exhaustive. Many notable
poets are omitted altogether; and of those who are
handled many important works are passed over. It
seemed that Chiabrera, for instance, might fairly be
left out; and that if the "Orlando Furioso" were
thoroughly discussed, the other poems of Ariosto need
not be. If what is said about the poets named in
these pages shall lead lovers of Italian to read those
who are not, the author will be specially satisfied.

The reader will look in vain for evidences of pro-
found original research, or subtlety of analytic criti-
cism. The object is avowed at the outset to arouse a
desire to be acquainted at first hand with a renowned
body of literature, which is less read than it has been,
and ought to be. The biographical notices are drawn
from the most familiar sources, and the poems have
been handled as they stand, without anxious effort to
detect any Tendenz or Zeitgeist in their construction.
The author believes that it is equally vain to regard a
great poetic genius as the mere product of his age, and
to attribute to him an elaborate philosophy of compo-



sition, which would go far to destroy—and with some
poets has all but destroyed— the spontaneous out-
pouring of his song. One thing is claimed for these
lectures: the poems themselves have been read entire
and in their native text. If the views appear mis-
taken or their presentation dubious, they are yet the
result of reading the authors, of which there is now
far too little, and not of studying them, of which
there is now far too much.

The translations are for the most part original.
Direct acknowledgment is made in all cases where
others' versions have been used. The author is con-
vinced, and has endeavored to establish his conviction
by examples, that a poet's meaning may be preserved
with entire fidelity, while equal respect is paid to his
metrical form and harmony. The first essential of
poetry is attractive and musical form; and if this is
slighted by the author, or discarded by the translator,
the result is not poetry, however poetical the ideas
may be. For a translator to offer a great poem in
prose dress seems like a contradiction in terms; and
it is not much better when some metrical form is
adopted essentially alien to the original's. To reduce
a sonnet of Petrarch to a mere string of fourteen lines
not rhymed at all, or rhymed anyhow, is untrue to
the poet, whatever it may be to his matter.

At the same time the paraphrase, where the trans-
lator rewrites a poem to adapt it to what he fancies a
pleasing metrical form, is equally uncalled for. In
some cases, like Pope's "Iliad," or Dryden's
".^neid," where the metre of the original appeared
to their authors impossible in English— and who shall


say they were wrong?— the genius of these great men
has given us two noble poems, which afford pleasure
even to those who know the originals, and are an in-
valuable possession to those who think the originals
inaccessible. But in the hands of translators of less
original powers the result is apt to be painful— as in
Boyd's contemptible version of Petrarch's "Trionfi."

The versions in this volume attempt to attain the
double fidelity,— fidelityto matter and fidelity to form,
—without which a translation is either dry or loose, in-
stead of being at once firm and sweet. It will perhaps
prove not an uninteresting task for lovers of the
originals to search for the passages rendered.

For a free expression of opinion on the writings
of other than Italian poets, even when these are di-
rectly at variance with modern views, the author has
no apology to offer.

It would be unpardonable not to render a special ac-
knowledgment of gratitude to Professor Charles Eliot
Norton, the stores of whose unequalled acquaintance
with Italian literature have been on all occasions most
kindly and sympathetically at the author's disposal.

QuiNCT, October, 1904.





In announcing a course of lectures on Italian poetry,

I feel I am undertaking a subject interesting enough

to charm any audience and vast enough to sober any

writer. The poets of Italy formed a brilliant galaxy

led by stars of the first magnitude before Chaucer had

written a line of the ' ' Canterbury Tales " ; in the long

interval between Chaucer and Spenser, when English

poets were below mediocrity, Italy again presented

bards of distinguished talent in almost every line of

poetry, and their new leaders might rank with the

leaders in any tongue. These had been the inspiration

^ of Milton, who might fairly be called their direct suc-

i cessor, when in Italy itself the succession had grown

dim and cold ; yet Italian genius of a high order was

not wanting in the days of Dryden. Imprisoned yet

over-fed, it still gave out noble flashes in the days of


Gray and Goldsmith. It burst forth with a lustre
worthy of its best ages in the days when Cowper and
Burns were rousing British poetry from its sleep, and
the last century has given birth to poets worthy to
rank with Dante and Petrarch, with Ariosto and
Tasso, with Filieaja and Alfieri.

And there have been times when the vast power and
beauty of Italian poetry were fully recognized, and
made it the favorite study of cultivated men and
women. I use this last word advisedly. It is certain
that of all the great departments of pure literature,
there is none which men and women have enjoyed on
such equality as the poetry of Italy. All the Italian
poets, great and small, write for women as much as
for men: they constantly appeal to ladies for their
judgment and sympathy ; they treat them with all the
respect which ancient Rome showed to her matrons.
The very first words of Ariosto 's mighty epic, so dear
to the heart of all Italians, are ' ' the ladies. ' '

But Italian poetry is not now studied as it was. The
language holds by no means the same place in our
courses of study as the German, which was little more
than a collection of uncouth dialects centuries after
Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio had made their tongue
the vehicle of the loftiest, the tenderest, and the witti-
est ideas. Many men and women would be ashamed to
confess ignorance of Heine and Uhland, of Victor


Hugo and Verlaine, who would see no disgrace in ad-
mitting that Guarini and Alfieri, Leopardi and Car-
ducci were sealed books to them. When Byron dubbed
the language ' ' that soft bastard Latin, ' ' he expressed
the view which many persons who claim literary and
linguistic culture hold about Italian.

One poet of Italy, it is true, is by no means neg-
lected. The greatest of all her stars is observed and
studied to the strange exclusion of all the other lumi-
naries in her sky. Dante is probably more read and
analyzed and commented on now than he was in the
days when Petrarch and Ariosto and Tasso were great
favorites. We may cheerfully grant that Dante is the
greatest Italian poet, one of the greatest among all
poets. There are those who set him— I am not one— at
the head of creative writing. But he is not the whole
even of Italian poetry, any more than Homer is all of
Greek, Goethe all of German, or Shakespeare all of
English. It would be absurd if a Frenchman or a
Spaniard should study a grammar and a book of ex-
tracts with the resolve to proceed at once to "Faust"
or ' ' Hamlet, ' ' and, having read them, to read no more
German or English, neither Schiller nor Heine, neither
Milton nor Scott ; and even a slight knowledge of later
poets will show that Dante himself needs for his true
understanding some acquaintance with his successors.

It appears to me, therefore, that the present estimate


and study of Dante, even if not above the claims of
that poet himself, has resulted in an inexcusable neg-
lect of his successors. Granting that any study of
Italian literature to be valuable must include Dante,
—granting that the eighteenth-century scholars who
set him aside as barbarous and unintelligible were
fatally wrong,— I still venture to say that to begin the
study of Italian literature with the "Divina Comme-
dia" is an error — an error akin to that sometimes com-
mitted in our schools by beginning the study of Eng-
lish literature with Chaucer. Few authors are harder
than Dante, and by studying the easier ones the gulf
of six centuries may be abridged, and the student
saved from leaping its whole width.

Reflecting, therefore, how much study is already
given to Dante among ourselves,— how he could not be
exhausted in eight or eighty lectures if I began with
him,— I believe I shall handle my subject of Italian
poets best if I leave him in his mighty shrine, where he
will always stand by himself, whatever names we may
couple with his, and ask your attention to his succes-
sors—a constellation which, but for the overpowering
blaze of that one star, would be reckoned of surpassing

But even after declining the serious burden of the
"Divine Comedy," I feel the weight of my task
scarcely lessened, and I approach it with unfeigned


diffidence. Everything Italian is fascinating; but its
charm is like a tropical forest,— its luxuriance is al-
most deadly ; its very beauties will strangle and poison
an incautious explorer. There is no moment in the
ages at which we can gaze on Italy that she does not
overwhelm us by her countless treasures of beauty and
of sadness, and defy us to exhaust them. In the days
before history, in the days of mythology and legend, in
those of classic antiquity, of feudal struggles, of the
revival of learning and at the same time of foreign op-
pression, — in the more modern centuries when she
awoke from her sleep and resumed her place among
the nations, there is not in Italy a name of river, of
mountain, of city, of man or woman that does not
awaken more memories and more hopes than a single
mind can hold. Her night blazes with more stars, her
day glows with more hues, her ground sends up at
every tread more flowers and more weeds, her sea
gleams with a deeper azure, than any other land's.
The most cruel torture cannot exhaust her patience
or quench her genius. In the days of frivolous hea-
thenism, Raphael saw the Virgin 's smile ; in the days
of superstition, new worlds revealed themselves to
Galileo; in the days of heartless formulae, Beccaria
raised the criminal from the dust; in the days when
all thought seemed dead, Galvani and Avogadro revo-
lutioned science; in the days of tricky diplomacy,


Garibaldi broke the chains of Sicily. That man has
no heart and little reason whom her glories do not
at once guide and thrill; that man does not know
himself who fancies he has fathomed her secrets.
As full of enchanting beauty as Greece in her prime,
of bewitching horror as Germany under her barons,
of ecstatic hopes as America to-day,— past or future,
she is queen of nations.

I do not for a moment claim the knowledge needed
to discuss the many questions that arise in connection
with the Italian poets, or disentangle all their relations
to each other and their respective ages. My aim is to
revive, perhaps to create, an interest in a wonderful
set of writers far too little read ; to bring before you
some of their principal traits and finest passages; to
induce you, if I can, to read them yourselves. And for
this work I claim one qualification. The sound of their
beautiful language has rung in my ears from my very
earliest infancy. On the sacred soil of Florence and
Fiesole, before my memory of events begins, I drank in
the music of Tuscan equally with the notes of my own
tongue. I can remember no hour when everything
Italian was not set before me as a source of supreme
interest. Many here know Italy better than I do ; none
but a native can love her more.

If we begin our survey, then, with another than the
greatest name, there is no doubt what that first name


shall be. In the year 1304, the third of Dante's ban-
ishment, there was born to one of his fellow-exiles, in
the Tuscan city of Arezzo, a child who became known
as Francesco Petrarca. According to Dante, the men
of Arezzo were nothing but snappish curs, whereas in
Florence the breed had turned to wolves ; but a nobler
and gentler strain was the inheritance of "Francis
Petrark, the laureat poete," as he is called by Chau-
cer, who knew him well. No poet of Italy has had
more influence on his countrymen, or has been hailed
by them as more completely a model of thought and

The parents of Petrarch moved from Arezzo to Pisa,
where his education began at an early age ; and then,
finding no hope of restitution to their rights as Floren-
tine citizens, they passed to Avignon on the lower
Rhone, a city destined to influence mankind in gen-
eral, and Petrarch in particular, far beyond its
natural claims to distinction.

The state of Italy in Petrarch's lifetime might be
called exceptionally distressing, were it not that mis-
fortune has so uniformly haunted that country from
century to century that any particular era of suffer-
ing can only be looked upon as one stage in an almost
unbroken course of woe. Italy was seething with life;
art, literature, discovery were making rapid strides.
But her strong and wealthy cities were all torn by


hostile factions, ready one after another to fall into
the hands of some despot or oligarchy, and positively
courting the ruinous help of conquerors. Dante was
dreaming of a glorious universal kingdom under the
two heads of the pope and the emperor. The dream
in both its parts had scarcely an element of fact or
expediency to grow from. In Petrarch's childhood
mighty things were expected of the new emperor,
Henry of Luxembourg, who came down into It^ly only
to find a fruitless crown on his head, and a barren
sceptre in his gripe, and to die after two years, it was
said by poison, having carried fire and sword from
Milan to Naples without making a single real conquest.
Nor did any of his successors reestablish the sway over
Italy which had been called the special desire of
Heaven. Still less was the pope doing anything for
the Latin country and people. About the time when
Italy was dreading the emperor's arrival, Pope Clem-
ent V was persuaded by King Philip the Fair of
France to leave Rome altogether and move his seat to
Avignon, a transaction on which Dante pours out the
bitterest vials of his never moderate wrath. How-
ever it may have injured Rome or Italy, or the Church
in its higher interests, we cannot doubt that Avignon
was a far more eligible place of residence at this
time than the Eternal City, rent as that was by the
feuds of rival houses. The charming and cultivated


Provence, really another country than France, offered
in its classical towns every attraction of nature or art.
Here Petrarch was carefully educated in the science
of the law, the only lucrative occupation open to one
who did not care to be a soldier, a farmer, or a mer-
chant,— the law meaning chiefly the canon law, which
connected its practitioner with the Church. The boy,
however, was early drawn away from his professional
training by his passion for studying the great Latin
writers, which his father seems to have regarded much
as we do dime novels, throwing his son 's books into the
fire, from which only Francesco's tears rescued his
dear Cicero and Virgil.

He passed from the University of Montpellier to
that of Bologna. At the age of twenty he lost his
father, and finding, like Demosthenes, that his estate
was virtually ruined by unfaithful guardians, he re-
turned to make Avignon his home. His talents, his
learning, his industry, and his charm of manner at-
tracted friends constantly, and he became known to
many members of the Papal Court, especially two
brothers of the illustrious Roman house of Colonna,
whose intercourse inspired him with a new love for his
native country, and to whom he looked for the regen-
eration of Rome, and ultimately of Italy. Through
them he received preferment as a cathedral canon—
a position not involving the religious duties now be-


longing to it. But the controlling influence of his life
came from another source.

In April, 1327, he saw for the first time, at early
morning service on Good Friday, Laura de Noves, the
wife of Hugh de Sade, and immediately conceived a
passion for her w4iich henceforth dominated his whole
existence. We may accept Petrarch's statement that
she possessed every grace of body and mind, and that
a poet of twenty-three should pour out his whole heart
to her is not strange. Nor would it have been strange
if, in the atmosphere of Languedoc, laden with gal-
lantry much more than virtue, Laura had responded
to his passionate appeals. But this is exactly what did
not happen, and Petrarch's love, the love of a very sus-
ceptible man, was transformed into a still stronger
flame of respect, the admiration of a very high-minded
man, who had the keenest perception of everything
noble in literature or life. After trying in vain first
to crown and then to stifle his love, he travelled over
many parts of France and the neighboring countries,
but returned to bury himself in the lovely retreat of
Vaucluse, a few miles from Avignon, in the valley of
the Sorgue. Here he began to pour forth those love
songs and sonnets which made their way everywhere
that love and poetry bore sway, and Petrarch became
celebrated in an age of great men, in Italy of course
more than anywhere else.


He was roused in his retreat by the call of Pope
John XXII on all Christian peoples to unite in a new
crusade. The fiery response which Petrarch made to
his appeal induced him to send the poet on a mission
to Rome. But Petrarch was made sick at heart by what
the world's capital revealed to him, and returned to
his beloved Vaucluse, whence he filled all Europe with
the melodious tale of his love and his visions. In spite
of Dante's preference of the "vulgar tongue," that is,
Italian, to Latin as a vehicle for his thoughts, the
feeling still lingered in Italy that the language of Vir-
gil and Horace was the true medium for poetry. The
sonnets and other poems of Petrarch operated with
resistless force to dispel this feeling. Since his cen-
tury, many Italians of talent and some of genius have
written Latin verses; but the nation as a whole has
seen that its own natural tongue contains within itself
resources for every strain of poetry, from the loftiest
epic to the gayest banquet song or the bitterest satire.
Yet Petrarch himself was slow to perceive this truth,
and in the very hour when his Italian poems were
sending his own and his lady's name over Italy from
Milan to Palermo, he conceived that his life's work
should be to compose a Latin poem on Africa, of which
the hero was Scipio Afrieanus. But in any language
his genius had now stamped itself on his age, and he
was invited by the body which still called itself the


Roman Senate to come to the city and receive a laurel
crown. Such a proposal could hardly be refused ; but
Petrarch declared he must first be examined, and he
betook himself to Naples, where King Robert, with
only an equivocal reputation as a soldier and a ruler,
enjoyed the highest fame as a patron of letters. The
poet was duly examined by the king, who set his seal
on the worth that the world was recognizing, and
Petrarch, going to Rome, was drawn in splendor
"through the bellowing Forum and round the Suppli-
ants' Grove up to the everlasting gates of Capitolian
Jove," to receive the laurel of a purer and loftier
triumph than Camillus or Cffisar or his hero Scipio
had won for their blood-stained conquests. He went
back to Vaucluse, w^here he maintained his retreat for
a few more years. But he often crossed the Alps into
Italy, which, as he grew older, became dearer and
dearer to him. He had won such a vast number of
friends that he found constant occupation in the vain
effort to bring better times to Italy, and restore some-
thing like unity and dignity to the nation. Now it
was a luxurious and self-seeking pope whom he tried
to win back to Rome ; now it was his friend the fiery
tribune Rienzi, for a brief moment the regenerator of
the Eternal City, whom Petrarch upheld in his hour
of triumph, even though he had slaughtered his friends
the Colonnas, and again for whom in his time of ruin


he in vain begged the mercy of his conquerors ; now it
was a worthless German emperor whom Petrarch
hoped, as Dante had his predecessor of half a century
before, to arouse to some sense of his imperial position ;
now it was the court of the youthful Joanna of Naples,
which his gratitude to her father made him try to fire
with some spark of nobility and purity: all in vain!

He had sung the praises of Laura for more than
twenty years, and had borne her image unchanged in
his breast at home and abroad, in company and alone,
through glory and through intrigue, when western
Europe was assailed by the Black Death, that myste-
rious pestilence which swept away an immense portion
of every people,— the same which Boccaccio has com-
memorated in the Decameron. To this, in 1348, Laura
succumbed, twenty-one years to a day since her fea-
tures had captured his heart. This blow, though sad
premonitions of it had come over him more than once,
did not for a moment remove Laura's image from the
heart 'of Petrarch, but it chastened and elevated his
love, and gave his poems written after her death a
far higher tone than those of his earlier life.

This sobering effect was helped by his visit, in 1350,
to the jubilee at Rome; a ceremony still replete with
dignity and feeling, though the pontiff who should
have directed it was lounging and intriguing hundreds
of miles away. For the rest of Petrarch's life the


youthful follies and the waywardness of early man-
hood were at an end ; his mind, always susceptible to
religious emotion, turned more and more to higher
concerns; and this impulse had its noblest work in
reclaiming from wild frivolity to a sense of better
things his illustrious friend Boccaccio.

It would be unprofitable, were it possible, to follow
the poet along the last twenty years of his life. They
were passed almost entirely in Italy, chiefly in the
cities of the north, where he was always received with
honor. In due time the sentence of exile against his
name was reversed, and he was able to visit Florence,
which he had always looked on as his native city, with
dignity and pleasure. Yet it is a sad thought that,
received with distinction in every city, he could not
retain a permanent home in any, the miserable fac-
tions, supported by mercenary bands, vying with each
other to render any residence unsafe for any great
man. The death of Petrarch occurred at Arqua, near
Padua, where he was found dead, his head resting on a
book, on the 18th of July, 1374.

To estimate Petrarch aright, we must look at him in
three aspects: First, as an Italian patriot, who tried
to bring all the various forces which controlled her
fate into harmonious and honorable union, he ranks
with the very noblest of those who have illustrated

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Online LibraryWilliam EverettThe Italian poets since Dante → online text (page 1 of 15)