William Everett.

The Italian poets since Dante online

. (page 10 of 15)
Online LibraryWilliam EverettThe Italian poets since Dante → online text (page 10 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

of Volterra and then of Pisa, in both of which posts
his pleasing manners, kindly disposition, and deep
sense of duty made his administration most acceptable
to the citizens and to his master. He continued to
write poetry; but it was all in a deeply religious, al-
most mystical strain, and he died on the 24th of
September, 1707.

The victory odes of Filicaja are in the highest tone
of lyric poetry. The only serious criticism that can
be made on them is that they are overloaded with clas-
sical allusions, sometimes obscure. Thus, the Turks
are Thracians; Constantinople is Byzantium; and
thus the air is heavy with the perfume, or rather the
reek, of later Rome. Italian poets, as far back as Dante,
were not content with drawing largely on Virgil,
Horace, or even Ovid for phrase, images, and scenes,
but were great students of Statins, whom readers of
Dante will remember he praises to adulation in the
"Purgatorio," partly from being misled by a tradition
that Statins was in secret a Christian. Marino and
Filicaja both show the influence of Statins, who was
undoubtedly a man of great poetic genius and copious
learning, 'But painfully tainted with the bombastic
obscurity of the reign of Domitian, of which worthless
tyrant his necessities had made him an abject courtier.

One of Filicaja 's sonnets has always been recognized


as of supreme beauty, expressing, with a directness,
force, and pathos which no translation can possibly
render, the never-comforted sorrows of Italian patriots
at the subjection of their lovely land to foreign con-

Italy, Italy, thou who hast from fate

The luckless gift of beauty, whence distress
Comes as thy fatal dower, in wretchedness

Upon thy brow to bear in branded weight,

O were thy beauty less, or force more great

That he might dread thee more, or love thee less,
Who in the splendor of thy loveliness

Seems dying, yet defies with deadly hate;

Then from the Alps I should not see descend
The armed torrents, nor the Gallic horde

Drink from the Po its blood defiled wave;
Nor see thyself, girt with another 's sword.

The stranger 's arm against thyself defend,
Victor or vanquished, still to be a slave.

Macaulay's "The Deliverance of Vienna" is thus
translated from Filicaja :

The chords, the sacred chords of gold,

Strike, O Muse, in measure bold;
And frame a sparkling wreath of joyous songs
For that great God to whom revenge belongs.

"Who shall resist his might.

Who marshals for the fight
Earthquake and thunder, hurricane and flame?

He smote the haughty rac3

Of unbelieving Thrace,

And turned their rage to fear, their pride to shame.

He looked in wrath from high
Upon their vast array;


And in the twinkling of an eye

Tambour, and trump, and battle-cry.

And steeds, and turbaned infantry,
Passed like a dream away.
Such power defends the mansions of the just;

But, like a city without walls,

The grandeur of the mortal falls
Who glories in his strength, and makes not God his trust.

As the curling smoke-wreaths fly
"When fresh breezes clear the sky.
Passed away each swelling boast
Of the misbelieving host.
From the Hebrus rolling far
Came the murky cloud of war,
And in shower and tempest dread
Burst on Austria's fenceless head.
But not for vaunt or threat
Didst Thou, O Lord, forget
The flock so dearly bought, and loved so well.
Even in the very hour
Of guilty pride and power
Full on the circumcised Thy vengeance fell.

Then the fields were heaped with dead.
Then the streams with gore were red,
And every bird of prey, and every beast,
From wood and cavern thronged to Thy great feast.

Beneath Thy withering look

Their limbs with palsy shook;
Scattered on the earth the crescent banners lay;

Trembled with panic fear

Sabre and targe and spear,
Through the proud armies of the rising day.

Faint was each heart, unnerved each hand;

And, if they strove to charge or stand,
Their efforts were as vain

As his who, scared in feverish sleep

By evil dreams, essays to leap.
Then backward falls again.


With a crash of wild dismay,

Their ten thousand ranks gave way;

Fast they broke, and fast they fled;

Trampled, mangled, dying, dead.

Horse and horseman mingled lay.

Till the mountains of the slain

Kaised the valleys to the plain.
Be all the glory to thy name divine!
The swords were ours; the arm, O Lord, was Thine.

The odes of Filieaja do not seem to have roused
his countrymen to any poetical emulation. But before
he had been long dead, all Europe was ringing with
the triumphs of Italy in one department of the fine
arts, to which poetry largely contributed— namely,
the opera, or musical drama ; and one of those who
wrote plays in verse to be set to music obtained a
colossal reputation, and for many years was almost
worshipped by his countrymen— Pietro Metastasio.

The lyric drama, or opera, appears to have assumed
a definite form about the year 1600. For a full cen-
tury musical artists were as they are now, so arrogant
that no poet of any real genius, if such there were,
cared to write upon the fantastic conditions which
they imposed, not only upon metrical but on dramatic
form. The evil cured itself, for the poetry of the
opera became so miserable that the musicians them-
selves called for a remedy. The first person of any
real poetic power that wrote for the musical stage
was Apostolo Zeno, a great man in his day, but whose
voluminous operas would hardly repay our scrutiny.


He was made court poet by the Emperor Charles VI,
and when he retired, was succeeded hy Metastasio.
This writer was in one respect a contrast to all the
poets we have yet considered, for he was the son of a
man in the humblest rank of life, named Trapassi, and
was born at Rome on the 3d of January, 1698. His
father, who maintained some good connections, did
his best to educate him ; but what brought him forward
was his natural musical talent, his exquisite voice, his
early comprehension of its use, and his power of
improvisation, always so popular in Italy. These tal-
ents literally caught the ear of Gravina, a learned
lawyer and student of letters, who agreed with the
boy's father to take entire charge of his living and
education, and, indeed, of his future. This he did, and
carried the process of adoption so far that he had
his name changed from the Italian Trapassi to what
was supposed to be its Greek equivalent, Metastasio.
By Gravina the young man was thoroughly trained
in literature, and especially for what had been the
great ambition of Gravina 's own life, the reform of
the Italian stage, which was degraded beyond concep-
tion, by the study of dramatic masterpieces in other
tongues. He did not, however, let him confine his
studies to literature, but included in his training also
philosophy and jurisprudence. But this patronage did
not last very long, for Gravina died in 1718, leaving to


his young friend a respectable heritage, including,
however, three official posts of which Metastasio had
firmly expected to secure the succession. In this, how-
ever, he was disappointed ; the enemies of Gravina, and
some who were already jealous of his rising poetical
reputation, had the posts transferred to another. He
found himself in debt, and hastily transferred his
residence to Naples. Here he received good patronage,
and composed various pieces for the musical theatre,
which added to his reputation; but all these early
productions were thrown into the shade by his opera,
or musical play, of the ' ' Deserted Dido, ' ' which took
Naples by storm in 1724, and raised his fame to un-
rivalled brilliancy in that line of composition.

The story of Dido, as told in Virgil's divine poem,
suggests unlimited dramatic opportunities. But when
one reads Metastasio 's opera, written in the city which
Virgil made his home, one knows not whether to cry
or laugh. The scene is laid in Carthage ; there is a
queen named Dido, who has a sister; there are two
lovers, uEneas and larbas ; ^neas sails off to Italy
in spite of Dido's efforts to detain him, and she dies
a violent death within her city's walls. And these
four lines and a half exhaust all the resemblances of
the two poems. Language, sentiment, action, tone, are
all not merely different but alien ; as different as Don
Quixote from Richard Coeur de Lion. The whole


story is turned upside down to give room for passion-
ate scenes ending with operatic solos. But Italy went
wild over the opera ; it was performed everywhere. Its
success in Naples was largely owing to an actress
called La Romanina,with whom Metastasio maintained
the closest intimacy. The success of the opera enabled
him to pay off his Roman creditors, and he planned
living again in Rome, But in 1729 the Emperor
Charles VI summoned him to Vienna as court poet
in succession to Zeno. He established his father and
family in comfort, took an agonizing farewell of La
Romanina, and left Italy forever, making his home
in Vienna from 1730 to his death in 1782. He re-
mained in the highest favor with the emperor till that
monarch's death. His daughter Maria Theresa was en-
tirely friendly to the poet, but for two periods in her
reign all court festivals had to be kept in check. But
for much the greater part of the half-century Metas-
tasio continued to pour out his lyrical plays for music.
He was a universal favorite, very benevolent and very
modest, refusing many marks of distinction unsuited
to his post, never replying to any attack, and honored
by proofs of esteem from every one worth knowing.
He had the satisfaction of printing a magnificent edi-
tion of his works, which he could well afford to do, and
of receiving on his death-bed the blessing of Pope Pius
VI, then on a visit to the Emperor Joseph II.


The praises which were showered on Metastasio as a
poet in his lifetime and since are almost incredible.
Rousseau says : "He is the only poet of the heart ; the
only genius made to move us by the charm of poetic
and musical harmony." Voltaire also declares that
some of his scenes are equal to the sublimest that
Greece has given us. I own I cannot tell what these
distinguished men are talking about. I have read a
considerable number of his operas, including some that
are called divine; and I can find little in dialogue,
characters, or plot that rises above commonplace.
It seems to me as if a purely conventional set of
people, labelled Persians, Greeks, Romans, etc., who
might interchange names and situations without in-
jury, lash themselves into fear, love, anger, and jeal-
ousy through three acts, violating every record of
history, every possibility of situation, and every proba-
bility of result in order to make everybody forgiving
and happy at the end, and supply songs for all the
four voices.

The hash he makes of history and legend is pecu-
liarly irritating. In order to stick to the preposterous
unities of place and time, events that actually con-
sumed weeks, or even years, are crowded into hours,
and any persons whose names are in the least connected
with the hero are brought together into one place
where they could not have met without instant slaugh-


ter. He has a drama on Cato,— a man whose fate is as
well known as President Lincoln's. Cato and his
daughter, Juba, Caesar and Pompey's widow, Cornelia,
all come together within the walls of Utica, Caesar and
Cato's daughter being in love with each other. As if
this were not absurd enough, Cornelia is renamed
Emilia and Juba Arbaces, because those names are
more musical ; which is as if Washington, John
Adams, Sir William Howe, and General Warren's
widow were all to meet in Philadelphia, Mrs. Warren
being called Mrs. Hamilton and John Adams (with
whose wife Howe is in love) called Hernando Cortez
— as more musical.

I suppose that between a devotee of music and one
like myself, who cares nothing for it and is a devoted
admirer of poetry, there will be endless feud as to
setting words to music. But it seems to me the exac-
tions of musical composers and performers will al-
ways prevent the highest poetical genius from sub-
jecting his productions to their tyranny. When the
poet is dead and cannot help it, we have the result
that a play of superhuman beauty like the "Midsum-
mer Night's Dream" has to be subjected to the theories
of Mendelssohn, a man whom his warmest admirers
will hardly call a musical Shakespeare, who turned
Puck into Ariel and destroyed all the charm of the
heavenly lyrics.


Where Metastasio does exhibit extraordinary powers
of a peculiar kind is this: just before a new scene,
that is, before an exit or an entrance, an air is sung,
which consists of one or two stanzas in short rhymed
couplets. These stanzas are very simple and very
beautiful. They have that peculiar poetic melody
which instantly seizes on the ear and sings itself.
They are like Moore's "Irish Melodies"; and the
liquid character of the Italian language, which Metas-
tasio always employs in perfect purity, is exquisitely
brought out in these simple lyrics. Sometimes they
show the speaker's state of mind in continuation of the
dialogue; sometimes general sentiments with entirely
appropriate illustrations and similes from nature.
Very many of these are from the sea, its forces and
perils. Now, as Metastasio knew nothing of the sea at
Rome, and less, if one may say so, at Vienna, it is
clear that his life at Naples, where the sea is all, took
strong hold on him.

I shall attempt what is exceedingly difficult and un-
satisfying—a translation of a few of these lovely
songs. They are, as the Italians themselves would say,
Italianissimi. To the rest of Metastasio I do not wish
to be unjust, but when one opens at random and finds
in one of his admired plays this stuff, contempt is
scarcely appeased by the music of the close.

But what to you, ye stars,

Hath wretched Dirce done, that all these woes


You join against her? You that have inspired
The chaste affections in our spirits, you
Who at the holy nuptials did attend
Give your protection, gods! I am confused;
The blow o'erwhelms me so
That my heart fails me, and my reason strays.
I saw the bay invite me;

I thought the wind was quiet;
Now by the tempest 's riot
Away my bark is whirled.
And while on rocks that smite me
I strove to keep from dashing,
On rocks yet fiercer crashing
My helpless craft is hurled.

A more vigorous scene is that where Ulysses detects
Achilles in woman's dress and urges him to east it off
and come to Troy with him ; but the best point in it
is deliberately taken from Tasso.

(Achilles, and Ulysses with Areas at the side)

Ac. Where am I? What do I hear? I feel the hair
Kise on my forehead! What a misty cloud
Obscures my vision! What a flame is this
Wherefrom I feel enkindled I
I cannot curb myself. To arms! To arms!

Ul. Look at him.

Ac. And this lute

Is then Achilles' arms? Ah, no; my fate
Others and worthier offers. Down to earth
Vile instrument! This weighty buckler here
My arm disgraced invites
To lift its honored burden; in this hand
Let blaze the sword. Ah, I begin again
To see myself! O were I but the head
Of thousand thousand troops!

Ul. And who shall be, if not Achilles here?

Ac. Ye gods! what sayst Ulysses?


TJl. Mighty soul,

Child of the gods, invincible Achilles,
Let me at last embrace thee. To pretend.
The time is past. Yes, thou the hope of Greece,
Her honor art thou.

Thou art the dread of Asia; why repress
The generous impulses
Of thy high mettled heart, worthy of thee?
Assist them, noble lord. I know, I see
Thou canst not curb thyself. Come, I will lead
To laurels and to trophies; Greece in arms
Is waiting only thee; Asia, her foe,

Cowers at thy name alone. Come.
Ac. Yes, I come.

Lead me where'er thou wilt. . . . But . . .
Ul. What retains thee?

Ac. And Deidamia?
Ul. And Deidamia shall

One day behold thee with the laurel crowned

And worthier of her love.
Ac. Meanwhile . . .

Ul. Meanwhile

That with the flames of war

Is blazing all the earth; from all concealed

Wilt thou in vile inaction languish here?

The age to come would say:

The wall of Dardanus

By Diomede was stormed; from Hector won

Idomeneus the spoil, and Priam 's throne

In ashes levelled low

Sthenelus, Ajax; what did Achilles do?

Achilles in a gown

Dragged on his days among the Scyrian maids

Mingled and buried, sleeping to the sound

Of others' arduous deeds.

Be that tale false; awake at length; redeem

So grave an error; let no man again

Behold thee in these weeds. Ah, couldst thou see


How all must laugh to view
A warrior in these trappings! in this shield
Mayst see him. Look, AchiUes. Tell me true:
Dost know thyself?
Ac. O shameful, O unworthy

Trammels to valor, how could I till now
Endure your burden! Lead, Ulysses, lead
To don my armor. With these fetters bound
Longer I will not stay.
Ul. Come. (I have won.)

From "Catone" I take the address of Pompey's

widow to his shade :

"If others' foolish loves I hear with pain.
And if I still am living since thy doom,
Pardon, O spouse beloved,
Pardon; no arms I find
But these to aid my vengeance. All my love
I gave to thee; for thee I keep it; when
My weary life shall end, it will remain

In the same bonds entwined
If the dead love indeed beyond the tomb.
O if in some fair planet's gleam

Thou keep for me, dear soul, a home,
Or on the bank of Lethe's stream,

I will not scorn thee,— I will come.
Yes, T will come, but be there laid

Before me, in a traitor 's tomb.
The impious tyrant's cruel shade
That armed the world, to cause thy doom.

From the " Clemenza di Tito " :

Nay, if thou wish to please.
From thy suspicions cease;
And from thy doubts repeated
My weary soul relieve.


He who believes in blindness
Enforces faith by kindness;
Who always thinks he's cheated
Allures us to deceive.

From " Artaserse " :

The flood, from ocean parted,
Valley and mountain bathes.
Along the river glideth.
Chained in the ground abideth,
It groans and murmurs ever

Till it to ocean come —
To ocean, where its waters
It drew, a wayward rover,
Where, aU its wanderings over.

It hopes to rest at home.

A less important person in the history of Italian
poetry, but more so in literature as a whole, is Carlo
Goldoni, the reformer, one may say creator, of Italian
comedy. Goldoni has written the story of his life and
productions, which is infinitely amusing, but the va-
ried adventures are not too easy to follow and im-
possible to condense. He was born at Venice in 1707,
and sucked in comedy with his breath, for his
grandfather, a man of some property, had a private
theatre at his house. The boy was remarked for his
perfect good-nature and sweet temper from the hour
of his birth, and no man ever got more content out of
really serious troubles. His grandparents dying when
he was a mere child left the family embarrassed, and


his father going to Rome to better his fortune, his
wife found herself in charge of Charles and a new-
bom brother. To Charles she devoted herself that he
might be trained for a profession. But he read every
comedy he could lay his hands on, and wrote one when
only eight years old, which was sent to his father at
Rome. He was greatly delighted, and encouraged his
son's rising talent in every possible way. Having es-
tablished himself as a physician at Perugia, he fol-
lowed the grandfather's example in building a private
theatre, where the boy was enrolled as one of the
actors. Going to Rimini to study philosophy, which
he found inexpressibly dull, and being delighted with
a company of actors, he quitted studies and teachers,
and joined the actors on their journey to Venice,
under pretext of visiting his mother, who was then
living on the road.

The rebellion was condoned by her delight at seeing
the gay, brilliant, sweet-tempered boy again. And
so he went on in his father's life and afterwards— now
a diligent student at the University of Pavia, now
expelled from it for a satire on the townspeople in a
quarrel with the students, now holding a financial
post by favor of a relation, now taking up success-
fully the calling of an advocate at Venice, now en-
tangled in a love intrigue in a remote part of the
Venetian dominions, and then marrying a Genoese


lady and becoming a devoted husband; now having
his property stopped at a custom-house at Rimini,
going to interview an Austrian official ten miles off,
being deserted by a postilion before he had got far, and
walking the rest of the way, which involved fording
a stream with his wife on his back, being happily
greeted by the officer with compliments and favor for
his dramatic talents.

Through all these vicissitudes and a dozen more
he kept steadily in view the reform of the comic
stage. Comedy was thoroughly popular throughout
Italy, but in a singular form. The actors were all
masked, and the play, as furnished to them, was
little more than the situation with a mere sketch of
dialogue, which they were to fill out extempore,— and
there were a regular set of conventional characters
each displaying the dialect and humor of some partic-
ular city. Goldoni proposed to write his comedies at
length; he deliberately formed his style on Moliere,
and proposed to make the interest turn on character
and dialogue as well as on situations. In this design he
was immensely successful. He contracted with Sacchi,
a manager, to furnish four comedies a year for five
years. He went so far in advance of any proper de-
mands as to furnish sixteen the very first season. Nat-
urally his health broke down, but his manager would
give him nothing beyond his bargain, and put every


difficulty in the way of printing his plays. When his
hard contract was ended, he formed a more advanta-
geous connection, and printed his pieces with brilliant
success, continuing to pour them out with incredible
facility. They are almost all Venetian in character,
embodying the peculiarities and. dialect of that city.
There was some jealousy about their performance in
other parts of Italy, and, particularly in Bologna, a
hard struggle in favor of the old masked plays. But
genius triumphed at length, and Goldoni was recog-
nized all over Italy as the creator of true comedy.
Wherever he went he was received with high honor ;
the Duke of Parma regularly engaged him for his
service. He at length accomplished an early wish to
visit Paris. He became attached to the minor court
of the daughters of Lewis XV and his son, ladies in
whose education he helped. But, as with so many of
his predecessors, the attention and payments he re-
ceived from his royal patrons were very intermittent.
Moreover, the pieces he had written for the Italian
stage were not so successful as at home, and after
many years he took the bold resolution to write in
French. The experiment succeeded perfectly. His
pieces were played enthusiastically by the best actors,
and his court appointments put on a better basis by
Lewis XVI. His position in the most cultivated so-
ciety grew every day stronger, and having outlived


almost all his royal friends, he saw the Revolution
break out. This for a time stopped his pension, and he
was on the edge of destitution, when, by an extraordi-
nary act of favor, it was restored by the Convention,
at the instance of Chenier, the day before Goldoni
died ; but his wife was not left unprovided for.

This is a very fragmentary selection from one of
the wittiest autobiographies in the history of litera-
ture. The liveliness of plot, language, and character
of Goldoni is beyond dispute. But only a very small
portion of his writings, the rhymed comedies, concerns
this course. These may very properly be classed with
such plays as the "Merchant of Venice" and "Much
Ado About Nothing," where a series of incidents
which might easily have a tragic end is enlivened by
those of an amusing character, and ends happily.
One excellent trilogy of Goldoni 's plays in verse is
called "The Persian Wife," the scene being laid in
Ispahan. A young man who has long been attached
to a high-spirited Armenian slave, and treated her in
all respects as his wife, is called upon by his father to
take another wife, the daughter of a powerful friend.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryWilliam EverettThe Italian poets since Dante → online text (page 10 of 15)