William Everett.

The Italian poets since Dante online

. (page 11 of 15)
Online LibraryWilliam EverettThe Italian poets since Dante → online text (page 11 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

He would be very willing to keep both, according to
Oriental usages. But the first wife has heard of
European ways and insists on being his only wife or
none at all. The story is developed in three parts, and
ends with the triumph of the father's selection, partly


owing to her sweeter temper and the disposal elsewhere
of the captive wife. The comic element is chiefly sup-
plied by two persons of servile rank, and partly, in a
gentler way, by a confidential friend of the hero. The
whole is immensely spirited. But Goldoni is still under
the influence of the theory, by virtue of which Conti-
nental writers shudder at Shakespeare, that there is a
certain dignity even in comedy, and that heroes and
heroines, kings and princesses, must never make a joke,
all the fun coming from an inferior class. To such
Prince Hal is an outrage; they would be willing to
have a prince break his father's heart by dissipation,
but he must not be funny.

Another excellent comedy of Goldoni 's is "The
Dalmatian Lady," founded on the incident of a cap-
tivity among the Moors of Tetuan, which was in-
deed much too probable an event to be very amusing
in the ports of Italy in 1750. The incidents and
characters are very lively, and the contrast between
the chivalry, not only of the Venetian captives, but
of the Moorish lord himself, with the meanness of a
slave-broker, is capital. These metrical comedies owe
no small part of their life to the verse. This is called
Martelliana, from a poet of the preceding generation.
It is the metre of the oldest Latin poets, and in them
is called Saturniran ; it is also the metre of "The Cid"
and "The Niebelungen, " and, as Macaulay says,


(though, strangely enough, he misquotes it) of the

nursery rhyme,

The king was in the parlor, counting out his money;
The queen was in the kitchen, eating bread and honey.

This metre falls easily into English, as the follow-
ing extract from ' ' The Dalmatian Lady ' ' shows :

M. The poor unlucky creature! How sad her situation!

Oh if it would only please her, I 'd give her consolation.
C. Oh! Oh! to give her comfort, she's looking for another;

And if she felt like changing, you would n 't suit her,
M. So then, if her Lisaurus she finds remaining true,

No interest in my pity has Argenis: and you?
C. I don 't despise your pity, but let 'a be comprehending ;

By this fine name of pity, pray what are you intending?
M. Exactly what you wish me; your looks are very nice.

And willingly to buy you, I 'd fork out any price.

Three wives are at my orders, and that with us is few.

With all my heart I offer the place of fourth to you.
C. I never dealt in courting till now in all my life.

I 'd rather not begin it to be a Turkish wife;

With but a single husband four consorts by uniting

I think one makes it certain there always would be

And if enforced agreement 's a Turkish institution.

So beautiful a custom don't suit my constitution.
M. They 've really quite bewitched me, these lovely eyes of

To win her gracious favor, there 's naught I would not do.

Enough. I want to buy her, and when I 've bought, to

By force or inclination, it 's here she '11 have to tarry.

The fashions of her nation she'll find don't suit our
plans ;

With aU these haughty ladies we simply use rattans;


And if among our spouses there should break out a

"We find a stick efficient to emphasize a moral.

I have pointed out how, at the beginning of the
seventeenth century, a manly effort was made by Tas-
soni to give a stronger tone to poetry by the use of
satire. A still more vigorous effort of the same kind
was made nearly two centuries later by Casti.

John Baptista Casti was born in 1721, but of his
early life we know little. He became a professor in
a seminary at Montepulciano and bore, like Metastasio,
the title of Abate, whatever that quasi-clerical term
may imply. He had a great taste for travelling, and
gladly accepted an invitation from the tutor of the
Grand Duke of Tuscany, afterwards the Emperor Leo-
pold II, to return with him to Vienna. He was well
received by the Emperor Joseph II, who, after the
death of Metastasio, gave him the title, in his case ap-
parently an honorary one, of Court Poet. But his
great delight was to join the retinue of various ambas-
sadoi*s. In this way he visited St. Petersburg, Berlin,
Dresden, and some lesser German courts. After
Joseph's death he took up his abode in Florence, and
at the age of seventy-seven went to Paris, where he
ended his life.

He was a very delightful companion, his travels en-
abling him to fill his conversation with amusing sto-


ries. He was a voluminous writer, and, even in old
age, hardly let a day pass without composing a novel,
as it was called— that is, a rhymed story in the style
of Boccaccio's "Decameron." These stories are very
witty, and the verse is excellent, but the excessive
freedom of the tone soon becomes nauseous. Casti
lived to the age of eighty-two, and died unexpectedly
after taking cold. His great work, which he completed
and printed at eighty-one, is called ''Animali Par-
lanti," or "Talking Beasts."

This is a mock-epic in twenty-six cantos. It is in
six-lined stanzas, which admit of easier play than
eight-line. The theme is that, in prehistoric ages, the
quadrupeds, stirred up by the dog, voted to establish
a hereditary monarchy. Many candidates were pro-
posed, but the lion and the elephant alone w^ere really
considered. The dog's eloquence carried it for the
lion and he was crowned. At once a court is organized
with all due form. The dog becomes prime minister,
the bull grand marshal, the ape master of ceremonies,
the cat chief of police, the tigress chief lady of the
bedchamber. All goes well till the lion-king sickens
and dies. The lioness being appointed regent for her
sadly deficient son, new officers have to be appointed.
The ass is the boy-king's governor and the parrot his
tutor. The fox soon contrives to supplant the dog,
who goes in high dudgeon to find the elephant in his


retirement, and being speedily joined by the tigress,
starts a rebellion. The first attempt to reduce it by
force proving eminently unsuccessful, the quadruped
regent enters into an alliance with the eagle, queen of
the birds. Whereupon the rebels ally themselves with
the great dragon, emperor of the reptiles. The plot is
worked out through every variety of truce, negotiation,
intrigue, battle, and what not. It ends with a great
cataclysm, the few surviving animals losing the gift
of speech.

It is all immensely witty. It is the bitterest kind of
satire on what Casti had seen in his long life at great
courts and little courts and under the new French
republic. The weakness of kings, the heartlessness of
ministers, the meanness of courtiers, the humbug of
diplomats, the utter disregard of the people, are shown
under the disguise of different animals. There is not
a public or oflScial character whom Casti does not
clothe in exactly the right animal skin. Does he want
a noble and faithful subject, loathing all court tricks
and bribes, but trying to save a worthless master in
counsel and in the field? There is the horse! Is it
proposed to establish a court journal to translate all
rumors and news into forms favorable to the court
interest, and is an editor wanted? There is the mag-
pie, in Italian gazza, whence, says Casti, is derived
gazette. Is there wanted a solemn ecclesiastic to de-


clare the counsels of that mysterious being, the Grand
Cucu ? Lo, you have the owl !

The allegory is sometimes tedious, and runs into
details quite absurd as applied to beasts and birds;
but these are relieved by bursts of seriousness, where
Casti, without mask or cloak, pours out his contempt
and wrath on the wickedness and folly of those who
rule the nations. And truly, to one who had studied
Catherine of Russia, Frederic the Great and his suc-
cessor, Joseph and Leopold, the smaller German
princes, and the French Directory, no wrath could be
too hot, no sarcasm too biting. It is a little strange
that Bonaparte should have allowed the "Animali
Parlanti" to be published, but it was doubtless his
game to let all other sovereigns be held up to contempt.

Hereat arrived, the ambassador, Lord Fox,
And faithful dragoman, Sir Popinjay,

Began the task of climbing up the rocks ;
But woe if once he let a footstep stray;

Down he would tumble from the rugged ledge

Precipitate upon the water's edge.

The pinion-bearing quadrupedal things
That were assigned him as his equipage

Moved on, assisting him with feet and wings
At every inconvenient mountain stage;

So safe and sound at length by their support.

The fox attained at last the eagle 's court.

The centre of her home the eagle stood.

Within the rocky mountain's highest cleft;


As minister, a bird of mightiest brood,

A fierce and stalwart vulture at her left,
The ancestor of him of whom 't is said
That on Prometheus' liver he was fed.

Eiiffling her wings, her great eyes glow and blaze;

With golden plumes her back was covered o'er;
Full on the sun she sets her fearless gaze

When o'er the clouds she spreads her vans to soar:
Whence Greece of yore her foolish legends told,
And gave her claws the thunderbolt to hold.

When, with his solemn pomp and stately train,
The awful presence of the aerial queen

The envoy of the lion could attain.

And made his bow most reverent to be seen,

An eloquent harangue he then unsheathed

That Cicero 's own self could scarce have breathed.

"O royal bird, that with sublimest flight

Dost run athwart the fields of air immense,
Lifting thyself to an unmeasured height,

O'er flame and bolt, where are thy deeds? thy sense 1
Prepare the terrors of thy beak and claws
Thine own to shelter and the common cause.

* * In danger stands the splendor of the throne,
In danger is the honor of the crowns;
If force united to the pride full blown

Of daring beasts shall not prescribe some bounds.
Soon shall we see — 't is true past doubting — aU
The animalian kingdoms meet their fall.

' * If to beat down the four-foot empire try

Those wanton, treacherous, and rebellious herds,
Keep thou the dread contagion in thine eye;

Soon will there come the like among the birds.
When crimes unpunished go, we know full well
The numbers of the criminals they swell.


"Wherefore, commissioned by my king, I came
To offer thee reciprocal alliance
Unsullied to maintain the monarch 's name
And bid our empire 's enemies defiance.
For, if one king the powers of hell should ravage,
All other kings will be not worth a cabbage. ' '

O honor, honor! Cruel god! Mankind —

To worship thee must countless treasure spend ;

Who with thy juggling tricks the world dost blind,
And name and cloak to crimes enormous lend,

Shifting like Proteus still, and to our eyes

Dost scarce disclose thyself in truthful guise.

Not here to private outrage I allude.

If e 'er a foenian stabs his f oeman 's heart,
Or if a friend in homicidal feud.

By slight punctilio urged, a jealous smart
Against his friend be to deal a blow bestung, —
'Tis public wickedness that arms my tongue.

The slaughter and the cruel butchery,

The universal suffering of man,
Of living men the wreck and misery,

Is honor! honor! named by the mad elan
That plies war's trade; and honor! honor! still
The politician's bloody mouth will fill.

If such thou art, O fatal deity.

That scatterest the seed of countless woe,

If such thou art as we are wont to see
When hostile passion lets its fury go.

Far be thy ghastly image from our path.

And heaven destroy thee in avenging wrath!



The degeneration of Italian poetry at the time of
our Independence was so great that its restoration
was sure to be a revolution— a harsh and violent
process by which a Cromwell or Napoleon should
strike a rude but necessary blow at the luscious lan-
guors which did duty for form, sense, and feeling.
And certainly the master's hand, when he did come,
was no gentle one.

Vittorio Alfieri was born at Asti in Piedmont in
1749, on the 17tli of January, forty-three years after
Franklin ; and, like Franklin, he has told us the story
of his own life and literary work with a fearless can-
dor which stands in most honorable contrast to the ar-
tificiality of the style which he combated so gallantly
and victoriously. He belonged to a noble family,
of considerable wealth, well disposed to advance him
either in the army or diplomacy, the only occupations
which it was supposed an Italian nobleman could
follow, if only he would meekly fall into the ways of

his world. But to that his nature said "No!" He



was put to school very young in a college at Turin,
under little supervision except that of a family ser-
vant, who tyrannized over him for his own pleasure.
Here Aliieri went through a variety of subjects under
rules not in themselves absurd, but sure to gall a
fiery, original spirit which longed to do something
great and free, yet had not the faintest idea of what
that something might be. Piedmont was then under
a pure despotism; the king had many of the noble
qualities of his gallant house, but was wholly bound
by the monarchical and ecclesiastical traditions of the
Bourbons, to whom he was nearly allied, and unable
to give impulse or guidance to any scheme of national
elevation. The academy where Alfieri was placed,
with its petty restrictions, its old-world studies, and
its utter want of expansion and freedom, was a type
of the nation ; and he developed, at a very early age, a
love of liberty, and a hatred of anything like tyranny,
which breaks out in a score of ways throughout his
life and his poems.

At fourteen, by the laws of Piedmont, he was re-
leased from guardianship, and came into possession
of considerable property. His first use of compara-
tive freedom was to travel— comparative, since by
the same laws no nobleman could leave the country
without the king's consent. Alfieri visited the prin-
cipal Italian cities, with a kind of tutorial companion


and a long train of servants. Having a smattering
of several branches of learning, and an accurate know-
ledge of none ; speaking moderately good French with
strangers, and with his own people the wretched patois
of Piedmont, and knowing less of refined and classical
Italian than he did of Latin, he rushed from state to
state, seeing little and learning less of what better
equipped travellers seek to see and know. He had
scarcely got back from this Italian trip than the pas-
sion for travelling broke out again, and casting off
any tutor's care, he pushed his explorations through
France, which he always hated, England, which he
always enjoyed, and Holland. At every stage of his
travels he found his proud, sensitive, exclusive temper
chafed by a score of uncongenial encounters; and
became quite conscious of his own ignorance, and un-
fitness to grapple with the world which showed him
such low and unattractive characters. Accordingly,
as soon as he could rest at home, he began to work
in his own way at the studies which had taken no
hold of him as a boy under others. He became fully
aware that the language of his own country was
scarcely known to him. He read eagerly the four
great poets, especially Ariosto, of which he had
gained some surreptitious knowledge in his school-
days, and Macchiavelli, whom he justly thought the
master of Italian prose. Soon he was off on a longer


journey, extended to countries which Italians rarely
visited, — Sweden, Denmark, Russia, and Prussia.
Everywhere he sought to study institutions, and cul-
tivated, as far as a strange, fastidious pride would
allow him, intelligent company. But he manifested no-
where the interest in natural scenery which travellers
now always affect and sometimes feel, nor yet in art
or architecture. His dislike of France was confirmed,
and so was his love of England and English liberty;
but he construed the latter with strange latitude, get-
ting entangled in a wretched love intrigue with the
wife of Lord Ligonier, a very distinguished soldier
of those days, with whom he fought a duel, only to
find that the object of his passion was as unworthy of
her lover as she had been of her husband. Thisonlser-
able experience of foreign parts did not check his
persistency in travel, which he pushed as far as Lis-
bon and Cadiz. Returning at last to Turin, he estab-
lished himself in luxury among his young literary,
or would-be literary, friends, only to become involved
in another love-affair, to which he surrendered him-
self with his usual unchecked ardor, finding himself
unable to break it off, though he tried to set against
this passion his other passion for travelling, going
many leagues with a large suite, and then returning
in secret and alone. At last, his mistress being in
ill health and confined to solitude and quiet, he was


seated one day in lier apartments unoccupied, and at
hand some leaves of writing-paper. On these, to amuse
himself, he proceeded to sketch certain scenes between
Cleopatra and her confidante, though he says he
might as well have called his heroine Berenice or
Zenobia, being led to the name of Cleopatra only be-
cause the tapestries of his lady's apartment exhib-
ited the story of Cleopatra and Antony. When his
paper was exhausted he thrust the sketch under the
cushion of the sofa, and there the leaves remained un-
touched for more than a year,— neat housekeeping,
that!— till, returning from one of his journeys with a
firm resolution to terminate his love-affair, he with-
drew his dramatic attempt, and set to work to com-
plete and revise it. In this he persevered, and when
his chains were finally broken he confined himself
almost entirely to his house for a long time, sallying
forth only for exercise on horseback. For not in-
ferior to his passion for travelling was that for
horse-flesh, which made him many times buy and
transport horses at great expense, of which he some-
times gave one away, but scarcely ever sold any.

In his confinement he worked over his "Cleo-
patra," rewriting it again and again; he renewed
his studies in Italian literature, to give it purity of
diction and elegance of form; and finally brought
the five acts to completion, so that it was possible to


act the play. His knowledge of dramatic form was
slender indeed. He had, in his journeys to France,
seen some tragic masterpieces performed at Marseilles
and at Paris, He had read translations of the Greek
plays in French and in Latin, and he speaks at one
time of reading Shakespeare, or rather of ceasing to
read him, for fear of injuring his originality. But
in "Cleopatra" we can trace no models but French,
It was performed by a company of ladies and gen-
tlemen in Turin, and in order to deprecate, or
rather defy, criticism, Alfieri composed for it a poeti-
cal afterpiece, a curious half-mythological effusion in
prose, of which one character is Orpheus, and the
special meaning must have defied the penetration
of the auditors. The "Cleopatra" was not ill re-
ceived ; and, indeed, though it has no very great force
in language or thought, must have made its origi-
nality felt by all its hearers, Alfieri speaks of it with
extreme contempt, and omitted it from the authorized
edition of his tragedies. Yet this play deserves notice
for more reasons than one.

The whole scheme is French. The unities of time,
place, and action are strictly preserved. Everything
takes place in the palace at Alexandria, after the flight
from Actium and the arrival of Antony, with Augus-
tus in hot pursuit. The plot turns on the efforts of
Cleopatra to keep Antony's love till the arrival of


Caesar shall enable lier to make terms with him and
retain her kingdom at any cost. Unable to see a
clear road before her, she tries to procure Antony's
assassination. Failing herein, and driven to bay by
the coldness of Caesar and the manly contempt of
Antony, who, rather than yield either to treachery or
patronage, stabs himself in -her presence, she does the
like, more from spite than true heroism.

There is perhaps no more departure from history
in such a plot than any dramatist has a right to
use for his purpose, although Shakespeare found it
possible to construct "Antony and Cleopatra" with-
out contradicting Plutarch. But what no reader of
that play, or of Fletcher's "False One," or Dryden's
"All for Love" can forgive in Alfieri is his depriv-
ing Cleopatra of all her historic charm. Her lover,
her conqueror, her dependents, instead of a royal
enchantress have to deal with a spiteful witch, who,
in her straining to be supremely clever, cannot see
that she is throwing away the very charms that
brought C^sar to her feet. Augustus is given some-
thing of the magnanimity of his later years, and
Antony has his Roman manhood portrayed in gener-
ous lines beyond even history. But the sympathy
that goes with Cleopatra through every scene of
Shakespeare wholly fails us for the artificial intri-
gante of Alfieri. How far he is right in criticising


the language and metrical construction of his piece,
no foreigner dare say. The former seems pure Tus-
can, and the latter, though wanting the nervous and
penetrating force of his later work, seems to move
firm and true. But an author's stern censures of
his own work are generally sound.

Good or bad, the completion and performance of
"Cleopatra" fixed Alfieri to tragedy as the proper line
for his ambition to take. He composed in various
other kinds of poetry, and also in prose, many pieces,
into some of which he put heart and fire; but it is
as a tragedian that he will be renowned. And he
was thoroughly right in his choice; for tragedy was
the department in which Italian poets had done .-
least, and that little not well. In no line of composi-
tion was there greater need of firmness, directness,
and passion. Accordingly, for several years, Alfieri
set himself to search out and cast into a poetic form
a number of tragic themes drawn from mythology, -"

from ancient and medieval history, and from Scrip-

ture, and executed his work by a process as rapid, one,
too, which in any other man's hands would have been
as mechanical, as if he had been the veriest hack-
writer, turning out plays for his daily bread. He felt
such entire distrust of his own Italian that, having se-
lected the subjects of his first two plays, he sketched
them in French prose, which he was afterwards to turn


into Tuscan verse. But he soon saw the absurdity of
such a process, and at once determined to spare no
pains to acquire the habit of thinking in the tongue in
which he meant to write. He subjected himself,
accordingly, at thirty years of age, to a rigid course
of grammatical and metrical training in Italian and
Latin, which would be irksome to a school-boy. Un-
derstanding that the purest Italian was spoken at
Sienna, he made that city his residence for a time,
and formed some intimacies there which were of
great interest and comfort in a life too much swayed
by wayward independence. Under this stern disci-
pline he completed, in a comparatively short time,
fourteen tragedies, superior to anything of the kind
in Italian before or since. Later he added five more.

I reserve the discussion of the matter, force, and
style of these plays till I have completed the survey
of the poet's life. While engaged in study and com-
position, he visited Rome and contracted a new pas-
sion, which is the most singular in the whole story of
Petrarch's successors. Conspicuous among the resi-
dents of the Eternal City was Charles Edward Stew-
art, the "Prince Charlie" of 1745, who had been since
1766 the rightful King of England in the opinion of a
few harmless fanatics. In 1772 he had been per-
suaded to marry, and his choice fell on Louisa, of
the princely German house of Stolberg. She was


thirty years younger than he, and miserable from the
day of her marriage. Charles had sunk into a mere
sot, who could sometimes be aroused into something
like his old fire by the sight of an English uniform
or a talk about the Highlanders ; but the worst of his

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15

Online LibraryWilliam EverettThe Italian poets since Dante → online text (page 11 of 15)