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ancestors never presented so repulsive a spectacle
as he used to do to the families of Rome. His wife
found living with him impossible; and just at that
time her path was crossed by Alfieri, the most fiery
and indomitable of spirits. From that time they
lived only for each other. With extreme difficulty
the poet controlled himself so as not to embarrass
the lady of his heart by the importunity of his affec-
tion; but as soon as a separation from the Pretender
was achieved, he followed her footsteps everj^where,
— to Alsace, to Paris, and finally to Florence, which
was his home, as far as such a restless soul could have
a home. It can hardly be doubted that this connection,
like a similar but far less creditable one of Byron's,
saved Alfieri from worse displays of passion.

Having composed and printed fourteen tragedies,
he turned his pen to other themes. He wrote a trea-
tise on Tyranny; he wrote satires; being an Italian,
of course he wrote sonnets. He had done some trans-
lating in his early days, and now resumed and com-
pleted versions of Virgil, Sallust, and Terence.
Again tragedy attracted him, and five more plays


were composed, as well as a fantastic piece on the
death of Abel, partly dramatic and partly musical,
which he dubbed a tra-melo-gedia.

His first plays had been seen through the press
by a literary friend in Sienna, named Gori, to whom
he was most tenderly attached, but who died while
Alfieri was following his countess across the Alps.
This was a very serious misfortune to him; but one
element of the distress it caused him was ludicrous.
The Countess of Albany — for so the Pretender's wife
was designated— electing to live at Paris in the win-
ter and near Strasburg in the summer, Alfieri deter-
mined to intrust the printing of a more complete and
accurate edition of his writings to the Didots. He
found himself forced to engage in the untried task
of proof-correcting and revising, and if he had been
called upon to set up and ink the types himself, he
could not have chafed and declaimed against the
work more vehemently, as unworthy of a nobleman
and a poet. He found the celebrated Bipontine press
at Strasburg more amenable to his fastidious and
sensitive notions.

One singular episode of this period of his life was
a third voyage to England, purely to buy horses,
of which he himself led a string of fourteen from
London to Florence over Mount Cenis, which he
openly says he considers to have Keen a passage not


much less arduous than Hannibars. He had now
broken off wholly from his native kingdom, making
over his large estates to his sister, with the reservation
of an annuity, and resisting the eager appeals of his
mother, whom he speaks of as faultless, to come
home and marry a most eligible young lady. The only
member of his ancient house who had ever won a
laurel crown, he could not spare the time to lay a
leaf of it at his mother's feet.

His tragedies, though exposed to much sharp criti-
cism, seem to have made their way to public favor
very soon; indeed, they are too original and too
powerful to have done otherwise, especially as, un-
like much modern original and powerful poetry,
every one can understand them. They were recog-
nized as adding another string to the Italian lyre.
How far their author might have enjoyed this repu-
tation, or what relation he would have sustained
to his country in future, never can be guessed, for
everything was broken up for him, as for so many
millions of men, by the French Revolution.

Alfieri was exactly one of those men to whom the
doings of the Jacobins would afford unlimited dis-
gust, with no sense of relief or compensation. He
had long detested tyranny and loved liberty, with
all the force of his ardent nature ; he had dedicated
his "Agis" to the shade of Charles I in a strain


of the keenest irony, and his "Brutus" to the living
Washington with expressions of the profoundest
respect. He had refused to bow at the footstool of
Frederic the Great, and he never failed to express
his admiration for the polity of England. But his
love for liberty was akin to Edmund Burke's, and the
tyranny, as stupid as it was malignant, which Marat
and St. Just paraded under that august name dis-
gusted even more than it shocked him. He made
his way from Paris as speedily as he could after the
Jacobin regime was thoroughly seated, sacrificing
his library, and returned to Florence to pass the rest
of his life.

His energy and force of will in literature are in-
conceivable. He composed a bitter diatribe against
the French, called "Misogallo"; he completed a new
translation of Virgil; wrote half a dozen comedies
to help fill that deficiency in classical Italian; and at
an age when most men cease from study at all re-
solved to go to the fountain-head and learn to read
the Greek authors in the original. In this resolution
he persevered with good success ; and finally adopted
the fantastic scheme of founding a literary order
called the Knights of Homer, with an emblematic
collar; though beyond himself as Grand Master, it
seems never to have had an existence. At the same
time he refused, with the bitterest scorn, a proposal


from the French revolutionary governor of Turin
to become a member of a new literary academy at
that place.

After fifty-four years of a life which had known
no rest since boyhood, the fiery soul began to wear
upon the tenement of clay that enshrined it. He
brought down his candid and fearless autobiography
to May, 1803; and when autumn came, the gout,
complicated by other disorders, and most by the ob-
stinacy of the patient, pressed him harder and
harder, and Alfieri died on the 7th of October, 1803.
A stately monument, the work of Canova, erected
by the devotion of her whom he loved so fondly,
exhibits his medallion to all the world in Santa Croce.
An American traveller, studying the memorials in
that most interesting church, and recording his re-
flections in verse, gives Alfieri these two lines:

Here too at length the indomitable will
And fiery pulse of Asti's bard are still.

And these two phrases, or their equivalent, must
be used by every one who seeks even to sketch his
character and works. His life, like those of Dante,
of Petrarch, of Tasso, is inseparably entwined with
his poetry. It should seem that one born and trained
as he was might have gone for years without being
really conscious of intellectual powers above the com-
mon; and even if conscious of them would have al-


lowed them to be directed into channels nearer at
hand. The iron resolution by which he tore the crown
of tragic excellence from the hand of inattentive
Fate has no parallel in literary history. For his
achievement was a great deal more than composing
twenty striking tragedies: he created the Italian
tragic stage. It is, of course, impossible even to
sketch all his dramas; but much that may be said
of one may be of all.

From Greek mythology he takes seven subjects;
from Greek history, two ; from Roman history, six ;
from the history of mediaeval and modern Europe,
five; and from the Scriptures, "Saul" and "Abel."
In his ancient subjects he invites comparison with the
Greek tragedians and Seneca; with Shakespeare, in
"Brutus" and "Cleopatra"; with Corneille, in "So-
phonisba"; with Voltaire, in "Brutus" and "Mer-
ope"; and with Schiller, in "Mary Stewart" and
"Philip II." In such eases, we are apt to prefer the
plays with which we are earliest familiar. But Al-
fieri, of all writers, handles a well-known theme most
completely in his own way.

He has told us precisely his method of composition.
He first selected the theme, and sketched the play as
to its general outline and development. He then
drew out elaborately in prose its acts, scenes, and
dialogue, and finally turned the prose into verse. He


had at times in his desk two and even three plays, in
the various stages of his unvarying method.

These plays are all constructed on a single model.
The action is single, and the characters are few ; occa-
sionally a whole people or an army is sent to fill the
stage; but, as a rule, half a dozen persons or less
have it all to themselves. The unities of time and
place are strictly adhered to. A few hours see the
whole through in one spot. Some one central pas-
sion, or conflict of two passions, is represented as
raging in the heart of the principal character, and
driving him to a mournful end. Usually the con-
flict is between family ties, on the one hand, and some
impulse of patriotism, or love of dominion, or fancied
right, on the other. In many plays, two characters who
ought to be acting together for a good end are kept
apart by an intriguer, who works for the stronger,
filling his ear with false tales of the weaker, while
deluding the feebler with false hopes of the mightier.
On the whole, Alfieri loves best to hold up to horror
the excesses of tyranny, the delight in trampling on
family and country from the mere passion of arbitrary
power. Sometimes such a person succeeds only too
well, while the side that holds one's sympathy loses all
but honor ; in other plays fate accords with our hopes
and right prevails.

In almost all Alfieri 's personages there is a stern


and sometimes savage penetration. They may be,
as I have said, utterly deceived by a trickster; but
they never fail to understand the situation as it is
presented. Much of the dialogue is argument; keen,
clear, vigorous statement of one line of duty, one call
of sentiment or passion as against another, with
very little waste as each disputant puts his own
meaning strongly and catches his opponent's. There
is none of the snappish bickering so contemptible in
Seneca, and which disfigures even some of the great
Greek tragedies; on the other hand, there is none
of the wearisome stateliness of the French stage. The
dialogue is like a spirited debate between party
leaders in a great senate; and yet the debate in
"Brutus the Younger," which precedes Caesar's mur-
der, is one of the least successful of Alfieri's discus-
sions. This play of opposing passions in his great
persons may well be named "nervous."

It has been said that these touch us on the side
of reason and mind only,— that they do not affect
us tenderly. It seems to me an unjust censure. No
doubt his taste ran rather to the sterner and harder
characters. But in two of his very earliest plays,
"Philip" and "Antigone," Isabella and Argia
show true tenderness; and when he had ceased to
think in French, he could portray in Bianca, in
Myrrha, and in IMichal characters where the fierce


temper of Dante ceases to sway him, and he shows a
kindly sensibility worthy of Tasso.

It has been much more truly said that there is little
exercise of imagination or fancy, very little illustra-
tion or pictorial delineation. This is very true, and
to those who expect a dramatist's imagination to
run riot, and his characters, when swayed by exalt-
ing or crushing passion, to talk about everything in
heaven or earth except what fills their souls, will
find Alfieri dry and dull. This is sad, and it is still
sadder to think that he probably would not have com-
prehended this complaint of his deficiency. He could
not have been made to see what Philip's jealousy
of Don Carlos, or Virginius's wrath with Appius,
or Mary Stewart's contempt of Darnley, or Saul's
yearning for David, had to do with the birds and the
forests, the rocks and the clouds. Even in "Saul,"
where he borrows the transcendent storm-pictures of
the Psalmist, those pictures are, as they are in
David's own poems, merely the garments and veils
of the Eternal. Alfieri 's men and women have far
too serious concerns in their own lives and hearts to
be stringing together metaphors from nature.

And so, there is in these tragedies very little action,
—what the jargon of the modern theatre calls "busi-
ness." There are no stage-directions for dresses, sce-
nery, or movements. At the fatal crisis the dealing or


thwarting of the death-stroke is mentioned in a foot-
note. Not that these plays fail in representation : they
give abundant chance for the kings and queens of
the theatre to bring out the deepest emotion by tones
and movements; but the poet gives the words alone,
and leaves the rendering to the actors.

In a word, Alfieri's drama has no decoration. It
is as severe as a Doric temple, not so much disdain-
ing varied and ornamental detail, as complete with-
out them; the picture of mighty passions swaying
kindred or rival souls, and showing themselves in
their elementary nature. He tried in "Abel" to go
back to the primitive world, before sin and death
were known. But he carries us back far more truly
to the primitive world in "Myrrha" and "Merope,"
in *'Saul" and " Sophonisba, " in the Medici and the
Stewarts. There is in all these due reference to what
legend and Scripture and history have to say of the
age and locality. Rome and Florence, Thebes and
Madrid, are duly set before us ; but those who people
them have the masks of time and place stripped off,
and we are brought face to face with created man,—
the red clay of earth into which God has breathed
his Spirit. The verse in which these stern, fiery
natures speak seems like an echo of Dante, yet Al-
fieri, naturally discarding his master's interlocking

rhyme, has used the severest of blank verse. It was



needful, by a strong and even a harsh effort, to break
away from all the chanted lusciousness into which the
Tuscan lyre had melted, from Petrarch's period to
Metastasio's. If that lyre was ever to recover its lost
manhood, it must revive the manhood of Dante; it
must not fear ruggedness, and trust to its ardor,
its truth, its dignity, to acquire a music and a charm
of its own. And that it has acquired. We must look
to Lucretius, or, better, to "Paradise Regained," for
strains so austere and so penetrative in their cadences.

It is hard to select from so many plays those which
best show Alfieri's powers. The Roman plays, in
which his peculiar aristocratic hatred of royal tyr-
anny comes out strongest, seem to me, for that very
reason, unreal. His Romans, though full of force
and wit, are conformed to a conventional standard,
unlike the living Coriolanus, Brutus, Cassius, and
Antony which Shakespeare took from Plutarch. The
contrast is harshest in the ''Second Brutus"; here,
in order to bring about the conflict in the hero's
mind, required by stage convention, he follows the
preposterous legend that Brutus was actually Ce-
sar's son; then, in order to prevent his committing a
crime of superhuman atrocity, makes him merely wit-
ness and assent to the slaughter by Cassius and the

Alfieri's first tragedy, after he definitely selected


that line of writing, was "Philip." One can hardly
doubt that Schiller had this in mind when he wrote
his "Don Carlos,"— a fine play, but one whose prolix-
ity contrasts badly with Alfieri's compression. The
characters are all such as Alfieri loves to draw, and
draws well ;— the gloomy, bigoted, suspicious king,
jealous of every one, and of his son most of all,
whom he has cheated out of his bride; the son, in
whom noble purposes struggle in vain against the
killing compression of the Spanish court, finding
his best impulses systematically misconstrued, tor-
tured by being obliged to live in the daily presence
of his lost bride ; Isabella herself, her heart broken,
or rather frozen within her, sustained in the sepulchral
path of duty by the timid hope that she may recon-
cile father and son. Alongside of these are placed,
as good and bad angels, Perez, the gallant friend,
and Gomez, the insidious inquisitor, who helps work
out the diabolical plot whereby the father orders the
assassination of the son, and breaks his wife's heart.
In perhaps the most striking scene Philip conceals
Gomez while he accuses his son before his wife, and
leads her on to defend him.*

Phi. The prince! yes, many intercepted letters,
Clandestine messages, seditious words,
Pronounced incautiously, of this dire fact

* These passages of Alfieri are from the version of Charles Lloyd,
the friend of Lamb and Coleridge.


Too certainly convince me! I conjure thee
To picture to thy mind my agonies,
A sire betray 'd, a circumvented king!
And to pronounce what lot by justice falls
From me, his sire, on such an impious son?

Isa. Oh, God! Thou will'st that I pronounce his fate?

Phi. Yes, thou of that art arbitress supreme.

Fear not the monarch, flatter not the father:

Isa. I fear alone offended justice.

Before the throne 's imposing solitude,
By artifice iniquitous, the cause
Of guilt and innocence is oft confounded.

Phi. Canst thou then doubt of what thy king affirms!
Who more than I can wish him innocent?
But though my rage be mute, stern policy
Moves me to speak. Alas! the voice of father,
That agonizing voice, resounds within me.

Isa. Ah, hear that voice! No voice can equal it.

Perhaps he is less a culprit than thou thinkest;

Indeed his guilt on this emergency

Seems too impossible to challenge credence.

Hear him thyself, whatever be his crimes:

Who than a son, between a son and father,

Can be a mediator more persuasive?

Granted that he be haughty with a train

Not friendly to the truth, assuredly

Thy presence will subdue his pride. To him

Open thine ears, and harden not thy heart

To the soft influence of paternal love.

Him to thy presence never dost thou summon,

Never speak to him. He approaches thee

Impress 'd with fear; and love and confidence

Are scared by thy inflexible reserve.

Revive within him, if it be suppressed,

His native virtue; 't is impossible

That, in thy son, it can be quite extinguished.

To no one else trust thy paternal cares.


Present to him the aspect of a father;
Reserve a monarch's majesty for others.
What, from a generous heart, may not be gain'd
By generous treatment? If he be convicted
Of some delinquency (and who is perfect?),
To him alone do thou alone display
Thy just resentment. . . .
There is affection in a father's wrath;
What son can witness it and tremble not?
Suspicions not thine own tear from thy heart;
And leave base apprehensions of foul treason
To monarchs who deserve to be betray 'd.
Phi. This action, worthy of thyself, is thine
Alone; to make the cry of nature reach
A father 's heart, ah, others act not thus !
Oh, wretched lot of kings, they cannot utter,
Tremble to utter, much less dare obey,
Nature's benign affections.

Thou now shalt see that to the guilty prince
I can appear, more than is fit, a father;
If I must ever be compell 'd to meet him
In all the terrors of a king offended —

Isa. I do not doubt thy promise. But he comes:
Suffer me to depart.

Phi. Stay; I command thee.

Isa. I have ventured to express my thoughts to thee

Since thou wouldst have it so. Why tarry longer?
The presence of a step-dame, when a son
Meets an offended father, were intrusive.

Phi. Intrusive? No. Thou much deceivest thyself;
Thou art a necessary witness.
Thou hast alone a step-dame's name. For once
From thy remembrance banish e'en the name.
Thy presence will be grateful to my son.
Ah, see, he comes; and he shall not be ignorant
That, of thy own accord, thou hast pledged thyself
As surety for his virtue, faith, and love.


[Enter Carlos

Phi. Approach me, prince. Now tell me when will dawn
That day in which, with the fond name of son,
Thy father may accost thee. Thou shouldst see
(Ah, wouldst thou have it so!) blended at once
The name of father and of king; ah, why,
Since thou lov'st not the one, fear'st not the other?

• «••••

Car. Father, at last from doubt deliver me:
What have I done?

Phi. So manifold thy crimes,

That doubt of which shall prompt my just reproach,
Serves thee instead of innocence. Now hear me.
Say, hast thou not had commerce with that soil
Where most the furnace of sedition blazes?
E 'en in my palace, didst thou not perchance,
Before the dawn of day, clandestinely,
A trait 'rous and protracted audience give
To the orator of the Batavian rebels?
To that base miscreant who comes begging pity.
If you believe his words, but who, in heart,
Perfidious machinations cherishes.
And projects of rebellion unavenged.

Car. Father, must my most unimportant actions
Be all ascribed to guilt ? 'T is true I spoke
At length to the ambassador; 't is true
That I, with him, compassionate the fate
Of those thy hapless subjects, and I dare
Avow the same compassion in thy presence.
Nor thou thyself wouldst long withhold thy pity
Provided that, like me, thou hadst heard at length
Of the iron government in which, oppressed
Beneath proud, avaricious, inexpert.
Weak, cruel, yet unpunished ministers.
So many years they have groan 'd. For their misfortunes
My heart with pity bleeds; I boldly own it.


And say, wouldst thou, that I, the son of Philip,
Possessed a vulgar or a cruel heart?
The hope, perhaps, was too presumptuous
That I, with stating the unvarnished truth,
Could wake, this day, thy bosom to compassion.
But how can I be thought to offend a father
In holding him accessible to pity?
If thou on earth dost wish to represent
The Ruler of the skies, what attribute
Like that of mercy fixes the resemblance!
But, notwithstanding, of my punishment
Thou art arbiter supreme, if I appear,
Or am, on this occasion criminal.
The only boon I dare to challenge of thee
Is to be spared th ' unworthy name of traitor.
Phi. A noble pride breathes in thy every word.

Ill canst thou, or shouldst thou, affect to do it.
The lofty motives penetrate, or judge.
That influence thy being.

• • • ■ • •

'T is time, I warn thee,
T' assume a new deportment. Thou hast sought
Pity from me, and pity shalt thou find;
But for thyself: all are not worthy of it.
Leave me to be sole judge of my own measures.
Erewhile in thy behalf, and not in vain.
The queen at length addressed me. Of my love,
No less than of her own, she deems thee worthy. .
To her, more than to me, thou owest thy pardon. .
To her. From this day forward I expect
That thou wilt better know both how to prize
And how deserve my favor. — Now behold.
By thy solicitations I am won,
O queen; and, urged by thee, consent to learn
Not only to forgive, but love my son.

Let this for once suffice; weigh well my words.
Do thou, O queen, withdraw to thy apartments;


Thou shalt, ere long, behold me there. Meanwhile

I must bestow on other weighty cares

A few brief moments.

[Exeunt Isabella and Carlos. Gomez appears.]
Phi. Heardst thou?
Gam. I heard.

Fhi. Saw' St thou?

Got?!. I saw.

Phi. Oh, rage!

Then the suspicion —
Gom. Now is certainty.

Phi. And Philip yet is unavenged!
Gom. Eeflect.

Phi. I have reflected. Follow thou my footsteps.

This terribly concise question and answer has al-
ways been considered very powerful; it is taken
bodily out of Metastasio !

In ''Mary Stewart," Alfieri again stands in com-
parison with Schiller, but is much inferior. The mo-
ment chosen is that of Darnley's murder. His weak
character is well drawn, and those of Bothwell and
Mary have much force. But the most singular per-
sonage is one called La Morre, a name evidently made
out of the Regent Murray, but apparently meant for
a picture of John Knox, whose name no Italian could
possibly pronounce. He is simply a fanatical preacher
who delivers a striking prophecy of the execution of
Charles I.

Mur. But what new sight? Oh gloomy scene!
Around a dismal scaffold I behold
Sable and sanguinary ornaments!


And -who is this preparing to ascend it?

Oh! Art thou she? Dost thou, so proud and dainty,

Bend to the cleaving axe thy lofty neck?

Another sceptred dame inflicts on thee

The mighty blow. The faithless blood spurts forth;

And lo, a thirsty spectre drinks it all

To the last drop ! Ah, would the angry heavens

Be satisfied with this? But, comet-like,

Thou drawest after thee a fatal track;

A race of wretched, proud, and abject kings

Spring from the womb of the expiring lady.

The just and horribly avenging ire

Of heaven's Almighty Monarch runs transfused

E'en with their life-blood. .

Ma. . . Wretched that I am!

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Online LibraryWilliam EverettThe Italian poets since Dante → online text (page 12 of 15)