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What light, oh minister of heaven, inspires thee?
Ah! cease. . ah! cease. , I die. .

Mur. Who calls me now!

In vain from my affrighted eyes wouldst thou
Chase this tremendous sight. . I see already
In the thick gloom the sceptred spectres throng.—
Oh, who art thou, that almost mak 'st me shed
Tears of compassion? Ah, above thy head
The axe is lifted: now, alas, it falls.
I see thy sever 'd and thy once-crown'd head
Koll'd in the dust! And art thou unavenged?
Alas! thou art: for thy distinguish 'd head
Long had been due to a more ancient vengeance.
How many lesser royal shades I see
Fight, fear, retreat, discomfited, in turns!
Oh lineage, fatal as thou art to others.
Destructive to thyself! For thee the streams
Are dyed in blood. . And dost thou merit it?
Ah, fly thou, to contaminate no more
This region with thy footsteps: go, and seek,
E 'en in the breast of ignominy seek,



ALFIERI 209

Connatural refuge; with idolaters,

Thy fit companions, herd; there drag along,

The throne's disgrace, the laughing-stock of men,

Scorn 'd e 'en in wretchedness, opprobrious days.

The plot of "Myrrha" is taken from Ovid's "Met-
amorphoses. ' ' Alfieri has therein achieved a wonderful
tour de force. The story in Ovid is almost too revolting
to read, and never could be put on the stage ; Alfieri
has given it propriety and pathos. Myrrha, the daugh-
ter of the king of Cyprus, is to marry the king of
Epirus. Both her parents are devoted to their child,
and so is her aged nurse. The bridegroom is con-
fessedly all that a bride's heart can seek, and all the
auspices seem favorable, except an uneasy conscious-
ness in the heart of the mother that in times past she
has offended Venus, the great Cyprian divinity, and
that her favor is uncertain.

Surrounded by all these friends, and grateful for
their love, Myrrha is evidently the victim of some ter-
rible inward distress, which she persists in conceal-
ing. She agrees to the marriage, but only on condi-
tion that her husband shall take her instantly to his
home, and that not even her old nurse shall go with
her. Her distress is too patent, although its cause is
inscrutable, to allow the cloud to be dispelled which
hangs over every one. At length the marriage cere-
mony begins, in front of the statue of Venus; it is



210 THE ITALIAN POETS SINCE DANTE

rudely broken by terrible omens, showing the wrath
of the goddess. Pirous, in the truest spirit of chiv-
alry, renounces the union, but with no hope of sur-
viving his grief; and Cinyras, in utter despair, in-
sists on his daughter's relieving the cause which has
brought on this curse; when she confesses, in what
are her last words, that he, her own father, is loved
by her as no other man ever can be.

The tragedy of "Saul" is generally considered Al-
fieri's masterpiece. Macaulay pronounces it the fin-
est poem of the eighteenth century, and it is, no doubt,
a grand conception. The scene is laid on Mount
Gilboa, just before the last fatal battle of the king
of Israel. David, an exile among the Philistines,
is determined to try once more to save the monarch
to whom he was once so dear, in spite of himself.
He revisits the camp, where he is greeted by Jona-
than and his faithful wife Michal. Everything has
gone ill with Saul since David has left him, and he
is now gloomy under a presage of defeat, from which
the encouragements of his kinsman Abner, David's
enemy, have little effect to rouse him. His children
persuade him to see and hear his old servant, who
kneels before him and puts his life at his disposal.
Saul is inclined to listen, and to shake off the evil
suspicions that cloud his mind, and finally consents to
put David once more at the head of his armies. Ab-



ALFIERI 211

ner apparently accepts David's authority, but is
really plotting all the time to ruin him, as well as the
priests who preserve the traditions of Samuel. He
is only too well aided by Saul's own dark desire, the
evil spirit of which the Bible speaks. This is for a
moment subdued by David's harp and song, but rises
again and again. Saul drives David from the camp,
orders the death of the priest who has come to warn
him, and when surprised by a sudden attack on his
camp by the Philistines, goes to court death at their
hands.

The characters are drawn with great delicacy and
discrimination : the steadfastness of Michal and Jona-
than to husband and friend is gently and firmly
reconciled with duty to their father; David and
Abner, though positive and uncompromising, are
strictly human and credible; and the vacillation of
the ill-starred king fighting with prejudice, fighting
with treachery, eager to be reconciled yet mindful of
wrong, all confused by the evil power that over-
shadows him, of which he is half conscious yet can-
not shake off, a mind once vigorous, yet now,

Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh,

is conceived in the very spirit of the Old Testament.
It is another proof of the power that underlies the
whole story of Israel, that this tragedy of "Saul"
speaks to our hearts not only with far more power



212 THE ITALIAN POETS SINCE DANTE

than the unreal pageantries of Greece and Rome, but
even than the Medici and Stewarts of comparatively
modern times. Altieri never put more heart and soul
into anything.

Sa. Who thus restrains me? Who resists me thus?
Who forces me to sit?

Jon. Father. . .

Da. Ah, thou

Great God of Israel, do thou succor him:
Thy servant kneels to thee, and prays for this.

Sa. I am bereft of peace: the sun, the earth,

My children, and my power of thought, all, aU
Are taken from me ! . . . Ah, unhappy Saul !
Who doth console theef Who is now the guide,
The piop of my bewildered feebleness?
Thy children are all mute; they scowl on thee.
And of the doting and infirm old man
They only wish the death: nothing attracts
My children's wishes but the diadem,
Whose weight thy hoary head but ill sustains.
Wrest it at once: and at the same time sever
From this now tremulous and decaying form
Your father's palsied head. . Ah, wretched state!
Better were death! I wish to die! . .

Mi. Oh, father!

We all desire thy life. We each of us
Would die ourselves to rescue thee from death.
Jon. Now since in tears his fury is dissolved,
Brother, do thou, to recompose his soul,
Exert thy voice. So many times already
Hast thou rapt him with thy celestial songs
In calm oblivion.

Mi. Yes; thou seest now

The respiration in his panting breast
Almost subsides: his eyeballs, late so fierce,



ALFIERI 213

So hot and dry, swim in balsamic tears;
Now is the time to lend him thy assistance.
Da, May God in mercy speak to him through me.

Omnipotent, eternal, infinite.

Thou who dost govern each created thing;
Thou who from nothing mad'st me by thy might,

Blest with a soul that dares to thee take wing;
Thou who canst pierce the abyss of endless night,

And all its mysteries into daylight bring.
The universe doth tremble at thy nod,
And sinners prostrate fall at the out-stretched arm of God.

Oft on the gorgeous blazing wings ere now

Of thousand cherubim wert thou reveal 'd;
Oft did thy pure divinity endow

Thy people's shepherd in the martial field.
To him a stream of eloquence wert thou;

Thou wert his sword, his wisdom, and his shield.
From thy bright throne, O God, bestow one ray
To cleave the gathering clouds that intercept the day.

In tears and darkness we . . .

Sa. Hear I the voice

Of David? . . From a mortal lethargy
It seems to waken me, and to me displays
The cheering radiance of my early years.

Da. Who comes, who comes, unseen, yet heard?

A sable cloud of dust appear 'd.

Driven by the eastern blast.—
But it is burst; and from its womb
A thousand brandish 'd swords illume

The track through which it past.
Saul, as a tower, his forehead rears,
His head a flaming circlet wears;

The earth beneath his feet



214 THE ITALIAN POETS SINCE DANTE

Echoes with tramp of horse and men;
The sea, the sky, the hills, the plain,
The warlike sounds repeat.

In awful majesty doth Saul appear;

Horsemen and chariots from before him fly;
Chill 'd by his presence is each heart with fear;

And godlike terrors lighten in his eye.

Ye sons of Ammon, late so proud,
Where is the scorn, the insults loud,

Ye raised against our host?
Your corses more than fill the plain;
The ample harvest of your slain

Invalidates your boast.

See what it is thus to depend
On gods unable to defend. —

But wherefore from afar
Hear I another trumpet sound?
'T is Saul's:— he levels with the ground

All Edom's sons of war.

8a. This is the voice of my departed years.

That from the tomb to glory now recalls me.

I live again in my victorious youth

When I hear this. . What do I say? Alas! . .

Should cries of war be now addressed to me?

Oblivion, indolence, and peace invite

The old man to themselves.

Ba. Let peace be sung.

Weary and thirsty, see he lies

Beside his native stream;
God's champion, whose past victories

Wake many a glorious dream.

The glossy laurel's evergreen

Doth screen his head from heat;

His children all around him seen,
His sighs and smiles repeat.



ALFIERI 215

They weep and smile, then smile and weep,

With sympathy endued;
And still a strict accordance keep

To every varying mood.

Sa. Happy the father of a race like this!

Oh, peace of mind! . . . how precious are thy gifts
To wretches like myself by thee deserted! . . .
I feel ineffably through all my veins
Balsamic dews of sweet composure steal. . .
But what pretendest thou? To make Saul vile
Amid domestic ease? Does valiant Saul
Now lie an useless implement of war?

Da. The king reposes, but heroic dreams

With fearful majesty before him glance,
Pregnant with death and visionary themes.

Behold, transfix 'd with his victorious lance,
The conquered tyrant of the haughty foes;
An awful shade in spectral gloom advance.

Behold a flash that instantaneous glows. .

It is Saul's brandish 'd sword, that no man spares.

The weak and strong confounding with its blows. —

The terrible lion thus sometimes forbears
To make the forest with his cries resound.
For even he in sleep his strength repairs;

But not the silence of his den profound
Can courage to the aflflicted flocks restore;

Or make the swain with less fear look around,
For well he knows that he will prowl once more.

The monarch is roused from his slumbers;

Arms! arms! he imperiously cries.
They are vanish 'd— the enemies numbers;

What champion his valors defies?



216 THE ITALIAN POETS SINCE DANTE

Long, long have I pursued his ardent path;

Now it behoves me once more to pursue
His foes on earth; with heaven-directed wrath

To trample down and crush Philistia's crew;

And, with the assistance of the God of hosts,
Prove that, as he, so I maintain his laws;

And prove that now the camp of Israel boasts
Two swords resistless in a righteous cause.

8a. Who, who thus boasts? Is there, except my sword,

Which I unsheathe, another in the camp?

He 's a blasphemer; let him perish, he

Who dares defy it.
Mi. Ah, forbear! Oh, heaven!

Jon. Father, what wouldst thou do?
Da. Unhappy king!

Mi. Ah, fly! ... Ah, fly! With difficulty we

From violence restrain him.

Mi. Stop! oh, stop! Beloved father!

Jon. I beseech thee, stop!

Sa. Who thus restrains me? Who presumes to do it? . .
Where is my sword? Restore my sword at once. . .

Jan. Do thou retire with us, beloved father;

I shall not suffer thee to advance a step.

Behold, thy children now are all alone;

Eeturn with us to thy pavilion; now

Thou needest quietness. Ah, come! . . . Eefrain

From causeless rage; thy children stand around thee.

Mi. And they shall never, never quit thy presence.

Alfieri, then, will stand as one of the greatest Ital-
ian names, worthy to rank with the four poets, great
in what he did, perhaps even greater by what he
made Italians see they might do.



CHAPTER VIII

PARINI — M ANZONI— LEOPARDI — SUMMARY

Although the part of Alfieri in the regeneration of
Italian poetry was the boldest, the most deliberate,
and the most original, it did not comprehend the entire
work. The Italian critics of the present day are dis-
posed to assign an effective share to Giuseppe Parini
who, if we consider dates alone, should have come
before Alfieri.

Parini was born in Bosisio, an obscure town of the
Milanese, on the 22d of May, 1729. He was a man of
the people, and rather boasted of his comparatively
humble origin. His father hoped to make a priest
of him, and the youth earned his living at first by
copying legal papers, though he early took to studying
the great masters of poetry, and a volume of his early
poems admitted him into more than one of the literary
academies. But he had to struggle with hard poverty
all his life, and engaged in work as a private tutor
to support himself and his mother. At every leisure
moment he labored on what he intended should be his

217



218 THE ITALIAN POETS SINCE DANTE

great work, a satire which he called "II Giorno," or
"The Day," which he published in parts. He at-
tracted the favorable notice of the Austrian minister
in Lombardy, who encouraged his writing and ul-
timately obtained for him some important positions
as Professor of Literature, where his lectures bore
worthy fruit. He joined a so-called patriotic society,
which engaged him to write the funeral eulogy of the
Empress Maria Theresa. This delicate and difficult
task, for which he had no liking, told on his nerves
and his whole health. He was subject, from early
youth, to a chronic weakness of the muscles, which
ended by almost wholly depriving him of the use of
his limbs ; and his poetic vein flowed by no means as
easily towards the end of his life. The intense bitter-
ness of his satire inevitably raised him enemies, who
nearly succeeded, on the death of his patron, in tak-
ing away his professorship. The premature reforms
of Joseph II drew his attention to politics, and he was
one of those who hailed the star of the French Revo-
lution. On the arrival of the French in Milan, he
was placed on the magistracy of the city, and worked
in this post as well as a half-blind and half-lame man
of nearly seventy might do : but he died poor, on the
15th of August, 1799.

The chief work of Parini is his satire of "The Day"
in three parts, "Morning," "Noon," and "Evening."



PARINI 219

It is conceived precisely in the temper of the Roman
satirist Persius, and is a bitter piece of irony, arraign-
ing the worthless young nobility of Milan— their indo-
lence, their frivolity, their effeminacy, their surrender
to the cook, the barber, and the dancing-master. It is
in the form of a diary, or rather of ironical advice to
a young nobleman how best to fill up his day with
selfish and sensual pleasure. The stifled wrath of
the man of the people against aristocratic supercil-
iousness lurks under it all, and often breaks out much
in the style of Burns. It was undoubtedly essential,
if Italian poetry was ever to be healthy, that the
unhealthiness of Italian society should be exhibited,
nay, let us rather say, gibbeted; just as it was ex-
pedient for Zola to show up the Second Empire in
the "Rougon-Macquart" series; and I do not believe
it is right to dispute the moral purpose of either Zola
or Parini. Yet there is the same objectionable fea-
ture in both as in their predecessor Persius— a dis-
position to bring out the purely unpleasant features
of their subject. It may be said that if there is
disease it must be handled as disease ; but morbid
anatomy is at best a revolting study.
From the second part of ''II Giorno":

But now from hall to hall reechoes loud
Thy name, my lord; already it is heard
Down in the kitchens, where laborious art



220 THE ITALIAN POETS SINCE DANTE

Applies itself to wake the fleeting sense
Of tender palates, softly rouse the chords,
And various pleasures with itself convey
To the soul 's very core. In white array
There hasten to complete the noble work
Its valiant ministers; a mighty mind
Dictates their laws, an offspring of the land
Wherein Colbert and Richelieu were renowned.
Perhaps with equal splendor on his brow
Near to the ships whence Ilion blazed and fell
The great Achilles for his famous guests
Designed the supper, and with him, the while
The meats were cooking o'er the gentle fires,
The trusty Patroclus, and charioteer
Automedon. O thou sagacious chief
Of tricks upon the palate, soon thy praise
From the high table thou wilt hear resound;
Who is there that shall dare to find a blot
Upon thy work? The master will arise
As champion of thy glory; woe to those
Hunters of banquets who shall dare to speak
A word against thee; for at burning noon
Henceforth they '11 wander all the city round,
Wretched and faint; and never more shall find
A host to people with their mouths his meals.



When Alfieri died, however, there was a strong
feeling, which lasted long, that his true successor, the
veritable regenerator of Italian poetry, was Vincenzo
Monti. He was born in the Eomagna near Ferrara
in 1754. He was sent to the University of Ferrara,
and developed such fondness for literature and poetry
that he gave up his life to them entirely. Cardinal
Borghese took him to Rome and introduced him to



MONTI 221

Cardinal Braschi, the nephew of Pope Pius VI. He
was admitted to the academy called Arcadia, where
he showed a disposition to satire and a dislike of
criticism by no means acceptable to his coadjutors.
He was a very devoted student and admirer of Dante,
and tried to form a style on his, adopting his metrical
form and many of his images ; but the likeness is
superficial. Alfieri was at this time winning his first
tragic successes, and Monti brought out a drama called
" Aristodemus, " in which was to be all Alfieri 's life
and force with greater elegance of style. Byron has
coupled it with Alfieri 's plays, but Byron's taste in
the drama was, to say the least, singular. The "Aris-
todemus" has a plot that revolted everybody, and I
fail to find in it any compensating attraction. Monti
followed it up with "Galeotto Manfredi," and subse-
quently with "Caius Gracchus," both in imitation of
Alfieri, but they have little force.

About this time Basseville, the Girondist ambassa-
dor at Rome, was assassinated in the streets, and Monti
poured himself forth in a poem in which all the
horrors of the ultra-Catholics and Legitimists against
the French Convention was displayed in what was
supposed to be the true style of Dante. He retained
this tone for some years, till, on the advent of Napo-
leon, he discovered that here was to be the deliverer of
Italy; and the same pen that had compared Lewis



222 THE ITALIAN POETS SINCE DANTE

XVI to the Savior of the world was employed to
extol Bonaparte as the savior of the Italians. Monti
was employed in the service of the Cisalpine Republic,
and Bonaparte, hearing one of his poems in honor of
revolutionary liberty, declared him a mighty genius.
If Byron's taste was eccentric, Napoleon's was null : a
man who could find good poetry in the French trans-
lation of Ossian has no claim to be called a critic at
all. Monti continued to exalt Bonaparte through his
career, but interrupted his court poetry to prepare
a translation of Homer, admitting he knew no Greek,
After Napoleon's fall, he composed two poems in
praise of the imperial house of Austria, and lived on,
a voluminous and controversial bookman, till 1828.

Such a time-serving writer, that has a lyre at the
service of any master, has no claim to respect for his
character. But as to his poetry, I can see little to
respect either. He has been extolled as the regenerator
of Italian song, the sublimest writer since Dante,
"^ the last of the classicists; and a classicist he is with a
vengeance ! His poetry is simply a cento of ideas
and verses from every writer of repute. In his three
tragedies, which are none of them long, I have counted
fifteen downright and pure thefts: four from Virgil,
one from Racine, one right out of Alfieri, and eight
unmistakably from Shakespeare; all these on rapid
reading, not close study at all. It is the same in



MONTI 223

his poems. Classical allusions from history and le-
gend are piled upon modern characters till all sense
of dates is lost. Then everything is exaggerated.
Pope Pius VI, on his journey to Vienna, is a heaven-led
pilgrim, for whose sake the storms disperse, the field
puts forth new flowers, and the sun sets in new splen-
dor. The shade of Basseville is told that it cannot
rest till, by way of punishment, it has witnessed all
the horrors of the Reign of Terror. An angel takes it
to Paris, and the air becomes loaded with seraphs and
the earth with demons. Nothing is described except
through a false medium, more like the transformation
scenes in an old-fashioned spectacular melodrama
than anything that ever appeared on earth. The
contrast with Dante, who gives his fiends and angels
all the reality of men and women, or with Milton, who
creates a supernatural world of his own, where special
laws of being are invoked, is painful ; for Monti, by
piling on epithets and images, evolves, in 1793, a
mixed race of devilish and angelic men, conversing
with unreal and inconceivable angels.

The verse is easy and not deficient in force; but
good verse-writing was as much a trick in Italy in the
latter half of the eighteenth century as it was in
England, and for all Monti's devotion to Dante, he is
constantly under the sway of Petrarch. As a favor-
able specimen, I take a short description of the actual



224 THE ITALIAN POETS SINCE DANTE

state of Paris under the Reign of Terror, in which,
laying aside for a few lines his machinery, as Pope
and Addison called it, he gives us a touch of human
feeling; but the terza-rima is hard to reproduce:

The angel with the shade, unseen and stiU,
Entered the city, where all evil dwells.

Onward he held his course, depressed and ill
At ease in all his looks; his holy rays
From time to time a secret tear would fill.

To right the shade beheld with deep amaze

His guide thus mournful, and the streets o'ercome
With dismal silence met his left-hand gaze.

Dumb was the sacred sound of bells, and dumb
The labor of the day; the hissing saws
And the rough anvils uttered not their hum;

Only through all a murmur, and a pause

Of fright, and questioning, and looks askance.
Sadness that griped the heart with leaden claws,

Dull voices of confused significance;

Voices of tender mothers, as they pressed
Closely their guileless babes, with timid glance, —

Voices of wives, who, seeking to arrest

Their eager husbands', in the doors kept place,
Blocking, with tears and sighs that rent their breast.

But tenderness and care for woman's grace

Were conquered by a fiend of greater might.
Which tore each husband from his wife 's embrace.

For whirling in a fierce and loathsome flight

There danced incessantly from door to door
Phantoms, whose bloody aspect chilled the sight —

Phantoms, the Druids' awful guise that bore
Goaded in fierceness by the ancient thirst
Of nameless sacrifice to drink the gore.

Perhaps the first man who really broke the yoke of
the classical allegiance, though even he still draws too



FOSCOLO 225

much from ancient sources, was Ugo Foscolo. He was
a Venetian, born in the island of Zante in 1778. He
early embraced the principles of the French Revolu-
tion, and believed, as Monti said he did, that Napoleon
was to regenerate Italy ; but his enthusiasm had a cruel
shock when, in 1797, Venice was handed over to
Austria. Shortly after, he wrote a romance called
the ''Last Letters of Ortis," which attracted much
attention ; it partly foreshadows Foscolo 's own history,
the hero being a young patriot who, in bitter disap-
pointment, commits suicide, an action which was too
often in Foscolo 's mind. He did not, however, en-
tirely renounce hope from the French, serving in their
army and being taken prisoner at Genoa. When Ma-
rengo put a wholly new face on matters, Foscolo was
one delegate from northern Italy to present plans to
Napoleon for the regulation of the country; but his
plan was much too bold and free to suit Bonaparte. He
afterwards was made lecturer on philosophy and liter-
ature in the University of Pavia, and here again the
liberalism of his views made him suspected and led to
the suppression of that professorship in all the Italian
universities. Throughout these years he wrote much
prose and poetry, elegies and dramas. They are all of
the so-called romantic school,— a breaking away from


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Online LibraryWilliam EverettThe Italian poets since Dante → online text (page 13 of 15)