Modern Italian Poets
W. D. Howells
Part 2 out of 6
_Cly._ My daughter,
Ah, do not fly me! Thy pious task I fain
Would share with thee. Aegisthus in vain forbids,
He shall not know. Ah, come! go we together
Unto the tomb.
_El._ Whose tomb?
_El._ Wherefore not say thy husband's tomb? 'T is well:
Thou darest not speak it. But how dost thou dare
Turn thitherward thy steps--thou that dost reek
Yet with his blood?
_Cly._ Two lusters now are passed
Since that dread day, and two whole lusters now
I weep my crime.
_El._ And what time were enough
For that? Ah, if thy tears should be eternal,
They yet were nothing. Look! Seest thou not still
The blood upon these horrid walls the blood
That thou didst splash them with? And at thy presence
Lo, how it reddens and grows quick again!
Fly, thou, whom I must never more call mother!
* * * *
_Cly._ Oh, woe is me! What can I answer? Pity--
But I merit none!--And yet if in my heart,
Daughter, thou couldst but read--ah, who could look
Into the secret of a heart like mine,
Contaminated with such infamy,
And not abhor me? I blame not thy wrath,
No, nor thy hate. On earth I feel already
The guilty pangs of hell. Scarce had the blow
Escaped my hand before a swift remorse,
Swift but too late, fell terrible upon me.
From that hour still the sanguinary ghost
By day and night, and ever horrible,
Hath moved before mine eyes. Whene'er I turn
I see its bleeding footsteps trace the path
That I must follow; at table, on the throne,
It sits beside me; on my bitter pillow
If e'er it chance I close mine eyes in sleep,
The specter--fatal vision!--instantly
Shows itself in my dreams, and tears the breast,
Already mangled, with a furious hand,
And thence draws both its palms full of dark blood,
To dash it in my face! On dreadful nights
Follow more dreadful days. In a long death
I live my life. Daughter,--whate'er I am,
Thou art my daughter still,--dost thou not weep
At tears like mine?
Clytemnestra confesses that Aegisthus no longer loves her, but she
loves him, and she shrinks from Electra's fierce counsel that she
shall kill him. He enters to find her in tears, and a violent scene
between him and Electra follows, in which Clytemnestra interposes.
_Cly._ O daughter, he is my husband. Think, Aegisthus,
She is my daughter.
_Aeg._ She is Atrides' daughter!
_El._ He is Atrides' murderer!
Have pity, Aegisthus! Look--the tomb! Oh, look,
The horrible tomb!--and art thou not content?
_Aeg._ Woman, be less unlike thyself. Atrides,--
Tell me by whose hand in yon tomb he lies?
_Cly._ O mortal blame! What else is lacking now
To my unhappy, miserable life?
Who drove me to it now upbraids my crime!
_El._ O marvelous joy! O only joy that's blessed
My heart in these ten years! I see you both
At last the prey of anger and remorse;
I hear at last what must the endearments be
Of love so blood-stained.
The first act closes with a scene between Aegisthus and Clytemnestra,
in which he urges her to consent that he shall send to have Orestes
murdered, and reminds her of her former crimes when she revolts from
this. The scene is very well managed, with that sparing phrase which
in Alfieri is quite as apt to be touchingly simple as bare and poor.
In the opening scene of the second act, Orestes has returned in
disguise to Argos with Pylades the son of Strophius, to whom he
We are come at last. Here Agamemnon fell,
Murdered, and here Aegisthus reigns. Here rose
In memory still, though I a child departed,
These natal walls, and the just Heaven in time
Leads me back hither.
Twice five years have passed
This very day since that dread night of blood,
When, slain by treachery, my father made
The whole wide palace with his dolorous cries
Echo again. Oh, well do I remember!
Electra swiftly bore me through this hall
Thither where Strophius in his pitying arms
Received me--Strophius, less by far thy father
Than mine, thereafter--and fled onward with me
By yonder postern-gate, all tremulous;
And after me there ran upon the air
Long a wild clamor and a lamentation
That made me weep and shudder and lament,
I knew not why, and weeping Strophius ran,
Preventing with his hand my outcries shrill,
Clasping me close, and sprinkling all my face
With bitter tears; and to the lonely coast,
Where only now we landed, with his charge
He came apace; and eagerly unfurled
His sails before the wind.
Pylades strives to restrain the passion for revenge in Orestes,
which imperils them both. The friend proposes that they shall feign
themselves messengers sent by Strophius with tidings of Orestes'
death, and Orestes has reluctantly consented, when Electra re-appears,
and they recognize each other. Pylades discloses their plan, and when
her brother urges, "The means is vile," she answers, all woman,--
Less vile than is Aegisthus. There is none
Better or surer, none, believe me. When
You are led to him, let it be mine to think
Of all--the place, the manner, time, and arms,
To kill him. Still I keep, Orestes, still
I keep the steel that in her husband's breast
She plunged whom nevermore we might call mother.
_Orestes._ How fares it with that impious woman?
Thou canst not know how she drags out her life!
Save only Agamemnon's children, all
Must pity her--and even we must pity.
Full ever of suspicion and of terror,
And held in scorn even by Aegisthus' self,
Loving Aegisthus though she know his guilt;
Repentant, and yet ready to renew
Her crime, perchance, if the unworthy love
Which is her shame and her abhorrence, would;
Now wife, now mother, never wife nor mother,
Bitter remorse gnaws at her heart by day
Unceasingly, and horrible shapes by night
Scare slumber from her eyes.--So fares it with her.
In the third scene of the following act Clytemnestra meets Orestes
and Pylades, who announce themselves as messengers from Phocis to the
king; she bids them deliver their tidings to her, and they finally
do so, Pylades struggling to prevent Orestes from revealing himself.
There are touchingly simple and natural passages in the lament that
Clytemnestra breaks into over her son's death, and there is fire, with
its true natural extinction in tears, when she upbraids Aegisthus, who
My only son beloved, I gave thee all.
* * * * *
All that I gave thou did'st account as nothing
While aught remained to take. Who ever saw
At once so cruel and so false a heart?
The guilty love that thou did'st feign so ill
And I believed so well, what hindrance to it,
What hindrance, tell me, was the child Orestes?
Yet scarce had Agamemnon died before
Thou did'st cry out for his son's blood; and searched
Through all the palace in thy fury. Then
The blade thou durst not wield against the father,
Then thou didst brandish! Ay, bold wast thou then
Against a helpless child!...
Unhappy son, what booted it to save thee
From thy sire's murderer, since thou hast found
Death ere thy time in strange lands far away?
Aegisthus, villainous usurper! Thou,
Thou hast slain my son! Aegisthus--Oh forgive!
I was a mother, and am so no more.
Throughout this scene, and in the soliloquy preceding it, Alfieri
paints very forcibly the struggle in Clytemnestra between her love for
her son and her love for Aegisthus, to whom she clings even while
he exults in the tidings that wring her heart. It is all too baldly
presented, doubtless, but it is very effective and affecting.
Orestes and Pylades are now brought before Aegisthus, and he demands
how and where Orestes died, for after his first rejoicing he has come
to doubt the fact. Pylades responds in one of those speeches with
which Alfieri seems to carve the scene in bas-relief:
Every fifth year an ancient use renews
In Crete the games and offerings unto Jove.
The love of glory and innate ambition
Lure to that coast the youth; and by his side
Goes Pylades, inseparable from him.
In the light car upon the arena wide,
The hopes of triumph urge him to contest
The proud palm of the flying-footed steeds,
And, too intent on winning, there his life
He gives for victory.
_Aeg._ But how? Say on.
_Pyl._ Too fierce, impatient, and incautious, he
Now frights his horses on with threatening cries,
Now whirls his blood-stained whip, and lashes them,
Till past the goal the ill-tamed coursers fly
Faster and faster. Reckless of the rein,
Deaf to the voice that fain would soothe them now,
Their nostrils breathing fire, their loose manes tossed
Upon the wind, and in thick clouds involved
Of choking dust, round the vast circle's bound,
As lightning swift they whirl and whirl again.
Fright, horror, mad confusion, death, the car
Spreads in its crooked circles everywhere,
Until at last, the smoking axle dashed
With horrible shock against a marble pillar,
Orestes headlong falls--
_Cly._ No more! Ah, peace!
His mother hears thee.
_Pyl._ It is true. Forgive me.
I will not tell how, horribly dragged on,
His streaming life-blood soaked the arena's dust--
Pylades ran--in vain--within his arms
His friend expired.
_Cly._ O wicked death!
_Pyl._ In Crete
All men lamented him, so potent in him
Were beauty, grace, and daring.
_Cly._ Nay, who would not
Lament him save this wretch alone? Dear son,
Must I then never, never see thee more?
O me! too well I see thee crossing now
The Stygian stream to clasp thy father's shade:
Both turn your frowning eyes askance on me,
Burning with dreadful wrath! Yea, it was I,
'T was I that slew you both. Infamous mother
And guilty wife!--Now art content, Aegisthus?
Aegisthus still doubts, and pursues the pretended messengers with such
insulting question that Orestes, goaded beyond endurance, betrays that
their character is assumed. They are seized and about to be led to
prison in chains, when Electra enters and in her anguish at the sight
exclaims, "Orestes led to die!" Then ensues a heroic scene, in which
each of the friends claims to be Orestes. At last Orestes shows the
dagger Electra has given him, and offers it to Clytemnestra, that
she may stab Aegisthus with the same weapon with which she killed
Whom then I would call mother. Take it; thou know'st how
To wield it; plunge it in Aegisthus' heart!
Leave me to die; I care not, if I see
My father avenged. I ask no other proof
Of thy maternal love from thee. Quick, now,
Strike! Oh, what is it that I see? Thou tremblest?
Thou growest pale? Thou weepest? From thy hand
The dagger falls? Thou lov'st Aegisthus, lov'st him
And art Orestes' mother? Madness! Go
And never let me look on thee again!
Aegisthus dooms Electra to the same death with Orestes and Pylades,
but on the way to prison the guards liberate them all, and the Argives
rise against the usurper with the beginning of the fifth act, which I
shall give entire, because I think it very characteristic of Alfieri,
and necessary to a conception of his vehement, if somewhat arid,
genius. I translate as heretofore almost line for line, and word for
word, keeping the Italian order as nearly as I can.
AEGISTHUS _and Soldiers._
_Aeg._ O treachery unforseen! O madness! Freed,
Orestes freed? Now we shall see....
_Cly._ Ah! turn
Backward thy steps.
_Aeg._ Ah, wretch, dost thou arm too
_Cly._ I would save thee. Hearken to me,
I am no longer--
_Aeg._ Thou 'st promised
Haply to give me to that wretch alive?
_Cly._ To keep thee, save thee from him, I have sworn,
Though I should perish for thee! Ah, remain
And hide thee here in safety. I will be
Thy stay against his fury--
_Aeg._ Against his fury
My sword shall be my stay. Go, leave me!
_Aeg._ To kill him!
_Cly._ To thy death thou goest!
O me! What dost thou? Hark! Dost thou not hear
The yells and threats of the whole people? Hold!
I will not leave thee.
_Aeg._ Nay, thou hop'st in vain
To save thy impious son from death. Hence! Peace!
Or I will else--
_Cly._ Oh, yes, Aegisthus, kill me,
If thou believest me not. "Orestes!" Hark!
"Orestes!" How that terrible name on high
Rings everywhere! I am no longer mother
When thou 'rt in danger. Against my blood I grow
Cruel once more.
_Aeg._ Thou knowest well the Argives
Do hate thy face, and at the sight of thee
The fury were redoubled in their hearts.
The tumult rises. Ah, thou wicked wretch,
Thou wast the cause! For thee did I delay
Vengeance that turns on me now.
_Cly._ Kill me, then!
_Aeg._ I'll find escape some other way.
_Cly._ I follow--
_Aeg._ Ill shield wert thou for me. Leave me--away, away!
At no price would I have thee by my side! [_Exit._
_Cly._ All hunt me from them! O most hapless state!
My son no longer owns me for his mother,
My husband for his wife: and wife and mother
I still must be! O misery! Afar
I'll follow him, nor lose the way he went.
_El._ Mother, where goest thou! Turn thy steps again
Into the palace. Danger--
Where is he now? What does he do?
Pylades, and myself, we are all safe.
Even Aegisthus' minions pitied us.
They cried, "This is Orestes!" and the people,
"Long live Orestes! Let Aegisthus die!"
_Cly._ What do I hear?
_El._ Calm thyself, mother; soon
Thou shalt behold thy son again, and soon
Th' infamous tyrant's corse--
_Cly._ Ah, cruel, leave me!
_El._ No, stay! The people rage, and cry
Out on thee for a parricidal wife.
Show thyself not as yet, or thou incurrest
Great peril. 'T was for this I came. In thee
A mother's agony appeared, to see
Thy children dragged to death, and thou hast now
Atoned for thy misdeed. My brother sends me
To comfort thee, to succor and to hide thee
From dreadful sights. To find Aegisthus out,
All armed meanwhile, he and his Pylades
Search everywhere. Where is the wicked wretch?
_Cly._ Orestes is the wicked wretch!
_El_. O Heaven!
_Cly._ I go to save him or to perish with him.
_El._ Nay, mother, thou shalt never go. Thou ravest--
_Cly._ The penalty is mine. I go--
_El._ O mother!
The monster that but now thy children doomed
To death, wouldst thou--
_Cly._ Yes, I would save him--I!
Out of my path! My terrible destiny
I must obey. He is my husband. All
Too dear he cost me. I will not, can not lose him.
You I abhor, traitors, not children to me!
I go to him. Loose me, thou wicked girl!
At any risk I go, and may I only
Reach him in time! [_Exit._
_El_. Go to thy fate, then, go,
If thou wilt so, but be thy steps too late!
Why can not I, too, arm me with a dagger,
To pierce with stabs a thousand-fold the breast
Of infamous Aegisthus! O blind mother, oh,
How art thou fettered to his baseness! Yet,
And yet, I tremble--If the angry mob
Avenge their murdered king on her--O Heaven!
Let me go after her--But who comes here?
Pylades, and my brother not beside him?
Oh, tell me! Orestes--?
_Pyl._ Compasses the palace
About with swords. And now our prey is safe.
Where lurks Aegisthus! Hast thou seen him?
I saw and strove in vain a moment since
To stay his maddened wife. She flung herself
Out of this door, crying that she would make
Herself a shield unto Aegisthus. He
Already had fled the palace.
_Pyl._ Durst he then
Show himself in the sight of Argos? Why,
Then he is slain ere this! Happy the man
That struck him first. Nearer and louder yet
I hear their yells.
_El._ "Orestes!" Ah, were't so!
_Pyl._ Look at him in his fury where he comes!
_Enter_ ORESTES _and his followers_.
_Or._ No man of you attempt to slay Aegisthus:
There is no wounding sword here save my own.
Aegisthus, ho! Where art thou, coward! Speak!
Aegisthus, where art thou? Come forth: it is
The voice of Death that calls thee! Thou comest not?
Ah, villain, dost thou hide thyself? In vain:
The midmost deep of Erebus should not hide thee!
Thou shalt soon see if I be Atrides' son.
_El._ He is not here; he--
_Or._ Traitors! You perchance
Have slain him without me?
_Pyl._ Before I came
He had fled the palace.
_Or._ In the palace still
Somewhere he lurks; but I will drag him forth;
By his soft locks I'll drag him with my hand:
There is no prayer, nor god, nor force of hell
Shall snatch thee from me. I will make thee plow
The dust with thy vile body to the tomb
Of Agamemnon,--I will drag thee thither
And pour out there all thine adulterous blood.
_El._ Orestes, dost thou not believe me?--me!
_Or._ Who'rt thou? I want Aegisthus.
_El._ He is fled.
_Or._ He's fled, and you, ye wretches, linger here?
But I will find him.
_Cly._ Oh, have pity, son!
_Or._ Pity? Whose son am I? Atrides' son
_Cly._ Aegisthus, loaded with chains--
_Or._ He lives yet?
O joy! Let me go slay him!
_Cly._ Nay, kill me!
I slew thy father--I alone. Aegisthus
Had no guilt in it.
_Or._ Who, who grips my arm!
Who holds me back? O Madness! Ah Aegisthus!
I see him; they drag him hither--Off with thee!
_Cly._ Orestes, dost thou not know thy mother?
Aegisthus! By Orestes' hand, die, villain! [_Exit._
_Cly._ Ah, thou'st escaped me! Thou shalt slay me
_El._ Pylades, go! Run, run! Oh, stay her! fly;
Bring her back hither! [_Exit_ PYLADES.
I shudder! She is still
His mother, and he must have pity on her.
Yet only now she saw her children stand
Upon the brink of an ignoble death;
And was her sorrow and her daring then
As great as they are now for him? At last
The day so long desired has come; at last,
Tyrant, thou diest; and once more I hear
The palace all resound with wails and cries,
As on that horrible and bloody night,
Which was my father's last, I heard it ring.
Already hath Orestes struck the blow,
The mighty blow; already is Aegisthus
Fallen--the tumult of the crowd proclaims it.
Behold Orestes conqueror, his sword
Dripping with blood!
O brother mine, come,
Avenger of the king of kings, our father,
Argos, and me, come to my heart!
At last thou seest me Atrides' worthy son.
Look,'t is Aegisthus' blood! I hardly saw him
And ran to slay him where he stood, forgetting
To drag him to our father's sepulcher.
Full twice seven times I plunged and plunged my sword
Into his cowardly and quaking heart;
Yet have I slaked not my long thirst of vengeance!
_El_. Then Clytemnestra did not come in time
To stay thine arm?
_Or._ And who had been enough
For that? To stay my arm? I hurled myself
Upon him; not more swift the thunderbolt.
The coward wept, and those vile tears the more
Filled me with hate. A man that durst not die
Slew thee, my father!
_El._ Now is our sire avenged!
Calm thyself now, and tell me, did thine eyes
Behold not Pylades?
_Or._ I saw Aegisthus;
None other. Where is dear Pylades? And why
Did he not second me in this glorious deed?
_El._ I had confided to his care our mad
And desperate mother.
_Or._ I knew nothing of them.
_El._ See, Pylades returns--O heavens, what do I see?
_Or._ And sad? Oh wherefore sad,
Part of myself, art thou? Know'st not I've slain
Yon villain? Look, how with his life-blood yet
My sword is dripping! Ah, thou did'st not share
His death-blow with me! Feed then on this sight
Thine eyes, my Pylades!
_Pyl._ O sight! Orestes,
Give me that sword.
_Or._ And wherefore?
_Pyl._ Give it me.
_Or._ Take it.
_Pyl._ Oh listen! We may not tarry longer
Within these borders; come--
_Or._ But what--
_El_. Oh speak!
_Or._ Leave her; she is perchance
Kindling the pyre unto her traitor husband.
_Pyl._ Oh, thou hast far more than fulfilled thy vengeance.
Come, now, and ask no more.
_Or._ What dost thou say?
_El._ Our mother! I beseech thee yet again!
Pylades--Oh what chill is this that creeps
Through all my veins?
_Pyl._ The heavens--
_El._ Ah, she is dead!
_Or._ Hath turned her dagger, maddened, on herself?
_El._ Alas, Pylades! Why dost thou not answer?
_Or._. Speak! What hath been?
_Or._ And by whose hand?
_El._ (_To_ ORESTES.) Thou slewest her!
_Or._ I parricide?
Thou plungedst in her heart thy sword, as blind
With rage thou rannest on Aegisthus--
What horror seizes me! I parricide?
My sword! Pylades, give it me; I'll have it--
_Pyl._ It shall not be.
_Or._ Who calls me brother?
Thou, haply, impious wretch, thou that didst save me
To life and matricide? Give me my sword!
My sword! O fury! Where am I? What is it
That I have done? Who stays me? Who follows me?
Ah, whither shall I fly, where hide myself?--
O father, dost thou look on me askance?
Thou wouldst have blood of me, and this is blood;
For thee alone--for thee alone I shed it!
_El._ Orestes, Orestes--miserable brother!
He hears us not! ah, he is mad! Forever,
Pylades, we must go beside him.
Inevitable law of ruthless Fate!
Alfieri himself wrote a critical comment on each of his tragedies,
discussing their qualities and the question of their failure or
success dispassionately enough. For example, he frankly says of his
Maria Stuarda that it is the worst tragedy he ever wrote, and the only
one that he could wish not to have written; of his Agamennone, that
all the good in it came from the author and all the bad from the
subject; of his Fillippo II., that it may make a very terrible
impression indeed of mingled pity and horror, or that it may disgust,
through the cold atrocity of Philip, even to the point of nausea. On
the Orestes, we may very well consult him more at length. He declares:
"This tragic action has no other motive or development, nor admits any
other passion, than an implacable revenge; but the passion of revenge
(though very strong by nature), having become greatly enfeebled among
civilized peoples, is regarded as a vile passion, and its effects are
wont to be blamed and looked upon with loathing. Nevertheless, when it
is just, when the offense received is very atrocious, when the persons
and the circumstances are such that no human law can indemnify the
aggrieved and punish the aggressor, then revenge, under the names of
war, invasion, conspiracy, the duel, and the like, ennobles itself,
and so works upon our minds as not only to be endured but to be
admirable and sublime."
In his Orestes he confesses that he sees much to praise and very
little to blame: "Orestes, to my thinking, is ardent in sublime
degree, and this daring character of his, together with the perils he
confronts, may greatly diminish in him the atrocity and coldness of a
meditated revenge.... Let those who do not believe in the force of a
passion for high and just revenge add to it, in the heart of Orestes,
private interest, the love of power, rage at beholding his natural
heritage occupied by a murderous usurper, and then they will have
a sufficient reason for all his fury. Let them consider, also, the
ferocious ideas in which he must have been nurtured by Strophius, king
of Phocis, the persecutions which he knows to have been everywhere
moved against him by the usurper,--his being, in fine, the son of
Agamemnon, and greatly priding himself thereon,--and all these things
will certainly account for the vindictive passion of Orestes....
Clytemnestra is very difficult to treat in this tragedy, since she
must be here,
"Now wife, now mother, never wife nor mother,
"which is much easier to say in a verse than to manage in the space
of five acts. Yet I believe that Clytemnestra, through the terrible
remorse she feels, the vile treatment which she receives from
Aegisthus, and the awful perplexity in which she lives ... will be
considered sufficiently punished by the spectator. Aegisthus is never
able to elevate his soul; ... he will always be an unpleasing, vile,
and difficult personage to manage well; a character that brings small
praise to the author when made sufferable, and much blame if not made
so.... I believe the fourth and fifth acts would produce the highest
effect on the stage if well represented. In the fifth, there is a
movement, a brevity, a rapidly operating heat, that ought to touch,
agitate, and singularly surprise the spirit. So it seems to me, but
perhaps it is not so."
This analysis is not only very amusing for the candor with which
Alfieri praises himself, but it is also remarkable for the justice
with which the praise is given, and the strong, conscious hold which
it shows him to have had upon his creations. It leaves one very little
to add, but I cannot help saying that I think the management of
Clytemnestra especially admirable throughout. She loves Aegisthus with
the fatal passion which no scorn or cruelty on his part can quench;
but while he is in power and triumphant, her heart turns tenderly to
her hapless children, whom she abhors as soon as his calamity comes;
then she has no thought but to save him. She can join her children in
hating the murder which she has herself done on Agamemnon, but she
cannot avenge it on Aegisthus, and thus expiate her crime in their
eyes. Aegisthus is never able to conceive of the unselfishness of her
love; he believes her ready to betray him when danger threatens and to
shield herself behind him from the anger of the Argives; it is a deep
knowledge of human nature that makes him interpose the memory of her
unatoned-for crime between her and any purpose of good.
Orestes always sees his revenge as something sacred, and that is a
great scene in which he offers his dagger to Clytemnestra and bids her
kill Aegisthus with it, believing for the instant that even she must
exult to share his vengeance. His feeling towards Aegisthus never
changes; it is not revolting to the spectator, since Orestes is so
absolutely unconscious of wrong in putting him to death. He shows his
blood-stained sword to Pylades with a real sorrow that his friend
should not also have enjoyed the rapture of killing the usurper. His
story of his escape on the night of Agamemnon's murder is as simple
and grand in movement as that of figures in an antique bas-relief.
Here and elsewhere one feels how Alfieri does not paint, but
sculptures his scenes and persons, cuts their outlines deep, and
strongly carves their attitudes and expression.
Electra is the worthy sister of Orestes, and the family likeness
between them is sharply traced. She has all his faith in the
sacredness of his purpose, while she has, woman-like, a far keener and
more specific hatred of Aegisthus. The ferocity of her exultation when
Clytemnestra and Aegisthus upbraid each other is terrible, but the
picture she draws for Orestes of their mother's life is touched with
an exquisite filial pity. She seems to me studied with marvelous
The close of the tragedy is full of fire and life, yet never wanting
in a sort of lofty, austere grace, that lapses at last into a truly
statuesque despair. Orestes mad, with Electra and Pylades on either
side: it is the attitude and gesture of Greek sculpture, a group
forever fixed in the imperishable sorrow of stone.
In reading Alfieri, I am always struck with what I may call the
narrowness of his tragedies. They have height and depth, but not
breadth. The range of sentiment is as limited in any one of them as
the range of phrase in this Orestes, where the recurrence of the same
epithets, horrible, bloody, terrible, fatal, awful, is not apparently
felt by the poet as monotonous. Four or five persons, each
representing a purpose or a passion, occupy the scene, and obviously
contribute by every word and deed to the advancement of the tragic
action; and this narrowness and rigidity of intent would be
intolerable, if the tragedies were not so brief: I do not think any of
them is much longer than a single act of one of Shakespeare's plays.
They are in all other ways equally unlike Shakespeare's plays. When
you read Macbeth or Hamlet, you find yourself in a world where the
interests and passions are complex and divided against themselves, as
they are here and now. The action progresses fitfully, as events do
in life; it is promoted by the things that seem to retard it; and it
includes long stretches of time and many places. When you read
Orestes, you find yourself attendant upon an imminent calamity, which
nothing can avert or delay. In a solitude like that of dreams, those
hapless phantasms, dark types of remorse, of cruel ambition, of
inexorable revenge, move swiftly on the fatal end. They do not grow or
develop on the imagination; their character is stamped at once, and
they have but to act it out. There is no lingering upon episodes, no
digressions, no reliefs. They cannot stir from that spot where they
are doomed to expiate or consummate their crimes; one little day is
given them, and then all is over.
Mr. Lowell, in his essay on Dryden, speaks of "a style of poetry whose
great excellence was that it was in perfect sympathy with the genius
of the people among whom it came into being", and this I conceive to
be the virtue of the Alferian poetry. The Italians love beauty of
form, and we Goths love picturesque effect; and Alfieri has little or
none of the kind of excellence which we enjoy. But while
I look and own myself a happy Goth,
I have moods, in the presence of his simplicity and severity, when I
feel that he and all the classicists may be right. When I see how much
he achieves with his sparing phrase, his sparsely populated scene, his
narrow plot and angular design, when I find him perfectly sufficient
in expression and entirely adequate in suggestion, the Classic alone
appears elegant and true--till I read Shakespeare again; or till I
turn to Nature, whom I do not find sparing or severe, but full of
variety and change and relief, and yet having a sort of elegance and
truth of her own.
In the treatment of historical subjects Alfieri allowed himself every
freedom. He makes Lorenzo de' Medici, a brutal and very insolent
tyrant, a tyrant after the high Roman fashion, a tyrant almost after
the fashion of the late Edwin Forrest. Yet there are some good
passages in the Congiura dei Pazzi, of the peculiarly hard Alfierian
An enemy insulted and not slain!
What breast in triple iron armed, but needs
Must tremble at him?
is a saying of Giuliano de' Medici, who, when asked if he does not
fear one of the conspirators, puts the whole political wisdom of the
sixteenth century into his answer,--
Being feared, I fear.
The Filippo of Alfieri must always have an interest for English
readers because of its chance relation to Keats, who, sick to death of
consumption, bought a copy of Alfieri when on his way to Rome. As Mr.
Lowell relates in his sketch of the poet's life, the dying man opened
the book at the second page, and read the lines--perhaps the tenderest
that Alfieri ever wrote--
Misero me! sollievo a me non resta
Altro che il pianto, e il pianto e delitto!
Keats read these words, and then laid down the book and opened it no
more. The closing scene of the fourth act of this tragedy can well be
studied as a striking example of Alfieri's power of condensation.
Some of the non-political tragedies of Alfieri are still played;
Ristori has played his Mirra, and Salvini his Saul; but I believe
there is now no Italian critic who praises him so entirely as Giudici
did. Yet the poet finds a warm defender against the French and German
critics in De Sanctis, [note: Saggi Critici. Di Francesco de Sanctis.
Napoli: Antonio Morano. 1859.] a very clever and brilliant Italian,
who accounts for Alfieri in a way that helps to make all Italian
things more intelligible to us. He is speaking of Alfieri's epoch and
social circumstances: "Education had been classic for ages. Our ideal
was Rome and Greece, our heroes Brutus and Cato, our books Livy,
Tacitus, and Plutarch; and if this was true of all Europe, how much
more so of Italy, where this history might be called domestic, a thing
of our own, a part of our traditions, still alive to the eye in our
cities and monuments. From Dante to Machiavelli, from Machiavelli
to Metastasio, our classical tradition was never broken.... In the
social dissolution of the last century, all disappeared except this
ideal. In fact, in that first enthusiasm, when the minds of men
confidently sought final perfection, it passed from the schools into
life, ruled the imagination, inflamed the will. People lived and died
Romanly.... The situations that Alfieri has chosen in his tragedies
have a visible relation to the social state, to the fears and to the
hopes of his own time. It is always resistance to oppression, of
man against man, of people against tyrant.... In the classicism of
Alfieri there is no positive side. It is an ideal Rome and Greece,
outside of time and space, floating in the vague, ... which his
contemporaries filled up with their own life."
Giuseppe Arnaud, in his admirable criticisms on the Patriotic Poets of
Italy, has treated of the literary side of Alfieri in terms that seem
to me, on the whole, very just: "He sacrificed the foreshortening,
which has so great a charm for the spectator, to the sculptured full
figure that always presents itself face to face with you, and in
entire relief. The grand passions, which are commonly sparing of
words, are in his system condemned to speak much, and to explain
themselves too much.... To what shall we attribute that respectful
somnolence which nowadays reigns over the audience during the
recitation of Alfieri's tragedies, if they are not sustained by some
theatrical celebrity? You will certainly say, to the mediocrity of
the actors. But I hold that the tragic effect can be produced even by
mediocre actors, if this effect truly abounds in the plot of the
tragedy.... I know that these opinions of mine will not be shared by
the great majority of the Italian public, and so be it. The contrary
will always be favorable to one who greatly loved his country, always
desired to serve her, and succeeded in his own time and own manner.
Whoever should say that Alfieri's tragedies, in spite of many eminent
merits, were constructed on a theory opposed to grand scenic effects
and to one of the two bases of tragedy, namely, compassion, would
certainly not say what was far from the truth. And yet, with all this,
Alfieri will still remain that dry, harsh blast which swept away the
noxious miasms with which the Italian air was infected. He will
still remain that poet who aroused his country from its dishonorable
slumber, and inspired its heart with intolerance of servile conditions
and with regard for its dignity. Up to his time we had bleated, and he
roared." "In fact," says D'Azeglio, "one of the merits of that proud
heart was to have found Italy Metastasian and left it Alfierian; and
his first and greatest merit was, to my thinking, that he discovered
Italy, so to speak, as Columbus discovered America, and initiated the
idea of Italy as a nation. I place this merit far beyond that of his
verses and his tragedies."
Besides his tragedies, Alfieri wrote, as I have already stated, some
comedies in his last years; but I must own my ignorance of all six of
them; and he wrote various satires, odes, sonnets, epigrams, and other
poems. Most of these are of political interest; the Miso-Gallo is an
expression of his scorn and hatred of the French nation; the America
Liberata celebrates our separation from England; the Etruria Vendicata
praises the murder of the abominable Alessandro de' Medici by
his kinsman, Lorenzaccio. None of the satires, whether on kings,
aristocrats, or people, have lent themselves easily to my perusal; the
epigrams are signally unreadable, but some of the sonnets are very
good. He seems to find in their limitations the same sort of strength
that he finds in his restricted tragedies; and they are all in the
truest sense sonnets.
Here is one, which loses, of course, by translation. In this and other
of my versions, I have rarely found the English too concise for the
Italian, and often not concise enough:
HE IMAGINES THE DEATH OF HIS LADY.
The sad bell that within my bosom aye
Clamors and bids me still renew my tears,
Doth stun my senses and my soul bewray
With wandering fantasies and cheating fears;
The gentle form of her that is but ta'en
A little from my sight I seem to see
At life's bourne lying faint and pale with pain,--
My love that to these tears abandons me.
"O my own true one," tenderly she cries,
"I grieve for thee, love, that thou winnest naught
Save hapless life with all thy many sighs."
Life? Never! Though thy blessed steps have taught
My feet the path in all well-doing, stay!--
At this last pass 't is mine to lead the way.
There is a still more characteristic sonnet of Alfieri's, with which I
shall close, as I began, in the very open air of his autobiography:
Thou mirror of veracious speech sublime,
What I am like in soul and body, show:
Red hair,--in front grown somewhat thin with time;
Tall stature, with an earthward head bowed low;
A meager form, with two straight legs beneath;
An aspect good; white skin with eyes of blue;
A proper nose; fine lips and choicest teeth;
Face paler than a throned king's in hue;
Now hard and bitter, yielding now and mild;
Malignant never, passionate alway,
With mind and heart in endless strife embroiled;
Sad mostly, and then gayest of the gay.
Achilles now, Thersites in his turn:
Man, art thou great or vile? Die and thou 'lt learn!
VINCENZO MONTI AND UGO FOSCOLO
The period of Vincenzo Monti and Ugo Foscolo is that covered in
political history by the events of the French revolution, the French
invasion of Italy and the Napoleonic wars there against the Austrians,
the establishment of the Cisalpine Republic and of the kingdom of
Italy, the final overthrow of the French dominion, and the restoration
of the Austrians. During all these events, the city of Milan remained
the literary as well as the political center of Italy, and whatever
were the moral reforms wrought by the disasters of which it was also
the center, there is no doubt that intellectually a vast change had
taken place since the days when Parini's satire was true concerning
the life of the Milanese nobles. The transformation of national
character by war is never, perhaps, so immediate or entire as we are
apt to expect. When our own war broke out, those who believed that we
were to be purged and ennobled in all our purposes by calamity looked
for a sort of total and instant conversion. This, indeed, seemed to
take place, but there was afterward the inevitable reaction, and it
appears that there are still some small blemishes upon our political
and social state. Yet, for all this, each of us is conscious of some
vast and inestimable difference in the nation.
It is instructive, if it is not ennobling, to be moved by great and
noble impulses, to feel one's self part of a people, and to recognize
country for once as the supreme interest; and these were the
privileges the French revolution gave the Italians. It shed their
blood, and wasted their treasure, and stole their statues and
pictures, but it bade them believe themselves men; it forced them to
think of Italy as a nation, and the very tyranny in which it ended was
a realization of unity, and more to be desired a thousand times
than the shameless tranquillity in which it had found them. It is
imaginable that when the revolution advanced upon Milan it did not
seem the greatest and finest thing in life to serve a lady; when the
battles of Marengo and Lodi were fought, and Mantua was lost and won,
to court one's neighbor's wife must have appeared to some gentlemen
rather a waste of time; when the youth of the Italian legion in
Napoleon's campaign perished amidst the snows of Russia, their
brothers and sisters, and fathers and mothers, must have found
intrigues and operas and fashions but a poor sort of distraction. By
these terrible means the old forces of society were destroyed, not
quickly, but irreparably. The cavaliere servente was extinct early in
this century; and men and women opened their eyes upon an era of work,
the most industrious age that the world has ever seen.
The change took place slowly; much of the material was old and
hopelessly rotten; but in the new generation the growth towards better
and greater things was more rapid.
Yet it would not be well to conjure up too heroic an image of Italian
revolutionary society: we know what vices fester and passions rage
in war-time, and Italy was then almost constantly involved in war.
Intellectually, men are active, but the great poems are not written in
war-time, nor the highest effects of civilization produced. There is
a taint of insanity and of instability in everything, a mark of
feverishness and haste and transition. The revolution gave Italy a
chance for new life, but this was the most the revolution could do.
It was a great gift, not a perfect one; and as it remained for the
Italians to improve the opportunity, they did it partially, fitfully,
as men do everything.
The poets who belong to this time are numerous enough, but those best
known are Vincenzo Monti and Ugo Foscolo. These men were long the
most conspicuous literati in the capital of Lombardy, but neither was
Lombard. Monti was educated in the folds of Arcadia at Rome; Foscolo
was a native of one of the Greek islands dependent on Venice, and
passed his youth and earlier manhood in the lagoons. The accident of
residence at Milan brought the two men together, and made friends
of those who had naturally very little in common. They can only be
considered together as part of the literary history of the time in
which they both happened to be born, and as one of its most striking
In 1802, Napoleon bestowed a republican constitution on Lombardy and
the other provinces of Italy which had been united under the name of
the Cisalpine Republic, and Milan became the capital of the new state.
Thither at once turned all that was patriotic, hopeful, and ambitious
in Italian life; and though one must not judge this phase of Italian
civilization from Vincenzo Monti, it is an interesting comment on its
effervescent, unstable, fictitious, and partial nature that he was its
most conspicuous poet. Few men appear so base as Monti; but it is not
certain that he was of more fickle and truthless soul than many other
contemplative and cultivated men of the poetic temperament who are
never confronted with exigent events, and who therefore never betray
the vast difference that lies between the ideal heroism of the poet's
vision and the actual heroism of occasion. We all have excellent
principles until we are tempted, and it was Monti's misfortune to be
born in an age which put his principles to the test, with a prospect
of more than the usual prosperity in reward for servility and
compliance, and more than the usual want, suffering, and danger in
punishment of candor and constancy.
He was born near Ferrara in 1754; and having early distinguished
himself in poetry, he was conducted to Rome by the Cardinal-Legate
Borghesi. At Rome he entered the Arcadian fold of course, and piped
by rule there with extraordinary acceptance, and might have died a
Shepherd but for the French Revolution, which broke out and gave him
a chance to be a Man. The secretary of the French Legation at Naples,
appearing in Rome with the tri-color of the Republic, was attacked by
the foolish populace, and killed; and Monti, the petted and caressed
of priests, the elegant and tuneful young poet in the train of
Cardinal Borghesi, seized the event of Ugo Bassville's death, and
turned it to epic account. In the moment of dissolution, Bassville,
repenting his republicanism, receives pardon; but, as a condition of
his acceptance into final bliss, he is shown, through several cantos
of _terza rima_, the woes which the Revolution has brought upon France
and the world. The bad people of the poem are naturally the French
Revolutionists; the good people, those who hate them. The most admired
episode is that descriptive of poor Louis XVI.'s ascent into heaven
from the scaffold.
[Illustration: VINCENZO MONTI.]
There is some reason to suppose that Monti was sincerer in this
poem than in any other of political bearing which he wrote; and the
Dantesque plan of the work gave it, with the occasional help of
Dante's own phraseology and many fine turns of expression picked up
in the course of a multifarious reading, a dignity from which the
absurdity of the apotheosis of priests and princes detracted nothing
among its readers. At any rate, it was received by Arcadia with
rapturous acclaim, though its theme was _not_ the Golden Age; and on
the _Bassvilliana_ the little that is solid in Monti's fame rests at
this day. His lyric poetry is seldom quoted; his tragedies are no
longer played, not even his _Galeoto Manfredi_, in which he has stolen
almost enough from Shakespeare to vitalize one of the characters.
After a while the Romans wearied of their idol, and began to attack
him in politics and literature; and in 1797 Monti, after a sojourn of
twenty years in the Papal capital, fled from Rome to Milan. Here he
was assailed in one of the journals by a fanatical Neapolitan, who had
also written a _Bassvilliana_, but with celestial powers, heroes and
martyrs of French politics, and who now accused Monti of enmity to the
rights of man. Monti responded by a letter to this poet, in which
he declared that his _Bassvilliana_ was no expression of his own
feelings, but that he had merely written it to escape the fury of
Bassville's murderers, who were incensed against him as Bassville's
friend! But for all this the _Bassvilliana_ was publicly burnt before
the cathedral in Milan, and Monti was turned out of a government place
he had got, because "he had published books calculated to inspire
hatred of democracy, or predilection for the government of kings, of
theocrats and aristocrats." The poet was equal to this exigency; and
he now reprinted his works, and made them praise the French and the
revolutionists wherever they had blamed them before; all the bad
systems and characters were depicted as monarchies and kings and
popes, instead of anarchies and demagogues. Bonaparte was exalted,
and poor Louis XVI., sent to heaven with so much ceremony in the
_Bassvilliana_, was abased in a later ode on Superstition.
Monti was amazed that all this did not suffice "to overcome that fatal
combination of circumstances which had caused him to be judged as
the courtier of despotism." "How gladly," he writes, "would I have
accepted the destiny which envy could not reach! But this scourge of
honest men clings to my flesh, and I cannot hope to escape it, except
I turn scoundrel to become fortunate!" When the Austrians returned to
Milan, the only honest man unhanged in Italy fled with other democrats
to Paris, whither the fatal combination of circumstances followed him,
and caused him to be looked on with coldness and suspicion by the
republicans. After Bonaparte was made First Consul, Monti invoked his
might against the Germans in Italy, and carried his own injured virtue
back to Milan in the train of the conqueror. When Bonaparte was
crowned emperor, this democrat and patriot was the first to hail and
glorify him; and the emperor rewarded the poet's devotion with a chair
in the University of Pavia, and a pension attached to the place of
Historiographer. Monti accepted the honors and emoluments due to
long-suffering integrity and inalterable virtue, and continued in the
enjoyment of them till the Austrians came back to Milan a second time,
in 1815, when his chaste muse was stirred to a new passion by the
charms of German despotism, and celebrated as "the wise, the just, the
best of kings, Francis Augustus", who, if one were to believe Monti,
"in war was a whirlwind and in peace a zephyr." But the heavy
Austrian, who knew he was nothing of the kind, thrust out his surly
under lip at these blandishments, said that this muse's favors were
mercenary, and cut off Monti's pension. Stung by such ingratitude,
the victim of his own honesty retired forever from courts, and
thenceforward sang only the merits of rich persons in private station,
who could afford to pay for spontaneous and incorruptible adulation.
He died in 1826, having probably endured more pain and rungreater
peril in his desire to avoid danger and suffering than the bravest and
truest man in a time when courage and truth seldom went in company.
It is not probable that he thought himself despicable or other than
Perhaps, after all, he was not so greatly to blame. As De Sanctis
subtly observes: "He was always a liberal. How not be liberal in those
days when even the reactionaries shouted for liberty--of course,
_true_ liberty, as they called it? And in that name he glorified all
governments.... And it was not with hypocrisy.... He was a man who
would have liked to reconcile the old and the new ideas, all opinions,
yet, being forced to choose, he clung to the majority, with no desire
to play the martyr. So he became the secretary of the dominant
feeling, the poet of success. Kindly, tolerant, sincere, a good
friend, a courtier more from necessity and weakness than perversity or
wickedness; if he could have retired into his own heart, he might have
come out a poet." Monti, in fact, was always an _improvvisatore_, and
the subjects which events cast in his way were like the themes which
the improvvisatore receives from his audience. He applied his poetic
faculty to their celebration with marvelous facility, and, doubtless,
regarded the results as rhetorical feats. His poetry was an art, not a
principle; and perhaps he was really surprised when people thought him
in earnest, and held him personally to account for what he wrote. "A
man of sensation, rather than sentiment," says Arnaud, "Monti cared
only for the objective side of life. He poured out melodies, colors,
and chaff in the service of all causes; he was the poet-advocate, the
Siren of the Italian Parnassus." Of course such a man instinctively
hated the ideas of the Romantic school, and he contested their
progress in literature with great bitterness. He believed that poetry
meant feigning, not making; and he declared that "the hard truth was
the grave of the beautiful." The latter years of his life were spent
in futile battle with the "audacious boreal school" and in noxious
revival of the foolish old disputes of the Italian grammarians; and
Emiliani-Giudici condemns him for having done more than any enemy
of his country to turn Italian thought from questions of patriotic
interest to questions of philology, from the unity of Italy to the
unity of the language, from the usurpations and tyranny of Austria to
the assumptions of Della Crusca. But Monti could scarcely help any
cause which he espoused; and it seems to me that he was as well
employed in disputing the claims of the Tuscan dialect to be
considered the Italian language as he would have been in any other
way. The wonderful facility, no less than the unreality, of the
man appears in many things, but in none more remarkably than his
translation of Homer, which is the translation universally accepted
and approved in Italy. He knew little more than the Greek alphabet,
and produced his translation from the preceding versions in Latin and
Italian, submitting the work to the correction of eminent scholars
before he printed it. His poems fill many volumes; and all display the
ease, perspicuity, and obvious beauty of the improvvisatore. From a
fathomless memory, he drew felicities which had clung to it in his
vast reading, and gave them a new excellence by the art with which
he presented them as new. The commonplace Italians long continued to
speak awfully of Monti as a great poet, because the commonplace mind
regards everything established as great. He is a classic of those
classics common to all languages--dead corpses which retain their
forms perfectly in the coffin, but crumble to dust as soon as exposed
to the air.
From the _Bassvilliana_ I have translated the passage descriptive of
Louis XVI.'s ascent to heaven; and I offer this, perhaps not quite
justly, in illustration of what I have been saying of Monti as a
poet. There is something of his curious verbal beauty in it, and his
singular good luck of phrase, with his fortunate reminiscences of
other poets; the collocation of the different parts is very comical,
and the application of it all to Louis XVI. is one of the most
preposterous things in literature. But one must remember that the poor
king was merely a subject, a theme, with the poet.
As when the sun uprears himself among
The lesser dazzling substances, and drives
His eager steeds along the fervid curve,--
When in one only hue is painted all
The heavenly vault, and every other star
Is touched with pallor and doth veil its front,
So with sidereal splendor all aflame
Amid a thousand glad souls following,
High into heaven arose that beauteous soul.
Smiled, as he passed them, the majestical,
Tremulous daughters of the light, and shook
Their glowing and dewy tresses as they moved,
He among all with longing and with love
Beaming, ascended until he was come
Before the triune uncreated life;
There his flight ceases, there the heart, become
Aim of the threefold gaze divine, is stilled,
And all the urgence of desire is lost;
There on his temples he receives the crown
Of living amaranth immortal, on
His cheek the kiss of everlasting peace.
And then were heard consonances and notes
Of an ineffable sweetness, and the orbs
Began again to move their starry wheels.
More swiftly yet the steeds that bore the day
Exulting flew, and with their mighty tread,
Did beat the circuit of their airy way.
In this there are three really beautiful lines; namely, those which
describe the arrival of the spirit in the presence of God:
There his flight ceases, there the heart, become
Aim of the threefold gaze divine, is stilled,
And all the urgence of desire is lost;
Or, as it stands in the Italian:
Ivi queta il suo voi, ivi s'appunta
In tre sguardi beata, ivi il cor tace,
E tutta perde del desio la punta.
It was the fortune of Monti, as I have said, to sing all round
and upon every side of every subject, and he was governed only by
knowledge of which side was for the moment uppermost. If a poem
attacked the French when their triumph seemed doubtful, the offending
verses were erased as soon as the French conquered, and the same poem
unblushingly exalted them in a new edition;--now religion and the
Church were celebrated in Monti's song, now the goddess of Reason and
the reign of liberty; the Pope was lauded in Rome, and the Inquisition
was attacked in Milan; England was praised whilst Monti was in the
anti-French interest, and as soon as the poet could turn his coat of
many colors, the sun was urged to withdraw from England the small
amount of light and heat which it vouchsafed the foggy island; and the
Rev. Henry Boyd, who translated the _Bassvilliana_ into our tongue,
must have been very much dismayed to find this eloquent foe of
revolutions assailing the hereditary enemy of France in his next poem,
and uttering the hope that she might be surrounded with waves of blood
and with darkness, and shaken with earthquakes. But all this was
nothing to Monti's treatment of the shade of poor King Louis XVI. We
have seen with how much ceremony the poet ushered that unhappy
prince into eternal bliss, and in Mr. Boyd's translation of the
_Bassvilliana_, we can read the portents with which Monti makes the
heavens recognize the crime of his execution in Paris.
Then from their houses, like a billowy tide,
Men rush enfrenzied, and, from every breast
Banished shrinks Pity, weeping, terrified.
Now the earth quivers, trampled and oppressed
By wheels, by feet of horses and of men;
The air in hollow moans speaks its unrest;
Like distant thunder's roar, scarce within ken,
Like the hoarse murmurs of the midnight surge,
Like the north wind rushing from its far-off den.
* * * * *
Through the dark crowds that round the scaffold flock
The monarch see with look and gait appear
That might to soft compassion melt a rock;
Melt rocks, from hardest flint draw pity's tear,--
But not from Gallic tigers; to what fate,
Monsters, have ye brought him who loved you dear?
It seems scarcely possible that a personage so flatteringly attended
from the scaffold to the very presence of the Trinity, could afterward
have been used with disrespect by the same master of ceremonies; yet
in his Ode on Superstition, Monti has later occasion to refer to the
French monarch in these terms:
The tyrant has fallen. Ye peoples
Oppressed, rise! Nature breathes freely.
Proud kings, bow before them and tremble;
Yonder crumbles the greatest of thrones!
(_Repeat_.) There was stricken the vile perjurer Capet,
(He will only give Louis his family name!)
Who had worn out the patience of God!
In that pitiless blood dip thy fingers,
France, delivered from fetters unworthy!
'T is blood sucked from the veins of thy children
Whom the despot has cruelly wronged!
O freemen to arms that are flying,
Bathe, bathe in that blood your bright weapons,
Triumph rests 'mid the terror of battle
Upon swords that have smitten a king!
This, every one must allow, was a very unhandsome way of treating an
ex-martyr, but at the time Monti wrote he was in Milan, in the midst
of most revolutionary spirits, and he felt obliged to be rude to the
memory of the unhappy king. After all, probably it did not hurt the
king so much as the poet.
The troubled life of Ugo Foscolo is a career altogether wholesomer
than Monti's to contemplate. There is much of violence, vanity, and
adventure in it, to remind of Byron; but Foscolo had neither the
badness of Byron's heart nor the greatness of his talent. He was,
moreover, a better scholar and a man of truer feeling. Coming to
Venice from Zante, in 1793, he witnessed the downfall of a system
which Venetians do not yet know whether to lament or execrate; and he
was young and generous enough to believe that Bonaparte really
meant to build up a democratic republic on the ruins of the fallen
oligarchy. Foscolo had been one of the popular innovators before the
Republic perished, and he became the secretary of the provisional
government, and was greatly beloved by the people. It is related that
they were so used to his voice, and so fond of hearing it, that one
day, when they heard another reading in his place, they became quite
turbulent, till the president called out with that deliciously
caressing Venetian familiarity, _Popolo, ste cheto; Foscolo xe
rochio_! "People, be quiet; Foscolo is hoarse." While in this office,
he brought out his first tragedy, which met with great success; and
at the same time Napoleon played the cruel farce with which he had
beguiled the Venetians, by selling them to Austria, at Campo-Formio.
Foscolo then left Venice, and went to Milan, where he established
a patriotic journal, in which a genuine love of country found
expression, and in which he defended unworthy Monti against the
attacks of the red republicans. He also defended the Latin language,
when the legislature, which found time in a season of great public
peril and anxiety to regulate philology, fulminated a decree against
that classic tongue; and he soon afterward quitted Milan, in despair
of the Republic's future. He had many such fits of disgust, and in one
of them he wrote that the wickedness and shame of Italy were so great,
that they could never be effaced till the two seas covered her. There
was fighting in those days, for such as had stomach for it, in every
part of Italy; and Foscolo, being enrolled in the Italian Legion, was
present at the battle of Cento, and took part in the defense of Genoa,
but found time, amid all his warlike occupations, for literature. He
had written, in the flush of youthful faith and generosity, an ode to
Bonaparte Liberator; and he employed the leisure of the besieged
in republishing it at Genoa, affixing to the verses a reproach to
Napoleon for the treaty of Campo-Formio, and menacing him with a
Tacitus. He returned to Milan after the battle of Marengo, but his
enemies procured his removal to Boulogne, whither the Italian Legion
had been ordered, and where Foscolo cultivated his knowledge of
English and his hatred of Napoleon. After travel in Holland and
marriage with an Englishwoman there, he again came back to Milan,
which he found full as ever of folly, intrigue, baseness, and envy.
Leaving the capital, says Arnaud, "he took up his abode on the hills
of Brescia, and for two weeks was seen wandering over the heights,
declaiming and gesticulating. The mountaineers thought him mad.
One morning he descended to the city with the manuscript of the
_Sepoleri_. It was in 1807. Not Jena, not Friedland, could dull the
sensation it imparted to the Italian republic of letters."
It is doubtful whether this poem, which Giudici calls the sublimest
lyrical composition modern literature has produced, will stir the
English reader to enthusiastic admiration. The poem is of its
age--declamatory, ambitious, eloquent; but the ideas do not seem great
or new, though that, perhaps, is because they have been so often
repeated since. De Sanctis declares it the "earliest lyrical note of
the new literature, the affirmation of the rehabilitated conscience
of the new manhood. A law of the Republic--"the French Republic"--
prescribed the equality of men before death. The splender of monuments
seemed a privilege of the nobles and the rich, and the Republicans
contested the privilege, the distinction of classes, even in this form
... This revolutionary logic driven to its ultimate corollaries clouded
the poetry of life for him.... He lacked the religious idea, but the
sense of humanity in its progress and its aims, bound together by the
family, the state, liberty, glory--from this Foscolo drew his harmonies,
a new religion of the tomb."....
He touches in it on the funeral usages of different times and peoples,
with here and there an episodic allusion to the fate of heroes and
poets, and disquisitions on the aesthetic and spiritual significance
of posthumous honors. The most-admired passage of the poem is that in
which the poet turns to the monuments of Italy's noblest dead, in the
church of Santa Croce, at Florence:
The urned ashes of the mighty kindle
The great soul to great actions, Pindemonte,
And fair and holy to the pilgrim make
The earth that holds them. When I saw the tomb
Where rests the body of that great one, who
Tempering the scepter of the potentate,
Strips off its laurels, and to the people shows
With what tears it doth reek, and with what blood;
When I beheld the place of him who raised
A new Olympus to the gods in Rome,--
Of him who saw the worlds wheel through the heights
Of heaven, illumined by the moveless sun,
And to the Anglian oped the skyey ways
He swept with such a vast and tireless wing,--
O happy! I cried, in thy life-giving air,
And in the fountains that the Apennine
Down from his summit pours for thee! The moon,
Glad in thy breath, laps in her clearest light
Thy hills with vintage laughing; and thy vales,
Filled with their clustering cots and olive-groves,
Send heavenward th' incense of a thousand flowers.
And thou wert first, Florence, to hear the song
With which the Ghibelline exile charmed his wrath,
And thou his language and his ancestry
Gavest that sweet lip of Calliope,
Who clothing on in whitest purity
Love in Greece nude and nude in Rome, again
Restored him unto the celestial Venus;--
But happiest I count thee that thou keep'st
Treasured beneath one temple-roof the glories
Of Italy,--now thy sole heritage,
Since the ill-guarded Alps and the inconstant
Omnipotence of human destinies
Have rent from thee thy substance and thy arms,
Thy altars, country,--save thy memories, all.
Ah! here, where yet a ray of glory lingers,
Let a light shine unto all generous souls,
And be Italia's hope! Unto these stones
Oft came Vittorio for inspiration,
Wroth to his country's gods. Dumbly he roved
Where Arno is most lonely, anxiously
Brooding upon the heavens and the fields;
Then when no living aspect could console,
Here rested the Austere, upon his face
Death's pallor and the deathless light of hope.
Here with these great he dwells for evermore,
His dust yet quick with love of country. Yes,
A god speaks to us from this sacred peace,
That nursed for Persians upon Marathon,
Where Athens gave her heroes sepulture,
Greek ire and virtue. There the mariner
That sailed the sea under Euboea saw
Flashing amidst the wide obscurity
The steel of helmets and of clashing brands,
The smoke and lurid flame of funeral pyres,
And phantom warriors, clad in glittering mail,
Seeking the combat. Through the silences
And horror of the night, along the field,
The tumult of the phalanxes arose,
Mixing itself with sound of warlike tubes,
And clatter of the hoofs of steeds, that rushed
Trampling the helms of dying warriors,--
And sobs, and hymns, and the wild Parcae's songs!
 Question of Machiavelli. Whether "The Prince" was
written in earnest, with a wish to serve the Devil, or in irony,
with a wish to serve the people, is still in dispute.
 It is the opinion of many historians that the _Divina
Commedia_ was commenced before the exile of Dante.--_Foscolo_.
 Petrarch was born in exile of Florentine parents.--_Ibid_.
 Alfieri. So Foscolo saw him in his last years.
 The poet, quoting Pausanias, says: "The sepulture of the
Athenians who fell in the battle took place on the plain of
Marathon, and there every night is heard the neighing of the
steeds, and the phantoms of the combatants appear."
The poem ends with the prophecy that poetry, after time destroys
the sepulchers, shall preserve the memories of the great and the
unhappy, and invokes the shades of Greece and Troy to give an
illusion of sublimity to the close. The poet doubts if there be
any comfort to the dead in monumental stones, but declares that
they keep memories alive, and concludes that only those who leave
no love behind should have little joy of their funeral urns. He
blames the promiscuous burial of the good and bad, the great and
base; he dwells on the beauty of the ancient cemeteries and the
pathetic charm of English churchyards. The poem of _I Sepolcri_
has peculiar beauties, yet it does not seem to me the grand work
which the Italians have esteemed it; though it has the pensive
charm which attaches to all elegiac verse. De Sanctis attaches
a great political and moral value to it. "The revolution, in the
horror of its excesses, was passing. More temperate ideas
prevailed; the need of a moral and religious restoration was felt.
Foscolo's poem touched these chords ... which vibrated in all
The tragedies of Foscolo are little read, and his unfinished but
faithful translation of Homer did not have the success which met
the facile paraphrase of Monti. His other works were chiefly
critical, and are valued for their learning. The Italians claim
that in his studies of Dante he was the first to reveal him to
Europe in his political character, "as the inspired poet, who
availed himself of art for the civil regeneration of the people
speaking the language which he dedicated to supreme song"; and
they count as among their best critical works, Foscolo's
"exquisite essays on Petrarch and Boccaccio". His romance, "The
Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis", is a novel full of patriotism,
suffering, and suicide, which found devoted readers among youth
affected by "The Sorrows of Werther", and which was the first cry
of Italian disillusion with the French. Yet it had no political
effect, De Sanctis says, because it was not in accord with the
popular hopefulness of the time. It was, of course, wildly
romantic, of the romantic sort that came before the school had
got its name, and it was supposed to celebrate one of Foscolo's
first loves. He had a great many loves, first and last, and is
reproached with a dissolute life by the German critic, Gervinius.
He was made Professor of Italian Eloquence at the University of
Pavia in 1809; but, refusing to flatter Napoleon in his inaugural
address, his professorship was abolished. When the Austrians
returned to Milan, in 1815, they offered him the charge of their
official newspaper; but he declined it, and left Milan for the
last time. He wandered homeless through Switzerland for a while,
and at last went to London, where he gained a livelihood by
teaching the Italian language and lecturing on its literature;
and where, tormented by homesickness and the fear of blindness,
he died, in 1827. "Poverty would make even Homer abject in London,"
One of his biographers, however, tells us that he was hospitably
welcomed at Holland House in London, and "entertained by the most
illustrious islanders; but the indispensable etiquette of the
country, grievous to all strangers, was intolerable to Foscolo,
and he soon withdrew from these elegant circles, and gave himself
up to his beloved books." Like Alfieri, on whom he largely modeled
his literary ideal, and whom he fervently admired, Foscolo has left
us his portrait drawn by himself, which the reader may be interested
A furrowed brow, with cavernous eyes aglow;
Hair tawny; hollow cheeks; looks resolute;
Lips pouting, but to smiles and pleasance slow;
Head bowed, neck beautiful, and breast hirsute;
Limbs shapely; simple, yet elect, in dress;
Rapid my steps, my thoughts, my acts, my tones;
Grave, humane, stubborn, prodigal to excess;
To the world adverse, fortune me disowns.
Shame makes me vile, and anger makes me brave,
Reason in me is cautious, but my heart
Doth, rich in vices and in virtues, rave;
Sad for the most, and oft alone, apart;
Incredulous alike of hope and fear,
Death shall bring rest and honor to my bier.
[Illustration: UGO FOSCOLO.]
Cantu thinks that Foscolo succeeded, by imitating unusual models, in
seeming original, and probably more with reference to the time in
which he wrote than to the qualities of his mind, classes him with the
school of Monti. Although his poetry is full of mythology and classic
allusion, the use of the well-worn machinery is less mechanical than
in Monti; and Foscolo, writing always with one high purpose, was
essentially different in inspiration from the poet who merchandised
his genius and sold his song to any party threatening hard or paying
well. Foscolo was a brave man, and faithfully loved freedom, and he
must be ranked with those poets who, in later times, have devoted
themselves to the liberation of Italy. He is classic in his forms, but
he is revolutionary, and he hoped for some ideal Athenian liberty for
his country, rather than the English freedom she enjoys. But we cannot
venture to pronounce dead or idle the Greek tradition, and we must
confess that the romanticism which brought into literary worship the
trumpery picturesqueness of the Middle Ages was a lapse from generous
It was not till the turbulent days of the Napoleonic age were past,
that the theories and thoughts of Romance were introduced into Italy.
When these days came to an end, the whole political character of
the peninsula reverted, as nearly as possible, to that of the times
preceding the revolutions. The Bourbons were restored to Naples, the
Pope to Rome, the Dukes and Grand Dukes to their several states, the
House of Savoy to Piedmont, and the Austrians to Venice and Lombardy;
and it was agreed among all these despotic governments that there was
to be no Italy save, as Metternich suggested, in a geographical sense.
They encouraged a relapse, among their subjects, into the follies and
vices of the past, and they largely succeeded. But, after all, the
age was against them; and people who have once desired and done great
things are slow to forget them, though the censor may forbid them to
be named, and the prison and the scaffold may enforce his behest.
With the restoration of the Austrians, there came a tranquillity to
Milan which was not the apathy it seemed. It was now impossible for
literary patriotism to be openly militant, as it had been in Alfieri
and Foscolo, but it took on the retrospective phase of Romance, and
devoted itself to the celebration of the past glories of Italy. In
this way it still fulfilled its educative and regenerative mission. It
dwelt on the victories which Italians had won in other days over
their oppressors, and it tacitly reminded them that they were still
oppressed by foreign governments; it portrayed their own former
corruption and crimes, and so taught them the virtues which alone
could cure the ills their vices had brought upon them. Only
secondarily political, and primarily moral, it forbade the Italians to
hope to be good citizens without being good men. This was Romance in
its highest office, as Manzoni, Grossi, and D'Azeglio conceived it.
Aesthetically, the new school struggled to overthrow the classic
traditions; to liberate tragedy from the bondage of the unities, and
let it concern itself with any tragical incident of life; to give
comedy the generous scope of English and Spanish comedy; to seek
poetry in the common experiences of men and to find beauty in any
theme; to be utterly free, untrammeled, and abundant; to be in
literature what the Gothic is in architecture. It perished because
it came to look for Beauty only, and all that was good in it became
merged in Realism which looks for Truth.
These were the purposes of Romance, and the masters in whom the
Italian Romanticists had studied them were the great German and
English poets. The tragedies of Shakespeare were translated and
admired, and the dramas of Schiller were reproduced in Italian verse;
the poems of Byron and of Scott were made known, and the ballads of
such lyrical Germans as Buerger. But, of course, so quick and curious a
people as the Italians had been sensitive to all preceding influences
in the literary world, and before what we call Romance came in from
Germany, a breath of nature had already swept over the languid
elegance of Arcady from the northern lands of storms and mists; and
the effects of this are visible in the poetry of Foscolo's period.
The enthusiasm with which Ossian was received in France remained, or
perhaps only began, after the hoax was exploded in England. In Italy,
the misty essence of the Caledonian bard was hailed as a substantial
presence. The king took his spear, and struck his deeply sounding
shield, as it hung on the willows over the neatly kept garden-walks,
and the Shepherds and Shepherdesses promenading there in perpetual
_villeggiatura_ were alarmed and perplexed out of a composure which
many noble voices had not been able to move. Emiliani-Giudici declares
that Melchiorre Cesarotti, a professor in the University of Padua,
dealt the first blow against the power of Arcadia. This professor of
Greek made the acquaintance of George Sackville, who inflamed him with
a desire to read Ossian's poems, then just published in England; and
Cesarotti studied the English language in order to acquaint himself
with a poet whom he believed greater than Homer. He translated
Macpherson into Italian verse, retaining, however, in extraordinary
degree, the genius of the language in which he found the poetry. He
is said (for I have not read his version) to have twisted the Italian
into our curt idioms, and indulged himself in excesses of compound
words, to express the manner of his original. He believed that the
Italian language had become "sterile, timid, and superstitious",
through the fault of the grammarians; and in adopting the blank verse
for his translation, he ventured upon new forms, and achieved complete
popularity, if not complete success. "In fact," says Giudici, "the
poems of Ossian were no sooner published than Italy was filled with
uproar by the new methods of poetry, clothed in all the magic of
magnificent forms till then unknown. The Arcadian flocks were thrown
into tumult, and proclaimed a crusade against Cesarotti as a subverter
of ancient order and a mover of anarchy in the peaceful republic--it
was a tyranny, and they called it a republic--of letters. Cesarotti
was called corrupter, sacrilegious, profane, and assailed with titles
of obscene contumely; but the poems of Ossian were read by all, and
the name of the translator, till then little known, became famous in
and out of Italy." In fine, Cesarotti founded a school; but, blinded
by his marvelous success, he attempted to translate Homer into the
same fearless Italian which had received his Ossian. He failed, and
was laughed at. Ossian, however, remained a power in Italian letters,
though Cesarotti fell; and his influence was felt for romance before
the time of the Romantic School. Monti imitated him as he found him in
Italian; yet, though Monti's verse abounds, like Ossian, in phantoms
and apparitions, they are not northern specters, but respectable
shades, classic, well-mannered, orderly, and have no kinship with
anything but the personifications, Vice, Virtue, Fear, Pleasure, and
the rest of their genteel allegorical company. Unconsciously, however,
Monti had helped to prepare the way for romantic realism by his choice
of living themes. Louis XVI, though decked in epic dignity, was
something that touched and interested the age; and Bonaparte, even in
pagan apotheosis, was so positive a subject that the improvvisatore
acquired a sort of truth and sincerity in celebrating him. Bonaparte
might not be the Sun he was hailed to be, but even in Monti's verse he
was a soldier, ambitious, unscrupulous, irresistible, recognizable in
In Germany, where the great revival of romantic letters took
place,--where the poets and scholars, studying their own Minnesingers
and the ballads of England and Scotland, reproduced the simplicity and
directness of thought characteristic of young literatures,--the life
as well as the song of the people had once been romantic. But in
Italy there had never been such a period. The people were municipal,
mercantile; the poets burlesqued the tales of chivalry, and the
traders made money out of the Crusades. In Italy, moreover, the
patriotic instincts of the people, as well as their habits and
associations, were opposed to those which fostered romance in Germany;
and the poets and novelists, who sought to naturalize the new element
of literature, were naturally accused of political friendship with
the hated Germans. The obstacles in the way of the Romantic School at
Milan were very great, and it may be questioned if, after all, its
disciples succeeded in endearing to the Italians any form of romantic
literature except the historical novel, which came from England, and
the untrammeled drama, which was studied from English models. They
produced great results for good in Italian letters; but, as usual,
these results were indirect, and not just those at which the
In Italy the Romantic School was not so sharply divided into a first
and second period as in Germany, where it was superseded for a time by
the classicism following the study of Winckelmann. Yet it kept, in its
own way, the general tendency of German literature. For the "Sorrows
of Werther", the Italians had the "Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis"; for
the brood of poets who arose in the fatherland to defy the Revolution,
incarnate in Napoleon, with hymn and ballad, a retrospective national
feeling in Italy found the same channels of expression through the
Lombard group of lyrists and dramatists, while the historical romance
flourished as richly as in England, and for a much longer season.
De Sanctis studies the literary situation in the concluding pages of
his history; they are almost the most brilliant pages, and they embody
a conception of it so luminous that it would be idle to pretend to
offer the reader anything better than a resume of his work. The
revolution had passed away under the horror of its excesses; more
temperate ideas prevailed; the need of a religious and moral
restoration was felt. "Foscolo died in 1827, and Pellico, Manzoni,
Grossi, Berchet, had risen above the horizon. The Romantic School,'the
audacious boreal school,' had appeared. 1815 is a memorable date....
It marks the official manifestation of a reaction, not only political,
but philosophical and literary.... The reaction was as rapid and
violent as the revolution.... The white terror succeeded to the red."
Our critic says that there were at this time two enemies, materialism
and skepticism, and that there rose against them a spirituality
carried to idealism, to mysticism. "To the right of nature was opposed
the divine right, to popular sovereignty legitimacy, to individual
rights the State, to liberty authority or order. The middle ages
returned in triumph.... Christianity, hitherto the target of all
offense, became the center of every philosophical investigation, the
banner of all social and religious progress.... The criterions of art
were changed. There was a pagan art and a Christian art, whose highest
expression was sought in the Gothic, in the glooms, the mysteries, the
vague, the indefinite, in a beyond which was called the ideal, in an
aspiration towards the infinite, incapable of fruition and therefore
melancholy.... To Voltaire and Rousseau succeeded Chateaubriand, De
Stael, Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Lamennais. And in 1815 appeared the
Sacred Hymns of the young Manzoni."
The Romantic movement was as universal then as the Realistic movement
is now, and as irresistible. It was the literary expression of
monarchy and aristocracy, as Realism is the literary expression of
republicanism and democracy. What De Sanctis shows is that out of
the political tempest absolutism issued stronger than ever, that the
clergy and the nobles, once its rivals, became its creatures; the
prevailing bureaucracy interested the citizen class in the perpetuity
of the state, but turned them into office-seekers; the police became
the main-spring of power; the office-holder, the priest and the
soldier became spies. "There resulted an organized corruption called
government, absolute in form, or under a mask of constitutionalism.
... Such a reaction, in violent contradiction of modern ideas, could
not last." There were outbreaks in Spain, Naples, Piedmont, the
Romagna; Greece and Belgium rose; legitimacy fell; citizen-kings came
in; and a long quiet followed, in which the sciences and letters
nourished. Even in Austria-ridden Italy, where constitutionalism was
impossible, the middle class was allowed a part in the administration.
"Little by little the new and the old learned to live together: the
divine right and the popular will were associated in laws and writs.
... The movement was the same revolution as before, mastered by
experience and self-disciplined.... Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Victor
Hugo, Lamennais, Manzoni, Grossi, Pellico, were liberal no less
than Voltaire and Rousseau, Alfieri and Foscolo.... The religious
sentiment, too deeply offended, vindicated itself; yet it could
not escape from the lines of the revolution ... it was a reaction
transmuted into a reconciliation."
The literary movement was called Romantic as against the old
Classicism; medieval and Christian, it made the papacy the hero of its
poetry; it abandoned Greek and Roman antiquity for national antiquity,
but the modern spirit finally informed Romanticism as it had informed
Classicism; Parini and Manzoni were equally modern men. Religion is
restored, but, "it is no longer a creed, it is an artistic motive....
It is not enough that there are saints, they must be beautiful; the
Christian idea returns as art.... Providence comes back to the world,
the miracle re-appears in story, hope and prayer revive, the
heart softens, it opens itself to gentle influences.... Manzoni
reconstructs the ideal of the Christian Paradise and reconciles it
with the modern spirit. Mythology goes, the classic remains; the
eighteenth century is denied, its ideas prevail."
The pantheistic idealism which resulted pleased the citizen-fancy;
the notion of "evolution succeeded to that of revolution"; one said
civilization, progress, culture, instead of liberty. "Louis Philippe
realized the citizen ideal.... The problem was solved, the skein
untangled. God might rest.... The supernatural was not believed, but
it was explained and respected. One did not accept Christ as divine,
but a human Christ was exalted to the stars; religion was spoken of
with earnestness, and the ministers of God with reverence."
A new criticism arose, and bade literature draw from life, while a
vivid idealism accompanied anxiety for historical truth. In Italy,
where the liberals could not attack the governments, they attacked
Aristotle, and a tremendous war arose between the Romanticists and
the Classicists. The former grouped themselves at Milan chiefly, and
battled through the Conciliatore, a literary journal famous in Italian
annals. They vaunted the English and Germans; they could not endure
mythology; they laughed the three unities to scorn. At Paris Manzoni
had imbibed the new principles, and made friends with the new masters;
for Goethe and Schiller he abandoned Alfieri and Monti. "Yet if the
Romantic School, by its name, its ties, its studies, its impressions,
was allied to German traditions and French fashions, it was at bottom
Italian in accent, aspiration, form, and motive.... Every one felt
our hopes palpitating under the medieval robe; the least allusion, the
remotest meanings, were caught by the public, which was in the closest
accord with the writers. The middle ages were no longer treated with
historical and positive intention; they became the garments of our
ideals, the transparent expression of our hopes."
It is this fact which is especially palpable in Manzoni's work, and
Manzoni was the chief poet of the Romantic School in that land where
it found the most realistic development, and set itself seriously to
interpret the emotions and desires of the nation. When these were
fulfilled, even the form of Romanticism ceased to be.
ALESSANDRO MANZONI was born at Milan in 1784, and inherited from his
father the title of Count, which he always refused to wear; from his
mother, who was the daughter of Beccaria, the famous and humane writer
on Crimes and Punishments, he may have received the nobility which his
whole life has shown.
[Illustration: Alessandro Manzoni.]
In his youth he was a liberal thinker in matters of religion; the
stricter sort of Catholics used to class him with the Voltaireans,
and there seems to have been some ground for their distrust of his
orthodoxy. But in 1808 he married Mlle. Louisa Henriette Blondel, the
daughter of a banker of Geneva, who, having herself been converted
from Protestantism to the Catholic faith on coming to Milan, converted
her husband in turn, and thereafter there was no question concerning
his religion. She was long remembered in her second country "for her
fresh blond head, and her blue eyes, her lovely eyes", and she made
her husband very happy while she lived. The young poet signalized his
devotion to his young bride, and the faith to which she restored him,
in his Sacred Hymns, published in this devout and joyous time. But
Manzoni was never a Catholic of those Catholics who believed in the
temporal power of the Pope. He said to Madam Colet, the author of
"L'Italie des Italiens", a silly and gossiping but entertaining book,
"I bow humbly to the Pope, and the Church has no more respectful son;
but why confound the interests of earth and those of heaven? The Roman
people are right in asking their freedom--there are hours for nations,
as for governments, in which they must occupy themselves, not with
what is convenient, but with what is just. Let us lay hands boldly
upon the temporal power, but let us not touch the doctrine of the
Church. The one is as distinct from the other as the immortal soul
from the frail and mortal body. To believe that the Church is attacked
in taking away its earthly possessions is a real heresy to every true
The Sacred Hymns were published in 1815, and in 1820 Manzoni gave the
world his first tragedy, _Il Conte di Carmagnola_, a romantic drama
written in the boldest defiance of the unities of time and place. He
dispensed with these hitherto indispensable conditions of dramatic
composition among the Italians eight years before Victor Hugo braved
their tyranny in his Cromwell; and in an introduction to his tragedy
he gave his reasons for this audacious innovation. Following the
Carmagnola, in 1822, came his second and last tragedy, _Adelchi_.
In the mean time he had written his magnificent ode on the Death of
Napoleon, "Il Cinque Maggio", which was at once translated by Goethe,
and recognized by the French themselves as the last word on the
subject. It placed him at the head of the whole continental Romantic
In 1825 he published his romance, "I Promessi Sposi", known to every
one knowing anything of Italian, and translated into all modern
languages. Besides these works, and some earlier poems, Manzoni wrote
only a few essays upon historical and literary subjects, and he always
led a very quiet and uneventful life. He was very fond of the country;
early every spring he left the city for his farm, whose labors he
directed and shared. His life was so quiet, indeed, and his fate
so happy, in contrast with that of Pellico and other literary
contemporaries at Milan, that he was accused of indifference in
political matters by those who could not see the subtler tendency of
his whole life and works. Marc Monnier says, "There are countries
where it is a shame not to be persecuted," and this is the only
disgrace which has ever fallen upon Manzoni.
When the Austrians took possession of Milan, after the retirement of
the French, they invited the patricians to inscribe themselves in
a book of nobility, under pain of losing their titles, and Manzoni
preferred to lose his. He constantly refused honors offered him by the
Government, and he sent back the ribbon of a knightly order with the
answer that he had made a vow never to wear any decoration. When
Victor Emanuel in turn wished to do him a like honor, he held himself
bound by his excuse to the Austrians, but accepted the honorary
presidency of the Lombard Institute of Sciences, Letters and Arts. In
1860 he was elected a Senator of the realm; he appeared in order
to take the oath and then he retired to a privacy never afterwards
"Goethe's praise," says a sneer turned proverb, "is a brevet of
mediocrity." Manzoni must rest under this damaging applause, which was
not too freely bestowed upon other Italian poets of his time, or upon
Italy at all, for that matter.
Goethe could not laud Manzoni's tragedies too highly; he did not find
one word too much or too little in them; the style was free, noble,
full and rich. As to the religious lyrics, the manner of their
treatment was fresh and individual although the matter and the
significance were not new; and the poet was "a Christian without
fanaticism, a Roman Catholic without bigotry, a zealot without
The tragedies had no success upon the stage. The Carmagnola was given
in Florence in 1828, but in spite of the favor of the court, and the
open rancor of the friends of the Classic School, it failed; at Turin,
where the Adelchi was tried, Pellico regretted that the attempt to
play it had been made, and deplored the "vile irreverence of the
Both tragedies deal with patriotic themes, but they are both concerned
with occurrences of remote epochs. The time of the Carmagnola is the
fifteenth century; that of the Adelchi the eighth century; and however
strongly marked are the characters,--and they are very strongly
marked, and differ widely from most persons of Italian classic tragedy
in this respect,--one still feels that they are subordinate to the
great contests of elements and principles for which the tragedy
furnishes a scene. In the Carmagnola the pathos is chiefly in the
feeling embodied by the magnificent chorus lamenting the slaughter of
Italians by Italians at the battle of Maclodio; in the Adelchi we are
conscious of no emotion so strong as that we experience when we
hear the wail of the Italian people, to whom the overthrow of their
Longobard oppressors by the Franks is but the signal of a new
enslavement. This chorus is almost as fine as the more famous one in
the Carmagnola; both are incomparably finer than anything else in the
tragedies and are much more dramatic than the dialogue. It is in the
emotion of a spectator belonging to our own time rather than in that
of an actor of those past times that the poet shows his dramatic
strength; and whenever he speaks abstractly for country and humanity
he moves us in a way that permits no doubt of his greatness.
After all, there is but one Shakespeare, and in the drama below him
Manzoni holds a high place. The faults of his tragedies are those
of most plays which are not acting plays, and their merits are much
greater than the great number of such plays can boast. I have not
meant to imply that you want sympathy with the persons of the drama,
but only less sympathy than with the ideas embodied in them. There are
many affecting scenes, and the whole of each tragedy is conceived in
the highest and best ideal.
In the Carmagnola, the action extends from the moment when the
Venetian Senate, at war with the Duke of Milan, places its armies
under the command of the count, who is a soldier of fortune and
has formerly been in the service of the Duke. The Senate sends two
commissioners into his camp to represent the state there, and to be
spies upon his conduct. This was a somewhat clumsy contrivance of the
Republic to give a patriotic character to its armies, which were often
recruited from mercenaries and generaled by them; and, of course, the
hireling leaders must always have chafed under the surveillance. After
the battle of Maclodio, in which the Venetian mercenaries defeated the
Milanese, the victors, according to the custom of their trade,
began to free their comrades of the other side whom they had taken
prisoners. The commissioners protested against this waste of results,
but Carmagnola answered that it was the usage of his soldiers, and
he could not forbid it; he went further, and himself liberated some
remaining prisoners. His action was duly reported to the Senate, and
as he had formerly been in the service of the Duke of Milan, whose
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