Modern Italian Poets
W. D. Howells
Part 4 out of 6
Glitter the arms I gave.
In the last act occurs one of those lyrical passages in which
Niccolini excels, and two lines from this chorus are among the most
famous in modern Italian poetry:
Perche tanto sorriso del cielo
Sulla terra del vile dolor?
The scene is in a public place in Palermo, and the time is the moment
before the massacre of the French begins. A chorus of Sicilian poets
remind the people of their sorrows and degradation, and sing:
The wind vexes the forest no longer,
In the sunshine the leaflets expand:
With barrenness cursed be the land
That is bathed with the sweat of the slave!
On the fields now the harvests are waving,
On the fields that our blood has made red;
Harvests grown for our enemy's bread
From the bones of our children they wave!
With a veil of black clouds would the tempest
Might the face of this Italy cover;
Why should Heaven smile so glorious over
The land of our infamous woe?
All nature is suddenly wakened,
Here in slumbers unending man sleeps;
Dust trod evermore by the steps
Of ever-strange lords he lies low!
[Illustration: Giambattista Niccolini.]
"With this tragedy," says an Italian biographer of Niccolini, "the
poet potently touched all chords of the human heart, from the most
impassioned love to the most implacable hate.... The enthusiasm rose
to the greatest height, and for as many nights of the severe winter of
1830 as the tragedy was given, the theater was always thronged by the
overflowing audience; the doors of the Cocomero were opened to the
impatient people many hours before the spectacle began. Spectators
thought themselves fortunate to secure a seat next the roof of the
theater; even in the prompter's hole [Note: On the Italian stage the
prompter rises from a hole in the floor behind the foot-lights, and is
hidden from the audience merely by a canvas shade.] places were
sought to witness the admired work.... And whilst they wept over the
ill-starred love of Imelda, and all hearts palpitated in the touching
situation of the drama,--where the public and the personal interests
so wonderfully blended, and the vengeance of a people mingled
with that of a man outraged in the most sacred affections of the
heart,--Procida rose terrible as the billows of his sea, imprecating
before all the wrongs of their oppressed country, in whatever
servitude inflicted, by whatever aliens, among all those that had
trampled, derided, and martyred her, and raising the cry of resistance
which stirred the heart of all Italy. At the picture of the abject
sufferings of their common country, the whole audience rose and
repeated with tears of rage:
"Why should heaven smile so glorious over
The land of our infamous woe?"
By the year 1837 had begun the singular illusion of the Italians, that
their freedom and unity were to be accomplished through a liberal and
patriotic Pope. Niccolini, however, never was cheated by it, though he
was very much disgusted, and he retired, not only from the political
agitation, but almost from the world. He was seldom seen upon the
street, but to those who had access to him he did not fail to express
all the contempt and distrust he felt. "A liberal Pope! a liberal
Pope!" he said, with a scornful enjoyment of that contradiction in
terms. He was thoroughly Florentine and Tuscan in his anti-papal
spirit, and he was faithful in it to the tradition of Dante, Petrarch,
Machiavelli, Guicciardini, and Alfieri, who all doubted and combated
the papal influence as necessarily fatal to Italian hopes. In 1843 he
published his great and principal tragedy, _Arnaldo da Brescia_, which
was a response to the ideas of the papal school of patriots. In due
time Pius IX. justified Niccolini, and all others that distrusted him,
by turning his back upon the revolution, which belief in him, more
than anything else, had excited.
The tragedies which succeeded the Arnaldo were the _Filippo Strozzi_,
published in 1847; the _Beatrice_ _Cenci_, a version from the English
of Shelley, and the _Mario e i Cimbri_.
A part of the Arnaldo da Brescia was performed in Florence in 1858,
not long before the war which has finally established Italian freedom.
The name of the Cocomero theater had been changed to the Teatro
Niccolini, and, in spite of the governmental anxiety and opposition,
the occasion was made a popular demonstration in favor of Niccolini's
ideas as well as himself. His biographer says: "The audience now
maintained a religious silence; now, moved by irresistible force,
broke out into uproarious applause as the eloquent protests of the
friar and the insolent responses of the Pope awakened their interest;
for Italy then, like the unhappy martyr, had risen to proclaim the
decline of that monstrous power which, in the name of a religion
profaned by it, sanctifies its own illegitimate and feudal origin,
its abuses, its pride, its vices, its crimes. It was a beautiful and
affecting spectacle to see the illustrious poet receiving the
warm congratulations of his fellow-citizens, who enthusiastically
recognized in him the utterer of so many lofty truths and the prophet
of Italy. That night Niccolini was accompanied to his house by the
applauding multitude." And if all this was a good deal like the honors
the Florentines were accustomed to pay to a very pretty _ballerina_
or a successful _prima donna_, there is no doubt that a poet is much
worthier the popular frenzy; and it is a pity that the forms of
popular frenzy have to be so cheapened by frequent use. The two
remaining years of Niccolini's life were spent in great retirement,
and in a satisfaction with the fortunes of Italy which was only marred
by the fact that the French still remained in Rome, and that the
temporal power yet stood. He died in 1861.
The work of Niccolini in which he has poured out all the lifelong
hatred and distrust he had felt for the temporal power of the popes is
the Arnaldo da Brescia. This we shall best understand through a sketch
of the life of Arnaldo, who is really one of the most heroic figures
of the past, deserving to rank far above Savonarola, and with the
leaders of the Reformation, though he preceded these nearly four
hundred years. He was born in Brescia of Lombardy, about the year
1105, and was partly educated in France, in the school of the famous
Abelard. He early embraced the ecclesiastical life, and, when he
returned to his own country, entered a convent, but not to waste his
time in idleness and the corruptions of his order. In fact, he began
at once to preach against these, and against the usurpation of
temporal power by all the great and little dignitaries of the Church.
He thus identified himself with the democratic side in politics, which
was then locally arrayed against the bishop aspiring to rule Brescia.
Arnaldo denounced the political power of the Pope, as well as that
of the prelates; and the bishop, making this known to the pontiff at
Rome, had sufficient influence to procure a sentence against Arnaldo
as a schismatic, and an order enjoining silence upon him. He was also
banished from Italy; whereupon, retiring to France, he got himself
into further trouble by aiding Abelard in the defense of his
teachings, which had been attainted of heresy. Both Abelard and
Arnaldo were at this time bitterly persecuted by St. Bernard, and
Arnaldo took refuge in Switzerland, whence, after several years,
he passed to Rome, and there began to assume an active part in the
popular movements against the papal rule. He was an ardent republican,
and was a useful and efficient partisan, teaching openly that, whilst
the Pope was to be respected in all spiritual things, he was not to
be recognized at all as a temporal prince. When the English monk,
Nicholas Breakspear, became Pope Adrian IV., he excommunicated and
banished Arnaldo; but Arnaldo, protected by the senate and certain
powerful nobles, remained at Rome in spite of the Pope's decree, and
disputed the lawfulness of the excommunication. Finally, the whole
city was laid under interdict until Arnaldo should be driven out. Holy
Week was drawing near; the people were eager to have their churches
thrown open and to witness the usual shows and splendors, and they
consented to the exile of their leader. The followers of a cardinal
arrested him, but he was rescued by his friends, certain counts of the
Campagna, who held him for a saint, and who now lodged him safely in
one of their castles. The Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, coming to Rome
to assume the imperial crown, was met by embassies from both parties
in the city. He warmly favored that of the Pope, and not only received
that of the people very coldly, but arrested one of the counts who had
rescued Arnaldo, and forced him to name the castle in which the monk
lay concealed. Arnaldo was then given into the hands of the cardinals,
and these delivered him to the prefect of Rome, who caused him to
be hanged, his body to be burned upon a spit, and his ashes to be
scattered in the Tiber, that the people might not venerate his relics
as those of a saint. "This happened," says the priest Giovanni
Battista Guadagnini, of Brescia, whose Life, published in 1790, I have
made use of--"this happened in the year 1155 before the 18th of June,
previous to the coronation of Frederick, Arnaldo being, according to
my thinking, fifty years of age. His eloquence," continues Guadagnini,
"was celebrated by his enemies themselves; the exemplarity of his life
was superior to their malignity, constraining them all to silence,
although they were in such great number, and it received a splendid
eulogy from St. Bernard, the luminary of that century, who, being
strongly impressed against him, condemned him first as a schismatic,
and then for the affair of the Council of Sens (the defense of
Abelard), persecuted him as a heretic, and then had finally nothing to
say against him. His courage and his zeal for the discipline of the
Church have been sufficiently attested by the toils, the persecutions,
and the death which he underwent for that cause."
The scene of the first act of Niccolini's tragedy is near the
Capitoline Hill, in Rome, where two rival leaders, Frangipani and
Giordano Pierleone, are disputing in the midst of their adherents.
The former is a supporter of the papal usurpations; the latter is a
republican chief, who has been excommunicated for his politics, and is
also under sentence of banishment; but who, like Arnaldo, remains
in Rome in spite of Church and State. Giordano withdraws to the
Campidoglio with his adherents, and there Arnaldo suddenly appears
among them. When the people ask what cure there is for their troubles,
Arnaldo answers, in denunciation of the papacy:
Liberty and God.
A voice from the orient,
A voice from the Occident,
A voice from thy deserts,
A voice of echoes from the open graves,
Accuses thee, thou shameless harlot! Drunk
Art thou with blood of saints, and thou hast lain
With all the kings of earth. Ah, you behold her!
She is clothed on with purple; gold and pearls
And gems are heaped upon her; and her vestments
Once white, the pleasure of her former spouse,
That now's in heaven, she has dragged in dust.
Lo, is she full of names and blasphemies,
And on her brow is written _Mystery!_
Ah, nevermore you hear her voice console
The afflicted; all she threatens, and creates
With her perennial curse in trembling souls
Ineffable pangs; the unhappy--as we here
Are all of us--fly in their common sorrows
To embrace each other; she, the cruel one,
Sunders them in the name of Jesus; fathers
She kindles against sons, and wives she parts
From husbands, and she makes a war between
Harmonious brothers; of the Evangel she
Is cruel interpreter, and teaches hate
Out of the book of love. The years are come
Whereof the rapt Evangelist of Patmos
Did prophesy; and, to deceive the people,
Satan has broken the chains he bore of old;
And she, the cruel, on the infinite waters
Of tears that are poured out for her, sits throned.
The enemy of man two goblets places
Unto her shameless lips; and one is blood,
And gold is in the other; greedy and fierce
She drinks so from them both, the world knows not
If she of blood or gold have greater thirst....
Lord, those that fled before thy scourge of old
No longer stand to barter offerings
About thy temple's borders, but within
Man's self is sold, and thine own blood is trafficked,
Thou son of God!
The people ask Arnaldo what he counsels them to do, and he advises
them to restore the senate and the tribunes, appealing to the glorious
memories of the place where they stand, the Capitoline Hill:
Where the earth calls at every step, "Oh, pause,
Thou treadest on a hero!"
They desire to make him a tribune, but he refuses, promising, however,
that he will not withhold his counsel. Whilst he speaks, some
cardinals, with nobles of the papal party, appear, and announce the
election of the new Pope, Adrian. "What is his name?" the people
demand; and a cardinal answers, "Breakspear, a Briton." Giordano
Impious race! you've chosen Rome for shepherd
A cruel barbarian, and even his name
Tortures our ears.
_Arnaldo._ I never care to ask
Where popes are born; and from long suffering,
You, Romans, before heaven, should have learnt
That priests can have no country....
I know this man; his father was a thrall,
And he is fit to be a slave. He made
Friends with the Norman that enslaves his country;
A wandering beggar to Avignon's cloisters
He came in boyhood and was known to do
All abject services; there those false monks
He with astute humility cajoled;
He learned their arts, and 'mid intrigues and hates
He rose at last out of his native filth
A tyrant of the vile.
The cardinals, confounded by Arnaldo's presence and invectives,
withdraw, but leave one of their party to work on the fears of the
Romans, and make them return to their allegiance by pictures of the
desolating war which Barbarossa, now approaching Rome to support
Adrian, has waged upon the rebellious Lombards at Rosate and
elsewhere. Arnaldo replies:--
I will tell all the things that he has hid;
I know not how to cheat you. Yes, Rosate
A ruin is, from which the smoke ascends.
The bishop, lord of Monferrato, guided
The German arms against Chieri and Asti,
Now turned to dust; that shepherd pitiless
Did thus avenge his own offenses on
His flying flocks; himself with torches armed
The German hand; houses and churches saw
Destroyed, and gave his blessing on the flames.
This is the pardon that you may expect
From mitered tyrants. A heap of ashes now
Crowneth the hill where once Tortona stood;
And drunken with her wine and with her blood,
Fallen there amidst their spoil upon the dead,
Slept the wild beasts of Germany: like ghosts
Dim wandering through the darkness of the night,
Those that were left by famine and the sword,
Hidden within the heart of thy dim caverns,
Desolate city! rose and turned their steps
Noiselessly toward compassionate Milan.
There they have borne their swords and hopes: I see
A thousand heroes born from the example
Tortona gave. O city, if I could,
O sacred city! upon the ruins fall
Reverently, and take them in my loving arms,
The relics of thy brave I'd gather up
In precious urns, and from the altars here
In days of battle offer to be kissed!
Oh, praise be to the Lord! Men die no more
For chains and errors; martyrs now at last
Hast thou, O holy Freedom; and fain were I
Ashes for thee!--But I see you grow pale,
Ye Romans! Down, go down; this holy height
Is not for cowards. In the valley there
Your tyrant waits you; go and fall before him
And cover his haughty foot with tears and kisses.
He'll tread you in the dust, and then absolve you.
_The People._ The arms we have are strange and few,
Our walls Are fallen and ruinous.
_Arnaldo._ Their hearts are walls
Unto the brave....
And they shall rise again,
The walls that blood of freemen has baptized,
But among slaves their ruins are eternal.
_People._ You outrage us, sir!
_Arnaldo._ Wherefore do ye tremble
Before the trumpet sounds? O thou that wast
Once the world's lord and first in Italy,
Wilt thou be now the last?
_People._ No more! Cease, or thou diest!
Arnaldo, having roused the pride of the Romans, now tells them that
two thousand Swiss have followed him from his exile; and the act
closes with some lyrical passages leading to the fraternization of the
people with these.
The second act of this curious tragedy, where there may be said to
be scarcely any personal interest, but where we are aware of such an
impassioned treatment of public interests as perhaps never was before,
opens with a scene between the Pope Adrian and the Cardinal Guido. The
character of both is finely studied by the poet; and Guido, the type
of ecclesiastical submission, has not more faith in the sacredness
and righteousness of Adrian, than Adrian, the type of ecclesiastical
ambition, has in himself. The Pope tells Guido that he stands doubting
between the cities of Lombardy leagued against Frederick, and
Frederick, who is coming to Rome, not so much to befriend the papacy
as to place himself in a better attitude to crush the Lombards. The
German dreams of the restoration of Charlemagne's empire; he believes
the Church corrupt; and he and Arnaldo would be friends, if it were
not for Arnaldo's vain hope of reestablishing the republican liberties
of Rome. The Pope utters his ardent desire to bring Arnaldo back to
his allegiance; and when Guido reminds him that Arnaldo has been
condemned by a council of the Church, and that it is scarcely in his
power to restore him, Adrian turns upon him:
What sayest thou?
I can do all. Dare the audacious members
Rebel against the head? Within these hands
Lie not the keys that once were given to Peter?
The heavens repeat as 't were the word of God,
My word that here has power to loose and bind.
Arnaldo did not dare so much. The kingdom
Of earth alone he did deny me. Thou
Art more outside the Church than he.
_Guido_ (_kneeling at Adrian's feet_). O God,
I erred; forgive! I rise not from thy feet
Till thou absolve me. My zeal blinded me.
I'm clay before thee; shape me as thou wilt,
A vessel apt to glory or to shame.
Guido then withdraws at the Pope's bidding, in order to send a
messenger to Arnaldo, and Adrian utters this fine soliloquy:
At every step by which I've hither climbed
I've found a sorrow; but upon the summit
All sorrows are; and thorns more thickly spring
Around my chair than ever round a throne.
What weary toil to keep up from the dust
This mantle that's weighed down the strongest limbs!
These splendid gems that blaze in my tiara,
They are a fire that burns the aching brow,
I lift with many tears, O Lord, to thee!
Yet I must fear not; He that did know how
To bear the cross, so heavy with the sins
Of all the world, will succor the weak servant
That represents his power here on earth.
Of mine own isle that make the light o' the sun
Obscure as one day was my lot, amidst
The furious tumults of this guilty Rome,
Here, under the superb effulgency
Of burning skies, I think of you and weep!
The Pope's messenger finds Arnaldo in the castle of Giordano, where
these two are talking of the present fortunes and future chances of
Rome. The patrician forebodes evil from the approach of the emperor,
but Arnaldo encourages him, and, when the Pope's messenger appears, he
is eager to go to Adrian, believing that good to their cause will
come of it. Giordano in vain warns him against treachery, bidding him
remember that Adrian will hold any falsehood sacred that is used
with a heretic. It is observable throughout that Niccolini is always
careful to make his rebellious priest a good Catholic; and now Arnaldo
rebukes Giordano for some doubts of the spiritual authority of the
Pope. When Giordano says:
These modern pharisees, upon the cross,
Where Christ hung dying once, have nailed mankind,
He will know how to save that rose and conquered;
And Giordano replies:
Yes, Christ arose; but Freedom cannot break
The stone that shuts her ancient sepulcher,
For on it stands the altar.
Adrian, when Arnaldo appears before him, bids him fall down and kiss
his feet, and speak to him as to God; he will hear Arnaldo only as a
penitent. Arnaldo answers:
Of his disciples did that meek One kiss
Whom here thou representest. But I hear
Now from thy lips the voice of fiercest pride.
Repent, O Peter, that deniest him,
And near the temple art, but far from God!
* * * * *
The name of the king
Is never heard in Rome. And if thou are
The vicar of Christ on earth, well should'st thou know
That of thorns only was the crown he wore.
_Adrian._ He gave to me the empire of the earth
When this great mantly I put on, and took
The Church's high seat I was chosen to;
The word of God did erst create the world,
And now mine guides it. Would'st thou that the soul
Should serve the body? Thou dost dream of freedom,
And makest war on him who sole on earth
Can shield man from his tyrants. O Arnaldo,
Be Wise; believe me, all thy words are vain,
Vain sound that perish or disperse themselves
Amidst the wilderness of Rome. I only
Can speak the words that the whole world repeats.
_Arnaldo_. Thy words were never Freedom's; placed between
The people and their tyrants, still the Church
With the weak cruel, with the mighty vile,
Has been, and crushed in pitiless embraces
That emperors and pontiffs have exchanged.
Man has been ever.
* * * * *
Why seek'st thou empire here, and great on earth
Art mean in heaven? Ah! vainly in thy prayer
Thou criest, "Let the heart be lifted up!"
'T is ever bowed to earth.
* * * * *
Now, then, if thou wilt,
Put forth the power that thou dost vaunt; repress
The crimes of bishops, make the Church ashamed
To be a step-mother to the poor and lowly.
In all the Lombard cities every priest
Has grown a despot, in shrewd perfidy
Now siding with the Church, now with the Empire.
They have dainty food, magnificent apparel,
Lascivious joys, and on their altars cold
Gathers the dust, where lies the miter dropt,
Forgotten, from the haughty brow that wears
The helmet, and no longer bows itself
Before God's face in th' empty sanctuaries;
But upon the fields of slaughter, smoking still,
Bends o'er the fallen foe, and aims the blows
O' th' sacrilegious sword, with cruel triumph
Insulting o'er the prayers of dying men.
There the priest rides o'er breasts of fallen foes,
And stains with blood his courser's iron heel.
When comes a brief, false peace, and wearily
Amidst the havoc doth the priest sit down,
His pleasures are a crime, and after rapine
Luxury follows. Like a thief he climbs
Into the fold, and that desired by day
He dares amid the dark, and violence
Is the priest's marriage. Vainly did Rome hope
That they had thrown aside the burden vile
Of the desires that weigh down other men.
Theirs is the ungrateful lust of the wild beast,
That doth forget the mother nor knows the child.
... On the altar of Christ,
Who is the prince of pardon and of peace,
Vows of revenge are registered, and torches
That are thrown into hearts of leaguered cities
Are lit from tapers burning before God.
Become thou king of sacrifice; ascend
The holy hill of God; on these perverse
Launch thou thy thunderbolts; and feared again
And great thou wilt be. Tell me, Adrian,
Must thou not bear a burden that were heavy
Even for angels? Wherefore wilt thou join
Death unto life, and make the word of God,
That says, "My kingdom is not of this world,"
A lie? Oh, follow Christ's example here
In Rome; it pleased both God and her
To abase the proud and to uplift the weak.
I'll kiss the foot that treads on kings!
I parley not, I rule; and I, become
On earth as God in heaven, am judge of all,
And none of me; I watch, and I dispense
Terrors and hopes, rewards and punishments,
To peoples and to kings; fountain and source
Of life am I, who make the Church of God
One and all-powerful. Many thrones and peoples
She has seen tost upon the madding waves
Of time, and broken on the immovable rock
Whereon she sits; and since one errless spirit
Rules in her evermore, she doth not rave
For changeful doctrine, but she keeps eternal
The grandeur of her will and purposes.
Thou movest me to pity. In vain thou seek'st
To warm thy heart over these ruins, groping
Among the sepulchers of Rome. Thou'lt find
No bones to which thou canst say, "Rise!" Ah, here
Remaineth not one hero's dust. Thou thinkest
That with old names old virtues shall return?
And thou desirest tribunes, senators,
Equestrian orders, Rome! A greater glory
Thy sovereign pontiff is who doth not guard
The rights uncertain of a crazy rabble;
But tribune of the world he sits in Rome,
And "I forbid," to kings and peoples cries.
I tell thee a greater than the impious power
That thou in vain endeavorest to renew
Here built the dying fisherman of Judea.
Out of his blood he made a fatherland
For all the nations, and this place, that once
A city was, became a world; the borders
That did divide the nations, by Christ's law
Are ta'en away, and this the kingdom is
For which he asked his Father in his prayer.
The Church has sons in every race; I rule,
An unseen king, and Rome is everywhere!
_Arnaldo_. Thou errest, Adrian. Rome's thunderbolts
Wake little terror now, and reason shakes
The bonds that thou fain would'st were everlasting.
... Christ calls to her
As of old to the sick man, "Rise and walk."
She 'll tread on you if you go not before.
The world has other truth besides the altar's.
It will not have a temple that hides heaven.
Thou wast a shepherd: be a father. The race
Of man is weary of being called a flock.
Adrian's final reply is, that if Arnaldo will renounce his false
doctrine and leave Rome, the Pope will, through him, give the Lombard
cities a liberty that shall not offend the Church. Arnaldo refuses,
and quits Adrian's presence. It is quite needless to note the bold
character of the thought here, or the nobility of the poetry, which
Niccolini puts as well into the mouth of the Pope whom he hates as the
monk whom he loves.
Following this scene is one of greater dramatic force, in which the
Cardinal Guido, sent to the Campidoglio by the Pope to disperse the
popular assembly, is stoned by the people and killed. He dies full of
faith in the Church and the righteousness of his cause, and his
body, taken up by the priests, is carried into the square before St.
Peter's. A throng, including many women, has followed; and now
Niccolini introduces a phase of the great Italian struggle which was
perhaps the most perplexing of all. The subjection of the women to
the priests is what has always greatly contributed to defeat Italian
efforts for reform; it now helps to unnerve the Roman multitude; and
the poet finally makes it the weakness through which Arnaldo is dealt
his death. With a few strokes in the scene that follows the death of
Guido, he indicates the remorse and dismay of the people when the Pope
repels them from the church door and proclaims the interdict; and then
follow some splendid lyrical passages, in which the Pope commands the
pictures and images to be veiled and the relics to be concealed, and
curses the enemies of the Church. I shall but poorly render this curse
by a rhymeless translation, and yet I am tempted to give it:
_The Pope._ To-day let the perfidious
Learn at thy name to tremble,
Nor triumph o'er the ruinous
Place of thy vanished altars.
Oh, brief be their days and uncertain;
In the desert their wandering footsteps,
Every tremulous leaflet affright them!
_The Cardinals._ Anathema, anathema, anathema!
_Pope._ May their widows sit down 'mid the ashes
On the hearths of their desolate houses,
With their little ones wailing around them.
_Cardinals._ Anathema, anathema, anathema!
_Pope._ May he who was born to the fury
Of heaven, afar from his country
Be lost in his ultimate anguish.
_Cardinals._ Anathema, anathema, anathema!
_Pope._ May he fly to the house of the alien oppressor
That is filled with the spoil of his brothers, with women
Destroyed by the pitiless hands that defiled them;
There in accents unknown and derided, abase him
At portals ne'er opened in mercy, imploring
A morsel of bread.
_Cardinals._ Be that morsel denied him!
_Pope._ I hear the wicked cry: I from the Lord
Will fly away with swift and tireless feet;
His anger follows me upon the sea;
I'll seek the desert; who will give me wings?
In cloudy horror, who shall lead my steps?
The eye of God maketh the night as day.
O brothers, fulfill then
The terrible duty;
Throw down from the altars
The dim-burning tapers;
And be all joy, and be the love of God
In thankless hearts that know not Peter, quenched,
As is the little flame that falls and dies,
Here in these tapers trampled under foot.
In the first scene of the third act, which is a desolate place in the
Campagna, near the sea, Arnaldo appears. He has been expelled from
Rome by the people, eager for the opening of their churches, and he
soliloquizes upon his fate in language that subtly hints all his
passing moods, and paints the struggle of his soul. It appears to me
that it is a wise thing to make him almost regret the cloister in
the midst of his hatred of it, and then shrink from that regret with
horror; and there is also a fine sense of night and loneliness in the
Like this sand
Is life itself, and evermore each path
Is traced in suffering, and one footprint still
Obliterates another; and we are all
Vain shadows here that seem a little while,
And suffer, and pass. Let me not fight in vain,
O Son of God, with thine immortal word,
Yon tyrant of eternity and time,
Who doth usurp thy place on earth, whose feet
Are in the depths, whose head is in the clouds,
Who thunders all abroad, _The world is mine!_
Laws, virtues, liberty I have attempted
To give thee, Rome. Ah! only where death is
Abides thy glory. Here the laurel only
Flourishes on the ruins and the tombs.
I will repose upon this fallen column
My weary limbs. Ah, lower than this ye lie,
You Latin souls, and to your ancient height
Who shall uplift you? I am all weighed down
By the great trouble of the lofty hopes
Of Italy still deluded, and I find
Within my soul a drearer desert far
Than this, where the air already darkens round,
And the soft notes of distant convent bells
Announce the coming night.... I cannot hear them
Without a trembling wish that in my heart
Wakens a memory that becomes remorse....
Ah, Reason, soon thou languishest in us,
Accustomed to such outrage all our lives.
Thou know'st the cloister; thou a youth didst enter
That sepulcher of the living where is war,--
Remember it and shudder! The damp wind
Stirs this gray hair. I'm near the sea.
Thy silence is no more; sweet on the ear
Cometh the far-off murmur of the floods
In the vast desert; now no more the darkness
Imprisons wholly; now less gloomily
Lowers the sky that lately threatened storm.
Less thick the air is, and the trembling light
O' the stars among the breaking clouds appears.
Praise to the Lord! The eternal harmony
Of all his work I feel. Though these vague beams
Reveal to me here only fens and tombs,
My soul is not so heavily weighed down
By burdens that oppressed it....
I rise to grander purposes: man's tents
Are here below, his city is in heaven.
I doubt no more; the terror of the cloister
No longer assails me.
Presently Giordano comes to join Arnaldo in this desolate place, and,
in the sad colloquy which follows, tells him of the events of Rome,
and the hopelessness of their cause, unless they have the aid and
countenance of the Emperor. He implores Arnaldo to accompany the
embassy which he is about to send to Frederick; but Arnaldo, with
a melancholy disdain, refuses. He asks where are the Swiss who
accompanied him to Rome, and he is answered by one of the Swiss
captains, who at that moment appears. The Emperor has ordered them to
return home, under penalty of the ban of the empire. He begs Arnaldo
to return with them, but Arnaldo will not; and Giordano sends him
under a strong escort to the castle of Ostasio. Arnaldo departs with
much misgiving, for the wife of Ostasio is Adelasia, a bigoted papist,
who has hitherto resisted the teaching to which her husband has been
As the escort departs, the returning Swiss are seen. One of their
leaders expresses the fear that moves them, when he says that the
Germans will desolate their homes if they do not return to them.
Moreover, the Italian sun, which destroys even those born under it,
drains their life, and man and nature are leagued against them there.
"What have you known here!" he asks, and his soldiers reply in chorus:
The pride of old names, the caprices of fate,
In vast desert spaces the silence of death,
Or in mist-hidden lowlands, his wandering fires;
No sweet song of birds, no heart-cheering sound,
But eternal memorials of ancient despair,
And ruins and tombs that waken dismay
At the moan of the pines that are stirred by the wind.
Full of dark and mysterious peril the woods;
No life-giving fountains, but only bare sands,
Or some deep-bedded river that silently moves,
With a wave that is livid and stagnant, between
Its margins ungladdened by grass or by flowers,
And in sterile sands vanishes wholly away.
Out of huts that by turns have been shambles and tombs,
All pallid and naked, and burned by their fevers,
The peasant folk suddenly stare as you pass,
With visages ghastly, and eyes full of hate,
Aroused by the accent that's strange to their ears.
Oh, heavily hang the clouds here on the head!
Wan and sick is the earth, and the sun is a tyrant.
Then one of the Swiss soldiers speaks alone:
The unconquerable love of our own land
Draws us away till we behold again
The eternal walls the Almighty builded there.
Upon the arid ways of faithless lands
I am tormented by a tender dream
Of that sweet rill which runs before my cot.
Oh, let me rest beside the smiling lake,
And hear the music of familiar words,
And on its lonely margin, wild and fair,
Lie down and think of my beloved ones.
There is no page of this tragedy which does not present some terrible
or touching picture, which is not full of brave and robust thought,
which has not also great dramatic power. But I am obliged to curtail
the proof of this, and I feel that, after all, I shall not give a
complete idea of the tragedy's grandeur, its subtlety, its vast scope
There is a striking dialogue between a Roman partisan of Arnaldo, who,
with his fancy oppressed by the heresy of his cause, is wavering in
his allegiance, and a Brescian, whom the outrages of the priests have
forever emancipated from faith in their power to bless or ban in the
world to come. Then ensues a vivid scene, in which a fanatical and
insolent monk of Arnaldo's order, leading a number of soldiers,
arrests him by command of Adrian. Ostasio's soldiers approaching to
rescue him, the monk orders him to be slain, but he is saved, and the
act closes with the triumphal chorus of his friends. Here is fine
occasion for the play of different passions, and the occasion is not
With the fourth act is introduced the new interest of the German
oppression; and as we have had hitherto almost wholly a study of the
effect of the papal tyranny upon Italy, we are now confronted with
the shame and woe which the empire has wrought her. Exiles from the
different Lombard cities destroyed by Barbarossa meet on their way
to seek redress from the Pope, and they pour out their sorrows in
pathetic and passionate lyrics. To read these passages gives one a
favorable notion of the liberality or the stupidity of the government
which permitted the publication of the tragedy. The events alluded to
were many centuries past, the empire had long ceased to be; but the
Italian hatred of the Germans was one and indivisible for every moment
of all times, and we may be sure that to each of Niccolini's readers
these mediaeval horrors were but masks for cruelties exercised by the
Austrians in his own day, and that in those lyrical bursts of rage
and grief there was full utterance for his smothered sense of present
wrong. There is a great charm in these strophes; they add unspeakable
pathos to a drama which is so largely concerned with political
interests; and they make us feel that it is a beautiful and noble work
of art, as well as grand appeal to the patriotism of the Italians and
the justice of mankind.
When we are brought into the presence of Barbarossa, we find him
awaiting the arrival of Adrian, who is to accompany him to Rome and
crown him emperor, in return for the aid that Barbarossa shall give in
reducing the rebellious citizens and delivering Arnaldo into the power
of the papacy. Heralds come to announce Adrian's approach, and riding
forth a little way, Frederick dismounts in order to go forward on foot
and meet the Pope, who advances, preceded by his clergy, and attended
by a multitude of his partisans. As Frederick perceives the Pope and
quits his horse, he muses:
I leave thee,
O faithful comrade mine in many perils,
Thou generous steed! and now, upon the ground
That should have thundered under thine advance,
With humble foot I silent steps must trace.
But what do I behold? Toward us comes,
With tranquil pride, the servant of the lowly,
Upon a white horse docile to the rein
As he would kings were; all about the path
That Adrian moves on, warriors and people
Of either sex, all ages, in blind homage,
Mingle, press near and fall upon the ground,
Or one upon another; and man, whom God
Made to look up to heaven, becomes as dust
Under the feet of pride; and they believe
The gates of Paradise would be set wide
To any one whom his steed crushed to death.
With me thou never hast thine empire shared;
Thou alone hold'st the world! He will not turn
On me in sign of greeting that proud head,
Encircled by the tiara; and he sees,
Like God, all under him in murmured prayer
Or silence, blesses them, and passes on.
What wonder if he will not deign to touch
The earth I tread on with his haughty foot!
He gives it to be kissed of kings; I too
Must stoop to the vile act.
Since the time of Henry II. it had been the custom of the emperors to
lead the Pope's horse by the bridle, and to hold his stirrup while he
descended. Adrian waits in vain for this homage from Frederick, and
then alights with the help of his ministers, and seats himself in his
episcopal chair, while Frederick draws near, saying aside:
I read there in his face his insolent pride
Veiled by humility.
He bows before Adrian and kisses his foot, and then offers him the
kiss of peace, which Adrian refuses, and haughtily reminds him of the
fate of Henry. Frederick answers furiously that the thought of this
fate has always filled him with hatred of the papacy; and Adrian,
perceiving that he has pressed too far in this direction, turns and
soothes the Emperor:
I am truth,
And thou art force, and if thou part'st from me,
Blind thou becomest, helpless I remain.
We are but one at last....
Caesar and Peter,
They are the heights of God; man from the earth
Contemplates them with awe, and never questions
Which thrusts its peak the higher into heaven.
Therefore be wise, and learn from the example
Of impious Arnaldo. He's the foe
Of thrones who wars upon the altar.
But he strives in vain to persuade Frederick to the despised act of
homage, and it is only at the intercession of the Emperor's kinsmen
and the German princes that he consents to it. When it is done in the
presence of all the army and the clerical retinue, Adrian mounts, and
says to Frederick, with scarcely hidden irony:
In truth thou art
An apt and ready squire, and thou hast held
My stirrup firmly. Take, then, O my son,
The kiss of peace, for thou hast well fulfilled
All of thy duties.
But Frederick, crying aloud, and fixing the sense of the multitude
upon him, answers:
Nay, not all, O Father!--
Princes and soldiers, hear! I have done homage
To Peter, not to him.
The Church and the Empire being now reconciled, Frederick receives the
ambassadors of the Roman republic with scorn; he outrages all their
pretensions to restore Rome to her old freedom and renown; insults
their prayer that he will make her his capital, and heaps contempt
upon the weakness and vileness of the people they represent. Giordano
replies for them:
When will you dream,
You Germans, in your thousand stolid dreams,--
The fume of drunkenness,--a future greater
Than our Rome's memories? Never be her banner
Usurped by you! In prison and in darkness
Was born your eagle, that did but descend
Upon the helpless prey of Roman dead,
But never dared to try the ways of heaven,
With its weak vision wounded by the sun.
Ye prate of Germany. The whole world conspired,
And even more in vain, to work us harm,
Before that day when, the world being conquered,
Rome slew herself.
... Of man's great brotherhood
Unworthy still, ye change not with the skies.
In Italy the German's fate was ever
To grow luxurious and continue cruel.
The soldiers of Barbarossa press upon Giordano to kill him, and
Frederick saves the ambassadors with difficulty, and hurries them
In the first part of the fifth act, Niccolini deals again with the
_role_ which woman has played in the tragedy of Italian history, the
hopes she has defeated, and the plans she has marred through those
religious instincts which should have blest her country, but which
through their perversion by priestcraft have been one of its greatest
curses. Adrian is in the Vatican, after his triumphant return to Rome,
when Adelasia, the wife of that Ostasio, Count of the Campagna, in
whose castle Arnaldo is concealed, and who shares his excommunication,
is ushered into the Pope's presence. She is half mad with terror at
the penalties under which her husband has fallen, in days when the
excommunicated were shunned like lepers, and to shelter them, or to
eat and drink with them, even to salute them, was to incur privation
of the sacraments; when a bier was placed at their door, and their
houses were stoned; when King Robert of France, who fell under the
anathema, was abandoned by all his courtiers and servants, and the
beggars refused the meat that was left from his table--and she comes
into Adrian's presence accusing herself as the greatest of sinners.
The Pope asks:
Hast thou betrayed
Thy husband, or from some yet greater crime
Cometh the terror that oppresses thee?
Hast slain him?
_Adelasia._ Haply I ought to slay him.
_Adelasia._ I fain would hate him and I cannot.
Hath his fault been?
_Ad._ Oh, the most horrible
_Adr._ And yet is he dear unto thee?
_Ad._ I love him, yes, I love him, though he's changed
From that he was. Some gloomy cloud involves
That face one day so fair, and 'neath the feet,
Now grown deformed, the flowers wither away.
I know not if I sleep or if I wake,
If what I see be a vision or a dream.
But all is dreadful, and I cannot tell
The falsehood from the truth; for if I reason,
I fear to sin. I fly the happy bed
Where I became a mother, but return
In midnight's horror, where my husband lies
Wrapt in a sleep so deep it frightens me,
And question with my trembling hand his heart,
The fountain of his life, if it still beat.
Then a cold kiss I give him, then embrace him
With shuddering joy, and then I fly again,--
For I do fear his love,--and to the place
Where sleep my little ones I hurl myself,
And wake them with my moans, and drag them forth
Before an old miraculous shrine of her,
The Queen of Heaven, to whom I've consecrated,
With never-ceasing vigils, burning lamps.
There naked, stretched upon the hard earth, weep
My pretty babes, and each of them repeats
The name of Mary whom I call upon;
And I would swear that she looks down and weeps.
Then I cry out, "Have pity on my children!
Thou wast a mother, and the good obtain
Forgiveness for the guilty."
Adrian has little trouble to draw from the distracted woman the fact
that her husband is a heretic--that heretic, indeed, in whose castle
Arnaldo is concealed. On his promise that he will save her husband,
she tells him the name of the castle. He summons Frederick, who
claims Ostasio as his vassal, and declares that he shall die, and his
children shall be carried to Germany. Adrian, after coldly asking the
Emperor to spare him, feigns himself helpless, and Adelasia too late
awakens to a knowledge of his perfidy. She falls at his feet:
I clasp thy knees once more, and I do hope
Thou hast not cheated me!... Ah, now I see
Thy wicked arts! Because thou knewest well
My husband was a vassal of the empire,
That pardon which it was not thine to give
Thou didst pretend to promise me. O priest,
Is this thy pity? Sorrow gives me back
My wandering reason, and I waken on
The brink of an abyss; and from this wretch
The mask that did so hide his face drops down
And shows it in its naked hideousness
Unto the light of truth.
Frederick sends his soldiers to secure Arnaldo, but as to Ostasio and
his children he relents somewhat, being touched by the anguish of
Adelasia. Adrian rebukes his weakness, saying that he learned in the
cloister to subdue these compassionate impulses. In the next scene,
which is on the Capitoline Hill, the Roman Senate resolves to defend
the city against the Germans to the last, and then we have Arnaldo a
prisoner in a cell of the Castle of St. Angelo. The Prefect of Rome
vainly entreats him to recant his heresy, and then leaves him with the
announcement that he is to die before the following day. As to the
soliloquy which follows, Niccolini says: "I have feigned in Arnaldo in
the solemn hour of death these doubts, and I believe them exceedingly
probable in a disciple of Abelard. This struggle between reason
and faith is found more or less in the intellect of every one, and
constitutes a sublime torment in the life of those who, like the
Brescian monk, have devoted themselves from an early age to the study
of philosophy and religion. None of the ideas which I attribute to
Arnaldo were unknown to him, and, according to Mueller, he believed
that God was all, and that the whole creation was but one of his
thoughts. His other conceptions in regard to divinity are found in one
of his contemporaries." The soliloquy is as follows:
Aforetime thou hast said, O King of heaven,
That in the world thou wilt not power or riches.
And can he be divided from the Church
Who keeps his faith in thine immortal word,
The light of souls? To remain in the truth
It only needs that I confess to thee
All sins of mine. O thou eternal priest,
Thou read'st my heart, and that which I can scarce
Express thou seest. A great mystery
Is man unto himself, conscience a deep
Which only thou canst sound. What storm is there
Of guilty thoughts! Oh, pardon my rebellion!
Evil springs up within the mind of man,
As in its native soil, since that day Adam
Abused thy great gift, and created guilt.
And if each thought of ours became a deed,
Who would be innocent? I did once defend
The cause of Abelard, and at the decree
Imposing silence on him I, too, ceased.
What fault in me? Bernard in vain inspired
The potentates of Europe to defend
The sepulcher of God. Mankind, his temple,
I sought to liberate, and upon the earth
Desired the triumph of the love divine,
And life, and liberty, and progress. This,
This was my doctrine, and God only knows
How reason struggles with the faith in me
For the supremacy of my spirit. Oh,
Forgive me, Lord. These in their war are like
The rivers twain of heaven, till they return
To their eternal origin, and the truth
Is seen in thee, and God denies not God.
I ought to pray. Thinking on thee, I pray.
Yet how thy substance by three persons shared,
Each equal with the other, one remains,
I cannot comprehend, nor give in thee
Bounds to the infinite and human names.
Father of the world, that which thou here revealest
Perchance is but a thought of thine; or this
Movable veil that covers here below
All thy creation is eternal illusion
That hides God from us. Where to rest itself
The mind hath not. It palpitates uncertain
In infinite darkness, and denies more wisely
Than it affirms. O God omnipotent!
I know not what thou art, or, if I know,
How can I utter thee? The tongue has not
Words for thee, and it falters with my thought
That wrongs thee by its effort. Soon I go
Out of the last doubt unto the first truth.
What did I say? The intellect is soothed
To faith in Christ, and therein it reposes
As in the bosom of a tender mother
Her son. Arnaldo, that which thou art seeking
With sterile torment, thy great teacher sought
Long time in vain, and at the cross's foot
His weary reason cast itself at last.
Follow his great example, and with tears
Wash out thy sins.
We leave Arnaldo in his prison, and it is supposed that he is put to
death during the combat that follows between the Germans and Romans
immediately after the coronation of Frederick. As the forces stand
opposed to each other, two beautiful choruses are introduced--one
of Romans and one of Germans. And, just before the onset, Adelasia
appears and confesses that she has betrayed Arnaldo, and that he is
now in the power of the papacy. At the same time the clergy are heard
chanting Frederick's coronation hymn, and then the battle begins. The
Romans are beaten by the number and discipline of their enemies, and
their leaders are driven out. The Germans appear before Frederic and
Adrian with two hundred prisoners, and ask mercy for them. Adrian
delivers them to his prefect, and it is implied that they are put to
death. Then turning to Frederick, Adrian says:
Art thou content? for I have given to thee
More than the crown. My words have consecrated
Thy power. So let the Church and Empire be
Now at last reconciled. The mystery
That holds three persons in one substance, nor
Confounds them, may it make us here on earth
To reign forever, image of itself,
In unity which is like to that of God.
So ends the tragedy, and so was accomplished the union which rested so
heavily ever after upon the hearts and hopes, not only of Italians,
but of all Christian men. So was confirmed that temporal power of the
popes, whose destruction will be known in history as infinitely the
greatest event of our greatly eventful time, and will free from the
doubt and dread of many one of the most powerful agencies for good in
the world; namely, the Catholic Church.
I have tried to give an idea of the magnificence and scope of this
mighty tragedy of Niccolini's, and I do not know that I can now add
anything which will make this clearer. If we think of the grandeur of
its plan, and how it employs for its effect the evil and the perverted
good of the time in which the scene was laid, how it accords perfect
sincerity to all the great actors,--to the Pope as well as to Arnaldo,
to the Emperor as well as to the leaders of the people,--we must
perceive that its conception is that of a very great artist. It seems
to me that the execution is no less admirable. We cannot judge it by
the narrow rule which the tragedies of the stage must obey; we must
look at it with the generosity and the liberal imagination with which
we can alone enjoy a great fiction. Then the patience, the subtlety,
the strength, with which each character, individual and typical, is
evolved; the picturesqueness with which every event is presented; the
lyrical sweetness and beauty with which so many passages are enriched,
will all be apparent to us, and we shall feel the esthetic sublimity
of the work as well as its moral force and its political significance.
In the year 1798, at Recanati, a little mountain town of Tuscany, was
born, noble and miserable, the poet Giacomo Leopardi, who began even
in childhood to suffer the malice of that strange conspiracy of ills
which consumed him. His constitution was very fragile, and it early
felt the effect of the passionate ardor with which the sickly boy
dedicated his life to literature. From the first he seems to have had
little or no direction in his own studies, and hardly any instruction.
He literally lived among his books, rarely leaving his own room except
to pass into his father's library; his research and erudition were
marvelous, and at the age of sixteen he presented his father a Latin
translation and comment on Plotinus, of which Sainte-Beuve said that
"one who had studied Plotinus his whole life could find something
useful in this work of a boy." At that age Leopardi already knew all
Greek and Latin literature; he knew French, Spanish, and English; he
knew Hebrew, and disputed in that tongue with the rabbis of Ancona.
The poet's father was Count Monaldo Leopardi, who had written little
books of a religious and political character; the religion very
bigoted, the politics very reactionary. His library was the largest
anywhere in that region, but he seems not to have learned wisdom in
it; and, though otherwise a blameless man, he used his son, who grew
to manhood differing from him in all his opinions, with a rigor that
was scarcely less than cruel. He was bitterly opposed to what was
called progress, to religious and civil liberty; he was devoted to
what was called order, which meant merely the existing order of
things, the divinely appointed prince, the infallible priest. He had
a mediaeval taste, and he made his palace at Recanati as much like a
feudal castle as he could, with all sorts of baronial bric-a-brac. An
armed vassal at his gate was out of the question, but at the door of
his own chamber stood an effigy in rusty armor, bearing a tarnished
halberd. He abhorred the fashions of our century, and wore those of
an earlier epoch; his wife, who shared his prejudices and opinions,
fantastically appareled herself to look like the portrait of some
gentlewoman of as remote a date. Halls hung in damask, vast mirrors
in carven frames, and stately furniture of antique form attested
throughout the palace "the splendor of a race which, if its fortunes
had somewhat declined, still knew how to maintain its ancient state."
In this home passed the youth and early manhood of a poet who no
sooner began to think for himself than he began to think things most
discordant with his father's principles and ideas. He believed in
neither the religion nor the politics of his race; he cherished with
the desire of literary achievement that vague faith in humanity, in
freedom, in the future, against which the Count Monaldo had so
sternly set his face; he chafed under the restraints of his father's
authority, and longed for some escape into the world. The Italians
sometimes write of Leopardi's unhappiness with passionate condemnation
of his father; but neither was Count Monaldo's part an enviable one,
and it was certainly not at this period that he had all the wrong in
his differences with his son. Nevertheless, it is pathetic to read how
the heartsick, frail, ambitious boy, when he found some article in a
newspaper that greatly pleased him, would write to the author and ask
his friendship. When these journalists, who were possibly not always
the wisest publicists of their time, so far responded to the young
scholar's advances as to give him their personal acquaintance as well
as their friendship, the old count received them with a courteous
tolerance, which had no kindness in it for their progressive ideas.
He lived in dread of his son's becoming involved in some of the many
plots then hatching against order and religion, and he repressed with
all his strength Leopardi's revolutionary tendencies, which must
always have been mere matters of sentiment, and not deserving of great
He seems not so much to have loved Italy as to have hated Recanati.
It is a small village high up in the Apennines, between Loreto and
Macerata, and is chiefly accessible in ox-carts. Small towns
everywhere are dull, and perhaps are not more deadly so in Italy than
they are elsewhere, but there they have a peculiarly obscure, narrow
life indoors. Outdoors there is a little lounging about the _caffe_,
a little stir on holidays among the lower classes and the neighboring
peasants, a great deal of gossip at all times, and hardly anything
more. The local nobleman, perhaps, cultivates literature as Leopardi's
father did; there is always some abbate mousing about in the local
archives and writing pamphlets on disputed points of the local
history; and there is the parish priest, to help form the polite
society of the place. As if this social barrenness were not enough,
Recanati was physically hurtful to Leopardi: the climate was very
fickle; the harsh, damp air was cruel to his nerves. He says it seems
to him a den where no good or beautiful thing ever comes; he bewails
the common ignorance; in Recanati there is no love for letters, for
the humanizing arts; nobody frequents his father's great library,
nobody buys books, nobody reads the newspapers. Yet this forlorn and
detestable little town has one good thing. It has a preeminently good
Italian accent, better even, he thinks, than the Roman,--which would
be a greater consolation to an Italian than we can well understand.
Nevertheless it was not society, and it did not make his
fellow-townsmen endurable to him. He recoiled from them more and more,
and the solitude in which he lived among his books filled him with a
black melancholy, which he describes as a poison, corroding the life
of body and soul alike. To a friend who tries to reconcile him to
Recanati, he writes: "It is very well to tell me that Plutarch and
Alfieri loved Chaeronea and Asti; they loved them, but they left them;
and so shall I love my native place when I am away from it. Now I say
I hate it because I am in it. To recall the spot where one's childhood
days were passed is dear and sweet; it is a fine saying, 'Here you
were born, and here Providence wills you to stay.' All very fine! Say
to the sick man striving to be well that he is flying in the face of
Providence; tell the poor man struggling to advance himself that he is
defying heaven; bid the Turk beware of baptism, for God has made him a
Turk!" So Leopardi wrote when he was in comparative health and able to
continue his studies. But there were long periods when his ailments
denied him his sole consolation of work. Then he rose late, and walked
listlessly about without opening his lips or looking at a book the
whole day. As soon as he might, he returned to his studies; when he
must, he abandoned them again. At such a time he once wrote to a
friend who understood and loved him: "I have not energy enough to
conceive a single desire, not even for death; not because I fear
death, but because I cannot see any difference between that and my
present life. For the first time _ennui_ not merely oppresses and
wearies me, but it also agonizes and lacerates me, like a cruel pain.
I am overwhelmed with a sense of the vanity of all things and the
condition of men. My passions are dead, my very despair seems
nonentity. As to my studies, which you urge me to continue, for the
last eight months I have not known what study means; the nerves of my
eyes and of my whole head are so weakened and disordered that I cannot
read or listen to reading, nor can I fix my mind upon any subject."
[Illustration: GIACOMO LEOPARDI]
At Recanati Leopardi suffered not merely solitude, but the contact
of people whom he despised, and whose vulgarity was all the greater
oppression when it showed itself in a sort of stupid compassionate
tenderness for him. He had already suffered one of those
disappointments which are the rule rather than the exception, and
his first love had ended as first love always does when it ends
fortunately--in disappointment. He scarcely knew the object of his
passion, a young girl of humble lot, whom he used to hear singing at
her loom in the house opposite his father's palace. Count Monaldo
promptly interfered, and not long afterward the young girl died. But
the sensitive boy, and his biographers after him, made the most of
this sorrow; and doubtless it helped to render life under his father's
roof yet heavier and harder to bear. Such as it was, it seems to have
been the only love that Leopardi ever really felt, and the young
girl's memory passed into the melancholy of his life and poetry.
But he did not summon courage to abandon Recanati before his
twenty-fourth year, and then he did not go with his father's entire
good-will. The count wished him to become a priest, but Leopardi
shrank from the idea with horror, and there remained between him and
his father not only the difference of their religious and political
opinions, but an unkindness which must be remembered against the
judgment, if not the heart, of the latter. He gave his son so meager
an allowance that it scarcely kept him above want, and obliged him to
labors and subjected him to cares which his frail health was not able
From Recanati Leopardi first went to Rome; but he carried Recanati
everywhere with him, and he was as solitary and as wretched in the
capital of the world as in the little village of the Apennines. He
despised the Romans, as they deserved, upon very short acquaintance,
and he declared that his dullest fellow-villager had a greater share
of good sense than the best of them. Their frivolity was incredible;
the men moved him to rage and pity; the women, high and low, to
loathing. In one of his letters to his brother Carlo, he says of Rome,
as he found it: "I have spoken to you only about the women, because
I am at a loss what to say to you about literature. Horrors upon
horrors! The most sacred names profaned, the most absurd follies
praised to the skies, the greatest spirits of the century trampled
under foot as inferior to the smallest literary man in Rome.
Philosophy despised; genius, imagination, feeling, names--I do not say
things, but even names--unknown and alien to these professional poets
and poetesses! Antiquarianism placed at the summit of human learning,
and considered invariably and universally as the only true study
of man!" This was Rome in 1822. "I do not exaggerate," he writes,
"because it is impossible, and I do not even say enough." One of the
things that moved him to the greatest disgust in the childish and
insipid society of a city where he had fondly hoped to find a response
to his high thoughts was the sensation caused throughout Rome by the
dress and theatrical effectiveness with which a certain prelate said
mass. All Rome talked of it, cardinals and noble ladies complimented
the performer as if he were a ballet-dancer, and the flattered prelate
used to rehearse his part, and expatiate upon his methods of study
for it, to private audiences of admirers. In fact, society had then
touched almost the lowest depth of degradation where society had
always been corrupt and dissolute, and the reader of Massimo
d'Azeglio's memoirs may learn particulars (given with shame and
regret, indeed, and yet with perfect Italian frankness) which it is
not necessary to repeat here.
There were, however, many foreigners living at Rome in whose company
Leopardi took great pleasure. They were chiefly Germans, and first
among them was Niebuhr, who says of his first meeting with the poet:
"Conceive of my astonishment when I saw standing before me in the
poor little chamber a mere youth, pale and shy, frail in person, and
obviously in ill health, who was by far the first, in fact the only,
Greek philologist in Italy, the author of critical comments and
observations which would have won honor for the first philologist
in Germany, and yet only twenty-two years old! He had become thus
profoundly learned without school, without instructor, without help,
without encouragement, in his father's house. I understand, too, that
he is one of the first of the rising poets of Italy. What a nobly
Niebuhr offered to procure him a professorship of Greek philosophy in
Berlin, but Leopardi would not consent to leave his own country;
and then Niebuhr unsuccessfully used his influence to get him some
employment from the papal government,--compliments and good wishes it
gave him, but no employment and no pay.
From Rome Leopardi went to Milan, where he earned something--very
little--as editor of a comment upon Petrarch. A little later he went
to Bologna, where a generous and sympathetic nobleman made him tutor
in his family; but Leopardi returned not long after to Recanati, where
he probably found no greater content than he left there. Presently we
find him at Pisa, and then at Florence, eking out the allowance from
his father by such literary work as he could find to do. In the latter
place it is somewhat dimly established that he again fell in love,
though he despised the Florentine women almost as much as the Romans,
for their extreme ignorance, folly, and pride. This love also was
unhappy. There is no reason to believe that Leopardi, who inspired
tender and ardent friendships in men, ever moved any woman to love.
The Florentine ladies are darkly accused by one of his biographers of
having laughed at the poor young pessimist, and it is very possible;
but that need not make us think the worse of him, or of them either,
for that matter. He is supposed to have figured the lady of his latest
love under the name of Aspasia, in one of his poems, as he did his
first love under that of Sylvia, in the poem so called. Doubtless the
experience further embittered a life already sufficiently miserable.
He left Florence, but after a brief sojourn at Rome he returned
thither, where his friend Antonio Ranieri watched with a heavy heart
the gradual decay of his forces, and persuaded him finally to seek
the milder air of Naples. Ranieri's father was, like Leopardi's, of
reactionary opinions, and the Neapolitan, dreading the effect of their
discord, did not take his friend to his own house, but hired a villa
at Capodimonte, where he lived four years in fraternal intimacy with
Leopardi, and where the poet died in 1837.
Ranieri has in some sort made himself the champion of Leopardi's fame.
He has edited his poems, and has written a touching and beautiful
sketch of his life. Their friendship, which was of the greatest
tenderness, began when Leopardi sorely needed it; and Ranieri devoted
himself to the hapless poet like a lover, as if to console him for
the many years in which he had known neither reverence nor love. He
indulged all the eccentricities of his guest, who for a sick man had
certain strange habits, often not rising till evening, dining at
midnight, and going to bed at dawn. Ranieri's sister Paolina kept
house for the friends, and shared all her brother's compassion for
Leopardi, whose family appears to have willingly left him to the care
of these friends. How far the old unkindness between him and his
father continued, it is hard to say. His last letter was written to
his mother in May, 1837, some two weeks before his death; he thanks
her for a present of ten dollars,--one may imagine from the gift and
the gratitude that he was still held in a strict and parsimonious
tutelage,--and begs her prayers and his father's, for after he has
seen them again, he shall not have long to live.
He did not see them again, but he continued to smile at the anxieties
of his friends, who had too great reason to think that the end was
much nearer than Leopardi himself supposed. On the night of the 14th
of June, while they were waiting for the carriage which was to take
them into the country, where they intended to pass the time together
and sup at daybreak, Leopardi felt so great a difficulty of
breathing--he called it asthma, but it was dropsy of the heart--that
he begged them to send for a doctor. The doctor on seeing the sick man
took Ranieri apart, and bade him fetch a priest without delay, and
while they waited the coming of the friar, Leopardi spoke now and then
with them, but sank rapidly. Finally, says Ranieri, "Leopardi opened
his eyes, now larger even than their wont, and looked at me more
fixedly than before. 'I can't see you,' he said, with a kind of sigh.
And he ceased to breathe, and his pulse and heart beat no more; and
at the same moment the Friar Felice of the barefoot order of St.
Augustine entered the chamber, while I, quite beside myself, called
with a loud voice on him who had been my friend, my brother, my
father, and who answered me nothing, and yet seemed to gaze upon
me.... His death was inconceivable to me; the others were dismayed and
mute; there arose between the good friar and myself the most cruel and
painful dispute, ... I madly contending that my friend was still
alive, and beseeching him with tears to accompany with the offices of
religion the passing of that great soul. But he, touching again and
again the pulse and the heart, continually answered that the spirit
had taken flight. At last, a spontaneous and solemn silence fell upon
all in the room; the friar knelt beside the dead, and we all followed
his example. Then after long and profound meditation he prayed, and we
prayed with him."
In another place Ranieri says: "The malady of Leopardi was indefinable,
for having its spring in the most secret sources of life, it was like
life itself, inexplicable. The bones softened and dissolved away,
refusing their frail support to the flesh that covered them. The flesh
itself grew thinner and more lifeless every day, for the organs of
nutrition denied their office of assimilation. The lungs, cramped into
a space too narrow, and not sound themselves, expanded with difficulty.
With difficulty the heart freed itself from the lymph with which a slow
absorption burdened it. The blood, which ill renewed itself in the hard
and painful respiration, returned cold, pale, and sluggish to the
enfeebled veins. And in fine, the whole mysterious circle of life,
moving with such great effort, seemed from moment to moment about to
pause forever. Perhaps the great cerebral sponge, beginning and end of
that mysterious circle, had prepotently sucked up all the vital forces,
and itself consumed in a brief time all that was meant to suffice the
whole system for a long period. However it may be, the life of Leopardi
was not a course, as in most men, but truly a precipitation toward death."
Some years before he died, Leopardi had a presentiment of his death,
and his end was perhaps hastened by the nervous shock of the terror
produced by the cholera, which was then raging in Naples. At that time
the body of a Neapolitan minister of state who had died of cholera
was cast into the common burial-pit at Naples--such was the fear of
contagion, and so rapidly were the dead hurried to the grave. A heavy
bribe secured the remains of Leopardi from this fate, and his dust now
reposes in a little church on the road to Pozzuoli.
"In the years of boyhood," says the Neapolitan critic, Francesco de
Sanctis, "Leopardi saw his youth vanish forever; he lived obscure, and
achieved posthumous envy and renown; he was rich and noble, and he
suffered from want and despite; no woman's love ever smiled upon him,
the solitary lover of his own mind, to which he gave the names of
Sylvia, Aspasia, and Nerina. Therefore, with a precocious and bitter
penetration, he held what we call happiness for illusions and deceits
of fancy; the objects of our desire he called idols, our labors
idleness, and everything vanity. Thus he saw nothing here below equal
to his own intellect, or that was worthy the throb of his heart; and
inertia, rust, as it were, even more than pain consumed his life,
alone in what he called this formidable desert of the world. In such
solitude life becomes a dialogue of man with his own soul, and the
internal colloquies render more bitter and intense the affections
which have returned to the heart for want of nourishment in the world.
Mournful colloquies and yet pleasing, where man is the suicidal
vulture perpetually preying upon himself, and caressing the wound that
drags him to the grave.... The first cause of his sorrow is Recanati:
the intellect, capable of the universe, feels itself oppressed in an
obscure village, cruel to the body and deadly to the spirit.... He
leaves Recanati; he arrives in Rome; we believe him content at
last, and he too believes it. Brief illusion! Rome, Bologna, Milan,
Florence, Naples, are all different places, where he forever meets the
same man, himself. Read the first letter that he writes from Rome: 'In
the great things I see I do not feel the least pleasure, for I know
that they are marvelous, but I do not feel it, and I assure you that
their multitude and grandeur wearied me after the first day.'... To
Leopardi it is rarely given to interest himself in any spectacle of
nature, and he never does it without a sudden and agonized return to
himself.... Malign and heartless men have pretended that Leopardi was
a misanthrope, a fierce hater and enemy of the human race!... Love,
inexhaustible and almost ideal, was the supreme craving of that
angelic heart, and never left it during life. 'Love me, for God's
sake,' he beseeches his brother Carlo; 'I have need of love, love,
love, fire, enthusiasm, life.' And in truth it may be said that pain
and love form the twofold poetry of his life."
Leopardi lived in Italy during the long contest between the Classic
and Romantic schools, and it may be said that in him many of the
leading ideas of both parties were reconciled. His literary form was
as severe and sculpturesque as that of Alfieri himself, whilst the
most subjective and introspective of the Romantic poets did not
so much color the world with his own mental and spiritual hue as
Leopardi. It is not plain whether he ever declared himself for one
theory or the other. He was a contributor to the literary journal
which the partisans of the Romantic School founded at Florence; but he
was a man so weighed upon by his own sense of the futility and vanity
of all things that he could have had little spirit for mere literary
contentions. His admirers try hard to make out that he was positively
and actively patriotic; and it is certain that in his earlier youth he
disagreed with his father's conservative opinions, and despised
the existing state of things; but later in life he satirized the
aspirations and purposes of progress, though without sympathizing with
those of reaction.
The poem which his chief claim to classification with the poets
militant of his time rests upon is that addressed "To Italy". Those
who have read even only a little of Leopardi have read it; and I must
ask their patience with a version which drops the irregular rhyme of
the piece for the sake of keeping its peculiar rhythm and measure.
My native land, I see the walls and arches,
The columns and the statues, and the lonely
Towers of our ancestors,
But not their glory, not
The laurel and the steel that of old time
Our great forefathers bore. Disarmed now,
Naked thou showest thy forehead and thy breast!
O me, how many wounds,
What bruises and what blood! How do I see thee,
Thou loveliest Lady! Unto Heaven I cry,
And to the world: "Say, say,
Who brought her unto this?" To this and worse,
For both her arms are loaded down with chains,
So that, unveiled and with disheveled hair,
She crouches all forgotten and forlorn,
Hiding her beautiful face
Between her knees, and weeps.
Weep, weep, for well thou may'st, my Italy!
Born, as thou wert, to conquest,
Alike in evil and in prosperous sort!
If thy sweet eyes were each a living stream,
Thou could'st not weep enough
For all thy sorrow and for all thy shame.
For thou wast queen, and now thou art a slave.
Who speaks of thee or writes,
That thinking on thy glory in the past
But says, "She was great once, but is no more."
Wherefore, oh, wherefore? Where is the ancient strength,
The valor and the arms, and constancy?
Who rent the sword from thee?
Who hath betrayed thee? What art, or what toil,
Or what o'erwhelming force,
Hath stripped thy robe and golden wreath from thee?
How did'st thou fall, and when,
From such a height unto a depth so low?
Doth no one fight for thee, no one defend thee,
None of thy own? Arms, arms! For I alone
Will fight and fall for thee.
Grant me, O Heaven, my blood
Shall be as fire unto Italian hearts!
Where are thy sons? I hear the sound of arms,
Of wheels, of voices, and of drums;
In foreign fields afar
Thy children fight and fall.
Wait, Italy, wait! I see, or seem to see,
A tumult as of infantry and horse,
And smoke and dust, and the swift flash of swords
Like lightning among clouds.
Wilt thou not hope? Wilt thou not lift and turn
Thy trembling eyes upon the doubtful close?
For what, in yonder fields,
Combats Italian youth? O gods, ye gods,
For other lands Italian swords are drawn!
Oh, misery for him who dies in war,
Not for his native shores and his beloved,
His wife and children dear,
But by the foes of others
For others' cause, and cannot dying say,
"Dear land of mine,
The life thou gavest me I give thee back."
This suffers, of course, in translation, but I confess that in
the original it wears something of the same perfunctory air. His
patriotism was the fever-flame of the sick man's blood; his real
country was the land beyond the grave, and there is a far truer note
in this address to Death.
And thou, that ever from my life's beginning
I have invoked and honored, Beautiful Death! who only
Of all our earthly sorrows knowest pity:
If ever celebrated
Thou wast by me; if ever I attempted
To recompense the insult
That vulgar terror offers
Thy lofty state, delay no more, but listen
To prayers so rarely uttered:
Shut to the light forever,
Sovereign of time, these eyes of weary anguish!
I suppose that Italian criticism of the present day would not give
Leopardi nearly so high a place among the poets as his friend Ranieri
claims for him and his contemporaries accorded. He seems to have been
the poet of a national mood; he was the final expression of that long,
hopeless apathy in which Italy lay bound for thirty years after the
fall of Napoleon and his governments, and the reestablishment of all
the little despots, native and foreign, throughout the peninsula. In
this time there was unrest enough, and revolt enough of a desultory
and unorganized sort, but every struggle, apparently every aspiration,
for a free political and religious life ended in a more solid
confirmation of the leaden misrule which weighed down the hearts of
the people. To such an apathy the pensive monotone of this sick poet's
song might well seem the only truth; and one who beheld the universe
with the invalid's loath eyes, and reasoned from his own irremediable
ills to a malign mystery presiding over all human affairs, and
ordering a sad destiny from which there could be no defense but death,
might have the authority of a prophet among those who could find no
promise of better things in their earthly lot.
Leopardi's malady was such that when he did not positively suffer
he had still the memory of pain, and he was oppressed with a dreary
ennui, from which he could not escape. Death, oblivion, annihilation,
are the thoughts upon which he broods, and which fill his verse. The
passing color of other men's minds is the prevailing cast of his, and
he, probably with far more sincerity than any other poet, nursed his
despair in such utterances as this:
Now thou shalt rest forever,
O weary heart! The last deceit is ended,
For I believed myself immortal. Cherished
Hopes, and beloved delusions,
And longings to be deluded,--all are perished!
Rest thee forever! Oh, greatly,
Heart, hast thou palpitated. There is nothing
Worthy to move thee more, nor is earth worthy
Thy sighs. For life is only
Bitterness and vexation; earth is only
A heap of dust. So rest thee!
Despair for the last time. To our race Fortune
Never gave any gift but death. Disdain, then,
Thyself and Nature and the Power
Occultly reigning to the common ruin:
Scorn, heart, the infinite emptiness of all things!
Nature was so cruel a stepmother to this man that he could see nothing
but harm even in her apparent beneficence, and his verse repeats again
and again his dark mistrust of the very loveliness which so keenly
delights his sense. One of his early poems, called "The Quiet after
the Storm", strikes the key in which nearly all his songs are pitched.
The observation of nature is very sweet and honest, and I cannot see
that the philosophy in its perversion of the relations of physical and
spiritual facts is less mature than that of his later work: it is a
philosophy of which the first conception cannot well differ from the
... See yon blue sky that breaks
The clouds above the mountain in the west!
The fields disclose themselves,
And in the valley bright the river runs.
All hearts are glad; on every side
Arise the happy sounds
Of toil begun anew.
The workman, singing, to the threshold comes,
With work in hand, to judge the sky,
Still humid, and the damsel next,
On his report, comes forth to brim her pail
With the fresh-fallen rain.
The noisy fruiterers
From lane to lane resume
Their customary cry.
The sun looks out again, and smiles upon
The houses and the hills. Windows and doors
Are opened wide; and on the far-off road
You hear the tinkling bells and rattling wheels
Of travelers that set out upon their journey.
Every heart is glad;
So grateful and so sweet
When is our life as now?
* * * * *
O Pleasure, child of Pain,
Vain joy which is the fruit
Of bygone suffering overshadowed
And wrung with cruel fears
Of death, whom life abhors;
Wherein, in long suspense,
Silent and cold and pale,
Man sat, and shook and shuddered to behold
Lightnings and clouds and winds,
Furious in his offense!
Beneficent Nature, these,
These are thy bounteous gifts:
These, these are the delights
Thou offerest unto mortals! To escape
From pain is bliss to us;
Anguish thou scatterest broadcast, and our woes
Spring up spontaneous, and that little joy
Born sometimes, for a miracle and show,
Of terror is our mightiest gain. O man,
Dear to the gods, count thyself fortunate
If now and then relief
Thou hast from pain, and blest
When death shall come to heal thee of all pain!
"The bodily deformities which humiliated Leopardi, and the cruel
infirmities that agonized him his whole life long, wrought in his
heart an invincible disgust, which made him invoke death as the sole
relief. His songs, while they express discontent, the discord of the
world, the conviction of the nullity of human things, are exquisite in
style; they breathe a perpetual melancholy, which is often sublime,
and they relax and pain your soul like the music of a single chord,
while their strange sweetness wins you to them again and again." This
is the language of an Italian critic who wrote after Leopardi's death,
when already it had begun to be doubted whether he was the greatest
Italian poet since Dante. A still later critic finds Leopardi's style,
"without relief, without lyric flight, without the great art of
contrasts, without poetic leaven," hard to read. "Despoil those verses
of their masterly polish," he says, "reduce those thoughts to prose,
and you will see how little they are akin to poetry."
I have a feeling that my versions apply some such test to Leopardi's
work, and that the reader sees it in them at much of the disadvantage
which this critic desires for it. Yet, after doing my worst, I am
not wholly able to agree with him. It seems to me that there is the
indestructible charm in it which, wherever we find it, we must call
poetry. It is true that "its strange sweetness wins you again and
again," and that this "lonely pipe of death" thrills and solemnly
delights as no other stop has done. Let us hear it again, as the poet
sounds it, figuring himself a Syrian shepherd, guarding his flock by
night, and weaving his song under the Eastern moon:
O flock that liest at rest, O blessed thou
That knowest not thy fate, however hard,
How utterly I envy thee!
Not merely that thou goest almost free
Of all this weary pain,--
That every misery and every toil
And every fear thou straightway dost forget,--
But most because thou knowest not ennui
When on the grass thou liest in the shade.
I see thee tranquil and content,
And great part of thy years
Untroubled by ennui thou passest thus.
I likewise in the shadow, on the grass.
Lie, and a dull disgust beclouds
My soul, and I am goaded with a spur,
So that, reposing, I am farthest still
From finding peace or place.
And yet I want for naught,
And have not had till now a cause for tears.
What is thy bliss, how much,
I cannot tell; but thou art fortunate.
* * * * *
Or, it may be, my thought
Errs, running thus to others' destiny;
May be, to everything,
Wherever born, in cradle or in fold,
That day is terrible when it was born.
It is the same note, the same voice; the theme does not change, but
perhaps it is deepened in this ode:
ON THE LIKENESS OP A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN CARVEN
UPON HER TOMB.
Such wast thou: now under earth
A skeleton and dust. O'er dust and bones
Immovably and vainly set, and mute,
Looking upon the flight of centuries,
Sole keeper of memory
And of regret is this fair counterfeit
Of loveliness now vanished. That sweet look,
Which made men tremble when it fell on them,
As now it falls on me; that lip, which once,
Like some full vase of sweets,
Ran over with delight; that fair neck, clasped
By longing, and that soft and amorous hand,
Which often did impart
An icy thrill unto the hand it touched;
That breast, which visibly
Blanched with its beauty him who looked on it--
All these things were, and now
Dust art thou, filth, a fell
And hideous sight hidden beneath a stone.
Thus fate hath wrought its will
Upon the semblance that to us did seem
Heaven's vividest image! Eternal mystery
Of mortal being! To-day the ineffable
Fountain of thoughts and feelings vast and high,
Beauty reigns sovereign, and seems
Like splendor thrown afar
From some immortal essence on these sands,
To give our mortal state
A sign and hope secure of destinies
Higher than human, and of fortunate realms,
And golden worlds unknown.
To-morrow, at a touch,
Loathsome to see, abominable, abject,
Becomes the thing that was
All but angelical before;
And from men's memories
All that its loveliness
Inspired forever faults and fades away.
And visions high and pure
Rise in the happy soul,
Lulled by the sound of cunning harmonies
Whereon the spirit floats,
As at his pleasure floats
Some fearless swimmer over the deep sea;
But if a discord strike
The wounded sense, to naught
All that fair paradise in an instant falls.
Mortality! if thou
Be wholly frail and vile,
Be only dust and shadow, how canst thou
So deeply feel? And if thou be
In part divine, how can thy will and thought
By things so poor and base
So easily be awakened and quenched?
Let us touch for the last time this pensive chord, and listen to its
response of hopeless love. This poem, in which he turns to address
the spirit of the poor child whom he loved boyishly at Recanati, is
pathetic with the fact that possibly she alone ever reciprocated the
tenderness with which his heart was filled.
Sylvia, dost thou remember
In this that season of thy mortal being
When from thine eyes shone beauty,
In thy shy glances fugitive and smiling,
And joyously and pensively the borders
Of childhood thou did'st traverse?
All day the quiet chambers
And the ways near resounded
To thy perpetual singing,
When thou, intent upon some girlish labor,
Sat'st utterly contented,
With the fair future brightening in thy vision.
It was the fragrant month of May, and ever
Thus thou thy days beguiledst.
I, leaving my fair studies,
Leaving my manuscripts and toil-stained volumes,
Wherein I spent the better
Part of myself and of my young existence,
Leaned sometimes idly from my father's windows,
And listened to the music of thy singing,
And to thy hand, that fleetly
Ran o'er the threads of webs that thou wast weaving.
I looked to the calm heavens,
Unto the golden lanes and orchards,
And unto the far sea and to the mountains;
No mortal tongue may utter
What in my heart I felt then.
O Sylvia mine, what visions,
What hopes, what hearts, we had in that far season!
How fair and good before us
Seemed human life and fortune!
When I remember hope so great, beloved,
An utter desolation
And bitterness o'erwhelm me,
And I return to mourn my evil fortune.
O Nature, faithless Nature,
Wherefore dost thou not give us
That which thou promisest? Wherefore deceivest,
With so great guile, thy children?
Thou, ere the freshness of thy spring was withered.
Stricken by thy fell malady, and vanquished,
Did'st perish, O my darling! and the blossom
Of thy years sawest;
Thy heart was never melted
At the sweet praise, now of thy raven tresses,
Now of thy glances amorous and bashful;
Never with thee the holiday-free maidens
Reasoned of love and loving.
Ah! briefly perished, likewise,
My own sweet hope; and destiny denied me
Youth, even in my childhood!
Alas, alas, beloved,
Companion of my childhood!
Alas, my mourned hope! how art thou vanished
Out of my place forever!
This is that world? the pleasures,
The love, the labors, the events, we talked of,
These, when we prattled long ago together?
Is this the fortune of our race, O Heaven?
At the truth's joyless dawning,
Thou fellest, sad one, with thy pale hand pointing
Unto cold death, and an unknown and naked
Sepulcher in the distance.
These pieces fairly indicate the range of Leopardi, and I confess that
they and the rest that I have read leave me somewhat puzzled in the
presence of his reputation. This, to be sure, is largely based upon
his prose writings--his dialogues, full of irony and sarcasm--and his
unquestionable scholarship. But the poetry is the heart of his fame,
and is it enough to justify it? I suppose that such poetry owes very
much of its peculiar influence to that awful love we all have
of hovering about the idea of death--of playing with the great
catastrophe of our several tragedies and farces, and of marveling what
it can be. There are moods which the languid despair of Leopardi's
poetry can always evoke, and in which it seems that the most life can
do is to leave us, and let us lie down and cease. But I fancy we all
agree that these are not very wise or healthful moods, and that their
indulgence does not fit us particularly well for the duties of life,
though I never heard that they interfered with its pleasures; on the
contrary, they add a sort of zest to enjoyment. Of course the whole
transaction is illogical, but if a poet will end every pensive strain
with an appeal or apostrophe to death--not the real death, that comes
with a sharp, quick agony, or "after long lying in bed", after many
days or many years of squalid misery and slowly dying hopes and
medicines that cease even to relieve at last; not this death, that
comes in all the horror of undertaking, but a picturesque and
impressive abstraction, whose business it is to relieve us in the most
effective way of all our troubles, and at the same time to avenge
us somehow upon the indefinitely ungrateful and unworthy world we
abandon--if a poet will do this, we are very apt to like him. There is
little doubt that Leopardi was sincere, and there is little reason why
he should not have been so, for life could give him nothing but pain.
De Sanctis, whom I have quoted already, and who speaks, I believe,
with rather more authority than any other modern Italian critic, and
certainly with great clearness and acuteness, does not commit himself
to specific praise of Leopardi's work. But he seems to regard him as
an important expression, if not force or influence, and he has some
words about him, at the close of his "History of Italian Literature",
which have interested me, not only for the estimate of Leopardi which
they embody, but for the singularly distinct statement which they make
of the modern literary attitude. I should not, myself, have felt that
Leopardi represented this, but I am willing that the reader should
feel it, if he can. De Sanctis has been speaking of the Romantic
period in Italy, when he says:
"Giacomo Leopardi marks the close of this period. Metaphysics at
war with theology had ended in this attempt at reconciliation. The
multiplicity of systems had discredited science itself. Metaphysics
was regarded as a revival of theology. The Idea seemed a substitute
for providence. Those philosophies of history, of religion, of
humanity, had the air of poetical inventions.... That reconciliation
between the old and new, tolerated as a temporary political necessity,
seemed at bottom a profanation of science, a moral weakness.... Faith
in revelation had been wanting; faith in philosophy itself was now
wanting. Mystery re-appeared. The philosopher knew as much as the
peasant. Of this mystery, Giacomo Leopardi was the echo in the
solitude of his thought and his pain. His skepticism announced the
dissolution of this theologico-metaphysical world, and inaugurated the
reign of the arid True, of the Real. His songs are the most profound
and occult voices of that laborious transition called the nineteenth
century. That which has importance is not the brilliant exterior of
that century of progress, and it is not without irony that he speaks
of the progressive destinies of mankind. That which has importance is
the exploration of one's own breast, the inner world, virtue, liberty,
love, all the ideals of religion, of science, and of poetry--shadows
and illusions in the presence of reason, yet which warm the heart, and
will not die. Mystery destroys the intellectual world; it leaves the
moral world intact. This tenacious life of the inner world, despite
the fall of all theological and metaphysical worlds, is the
originality of Leopardi, and gives his skepticism a religious stamp.
... Every one feels in it a new creation. The instrument of this
renovation is criticism.... The sense of the real continues to develop
itself; the positive sciences come to the top, and cast out all the
ideal and systematic constructions. New dogmas lose credit. Criticism
remains intact. The patient labor of analysis begins again....
Socialism re-appears in the political order, positivism in the
intellectual order. The word is no longer liberty, but justice.
... Literature also undergoes transformation. It rejects classes,
distinctions, privileges. The ugly stands beside the beautiful; or
rather, there is no longer ugly or beautiful, neither ideal nor real,
neither infinite nor finite.... There is but one thing only, the
Giuseppe Giusti, who is the greatest Italian satirist of this century,
and is in some respects the greatest Italian poet, was born in 1809 at
Mossummano in Tuscany, of parentage noble and otherwise distinguished;
one of his paternal ancestors had assisted the liberal Grand Duke
Pietro Leopoldo to compile his famous code, and his mother's father
had been a republican in 1799. There was also an hereditary taste for
literature in the family; and Giusti says, in one of his charming
letters, that almost as soon as he had learned to speak, his father
taught him the ballad of Count Ugolino, and he adds, "I have always
had a passion for song, a passion for verses, and more than a passion
for Dante." His education passed later into the hands of a priest,
who had spent much time as a teacher in Vienna, and was impetuous,
choleric, and thoroughly German in principle. "I was given him to be
taught," says Giusti, "but he undertook to tame me"; and he remembered
reading with him a Plutarch for youth, and the "Lives of the Saints",
but chiefly was, as he says, so "caned, contraried, and martyred" by
him, that, when the priest wept at their final parting, the boy could
by no means account for the burst of tenderness. Giusti was then going
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