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CHAPTER XXIII

THE REVIVAL

We have seen that the Italy of the eighteenth century had fully entered into the general intellectual movement of the rest of Europe. Scarcely any trace remained of the special characteristics of the Cinque Cento except the imperishable tradition of culture and refinement which still kept literature at a high level of style. The vagaries of the seventeenth century had passed without leaving a trace. The prevailing taste was that of France. The chief exception to this polished uniformity was found in the drama. On the lyrical stage, Italy, favoured by the musical capabilities of her language and the superior aptitudes of her vocalists, had created something really novel and national; and in the allied realm of instrumental music had emulated the architectural and pictorial triumphs of the sixteenth century. In tragedy and comedy, moreover, she had at length attained to a semblance of a national drama; but this, being the achievement of two exceptionally gifted men, who in comedy at all events left no worthy successors, was comparatively apart from the national life, and could not be expected to prove an important element in the literary development of the future.

What Italy was at that time as regards originality, she has continued to be until our own day. While claiming her full share in the conquests of science,, and by no means behind-haud in the study of antiquity, she has produced little that can be regarded as an absolute creation. Leopardi, alike in genius and art the most consummate among her men of letters, has wrought on old lines, exalting the forms he found to more eminent perfection. Manzoni's innovations are chiefly introduced from beyond the Alps. Carducci has rendered a priceless service in repressing the language's tendency to fluent inanity, and has widely expanded its metrical capabilities, but has mainly worked upon hints derived from antique or foreign literatures. If, however, Italy has originated none of the great movements which have transformed European literature since the middle of the eighteenth century, she has participated in them all. As she then fully associated herself with the enlightened and humanising tendencies of that beneficent if prosaic age; she has since entered freely into the four great movements which have broken up eighteenth-century formality and bought life and liberty at the price of intellectual disorder—the naturalistic, the sentimental, the romantic, and the revolutionary.

The naturalistic impulse to the living and accurate description of natural beauty, and the recognition of a living spirit in Nature, is no modern phenomenon. It is present as a vivifying influence in the classics and in the poetry of Palestine and the East, and even more so in Celtic literature, where more than anywhere else it appears spontaneous and exempt from literary manipulation. Whether from a Celtic admixture of race or from some other reason, it seems among modern literatures the more especial property of the British. The descriptions of Shakespeare and Milton, like those of their Greek predecessors, may have been surpassed in the minute elaboration of detail, not in truth or feeling. Spenser affords a still better example, for—the multitudinous melodies of his peculiar stanza excepted—this is the one point in which he transcends his Italian models. In propriety of plan, in human and dramatic interest, in terseness and polish of style, he is greatly their inferior; but the natural descriptions of Ariosto and Tasso, beautiful as they often are, fall far behind his in rich warmth and glowing splendour.

This national gift fell into abeyance in the later half of the seventeenth century: there is scarcely a vestige of it in Dryden except where he reproduces Chaucer. Thomson's Seasons mark its revival, and were not without their effect in Europe; yet it must be owned that its modern herald and hierophant is not a Briton, but a Swiss justly reckoned among French authors—Jean Jacques Rousseau. It was the mission of this extraordinary man to inaugurate not merely the naturalistic, but the sentimental movement also, which, taken up by Sterne and Goethe, filled Europe with imitators, and, among other consequences, gave a great impulse to the novel at the expense of the drama. Neither the description of nature nor the analysis of feeling is peculiarly congenial to the Italian character, and it may be doubted whether the latter impulse would have been very deeply felt but for the unhappy politic al circumstances of the country, which engendered a mong the noblest minds a prevailing disgust and despair cond ucive ta the diffusion of morbid sentiment and a generally mournful cast of thought. Both the naturalistic and the sentimental tendencies inaugurated by Rousseau found a powerful representative in Ugo Foscolo.

The next great development of taste by which Italian literature came to be modified was one with which the Italian temperament has naturally so little sympathy that, the influence which it exercised and continues to exercise must be regarded as a strong proof of the susceptibility of Italy to all great currents affecting intellectual Europe. The romantic school is at variance with all her literary traditions and all her canons of taste. Had it been anything but an exotic, it would have come into being centuries before among a people rich in popular legends, and whose history abounds with subjects adapted for ballad poetry. Little, however, is seen or heard of it until, as the cosmopolitan drift becomes more and more powerful, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Scott excite the curiosity of the Italian reading public. One reason for this backwardness may be plausibly alleged in the absence of Gothic architecture from Italy. The earliest architectural remains were either classical or Byzantine, which passed so easily into the Palladian and other modern Italian styles as to render Gothic architecture in Italy little more than an episode, and to leave no room for those impressions of vague sublimity and solemn grandeur which Gothic architecture produces, and which so naturally spring up in the minds of the inhabitants of countries covered like England and Germany with ruined castles and abbeys. Every feeling which the artist of the romantic school would address is aroused by the mossed keeps and mouldering fanes of mediæval antiquity. Horace Walpole may have been a dilettante in architecture as in literature; nevertheless the romantic school in England is inaugurated by Strawberry Hill and the Castle of Otranto; and Goethe's residence at Strasburg had much to do with Goetz von Berlichingen. When, on the other hand, the Northern man is initiated into the beauties of Italian architecture, his romantic feeling is apt to wane, as he himself admits:

" 'Tis not for centuries four for nought
Our European world of thought
Hath made familiar to its home
The classic mind of Greece and Rome;
In all new work that would look forth
To more than antiquarian worth,
Palladio's pediments and bases,
Or something such, will find their places:
Maturer optics don't delight
In childish dim religious light,
In evanescent vague effects
That shirk, notface, one's intellects;
They love not fancies just betrayed,
And artful tricks of light and shade,
But pure form nakedly displayed,
And all things absolutely made."

The feeling thus expressed by Clough, speaking through the mouth of the Devil, is utterly contrary to the mystic awe and vague apprehension of infinity characteristic of romantic art. It is no wonder, therefore, that the movement engendered towards the middle of the eighteenth century by impatience with the prosaic present and reaction towards the neglected Middle Age, favoured by the moral atmosphere created by Rousseau, and for England and Germany so imperious a necessity that Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Novalis and Tieck, all romanticists from the cradle, appeared in the world within three years, should have been little heard of in Italy until Scott and Goethe had captivated the youthful genius of Manzoni. Yet a streak of romantic light had preceded, though from quite a different quarter, namely, Ossian. If the Gaelic bard's antiquity was questionable, he was not the less acceptable to a modern imagination; and the prodigious success in all European nations of what would have been universally derided thirty years sooner, showed that new tastes and new cravings had been awakened among them. Of these Italy had her share, as attested, towards the end of the eighteenth century, by the vogue of the translation of Ossian by Cesarotti.

Not much need be said in this place of the last great factor in the literary metamorphosis to which Italy, in common with the rest of Europe, had to conform herself. The Revolution modified literature by altering the environment of men of letters, supplying them with themes and ideas which could not otherwise have come within their scope, and inspiring them with vehement passions according as their circumstances and temperaments led them to champion the new gospel or rally to the ancient traditions. Italy was one of the last countries to feel its effects in the literary sphere, chiefly because the movement did not, as elsewhere, originate in the land itself, but was thrust upon it by an invader whose rapine alienated much of the patriotic sentiment that would otherwise have welcomed the Revolution. Monti, the first great Italian writer whose career was powerfully affected by it, was neither a revolutionist nor an anti-revolutionist, but a straw in a whirlpool. When, however, the idea of Italian unity—Napoleon's legacy to his true native country—had had time to develop itself, and it had become manifest that the only path to it lay through a cordial adoption of revolutionary principles, the Revolution acquired more practical significance for Italy than for any other country in Europe.

In a certain respect, Alfieri may be considered as the first representative of both the sentimental and the national tendencies in modern Italian hterature. He had denounced tyranny and extolled libertyl while the Bastille had yet many years to stand; and if he could not write like Goethe or Rousseau, he had practically lived, and recorded in his autobiography, a life of sentimental passion. The air of the Revolution, nevertheless, was needed to bring these germs to maturity. Its stimulating influence is especially conspicuous in the tone of Madame de Staël's Corinne, compared with that of the letters of Goethe and Beckf ord. The landscape is the same, but is beheld in quite another light. Thus encouraged by general European sympathy, the revolutionary and sentimental movements overpower the pliable Monti, and find a genuine representative in the moody and malcontent Foscolo. The romantic movement, which Italy would hardly have originated for herself, necessarily came later, and found its leader in Manzoni. Silvio Pellico and others acceded, and connected these currents of feeling with the more decided revolutionary impulse of a later generation, typified in Leopardi, Giusti, and Mazzini.

Vincenzo Monti (1754–1828) is indeed no representative of the Revolution, for the most celebrated of his poems is a denunciation of it, and although he afterwards changed sides, the Republic was for him merely a transition to the Empire. THc nevertheless in a measure personifies Italy herself amid the gusts of the revolutionary tempest, tossed to and fro between contending influence, her sails spread to the sky, her anchor still cleaving to earth. Born in the district of Ferrara, and having gone through the ordeal, so often exacted from poets, of distasteful law-study, he repaired to Rome as a literary adventurer, and by his splendid tercets on the Beauty of Nature and other lyrics adapted for recitation, sang himself into the good graces of the Papal court. He took a yet higher flight in his fine, rather lyrical than dramatic, tragedy of Aristodemo (1787), as superior to Alfieri in versification as inferior in virile energy. The subject is one of the most pathetic, the grief of a father for having slain his daughter. The Galeotto Manfredi (1788), partly inspired by private circumstances, is interesting as one of the first Italian examples of romantic tragedy. One of the characters is copied from Iago.

It was not until 1793 that Monti took rank as the first epic poet of his time by his Bassvilliana, a poem on the murder of the French diplomatist Bassville, who had perished in a tumult provoked by his own imprudence. Never since the tentmaker of Tarsus was caught up into the third heaven was an obscure person elevated so mightily as this insignificant Bassville, of whose remorseful spirit Monti's ardent imagination makes a new Dante, guided by an angel to behold the atrocities of the French Revolution as a penance preliminary to its entrance into Paradise. In the whole compass of literature there is perhaps no other instance of so close and successful a copy as Monti's of Dante, combined with so much impetuous vigour, and other qualities not usually associated with imitation. It revealed Monti as the most impressionable of poets in his equal subjugation by Dantesque influences and by the passions of the hour. Such a man must needs move with the times. Ere long the Papal courtier was the friend and guest of the French generals, inditing thundering odes against superstition and fanaticism; soon he held office under the Cisalpine Republic, and when the Austrians prevailed he fled to Paris. He came back as the courtier and flatterer of Napoleon; and yet this versatility seems less the effect of self-interest than of ductility of character, and his countrymen laughingly talked of the three periods of the abate, the citizen, and the cavalier Monti. This sensitiveness was serviceable to his lyric genius, for he thrilled with the emotion he wished to express, and in expressing it approved himself a perfect master of language and metre.

In the interval between Monti's withdrawal from Rome and the brilliant position which ynder the Imperial auspices he acquired at Milan, he had produced his Prometheus, one of the finest examples of Italian blank verse, but a curious mixture of things ancient and modern; his Musologia, charming octaves on the Muses; Caius Gracchus, a tragedy betraying imitation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, celebrated for the force of the fifth act; Mascheroniana, a palinode for the Bassvilliana, notwithstanding the art with which the poet manages to assert his consistency. Disfigured as it is by adulation of Napoleon and senseless abuse of England,[1] this is perhaps Monti's finest poem. It is the offspring of a genuine poetic æstrum, which whirls the stuff of a party pamphlet into sublimity, like a rag in a hurricane. It was never finished, incomplete too is the Bard of the Black Forest, a poem on Napoleon's exploits, unequal to the subject, but remarkable for its concise rapidity of expression. Monti was now Napoleon's official laureate for the Italian department, and it is sufficiently amusing to find him expressing his apprehensions lest he should be so far carried away by his patriotism as to offend the reigning powers, and breathing a superfluous prayer for prudence in his vocation. There was little danger; patriotism, though a genuine, was a weaker emotion with him than respect for dignities, as he sufficiently evinced by his obedience to the Austrian mandate to celebrate the expulsion of the French, although he never abased himself so far as to assail Napoleon. He lost his office of historiographer, and retiring into private life, devoted himself mainly to critical and philological work. He had a short time previously published a translation of the Iliad, commenced in 1790, highly admired by his countrymen, and certainly a remarkable performance when it is considered that he scarcely knew a word of Greek; whence Foscolo wittily called him gran traduttor dei traduttor d'Omero. So much more important to the translator is flexibility of mind than exactness of scholarship. Monti's later days, now embittered by controversies and pecuniary embarrassments, mitigated by the generosity of friends, now brightened by successful work on his unfinished Feronia, a youthful production in which he had celebrated the draining of the Pontine marshes, or by the production of some fine lyric, passed on the whole tranquilly until his death in 1828 from the effects of a paralytic stroke.

The eloquent but unspeculative Monti had nothing to teach but his almost inimitable art of verbal expression, and hence has founded no school. His reputation has declined, chiefly from the ephemeral character of the themes on which his genius was expended, and of which none but himself could have made so much. He can hardly be called a great poet, if for no other reason than that his impressionable imagination wanted tenacity; he tired of his own works, and left the majority of them incomplete. He is nevertheless a brilliant phenomenon, the more interesting from the decidedly national stamp of his genius. He has Southern demonstrativeness and volubility, and kindles like a meteor by his own flight; when thoroughly fired, whether in epic or lyric, he is almost an improvisatore. Improvisation in an English poet would seem a tour de force at best, but it appears natural to the quick intelligence and musical speech of Italy.

Monti is thus a representative of his nation, and is no less true to the general spirit of his epoch: classic in aspiration, modern in sentiment, related to the Greeks much as Canova was related to Phidias. He was no interpreter of his age, but a faithful mirror of its successive phases, and endowed with the rare gift of sublimity to a degree scarcely equalled by any contemporary except Goethe, Byron, and Shelley. The descriptions in the Mascheroneide of Napoleon's descent upon Italy, and of the inundation of the Po, if not perfect models of taste, are almost Lucretian in their stormy and tumultuous grandeur. The frequent poverty, or at least shallowness of his thought is veiled by splendid diction; and in tact and felicity of encomium he recalls Dryden, whom he so strongly resembles in the character of many of his compositions, the versatility of his conduct, and the circumstances of his life. A further analogy may be found in the eminence of both as critics, Monti's disquisitions on Dante and the Cruscan vocabulary constituting as important a portion of his work as Dryden's prefaces of his. His dialogues, chiefly between deceased authors and grammarians recalled from the shades to discuss philological questions, are charming for their elegance and grace.

Ugo Foscolo (1778–1827), the second eminent poet of the revolutionary period, successively Monti's champion and his adversary, is in most respects a violent contrast to him. It would have been well had he been merely his complement. Monti's pliant character greatly needed an infusion of vigour and independence; but Foscolo, though a self-restrained artist in his poems, in his life required the curb as much as Monti required the spur. Worse, his tempestuous vehemence and crabbed indocility were no tokens of real strength; he was at bottom weak and whimsical, the slave of passion, physical and intellectual. His countrymen, nevertheless, have forgotten his faults and follies for the sake of his untarnished patriotism, most unjustly suspected in his own day; he is the first very distinguished modern Italian whose consistency in this particular is a source of national joy and pride. Alfieri's resentment against the French, though sufficiently excusable, blinded him to the real tendency of his times; other well-meaning men were either too intimately associated with the temporary makeshift of the despotic Empire, or too amenable to clerical pressure. Foscolo was untainted by either influence, and might be deemed not only absolved but canonised by his countrymen when Garibaldi made a pilgrimage to his tomb at Chiswick, and when, in 1871, his remains were transferred to the cemetery at Florence, the inspiration of the most famous of his poems.

Alike in personal character and the quality of his productions, Foscolo may be compared with Landor, but with the capital distinction that Landor was a man of the past, and Foscolo, for all his Greek erudition and classical enthusiasm, a man of his own time. His romance, Jacopo Ortis (1798), perhaps the most celebrated of his productions, is a reminiscence of Werther and a of René, but adds to the merely personal sorrows of these tragic autobiographies the nobler motive of despair at the ruin and enslavement of the hero's countr, Foscolo, though born at Zante, was prouder of his Venetian descent than of his Greek nativity, and the ignominious end of so glorious a history as the Republic's not unnaturally or ignobly drove him to despair. At the same time he was usually under the spell of some woman; one of his genuine letters, indeed, written at a much later date, surpasses his romance in the eloquence of unhappy passion. Both motives combine to drive Ortis to suicide. Apart from its impressive style, the book is weak and unwholesome, but it powerfully depicts an unquestionable tendency of the age, and as such has a right to live, apart from its influence on Leopardi, George Sand, and other more recent writers of genius. Foscolo's melancholy, fretful and egotistic as it is, is not pessimism; is not grounded in the nature of things, but is always remediable by a change in external circumstances.

Unlike the exuberant Monti, Foscolo wrote little poetry, but his scanty production is of choice quality, his most celebrated poem is the Sepolcri (1807), which in style and subject bears a remarkable resemblance to the finest poem America has yet given to the world, Bryant's Thanatopsis. The American poet has conceived his work in a larger and grander spirit, and consequently surpasses Foscolo in the sublimity of his thought, though the latter's poem is longer and adorned with episodes, and in merit of execution there may be little to choose. Bryant dwells on the majesty of death; Foscolo on the reverence due to the tomb, and the immortality of the memories of the great—a fine theme undoubtedly, and deserving of the monumental eloquence with which he has adorned it, but small if measured against Bryant's. Foscolo's other most considerable poetical composition, his Hymns to the Graces, celebrated as the beneficent spirits of Greece, Italy, and an ideal world, was long but an aggregation of fragments, and was recovered as a whole only in 1856. The fastidious author could never satisfy himself, and the result is a production more remarkable for high polish than warmth of poetic feeling. It is just such a poem as Landor might have written. Foscolo's tragedies, Ajax and Ricciarda, are fine compositions in the spirit of Alfieri: the former, notwithstanding its classical theme, has a relation to contemporary circumstances, Moreau being depicted as Ajax, and Bonaparte as Agamemnon. The few minor poems of Foscolo are admirable, full of weighty lines that imprint themselves on the memory. As a critic he accomplished more than it will be easy to accomplish after him, coming just at the moment when Europe, weary of the superficial aesthetics of the eighteenth century, was anxiously looking for a guide to the spirit of the past. It is as much by this happy fortune as by their Intrinsic merit that his essays mark an era in the literary history of Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, and Boccaccio.

Foscolo's agitated life has afforded matter for many biographers, but the essential facts lie in narrow compass. Born in Zante of mixed Venetian and Greek parentage, he early sought Venice, and learned the secret of literary style from Cesarotti, the translator of Ossian. The shameful extinction of the Venetian Republic by France and Austria combined with his own ill-regulated passions to make him write Jacopo Ortis and talk of imitating his suicidal hero. A spell of military service, partly at the siege of Genoa, partly in the army destined for the invasion of England, went far to cure him, and he spent several years as a man of letters at Milan, translating Homer, composing his tragedies, and too much engaged in unedifying literary quarrels for his own dignity or the credit of letters. He showed an honourable independence in rejecting the bribes offered to induce him to adulate Napoleon, and, equally spurning the proffered subvention of the Austrian Government, became an exile at the overthrow of the Empire. He ultimately took refuge in England, exchanged, he might have boasted, for Byron. Here he was warmly received in aristocratic as well as literary circles, and might have performed a distinguished part. But his extravagance and his irregular habits wore out his friends' patience, though Mr. Smiles says: "Ugo Foscolo lived to the end of his life surrounded by all that was luxurious and beautiful." If so, Hudson Gurney, who raised his tomb, must have given him bread as well as a stone. He was also affectionately tended by his natural daughter, whose mother was an Englishwoman. He died in September 1827. Some of his best critical work belongs to this last period, and a valuable correspondence from English friends is understood to be awaiting publication. His own letters are admirable, full of life and movement.

Little as Ippolito Pindemonte (1754–1825) resembled Foscolo either as an author or as a man, their names are frequently associated on account of Pindemonte's reply to Foscolo's Sepolcri, a fine poem breathing the spirit of resignation and tranquillity, for which his gloomy predecessor had left him abundant scope. Pindemonte's best production, however, is his Antonio Foscarini, a true tale of unhappy love, recited with great pathos in elegant octaves. He is a kind of Italian Cowper, a gentle and amiable valetudinarian. Like Cowper, he sang country life, and touched the events and the manners of his times in a strain of soft elegiac melancholy; like Cowper, too, he translated Homer. He holds no such important position in Italian as Cowper does in English literature, but represents the large class of his fellow-citizens who, carrying the spirit of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, were rather ornamental than useful to their country.

Monti and Foscolo, with all their genius, could not escape the influence of their times. In the French and Italian literature of the Imperial period, and still more in its art, a certain pseudo-classical affectation is visible. Sublimity and grace are attained indeed, but there is something mannered about the one, and something fastidious about the other. The reigning taste required to be brought nearer to Nature, and the writer who could effect this was sure to mark an epoch in the literature of his country. The mission was discharged by Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873), a man who announces a new departure in many ways, and whose historical significance, even more than his fine genius, places him above the still more gifted Leopardi at the head of the Italian literature of the first half of the nineteenth century. From one point of view he signalises the invasion of the romantic spirit. Goethe, Byron, Shakespeare, Scott are more to him than the old Italian masters. From another, he founds the Neo-Catholic school, and personifies the revival of the religious spirit in its most gentle and edifying form. Monti and Foscolo had been sceptics; Manzoni is devout, while at the same time there is nothing grotesque in his mediævalism, and he keeps the spheres of religion and politics so apart as to be able to hail the downfall of the temporal power. Yet, again, he is a reformer of the language, and the first to form a style equally acceptable to his cultured and to his unlettered countrymen.

The hero of these various achievements was singularly unlike the usual type of great renovators and innovators. Such epoch-making personages rarely want for self-assertion. Manzoni was a gentle, undemonstrative man, though observant of others and not ignorant of his own worth, and capable of sarcasm on occasion; a valetudinarian, whose dread of crowds frequently confined him to his house, who made no display, mounted no rostrum, and ceased to write at forty. Hence, though I Promessi Sposi is probably more widely known than any Italian book after the Divina Commedia, the author has failed to personally impress the European imagination, and appears a mere shadow in comparison with Victor Hugo or even Lamartine, neither of whom, notwithstanding their infinitely greater productiveness, so profoundly influenced the literature of their country. Born at Milan, Manzoni was an Austrian subject, and, though true patriot, shunned to offend the ruling powers. He led the life of a respectable Italian gentleman of moderate fortune, at one time greatly impaired by his father's extravagance, and basked for nearly half a century in the tranquil enjoyment of European fame, which, after the success of I Promessi Sposi, he imperilled by no further venture. "Formerly," he said in excuse, "the Muse came after me, now I should have to go after her." The events of 1848 failed to draw him from his retirement; when the unity of Italy was accomplished he accepted public honours, but declined public duties; none criticised his inaction, for all felt that he had done his best by Italy. His death at the age of eighty-eight evoked such a unanimity of sentiment as has perhaps accompanied that of no great author of modern times except Sir Walter Scott. Goethe had hostile detiractors, Settembrini and the few others who presumed to criticise Manzoni urged their scruples in a spirit of becoming reverence.

Manzoni's claim to this universal veneration was threefold. In the first place, he was really a great writer; in the second, he was the standard-bearer of Italian literature, the one contemporary author of his nation who could be named along with Goethe and Byron; thirdly and chiefly, he represented the most important intellectual movement of the post-Napoleonic age, the romantic and mediæval reaction—a necessity, for justice demanded it. The Middle Age was indeed no model for the nineteenth century, as the romanticists and reactionaries thought, but it did possess elements indispensable for the enrichment of the national life; and although the Italian mind was probably less in harmony with these than the mind of any other people, no Italian could forget that the greatest of his countrymen was also the greatest and most representative writer of the Middle Ages. It had been one of Monti's chief merits to have emulated and revived the style of Dante, to the disgust of Pope Pius VI., who asked him why on earth he could not write like Metastasio. After the form came the spirit of the Divine Comedy, commended to the nation by the misfortunes and deceptions which succeeded the fall of Napoleon, when the exile of Florence appeared more than ever a symbol of his country. The worshippers of Dante were indeed divided, some seeing in him the Ghibelline, the enemy of the temporal power no less than of the foreigner; others, the apostle of mediæval Catholicism. Both views were right and both wrong, and the choice between them was merely a matter of temperament, but the latter was the more likely to be propagated by the air of the time.

The gentle and modest Manzoni obeyed the more potent influence. In 1812 he began to produce his hymns, mostly on the festivals of the Church, which perhaps suggested Keble's Christian Year. They were published in 1815, but the finest, that for Whitsunday, is a later addition. They attracted little attention until the appearance of his famous ode on the death of Napoleon, Il Cinque Maggio, which, appearing at the right "psychological moment," at a time when every man felt almost as an intimate of the great conqueror who had made so large a portion of his own existence took Italy and Europe by storm. The note of personal compassion which pervades it was then in place, but now that Napoleon's exploits and disasters are ancient history, and he is chiefly regarded as a great world-shaker and incarnate elemental force, we feel the need of a deeper insight and a wider sweep. Even Manzoni's fire and eloquence, vivid as they are, scarcely rival Lamartine's on the same subject. A patriotic poem of equal power, the ode on the march of the Piedmontese volunteers to succour the Lombards in 1821, imaginary as fact, but veracious as prophecy, has suffered less, or indeed nothing, from the lapse of time, expressing the deepest feelings of every Italian heart now as then. Though composed in 1821, it was not so much as written down until 1848, from apprehension of the Austrian police. No less fine are the lyrics in Manzoni's tragedies; the Carmagnola (1820) and the Adelchi (1822).

These dramas themselves mark an epoch in Italian literary history, not so much from their absolute merit, as from being the first attempt to adapt Shakespearian methods to the Italian drama. Alfieri and Monti had adhered to the classical school; Manzoni struck into a new path, and by so doing revealed a new world to his countrymen, little as it followed that the old world need be entirely forsaken. The Carmagnola depicts the condottieri of the fifteenth century, the Adelchi the Lombards of the eighth. The latter is the more dramatic, and the two principal characters, Adelchi and Ermengarda, are depicted with extreme beauty and power. The pieces, however, are rather dramatic poems than plays, and rise highest where there is most scope for poetry. Martin the Deacon's description of his journey in the Adelchi, for instance, so finely translated by Mr. W. D. Howells, is magnificent, but on a scale disproportioned to the play. The fire and spirit of the two martial lyrics in the Carmagnola and the Adelchi respectively are marvellous; "their wonderful plunging metre," it has been said, "suggests a charge of horses." That in the Adelchi should alone vindicate Manzoni against the accusation of unpatriotic lukewarmness. It paints the lot of the Italian people of the eighth century, transferred by the fortune of war from a Lombard master to a Frank, who unite to oppress them, and nothing can be more evident than the contemporary application to Italian, Austrian, and Frenchman. The following slightly abridged version is by Miss Ellen Clerke:


"From moss-covered ruin of edifice nameless,
From forests, from furnaces idle and flameless,
From furrows bedewed with the sweat of the stave,

A people dispersed doth arouse and awaken,
With senses all straining and pulses all shaken,
At a sound of strange clamour that swells like a wave.

In visages pallid, and eyes dim and shrouded,
As blinks the pale sun through a welkin beclouded,
The might of their fathers a moment is seen;
In eye and in countenance doubtfully blending,
The shame of the present seems dumbly contending
With pride in the thought of a past that hath been.

Now they gather in hope to disperse panic-stricken,
And in tortuous ways their pace slacken or quicken,
As, 'twixt longing and fear, they advance or stand still,
Gazing once and again where, despairing and scattered,
The host of their tyrants flies broken and shattered
From the wrath of the swords that are drinking their fill.
 
As wolves that the hunter hath cowed and subjected,
Their hair on their hides in dire horror erected,
So these to their covert distractedly fly;
And hope springs anew in the breast of the peasant;
O'ertaking the future in joy of the present,
He deems his chain broken, and broken for aye.

Nay, hearken! Yon heroes in victory warring,
From refuge and rescue the routed debarring,
By path steep and rugged have come from afar,
Forsaking the halls of their festive carousing,
From downy repose on soft couches arousing,
In haste to obey the shrill summons of war.

They have left in their castles their wives broken-hearted,
Who, striving to part, still refused to be parted,
With pleadings and warnings that died on the tongue.
The war-dinted helmet the brow hath surmounted,
And soon the dark chargers are saddled and mounted,
And hollow the bridge to their gallop hath rung.

From land unto land they have speeded and fleeted,
With lips that the lay of the soldier repeated,
But hearts that have harboured their home and its bowers.

They have watched, they have starved, by grim discipline driven,
And hauberk and helm have been battered and riven,
And arrows around them have whistled in showers.
 
And deem ye, poor fools! that the meed and the guerdon
That lured from afar were to lighten your burden,
Your wrongs to abolish, your fate to reversed
Go! back to the wrecks of your palaces stately,
To the forges whose glow ye extinguished so lately,
To the field ye have tilled in the sweat of your curse!
 
The victor and vanquished, in amity knitted,
Have doubled the yoke to your shoulders refitted;
One tyrant had quelled you, and now ye have twain.
They cast forth the lot for the serf and the cattle,
They throne on the sods that yet bleed from their battle,
And the soil and the hind are their servants again."

If Manzoni was surpassed as a dramatist and equalled as a lyrist by others among his countrymen, he has hitherto found no competitor as a novelist. I Promessi Sposi (1825) was the first great Italian romance, and it remains the greatest. It would be difficult to transcend its capital merits, the beauty and truth of description, the interest of its leading characters, and its perfect fidelity to life, if not in every respect to the place and period where and when the scene is laid—Milan under the dreary Spanish rule of the seventeenth century—yet to the universal feelings and instincts of humanity. As a picture of human nature the book is above criticism; it is just the fact, neither more nor less. "It satisfies us," said Goethe, "like perfectly ripe fruit." It has, notwithstanding, a weak side, which Goethe did not fail to point out—the prominence of the historical element, and the dryness with which the writer exhibits his authorities, instead of dissolving them in the flow of his narrative. "The German translator," said Goethe, "must get rid of a great part of the war and the famine, and two-thirds of the plague." Other objections to Manzoni's romance refer to its real or supposed tendencies, which leave its artistic merits unaffected. It may be granted that panegyrics upon Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, however just, were hardly seasonable when the Pope was the fast ally of the Austrian; and Manzoni did still worse by his country when (1819) he wrote a treatise on Catholic Morals, unexceptionable when there should be no more question of the Temporal Power. But he then cherished generous illusions which he was ultimately obliged to renounce; though never parting withffone of the leading and most remarkable features of I Promessi Sposi, its sympathy with the poor and lowly. It is a remarkable proof of the difficulties of style which beset the Italian author, that Manzoni found it necessary to give his romance a thorough revision to bring its diction nearer to the Tuscan standard. His other prose works comprise, the Column of Infamy, an historical appendix to I Promessi Sposi, Letters on Romanticism, an able polemic on behalf of the romantic school, and Letters on the Unities of Time and Place, demonstrating that the unity of action is the only unity which need be regarded by the dramatist.

The success of I Promessi Sposi could not but create a school of historical novelists in Italy, whose works probably effected more for the propagation of Italian literature beyond the Alps than those of any writer except Manzoni himself. The Marco Visconti of Tommaso Grossi, the Ettorre Fieramosca of Massimo d'Azeglio, the Margherita Pusterla of Cesare Cantù, are romances of great merit, but, as the author of one of them exclaims, "How far we are behind Manzoni!"

Little as any anti-national motive can be attributed to the Adelchi, it is true that Manzoni's patriotism was chiefly evinced in his lyrics, and that he was not prominent as a patriotic dramatist. This part was reserved for Giovanni Battista Niccolini (1782–1861). In times of trial and distress the measure of service is apt to be the measure of applause, and popular gratitude may for a time have exalted Niccolini's Tragedies to a higher level than that due to their strictly literary desert. They are nevertheless fine productions, and the most patriotic are usually the best. Arnaldo di Brescia, too bold an apotheosis of the fiery monk who defied the Papacy in the twelfth century to be printed in Italy for many years after its appearance in France, is the most poetical, but is neither intended nor adapted for the stage. Notwithstanding its historical subject, this mighty tragedy, as Mr. W. D. Howells, the translator of some of its finest passages, not unjustly terms it, is an idealistic work. The other dramas, taken from history, and representing such crises in Italian story as the destruction of Florentine liberty and the Sicilian Vespers, are more compliant with ordinary dramatic rules; but the most celebrated and successful on the stage is Antonio Foscarini, founded on the same incident in Venetian history that had afforded the subject of Pindemonte's poem. Before he became imbued with the spirit of the romantic school, Niccolini had acquired great distinction as a classical dramatist, especially by his Potissena and his Medea. His first performance, Nabucco (1816), idealised the fall of Napoleon in a Babylonian tragedy. Among his plays is a free translation of Shelley's Cenci, in general excellent, but remarkable for the entire disfigurement of the opening speech, no doubt for prudential reasons. At first poor, afterwards in easy circumstances, Niccolini spent an uneventful life in the service of the Academy of Florence; his mode of living was sequestered, and his character stainless.

With all his good-will, Niccolini could deal no such blows at foreign or domestic oppressors as that which a brother dramatist of greatly inferior power delivered by the mere record of his sufferings. Le Mie Prigioni made Silvio Pellico (1789–1854) as typical a figure as the Iron Mask or the Prisoner of Chillon, and won Italy a moral victory in her darkest day (1832). It is needless to give any particular account of so famous a book. The candid and innocent author was born to move mankind by a single story, and to relapse into obscurity after delivering his message. His dramas and lyrics do not exceed mediocrity, with the exception of Francesca da Rimini (1818), a tragedy full of tender feeling, admired by Byron, to whom the version of some scenes in the Quarterly Review has been attributed. They were, however, in fact rendered by Milman.


This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

 
  1. "Impatient to put out the only light
    Of Liberty that yet remains on Earth!"—Wordsworth.