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CHAPTER XXVI

CONTEMPORARY ITALIAN LITERATURE

The present age of letters in Italy resembles its contemporary literary epochs in the one respect in which these agree among themselves and differ from most preceding ages; it is an age of literary anarchy. No standard of taste exists to which it is deemed essential to conform, and antipathetic schools flourish comfortably, if not always peaceably, side by side. This was the case with the Greek schools of philosophy under the Roman Empire, but in literature has rarely happened before the nineteenth century. At almost all former periods some prevailing canon of taste has stamped the literary productions of the era with its own signet, and the most celebrated authors of the day have legislated for the rest. The Goethes, the Victor Hugos, the Tennysons of our time, while powerfully affecting contemporary thought, have failed to thus impress their image and superscription on contemporary style. Scepticism which at former periods would have horrified the coævals of Pope or Bembo, is audaciously professed with regard to the merits of greater men; and whereas, in former ages, admiration meant imitation, some of the sincerest votaries of a Hugo or a Browning would be farthest from attempting to reproduce their mannerisms. It is quite true that the endeavour is still sometimes made to erect individual tastes and distastes into articles of faith, that we are confidently told that such a writer or such a form of art is hopelessly antiquated, and that such another is accepted by the right-minded. But this dogmatism is invariably an expression of individual taste, and has no real substance and no permanence. The change cannot but be salutary if, as we believe, it is in the main an effect of the expansion of the area of knowledge. The class of intelligent readers is now so greatly enlarged that the legislation of academies and the verdict of coteries reach comparatively but a little way; readers think for themselves more than they did of old; and if the public taste is less disciplined than formerly, it is in less danger of being biassed in one direction. It may be added that the armistice between the classic and romantic schools, consequent upon the proved inability of each to subdue the other, has demonstrated the impossibility of any infallible æsthetic criterion. Men disputed what this criterion might be, and different conceptions of it prevailed in different ages, but the existence of some definite standard entitled to exact conformity was questioned by none. Now it is generally recognised that men are born classicists or romanticists, as they have been said to be born Platonists or Aristotelians, and that the right course for every author is to cultivate his powers in whatsoever direction Nature has assigned to them, and for every reader to strive to appreciate excellence whencesoever it comes. The result is life, spirit, energy, but a commotion as of tossing billows, which may or may not eventually settle down into the calm of an accepted theory of art.

We cannot speak in Italy more than elsewhere of any great writer as ruling his age and prescribing laws to his contemporaries. Individual genius, however, is no less effective than of old upon those constitutionally in sympathy with it, and no gifted writer can introduce a new style without enlisting disciples and provoking antagonists. Such a genius and such a style appertain to Giosuè Carducci (born 1836), the one contemporary poet of Italy who, if we except Gabriele d'Annunzio, "in shape and gesture proudly eminent," stands forth like a tower from the rest, and who has made an abiding reputation as the introducer of the new elements needed to replace the expiring impulse of the romantic school. Like many of his compeers, Carducci partakes of both classic and romantic elements; romantic in his revolt against convention, classic in his worship of antique form; and it is in great measure this duality which renders him so important and interesting.

Carducci, far from being the literary dictator of his age, is perhaps not less distasteful to the ultra-realists for whom he paved the way, than to the romanticists whom he overthrew, yet is in a very special sense the representative of his age and nation. The commencement of poetical activity synchronised with a new dispensation in the world of politics. The reviving nation must have a new poet or none. Egypt was plainly unfit to sing the songs of Sion. The submission of Manzoni, the despair of Leopardi, had in their respective ways well suited an age of slavery; but the age of liberty had now arrived, and craved strains combative, resonant, and joyous. The Pope's obstinate clinging to the temporal power also compelled the national poet to be anti-clerical. Neither Carducci's political nor his religious views wanted anything essential to the effectual fulfilment of his mission: that their vehemence sometimes transgressed the limits of good sense and good taste would probably now be acknowledged by himself. It was equally important that the form should correspond to the feeling. The new spirit sought a new body. Carducci solved the problem in the same manner as Chiabrera would have solved it two centuries and a half before, had Chiabrera's genius equalled his discernment. He perceived that in the circumstances of his day a return to classic models would be no retrogression, but renovation for Italian poetry: unfortunately he had no true insight into the classical spirit. This Carducci possessed, and there are few happier examples of the alliance of one literature with another than the ooems, the most important part of his work, in which fee has kept classical examples steadily before him. The imitation, it must be understood, is one of form and not of essence; the themes are but occasionally classical, and even when this is the case express the feelings of a modern Italian spirit. Imitate classical forms as the poet may, he is essentially the man of the nineteenth century: his variety of mood and theme is great; his orchestra has a place for every instrument; but in nine cases out of ten the direction to the performer is con brio. By this dashing vigour Carducci has poured new blood into the exhausted veins of Italian poetry, and administered an antidote to her besetting maladies by the example of a style condensed, nervous, and terse to a fault. Epic or dramatic power he does not claim: his genius is entirely lyrical.

Carducci's first volume appeared in 1857, and the events of the following years called forth a number of occasional poems, clearly indicating the representative poet of the people and the time. In 1865, the vigorous "Hymn to Satan" provoked the^ controversy which the poet had no doubt designed. His Satan, it hardly need be said, is not the monarch of the fallen seraphim, but the spirit of revolt against social, and ecclesiastical tyranny, more of a Luther than a Lucifer. Levia Gravia (1867) greatly extended the poet's reputation. Odi Barbare (1877) excited a literary controversy almost as virulent as the theological. The splendour of the diction was beyond question, but what was to be said to the novel or exotic forms in which the poet had thought fit to clothe it? To us, the naturalisation of the Alcaic and Sapphic metres appears most successful, although in the former the writer has permitted himself some deviation from the Horatian model, and the form is perhaps too deeply impressed with his own personality to become frequent in Italian literature. Most of the other forms, including the hexameters and pentameters, seem to us either too stiff or too intricate to be quite satisfactorily manipulated even by Carducci himself; but the study of them must be a valuable training for practitioners in more facile metres. If the form be sometimes too elaborate, there can be no dispute as to the weight and massive majesty of the sense. Carducci has solved the problem which baffled the Renaissance, of linking strength of thought to artifice of form. The Rime Nuove brought him new laurels, and his poetical career has paused for the present with a noble ode on the tercentenary of Tasso in 1895. The jubilee of his connection with the University of Bologna was celebrated by a great demonstration in 1896, and, reconciled with the monarchy which he once opposed, he enjoys the honour of a Senator of the Kingdom. A Liberal but a Royalist, a freethinker but a theist, he is happily placed to exert a reconciling and moderating influence alike in the political and the intellectual sphere.

The difficulties of translating Carducci's more characteristic poems are almost insuperable. He is not in the least obscure, but his noble and austere form is indissolubly wedded to the sense, and in reproduction his bronze too often becomes plaster. Many versions, moreover, would be required to render justice to the various aspects of his many-sided genius—his love of country, his passion for beautiful form, his Latin and Hellenic enthusiasm, his photographic intensity of descriptive touch, his sympathy for honest labour and uncomplaining poverty, his capacity for caressing affection and scathing indignation. The following poem powerfully exhibits his intense devotion to the past, and faith in the future of his Italy. The subject is the statue of Victory in the Temple of Vespasian at Brescia; but to appreciate the full force of the poem, it must be known that the statue was a recent discovery of happiest augury (1826), and that Brescia had been the scene of an heroic defence and a cruel sack in the uprising against the Austrians in 1848:

"Hast thou, high Virgin, wings of good augury
Waved o'er the crouching, targeted phalanxes,
With knee-propt shield and spear protended,
Biding the shock of the hostile onset?

Or hast thou, soaring in front of the eagles,
Led surging swarms of Marsian soldiery,
With blaze of fulgent light the neighing
Parthian steed and his lord appalling?

 
Thy pinions folded, thy stern foot haughtily

Pressing the casque of foeman unhelmeted;—
Whose fair renown for feat triumphant
Art on the orb of thy shield inscribing?

An archon's name, who boldly in face of Wrong
The freeman's law upheld and immunity?
A consul's, far and wide the Latin
Limit and glory and awe enlarging?

Thee throned on Alpine pinnacle loftily,
Radiant 'mid tempest, heralding might I hear,
Kings and peoples, here stands Italy,
Weaponed to strike for her soil and honour.

Lydia, the while, a garland of flowerets,
By sad October strewn o'er the wreck of Rome,
To deck thee braids, and gently bending,
Questioneth, as at thy foot she lays it:

'What thoughts, what visions. Victory, came to thee,
Years on years in the humid imprisonment
Of earth immured? the German horses
Heardest thou stamp o'er thy brow Hellenic?'

'I heard,' she answers, flashing and fulminant,
'Heard and endured, for glory of Greece am I,
And strength of Rome, in bronze immortal
Sped without flaw through the fleeting ages,

'The ages passed like the twelve birds ominous,
Descried by gaze of Romulus anciently:
They passed, I rose: thy Gods, proclaimings
Italy, see! and thy buried heroes,

'Proud of her fortune, Brescia enshrined me,
Brescia the stalwart, Brescia the iron-girt,
Italia's lioness, her vesture
Dyed in the blood of her land's invaders.' "

A large proportion of Carducci's lyrics flow with more of liquid ease in more familiar metres, better adapted for popularity. This is especially the case with his impassioned addresses to the dead or to contemporaries who have won his admiration, and the poems which depict ordinary life, such as "A Dream in Summer," "On a Saint Peter's Eve," and "The Mother," whose apparently loose but really well-knit texture is admirably reproduced by his American translator Mr. Sewall, and which are such pieces as Walt Whitman might have written if he had been a poet in virtue of his art as well as of his nature. Perhaps none of the shorter pieces is more expressive of his profound humanity than his apotheosis of patient toil under the figure of "The Ox," ably rendered by Mr. Sewall, a poem Egyptian in its grave massiveness and tranquil repose:

"I love thee, pious Ox; a gentle feeling
Of vigour and of peace thou giv'st my heart.
How solemn, like a monument, thou art!
Over wide fertile fields thy calm gaze stealing!
Unto the yoke with grave contentment kneeling,
To man's quick work thou dost thy strength impart:
He shouts and goads, and, answering thy smarts
Thou turn'st on him thy patient eyes appealing.
 
From thy broad nostrils, black and wet, arise
Thy breath's soft fumes; and on the still air swells
Like happy hymn, thy lowing's mellow strain.
In the grave sweetness of thy tranquil eyes
Of emerald, broad and still reflected, dwells
All the divine green silence of the plain."

Carducci has rendered his country much service as a literary critic, especially of the Renaissance, and of the Risorgimento of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is not subtle or profound, but puts forth unanswerably propositions dictated by the soundest common-sense. There is something Teutonic as well as Italian in his composition, and he recalls no precursor so much as the German poet Platen, an equal master of form; but Platen, though a real patriot, is more at home with any nation than his own. It is a chief glory of Carducci to have united an intensely patriotic spirit to a comprehensive cosmopolitanism. Though ranging far and wide to enrich the domestic literature with new metrical forms, he loves those in which the Italian genius has embodied itself from days of old, and is always ready to defend them against degenerate countrymen, no less than against unappreciative foreigners. Like Wordsworth, he has simultaneously vindicated and illustrated the sonnet:

"Brief strain with much in little rife; whose tone,
As worlds untrodden rose upon his thought,
Dante touched lightly; that Petrarca sought,
Flower among flowers by gliding waters grown;
That from trump epical of Tasso blown
Pealed through his prison; that wert gravely fraught
With voice austere by him who marble fought
To free the spirit he divined in stone:—

To Ælschylus new-born by Avon's shore
Thou camest harbinger of Art, to be
A hidden cell for hidden sorrow's store;
On thee smiled Milton and Camoens; thee,
His rout of lines unleashing with a roar,
Bavius blasphemes; the dearer thence to me."

Carducci's example could not but create a school of poets, many of great merit, but most of whom stand to him more or less in the relation of disciples to a master. The chief exception is the only one who can claim, like Timotheus, to "divide the crown," Gabriele d'Annunzio.

D'Annunzio (born 1863) is a second Marini, endowed with an even more brilliant genius, and better armed against besetting faults. It is terrible to think what synchronism with Marini might have made of him, but it has been his good fortune to have had Carducci's example before his eyes, and his merit to have profited by it. At the same time his genius is so distinct from Carducci's as to vindicate for him an independent position. To employ Coventry Patmore's happy application of a passage in Zephaniah to the poetic art, D'Annunzio rather represents "Beauty," and Carducci "Bands"; the note of the one is restraint, and that of the other is exuberance. D'Annunzio's verse is not cast in bronze like Carducci's, nor has he his rival's splendid virility or his devotion to ideal interests; his affluence is nevertheless so well restrained by a natural instinct for form that it never, as with Marini, becomes riotous extravagance. Some of the metrical forms, indeed, which, influenced as may be surmised by Mr. Swinburne, he has endeavoured to introduce, seem ill adapted to the genius of the Italian language, though they would probably succeed well in English. But nothing can be more satisfactory than the form of his sonnets or of his ballad-romances, and he has enriched Italian poetry with one new form of great beauty, the rima nona, a happy compromise between the terse purity of the national octave and the rich harmony, like the chiming of many waters, of the English Spenserian stanza, which no foreign literature has yet succeeded in acclimatising. It is also to his honour that, while no writer is more partial to the employment of unusual words, commonly derived from science or natural history, the effect is that of brilliant mosaic without a mosaic's rigidity, but soft and liquid as a glowing canvas.

In many respects D'Annunzio presents a strong affinity to Keats; but to the innocent sensuousness which rejoices in the reproduction of sumptuous beauty, he adds that which purposely ministers to voluptuousness. This might be forgiven as the failing of a youthful and ardent poet, and becomes, indeed, much less obtrusive in his later poetical writings. The misfortune is that nothing seems to be taking its place. Had years brought D'Annunzio "the philosophic mind," had his third volume compared with its predecessors as Locksley Hall and In Memoriam compare with the Lotus Eaters, he would be at the head, not merely of Italian, but of European poets. His most recent productions, while indicating, as must almost inevitably be the case, an impoverishment of the merely sensuous opulence of his youth, manifest but slight advance in power of thought, in dignity of utterance, in human or national sympathies, in anything that discriminates the noon of poetical power from its morning. The Canto Novo (1881) and the Intermezzo (1883) were a splendid dawn; and L'Isotteo (1885) and La Chimera (1888) revealed further development, not indeed in power of thought, but in objectivity and in mastery of form. Much of all these volumes is mere voluptuous dreaming, but the pictures of nature are marvellously vivid; such pieces as the little unrhymed lyric of twelve lines, O falce di luna calante, reveal the natural magic which is perhaps the rarest endowment of genius; and the melody is such as is only granted to a true poet. In the Poema Paradisiaco, the joy of life is evidently on the wane, and, except in a few pieces of exquisite pathos, such as Consolazione, seems in danger of being replaced, not by a nobler and more serious theory of life, but by the worst kind of pessimism, that born of mere satiety. The most recent poems, the Odi Navali (1893), though patriotic in theme, appear tame and artificial in comparison with earlier work. The epilogue to the Poema Paradisiaco, nevertheless, argues progress in the right direction, and leaves room to hope that D'Annunzio may yet take rank not merely with poets eminent for melody, fancy, and imagination, but with those who have counted among the shaping forces of their time.

The general impression of D'Annunzio's poetry is one of dazzling splendour and intoxicating perfume. The poet seems determined to leave no sense ungratified, and not to omit a hue, an odour. Or a cadence that can by any possibility be pressed into his service. It says much for the genuineness of his poetical faculty that he should actually be able to perform this without falling into extravagance; but although his lavish luxury of phrase and description is kept within the limits of taste, the too uniform splendour satiates and fatigues. Mr. Greene's translations in his Italian Lyrists convey a very good notion of D'Annunzio's most usual manner. The following sonnet may serve as a specimen:—

"Beneath the white full-moon the murmuring seas
Send songs of love across the pine-tree glade;
The moonlight filtering through the dome-topped trees
Fills with weird light the vast and secret shade;
Afresh salt perfume on the Illyrian breeze
From sea-weeds on the rock is hither swayed,
While my sad heart, worn out and ill at ease,
A wild poetic longing doth invade.
 
But now more joyous still the love-songs flow
O'er waves of silver sea; from pine to pine
A sweet name echoes in the winds that blow;
And, hovering through yon spaces diamantine,
A phantom fair with silent flight and slow,
Smiles on me from its great-orbed eyes divine."

At the same time D'Annunzio has another style, principally exhibited in his minor lyrics and his ballad romances, where simple but perfect melody is mated with hearty vigour. The contrast between Tennyson's Palace of Art and his Edward Gray is hardly greater than that between the brilliant poetical landscape just quoted, and this joyous aubade:—

"While yet the veil of misty dew
Conceals the morning flush,
(How light of foot the foxes' crew
Are scampering in the bush!)

On damask bed my Clara spends
In dreams the idle hours:
(Warm the wet meadow's breath ascends,
And herbs are sweet as flowers.)

Lift, lovely lady all amort,
The glory of your head.
(The hounds are yelling in the court
Enough to wake the dead.)

Hears't not the note of merry horn
That calls thee to the chase?
(In glades of ancient oak and thorn
The deer hath left his trace.)

With manly vesture, trim and tight,
Those budding breasts be bounds;
(I hear thy jennet neigh delight,
And paw the paven ground.)

Soho! my beauty! down the stairs
At last? Aha! Huzza!
(Red morning o'er the mountain flares.)
To saddle! and away!"

It is manifest that although the Carduccis and D'Annunzios of the present day may not rank higher as poets than the Montis and Leopardis of the past, they have done far more to fit the Italian lyre with new strings, and have opened up paths of progress formerly undreamed of. Many of the novel and exotic forms they have introduced will richly repay cultivation; but the problem will be to employ the technique acquired by their practice to the embellishment and elevation of forms more adapted for general use. This the great master of modern Italian poetry has seen, and, magnificently as he has handled the more elaborate harmonies, it is the simple, popular song that he invokes after all, while incomparably exemplifying it:

"Cura e onor de' padri miei,
Tu mi sei
Come lor sacra e diletta.
Ave, o rima: e dammi un fiore
Per l'amore,
E per l'odio una saetta."

Apart from these two chief names Italy possesses at present a number of excellent lyrical poets. The best known is perhaps Olindo Guerrini, whose first poems, Posthuma, supposed to be edited from the papers of an imaginary Lorenzo Stecchetti, caused a great sensation, not so much by their unquestionable talent as by their audacious immorality. Of late years Guerrini has produced a number of poems on the poUtical circumstances of the country, many of which are perfect masterpieces of refined form and energetic expression. As much may be said for the political verses of the Parliamentary orator Felice Cavallotti. The poet of the social revolution is Mario Rapisardi, a Sicilian, known also as the literary antagonist of Carducci; while the sorrows of the poor are pathetically expressed by a lady, Ada Negri. Alessandro Arnaboldi, lately deceased, possessed an emment faculty for description and excelled in grave and dignified lyric, not unlike Matthew Arnold; while Italy has her James Thomson in the gloomy and powerful Arturo Graf. Antonio Fogazzaro, on the other hand, is the poet of hope and faith. Enrico Panzacchi, less individual than most of these, surpasses them all in grace and variety; Edmondo de Amicis , celebrated as a traveller, has the gift of brilliant description; Luigi Capuana has emulated Carducci's metrical experiments; and excellent poetry has been produced by Giovanni Marradi, Giuseppe Pascoli and Alfredo Baccelli. Translated specimens of these and other poets, with biographical and bibliographical particulars, will be found in Mr. G. A. Greene's Italian Lyrists of To-Day. On the whole, the present condition of Italian poetry is one of abundant vitality, but of deficient concentration either in great men or great poems. The serious drama is best represented by Cavallotti's tragedies and the New Testament trilogy of Giuseppe Bovio, and the humorous by the comedies of Roberto Bracco and Giacinto Gallina.

The novel is at present as vigorously cultivated in Italy as in any civilised nation, and the talent it attracts cannot be altogether devoid of results. No talent, however, succeeds in permanently naturalising forms of literature uncongenial to the national mind, and it remains to be seen whether this is or is not the case with the novel in Italy. The novelette arose spontaneously, and was maintained without difficulty; but with every encouragement from the example of other nations, Italy failed to acclimatise either romantic fiction or the novel of manners, until far entered into the nineteenth century. The inference that lengthy story-telling must be alien to the genius of the people is confirmed by the general inferiority of modern Italian novelists. One or two, such as Matilda Serao, Salvatore Farini, and Giulio Barrili, have acquired a reputation beyond the limits of their own country. One or two others, such as Antonio Fogazzaro, the leader of a reliction towards a spiritualistic conception of things; Carlo Placci, the very promising author of Un Furto; and Luciano Zuccoli, author of Roberta, have shown the ability to impress themselves upon the national literature.

Only two, however, seem to stand forth very decidedly as masters of fiction. One of them is Gabriele d'Annunzio, already treated as a poet. D'Annunzio's novels have made more noise than his poems, being from one point of view much more, from another much less, suited for general perusal. The scandal which has grown up about them has diverted attention from their real merits of fine style and conscientious workmanship. As an artist, D'Annunzio is almost as admirable in prose as in verse; and if with his descriptive he combined the creative gift, all his immoralities would not debar him from permanent renown. Unfortunately, he is like most French and Italian novelists, monotonously restricted to the portrayal of a single passion, and his splendid scenery is the background for trivial characters. He reminds us of the demon in Victor Hugo's poem, who consumes the strength of lions and the wisdom of elephants in fashioning a locust. This is the besetting sin of the novelists of France and Italy; with a few brilliant exceptions on both sides, the English novel lives by character, the French by situation. D'Annunzio's novels are nevertheless important literary events, and cannot be omitted from any survey of modern European literature. They have already gained him renown and circulation in France and the United States. The most celebrated are Il Piacere, Il Triunfo della Morte, La Vergine delle Rocce, the last of which is exempt from most of the objections justly urged against the others.

Giovanni Verga (b. 1840) rivals the European reputation of D'Annunzio, and is, like him, the head of a realistic school; but his realism is of quite another sort, owing nothing to Zola or Maupassant. He is the most eminent European representative of the local novel, dealing with the manners, humours, and peculiar circumstances of some special locality. The vogue of this style was perhaps originally due to George Sand's idyllic pictures of Berri. Verga has found a yet more interesting corner of the world to delineate. A Sicilian, though residing at Milan, he has made his native island the scene of his fiction. Centuries of misgovernment have unhappily accumulated stores of tragic material in the people's misery and oppression, and the ferocity and vindictiveness these have engendered. Verga depicts these circumstances with the fidelity of a dispassionate observer and the skill of an artist. His books not only attract in their own day, but will be treasured in the future among the most valuable documents for the social history of Sicily.

Any one of even the minor poets whom we have enumerated has a chance of reaching posterity, for their work is at all events individual, and expressive of the personality of the author. If this is sufficiently interesting, the work may live, though it be far from inaugurating a new literary era like Carducci's. It is otherwise with the contemporary prose literature of Italy. A history, a biography, philology like Ascoli's or D'Ancona's, a work on social science like Sella's or Morselli's may possess great value as the work of an expert, even though devoid of individuality; but in this case it must sooner or later lapse into the category of books of reference. Such appears to be the case with most of the excellent Work now being done in Italy in these and other departments: the statue is carved, but no name is inscribed upon the pedestal, for the sculpture is the work of a craftsman, not of an artist. Exceptions may be made in favour of a few writers recently deceased—Ruggiero Bonghi, translator of Plato and historian of Rome, one of the soundest heads in Italy; Giuseppe Chiarini, champion of Carducci; Enrico Nencioni, lately lost to his country, a high authority upon English literature; Angelo de Gubernatis, a brilliant and almost too versatile critic and philologist; and Giuseppe Guerzoni, raised above himself by his theme when he wrote the life of Garibaldi. Among living men, two at least have won an abiding reputation as writers, apart from the utilitarian worth of their work—Pascale Villari, biographer of Savonarola and Machiavelli, and writer on the social conditions of the South; and Domenico Comparetti, author of Virgilio nel Medio Evo. In general, however, the chief distinction of contemporary writers on serious subjects seems to be their general diligence and good sense. Admirable writers have gained European renowil for themselves, and exalted the fame of their country by the substantial merit of works making no especial pretension to literary distinction. Thus Ascoli stands high in general philology; D'Ancona, Tigri, and Rubieri in literary history; Lanciani and Rossi in archæology; Nitti in historical research; Pasolini and Solerti in biography; Cremona in mathematics; Lombroso and Ferrero in psychology; and Cossa in political economy.

These form a galaxy indeed, but belong rather to learning and science than to literature. This temporary languor of pure literature may perhaps be accounted for when it is considered that one main factor of inspiration has been removed by the contentment of the national aspirations. The subjection and oppression of the country, with all their evils, at all events afforded an intense stimulus to literary genius. Every Italian heart was possessed by the emotions most conducive to impassioned composition; and patriotic sentiment, even when not expressed in words, imbued the whole of literature. The tension removed, it was perhaps inevitable that overstrained feelings should decline to a lower level, which may be suddenly elevated by the occurrence of some great national crisis, or the appearance of some genius gifted, like Mazzini and Carducci, with an especial power of influencing the young. What Italian letters seem to want above all things is men, other than poets and novelists, capable of impressing their own individuality on what they write, and such men are most readily formed either by the agitation of stirring times, or by the contagious enthusiasm caught from a great teacher.

The opinions of many eminent living men of letters on the future of their country's literature have been collected by Signor Ugo Ojetti in his Alla scoperta dei Letterati (1895). They are not in general of a very encouraging character, but their weight is considerably impaired by their almost complete restriction to a single branch of literature, and that one whose preponderance is by no means to be desired. Almost all the authors interviewed by Signor Ojetti are novelists, and, so far as appears from his reports, would appear utterly unconscious of the existence of any class of literature but fiction, poetry, and the drama. They seem to regard literature and belles lettres as convertible terms, and take no notice of the wider and more important domains of history, biography, philosophy, moral and economic science, which may be and often have been in the most flourishing condition while belles lettres languish. It is, indeed, much to be wished that more of the literary talent of Italy were directed to solid and permanent work, and less to fiction, which must be ephemeral in proportion to the very fidelity with which it fulfils its ordinary task of depicting the manners of the day. Work like Comparetti's Virgilio nel Medio Evo, for example, confers higher distinction on the national literature than any number of novels, unless when creations of genius of a high order.

Such genius, when exercised in fiction or in poetry, dees not depend for its manifestation upon the state of the book market; the really gifted author obeys an impulse from within. "Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can." If modern Italians have it in them to produce great books, they will not be prevented by such of the obstacles stated by Signor Ojetti's confabulators as may be fairly resolved into one, the insufficient remuneration of literary work. It is just to acknowledge, however, the existence of impediments of another kind. From the earliest period of letters Italy has suffered from the variance of the written and the spoken language. The refinements of cultivated circles at Rome were not accepted in the provinces: there was a Latin of books and a Latin of ordinary life. In process of time the former became the exclusive speech of the learned, while the language of the vulgar gave birth to a number of dialects, out of which, when a vernacular literature came to exist, the Tuscan was selected as the most appropriate for written speech. Hence there has always been something artificial in Italian literary language. Many of the most gifted authors who happened to be born out of Tuscany never attained to write it with perfect correctness; and the jealous care taken to ensure its purity tended to limit its flexibility and compass. It thus became hardly adequate to deal with the mass of neologism absolutely forced upon it by the development of modern civilisation.

"The difficulty," says Symonds, "under which a mother-tongue, artificially and critically fashioned like Italian, suffers when it copes with ordinary affairs of modern life, is illustrated by the formation of feeble vocables, and by newspaper jargon," of which he gives a horrible instance. The same critic wrote in 1877: "Italian has undergone no process of transformation and regeneration according to the laws of organic growth since it first started. The different districts still use different dialects, while writers in all parts of the peninsula have conformed their style, as far as possible, to early Tuscan models. It may be questioned whether united Italy, having for the first time gained the necessary conditions of national concentration, is not now at last about to enter on a new phase of growth in literature, which, after many years, will make the style of the first authors more archaic than it seems at present." The immense difficulty experienced by so great a writer as Manzoni in reconcihng vigour with purity of diction, and his complaints of the limited vocabulary at his disposal, seem to prove that these impediments are not imaginary. Since Symonds wrote, however, a view differing in some respects has been expressed by one of the few living men who may claim to be regarded as masters of Italian prose, Gabriele d'Annunzio. In the dedicatory preface to his Trionfo della Morte (1894), D'Annunzio enters into the question of the adequacy of the Italian language to express modern ideas, which he emphatically asserts. There is no respect, he declares, in which it need envy other tongues, or anything that it need wish to borrow from them. The misfortune is that its great resources are neglected by modern writers, whose ordinary vocabulary is limited to a few hundred words, many of illegitimate extraction or hopelessly disfigured by vulgar usage, and these thrown into sentences of nearly uniform length, destitute of logical connection and of the rhythmical accompaniment indispensable to a fine style. The remedy is a return to the old authors; and, justly remarking that the novelists of the best period are entirely out of harmony with modern requirements by reason of their wholly objective character and incapacity for psychological analysis, D'Annunzio seriously advises modern romancers to enrich their vocabulary and perfect their style by a course of the ancient ascetic, casuistical, and devotional writers. The Zolas of modern Italy resorting for instruction to St. Catherine of Siena would indeed afford a scene for Aristophanes; yet from a merely stylistic point of view the advice is judicious.

As regards the ancient writers, the effect would be to renovate them instead of rendering them more archaic, as anticipated by Symonds, so far at least as concerns their vocabulary. Although perhaps an inevitable tribute to Time and Evolution, it is yet no gain to the English language or literature that so much of our early writers should be obsolete; and Italy would do well to preserve as much as possible the speech of the original masters of her tongue, which can be best effected by keeping their phraseology in constant employment. It may be hoped that a standard of taste will thus be created enabling writers to deal satisfactorily with the mass of neologisms which the great development of modern civilisation renders it impossible to exclude, but which, indiscriminately admitted, threaten to swamp and debase the national speech, or possibly to sunder the common inheritance into two languages, one for the scholar, the other for the multitude. It is, indeed, a most serious problem for patriotic scholars in all nations how to preserve the continuity of the national speech amid the vicissitudes of the national life, and the tendencies which in the intellectual as in the physical sphere are always at work to wear all diversities down to one monotonous level. The consolation is that, whereas these agencies are mere unconscious forces, called into being by causes independent of the human will, the resisting influences have their origin in the will, and are capable of intelligent direction. It should be the task of the cultivators of every literature to ascertain what course this literature has instinctively shaped for itself; what are the dominant ideas which have determined the course of its development. In Italy, from the first lyrists down to Carducci, from the first prose writers down to D'Annunzio, the guiding principle would seem to have been the love of perfect form and artistic finish, liable, like all other meritorious tendencies, to abuse, when its too exclusive pursuit has cramped originality; to aberration, when writers, remembering the end, have mistaken the means; but on the whole a right and laudable aim, because in harmony with the genius of the people and the language. As It has been said that what is not clear is not French, so it might be added that what is not refined is not Italian.

Notwithstanding the production of much inferior work, this character still appertains to the literature in its best contemporary examples, the only ones with which posterity is likely to concern itself. The enormous recent development, nevertheless, of the sphere of human interests; the creation of new arts and sciences, necessitating a corresponding expansion of the resources of language; the facility of intercourse among peoples, tending to a cosmopolitanism which continually threatens to obliterate national distinctions; the formation of an immense and imperfectly trained reading class, to whose tastes the majority of authors must or at all events will condescend—these are trying circumstances for every literature, and especially for one whose special claims are polish and dignity. But if it be true that these latter qualities are not imported, or imposed by external pressure, but inherent in the constitution of the nation itself, it may well be hoped that they will adapt themselves to the circumstances of the present, without breach of continuity with the past. Up to the present time this continuity appears to us unbroken, and we have been able to conceive, of the history of Italian literature as biography, not so much of individual writers as of a single fair spirit living through them all, which has moulded, animated, and laid aside all in their turn. Like other finite existences, this spirit has known infancy, adolescence, and maturity, and must one day know decay and death; but the phenomena accompanying her present development seem to us rather to indicate that, in common with other literatures, she is traversing a crisis than that she is entering upon a period of decadence. Every age of letters has its own peculiar peril: that of ours is the debasement of the standard of writing to the level of imperfectly educated readers. Against this danger Italian literature should be especially protected by its close affinity to the languages of antiquity, by uniform practice and tradition ever since Dante called Love the fountain of fair speech,[1] and by a refinement so deeply imbibed that it seems to have become a part of itself.


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. "Risponde il fonte del gentil parlare."
    —Sonnet XLII.