The Oxford book of Italian verse/Introduction I

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THE earliest Italian poetry which has come down to us was written in Sicily during the brief but extremely important epoch of culture which was inaugurated by the Emperor Frederick II, himself a poet and an enthusiastic patron of all fine art. This poetry, as might be expected, is in some degree tainted with the formal graces of the Court; it lacks the personal note, and its conventions are an inheritance from the Provençal troubadours. Dante tells us in the Vita Nuova that the first poet who wrote in lingua volgare—in the spoken language that existed all through the early Middle Ages side by side with the sadly degraded Latin of the priests—employed that lowly medium in order to be understood by the lady whom he addressed; but the Sicilian school of poets probably made use of the volgare for a less interesting reason—it had become the fashion, or, possibly, the custom of writing it was encouraged by the Emperor because his ambition to unite the various Italian cities against the Pope made him realize the importance of cultivating a language which, except for a few local variations, was common to them all. In spite of a certain conventionality, however, there is a freshness and delicacy in the little garland of Sicilian court-poetry which is intrinsic, owing nothing to the art of Provence; the note of irony in the Tenzone of Ciullo d'Alcamo is new and real, and the other poets of the group occasionally achieve effects which are never found in completely derivative literature. To call them the Sicilian group does not imply that they were all Sicilians; there were many Tuscans, and probably many Lombards, at the Court of Frederick II, and thus the new art would be disseminated throughout Italy.

Provençal influence not only found its way into the country through Sicily; the gai saber was cultivated in Genoa, in the Trevisan March, and especially at the Court of Bonifazio di Monferrato, the friend of Raimbaut di Vaqueiras. Many Italians, Sordello amongst them, wrote in Provençal. The poetry of the langue d'oc was essentially 'courtly', but the epics of chivalry which were written in the langue d'oïl and were brought into Italy by wandering minstrels (who eventually became a public nuisance, in the manner of certain modern alien artists) had a more popular quality; the pig-headed paladins and bloodthirsty archbishops who ravened in those interminable laisses would no doubt seem singularly lifelike to a humble audience in that most troubled time. Besides the epic of chivalry, didactic poems in the manner of the 'Romance of the Rose' were popular; various versions of the Arthurian legends were recited both in the piazza and the Court, MS. copies of which (amongst them the famous book which Paolo and Francesca read together in the garden at Rimini) existed in the palace of every great noble. These poems in the langue d'oïl very soon lost their distinctively French quality, and borrowed many dialectic peculiarities of the provinces where they became popular. The book which Paolo and Francesca read was probably written in a jargon compounded of the langue d'oïl and the volgare of the Adriatic seaboard.

Not only French and Provençal, but the parent language itself, which remained alive in the Church and the Schools, influenced the earliest Italian writers. There was a school of 'Latinizing' poets at Pisa in the thirteenth century, and the work of Guittone of Arezzo and the scholastic bards of the University of Bologna derived much of its antique gravity, and lost all the spontaneous vigour that is the life of lyric poetry, from its attempt to adapt classical form. But all these are purely external, one may almost add pedantic influences. Italian poetry was not born in Rome or Paris or Toulouse, and the development of lyrical art in the thirteenth century was not the sudden cry of a voice which, like the voice of Virgil in Hell, through long silence had grown hoarse. All Italians sing—more or less melodiously—and there was singing in Italy long before the days of Frederick II, but the words ot the songs were not written down; they come to us as fragments quoted by Dante, by Villani, by the religious chroniclers. The singers of this popular poetry are not chained in the vicious circle of courtly mannerisms: the whole of life—family, municipal, national—is their province; they are satiric, amorous, obscene, patriotic, burlesque and elegiac; most important of all, they are completely spontaneous. It is in them, and not in the haughty masters of the gai saber, that we find the germ of the Italian lyric, and poems so completely different as the Lament for the Crusades of Rinaldo d'Aquino and the Crucifixion of Jacopone da Todi are direct continuations of the popular songs—of the early poetry of Italy which you may still hear as it rises from the sunburnt vineyards of Tuscany, or breaks the dreamy silence of the Campagna.

About the time when Frederick and Ciullo and the unhappy Pier' delle Vigne were writing, we lind a group of poets in Florence, where there was no court and therefore no courtly affectation. Their poems, of which the Tenzone by Ciacco d'Anguillaja is a good example, were remarkable for a sober simplicity, the appropriate language of the good old time extolled by Cacciaguida, when

Fiorenza dentro dalla cerchia antica...
Si stava in pace, sobria e pudica.

At Bologna, where the dreadful shade of Aristotle hovered over the University, a school of philosophical poetry flourished; Guido Guinizelli sang, or rather reasoned, of love in the detached and scholastic manner that is the privilege of the learned; whilst Umbria was the centre of the religious poetry, the laudi and the sacra rappresentazione.

Such were the antecedents of the dolce stil nuovo and of the Divine Comedy. The evolutionary view of literature has of late been advanced to painful extremes, for certainly nothing can be drearier than to regard any great work of art as the punctual flower on a particular branch of a vast genealogical tree. Yet it is well to remember that we may find one, at any rate, of the many keys which 'unlock the heart' of a great poet hidden away amid even the rubbish and lumber left by his predecessors—that a knowledge of the intellectual and artistic tendencies of his age may give us a fuller insight into his own mental processes, enabling us to distinguish between that which is vital in his work and that which is excrescent, and showing us exactly where he broke free from old conventions and became unique. Much of the lyric poetry of Dante, especially that of the Vita Nuova, itself Provençal in form, is overweighted with the scholasticism of Bologna and has more than a trace of the Troubadour conventions, and an Englishman who reads, for instance, the intricate Tre donne intorno al cor mi son venute which troubled Coleridge for so long, may be forgiven if he finds the style nuovo rather than dolce. But a comparison of the lyrics of Cavalcanti and Dante with those of their contemporaries and immediate forerunners will convince him that the dolce stil was really a new voice that arose from the tentative confusion of the Middle Ages—a voice that had found the appropriate expression of real and often deep emotion. It would be unkind, of course, to deny that the learned men of Bologna were capable of emotion, but certainly their method of expressing it often strangely resembled a lecture on the Syllogism. Just as the work of a very young writer changes when, after imitating the whole tribe of modern poets, he discovers at last that he actually possesses an inner voice which says nothing resembling the words of these masters, but yet has a note of startling reality which seems, to his partial ear, to have escaped them utterly, so the poetry of Italy ceased to be an elegant experiment and became a vivid expression of deep feeling. This is the real miracle wrought by the poets of the dolce stil nuovo, and the Divina Commedia is its deathless memorial. With Dante, an art which had seemed capable of expressing only the trivial loves and conventions of courtiers and shepherdesses becomes the medium for presenting the vast and chaotic pageant of the Middle Ages, the depth of Hell and the height of Heaven, the angelic doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas and the greed of a glutton. The blood lust, the loves and hates, the arid pedantry, the grim dogma of damnation and salvation, the wild prejudices of a time when men were masters of logic but seldom reasonable, and saints were fiercer than sinners, and Christ's Vicars on Earth went armed in complete steel—all this weltering life is enshrined for ever in the Divine Comedy by one who often judged his age and his fellows, as we may think now, harshly, pedantically, sometimes even cruelly, but who had keener vision and felt more deeply than any one since the great Greek dramatists, and lends us his heart and his eyes. Dante expresses his time because he has the vision of genius; every aspect of the Middle Ages is of burning interest to him, and he is able to give his idea complete expression in the 'fair new style' which was partially discovered by his almost forgotten forerunners.

Whilst Dante follows the 'comedy' of the soul's progress towards heavenly wisdom from the selva oscura of ignorance and sensuality, he does not attempt to analyse the actual life of the soul, with its phantom fears and inexplicable yearnings—all that intricate history which every one of us is compiling day by day. Man, for him, is an individual only in the external sense; the soul of man is not an active agent possessing all Hell and Heaven within itself, but simply the object of divine grace, and is differentiated from other souls mainly by its capacity for receiving or rejecting that heavenly gift. And although the poem, in one of its aspects, is the history of his soul's progress from darkness to light, his allusions to his own emotions during that strange journey are brief; he is absorbed in a drama of which he is primarily a spectator, only indirectly an actor. He gazes on the torments of Hell with the eyes of a judge, and on the mystic rose of Heaven with the eyes of a child, but in Hell it is of Florence rather than of himself that he is ever thinking, and in Paradise all that he loved on earth is forgotten in the contemplation of ‘the love which moves the sun and other stars’. The ancient flame which had burnt him so long sears his heart again when Beatrice appears at last to him in Purgatory, but when they pass together into Heaven she seems to have become merely a guide—a somewhat didactic guide, more potent and more austere than the dolcissimo padre, Virgil. His minor poems are harmonious expressions of tranquil and beautiful thought, not vivid revelations of a mood; the great personality that is involuntarily self-revealed in the Commedia is far less intense in the Canzoni; for the deep analysis of the mystery of the solitary soul and the noble expression of that analysis we must turn to the poet who stands first in the dawn of the Renaissance—to Petrarch.

In the Trecento, which was inaugurated triumphantly by the Jubilee of Boniface VIII, the figures of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio are the pre-eminent types of three aspects in the development of Italian civilization. Dante exemplifies the religious movement of the time, Petrarch the humanistic, and Boccaccio is the realist, the observer of the visible world who laughs at priestly inconsistencies between precept and practice and exalts the presentment of human folly and frailty to the height of fine art. Dante's learning is the old wisdom of the schools, but Petrarch is the modern scholar; with him the cult of classical literature becomes a passion which drives him to roam the world in quest of ancient MSS., to learn Greek in his old age, to live in a mental solitude thronged with the ghosts of Athens and Rome. His enthusiasm compels him to attempt, not only treatises such as Dante wrote, but works of art in Latin; and if he had never happened to meet the mysterious lady of Avignon who became the empress of his soul for so many years, he would be remembered, if he were remembered at all, merely as one of the obscure toilers who laid the foundations of modern enlightenment. But the Canzoniere, which he thought quite inferior to his paralysing epic on the Second Punic War, is immortal because it is the first record of all the secret melancholy of a human soul—a soul full of wistful desires and subtle changefulness, with an exquisite feeling for beauty and a poignant sense of the fleeting nature of all fair things—a soul, indeed, possessing all the delicate sensitiveness which we are accustomed to regard as characteristic of modernity. We may say, even, that it was the humanist in him which created the lover, for this student who was intent only on living the visionary life of the mind was for that reason master of an enchanted garden where any scarcely-seen earthly Laura might descend and abide, transfigured and immortalized by his imagination. The perfect lover, of course, is one who never wholly ceases to dream. It was humanism, too, which made him regard Italy as the rightful heir of the authority of ancient Rome. and inspired his enthusiasm for Cola di Rienzi's luckless efforts to revive the traditions of the Republic; it was humanism that made him hate the Papal secession to Avignon, for he realized that this miserable anticlimax to the rejoicings of the Jubilee must inevitably prolong the barbarous dissensions of his epoch and blind men's eyes to the new light. But though humanism made a patriot of this citizen of the world, it was love that made him a meditative poet, and the two aspects of his genius are revealed respectively in his Latin and vernacular writings: in the first, the scholarly enthusiast, the calm and self-confident king of learning who was crowned laureate on the Capitol; in the second, the man of a hundred moods, the victim of a restless melancholy which makes him oscillate perpetually between solitude and the city, and finds expression in that splendid sequence of sonnets and canzoni—nugae vulgares, accoiding to Petrarch the scholar—the intimate history of a troubled soul narrated in language of unsurpassable beauty.

The renaissance of civilization in Italy began with the first years of the Trecento. The eager flame of humanistic enthusiasm pierced through the old mist of scholastic learning, the dissensions between Pope and Emperor lost much of their importance, a literary language was formed, and the long-divided cities began to recognize a common bond in their descent from the Romans. Florence was the metropolis of this revival, but in all parts of the country—in the suzerainties of the north, the republics of the centre, and the monarchy of the south—life, for the moment, became fairer and more tranquil, and Guelfs and Ghibellines ceased to rage furiously together. The Republic of which Cola di Rienzi dreamed—a confederation of all the Italian cities with Rome at its head—seemed within the bounds of possibility. But the instinct for unity was lacking in a race so long divided against itself, so long agitated by the incessant machinations of an esurient Papacy; Rienzi was murdered in Rome; Galeazzo and Bernabo Visconti, most bestial of tyrants, became lords of Lombardy; mercenaries began to infest the whole country, and an antipope elected by the French cardinals invoked the aid of foreign arms against Naples. The triumphs of the Trecento were intellectual and artistic, not political; it is well to forget the Popes and the Visconti, and to remember the great churches that were built, the great Universities that began to fourish, the schools of painting in Tuscany and Umbria, the Divina Commedia and the Canzoniere.