The Oxford book of Italian verse/Introduction IV

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When the zealous Milanese burnt the Bassvilliana in their Piazza del Duomo, a young man named Ugo Foscolo wrote a vigorous essay in defence of its author. A year or two later this young man published a series of letters purporting to be written by a certain Jacopo Ortis, and was thenceforward able to enjoy the distinction of having produced one of the most melancholy works in any literature. Le Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis has often been called an imitation of Goethe's Werther, and certainly resembles that youthful indiscretion in many points; actually, however, Foscolo seems to have read the notorious German chronicle of sentimentalism after the greater part of Ortis had been written, and it is to Rousseau—the Rousseau of the Nouvelle Héloïse—that he is Indebted for the plan and the spirit of his book.

In spite of its inherited vices this very morbid and mournful cauchemar de jeunesse is interesting because it expresses an important aspect of the time in which it was written; it is the first note in that cry of disillusion which eventually reaches its full extent in the despairing voice of Leopardi. But whereas in Leopardi the agony is that of a mature mind which suffers the more because it is too clear-sighted to be duped by transient joys, in Ortis the despair is born of the sudden shattering of all the cloud-castles of youth; an extreme of exaltation changes instantly to an extreme of pessimism. Napoleon, the god from whom the great miracle of national liberty was expected, has sold Venice to the Austrians; freedom, friendship, love, and life are empty dreams; suicide is the only solution of a hideous tangle of misery. This depressing attitude of mind is not continued in Foscolo's poetry. The famous Sepolcri represents a reaction—one may almost say a religious reaction—against his earlier manner and against the wild fever of revolt that inspired Alfieri; he finds consolation and encouragement in contemplating the splendid legacy bequeathed by the heroic and famous dead, and the hectic voice of Ortis mellows into noble music.

Foscolo regarded himself as the enemy of the Romantic movement in poetry. In his admiration of all that was fine in antiquity and his desire to write in grave and noble forms he is certainly classical. Probably he hated the ephemeral side of the romantic idea that arose in Germany—all that sombre medley of wicked barons and dwarfs and Gothic castles which captivated the French poets so completely and even penetrated to Italy. But romanticism, in its more violent aspects, found only a small degree of favour; and the furious conflicts between its adherents and the Classicists were really political rather than literary. The Classicists were accused of Paganism, and the Romantics of Feudalism; the Romantics were traitors to their country and enemies of the Pope; the Classicists were secretly in alliance with Austria, and so forth. All the issues of this wordy strife become hopelessly confused, and it is extremely probable that none of the combatants had a very clear idea of the principle which he was honouring with his support. In reality, the Romantics were retrogressive when they turned to Mediaeval Europe for inspiration whilst modern Europe was convulsed with amazing dramas, and progressive in their hatred of convention and longing for novelty, in their desire

Au fond de l'inconnu découvrir le nouveau;

the Classicists were retrogressive in their idea of imposing hard and fast rules on art, progressive in their attempt to enrich and to dignify a language which had been enervated by a century and a half in the air of Arcadia. Eventually the furious combatants were united in a common enthusiasm for the heroic realities of Italy's redemption; the pedants became patriots, and the feudal tyrants beloved of romance were no longer mere lay figures in armour, but incarnate Austria, most thinly disguised. The Cori from Manzoni's dramas, with their immense dignity of expression and untrammelled lyrical freedom, are excellent examples of the happy reconciliation between the two schools.

After reading Alfieri, the poems of Manzoni have the effect of the still small voice that follows the cry of a frenzied prophet. Manzoni's patriotism is sincere, but so calm that it almost seems cautious, and fiery confidence in man as an individual is replaced in him by patient trust in the power which produces, controls, and finally abolishes that individual when its purpose is accomplished. His religious attitude has been compared with that of Chateaubriand and Lamartine, but he is far less concerned with the aesthetic aspect of faith than either of the French writers. In his serene sense of the reality of life and his complete freedom from all affectation he is the worthy successor of Parini, and the unforced eloquence of his lyrics is extraordinarily fine.

Of the many patriotic poets who watched the dawn of the Risorgimento with mingled hopes and fears Giusti is the most remarkable. He discards the stereotyped forms of satire, and writes in the popular language of Tuscany, but these innovations in no way impair the ironical power of his invective. He has that first necessity of the satirist, the gift of personal detachment, the capacity of keeping his temper, which Alfieri often lacked; he can be at once completely serious and gaily humorous; he sees life steadily, and his hatred of the foreign tyrants never blinds him to certain grave defects in his own countrymen. After reading his energetic verse it is impossible not to feel a keen regret that he never saw the triumph of freedom, but died soon after the reverse of Novara had apparently ruined the hopes of Italy.

Of Leopardi, the one great modern Italian poet whose work is well known in England, it would be superfluous to write in detail. With him the lyric reaches a climax of beauty never attained since Petrarch, a perfect union of idea and expression that forbids all analysis. He has been solemnly rebuked for wilfully ‘living in sadness’, for setting a pessimistic example at the moment when his country needed optimism above all things; but this reproof is moral, not aesthetic. After all, the bias of a poet's mind towards joy or sorrow ultimately matters very little; the important thing is the quality, not the kind, of his poetic emotion; the one thing needful is that he should feel deeply and express his feelings perfectly. If optimism was an essential of greatness, the world's literature would be considerably thinned. Leopardi's voice is the voice of disillusion, but even disillusion is one of life's realities; he may not help us along the rough road of the world with the steady hand of Whitman or Browning, but he reveals the secrets of a tormented soul in language of incomparable beauty; touching new chords of emotion in all who read him rightly; arousing the soul, as every great poet must arouse it;—leading it to a keener vitality through the revelation, even, of weakness and despair.

The union of the Classic and Romantic elements is continued in Carducci, the last great poet of the nineteenth century, whose profound knowledge of his country's literature has made every lover of Italy his debtor. He, at any rate, is a shining example of the fact that it is possible to be a professor without becoming a pedant or ceasing to be a poet; his lyrics, from the early extravagances of the Inno a Satana to the experiments in classical form of his last volumes, possess a most unacademic vigour and originality. With him this brief survey of the most obvious tendencies of the art that he loved may appropriately close, for the exuberant genius of Gabriele D'Annunzio is yet happily in mid-career, At the present time, Italian poetry, like that of other European nations, seems, to the doubtful eye of a contemporary, to have called a halt in its progress. Optimists, however, who believe that the art will survive even the rivalry of science and the popular novel, will look with confidence towards Italy—the most beautiful and in a sense the youngest of our neighbours, but one which is dowered with the most ancient and glorious tradition.