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Middle Ages, inspired them with such fondness for all that belonged to the old world, that they transported themselves into it in imagination, and spoke, and wrote, and thought, as if they had been the ghosts of their ancestors. Hence their sweet language was too vulgar and tame for their grand ideas. The names, with which they had been baptized, were not sufficiently sonorous; the dress of their contemporaries did not sweep the floor with sufficient majesty ; and, in idle and puerile pursuits, they wasted their powers, and forgot their true mission, public improvement.
Hence, Italian genius was exhausted for ages on those long, empty sermons for the theatre, which they styled tragedies; poor translations from the Greek, which they called originals; poor Grecian faces, disguised in the French costume, and redolent of French perfumes; or in those childish playthings of the shepherds of Arcadia, or in those dull epopees written in dishonor of Homer, or in those bombastic odes outraging Pindar and Horace. It was not so that Italian literature had risen, when, the young Italian republics having vindicated their natural rights, and invaded the sanctuary of letters, confined hitherto to the shade of the cloisters, it started into new existence, wild and fiery as the age which it was called to enlighten, full-grown and armed, like Minerva, from the head of its great father, Dante.
Dante was the father of romanticism, though that name was not to be mentioned till five centuries later. Romantic were Petrarch and Boccacio, who described their feelings and their age. Romantic were Ariosto and Tasso, who read the ancients, only to ascertain, themselves, how vast a field remained open for new conceptions; and their lays are the songs of the people, and find an echo in the rudest hearts, from the fisherman of Baia, to the gondolier of the Venetian lagoons. But then liberty failed, and, with it, national energy. The prince threw gold at the feet of the bard, and the bard stooped to gather it; art became a trade; academies were opened, and sent forth rhyme-smiths by the score; then pedantry came, and dictated its laws. The bed of Procrustes was produced, and all capacities were stretched or mutilated, according to the academical pattern.
This spirit of classicism, this retrospective literature, reproducing itself to infinity, preaching a crusade against all innovations, patronized by the apprehensive jealousy of the
Italian princes, zealously coöperating with the artful policy by which they undermined the national character, and strengthened thus, in proportion to their successful usurpations, invaded all branches of instruction, and reigned uncontrolled.
It taught, that the Greeks and Latins, issuing more freshly from the hands of nature, free from all mixture, free from all specious refinements of an artificial culture, had contemplated and painted nature in her native innocence and graces, smiling with the roses, fragrant with the perfumes of the happy climes of the East; that an instinctive taste for order, proportion, and symmetry, for justness and measure, had early determined for them the confines of the beautiful, and naturally dictated the rules of unity for their poems and dramas, with the same judgment that had presided over the construction of their temples and theatres. It taught that Italy was, by birthright, a classic land, a vast museum of classic remains and memorials, and that her children had inherited that exquisite organization and that sober imagination, by which their fathers had chosen to restrain themselves within certain limits, had combined union with vastness and variety, and raised edifices, which are still braving the redoubled efforts of time and of man; that the imagination of the northern nations is gloomy, their traditions dark and dreary, like the aspect of their forests, their fancies heavy and dull, like the frown of their sky, that, in subjects derived from modern history, there is too much matter of fact, prosaic notoriety, ever to afford room for poetical fictions; that the speculative sciences have despoiled the modern world of its most charming illusions; that poetry, like painting, loves to contemplate objects fading in the distance, and involved in a mysterious twilight. It was added, with a strange mixture of hypocrisy and cowardice, that the Christian religion is too awful a subject, and modern patriotism too delicate, to be prostituted to poetical dreams, to become an object of scoffing profanation, or a source of revolutionary effervescence.
On the other hand, the new school have proclaimed, that literature must take the lead in the progress of society; that it must substantially belong to the age and nation for which it is produced; that it must divine the spirit of the times, and guide men for the best; that religion is poetry, and can derive more evidence from the warmest in
spirations, than from the most subtile arguments; that among the ancients the types of the beautiful had something too ideal, too abstract, too general; that their poetry was etching, chiselling, not painting; that their notions of symmetry and harmony, their laws of the three unities, depended on local circumstances, on the measure of their rhythm, or the shape of their stage; but that order prescribes no scale of dimensions; that unity is not incompatible with immensity, nay, that immensity is the comprehension of all unities; that the ancients spoke to the imagination, or to the senses, not to the heart; that their feelings had too much of earth, while our affections have been sanctified and ennobled by the influence of a pure religion, and the progressive refinement of manners; that the pagan sought all enjoyment in this world, while the Christian places all his expectations beyond; that, independent of all reasonings, every age must be represented by its own literature; that we may take advantage of the inheritance of past ages, since it has been providentially preserved, but we must have our own productions, and build in our turn for posterity.
"Qui nous délivrera des Grecs et des Romains?"
Why should not the legends of chivalry, the crusades, the annals of the Middle Ages, the wars, the voyages, the errors of our forefathers, and even the sufferings and the hopes of the living age afford a high subject for poetry, as long as the heart is beating with them? When will our poets lay aside their Medeas and Alcestises, their Troy and Messenia, old fables, to which use and abuse have made us indifferent, of which we are sick at the very bottom of our hearts; and tell us of old England, of noble France, of fair Italy, of the Alhambra, of Columbus, of Doria and Dandolo, of Washington and Napoleon, of the martyrs of the Grève, and the heroes of the Beresina; of events, of which the report is still stirring the air; of horrors, with which our nerves are still thrilling; of calamities, for which our hearts are still bleeding?
These theories, radiant with the light of truth, flattering the revolutionary mood which agitates the mind in Italy, have visibly prevailed over the most active part of the population, the young; and all modern productions, since the days of Alfieri, have displayed a more or less determined tendency to the romantic. That school, however, could not obtain there such a decisive success as it met with in England, and
Germany, where it originated. Italy was in possession of larger treasures of classical lore, and classic prejudices had a deeper foundation. Romanticism has only secured its victory; it belongs to the coming age to reap the advantages of it, and direct it to the noble purposes for which it seems to have been called into life.
Alfieri was, in Italy, the last of the classics; and happy was it for that school, that it could, at its close, shed a light so dazzling as to shroud its downfall in its glory, and trouble, for a long while, with jealous anxiety, the triumph of its fortunate rival. When we number the greatest tragedian of Italy among the classics, we consider him only in regard to the form and style of his dramas, not to the spirit that dictated them. Whatever might be the shape, which his education, or the antique cast of his genius, made him prefer in his productions, no poet ever contributed more powerfully to the reformation of the character of his countrymen. For that object, he only needed to throw before them the model of his own character; it mattered little, whether it was drawn with the pencil, or carved with the chisel; whether it was wrapped up in the Roman gown of Brutus, or in the Florentine cassock of Raimondo de' Pazzi. Properly speaking, he belongs to no school; he stands by himself, the man of all ages, the man of no age. The romantic taste gained ground. The Jacobin legions invaded every thing around him; he knew nothing, of it, he heard nothing. Many years since, he had retired from the stage of the world; his mission was fulfilled, and he hastened to immortality, unconscious of the storms that thickened around him. Then the great catastrophe arrived; the new democracy imported from Paris, and the flame of military renown, left no leisure for study. All was absorbed in the general vertigo, until the rage of the elements abated. Then men began to count each other, and to exchange congratulations on their happy escape. The general attention was then shared among three contemporaries of different manners and taste; characteristic geniuses, destined to represent the opposite parties into which the Italians, in the alternation of so many vicissitudes, were compelled to range themselves.
The first, surrounded with honors and affluence; respected, but closely watched by the reinstalled governments as a formidable enemy, but a faithless friend; surrounded by a crowd of young poets, and old pedants; his hazle hair sprinkled
with the frosts of age, his smile radiant and winning, his brow contracting, ever and anon, as if from an inward sting of remorse; Monti, the poet of the times, sold to all parties, the constant friend of the conqueror. -The second, still clad in the uniform of a Cisalpine officer, with a dark, menacing countenance, disfigured by a large volume of hair and whiskers, with the marks of wild passions and a disorderly life,
"Impiger, iracundus, inexorabilis, acer,"
Ugo Foscolo, a soldier and a poet, the austere patriot, the victim of his own violence, hesitating between exile and the dagger of Ortis. — The last, a soft, colorless face, with a deep, serene eye, a delicate frame, downcast, pensive, sad, Pindemonte, just arrived from his country-seat, a harmless spectator, hating no man, respected by all parties, secure in his integrity and in his unenvied obscurity. Bred up with the classic taste, occupied in translations of Homer, influenced by the reigning authority of the genius of Alfieri, but early brought into the midst of the innovating activity of their age, obeying the general current of thought, and naturally placed at the head of the movement, these three poets were destined to constitute the link between the established theories, and the invading ideas, between old and young Italy. It is to them, and to a few of their predecessors, that we owe the restoration of Dante; the redeemer, the regenerator, the prophet, unheeded and forgotten in times of prosperity, resuscitated in days of perplexity; the glorious pyramid, raising its head above the region of storms, a rallying point for the sons of Italy against future dispersion.
Monti, the most able reviver of the Ghibeline poet, the greatest master of versification, perhaps, after him, had all of Dante excepting his soul. That rich, pompous dress, that ever-rolling majesty, that dazzling vividness of coloring, was found, at length, to cover only barrenness and shallowness, only ashes and smoke. It was found, that his inventive powers were limited, his images vague and undefined. A total absence of principle, an entire want of conviction, of faith, of character, soon broke the spell of that borrowed grandiloquence. The active minds, the generous, the confident, spurned the wanton seduction, and the reign of Monti was over.
Foscolo, like Alfieri, rather a great soul, than a great mind, mastering men and events, mastered by his passions, in a perpetual struggle with himself, reining his imagination,