Modern Italian Poets – William Dean Howells
How many of the intelligent play-goers of this intelligent land and of the present period could tell, without the play-bills in their hands, that Alfieri was the creator of Ristori’s “Mirra” and of Salvini’s “Saul” ? How many of the general readers of English verse know who Alfieri was or what he did ? And yet Vittorio Alfieri is the most familiar figure among the score of ‘Modern Italian Poets’ upon whom Mr. Howells dwells in his volume of Essays and Versions. Tommaso Grossi, Giacomo Leopardi, Giuseppe Giusti, Aleardo Aleardi, and their contemporaries, who flourished in Italy between the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the last quarter of this, mean as little today to Cambridge or to Chicago as the names of George P. Morris, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Clement C. Moore, and McDonald Clark mean to the cultured circles of Florence or Milan. A hundred years ago Literary Academics, so called, were the fashion in Italy. They bore fanciful and grotesque names, such as “The Ardent”, “The Illuminated,” or “The Insipid,” and according to Mr. Howells they were all devoted to one purpose, namely, the perpetration and the perpetuation of twaddle. It was a time when every person of breeding devoted himself, or herself, to the cult of some muse or other ; and if he belonged to the sterner sex, he established himself as the conventional admirer of his neighbor’s wife ; the great Academy of Arcadia, founded to restore good taste in poetry, prescribing conditions by which anybody, without respect to age or gender, could become a poetaster, and good society expecting every gentle man and lady to be in love! Mr. Howells shows that Arcadia still exists in Italy, although the age of gallantry has long passed away ; and it is the survival of the fittest of the Arcadians which he here records. In Tuscan cities and in the Venetian days of twenty- years ago, under Italian suns and with all the delightful advantages of atmosphere and place, Mr. Howells began the studies out of which this book has grown, and nothing of their Italian glow and fervor have they lost in their continuation and completion under the northern skies of the modern Belmont or in the bleak east winds of Boston, Massachusetts. The Italian poetry of the period which it chronologically covers seems to be fully represented here, although Mr. Howells in his preface half confesses that he himself does not consider it complete, and that he has succeeded in doing little more than indicate the character of his subjects and of their work. He certainly has done himself an injustice in this respect. He has not ignored any one among the principal Italian poets of the great movement which resulted in national freedom and unity ; and his history of poetry in Italy during the hundred years ending in 1870 most assuredly is neither desultory nor slight. He has not only prepared critical and biographical sketches from which much can be learned of the poets themselves, of their surroundings, of their sympathies, and of their aims, but he has given his readers a taste of their rhythmic quality by presenting faithful and careful translations of their verse ; from whole scenes of Alfieri’s tragedy of “Orestes,” to the charming lullaby of Giulio Carcano, “Sleep, sleep, sleep! my little girl.”
Modern Italian Poets.
Excerpt from the text:
One day, near the close of the seventeenth century, a number of ladies and gentlemen—mostly poets and poetesses according to their thinking were assembled on a pleasant hill in the neighborhood of Rome. As they lounged upon the grass, in attitudes as graceful and picturesque as they could contrive, and listened to a sonnet or an ode with the sweet patience of their race,—for they were all Italians,—it occurred to the most conscious man among them that here was something uncommonly like the Golden Age, unless that epoch had been flattered. There had been reading and praising of odes and sonnets the whole blessed afternoon, and now he cried out to the complaisant, canorous company, “Behold Arcadia revived in us!”
This struck everybody at once by its truth. It struck, most of all, a certain Giovan Maria Crescimbeni, honored in his day and despised in ours as a poet and critic. He was of a cold, dull temperament; “a mind half lead, half wood”, as one Italian writer calls him; but he was an inveterate maker of verses, and he was wise in his own generation. He straightway proposed to the tuneful abbés, cavalieri serventi, and précieuses, who went singing and love-making up and down Italy in those times, the foundation of a new academy, to be called the Academy of the Arcadians.
Literary academies were then the fashion in Italy, and every part of the peninsula abounded in them. They bore names fanciful or grotesque, such as The Ardent, The Illuminated, The Unconquered, The Intrepid, or The Dissonant, The Sterile, The Insipid, The Obtuse, The Astray, The Stunned, and they were all devoted to one purpose, namely, the production and the perpetuation of twaddle. It is prodigious to think of the incessant wash of slip-slop which they poured out in verse; of the grave disputations they held upon the most trivial questions; of the inane formalities of their sessions. At the meetings of a famous academy in Milan, they placed in the chair a child just able to talk; a question was proposed, and the answer of the child, whatever it was, was held by one side to solve the problem, and the debates, pro and con, followed upon this point. Other academies in other cities had other follies; but whatever the absurdity, it was encouraged alike by Church and State, and honored by all the great world. The governments of Italy in that day, whether lay or clerical, liked nothing so well as to have the intellectual life of the nation squandered in the trivialities of the academies—in their debates about nothing, their odes and madrigals and masks and sonnets; and the greatest politeness you could show a stranger was to invite him to a sitting of your academy; to be furnished with a letter to the academy in the next city was the highest favor you could ask for yourself.
In literature, the humorous Bernesque school had passed; Tasso had long been dead; and the Neapolitan Marini, called the Corrupter of Italian poetry, ruled from his grave the taste of the time. This taste was so bad as to require a very desperate remedy, and it was professedly to counteract it that the Academy of the Arcadians had arisen.
The epoch was favorable, and, as Emiliani-Giudici (whom we shall follow for the present) teaches, in his History of Italian Literature, the idea of Crescimbeni spread electrically throughout Italy. The gayest of the finest ladies and gentlemen the world ever saw, the illustrissimi of that polite age, united with monks, priests, cardinals, and scientific thinkers in establishing the Arcadia; and even popes and kings were proud to enlist in the crusade for the true poetic faith. In all the chief cities Arcadian colonies were formed, “dependent upon the Roman Arcadia, as upon the supreme Arch-Flock”, and in three years the Academy numbered thirteen hundred members, every one of whom had first been obliged to give proof that he was a good poet. They prettily called themselves by the names of shepherds and shepherdesses out of Theocritus, and, being a republic, they refused to own any earthly prince or ruler, but declared the Baby Jesus to be the Protector of Arcadia. Their code of laws was written in elegant Latin by a grave and learned man, and inscribed upon tablets of marble.
According to one of the articles, the Academicians must study to reproduce the customs of the ancient Arcadians and the character of their poetry; and straightway “Italy was filled on every hand with Thyrsides, Menalcases, and Meliboeuses, who made their harmonious songs resound the names of their Chlorises, their Phyllises, their Niceas; and there was poured out a deluge of pastoral compositions”, some of them by “earnest thinkers and philosophical writers, who were not ashamed to assist in sustaining that miserable literary vanity which, in the history of human thought, will remain a lamentable witness to the moral depression of the Italian nation.” As a pattern of perfect poetizing, these artless nymphs and swains chose Constanzo, a very fair poet of the sixteenth century. They collected his verse, and printed it at the expense of the Academy; and it was established without dissent that each Arcadian in turn, at the hut of some conspicuous shepherd, in the presence of the keeper (such was the jargon of those most amusing unrealities), should deliver a commentary upon some sonnet of Constanzo. As for Crescimbeni, who declared that Arcadia was instituted “strictly for the purpose of exterminating bad taste and of guarding against its revival, pursuing it continually, wherever it should pause or lurk, even to the most remote and unconsidered villages and hamlets”—Crescimbeni could not do less than write four dialogues, as he did, in which he evolved from four of Constanzo’s sonnets all that was necessary for Tuscan lyric poetry.
“Thus,” says Emiliani-Giudici, referring to the crusading intent of Crescimbeni, “the Arcadians were a sect of poetical Sanfedista, who, taking for example the zeal and performance of San Domingo de Gruzman, proposed to renew in literature the scenes of the Holy Office among the Albigenses. Happily, the fire of Arcadian verse did not really burn! The institution was at first derided, then it triumphed and prevailed in such fame and greatness that, shining forth like a new sun, it consumed the splendor of the lesser lights of heaven, eclipsing the glitter of all those academies—the Thunderstruck, the Extravagant, the Humid, the Tipsy, the Imbeciles, and the like—which had hitherto formed the glory of the Peninsula.”
Giuseppe Torelli, a charming modern Italian writer, in a volume called Paessaggi e Profili (Landscapes and Profiles), makes a study of Carlo Innocenzo Frugoni, one of the most famous of the famous Arcadian shepherds; and from this we may learn something of the age and society in which such a folly could not only be possible but illustrious. The patriotic Italian critics and historians are apt to give at least a full share of blame to foreign rulers for the corruption of their nation, and Signor Torelli finds the Spanish domination over a vast part of Italy responsible for the degradation of Italian mind and manners in the seventeenth century. He declares that, because of the Spaniards, the Italian theater was then silent, “or filled with the noise of insipid allegories”; there was little or no education among the common people; the slender literature that survived existed solely for the amusement and distinction of the great; the army and the Church were the only avenues of escape from obscurity and poverty; all classes were sunk in indolence.
The social customs were mostly copied from France, except that purely Italian invention, the cavaliere servente, who was in great vogue. But there were everywhere in the cities coteries of fine ladies, called preziose, who were formed upon the French précieuses ridiculed by Molière, and were, I suppose, something like what is called in Boston demi-semi-literary ladies—ladies who cultivated alike the muses and the modes. The preziose held weekly receptions at their houses, and assembled poets and cavaliers from all quarters, who entertained the ladies with their lampoons and gallantries, their madrigals and gossip, their sonnets and their repartees. “Little by little the poets had the better of the cavaliers: a felicitous rhyme was valued more than an elaborately constructed compliment.” And this easy form of literature became the highest fashion. People hastened to call themselves by the sentimental pastoral names of the Arcadians, and almost forgot their love-intrigues so much were they absorbed in the production and applause of “toasts, epitaphs for dogs, verses on wagers, epigrams on fruits, on Echo, on the Marchioness’s canaries, on the Saints. These were read here and repeated there, declaimed in the public resorts and on the promenades”, and gravely studied and commented on. A strange and surprising jargon arose, the utterance of the feeblest and emptiest affectation. “In those days eyes were not eyes, but pupils; not pupils, but orbs; not orbs, but the Devil knows what,” says Signor Torelli, losing patience. It was the golden age of pretty words; and as to the sense of a composition, good society troubled itself very little about that. Good society expressed itself in a sort of poetical gibberish, “and whoever had said, for example, Muses instead of Castalian Divinities, would have passed for a lowbred person dropped from some mountain village. Men of fine mind, rich gentlemen of leisure, brilliant and accomplished ladies, had resolved that the time was come to lose their wits academically.”