Verse > Anthologies > Hunt and Lee, eds. > The Book of the Sonnet
Hunt and Lee, comps.  The Book of the Sonnet.  1867.
An Essay on the Cultivation, History, and Varieties of the Species of Poem called the Sonnet
IV. Of the other Principal Sonnet-Writers of Italy
FOR a considerable time after the death of Petrarca, few sonnets but his own appear to have been heard from the lutes of poets. Emulation of them was thought so hopeless, that imitation itself became daunted. Literary ambition, too, at that period was turned into new directions by the novels of Petrarca’s friend Boccaccio, by the increasing discoveries of ancient classics, by the substitution of the Greek language itself for transferences of its authors through Arabic and Latin versions, and lastly, by the disturbed condition of Italy in Church and State, the rise of petty sovereignties, and the downfall of republics. It was not till near a century from the time of Petrarca’s being in flower with his sonnets, that the first regular crop of imitations of them made its appearance in those of a Roman gentleman of the name of Giusto de’ Conti, who collected them under the title of “The Beautiful Hand,”—La Bella Mano.  1
  I would fain have discovered some merit in this earliest and not least enthusiastic imitator of the great sonnetteer; but I can only mention and dismiss him, as the type of all the poet’s imitators; who, whatever may have been their popularity for a time, owing to the absolute passion of Italy for this kind of writing, lost it, as sheer matter of superfluity, when they had nothing else to distinguish them from the crowds by whom they were emulated. Every one of these gentlemen sighed and died to such an excess for some Laura-like idol, who was at once the sweetest and cruellest of her sex, that you wonder they did not all burst out a-laughing some morning, by one common impulse, at the ridiculous figure they were making; as indeed now and then the critics did for them. Fortunately, the ladies whom they addressed are understood, for the most part, to have laughed in self-defence; for what were common mortals to say to adulations that took them out of the category of humanity, and rendered it ridiculous in them to eat their figs and maccaroni? The title of Giusto’s book is not a mere title. The beautiful Hand which he worshipped forms the main subject of it; and the reader may judge what a small source of inspiration a lover must own to, when he represents a hand, however beautiful, as the main cause of his passion. You seem never to see the lady’s face,—though he mentions that also,—or to think it can be worth seeing. Giusto sighs, and weeps, and talks of his miseries and his grave, like the rest of his despairing brethren, and it is all owing to this “Beautiful Hand”; which he represents as so unspeakably cruel and tormenting, and as giving such dreadful squeezes and grips to his heart, that you begin to think there is something as bad in it as in the beautiful hand of Madame de Brinvilliers, which was in the habit of despatching people out of the world with poison.  2
  Giusto died in the year 1449; and in the year preceding was born the first writer of sonnets, after Petrarca, that combined with a coloring from that poet an impulse and character of his own. This was no less a person than Lorenzo de’ Medici,—a man to whose abilities and accomplishments, as an advancer of the accomplishments of others, as a statesman, social philosopher, wit, and poet, I cannot think that justice has yet been done. His biographers, notwithstanding their elegance and their good-will, appear to have wanted both depth of insight and sufficient animal spirits for the task. To-day this extraordinary person was communing with Plato, and to-morrow dancing with his fellow-citizens: to-day ruling the state,—a very difficult state to rule,—to-morrow laying down the laws of a sonnet: to-day patronizing Politian or Michael Angelo, to-morrow testing the accounts of his factors, enjoying a cargo of antiques and new books, making merry with Pulci, discussing philosophy with Ficinus, originating a new form of satire or species of pastoral, or corresponding with popes and kings, and arbitrating the affairs of all Italy.  3
  But the Sonnet is the business of this book; and we must not be tempted to dilate on the collateral merits of its writers.  4
  The sonnets of Lorenzo for the most part betray, it must be confessed, the too common misfortune of almost all the writers of sonnets in Italy; they are injured by the fact of their being imitations: otherwise the style natural to him is so racy, and some of them exhibit so much of it, that it is evident he might have been as charming a model in this class of poetry as he was of the pastoral above intimated, or of the songs for people to dance to on the First of May. 1  5
  I have given this distinguished writer of sonnets precedence in point of time to another, who was born fourteen years earlier, but who does not appear to have made his productions known so soon to the world. This was Boiardo, author of the Orlando Innamorato,—a poet whose singular good fortune it is delightful to contemplate; for he was rich, noble, prosperous, cheerful, admired, and beloved. His sonnets partake of Petrarca’s, like the rest, and he devotes the requisite portion of them to sighs and tears, not without intimation that these clouds were but sets-off to his sunshine. The remainder are so much of a piece with the prosperity of his life, that they are remarkable for a brightness like that of glad eyes, and for a sweetness amounting to the honeyed. His style has been accused of being a little too off-hand and colloquial; but this, which Ginguené seems to think incompatible with elegance, and which Boiardo’s countryman Panizzi justly thinks otherwise,—or perhaps it should rather be said, with grace,—only serves to complete the charm of its felicity by testifying to its truth. The poet was a Lombard, and often spoke as happily in his Lombardisms as Homer and Chapman did in provincialisms of Greece and England.  6
  The Orlando Innamorato is one of the four great poetic romances of Italy: the Morgante Maggiore of Lorenzo’s friend Pulci, which appeared a little before it, is another. The natural idiomatic style of these poets, without putting an end to the worship of the common idol, caused unintentionally a reaction against the style of Petrarca, and this reaction was so increased by the influences of wars and commerce, which enriched uneducated men, and raised peasants and common soldiers to princely power, that, about thirty years after the production of the sonnets of Boiardo, Bembo, subsequently cardinal, an accomplished philologist, who like Petrarca had been bred in courts, and who, though a Venetian, had been much in Florence and fallen in love with the elegances of the Tuscan poet, set all his wits to the restoration of the latter’s authority,—an enterprise in which he succeeded so fatally to himself, that his quondam fame as a Petrarchist of genius is now degraded into that of having been a servile imitator. The little spark of originality within him occasionally shows itself; but you are forced—as Pulci might have said—to poke at it and blow it up, like a spark in ashes.  7
  Had Bembo’s friend Ariosto written many sonnets, the world might have possessed a new Petrarca; not as spiritual indeed as the other, for the sensuousness of his temperament was too strong for Platonizing, but of a kind thoroughly new and peculiar. Ariosto’s sonnets are few for an Italian poet,—not more than six and thirty,—and they are not without tributes of imitation to the lover of Laura; but one of them at least is full of character, and his passion, for the most part, is anything but sighs and groans.  8
  It was to a poet of far less fame, but of a nature not unallied to Ariosto’s in wit and sense, that the Italians attribute the first great innovation on the Petrarcal pattern of sonnet,—the first variation upon his theme and upon his music. This was another friend of Bembo’s, and a third ecclesiastic,—for Ariosto himself was an ecclesiastic,—namely, Giovanni della Casa, who became an Archbishop, and, it is believed, would have been a Cardinal had it not been for some licentious poems which he wrote in his youth, and which his rivals persisted in keeping before the Papal memory. Casa was author of the well-written and estimable book on manners, entitled Galateo, and also of the pleasant and innocent banter on the name of John,—his own,—which some of the readers of this Essay may have seen translated, and which was made another ground of objection to his preferment, because John was a name in Scripture! You might be an Archbishop and have joked about John, but you must not be a Cardinal! At such gnats was the Papal throat made to strain, while it swallowed camels, by the dozen, of nepotisms and bad faith.  9
  The great, and what was at first thought audacious, innovations of Casa upon the authority of Petrarca, or rather upon the received system of the Petrarcists, consisted in his breaking up the flow of his lines, and introducing words and thoughts more remarkable for their strength than sweetness. He went so far—which Petrarca did very rarely—as to run the quatrains into one another and even into the terzettes; and though faithful to the system in some respects, seemed to take a delight in being as heterodox in others as possible, and caring for nothing but venting his rugged good sense. Tasso, who rebukes imitators for copying only the harshness of Casa, praises him for the more exalted qualities of expression, imagination, and grandeur. He admired him so much as to devote a whole lecture to a single one of his sonnets,—no unusual honor paid by poets in those days to sonnets, but seldom by such a poet as the author of the “Jerusalem Delivered.” 2  10
  Contemporary with Casa, and a successful innovator in another direction, was Angelo di Costanzo, an historian of his country, Naples. Costanzo took pains to restore the logical system of sonnet which prevailed before the time of Petrarca, adding to it an amount of feeling which neither that poet nor Dante might have disdained, but too frequently spoiling all with elaborate conceits and cold epigrammatical conclusions. Thus he argues in one of them, that the sight of his mistress being at once delightful and killing, it follows that, although death is the worst of losses, there is a loss worse than death itself. And in another, finding it impossible to live without seeing his mistress, however angrily she looks upon him, he makes up his mind to the interview, because it is “better to be deprived of one eye than to become wholly blind.” Yet these puerilities were admired not only in his own time, and long afterwards, but as late as the continuation of Ginguené’s “Literary History of Italy,” by Salfi, who has seldom shown his inferiority to his predecessor so strongly. Ginguené himself, who for the most part is a very discerning as well as engaging critic, was sometimes, notwithstanding his ridicules of bad taste, inclined to push his liberality too far in the indulgences of whimsical conceits, and triflings with reflection; but he would not have eulogized, with Salfi, the studied logical sequences and insipid surprises of Costanzo. 3 And yet, towards the close of his sonnets, this same poet, moved by the death of one of his sons, opens such a real vein of unaffectedness and pathos, that I felt inclined to beg his pardon for all which I had been thinking to his disadvantage. The laughter which his metaphysical love-sorrows had provoked ended in tears for the father. He has also left a beautiful ode on this subject; and one of his sonnets addressed to some distinguished writer shows Costanzo to have been not only a very modest man, but a right friend and gentleman. I begin to think, while writing this passage, that in some of his other sonnets he must have been jesting. In one of them he has condescended to imitate, if not banter, a strange compliment paid to a mistress by another writer of sonnets,—Antonio Broccardo. Costanzo tells his lady, that as she and he will certainly be condemned, both of them, to eternal punishment, he trusts that his torments will be rendered delightful to him—“dolci e gioconde”—by the sight of her face, which will then be divested of its pride; while, on the other hand, her sufferings will be tempered with the excess of the pleasure which she will feel in witnessing his “unparalleled misery.” At the same time, however, he fears that, as they have both sinned in equal measure,—she for too little love, and he for too much,—their sentence, in order to equalize their punishment, will condemn them to undergo it in quarters remote from one another! The only thing which Salfi appears to object to this sonnet, besides its want of originality, is the look of inconsistency between the delight of the poet’s torments and their unequalled wretchedness. Muratori, as he observes, has no fault to find with it, except that it is hardly proper in a lover, under any circumstances, to suppose his lady in Hell!  11
  I have dwelt a little longer than I intended on the sonnets of this writer, in order to show how an infection of bad taste may reach both to good poets and good critics; for Salfi, upon the whole, is not unworthy of Ginguené; and Muratori, though a Petrarcist in excess, too easily pleased with his brother enthusiasts, and not profound enough to sound the depths of Dante, was in general an acute as well as learned critic, and worth hearing on most points relating to poetry. 4  12
  In the time of Costanzo flourished three ladies distinguished for their sonnets, though, unfortunately, not for the happiness due to their virtues. These were Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara, who at the age of thirty was deprived of her husband in battle, and died his sorrowing widow at fifty-seven; her friend Veronica Gambara, another mourning widow, relict of Giberto, Lord of Correggio; and Gaspara Stampa, a Paduan of Milanese origin, who was deserted by her idol, a Count of Collalto, for another lady, and is said to have died in consequence. Her sonnets, the effusions of an evidently sincere and cordial woman, are full of loving complaints of the Count’s infidelity. I possess engraved portraits both of her and of the gentleman; the one a face and bust worthy of such a woman; the other handsome too, intelligent, and soldier-like,—for he was a soldier,—but hard and imperious. A later tradition has been found, which says that she recovered her loss, and was happily married,—a very desirable and much wiser termination to a sorrowing love-story. Gaspara’s sonnets, as I well remember, exhibit a nature qualified to enjoy existence thoroughly; and it is not difficult to suppose that a lover of like disposition would persuade her to do it justice.  13
  The short and splendid, though not quite unequivocal career of Vittoria’s husband, D’Avalos, Marquis of Pescara, who was a soldier and statesman actively concerned in the wars and intrigues of the Spanish succession to the throne of Naples, served to throw a lustre like a perpetual sunset on the melodious sorrows and life-long devotions of his widow. Of the doubts of his integrity she evidently knew, or believed, nothing. In body, mind, and soul, he was considered by her as perfection; and she accordingly wrought her poetical tributes to his memory with an elaboration of elegance that, in spite of their acknowledged merits and tenderness, has been thought by some injurious to their perfection. The motive, however, makes all the difference between what is to be well or ill thought of such painstaking. The splendid memory, she thought, deserved a splendid monument; and her very modesty might have led her to undervalue a simpler expression of her grief. Besides, the tears do, in reality, beautifully break in, where, to the eyes of these critics, they sometimes appear least spontaneous.  14
  In the effusions of the other worthy lady, Veronica Gambara, I do not find much individual character. But probably I have not seen them all.  15
  Tasso, a great name, who follows these lesser lights in point of time, has left us sonnets that lie as thick as stars in his firmament; many of them faint enough, as if with his sickness or misfortune; but others, splendid and grand; much as what you might conceive Milton himself to have written, had he been an Italian of that age, and bred under the like circumstances; stately, self-reverencing, and with a pomp of music and color. In others again it is piteous to see how this pride is brought low by the calamities of disease and imprisonment. The twofold luxury of temperament, brought upon the poet by his genius and his Southern gardens, was occasionally too much for him,—enfeebled him for his adversity. Tasso, however, though he had closely considered the subject, did nothing peculiar for the sonnet, as such, apart from the dignity conferred on it by his style. The best of his compositions of the kind, and of his other lyrical productions, his odes in particular, are worthy of him; and that contribution to the renown of the sonnet he justly thought enough.  16
  Tasso, among his other luxuries, indulged himself in a few faults of exuberance and verbal trifling, even in his great poem; and these, and Costanzo’s, and every other poet’s, Italian and Spanish, that could administer to the enormity, were brought together in one stifling heap by another Neapolitan, the celebrated corrupter of Italian poetry, Marini; whose sonnets are almost as innumerable as his conceits. Marini—sometimes called Marino—was the greatest and most profuse master that ever appeared of all that is adulterate in false poetry. Imagine whatsoever is objected to in style or matter by the words floweriness, prettiness, tawdriness, affectation, antithesis, and glitter, and you have it all to an excess in Marini. Cowley’s and Donne’s worst condescensions to conceit were nothing to it, at least in point of number. Petrarca would have been astounded to see the not unnatural inclusion of such fancies in his own love, turned into an ostentatious and countless display of them, to the destruction of all passion and sentiment. The consistent inconsistencies,—to use their own style,—of burning and freezing at one and the same time, of flying and pursuing, presence and absence, cruelty and kindness, and every other species of similarity and dissimilarity, the stars of eyes, mouths full of pearls and rubies, nets made of tresses, plays and turns upon words, triflings with rhymes and echoes, splitting of straws, and riots in impossibilities, make a chaos more like a clatter of Bedlamites, than of men even stultifying themselves on purpose. What was a passing fancy in Tasso or Petrarca became in these writers an elaboration of nonsense. Shakespeare, catching from Southern poetry a whim in the collocation of words, through the medium of Sidney and Spenser, has a line in which he speaks,—and very allowably and pleasantly speaks, considering it is a line and no more,—of the
  “Courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s eye, tongue, sword.”
  The followers of Marini have whole sonnets full of this kind of underwriting; a term which they delight in literally warranting; as in the sonnets of one Domenico Vaniero:—
  “M’ arde, impiaga, ritien, squarcia, orta, e preme,
Foco, stral, nodo, artiglio, impeto, e peso.”
        Me burns, wounds, binds, rends, shocks, and presses,
Fire, dart, knot, talon, violence, and weight. 5
A foolish critic of this school, Federigo Meninni, a name provocative of a pun, wrote a whole volume on “Sonnet and Canzone,” 6 in which all these absurdities are adduced as proofs of excellence. He comprises them in one general class of arguzie, or points; which he looks upon as the consummation of poetry; and in answer to Marini’s objectors, quotes with triumph the applauses bestowed on that poet by his two most celebrated disciples, Preti and Achillini; one of whom said, that, if ancient writers could have seen his works, they would have hated their own in proportion as the times which they lived in had loved them. And Achillini, in a letter written to Marini, tells him,—not in jest, but in gravest sincerity,—that he is a greater poet than “any that was ever born, whether among Italians, or Latins, or Greeks, or Egyptians, or Arabs, or Chaldees, or Hebrews.” Marini, however, thinking more of Jew brokers than of the fine poetry of David or the Prophets, did not like the word “Hebrews”; saying in displeasure, “Don’t you know that I have no fancy for tinkering old pans?” He thought that everything old was to be considered inferior to his novelties.
  Meninni, quoting a passage in which his idol speaks of “mortal fire burning the body, while the soul escapes eternal fire,” bids us observe, that here “fire is similar yet dissimilar in the mortal and in the eternal relation, dissimilar in respect to body and to soul, and dissimilar also as regards burning by fire and escaping from it.” And he adds a quotation from a sonnet of his own on the death of Adonis, in which having said, in allusion to the story of Cadmus, that “if life once issued from the teeth of a dragon, death is now enclosed in the teeth of a boar,” he tells us that here is “similitude as to the teeth, and dissimilitude as to their being the teeth of a boar and of a dragon”; also “in issuing forth and in being enclosed,” and finally, “in life and in death.”  19
  If history did not show us how absurd human beings and whole nations could become in greater instances, it would be difficult to believe that such nonsense could ever have been a national passion. Yet such it was, and for a long time; and, what is more surprising, the great exemplar of it was a man of genius, able to write true, and even noble poetry; nor were these followers of his, Preti and Achillini, without passages of a true vein. But agreeably to one of the sayings of their master, the disciples preferred “pleasing the living to pleasing the dead”; forgetting that the living would be dead in their turn, and the good repute of the pleasers die with them.  20
  It was about twelve years after the death of Marini, that Milton, in the course of his tour in Italy, visited Manso, Marquis of Villa, the patron of that poet and of Tasso. Milton in the beautiful Latin poem with which he repaid the civilities of Manso, seems to have felt himself called upon to praise both Tasso and Marini; but he contrived rather to imply than acknowledge the claim as regarded the latter. He associated him nominally with Tasso; but applied an epithet to his exuberant poem, the Adonis, capable of being taken in a good or bad sense, according to the reader’s inclination. 7  21
  Milton, curiously enough, is the next distinguished poet in the order of time who wrote sonnets in the Italian language. For the most part they are very different in point of taste from those of the Marinesque poets; though how far the admirers of the latter might have been justified in finding fault with the phraseology, I am not qualified to pronounce. I can only discover that they contained phrases not common, and wearing a look of antiquity. An accomplished Italian gentleman told me that they were not free from an admixture of the styles of different ages; and Milton informs us in a Canzone that the young gentlemen and ladies who read them rallied him on his venturing to write love-verses in a tongue not his own. Perhaps they saw the mixture of styles, and did not like to mention it. Perhaps also they missed the taste in vogue; which may account for his having in one instance complied with it. It is in the sonnet beginning “Per certo i bei vostri occhi,” which, with its sunshine of eyes and vapors of sighs, is positively Marinesque. Warton, in a note upon it, says, “He was now in the land of conceits, and was infected by writing in its language.” The rest of the sonnets, however, are not in this strain; though, considered as love-verses, it is not to be wondered that the sensuous Italian age considered them failures. They are too stately, self-exalting, and stoical. The greatest compliment which the young poet stoops to pay to a beautiful singer is by thinking it desirable to “stop his ears”; and to another lady he gives a list of his own virtues, and talks of not being afraid of the thunder of a universe. The sonnet, however, in which he thus announces his powers of defiance, has justly been thought personally characteristic.  22
  In the year in which Milton visited Italy, died Chiabrera; a man whose wilful, fiery genius, and ambition of discovering new worlds in poetry,—which he said that, like his countryman Columbus, he would do or perish,—was in danger of swamping his name with posterity in the same gulfs with Marini, had not the Genoese poet been saved by a robuster and more northerly temperament, a more solid learning, and perhaps by the determination to be “alone in his glory.” Chiabrera introduced into Italian poetry the regular Greek ode, with strophe and epode; attempted to naturalize Greek forms of speech and compound epithets such as chiomindorato, riccaddobbato, 8 etc., and aspired to be the modern Anacreon as well as Pindar. Nor do his countrymen dispute the claim; though his coloring was more gorgeous than delicate, and his style more diffuse and luscious than simple and sweet. Chiabrera, however, evinces considerable grace at times, great majesty at others, and a magical power always of making much out of little. I hardly know whether I ought to have said so much of him in this book, as he has left but few sonnets. There is something in these of a combination both of his Pindaric and his Anacreontic propensities. But he seems to have disliked the restraint of the sonnet. It is difficult, in speaking of these Italian poets, or of any poets who have at all interested us, to avoid lingering over the mention of them, and sketching something of their portraits. Nor indeed can they be thoroughly known upon particular points, unless we are aware of their characters in general. Chiabrera has a fine line upon Columbus respecting the circumstances under which the great mariner made his first appearance in the world, and met everywhere with rejection. He reminds “the great vulgar and the small,” how they once despised the
  “Nudo nocchier, promettitor di regni.” 9
  The counteraction furnished by Chiabrera’s favor with courts and princes against the popular influence of Marini is thought by some to have been the entire cause of its ultimate destruction; but the probability is, that it was only one of the causes, and that the main cause was its own excess. The absurdity naturally wore itself out; bad taste can as little be the normal condition of things as bad health; and literary plagues disappear before the breath of reason and good sense, as others do before air and cleanliness.  24
  Marini’s influence, however, notwithstanding the counteraction of Chiabrera, took no little time in declining. It may be said to have prevailed, more or less, from the closing period of the sixteenth century, till the same period in the seventeenth, when a set of poets arose who combined the good sense of the French school of criticism, as represented by their chief, Boileau, with such perceptions of the poetical, as enabled them to set the gravest as well as liveliest counter-examples of their own; and these put an end to the Marinesque delusion forever.  25
  I speak of Redi, the charming author of the Bacco in Toscana; of Menzini, the satirist; of Maggi and Lemene, who were at once devotees and men of humor; and of the “great Filicaia,” as others besides Wordsworth called him,—a truly lyrical poet, full of sensibility and enthusiasm, which were nevertheless under the control of a lofty judgment. Redi, physician to the Grand Duke Cosmo II., and Filicaia, one of his senators, were compatriots closely united. Menzini, another Tuscan, was a professor of rhetoric. Maggi, who was Greek professor at Milan, and Lemene, resident minister from Lodi to that city, were as closely united as Redi and Filicaia; but all the five poets were friends and fellow-workers, and all distinguished writers of sonnets. Redi led the way with recurring to the manner, not only of Petrarca, but of Dante, and Filicaia closed it with some of the finest sonnets in the language. Redi, who was a distinguished physiologist as well as poet, was the experimentalist who put an end to the doctrine of equivocal generation. He disproved the old notion, immortalized by Virgil, and prevailing down to his own time, that bees arose out of the carcasses of oxen. It is pleasant to see him helping to undo a like notion that good poems could rise out of the corruptions of men’s wits.  26
  With these poets became associated in literary, if not so much in personal respects, Guidi, an ecclesiastic at Rome, who may be styled an irregular successor of Chiabrera,—for his lyrics despise the restraints of strophe and antistrophe,—and Zappi, a jurist in the same city, whose sonnets, full of grace and originality, stand prominently forward as sui generis.  27
  Guidi wrote few sonnets, but they are not unsuitable to his lofty and genuine, though somewhat presumptuous vein. Zappi wrote many; and his and the sonnets of Manfredi, a Bolognese astronomer, who was born a little later, may be said to close the list of such Italian poets as gave celebrity, lasting or otherwise, to this class of composition. I wish I could think those of Manfredi worthy of his reputation; but in such as I have seen—and I believe I have seen most, if not all—I can find nothing of mark.  28
  Strangely and unfortunately enough, the very zeal in Italy for the restoration of good taste, which set Redi and his friends upon opposing their sonnets to those of the followers of Marini, was made the ground for a fantastical movement on the part of some inferior men, which occasioned a new enfeeblement of the national poetry, though of another sort. The circumstance is curious enough to warrant a more particular mention of it than has yet been given, I believe, in an English book; and as our friend the Sonnet became the principal sufferer, I will here notice it accordingly. The story is one of a truly Italian kind, though not of the sort to which the readers of Sismondi and Mrs. Radcliffe have been accustomed. There are quite as many grown children in Italy as in other countries,—indeed, far more than in most,—notwithstanding all that has been thought of its being full of nothing but monks and assassins.  29
  Crescimbeni, the future historian of Italian poetry, an enthusiast, but a mediocrist, both in verse and prose, was sitting,—his biographer tells us,—one summer’s evening, on the “grass in a green meadow, enjoying himself with some friend in the recital of certain beautiful pastorals,” when the pleasure of coming together in this manner so delighted one of the party, that he cried out, “It seems to me, that we have restored Arcadia today.” The words struck them all, Crescimbeni in particular; and the consequence was the institution of a society for the restoration of good taste in poetry, under the title of “Arcadians,” with the future historian himself for the Custode,—keeper is the English word; and in England it would have been thought much fitter for the officer of a society so called, than for the gentleman who locks up the doors of the Royal Academy; for these poetical Academicians actually played at shepherd and shepherdess! They took pastoral names; received gifts of imaginary lands in the Grecian Arcadia; and assembled in a woody garden to recite verses, and compliment one another on inspirations from the God Pan. The society was organized in the year 1690, during the reign of our William the Third. In England, the proposal for such a body corporate would have been received with shouts of laughter. In France, the society would have anticipated the scenes of Watteau,—the gallantries and effeminacy of the days of the Regent Duke of Orleans or Louis the Fifteenth. But a project that would have appeared ridiculous to the subjects of King William, and that would have been perilous to decency among those of Louis the Fourteenth, was so mixed up with better things in these imaginative, and, strange as it may seem, most unaffected people, the Italians—for such they are—that, so far from disgusting a nation accustomed to romantic impulses, and to the singing of poetry in their streets and gondolas, their gravest and most distinguished men, and in many instances women too, ran childlike into the delusion. The best of their poets accepted farms in Arcadia forthwith; lawyers and clergymen followed in abundance; monks, Jesuits, nobles, princes, cardinals, even men of science, all gave in their adhesion; one of the cardinals, on becoming Pope, did not withdraw his name; it figures conspicuously in the list; and so little transitory did the fashion turn out to be, that not only was Crescimbeni its active officer for eight and thirty years, but the society, to whatever state of insignificance it may have been reduced, exists at the present moment. A suite of apartments in the Vatican was given it by Pius the Sixth, and plentiful use made of its rhymes by the Jesuits, whom he restored. Counteract them with better, O poets of England and America! Englishmen themselves, not long since living, were counted among its members,—Mathias, the author of the “Pursuits of Literature,” for one. Joseph Cooper Walker, who wrote the “Memoirs of Tassoni,” and “Historical Memoir on Italian Tragedy,” was another; and, I think, Hayley was a third; to say nothing of the Della Cruscans, and Mrs. Thrale.  30
  The Arcadians, in the account given of them by their Custode, persuaded themselves, that their object in thus coming together to play at shepherd and shepherdess, and recite their effusions, was the restoration of the good taste that had been spoilt by Marini; and they boasted that they had attained their object. But Chiabrera, and the other poets that came after him, had begun the reformation already, and though the founders of the society fell in with it, the society itself unfortunately did but ultimately produce a new decline of Italian poetry in regard to dignity and strength. If it had not been for Alfieri and Foscolo, for Pindemonte, and for the genius undeniably though unworthily possessed by the timeserver Monti, there appears even to have been a chance of another Marinesque epidemic in the effusions of some friends of the persons to whom allusion has just been made, as known in England by the title of Della Cruscans,—English idlers in Florence who wrote such stuff as required no greater satirist to undo than Mr. Gifford.  31
  Growing disgusts in Italy at church and state fortunately invigorated better tastes of all kinds; Leopardi, Manzoni, and others appeared full of the power inspired by indignation; and though the disappointments of the Italian patriots have driven most of the writers that came after these poets into the bitter enjoyments of satire and burlesque, yet there is a tonic in the bitter, good for all good causes; and our friend the Sonnet, delivered from his enfeeblers, has failed neither to administer his proper balm when required, nor to wield against despotism and bigotry such terrible cats of nine tails as their enormities compelled him to take in hand.  32
  But this new aspect of our friend has brought us to a point in his character which I have yet to describe.  33
Note 1. I allude to the May Songs in the editions of his works devoted wholly to himself, and not to those in the carnival-song collections, which may or may not be his, and which I have heard charged with licentiousness,—I have never happened to see them.—The manners in Lorenzo’s time were much freer than in ours, and its writers are to be judged accordingly; nor are the edited works above mentioned exempt from objection in passages. With respect to Lorenzo’s maintenance of the power of his house in Florence,—which, having said so much of him, I feel bound, as a lover of liberty, to notice,—my conscientious opinion of it is, after a close perusal of Napier’s Florentine History,—himself a lover of liberty, and an honest denouncer of Lorenzo,—that the turbulent and ever-quarrelling Florentines had never understood real liberty, or cared for it; that, next to merchandise, and a good deal of ordinary enjoyment, little but a struggle for power was ever going on among them; that Lorenzo, great man as he was, and a lover of the prosperity of all classes, was not himself great enough to be the founder of the highest kind of free state, but thought that, as some Florentine house or other must finally rule, his own had better be that house, both for self-interest’s sake and the people’s. [back]
Note 2. The Lecture is to be found both in Tasso’s works, collected by Professor Rosini, and in those of Casa himself, as published at Venice in the year 1728, vol. i. p. 339. [back]
Note 3. Histoire Littéraire d’ Italie, tom. ix. p. 344. Salfi himself makes an exception to the sonnet noticed by him at page 349. [back]
Note 4. Salfi refers to page 316 of the second volume of Muratori’s Perfetta Poesia. In my copy of that work,—the Venetian edition of 1770,—the page is 244. I speak of the only work of Muratori’s with which I am acquainted. Crescimbeni, another esteemed though ultra-laudatory critic, and inferior to Muratori, held Costanzo’s sonnets in the highest estimation; and it is not improbable that he may have spoken the sentiments of his friends Zappi, Redi, and Filicaia. Salfi notices Crescimbeni’s recommendation of the sonnets as models. [back]
Note 5. Sir Philip Sidney, whose judgment had not come to its “years of discretion” when he wrote the Arcadia, has a whole sonnet of this kind in it, in which the system is carried to its utmost height of perverted ingenuity; as the reader may judge from the first quatrain:—
  “Virtue, beauty, and speech did strike, wound, charm,
  My heart, eyes, ears, with wonder, love, delight:
First, second, last, did bind, enforce, and arm
  His works, shows, suits, with wit, grace, and vows’ might,”—
and so it goes on to the last, the series of nouns and verbs being all drawn out of one another in orderly consequence and dependence.
  The work is full of other imitations of the Italians, bad as well as good, especially in the metrical varieties of the verses in it. I must take this opportunity, however, of observing, that the good of the Arcadia, in every respect, far outweighs the bad. It has many passages of great beauty both of thought and expression, besides a curious story, managed with singular delicacy and refinement; and I must add, to the honor of the sex, that I never recommended the perusal of it to a woman who did not thank me for so doing. [back]
Note 6. Il Ritratto del Sonetto e della Canzone, &c, &c. Venetia, 1678. [back]
Note 7. “Prolixus” was the word. In English the meaning of it has generally been derogatory; at present is always so. But in Latin it might imply, and usually did, we believe, an exuberance of a rich and generous kind. The root of the word, lix, appears to have been the same as that of liquor. [back]
Note 8. Golden-haired, richly-mantled. One is surprised that the Italian language rejects what is so easily and happily admitted in English; but so it is, and I am not prepared to account for it, especially as words in Italian poetry are so accustomed to glide into one another. [back]
Note 9.
  “The naked seaman, promiser of kingdoms.”
  In the brief account which this fiery poet left us of his own life, the reader is not a little startled to find him alluding to more than one instance of his having avenged himself of injuries, to an extent that is generally kept in the darkest silence, and not supposed possible in a man of his pursuits. Respecting the first occasion, which happened at Rome when he was a student, he simply uses the two words “avenged himself”; alleging that he had been “outraged for no fault of his own,” by a Roman gentleman. On the second occasion, he says that, getting into brawls—also “for no fault of his own”—and remaining “slightly wounded,”—ferito leggermente,—he avenged himself “with his own hand.” It is to be feared, from these additional words, that in the former instance there was a “hand” concerned in the vengeance. The first of these avengements cost him ten years’ effort to obtain pardon; the latter many months’ absence from the Genoese territory. Yet either the circumstances were held so exculpatory, or the crime pardonable on some such extraordinary account or other, that no man appears afterwards to have led a more honored, healthy, and even happy life, than this seeming prototype of a dark figure in a romance. Chiabrera lived at Rome or at Genoa as he pleased; was welcomed in every city in Italy; princes and princesses caressed him; he died in his native place aged eighty-six; and the Pope—Urban VIII.—wrote his epitaph. It should be added, that he was a very devout Catholic; wrote furious invectives against Luther and other reformers, calling them “beasts,” “monsters,” and “carrion”; and among all the eulogies on distinguished and undistinguished men which he otherwise lavished wherever he went, he took care not to say a word of the Pope’s quondam friend Galileo, who was found guilty—as Milton says—of differing with the Dominican friars in astronomy. [back]
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