Prefazioni e polemiche/IV. A dissertation upon the italian poetry in which are interspersed some remarks on mr. Voltaire's Essay on the epic poets (1753)
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|◄||III. Primo cicalamento di Giuseppe Baretti sopra le cinque lettere del signor Giuseppe Bartoli intorno al libro che avrà per titolo: «La vera spiegazione del dittico quiriniano» (1750)||V. A history of the italian tongue (1757)||►|
IV A DISSERTATION UPON THE ITALIAN POETRY IN WHICH ARE INTERSPERSED SOME REMARKS ON MR. VOLTAIRE’S EsSAY ON THE EPIC POETS (1753)
Difficile est satyram non scribere
When I read Monsieur de Voltaire ’s Essay on the epic poetrv of ali the European tiations front Homer doivn to Milton (i) and found it fíUed with so many contemptuous reflections on the language and works of the ItaUans, I thought the author should rather ha\e written it in his own language, than have dishonoured that of England hy making it the conveyance of his impertinence.
I could not without astonishment obsen’e that an author so excellent in his own language could utter so many absurdities in English; that a man so circumspect and judicious when he writes upon history, which is not his peculiar province, should be guilt>’ of so many gross errors when he treats of poetry, which is his true and naturai element.
It could not indeed be expected that he should perfectly understand Italian; yet he is perhaps acquainted with Latin and therefore might have read above fífty of our authors, who attained to purity little inferior to that of Virg^ himself. And if he hath read them, how could he imagine, that they who wrote so well in a dead language should fili their works with miserable witticism, quibbles and conceits in their own, as he falsely assures us? I know not by what claim he presumes to despise a nation that singly hath done more to re-establish reason on her throne than ali the rest of the world together, and which, if four ages of literature be reckoned’^), hath had two, and those two the brightest, for her own share.
(i) London, printed by Samuel Jaltasson, 1727.
(2) Mr. Voltaire, in his Siècle de Louis U grand, reckons up four ages of
Yet this daring critic treats our poets with contempt, and those poets too whose works have been equally the delight of the learned and ignorant: a privilege that only Homer, Shakespeare, Corneille and very few others have been able to obtain; and mentions Ariosto in the same ludicrous style in which the French satirist spoke of the abbot Cotin.
Besides those contumelies Mr. Voltaire hath thrown upon my country in that Essay and in others of his works, I was net a little ofifended when, in reading the writings of many other French authors, good and bad, I found an infinite number of coarse and unreasonable invectives against the productions of Italy, and especially against those which are in the greatest esteem and veneration amongst us.
Stimulated by an honest zeal for the honour of our authors, I resolved to trace the origin of this, I know not whether to say dull insensibility, prò found ignorance or jealous disingenuity in the French nation; and having read many of their books, I have, in my opinion, disco vered the rise and progress of the extravagant and unjust censure, by which they have so long injured my countrymen.
Tasso was scarce dead in Rome(i), after having filled ali Europe with his fame, when John Baptist Marini began to distinguish himself in Naples as a poet.
This man, born with an imagination as strong and lively as Italy ever produced, in the compass of a few j^ears overspread^ his country with his verses.
It is indeed a great loss to us that the judgment of Marini was so much inferior to his fancy; had he had sufficient Xdiscernment to know what to choose and what to reject, he would have reached as great excellence in poetry as any other poet ancient or modem ever did: his knowledge was very extensive in ali sciences and in ali arts, liberal or mechanic, and his facility in clothing his thoughts in rime was wonderful. But he did not study his language thoroughly, and not being
(i) Torquato Tasso born in Surrento in the year 1544, died in Rome in 1595.
acquainted with ali its secret graces and powers, he never was able to attain the art of expressing himself \vith that delicacy, strength or sublimity which bis different thoughts required; nor would he ever take pains to examine those minute beauties of Homer, Virgil and other ancient poets, which necessarily constitute the perfection of the whole: he looked upon their Works as an inaccurate traveller, who, seeing a mag^ificent palace or tempie, is contented with admiring in the gross its height, its bulk and the richness of the marble, without attending to the ingenuit}’ of the architect, which consista in its elegant proportion, the symetry of its parts and ali the other particular beauties of the edifice.
Nevertheless the lustre which shone in the works thus precipitately published by Marini soon dazzled ali Italy, which at that time had no other great poets. The rabbie of writers, tired with the correctness and elegance of their predecessors, imagined that he had discovered a new and wonderful kind of poetry; almost ali of them followed this false gfuide and indiscriminately imitated him.
Ciro of Pers, Achillini, Abati, Ciampoli, Bruni and many others soon carried the extravagance of thought and corruption of style even farther than Marini himself. By these means, in the space of about fift>’ years, ali Italy was overspread with false metaphors, strange images, conceits, puns and poor quibbles in verse and prose to the great dishonour of the Italian Muses.
To add to this misfortune, the duke of Savoy took Marini into his protection, called him to his court, made him a knight and enriched him with presents.
Marini was a great friend to Bentivoglio, then the Pope’s Nuncio to Lewis the XlIIth. and afterwards cardinaH’). Being sollicited by him in many letters (which are stili extant), he resolved to vjsit the French court. He left Turin, taking with him letters of recommendation filled with the most extravagant praises of his poetical merit.
(i) See Bentivoglio ’s Letters, printed at Cambridge.
In Paris, being supported by the credit of the Nuncio, his recommendatory letters and yet more by his own fame, he soon became acquainted with ali the great men of the court, and persons of most eminent learning in the city; and, as it was naturai for a stranger, he sought for and easily obtained the friendship of some Frenchmen, who, because they understood a good deal of the Italian vocabulary, were thought to be well versed in that language.
Among others Ménage and Chapelain became very intimate with him. The knowledge of those two gentlemen in the Italian letters extended no farther than writing indifferent prose and very poor verses after the manner of Pastor fido and Filli di Sciro, two pastoral tragicomedies very puerile and cold, and two of the worst pieces that were ever written in our language. This I must say, without oflfence to our Italian young ladies and our effeminate men who adore these two performances, only because they are full of extravagant and unnatural sentiments of love.
These two pedantic gentlemen made a great noise in Paris about the transcendent merit they ascribed to Marini, and in a little time filled ali France with his name.Nor_.(iÌd Marini ’s presence contradict their favourable reports, he being by nature endowed with an agreeable person, plèasing manners and an insinuating tone of voice. -^
But a few years after, Boileau^^cending the top of Parnassus and looking severely around, conceived indignation and disdain against Chapelain_,and Ménage* This solid and perspicacious man, although he did not understand Italian, would not give faith to the loud praises lavished by them on the stranger; and perceiving in their French poetry very little taste, he could not persuade himself, as the rest of France did, that they, who wrote so poorly in their own language, could be able to judge of the performances of a foreigner. It is probable then that Boileau made some part of the Adone be explained to him. This was an heroic poem which Maririi^-had printed for the first time in Paris with a tedious and cold preface by Chapelain. The French satirist had reasòrTto cònifirm himself stili more in
his doubts of the merit attributed to the ItaHan; and finding in this poem an infinite number of puerilities, went further, and looked into some part of the Geriisalemnie of Tasso, that then made also a great noise in Paris, and in that he found likewise some conceits. Besides he had occasion to give his opinion on the Tale of Giocondo translated into French by his friend La Fontaine, and found in the originai of Ariosto a pun,
This was enough to make the rigid critic conclude that the Italian writings were ali full of cold puns, conceits and quibbles. He let loose his rage against them and treated them with the greatest contempt, either because he believed himself in the right, or through hatred to Chapelain and Ménage, who were lavish in their praises of us. Boileau did not observe that the pun in the Tale of Giocondo was by Ariosto judiciously put into the mouth of an inn-keeper, who affected to be arch and facetious in recounting his novel to Rodomonte his guest; that pun therefore is beautiful in its place, being quite in the character of an inn-keeper.
Boileau grew furious and his fury so fascinated his judgment, that he could not perceive any tolerable beauty either in Ariosto, Tasso or in any other Italian poet. From hence his famous proverbiai verses took their rise:
Laissons á l’Italie de tout ce faux brillant l’éclataíite folie... Toiit le clinqiiant du Tasse á toni l’or de Virgile,
and ali the other abuses he threw out against us.
It is an observation made a long time ago that the French, like sheep, constantly follow him that happens to be their leader. If one of their princes of the blood or one of their great generals advances towards the enemy in battle, the whole army follows him courageously. If their king puts on a wig of a particular fashion, ali the French will bave wigs á la royale. If a duke and peer of the kingdom wears an extravagant colour, if a man of great dignity introduces a mode, ali the nation conforms itself to his taste immediately.
They act in the sanie manner with regard to letters, and this genius of imitation and mimickry, peculiar to them above any other people present or past, drew ali the critics, poeta and writers of every ki^^witbcmt any reserve into the opinion of a man so great as Boileau was; and ali threw themselves upon the Italians with this gre^i leader at the head of the army.
Thus our language, which through caprice and fashion was in the time of Lewis XIII an idol adored by the French, became in the same manner an object of ridicule and contempt in the beginning oX-th€^eign of Lewis XIV.
Father Bouhoujs, a Jesuit who understood our language as well as Boileau, ^d quoting the verses of Boiardo (after having lamed them with his bad translations) attributed them to Ariosto, wrote an elegant but most impertinent dialogue in French against the Italians. The undescerning marquis John Joseph Orsi g^ve himself the trouble to answer him and wrote against the’Jesuit a large volume of reasons mixed with fiorentine invectives (’), which Bouhours could not understand. The jesuit journalists of Trévoux turned the pedantic bulky apology of the marquis into ridicule without reading it, and to conclude the enchantment of French pride operating upon French ignorance was so strong, that caprice itself hath not yet had force enough to break it.
Such was the rise and progress of that ill-grounded contempt the French bave for the Italians and the tvne spring of ali that cold scurrility which monsieur de Voltaire, when he was in England some years ago, threw out in his Essay against us and against a language and works which he ought to bave better studied, and better understood than to judge of them with half-shut eyes. His unjust censures will dishonour his taste and discernment in the opinion of posterity, notwithstanding the many good things he hath written in his own language.
Since I bave sppken-ses^much of Marini, I will quote bere a passage of \\\^’^ Adone , tp give a specimen of that character of his poetry which I bave endeavoured to exhibit. In the
(i) Dialogo di Ciancione e Baione, ecc.
fourteenth Canto the poet declames against an old woman, who with her mad passion comes to interfere with the love of a young couple, and thus he inveighs against old women in general:
O degli orti d’amor catii custodi, vigilanti nel mal, garrule vecchie, ecc. (i).
Thus literally.englished: «Ye guardian doga of the gardens of love, watchful in evil, chattering old women; weeds clinging to the most beautiful flowers; stinging bees in the sweetest honey ! The fox hath not so many frauds and wiles as ye invent, nor hath suspicion so many eyes and ears (heaven blast ye ali) as ye open for the hurt of others. Noisome harpies at the tables of love; hobgoblins fatai to the repose of men. Life is a meadow and ye are the serpents. You only are the bane of every joy. If the sky was without whirlwinds and hurricanes, the sea without tempesta and storms and the earth without death and old women, how much more gay and pleasing would the world be! Jealous and cruel furies, who entirely deprive the lovers of their joys, living phantoms, breathing anatomies, open sepulchres, shades of death, diseases. Why dost thou not, O earth, inclose and swallow them in the abyss of eternai anguish ! Envy of the good of others nourishes them, moves them and supports them».
After this fine preamble Marini, in the person of one of his enamoured heroes, thus continues the panegyric upon the old woman who loved him:
Grifa, del buon villan l’empia m.ogliera, venne fra i nostri amori ad interporsi, ecc. (2).
Thus also literally englished: «Grifa, the empious wife of the good countryman, carne to interpose in our loves. This wicked intolerable wild beast was enamoured of me, which I perceived
(i) XIV, st. 284-6. — Si è creduto inutile dare per intero i passi italiani riferiti da! Baretti: si è invece aggiunta in nota l’indicazione preci.sa del luogo donde sono tratti [Ed.].
(2) XIV, st. 287-90 [Ed.].
well, because she was álways about me, now vvith irksome words, now with discourses. She laughed now and then, and her laughing shewed me a face empty of teeth and full of wrinkles. Wrinkled is her check and from her meagre face her dry jaws are almost falling. Shrivel’d are her limbs and ali over her body the skin shows the form of her bones. In the center of the horrid and ugly head stands fíxed the deep cells of her eyes; eyes that squint, livid and bloody dart on every body malignant glances. Her joints are loose and ili put together; her hooked nose hangs pendant over her lips; her dry ribs stick out their sharp points; the flabby belly hangs over the knees; both the sun-burnt and skinny teats extend their little buttons to the navel. She has a wen in her throat and on her chin a beard of spun silver; frizzled hair; harsh and bushy eyebrows; slabbering lips; oblique and large mouth; squallid forehead; melancholy face and in fine she is nothing but life and bones. She looks like a corpse uninterred, that is just escaped from the grave; she looks like an animated mummy quite worn out of human form and a palpable shade».
I know not whether in translating it is more difficult to express the beauties or the defects of the originai. But from the above quoted verses, I hope that the reader, if he dpes not see ali the nonsense which is mixedLwith a little wit ) in
the originai, will at least perceive by the translation that the poet, with a fourth part of the colour which he__,hgth_usedj_ nngIir~Rave driwn a picture much more naturaLjirLd perfect tKán~lie"ÌiatR’,~But when Tiis imagination was fired, Marini had no méáhs"or quenching it; and perhaps it happened to him as to a person, who weary of keeping a slow, measured and firm pace in the descending a declivity, when he begins to run ánd to abandon himself to his own weight, by the force which the hill gives to his running, precipitates himself to the bottom and, whether he will or not, goes beyond it.
Ariosto, who had an imagination as fervent as Marini, but accompanied with judgment, says in the seventh canto of Orlando furioso that Ruggiero having received a ring from
Melissa, which would break the force of enchantments, accosts the sorceress Alcina, who by her magic made herself appear beautiful in bis eyes, and
Ritrova cantra ogni sua stinta, invece della beltá che dianzi avea lasciata, ecc. (i).
That is: «He finds, contrary to bis expectation, instead of the beauty he had just quitted, a woman so filthy, that the whole earth had not a beldame so old and so ugly. Pale and wrinkled and flabby the face of Alcina now appeared. A few grey hairs covered her head. Her stature was scarce six hands in height; the teeth were ali fallen from her jaws: she numbered more years than Hecuba and the Cumean sybil or any other crone who e ver lived».
Thus the great masters paint few strokes, but naturai and just.
This unnecessary exuberance of words is one of the principal faults of Marini, and this made him quickly lose that great name which he had too soon acquired; so that it is -iofig-since bis Works bave been read in our country; and if bis Adone had not been too solemnly prohibited by the pope, I must be pérmitted to say that this as well as the other numberless productions of bis uncorrect imi in elegant p en would be buried in oblivion.
But now I will select one of our epic poets, who hath been always read and admired amongst us, and will endeavour as well as I am able to give the candid reader an idea of his beauties and show that he deserves neither that contemptuous silence of monsieur de Voltaire in his Essay, nor the insolent abuse the French writers lavish in general on us. The poet of whom I am going to speak is Dante, among the Italians called «il padre della lingua e poesia toscana», «the father of Tuscan language and poetry».
Ali the face of Europe was stili overspread with gothic barbarism when the inhabitants of Florence bought their liberty of the northern emperors with sums of gold.
(i) XII, st. 72, V. 5; st. 73, V. 6 [Ed.]. G. Baretti, Prefazioni e polemiche.
As soon as their Republic was settled, they turned their minds to the cultivation of arts and letters; assisting themselves with that little learning that was then creeping among the Sicilians and Provengals, which consisted in a few notions of laws and poetry.
Accursio and Brunetto Latini early among their citizens gave the first blow to ignorance. The Muses began to free themselves from their rusty shackles in the schools of these two men. Many other Florentines, putting their helping hand to the work, brightened a little the face of reason; but Dante appeared (i) and like a morning-sun, almost dispersed the mists that hovered for so many ages over the Parnassean mountain.
This man was of a very noble and rich family of Florence, called Alighieri. He was of an haughty and inflexible disposition and obtained very early, both in the field and in the magistracy, the most eminent posts of the new commonwealth, which in his time was engaged in a war against most of its neighbours (2).
He was, while yet a youth, one of the principal leaders of the Fiorentine troops, and not contented with commanding them, he exposed himself bravely in ali encounters with the enemies like a common soldier, and with his own hand killed many of their men. But seeing himself endowed with ali the literature of his time, as well sacred as profane, very well skilled in Latin, Greek and Hebrew; having capacity enough to be leader of his countrymen and a supreme degree of courage accompanied by uncommon strength and agility of body, he not only despised his fellow-citizens and the most venerable members of the Republic, but made little account of any of his contemporaries.
He one day in the counsel (so the Florentines then called their Senate) gave a too lively proof of his frequently expressed contempt for others and high opinion of himself. It being debated amongst them whom they should send embassador to Rome on a very important occasion, the senators proposed Dante for
(i) Dante was born in Florence in the year 1265. (2) See Machiavelli ’s Hístory of Florence.
that employment. «E s’ io vado, chi resta?». «And if I go, who stays?», said he. Then stay, answered they. «E s’io sto, chi vaf». «And if I stay, who goes?», replied the poet.
This insolent and contemptuous behaviour soon alienated the affection of his countrymen from him, and, although they acknowledged that his merit was superior to many others, they hated and persecuted him and at last banished him their territories.
Dante was obHged to fly and retire to Ravenna, where he was kindly received and entertained by the counts Polenta’s, lords of that city. There it was that he wrote many things in Latin; but not entirely satisfíed with his performances in that langnage, he undertook to write an epic poe m in his own, which was at that time called in Italy «lingua volgare», «vulgar tongue».
The argument that he chose was well adapted to his own nature and gave him an opportunity of venting ali that rancour and rage that boiled in his bosom and devoured him in his exile. Hell, Purgatory and Paradise were his theme; so he had the conveniency of throwing into the profoundest parts of Hell many of his fello w-citizens, against whom he was enraged, as also many other persons ancient or contemporaries whom he disliked. Emperors, kings, popes, cardinals, noblemen and plebeyans, his vehement pen respected none. Nay, having received some displeasure from the lords Polenta’s, protectors and benefactors, he plunged two of thera as adultererá in the mansion of the damned, and thus cast an indelible blemish on the honour of an illustrious family, to which he had been obliged for his safety and for a quiet and splendid retreat; and what is more remarkable (but for what reason is unknown) he immerged in Hell, and in the most infamous part of it. Brunetto Latini, who had been his preceptor and instructed him in his tender years with more than paterna! affection.
Those who found grace were only confíned in Purgatory-, which, according to our Catholic notions, is a place of redemption, and those that are fortunate enough to be sent there are certain of arriving, soon or late, at celestial glor>’. But it is remarkable
that Dante took the liberty to depart from the general belief of the church in which he was born and educated, since the first person he meets in Purgatory is a pagan, Cato of Utica.
In the third and last part of his poem, in which he paints Paradise, he exalts ali his friends and ali the famous men and great writers of Christian antiquity, his favourites; but above ali them one Beatrix, the lady he was in love with, whom he feigns to be his guide from one circle of glory to another.
If I was desirous of finding some resemblance between Homer and Dante, I might say that his poem is an imitation of the Odyssey, since it is only the travels of a person over Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, as the Odyssey is the travel of Ulysses through many seas and lands, poetically described. But this resemblance, which has been carried very far by some Italians, hath always seemed to me very much strained. So I will content myself with only extracting some passages from this Tuscan poet to give an idea of his poetical genius, without drawing by vain ostentation of erudition any parallel between him and the Greek.
The principal hero in the poem is Dante himself, if the shade of Virgil (who acts the same part for him as Mentor does for Telemachus) may not dispute the first place.
He begins his poem with relating that in the strength of his age he found himself in a horrid forest among terrible wild beasts, who, seeing him, came forward with open mouths to devour him; to avoid them he fled over a desert plain; there he met the shade of Virgil, who conducted him to the gate of Tartarus, over which these tremendous words were written:
Per me si va nella cittá dolente,
per me si va nell’eterno dolore, ecc. (i).
Thus englished; «Through me lies the way to the doleful city. Through me lies the way to everlasting woe. Through me lies the way to those doomed to perdition. Eternai justice, omnipotent power, consummate wisdom, and all-creating love
(i) III, vv. 1-9 [Ed.].
moved the Almighty to make me. Me, except his angels, the eldest of created things. I atti to ali eternit)’. Ye who enter here, quit hope for ever» .
Not far from the infernal gate he comes to a place where the souls of indolent and slothful people are imprisoned, together \vith those angels who kept themselves neutra! in the war between the Omnipotent and his rebel angels:
Quivi sospiri, pianti ed alti guai risonavan per l’aer senza stelle, ecc. (i).
«There sighs and tears and loud-resounding woes filled the dark air unblest \\-ith even a star. There different languages ali horrid and confused, complaining words, accents of rage, loud shreeks and whispered anguish, heightened with clashing hands, form a harsh tumult in the ever-darkened air. Such is the sound as when a whirl-\vind ’s furious blast drives the loose sands in clouds of whirling dust. Those have no hope of death, and their dull lives are spent in such a shameful obscurit)’, that ever>- other fate they wish and envy. Lost in oblivion, their whole lives are blanks. Eternai raercy and justice disdain them. Let us not speak of them, but look and pass».
From thence, Dante and Virgil come to the infernal river, on the other side of which are the drear>’ habitations of the wicked. On the shore of the fatai flood stands innumerable souls waiting to be wafted to the opposite side:
... quell’anime, ch’eran lasse e nude, cangiar colore e dibatterò i denti, ecc. (2).
- Those shivering souls moved slowly on. Pale were their
looks and their trembling teeth clashed against each other... Blaspheming God, execrating their parents, their country, their fore-fathers, the hour of their birth and the whole human race. Then clustering ali in crowds with horrid yells, they reach
(1) III, vw. 22-3, 25-30, 46-51 [Ed.].
(2) III, vv. loo-ioi, 103-8 [Eki.].
the cursed shore, to which every mortai is doomed who fears not God».
Virgil and Dante pass the river also and enter the infernal regions, in the description of which the poet exerts a wonderful imagination. He divides Hell into many places of punishment, each of which contains a distinct class of sinners and transgressors of the laws of God, But his usuai uncatholic vein transports him into a corner of it, where there is a place designed for the souls of the ancient sages and pagan heroes, who were virtuous and pious when in the world. The place, although it is in Hell, is nevertheless most delightful; and there he finds that Brutus, who delivered Rome from the tyranny of the Tarquins, with Socrates, Plato, Anaxagoras, Thales, Hipocrates, Tully, Lavinia, Lucretia, Portia and many other ancient men and women, who dwell there in happiness.
The episodes of the poem in this part, called Hell, are made up of several stories related by the damned, one of which I will transcribe.
Dante meets with a Fiorentine count, named Ugolino, who is furiously gnawing the scull of a human body. He asks him the cause of his canine rage, and
La bocca sollevò dal fero pasto
quel peccator, forbendola a’ capelli, ecc. (i).
Thus englished: «Then the fell wretch, taking his mouth from the horrible repast, and wiping it with the hairs of that head, that with his teeth he had ali crashed hehind, began: — Must I then renew my black despair and speak what tears my heart but in reflection only? Yet, if my words will fix eternai infamy on the memory of the villain, whose head I am gnawing thus, I shall speak and weep at once... Know then that I am the count Ugolino, and this scull that thou beholdest was once the archbishop Ruggieri ’s. Thou shalt judge if I have not reason for this fell revenge. It is not necessary to teli thee in what manner he
(i) XXXIII, vv. 1-9, 13-21 [Ed.].
betrayed me even in the time that I placed the greatest confidence in him. I will unfold only that which thou canst not know from others: the horrid cruelty by which he made me perish».
The count then succintly relates when and in what manner he was cast into a horrible dungeon with his four sons by the above-mentioned archbishop and thus goes on:
Quand’io fui desto innanzi la dimane,
pianger senti’ fra V sonno i miei figliuoli, ecc. (i).
Thus engUshed: «The next day, when it was yet scarce light, I heard my children weeping before their sleep was well dissipated. They were in the same place with me, and desired me to give them bread. Ah, if thou weepest not at the reflection of what I felt that cruel moment, thy heart must be proof to every sentiment of compassion. After having past the night in wild tormenting dreams, we ali awaked. The hour approached when we expected to ha ve something brought to us to eat. But instead of seeing any food appear, I heard the doors of that horrible dungeon more closely barred. I beheld my little children in silence and could not weep. My heart was petrifíed. The little wretches wept, and my dear Anselm said: — Father, you look on us! What ails you? — I could neither weep nor answer and continued swallowed up in silent agony ali that day and the following night, even till the dawn of day. As soon as a glimmering ray darted through the doleful prison, that I could view again those four faces, in which my own image was impresi, I gnawed my fist with rage and grief. My children, believing I did thus through eagerness to eat, raising themselves up, said to me: — Dear father! our torments would be less, if you would allay the rage of your hunger upon us. It is you who have clothed US with this miserable flesh ; now then divest us of it ! — I restrained myself that I might not increase their misery. We were mute that day and the following. Ah, cruel earth, why did’st thou not swallow us at once? The fourth day being come.
(i) XXXIII, vv. 37-78 [Ed.]
Gaddo falling extended at my feet cried: — My father, why do not you help me? — and died. The other three expired one after the other between the fifth and sixth days, famished as thou seest me now. And I, being seized with blindness, began to go groping upon them with my hands and feet. I continued calHng them by their names during three days after they were dead. Then hunger vanquished my grief! — Saying this, with eyes ali fierce and wild, he took again that detested scull between his teeth, crashing it as a hungry mastiff does his prey».
The poet rap’d as in an enthusiastic fít of rage by the horrible relation of Ugolino, closeth this story with this most heavy malediction on the city of Pisa, of which the barbarous Ruggieri was archbishop:
Ahi Pisa, vituperio delle genti
del bel paese la, dove il si sona! ecc. (0.
Thus englished: «Ah Pisa, disgrace of the blest Italian land! since thy neighbours are slow in punishing thee, oh may Capraia and Gorgona (2) move from their foundations and blocking up the river Arno, force back its streams to overwhelm the cursed race in thee!»
I have cited these few passages of Dante not only to give the English reader, who is not acquainted with him in the originai, some idea of his poetry; but also to shew him that the Italian is falsely accused of effeminacy by Mr. Voltaire, or rather by those from whom he has humbly copied this opinion. The verses I have transcribed are so little effeminate, that every one who hears them read by a person who gives them their proper emphasis, although they do not understand them, will be convinced by the sound that they are as strong and sonorous as those in any other language. And if the reader would have a stili greater proof of the strength of our tongue, he needs
(i) XXXIII, vv. 79-84 [Ed.].
(2) Capraia and Gorgona are two little islands at the mouth of the river Arno, near which Pisa is situated.
only read the thirty-three first lines of the sixth canto of that poem, which I do not quote, to avoid too great length, or rather, because I believe it is impossible to translate them with energy equal to the originai.
To sum up ali I have to say on this head, the thirty-four cantos of Dante’s //<?// are wrote with more virility of thought and vigour of st>’le than any other poem ancient or modem; and in this particular no nation has produced its equal, except the Paradise lost of Milton. The most nervous scenes of the great Corneille himself (a poet the least effeminate among the French) do not come near the strength of Dante.
I shall not dwell long on those two parts of the poem, called Purgatory and Paradise; but only say that the thoughts and style of Purgatory have neither too much strength nor too much softness. It is one continued picture of supportable grief; and supportable, because it is mixed with hope, according to the idea the Catholics have of that place. But there is no poet in Italy (deservedly called the mother of sweet poets) so sweet, so harmonious and so affecting as Dante in his description of Paradise. Nor is this a French exaggeration for which any allowance is to be made: it is a certain truth, that Petrarca himself, in the most pathetic descriptions of his passion for the beautiful Laura, does not equal the sweetness of the hymns which Dante makes the angela and blessed spirits sing in the third part of his poem. Ali the images, ali the comparisons, ali the descriptions of this part are as they ought to be; that is to say the very reverse of those of his Hell, as his Purgatory judiciously partakes of both.
I shall not quote any of the lines to prove the truth of what I say, because I do not think it possible to give them the same sweetness in a translation as they have in the originai . Ali the world allows that the music of our syllables cannot be transfused into another language. But there have been so many editions of this poem in Italy and in other countries, that it is not difficult to find it ; and every stranger ma)’ easily convince himself of what I say, by reading it himself, or if he does not understand Italian, making it only be read to him.
Hovvever, I will not neglect to take notice of two remarkable passages of this ancient poet, for the sake of a relation they bave to the modem system of astronomy.
One of these passages is in the first canto of the Purgatory, to illustrate which I shall transcribe part of a letter written from Spain in the year 1500 by the famous Amerigo Vespucci of Florence to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici after bis return from the countries he had disco vered, which were called America from bis name. These are Vespucci ’s words:
Tanto navigammo per la torrida zona alla parte d’Austro, che ci trovam-fno istar di basso della linea equinoziale e tener l’un polo e l’altro al fin del nostro orizzonte; e la passammo di sei gradi e del tutto perdemm^o la stella tramontana, che appena ci si mostravano le stelle dell’Orsa m,inore. E come desideroso d’essere autore che segnassi la stella del firm-amento dell’altro polo, perdei molte volte il sonno la notte in contemplare il movimento delle stelle dell’altro polo per segnar quale di esse tenessi minor movimento; e non potetti con quante male notti ebbi e con quanti strum,enti usai, che fu ’l quadrante e l’astrolabio. Non segnai stella che tenessi men di dieci gradi di tnovimento all’intorno del firmamento, di modo che non restai soddisfatto in vie m.edesimo di nominar nessuna. E mentre in questo andavo, mi ricordai d’un detto del nostro poeta Dante, del quale fa menzione nel priino capitolo del Purgatorio, quando finge di salire di questo em.isferio e trovarsi nell’altro; che volendo descrivere il polo antartico dice:
Io mi 7.<olsi a man destra e posi mente all’altro polo, e vidi quattro stelle non viste mai fuor eh’ alla prim.a gente.
Goder pareva il del di lor fiatnnielle: oh settentrional vedovo sito, poiché privato se’ di mirar quelle!
Che secondo me mi pare che il poeta in questi versi voglia descrivere per le «quattro stelle» il polo dell’altro firmamento; e non mi diffido fino a qui che quello eh’ e’ dice non valga veritá, perché io notai quattro stelle figurate com.e una mandorla che tenevano poco movimento. E se Dio mi da vita e salute, spero presto tornare in quello emisferio e non tornare senza notare il polo.
In English thus: «We sailed so far under the torrid zone towards the east, that we found ourselves under the equinoxíal line, having both the poles at the extremities of our horizon. We passed the line six degrees and quite lost the north-star. We could scarcely perceive the stars of the lesser bear. Desirous to be the discoverer and namer of the pole-star in the other hemisphere, I lost many times my sleep in contemplating the stars in the opposite pole, to discover which of them had least motion. Yet, notwithstanding the troublesome nights I had and the instruments I used, that is to say the quadrant and the astrolabe, I could not perceive any star that had less than ten degrees of motion. So that I had not the satisfaction of naming any one. While I was busying myself in these observations, I remembered a passage in our poet Dante, in the first canto oi Purgatori when feigning to ascend from this hemisphere, he finds himself in the other and describing the anthartic pole says :
«I turned to the right-hand and fixed my eyes in the other pole, where I saw four stars that no person had ever seen but our first parents. The sky smiled with their lustre. Oh! unhappy north that art deprived of beholding them!
«In my judgment the poet in these verses intends by the four stars to describe the pole of the other firmament. And I do not despair but Dante ’s opinion will be found to be true, because I observed four stars in the form of an almond, that had but little motion. And if God gives me life and health, I hope to return lo that hemisphere, and not come back without marking out the pole». —
Although Dante, as appears by his poem, knew as much of astronomy as it was possible to know before the appearance of Galileo and Newton, nevertheless I cannot help thinking it strange, that he should bave any certainty of the constellation of the opposite pole, at a time when we had but slight notions either of the circular or of the oblate figure of this globe, and were not quite sure in our hemisphere of the existence of an opposite one. But it is not without some reason that Lorenzo Giacomini, a learned Tuscan, in a dissertation upon poetical fury,
wondered that Dante, by mere force of enthusiasm, shouid have thus hit upon a truth so remote from the knowledge of his time, as he has dona in the abovequoted verses, that afTorded matter for speculation to so great and singular a man as Vespucci. The other passage is the following, in the 28th. canto of Paradise, where after having poetically said that the globes form a circle round the throne of the divinity, and are moved and ruled by the Dominations, Virtues, Principalities, Powers, Archangels and Angels, divided into several Hyerarchies according to theír degrees of Dignity, he adds:
Quest’ ordini di su tutti riniiratio e di giú vincon si, che verso Dio tutti tirati sono, e tutti tirano.
Thus englished: «These globes arranged in order divinely wonderful, ali tend upwards by attraction, and downward by their gravity. They at once attract and are attracted towards God, the everlasting sun».
The abbot Tagliazucchi, a great mathematician and professor of the Greek and Tuscan languages in the University of Turin, who died two years ago and of whom I had the good fortune to be many years a pupil, endeavoured to prove in a dissertation that he wrote On the manner of educating yoiith in the belleletters, that in this triplet of Dante are clearly expressed sir Isaac Newton ’s notions of attraction. I will leave the English reader to judge if my honoured preceptor was in the right in his assertion.
If Dante is wonderful in painting the passions and making lively representations of objects, as in my opinion may be plainly seen by the above-quoted passages of his Inferno, he is stili more so in the justness of his similes, which are the nerves and soul of poetry. There no poet is superior, or even equal to him.
Another of his peculiar beauties I must take notice of : and that is, his having interspersed in his poem several words, phrases and whole lines and triplets in pure Latin. This he hath done
with infinite grace and judgment, which might perhaps appear ridiculous in any other of the living languages; but in Italian, and particularly in Dante’ s poem, it has a beautiful effect and adds great force and dignity to his style, not only because Dante knew well how to select those Latin words and phrases which bave a similitude of sound with the Tuscan, but also because no other of the Hving languages hath so much affinity with the Latin tongue as ours hath. And it is observable also that what Latin he hath spread through his poem, is ali taken from the sacred writings, in the st>ie of which he hath always endeavoured to write.
I will not pretend to say that Dante has no defects. He is justly taxed with meanness of style in some few places and blamed with having made a medley of names and fables of the heathen mytholog\- with the names and stories most venerable and holy of the Christian religion. But this fault may be extenuated if we reflect that he wrote in a time when they had no other models of good poetry but the works of the pagans, with which he was so well acquainted, that he could not avoid to fili his fancy with their thoughts and phrases. That spirit of method and geometry that hath taken possession, for more than an age, of the poetry of the principal European nations, hath been the consequence of rigid observation and exact criticism, and could not be found in the time of Dante, as he was the first great poet and great writer. Before him Italy had not produced a man worthy of immortahty, by works of genius, after the fall of the empire of our predecessors.
To these poetic faults of Dante may be added a moral one: that is the having ridiculed and satirized, with as much bitterness as Luther himself, the priests and friars and generally ali the supporters of the church in which he lived. Too many of our poets who carne after him followed his imprudent and dangerous example.
Voltaire, in his Essaj’, speaking of the Paradise /osi, says that Milton, as he was travelling through Italy in his youth, saw at Florence a comedy called Adamo, writ by one Andreine,
a player, and dedicateci to Mary de Medicis, queen of France. The subject of the play was the fall of man; the actors God, the devils, the angels, Adam, Ève, the serpent, death, and the seven mortai sins. That topic so improper for a drama (continues Voltaire) but so suitable to the absurd genius of the Italian stage, as it was at that time, was handled in a manner entirely comformable to the extravagance of the design. The scene opens with a chorus of angels and a cherubin thus speaks for the rest: «Let the rain-bow be the fiddle-stick of the fíddle of the heavens; let the planets be the notes of our music; let time beat carefully the measure and the winds make the sharps, etc.» Thus the play begins and every scene rises above the first in profusion of impertinence. Milton pierced through the absurdity of that performance to the hidden majesty of the subject, which being altogether unfit for the stage, yet might be for the genius of Milton, and for his only, the foundation of an epic poem. He took from that rídiculous trifle the first hint of the noblest work which human imagination hath ever attempted, and which he executed more than twenty years after.»
I know not upon what foundation it is, that Voltaire assures US that the taste of the Italian stage in the time of Milton was so bad as to relish the comedy he mentions. If he had read the life, or even the writings of Milton himself, he would bave perceived by them that Florence, when that poet travelled through Italy, was full of learned men; and if he had the least notion of the Fiorentine people, he would bave spoken with less contempt of them. But setting this aside, how can he so positively affirm that Milton took the first hint of Paradise lost from the above-mentioned absurd comedy of Andreine? I bave some doubts of his veracity and really suspect the existence of the play and its author. Yet to drop this extravagant anecdote, suffer me to say that to me it seems ridiculous that such a man as Milton could bave raked among the rubbish of Andreine (if such a man ever existed) so bright a jewel as the Paradise lost. Milton understood the Italian authors so well and was so
fond of Dante in particular, that he wrote some Italian verses, yet extant, in the style of that epic poet: a thing not only extremely difficult for a foreigner, but aJso for an Italian, since to understand Dante perfectly we are obliged to study him in the schools and Universities with almost as much labour as we do Virgil. If then Milton was so much master of Dante ’s style that he could write verses in his manner, and if the thoughts and images of both the poems have a great resemblance to each other, as the reader may see by the quotations I have given; if the very subjects and tides are alike, is it not more reasonable and probable to say that Milton took the first hint of his Paradise lost from a noble and famous epic poet, than from a mean ridiculous comedian?
Let not the reader wonder, if, with so little ceremony, I cali in question the veracity of Mr. Voltaire, since I see by his wrong decisions concerning the Italians in his Essay and in his other writings, that he does not understand our language, and that he has a particular hatred to us, never losing any occasion to tear us with contemptuous jests, giving false characters of our most celebrated writers, translating unfaithfully some passages from their works and inventing falsehoods to make his readers laugh at our expense.
Among other deviations from truth in the Essay, he says that «Tasso sends Ubaldo and his companion to an old holy conjurer, who carries them just into the center of the earth. The two knights walk there on the banks of a rivulet covered with precious stones of ali kinds. From that place they are sent to Ascalon to an old woman who carries them swiftly in a little ship to the Canary islands».
This cold merriment of our poor critic is a false translation of what Tasso says in a most noble strain: «savio mago» is vilely translated into English «holy conjurer». But let us see Tasso’s description of the old woman of Ascalon (canto xv, stanza iii and IV):
Vider picciolo nave, e in poppa a quella che guidar la dovea, fatai donzella, ecc.
In English thus: «Ubaldo and his companion spied a little bark and seated in the stern a maid ordained to guide it. Her hair hung in loose curls upon her forehead. A soft complacency sparkled in her eyes. The shining lustre of her face expressed angelic beauty». This is the old woman of Ascalon that monsieur de Voltaire takes notice of.
If I thought it necessary, I could quote many other passages from his writings to prove his ignorance of our poets and his malice against their reputation. But not to trouble the reader witha long andtedious examination of that contemptible pamphlet so pompously intitled An essay upon the epic poetry of the European nations from Homer down to Milton^ I will only refer him to another of his impostures vvhich relates to a Portuguese author.
He endeavours to impose upon his English reader by translating falsely some lines of Camoens, a Portuguese poet, in order to create a resemblance between them and a celebrated passage of sir John Denham. These are Mr. Voltaire ’s words: «Camoens’ s poem, in my opinion, is full numberless faults and beauties, thick sown near one another; and almost in every page there is what to laugh at, and what to be delighted with. Among his most lucky thoughts I must take notice of two, for the likeness that they bear to two most celebrated passages of Waller and sir John Denham. Waller says... etc — Sir John Denham, in his poem on Cooper’ s Hill, says to the Thames:
Oh could I flow like thee, and make my stream my great example as it is my theme: tho’ deep, yet clear; the’ gentle, yet not dull; strong without rage; without o’erflowing full.
Camoens (continues Voltaire) addresses the Nymphs of Tagus in the like manner: «Oh Nymphs, if ever I sung like you, inspire me now with new and strong lays. Let my style flow like your waves. Let it be deep and clear as your waters».
An Englishman who knows nothing of Camoens’ s Lusiadas or will not be at the trouble to look into it, will believe what Voltaire here so confídently assures him of. But Voltaire, let
me repeat, is as ignorant of the Portuguese as the Italian language, although he decides so dogmatically about the writings in either. These are the Hnes with which Camoens addresses the Nymphs of Tagus (canto i, stanza iv and v):
E vós Tagides Minhas, pois creado tendes em mi hiim novo engenho ardente, se sempre em verso humilde celebrado foy de mi vosso rio alegremenie, dai-me agora hiim som alto e sublimado, hum estilo grandiloquo e corrente, porque de vossas aguas Febo ordene qtie náo tenham inveja ás de Hippocrene .
Dai-me htima furia grande e sonorosa, e náo de agreste avena ou frauta rada; mas de tuba canora e bellicosa que o peito accende e a cor ao gesto muda. Dai-íue igual canto aos feitos da famosa gente vossa, que a Marte tanto ajuda, que se espalhe e se cante no universo, se tao sublime prego cabe em verso.
In EngHsh thus: «Oh ye, my Nymphs of Tagus, since you bave inspired me with new fires; if with my humble verses I bave ever freely celebrated your deities, give me now a strain lofty and sublime, a style elevated, yet easy, since Apollo hath bestowed on your waters a power equal to those of Hypocrene. Inspire an enthusiasm grand and sonorus, that the sound of my verses may not resemble that of rural pipes, or rustie flutes, but of a trumpet, martial and shrill, which may enfiarne my bosom and fili it with courage. Give me a song equal to the labours of your famous people, the favourite of Mars; a song which may resound throughout the universe, if verse is worthy of so sublime an honour».
Wbere is then the resemblance between these Hnes of Camoens and those of sir John Denham, which Voltaire pretends to show in bis own false translation?
I bave said enough upon the article of Dante to prove, notwithstjmding the assertion of Mr. Voltaire and many others
G. Barktti, Prefazioni e polemiche. 8
of his countrymen, that the Italian poets are not so bad as they bave been represented; and if this discourse of mine is favourably received, it will encourage me to resumé the subject, and treat of some other of our epic poets, who in Italy are not thought inferior to Dante in their several ways: among whom are Boiardo, Pulci and Tasso. But I shall enlarge particularly upon Ariosto, who, as I collect from French and English authors, is not yet well understood by foreigners; and I will endeavour to show that it is true what our best critics say, that we, having such a poet, need not envy Greece its Homer and Latium Virgil. Ariosto is generally allowed among us to be the greatest of our poets; and we deservedly confer the same honour on his Orlando that Greece did on the Iliad, learning it by heart and singing it in the streets, both day and night. I will enlarge also upon our dramatic, lyric, pastoral, dithyrambic and burlesque poets, and al ways support the characters I shall give of them with quotations from their works in Italian and English.
I will only add that I hope the favourers of Voltaire will pardon the freedom taken with him in my reflections. A freedom not inconsistent with the esteem I bave for some of his writings. Though I bave been a little severe against the Essay on epic poetry in London, yet I bave shed tears in Paris at the representation of Zaire. We may despise the Satire upon man though we praise the Lutrin, and laugh at the tragedy of Agesilaus though written by Corneille.