Page images
PDF
EPUB

[THE following translation was executed at Ravenna, in February, 1820, and first saw the light in the pages of the unfortunate journal called "The Liberal." The merit of it, as Lord Byron over and over states in his letters, consists in the wonderful verbum pro verbo closeness of the version. It was, in fact, an exercise of skill in this art; and cannot be fairly estimated, without continuous reference to the original Italian, which the reader will now, for the first time, find placed opposite to the text. Those who want full information, and clear philosophical views, as to the origin of the Romantic Poetry of the Italians, will do well to read at length an article on that subject, from the pen of the late Ugo Foscolo, in the fortysecond number of the Quarterly Review. We extract from it the passage in which that learned writer applies himself more particularly to the Morgante of Pulci. After showing that all the poets of this class adopted as the groundwork of their fictions, the old wild materials which had for ages formed the stock in trade of the professed story-tellers, - -in those days a class of persons holding the same place in Christendom, and more especially in Italy, which their brothers still maintain all over the East, Foscolo thus proceeds:

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

"The customary forms of the narrative all find a place in romantic poetry: such are the sententious reflections suggested by the matters which he has just related, or arising in anticipation of those which he is about to relate, and which the story-teller always opens when he resumes his recitations; his defence of his own merits against the attacks of rivals in trade; and his formal leave-taking when he parts from his audience, and invites them to meet him again on the morrow. This method of winding up each portion of the poem is a favourite among the romantic poets; who constantly finish their cantos with a distich, of which the words may vary, but the sense is uniform.

[ocr errors]

All' altro canto ve farò sentire,

Se all' altro canto mi verrete a udire.'- ARIOSTO.

Or at the end of another canto, according to Harrington's translation, — 'I now cut off abruptly here my rhyme,

And keep my tale unto another time.'

"The forms and materials of these popular stories were adopted by writers of a superior class, who considered the vulgar tales of their pre

name.

decessors as blocks of marble finely tinted and variegated by the hand of nature, but which might afford a master-piece, when tastefully worked and polished. The romantic poets treated the traditionary fictions just as Dante did the legends invented by the monks to maintain their mastery over weak minds. He formed them into a poem, which became the admiration of every age and nation: but Dante and Petrarca were poets, who, though universally celebrated, were not universally understood. The learned found employment in writing comments upon their poems; but the nation, without even excepting the higher ranks, knew them only by At the beginning of the fifteenth century, a few obscure authors began to write romances in prose and in rhyme, taking for their subject the wars of Charlemagne and Orlando, or sometimes the adventures of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. These works were so pleasing, that they were rapidly multiplied: but the bards of romance cared little about style or versification, they sought for adventures, and enchantments, and miracles. We here obtain at least a partial explanation of the rapid decline of Italian poetry, and the amazing corruption of the Italian language, which took place immediately after the death of Petrarch, and which proceeded from bad to worse until the era of Lorenzo de' Medici. It was then that Pulci composed his Morgante for the amusement of Madonna Lucrezia, the mother of Lorenzo; and he used to recite it at table to Ficino, and Politian, and Lorenzo, and the other illustrious characters who then flourished at Florence: yet Pulci adhered strictly to the original plan of the popular story-tellers; and if his successors have embellished them so that they can scarcely be recognised, it is certain that in no other poem can they be found so genuine and native as in the Morgante. Pulci accommodated himself, though sportively, to the genius of his age. classical taste and sound criticism began to prevail, and great endeavours were making by the learned to separate historical truth from the chaos of fable and tradition: so that, though Pulci introduced the most extravagant fables, he affected to complain of the errors of his predecessors. 'I grieve,' he said, 'for my Emperor Charlemagne : for I see that his history has been badly written and worse understood.'

E del mio Carlo imperador m'increbbe ;

E' stata questa istoria, a quel ch'io veggio,
Di Carlo, male intesa e scritta peggio.'

"And whilst he quotes the great historian Leonardo Aretino with respect, he professes to believe the authority of the holy Archbishop Turpin, who is also one of the heroes of the poem. In another passage, where he imitates the apologies of the story-tellers, he makes a neat allusion to the taste of his audience. I know,' he says, 'that I must proceed straight-forward, and not tell a single lie in the course of my tale. This is not a story of mere invention: and if I go one step out of the right road, one chastises, another criticises, a third scolds- they try to drive me mad --but in fact they are out of their senses.'

"Pulci's versification is remarkably fluent. Yet he is deficient in melody; his language is pure, and his expressions flow naturally; but

his phrases are abrupt and unconnected, and he frequently writes ungrammatically. His vigour degenerates into harshness; and his love of brevity prevents the developement of his poetical imagery. He bears all the marks of rude genius; he was capable of delicate pleasantry, yet his smiles are usually bitter and severe. His humour never arises from points, but from unexpected situations strongly contrasted. The Emperor. Charlemagne sentences King Marsilius of Spain to be hanged for high treason; and Archbishop Turpin kindly offers his services on the occasion.

E' disse: Io vo', Marsilio, che tu muoja

Dove tu ordinasti il tradimento.

Disse Turpino: Io voglio fare il boja.
Carlo rispose: Ed io son ben contento
Che sia trattato di questi due cani

L'opera santa con le sante mani.'

"Here we have an emperor superintending the execution of a king, who is hanged in the presence of a vast multitude, all of whom are greatly edified at beholding an archbishop officiating in the character of a finisher of the law. Before this adventure took place, Caradoro had despatched an ambassador to the emperor, complaining of the shameful conduct of a wicked Paladin, who had seduced the princess his daughter. The orator does not present himself with modern diplomatic courtesy

'Macon t'abbatta come traditore,
O disleale e ingiusto imperadore!
A Caradoro è stato scritto, O Carlo,
O Carlo! O Carlo! (e crollava la testa)
De la tua corte, che non puoi negarlo,
De la sua figlia cosa disonesta.'

"O Charles,' he cried, Charles, Charles!' - and as he cried
He shook his head- a sad complaint I bring

Of shameful acts which cannot be denied:
King Caradore has ascertain❜d the thing,
Which comes moreover proved and verified
By letters from your own side of the water
Respecting the behaviour of his daughter.'

"Such scenes may appear somewhat strange; but Caradoro's embassy, and the execution of King Marsilius, are told in strict conformity to the notions of the common people; and as they must still be described if we wished to imitate the popular story-tellers. If Pulci be occasionally refined and delicate, his snatches of amenity resulted from the national character of the Florentines, and the revival of letters. But at the same time, we inust trace to national character, and to the influence of his daily companions, the buffoonery which, in the opinion of foreigners, frequently disgraces the poem. M. Ginguené has criticised Pulci in the usual style of his countrymen. He attributes modern manners to ancient times, and takes it for granted that the individuals of every other nation think and

act like modern Frenchmen. On these principles, he concludes that Pulci, both with respect to his subject and to his mode of treating it, intended only to write burlesque poetry; because, as he says, such buffoonery could not have been introduced into a composition recited to Lorenzo de' Medici and his enlightened guests, if the author had intended to be in earnest. In the fine portrait of Lorenzo given by Machiavelli at the end of his Florentine history, the historian complains that he took more pleasure in the company of jesters and buffoons than beseemed such a man. It is a little singular that Benedetto Varchi, a contemporary historian, makes the same complaint of Machiavelli himself. Indeed, many known anecdotes of Machiavelli, no less than his fugitive pieces, prove that it was only when he was acting the stateman that he wished to be grave; and that he could laugh like other men when he laid aside his dignity. We do not think he was in the wrong. But, whatever opinion may be formed on the subject, we shall yet be forced to conclude that great men may be compelled to blame the manners of their times, without being able to withstand their influence. In other respects, the poem of Pulci is serious, both in subject and in tone. And here we shall repeat a general observation, which we advise our readers to apply to all the romantic poems of the ItaliansThat their comic humour arises from the contrast between the constant endeavours of the writers to adhere to the forms and subjects of the popular story-tellers, and the efforts made at the same time by the genius of these writers to render such materials interesting and sublime.

"This simple elucidation of the causes of the poetical character of the Morgante has been overlooked by the critics; and they have therefore disputed with great earnestness during the last two centuries, whether the Morgante is written in jest or earnest; and whether Pulci is not an atheist, who wrote in verse for the express purpose of scoffing at all religion. Mr. Merivale inclines, in his Orlando in Roncesvalles, to the opinion of M. Ginguené, that the Morgante is decidedly to be considered as a burlesque poem, and a satire against the Christian religion. Yet Mr. Merivale himself acknowledges that it is wound up with a tragical effect, and dignified by religious sentiment; and is therefore forced to leave the question amongst the unexplained, and perhaps inexplicable phenomena of the human mind.' If a similar question had not been already decided, both in regard to Shakspeare and to Ariosto, it might be still a subject of dispute whether the former intended to write tragedies, and whether the other did not mean to burlesque his heroes. It is a happy thing that, with regard to those two great writers, the war has ended by the fortunate intervention of the general body of readers, who on such occasions, form their judgment with less erudition and with less prejudice than the critics. But Pulci is little read, and his age is little known. We are told by Mr. Merivale, that the points of abstruse theology are discussed in the Morgante with a degree of sceptical freedom which we should imagine to be altogether remote from the spirit of the fifteenth century.' Mr. Merivale follows M. Ginguené, who follows Voltaire. And the philosopher of Ferney, who was always beating up in all quarters for allies against Christianity, collected all the scriptural passages of Pulci, upon which he commented in his own way. But it is only since the Council of

Trent, that any doubt which might be raised on a religious dogma exposed an author to the charge of impiety; whilst, in the fifteenth century, a Catholic might be sincerely devout, and yet allow himself a certain degree of latitude in theological doubt. At one and the same time the Florentines might well believe in the Gospel and laugh at a doctor of divinity: for it was exactly at this era that they had been spectators of the memorable controversies between the representatives of the eastern and western churches. Greek and Latin bishops from every corner of Christendom had assembled at Florence for the purpose of trying whether they could possibly understand each other; and when they separated, they hated each other worse than before. At the very time when Pulci was composing his Morgante, the clergy of Florence protested against the excommunications pronounced by Sixtus IV., and with expressions by which his holiness was anathematised in his turn. During these proceedings, an archbishop, convicted of being a papal emissary, was hanged from one of the windows of the government palace at Florence: this event may have suggested to Pulci the idea of converting another archbishop into a hangman. The romantic poets substituted literary and scientific observations for the trivial digressions of the story-tellers. This was a great improvement: and although it was not well managed by Pulci, yet he presents us with much curious incidental matter. In quoting his philosophical friend and contemporary Matteo Palmieri, he explains the instinct of brutes by a bold hypothesis -he supposes that they are animated by evil spirits. This idea gave no offence to the theologians of the fifteenth century; but it excited much orthodox indignation when Father Bougeant, a French monk, brought it forward as a new theory of his own. Mr. Merivale, after observing that Pulci died before the discovery of America by Columbus, quotes a passage which will become a very interesting document for the philosophical historian.' We give it in his prose translation: -"The water is level through its whole extent, although, like the earth, it has the form of a globe. Mankind in those ages were much more ignorant than now. Hercules would blush at this day for having fixed his columns. Vessels will soon pass far beyond them. They may soon reach another hemisphere, because every thing tends to its centre; in like manner, as by a divine mystery, the earth is suspended in the midst of the stars; here below are cities and empires, which were ancient. The inhabitants of those regions were called Antipodes. They have plants and animals as well as you, and wage wars as well as you.'- Morgante, c. xxv. st. 229, &c.

[ocr errors]

"The more we consider the traces of ancient science, which break in transient flashes through the darkness of the middle ages, and which gradually re-illuminated the horizon, the more shall we be disposed to adopt the hypothesis suggested by Bailly, and supported by him with seductive eloquence. He maintained that all the acquirements of the Greeks and Romans had been transmitted to them as the wrecks and fragments of the knowledge once possessed by primæval nations, by empires of sages and philosophers, who were afterwards swept from the face of the globe by some overwhelming catastrophe. His theory may be considered as extravagant; but if the literary productions of the Romans were not yet extant, it would seem incredible, that, after the lapse of a few centuries,

« PreviousContinue »