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Foreign Literature, Science, and Art
VOL. CXL. IX.} JANUARY, 1903.
THIRD SERIES. VOL. IX.
ITALIAN POETS OF TO-DAY.*
It has been the vogue for a considerable time to speak of contemporary Italian literature as a negligible quantity; as at best a beautiful garden, now untended and unkempt, where the few flowers are all but undiscoverable among the wilderness of weedy growths-a garden illumined, it may be, by the sunset radiance of Carducci, or by the summer-lightning of Gabriele D'Annunzio. Generalizations of the kind are notoriously misleading. Guy de Maupassant trenchantly alluded to them as the boomerangs of the would-be clever, that on occasion might hit their object, but were more likely to return upon the thrower. The other day we read in a foreign summary that, since Walter Scott, no novelists of note had appeared in our country, and that since Byron the British muse had been silent. This statement is not further from mark than that alluded to as common among us, nor than the rash assertion
1. "Poesie." By Giosue Carducci (complete poetical works in one volume). Bologna: Zanichelli, 1900.
2. "Poesie Scelte"; "Valsolda"; etc. Antonio Fogazzaro. Milan: Fratelli Treves, 1900.
8. "Dopo il Tramonto"; "LA Danaidi"; "Mor gana"; etc. By Arturo Graf. Milan: Fratelli Treves, 1890-1901. "Medusa." By the same. (New edition.) Turin: Loescher, 1890.
4. "Fatalita"; "Tempeste"; etc. By Ada Negri. Milan: Fratelli Treves, 1895; 1896. 5. "Myricae." By Giovanni Pascoli. Livor
made a short time ago by one who ought to have known better, that there was not а latter-day poet, painter, or musician in Italy who stood above mediocrity-and this in the Italy of Carducci, of Segantini, of Verdi!
A juster note was struck a few years ago by one of the foremost French critics, the Vicomte Melchior de Vogüé, in whose now famous essay on the Latin Renaissance occur these significant words:
L'Italie est à cette heure le foyer d'une véritable renaissance de la poésie et du roman. L'esprit, qui souffle où il veut, rallume là des clartés évanouies sous d'autres cieux.
In the same year an Italian critic of repute, Alberto Manzi, thus hopefully concludes "a summary and outlook":
Young, strong, feverishly studious and laborious, Italy is passing through a fertile period of preparation which will before long lead to a great and
no: Giusti, 1890. "Poemetti." By the same. Milan: Sandron, 1900.
6. "Poesie" (Edizione Definitiva): "La Gioconda": Francesca da Rimini"; etc. By Gabriele D'Annunzio. Milan: Fratelli Treves, 1896-1001. "La Canzone di Garibaldi." By the same. Florence: Barbiera, 1897.
7. "Dal Nostri Poet! Viventi." An anthology. Edited by Signora Eugenia Levi. Florence: Barbiera, 1891.
8. "Le Tendenze Presenti della Letteratura Italiana." By Fausto Squillace. Turin: Roux, 1899.
splendid display of her artistic, liter- pagan. Into this conflict of "les deux ary, and scientific vitality.
The truth must be sought somewhere between these optimistic declarations and the deep despondency of the late Ruggero Bonghi, who (writing, it must be remembered, some five or six years earlier, and at a time of exceptional national depression) expressed himself thus:
In the literary life of the nation there are signs of the same languor that paralyzes its economical life. I see no sign of improvement. I should be very glad if there were a way out of so great a lethargy; but I do not find it. I think that the chief cause is the lack of any strong moral movement; there is nothing that agitates the public mind.
The gracious phrase of Monsieur de Vogüé not only aroused European attention, but was welcomed in Italy, and sank deep into the finer national consciousness.
French critic was accepted as a prophet. For Italy he foresees a worthy destiny. It is not, perhaps, the destiny dreamed of by those who carved the inchoate "geographical expression" into the solidarity of a united realm; or of those who to-day would strain the national resources for the fata morgana of a militant worldpower; but it is a destiny at once high and possible. It is not, says M. de Vogüé truly, to be achieved by war, or with great ships. It is not a destiny to be won by the sword, but by the pen ("avec quelques condottieri de la plume").
But what is of more immediate concern is that the Vicomte de Vogüé discerns clearly what the student of contemporary Italian literature must realize if he is to form a just estimate, that there is in the Italian genius a conflict of two opposing influences, the one mystical, idealistic, austere, at times ascetic, the other sensual and
génies opposés, qui se disputèrent de tout temps l'âme italienne," has entered another element, the brooding spirit of the North. To the sadness and pessimism inherent in the Latin nature, along with the more obvious pagan delight in and absorbing preoccupation with life for life's sake, have come another sadness and another preoccupation. The "Melancolia" that Dürer limned in symbol, and De Quincey adumbrated in words, and the musicians of the North breathed in strange airs and harmonies; that Schopenhauer has disclosed, and Ibsen served, and Nietszche interpreted; that has inspired the Slavonic mind from Tolstoi and Turgéniev to Dostoievski and Maxim Gorki-this new melancholy (coming to Italy ever with a Teutonic aspect and accent) has taken its place in the Italian soul, to work for good or evil. We hear much of the pagan tendency of the Latin genius; to-day the thought of Italy is more colored with longing and bewilderment than with that hedonistic vision of life which is supposed to be the peculiar attribute of the peoples of the South. It is not D'Annunzio (as is so commonly assumed abroad) who is the true representative of the Italian mind, not even Carducci, the greatest of Italian poets since Leopardi; the true representatives are writers such as the northerners Antonio Fogazzaro, Arturo Graf, Ada Negri; as the southerners Mario Rapisardi, Giovanni Verga, Matilde Serao. In these the cry of revolt is against the conditions of life as produced by human wrong and folly. In Carducci it is a vain cry of revolt against the inevitable change of ideals and circumstances, a longing for the life that beauty that has decayed; the cry that finds utterance in verses like these
cry of was, the
L'ora presente è in vano, non fa che percuotere e fugge:
the cry that in his militant prose echoes in phrases such as this: "Poetry to-day is useless from not having learned that it has no concern with the exigencies of the moment." When, however, we speak of a vain cry we mean only that echo of those poets who lament, not for what is gone and might yet be restored, but for what is irrecoverable; the echo, for example, of Leopardi, who wasted his powerful genius in a continuous lyrical lamentation. Carducci's strength stands revealed in degree as his inspiration and outlook transcend individual regret; his weakness stands as clearly revealed in that section of his poetical work wherein he cries insistently for the moon.
In D'Annunzio we hear another cry -the cry of revolt again, but of revolt against spiritual and intellectual ennui, of revolt against the wise tyranny of the actual, of revolt against that straight road of the commonweal, the via media which the wisdom of the ancients has projected far beyond us into the ages to follow; the cry of temperament, the cry of exacerbated nerves, the cry of the singer who thinks of the whole world as an air to be played delicately upon his flute, the cry of art withdrawn from the heart into the mind, the cry of egoism, of the supreme egotist.
It is because of this triple element in contemporary Italian literature-this mystical, idealistic, austere element, this sensual and pagan element, and this element of intellectual melancholy -"cette vraie maladie septentrionale," as M. Bourget calls it-that we shall do better to seek its reflection in the writings of a few typical minds rather than in the "immagine fluente" presented by the ampler but confused mir
The present hour is as naught; it is gone even as it sounds
ror of the literature of the day and hour-a mirror in which we may discover tendencies and tide-reach and ebb-fall, but too vast and complex for any but the broadest synthesis of what it reveals. And as this article is to deal with the outstanding features of recent Italian poetry, and not with the complex physiognomy of fiction, the selection should comprise only the most significant figures-Carducci and Arturo Graf and D'Annunzio, Antonio Fogazzaro and Ada Negri and Giovanni Pascoli. Among the rest are many poets of fine achievement, one or two of rare excellence, whom to pass by here is not to ignore.
There has been a singular undulatory movement in Italian literature during the last quarter of a century. A wave of talent gathers from the still lagoons, but is barely discerned, at most has moved only a short way, before it lapses; then again the listless waste; then again a wave; and so the melancholy rhythm alternates. But in each successive period the wave is wider, perhaps also deeper. If, in the intervals, the sad prophets have been wont to lament with Bonghi, the more hopeful have been too apt to hail the wave when it comes as no less than an upheaval of the Risorgimento. Both in some degree mislead; but it is wiser to go a little astray with the eager than to stumble in the slough of despond. To-day three main factors act as deterrents on Italian literature: the absence of a united national ideal; the continually more conspicuous recession of religious faith in the direction of a callous formalisin; and the profound discontent with existing conditions, political, social, economic, which finds vent in the steady growth of a crude socialism, and, concurrently, in a gathering disbelief in the stability
In the past alone is Beauty: only in death is the True.
of the monarchical rock against the coming flood.
Under these depressing influences, it is to "Young Italy" that the nation looks above all for salutary inspiration. The high hopes, the passionate Risorgimento of the days of the Austrian struggle, of the Garibaldian liberation, of the Mazzinian gospel of emancipation, of the triumph of Rome, of the Unification, seem to have lapsed. Heavy taxation, the strain of supporting a great army and a powerful navy, the disastrous enterprise in Abyssinia, the futile dreams of colonial empire, the slow disintegration of monarchical influence, the growth of a hostile socialism, the apparition of the anarchist, the bitter trade-rivalry with France, the tragic assassination of the devoted head of the state, son of the Liberator-King, the financial scandals in Rome, the labor-risings from Milan to Palermo, the recurrent ferment in Sicily, the misery of Apulia, the gradual depopulation of Calabria-all this, and more, has moved "immortal Italy" to its depths. It is a welcome augury that, in despite of all, the nation does not despair; that her statesmen hope; that her poets and dreamers proclaim a new day. "If only we could believe in the honesty and far-sightedness of those set above us, we would shape our destiny as our noblest and truest discern it"-that is what one hears everywhere, from Genoa to Venice, from Messina to Milan.
Alas! that "prevalent political leprosy," on which Ruggero Bonghi so continually laid sad insistence, is more than all else accountable for the trouble. The Neapolitans have a saying "Every one is unsettled when Vesuvius is restless"; and, unfortunately, there is a moral Vesuvius which keeps the intellectual activities of the nation in a feverish excitation when it is not in a torpor of hesitancy. Here we
have the chief clue to that ominously frequent ebb and flow to which allusion has been made. The causes act so potently that the results immediately follow; for example, after 1887, a year of great despondency and disquietude, the publications of 1888 were fewer by some three hundred. No wonder that in this year Bonghi wrote, “In all that makes literature, my native country has certainly grown feeble and weary, and is growing more so every year." For the next year or two almost nothing of note appeared. A young poet, Mario di Siena, a youth of seventeen, on whom high hopes were set, proved to be but one of the innumerable stelle cadenti. Even that new meteor, D'Annunzio, showed himself at his weakest in "Giovanni Episcopo."
In 1891 the slow wave began to lift again. Carducci published his noble and patriotic lyrical epic, "Piemonte"; and the marked success which met Signora Eugenia Levi's delightful anthology, "Dai Nostri Poeti Viventi," showed that not only was Italy "a nest of singing birds," but that a publle far wider than had been foreseen waited ready to listen. Three wellknown writers of charming verse added to their reputation by the publication of collective editions about this time-Guido Mazzoni, Giovanni Marradi, and Aurelio Costanzo; and the "Carducci of the South," the Sicilian master-poet, Mario Rapisardi, made all the insurgent element of Italy reecho with the fierce lyrical cries of his "Giustizia," while at the same time he won the admiration of the critics by his delicate "Empedocle." The brief wave culminated before the lapse of 1893 in the beautiful "Myricae" of Giovanni Pascoli, one of the freshest, most winsome, and happiest of modern Italian books; in an "outburst" of the minor Sicilian poets, fired, perhaps, by Rapisardi's return to popularity—