Italian Poetry

MR. SYMONDS’S two volumes,1 already well known as published in England, are a collection of essays mainly on Italian subjects, most of them first written for the Cornhill Magazine and the Fortnightly Review. In a certain sense, this is a book of travels, and yet between this and the old-fashioned book of travels there is a vast difference. The enlargement of the functions of our newspapers and the increased ease of communication have both done their part in working this change in what is written about foreign countries. If there is a great occasion, such as the Ober-Ammergau play, we hear of it not from the published journal of a chance traveler, but from the “ special correspondent ; ” while the picturesque incidents of travel are reduced to a minimum by the railway and the telegraph. A comparison of what Mr. Symonds has to say of the ruins at Syracuse and Girgenti and of Palermo with Mr. Patrick Brydone’s account of the same places in his Tour through Sicily and Malta, published just one hundred years ago, makes it plain that it was far easier then than now to write what was readable and new about foreign parts. The adventures which befell the travelers, their entertainment by various great people, — notably by the clergy at Girgenti, who all, from the bishop down, became disgracefully drunk on the occasion, — fill the greater part of Brydone’s entertaining book, the interest of which culminates in a description of the festival of Saint Rosalia at Palermo, far beyond the powers of the “special correspondents ” of to-day. In place of such an account of personal adventures, with scattered reflections upon the monuments, the people, their history and their literature, Mr. Symonds has written upon these various themes a number of careful essays, each of which may profitably be read out of connection with the rest.

Adopting the rough classification of the title, we will consider first the sketches, and then the studies. In the sketches is given a description of various places and works of art which the author has visited and studied. The places are, for the most part, off the beaten track of tourists, such as Bergamo, Cremona, and Orvieto. The studies are upon historical, literary, and æsthetic subjects, too numerous and various to summarize. In the sketch of a town Mr. Symonds first strives to call it up before the mind by an effective description, and then carries the reader with him to see its great monuments and pictures, telling also of the striking names and events which fill its past. Of Amalfi he gives a most vivid picture, as follows: “ The houses are all dazzling white, plastered against the naked rock, rising on each other’s shoulders to get a glimpse of earth and heaven, jutting out on coigns of vantage from the toppling cliff, and pierced with staircases as dark as night at noonday. Some frequented lanes lead through the basements of these houses; and as the donkeys pick their way from step to step bare - chested macaroni - makers crowd forth to see us strangers pass. A myriad of swallows or a swarm of masonbees might build a town like this.”

In his account of historical persons Mr. Symonds is equally vivid. One of the most interesting chapters is that on Como and the pirate - prince, whose brother became Pope Pius VI., and whose sister was the mother of Saint Carlo Borromeo, while he himself was variously known as II Medeghino Gian Giacomo de’ Medici and the Marquis of Marignano. It is in what he writes of the art of Italy that Mr. Symonds seems to be least effective; not because he finds fault with things recognized as the greatest, but because he has chosen things of minor importance for mention in these pages. This, no doubt, is due in part to the fact that he has very properly sought to write on unhackneyed topics ; but, allowing for this, surely the pages devoted to Correggio’s frescoes at Parma might have been fewer, and thus have left room for some account of the frescoes in the church of St. Francis at Assisi. And, more than this, the works of art on which our author’s great power of description is lavished are very apt to be of the later time; he seems fond of dwelling upon the overwrought detail in Renaissance work, though he himself says that much of the Renaissance art is “ worth more for its decorative detail than for its constructive design.”

The many studies of literature which these volumes contain show that literature is the field where our author is most completely at home. Indeed, the three chapters on English Blank Verse, added by way of an appendix, will seem to many almost the best part of his book. Nowhere have the supreme merits of Shakespeare’s versification been more clearly and appreciatively pointed out; and Milton’s periods are here most triumphantly defended against Dr. Johnson’s ponderous attacks. All that is required to justify these great poets is that their verses should be read with reference to the meaning and connection, in place of making emendations and changes to suit the over-refined ears of Pope’s admirers. In the essays on Popular Italian Poetry of the Renaissance and on the Orfeo of Poliziano, the reader finds copious translations of Poliziano’s poetry, with a commentary which by no means overpraises that scholarly trifler. Unfortunately, even Mr. Symonds’s skill cannot adequately reproduce the slender charm of a writer like Poliziano. The worth of his poetry lies completely in the way in which he expresses things in themselves hardly worth saying, in the skill and taste displayed in fitting together turns of expression and thoughts, which are borrowed most frequently, perhaps, from Virgil and the later Latin poets, but very often, too, from Dante or from Guido Guinicelli and other early Italians. If Poliziano was satisfied with the manner in which he had expressed himself, he was capable of losing all sense of appropriateness, and would drag in his musical tour de force at any point; and this is the best proof that he hardly bestowed a thought upon what he was saying. Certain musical lines on the inconstancy of woman, to be found in his Stanze per la Giostra, reappear in the lament of Orpheus over the loss of Eurydice, whom he had but just won from the domain of Pluto. Their effect in this new context is simply ludicrous, and it is not surprising that Mr. Symonds, though he did not notice where these lines were taken from, should complain, in speaking of the whole of Orpheus’s lament, that the poet “ fails to dignify ” his hero’s grief.

If the Orfeo of Poliziano hardly deserved the pains which Mr. Symonds bestowed upon its translation, the same is by no means true of the popular ballads reproduced in the chapter on Popular Songs of Tuscany. What could be simpler and more winning than these lines ?

“ Grind, miller, grind; the water’s deep!
I cannot grind; love makes me weep.
Grind, miller, grind; the waters flow!
I cannot grind, love wastes me so.”

One of the most entertaining of these studies is on Two Dramatists of the Last Century. It is a contrast between Alfieri and Goldoni, founded upon their autobiographies, which culminates as follows : —

“ These two scenes would make agreeable companion pictures : Goldoni staggering beneath his wife across the muddy bed of an Italian stream, — the smiling writer of agreeable plays with his half-tearful helpmate, ludicrous in her disasters ; Alfieri mad with rage among Parisian Mænads, his princess quaking in her carriage, the air hoarse with cries, and death and safety trembling in the balance.” The essay on Antinous and the one on Lucretius are most excellent and solid contributions to our knowledge. The account of the worship of Antinous is particularly thoughtful, and the essentially Roman traits of Lucretius are most appreciatively set forth.

Speaking broadly of the style in which these essays are written, it should be said that Mr. Symonds’s very exceptional command of English, which so constantly makes his work attractive, sometimes has the opposite effect; the language occasionally seems to outstrip the thought, as in the following passage written of the Baglioni at Perugia: —

“From the balconies and turrets of these palaces, swarming with their bravi, they surveyed the splendid land that felt their force, — a land which, even in midsummer, from sunrise to sunset, keeps the light of day upon its upturned face.” Again, at the beginning of a most interesting and instructive chapter upon Rimini, Mr. Symonds speaks of the story of Francesca da Polenta as “ known not merely to students of Dante, but to readers of Byron, ... to all, in fact, who have of art and letters any love.” But whatever flaws may be found in them, these essays make every one who reads them look forward with pleasure to new work from Mr. Symonds, and rekindle in those who have seen it a yearning to revisit “ the fair land where the Si doth sound,” while they open a new world to those who have not traveled there.

  1. Sketches and Studies in Southern Europe. By JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS, Author of Studios of the Greek Poets, etc. In two volumes. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.