Howells's Modern Italian Poets

MR. HOWELLS practices the profession of the critic somewhat half-heartedly, with little seeming care whether he is original, convincing, or even thorough. Does he suspect that his own critical work is as unprofitable as that of others ? In his preface he prospectively

“ applauds the discernment ” of the wellfurnished scholar who may observe that this volume 1 “ does not fully represent the Italian poetry of the period which it covers chronologically,” namely, the hundred years ending with 1870 ; and in the text he finds occasions to confess his lack of acquaintance with considerable portions of the works of the poets under review. He is sure, however, that no name of importance nor any work of real distinction has been left out of the survey. With this the reader readily agrees. The last century in Italy has not been so fruitful of poetical genius that there need be any fear lest even a cursory account of it should be seriously defective. A more noticeable point is the great indebtedness of Mr. Howells to the Italian critics. He is full of praise for them, and he translates and condenses from their pages with almost a compiler’s hand. These essays, consequently, exhibit an Italianated view. The natural error for a critic who neglects the drearier work of the poets of whom he treats is to overestimate their performance; and if he leans overmuch on the national and largely contemporary criticism of them by their countrymen, he may anticipate falling into still greater exaggeration. Mr. Howells’s studies sometimes suffer from these causes, with others. Men of thorough poetic culture will be slow to ascribe such importance to the Italian patriotic school as is here allowed them. But to lend something to his subject is the privilege of an entertaining writer, and this book, besides being the only account of the matter in English, contains the impressions of a twenty years’ rambling acquaintance with nineteenth-century Italian poems; moreover, Mr. Howells is a true lover of modern Italy.

Mr. Howells is so much more the novelist than the critic, his interest in manners so exceeds his interest in sentiment, passion, and the attractiveness of ideal things, that he succeeds best when he permits the novelist in him to displace the critic, and frankly paints the follies instead of judging the verses of the time. Much the most captivating of the essays, the one in which the author himself seems to be most enlivened with his tale, is the little sketch of the Areadians of elegant society, who piped and sang at the levees of the people of good taste in the last century. There is no poet of the patriotic school, with which it is the purpose of this volume to deal, who lives before our eyes with half the vivacity and individuality of poor Frugoni, at the Casa Landi at Parma, in this introductory study of the conditions prevailing in Italy just before the modern poets began their career. It is the old trick of impaling the butterfly, but it is very happily done. In the body of the essays, too, Mr. Howells succeeds best with the satirical poets. The subject lends itself more naturally to his instinctive handling. Parini, for example, is not put to any critical account of himself, but the world he lived in, the trivial fop he put to shame, and in doing so shamed the whole state of things in the Italian degradation, and in fact the entire social furniture, all the theatrical belongings, of his principal poem, are very sharply rendered, in the satirical way, by the faculty Mr. Howells possesses of seeing and reproducing the minor morals of society. In the same way, in his translations he labors with most ease, and is at his best in his readings from Giuseppe Giusti, whose genius was strongly intellectual and dashed with wit. The feeling of the extracts which are here given is expressed in the English version with more completeness, with less sense of loss in the transition from the Italian, than is the case with the examples from the dramatic or sentimental poets. One reason is because the Beppolike movement of the poems of Giusti accords with the novelist’s temperament better than any other; and as with Parini and Frugoni, Mr. Howells penetrates the subject, and appropriates it more readily and completely.

When one comes to the leading names upon the roll, Alfieri, Manzoni, Leopardi, he feels that Mr. Howells moves with considerable doubt and hesitation : he shows none of that conscious mastery of the subject which gives verve and flow to his sketches of Italian society; and even in his remarks upon the situation and characters of the dramas, his experience in dealing with similar matters in the novel does not help him so much as would be expected. In the biographical narrative, which makes a part of each essay, he exhibits his character-drawing ; but the scale is too small, and the personal interest is too much blended with other matters. It is scarcely too limited a phrase to employ, to describe the critical substance of these essays, if we say they are nothing more than impressions: the author himself does not make any higher claim for them, and has apparently no intention of really drawing critical portraits of these men, of the kind in which one must be exacting. He has written down the thoughts of an interested reader on the literature with which he has been entertained, but without attempting that grasp, close comprehension, precision, unity, or that sleepless regard for relative values in literature which should characterize an adequate critical survey. He notes a few traits of the historical development, — the French classicism of structure in Alfieri, the romantic revival in Manzoni, the skeptical reaction in Leopardi; he finds in the poets, from Alfieri down to the last Sicilian songwriter of Palermo, the single trait, fairly to be called common were it not for Monti, of passionate devotion to the cause of Italy, and he calls them the heirs of the old Florentine anti-papal tradition. This characterizes them as men rather than as poets ; in insisting on it so emphatically, Mr. Howells leaves the reader in danger of losing sight of other aspects of their poetry ; in fact he uses this patriotic quality in their verse, apparently, to relieve himself of the onus of criticism from the æsthetic side.

His essay on Leopardi, in particular, is narrow; he tells his life and translates some of his verses, but he does not render the man with any completeness or lifelikeness; nor does he appreciate the reach and meaning of his genius, apart from his personality. On the other hand, where the patriotism of the poet is all there is to him, this point of view greatly helps his fame, and in the larger number of the poets dealt with this happy result is observable. The absorption of the reader’s attention in the patriotic quality of the work under discussion gives a vital interest to what would otherwise be dry ; and occasionally he is roused to a higher pitch of feeling by what is in itself fervid. The stornelli of Francesco Dall’ Ongaro are often battle - cries, and they are rendered by Mr. Howells with great force, and even pathos. One of them may serve as an example of the mood of the times ; its subject is from the Milanese massacre of 1848, and is called the Lombard Woman : —

Here, take these gaudy robes and put them by;
I will go dress me black as widowhood;
I have seen blood run, I have heard the cry
Of him that struck and him that vainly sued.
Henceforth no other ornament will I
But on my breast a ribbon red as blood.
“ And when they ask what dyed the silk so red,
I ’ll say, The life-blood of my brothers dead.
And when they ask how it may cleansèd be,
I ’ll say, Oh, not in river nor in sea ;
Dishonor passes not in wave nor flood;
My ribbon ye must wash in German blood.”

When poetry is so close to life as this, it is always stirring, and it will be a long time before the heat of these nineteenth-century revolutions passes away. In the land that produced them, this literary record of the conflict, in such verses as these we have quoted, and in others that do not so instantly wake sympathy, must have a special value from the appeal they make to the new national feeling ; their writers were the heroes of the fight, oftentimes, in person ; and so, as a chapter of patriotic service done by literature for Italy, the work of these poets is spirited reading. To us the minor poets have frequently been most touching. In dealing with them, Mr. Howells forgets a good many things that a critic does well to forget: he forgets to be an advocate, and recollects his proselytizing vocation only when treating some more important matter, as, for example, in his attempted tolerance of Manzoni as a romanticist, because it was impossible at that time to be anything else; but this does not secure for him a catholic view of that distinguished writer, an understanding of his temperament and position ; he translates the Ode to Napoleon, but he tells us little else about the man. Altogether, it must be acknowledged that the volume has drawbacks, of which one, let us say parenthetically, is the extraordinarily poor portraits ; it is uneven in its interest and limited in the aspects it presents ; yet it is an addition to the popular knowledge of a foreign and little known literature, and to the body of our translated poetry.

  1. Modern Italian Poets. Essays and Versions. By W. D. HOWELLS. With Portraits. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1887.