Poeta Nascitur


FLORENCE and Siena may contend for the palm of purity of speech, but both will award it to the peasants of the Pistoian mountains. Manzoni appealed to Florentine ladies for advice in the use of words and phrases, when writing his Promessi Sposi, but Giusti, D’Azeglio, and Tommaseo tarried with these golden-mouthed mountaineers, and pronounced them the masters of the “ sweet idiom.” Their valleys and hillsides have a more serious character than the vine-clad plains around Pistoia and Lucca ; for rivers and streams dash down narrow passes, slopes and summits are clothed with dark beech and pine, and the ground is covered with heather and Alpine flowers. We still meet on the breezy heights, in storm and sunshine alike, those vaghe montanine pastorelle of whom quaint old Franco Sacchetti gives such a picture, and we wonder whether they are as content with their songs, flowers, and garlands as the jolly story-teller would have us believe. In the wayside churches Luca della Robbia’s gleaming madonnas give the touch of far-reaching Tuscan art; and among the people themselves a gift for spontaneous verse seems to cast a poetic glamour over their frugal, difficult lives. The rustic courts his fair in words of such exquisite rhymed flattery and passion that one can but pity the lovers of colder tongues. Montaigne, traveling through Italy over three hundred years ago, describes an improvisatrice of this same land of song, in words which may not be inappropriate here : “ I had Divizia at the table with us. She is a poor peasant, and neither she nor her husband has any means of livelihood but the labor of their hands. She is a homely woman, thirty-seven years of age, . . . who can neither read nor write. But in her childhood there was in the house of her father an uncle, who read aloud to her from Ariosto and the other poets ; and her soul proved so attuned to poesy that she not only composes verses with admirable readiness, but introduces into them ancient fables, names of the gods, of foreign lands, of the sciences, and of famous men, as if she had been educated to study. She improvised many verses in my honor. To tell the truth, they are only verses and rhymes, but the language is most elegant and flowing.”

Our own times, however, present us with a greater than this obscure Divizia in Beatrice di Plan degl’ Ontani, a poetshepherdess who might claim a kinship of fancy with Nuremberg’s cobbler-poet and with Jasmin of Gascony. Beatrice died only a few years ago, and almost every proud compatriot can give some little reminiscence which has power to call up before the mind’s eye this gentle, talented old woman. Her photographs represent her with a singularly bright face, wavy gray hair tucked under a gay kerchief, and large, lustrous black eyes, which Cavaliere Tommaseo affirms to have possessed an inspired expression beyond that of Petrarch’s Laura. You may see her face in the frontispiece to Raskin’s Roadside Songs of Tuscany, as drawn by Francesca. She was born in one of the tiniest of the hamlets which nestle among the hills, and spent her childhood, like Sacchetti’s sweet shepherdesses, guarding goats in summer time, and in the winter going down with her father to his work in the Maremma. Though she caught up and dwelt on every song she heard, she composed nothing until her wedding day, in her twentieth year. As the bridal train wound along the narrow mountain path leading to her new home at Pian degl’ Ontani, Beatrice felt a strange power invade heart and brain, and, turning to Bernardo, the bridegroom, she for the first time poured forth her loving thoughts in jubilant verse. All were astonished at the hitherto undiscovered gift, and her uncle exclaimed, “ Ah, Beatrice, you have deceived me. If I had known you were so wise, you should have gone to the convent ” (to learn). The marriage song has vanished, like the bluebells and daisies which bloomed last year on the grassy slopes, but from that day Beatrice’s name went forth among her people ; and wherever there was a wedding or family feast among the Pistoian peasantry she was bidden, to make all glad with her God-given gift. Beatrice was very ready in the poetic gare, or contests, in which one peasant improvises a stanza or couplet, the opponent answers with another, and the rivalry is kept up until one of the two acknowledges himself or herself vanquished by a lack of divine afflatus. But she was not known outside of her own district until Tommaseo, coming up from Florence to collect folk-lore for his book, Canti Popolari, discovered Beatrice, and presented her to the literary world of the peninsula. The distinguished man of letters and the ignorant peasant became fast friends ; and in after-years, whenever Tommaseo came to the mountains, he would send for Beatrice to come and stay at his house, and she, calling gayly to her neighbors, “ Addio, I must be off ; my cavalier has arrived,” would set off at once. Both Tommaseo and the Abbate Giuliani have spoken of her delicacy and purity of feeling in rejecting all songs containing any coarse or ignoble reference to love; and here the litterati of Italy might well take a leaf out of the book of this unlettered singer.

Her favorite son, the eldest of eight children, inherited his mother’s talent, and the country people say it was delightful to hear them improvise together, reciting stanzas alternately, in the Tuscan fashion. It was this son’s death which caused her such bitter grief that, ten years afterwards, when Abbate Giuliani tried to persuade her to express her sorrow in verse, her choking emotion was such as to affect all bystanders. She did compose four touching stanzas, but broke off with the piteous lament, “ Since God took him from me my heart has never been consoled.”

In 1836, a terrible overflow of the Lima and Sestajone torrents carried off her humble home, and the family were compelled to take refuge in a hut, where the cold was so intense that she lost three fingers and her children were almost frozen to death. It was determined to erect a little house high up on the mountain-side, and for three months Beatrice worked all day long, carrying heavy stones from the bed of the river up to a considerable height, for the building of the new dwelling.

We think of Shirley’s lines,

“ Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the dust,”

when we hear of this woman’s kindness to her poorer neighbors. All beggars (and their name is legion here) found something at Beatrice’s door ; and when she went once on a pilgrimage, taking with her the customary provisions, she returned after a few days, hungry and empty-handed, having given her food to others apparently needier than herself. A golden thread of trust that “ providence is kind,” that " death ends all sorrows,” and that, “ if we stand well with God, there is naught to fear,” runs through the simple, loving life, which closed at a good old age. Her ashes rest in the peaceful little cemetery of Pian degl’ Ontani, — a less dreary spot than most Italian graveyards, for the friendly village is near by, and tall chestnut-trees cast dappled shadows across the green hillside. Over her grave are the words, —