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self; and even if, after reading his book, you did not doubt the unexceptionable greatness of all the Italian writers of this century, you must hate them for their abominable, superhuman perfection. In looking through Italie, est-elle la Terre des Morts? you begin to appreciate the feelings of the good citizen who ostracised Aristides for his integrity; and you are not at all sorry that so many of these faultlessly great poets have suffered in prison and exile.
In prison and exile you find them to have been nearly all, (for reasons to come presently,) both from Monnier's book and from the series of popular biographies to which we have had frequent occasion to turn for information not to be found elsewhere. The “National Gallery of Contemporary Italians” is formed of some fourscore little books, uniformly printed, and sketching, with a curious uniformity of style, the lives of all distinguished Italians, warriors, statesmen, and literati of the present century. Each book or number of the series contains some eighty or ninety pages of letter-press, and a steel-plate likeness (more or less unlike) of the biographical subject. If the hero is a man of letters, the writer usually gives a résumé of the titles and nature of his works, while very intelligently developing the facts of his life. It sometimes happens that these biographies are by authors of reputation, like Dall'Ongaro and Cantù, but they seem generally written by young men, - if one may guess from a certain effusion of manner, - and by men whose names we do not find elsewhere in literature. There has been sufficient adventure and misfortune in the lives of most Italian littérateurs of this age to furnish material for dramatic biography; but whatever the poet's life has been, his biographer contrives to make him a hero of drama. Those little heart-breaks, to which we are all more or less subject between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three, are sometimes brought in for thrilling effect, and the ingenious historian does not hesitate at other times to introduce the private affairs of living people to relieve or heighten the tone of his facts. It will be naturally supposed that the exigencies of composition are severely felt by the authors of these little books, and indeed there is a good deal of gorgeous writing in them; but, after all, the defects of intentionally popular literature are less observable in them than
would be expected, and they are occasionally written with dignity and excellent sense. It must be confessed, that we have, in our language, nothing of corresponding utility and convenience. They assist and simplify the study of modern Italian literature in a very great degree; they incidentally and agreeably teach much of the history of contemporary Italy; their political and religious opinions are generous and liberal; and altogether they impress us well with the natural intelligence of the classes to which they seem chiefly addressed, namely, the Italian youth, and those elders of the populace to whom hard work and harder laws have, till now, denied the sources of knowledge and education.
We fear, indeed, that the Italian reader, if ever it were the hard fate of one of the greatly suffering Italian race to read so far into the book called “Italics” as to reach the chapter on literature, would not form half so flattering a notion of the people to whom Miss Cobbe's absurdities could be gravely addressed by an author of certain reputation in some kinds of writing. It must be confessed to our shame, however, that Miss Cobbe's error justly represents a most respectable plurality of ignorance on the subject among us.
In fact, it so exactly expresses the opinion of vast numbers of otherwise intelligent people, that you are led to suspect the author of " Italics” of not having looked at modern Italian literature at all, but rather believe she has chosen to put down the indolent and flippant guesses of intelligent foreigners in Italy as much wiser criticism than acquaintance with the subject could have reached. Profession of knowledge is so amiable a trait, and is so especially characteristic of reviewers, that we hardly venture to blame Miss Cobbe for feigning to know all about something of which she is evidently ignorant; and since we think there is a large and influential party that shares her mistakes, we will treat with tenderness the ignorance which declares concerning the language and letters of modern Italy, that “the very language has been watered down since Dante's time, till for a dozen words of his strong vocabulary about eighteen or twenty of modern flowing verbiage are needed"; that “the nation seems to have been set the task of expressing the smallest quantity of thought with the most words and the greatest number of syllables"; that
56 though Mazzini, D'Azeglio, and Passaglia all write and speak with combined elegance and vigor, lesser men can make nothing of the language"; that "there are no authors, because there are no readers, in Italy” ; that “ Italian genius has been silent for two centuries, or rather, like the fires of her volcanoes, it has been slumbering under its lava”; that “a modern Italian book is as wearisome to read as the Henriade”; that " of anything to be called a national literature there has been as yet no sign in Italy."
This, it must be confessed, is but a desolate and disheartening prospect for that gentle reader or two whom we hope to lead to some acquaintance with modern Italian poetry by the desultory paths we have already trodden. But we had lately the happiness of sitting with them to see some Recent Italian Comedies, and to look about on the audience to which they were played ; and we trust that, if they were not wholly displeased at that time, they will not desert us here. We grant that, seen through Miss Cobbe's respectable spectacles, the way before us is not inviting, and that there is even a certain danger in passing over the genius which has been slumbering for two hundred years under its lava ; but we think we may go safely through, and here and there find a flower which we remember to have seen in those arid wilds, catch now and then the sad or sweet note of a bird, and hear the gurgle of a woodland spring.
Before setting out, however, let us look for a moment at that notion of the dilution of the language since Dante's time. It seems rather plausible, and in these days there has been a good deal thoughtlessly said and thoughtlessly accepted concerning the incapacity of Italian for condensed and terse expression. We suppose no one, not even Miss Cobbe, would judge the quality of modern Italian prose by Dante's verse, in which poetic license is employed to exscind every superfluity; but if she had known the Italian poetry of this century, she would have known that in no age since Dante's has the language found such bold, strong use. We do not mean to compare any poet of this time with Dante: he is alone in his greatness of thought and utterance; but if it were possible to liken another to him, there is no doubt that Ugo Foscolo, who died in 1820, would be found in diction much nearer
Dante's “strong vocabulary” than Petrarch is. As to the prose of the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries, we cannot expect any one to compare the cumbrous, pedantic, tautological forms of the men who wrote in Latin to make their fame, and in Italian to amuse themselves, with the clear, straightforward, manly style of the best Italian thinkers and novelists of our day. With the poor writers of this time, or of any time, we have nothing to do, and refuse to consider them at all. It is only when the poets and thinkers who are acknowledged greatest fall into affected and vicious expression, that a language can be called diluted or corrupt; and not, as in Italy now, when those writers who have the greatest fame write forcibly and elegantly. There is no literature outside of their books, for the productions of inferior writers have absolutely no existence in any tongue as literature, write they never so much ; few people copy them; the first man of power who has reason to speak casts them and their manner forever aside as intolerable rubbish, and speaks as mightily and solidly as if there had never been milk-and-water in the world. Even the vices of the greatest writers of a period are but transient in their effects, and have not much to do with enfeebling a language, unless other causes have doomed it to extinction. There never was, perhaps, anything so execrably bad as the diction of English poetry, after Pope had given it the hand-organ movement; yet in the midst of the imitative hand-organists who followed Pope, real poets like Gray, Thomson, Collins, and Goldsmith were possible; and at this day there is scarcely a trait in poetic diction which reminds us of the fashion of the eighteenth century.
It remains to inquire, in regard to the modern writers of Italy, whether they are so few in number as not to have produced enough good books to constitute a national literature, or anything “ to be called the sign” of a national literature; and though it is not within the range of our present purpose to make this inquiry, except in regard to the poets, yet we think we may venture to say, that, if a national literature means the expression, in prose and verse, of the thoughts and feelings peculiar to a civilization and a people, and if goodly numbers of good books are its signs, no people of this period
has a literature so intensely national as the Italians, and only the French, Germans, and English have the signs of literature in greater abundance.
Indeed, viewed simply from æsthetic ground, the literature of the Italians may be pronounced worse than national: it is patriotic. The chief condition, if not absolute necessity, of its being has built up between it and the Transalpine world of letters a barrier far more formidable than strangeness of tongue, or those oblivious sands left by the fashion which two centuries since ebbed away from the study of Italian poetry. But if the Italians themselves have found use and delight in the literature which preserves every incident and aspect of their political existence, this is for them the unanswerable reason why all their poetry, history, romance, and philosophy of the present century should have been directed to produce political results magnificently visible at the present moment. Other peoples, we think, may still find in the richness of the fruit enough that is of universal and lasting relish to neutralize the acrid taste of the rind; and we trust in this article to offer so much of this flavor to the reader as shall make him doubt our justice in declaring the literature of modern Italy almost wholly revolutionary in its purposes. Yet one cannot well state the fact too strongly ; and we give but a faint idea of the perfection of the devotion of this literature to a great and patriotic cause, when we liken all the poets, novelists, and thinkers of Italy, in their enthusiasm for national freedom and independence, to Whittier, Stowe, and Phillips in their antagonism to slavery.
“In free and tranquil countries," said Guerrazzi in conversation with M. Monnier, “men have the happiness and the right to be artists for art's sake : with us, this would be weakness and apathy. When I write, it is because I have something to do; my books are not productions, but deeds. Before all, here we must be men. When we have not the sword, we must take the pen. We heap together materials for building batteries and fortresses, and it is our misfortune if these structures are not works of art. To write slowly, coldly, of our times and of our country, with the set purpose of creating a chef d'auvre, would be almost an impiety. When I compose a book, I only think of freeing my soul, of imparting my idea or