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Aleardo Aleardi - Italian Poet

Written by: William Dean Howells

In the first quarter of the century was born a poet, in the village of San Giorgio, near Verona, of parents who endowed their son with the magnificent name of Aleardo Aleardi. His father was one of those small proprietors numerous in the Veneto, and, though not indigent, was by no means a rich man. He lived on his farm, and loved it, and tried to improve the condition of his tenants. Aleardo's childhood was spent in the country,—a happy fortune for a boy anywhere, the happiest fortune if that country be Italy, and its scenes the grand and beautiful scenes of the valley of the Adige. Here he learned to love nature with the passion that declares itself everywhere in his verse; and hence he was in due time taken and placed at school in the Collegio {note: Not a college in the American sense, but a private school of a high grade.} of Sant' Anastasia, in Verona, according to the Italian system, now fallen into disuse, of fitting a boy for the world by giving him the training of a cloister. It is not greatly to Aleardi's discredit that he seemed to learn nothing there, and that he drove his reverend preceptors to the desperate course of advising his removal. They told his father he would make a good farmer, but a scholar, never. They nicknamed him the mole, for his dullness; but, in the mean time, he was making underground progress of his own, and he came to the surface one day, a mole no longer, to everybody's amazement, but a thing of such flight and song as they had never seen before,—in fine, a poet. He was rather a scapegrace, after he ceased to be a mole, at school; but when he went to the University at Padua, he became conspicuous among the idle, dissolute students of that day for temperate life and severe study. There he studied law, and learned patriotism; political poetry and interviews with the police were the consequence, but no serious trouble.

One of the offensive poems, which he says he and his friends had the audacity to call an ode, was this:

    Sing we our country. 'T is a desolate           And frozen cemetery;           Over its portals undulates           A banner black and yellow;           And within it throng the myriad           Phantoms of slaves and kings:      A man on a worn-out, tottering           Throne watches o'er the tombs:           The pallid lord of consciences,           The despot of ideas.           Tricoronate he vaunts himself           And without crown is he. 

In this poem the yellow and black flag is, of course, the Austrian, and the enthroned man is the pope, of whose temporal power our poet was always the enemy. "The Austrian police," says Aleardi's biographer, "like an affectionate mother, anxious about everything, came into possession of these verses; and the author was admonished, in the way of maternal counsel, not to touch such topics, if he would not lose the favor of the police, and be looked on as a prodigal son." He had already been admonished for carrying a cane on the top of which was an old Italian pound, or lira, with the inscription, Kingdom of Italy,—for it was an offense to have such words about one in any way, so trivial and petty was the cruel government that once reigned over the Italians.

In due time he took that garland of paper laurel and gilt pasteboard with which the graduates of Padua are sublimely crowned, and returned to Verona, where he entered the office of an advocate to learn the practical workings of the law. These disgusted him, naturally enough; and it was doubtless far less to the hurt of his feelings than of his fortune that the government always refused him the post of advocate.

In this time he wrote his first long poem, Arnaldo, which was published at Milan in 1842, and which won him immediate applause. It was followed by the tragedy of Bragadino; and in the year 1845 he wrote Le Prime Storie, which he suffered to lie unpublished for twelve years. It appeared in Verona in 1857, a year after the publication of his Monte Circellio, written in 1846.

{Illustration: ALEARDO ALEARDI.}

The revolution of 1848 took place; the Austrians retired from the dominion of Venice, and a provisional republican government, under the presidency of Daniele Manin, was established, and Aleardi was sent as one of its plenipotentiaries to Paris, where he learnt how many fine speeches the friends of a struggling nation can make when they do not mean to help it. The young Venetian republic fell. Aleardi left Paris, and, after assisting at the ceremony of being bombarded in Bologna, retired to Genoa. He later returned to Verona, and there passed several years of tranquil study. In 1852, for the part he had taken in the revolution, he was arrested and imprisoned in the fortress at Mantua, thus fulfilling the destiny of an Italian poet of those times.

All the circumstances and facts of this arrest and imprisonment are so characteristic of the Austrian method of governing Italy, that I do not think it out of place to give them with some fullness. In the year named, the Austrians were still avenging themselves upon the patriots who had driven them out of Venetia in 1848, and their courts were sitting in Mantua for the trial of political prisoners, many of whom were exiled, sentenced to long imprisonment, or put to death. Aleardi was first confined in the military prison at Verona, but was soon removed to Mantua, whither several of his friends had already been sent. All the other prisons being full, he was thrust into a place which till now had seemed too horrible for use. It was a narrow room, dark, and reeking with the dampness of the great dead lagoon which surrounds Mantua. A broken window, guarded by several gratings, let in a little light from above; the day in that cell lasted six hours, the night eighteen. A mattress on the floor, and a can of water for drinking, were the furniture. In the morning they brought him two pieces of hard, black bread; at ten o'clock a thick soup of rice and potatoes; and nothing else throughout the day. In this dungeon he remained sixty days, without books, without pen or paper, without any means of relieving the terrible gloom and solitude. At the end of this time, he was summoned to the hall above to see his sister, whom he tenderly loved. The light blinded him so that for a while he could not perceive her, but he talked to her calmly and even cheerfully, that she might not know what he had suffered. Then he was remanded to his cell, where, as her retreating footsteps ceased upon his ear, he cast himself upon the ground in a passion of despair. Three months passed, and he had never seen the face of judge or accuser, though once the prison inspector, with threats and promises, tried to entrap him into a confession. One night his sleep was broken by a continued hammering; in the morning half a score of his friends were hanged upon the gallows which had been built outside his cell.

By this time his punishment had been so far mitigated that he had been allowed a German grammar and dictionary, and for the first time studied that language, on the literature of which he afterward lectured in Florence. He had, like most of the young Venetians of his day, hated the language, together with those who spoke it, until then.

At last, one morning at dawn, a few days after the execution of his friends, Aleardi and others were thrust into carriages and driven to the castle. There the roll of the prisoners was called; to several names none answered, for those who had borne them were dead. Were the survivors now to be shot, or sentenced to some prison in Bohemia or Hungary? They grimly jested among themselves as to their fate. They were marched out into the piazza, under the heavy rain, and there these men who had not only not been tried for any crime, but had not even been accused of any, received the grace of the imperial pardon.

Aleardi returned to Verona and to his books, publishing another poem in 1856, called Le Città Italiane Marinare e Commercianti. His next publication was, in 1857, Rafaello e la Fornarina; then followed Un' Ora della mia Giovinezza, Le Tre Fiume, and Le Tre Fanciulle, in 1858.

The war of 1859 broke out between Austria and France and Italy. Aleardi spent the brief period of the campaign in a military prison at Verona, where his sympathies were given an ounce of prevention. He had committed no offense, but at midnight the police appeared, examined his papers, found nothing, and bade him rise and go to prison. After the peace of Villafranca he was liberated, and left the Austrian states, retiring first to Brescia, and then to Florence. His publications since 1859 have been a Canto Politico and I Sette Soldati. He was condemned for his voluntary exile, by the Austrian courts, and I remember reading in the newspapers the official invitation given him to come back to Verona and be punished. But, oddly enough, he declined to do so.

II

The first considerable work of Aleardi was Le Prime Storie (Primal Histories), in which he traces the course of the human race through the Scriptural story of its creation, its fall, and its destruction by the deluge, through the Greek and Latin days, through the darkness and glory of the feudal times, down to our own,—following it from Eden to Babylon and Tyre, from Tyre and Babylon to Athens and Rome, from Florence and Genoa to the shores of the New World, full of shadowy tradition and the promise of a peaceful and happy future.

He takes this fruitful theme, because he feels it to be alive with eternal interest, and rejects the well-worn classic fables, because

    Under the bushes of the odorous mint     The Dryads are buried, and the placid Dian     Guides now no longer through the nights below     Th' invulnerable hinds and pearly car,     To bless the Carian shepherd's dreams. No more     The valley echoes to the stolen kisses,     Or to the twanging bow, or to the bay     Of the immortal hounds, or to the Fauns'     Plebeian laughter. From the golden rim     Of shells, dewy with pearl, in ocean's depths     The snowy loveliness of Galatea     Has fallen; and with her, their endless sleep     In coral sepulchers the Nereids     Forgotten sleep in peace. 

The poet cannot turn to his theme, however, without a sad and scornful apostrophe to his own land, where he figures himself sitting by the way, and craving of the frivolous, heartless, luxurious Italian throngs that pass the charity of love for Italy. They pass him by unheeded, and he cries:

                             Hast thou seen     In the deep circle of the valley of Siddim,     Under the shining skies of Palestine,     The sinister glitter of the Lake of Asphalt?     Those coasts, strewn thick with ashes of damnation,     Forever foe to every living thing,     Where rings the cry of the lost wandering bird     That, on the shore of the perfidious sea,     Athirsting dies,—that watery sepulcher     Of the five cities of iniquity,     Where even the tempest, when its clouds hang low,     Passes in silence, and the lightning dies,—     If thou hast seen them, bitterly hath been     Thy heart wrung with the misery and despair     Of that dread vision!                               Yet there is on earth     A woe more desperate and miserable,—     A spectacle wherein the wrath of God     Avenges him more terribly. It is     A vain, weak people of faint-heart old men,     That, for three hundred years of dull repose,     Has lain perpetual dreamer, folded in     The ragged purple of its ancestors,     Stretching its limbs wide in its country's sun,     To warm them; drinking the soft airs of autumn     Forgetful, on the fields where its forefathers     Like lions fought! From overflowing hands,     Strew we with hellebore and poppies thick     The way. 

But the throngs have passed by, and the poet takes up his theme. Abel sits before an altar upon the borders of Eden, and looks with an exile's longing toward the Paradise of his father, where, high above all the other trees, he beholds,

    Lording it proudly in the garden's midst,     The guilty apple with its fatal beauty. 

He weeps; and Cain, furiously returning from the unaccepted labor of the fields, lifts his hand against his brother.

                        It was at sunset;     The air was severed with a mother's shriek,     And stretched beside the o'erturned altar's foot     Lay the first corse.                          Ah! that primal stain     Of blood that made earth hideous, did forebode     To all the nations of mankind to come      The cruel household stripes, and the relentless     Battles of civil wars, the poisoned cup,     The gleam of axes lifted up to strike     The prone necks on the block.                         The fratricide     Beheld that blood amazed, and from on high     He heard the awful voice of cursing leap,     And in the middle of his forehead felt     God's lightning strike....                      ....And there from out the heart     All stained with guiltiness emerged the coward     Religion that is born of loveless fears.      And, moved and shaken like a conscious thing,     The tree of sin dilated horribly     Its frondage over all the land and sea,     And with its poisonous shadow followed far     The flight of Cain....                         .... And he who first     By th' arduous solitudes and by the heights     And labyrinths of the virgin earth conducted     This ever-wandering, lost Humanity     Was the Accursed. 

Cain passes away, and his children fill the world, and the joy of guiltless labor brightens the poet's somber verse.

    The murmur of the works of man arose     Up from the plains; the caves reverberated     The blows of restless hammers that revealed,     Deep in the bowels of the fruitful hills,     The iron and the faithless gold, with rays     Of evil charm. And all the cliffs repeated     The beetle's fall, and the unceasing leap     Of waters on the paddles of the wheel     Volubly busy; and with heavy strokes     Upon the borders of the inviolate woods     The ax was heard descending on the trees,     Upon the odorous bark of mighty pines.     Over the imminent upland's utmost brink     The blonde wild-goat stretched forth his neck to meet     The unknown sound, and, caught with sudden fear,     Down the steep bounded, and the arrow cut     Midway the flight of his aerial foot. 

So all the wild earth was tamed to the hand of man, and the wisdom of the stars began to reveal itself to the shepherds,

    Who, in the leisure of the argent nights,     Leading their flocks upon a sea of meadows, 

turned their eyes upon the heavenly bodies, and questioned them in their courses. But a taint of guilt was in all the blood of Cain, which the deluge alone could purge.

    And beautiful beyond all utterance     Were the earth's first-born daughters. Phantasms these     That now enamor us decrepit, by     The light of that prime beauty! And the glance     Those ardent sinners darted had beguiled     God's angels even, so that the Lord's command     Was weaker than the bidding of their eyes.     And there were seen, descending from on high,     His messengers, and in the tepid eyes     Gathering their flight about the secret founts     Where came the virgins wandering sole to stretch     The nude pomp of their perfect loveliness.     Caught by some sudden flash of light afar,     The shepherd looked, and deemed that he beheld     A fallen star, and knew not that he saw     A fallen angel, whose distended wings,     All tremulous with voluptuous delight,     Strove vainly to lift him to the skies again.     The earth with her malign embraces blest     The heavenly-born, and they straightway forgot     The joys of God's eternal paradise     For the brief rapture of a guilty love.     And from these nuptials, violent and strange,     A strange and violent race of giants rose;     A chain of sin had linked the earth to heaven;     And God repented him of his own work. 

The destroying rains descended,

                          And the ocean rose,     And on the cities and the villages     The terror fell apace. There was a strife     Of suppliants at the altars; blasphemy     Launched at the impotent idols and the kings;     There were embraces desperate and dear,     And news of suddenest forgivenesses,     And a relinquishment of all sweet things;     And, guided onward by the pallid prophets,     The people climbed, with lamentable cries,     In pilgrimage up the mountains.                            But in vain;     For swifter than they climbed the ocean rose,     And hid the palms, and buried the sepulchers     Far underneath the buried pyramids;     And the victorious billow swelled and beat     At eagles' Alpine nests, extinguishing     All lingering breath of life; and dreadfuller     Than the yell rising from the battle-field     Seemed the hush of every human sound.        On the high solitude of the waters naught     Was seen but here and there unfrequently     A frail raft, heaped with languid men that fought     Weakly with one another for the grass     Hanging about a cliff not yet submerged,     And here and there a drowned man's head, and here     And there a file of birds, that beat the air     With weary wings. 

After the deluge, the race of Noah repeoples the empty world, and the history of mankind begins anew in the Orient. Rome is built, and the Christian era dawns, and Rome falls under the feet of the barbarians. Then the enthusiasm of Christendom sweeps toward the East, in the repeated Crusades; and then, "after long years of twilight", Dante, the sun of Italian civilization, rises; and at last comes the dream of another world, unknown to the eyes of elder times.

      But between that and our shore roared diffuse     Abysmal seas and fabulous hurricanes     Which, thought on, blanched the faces of the bold;     For the dread secret of the heavens was then     The Western world. Yet on the Italian coasts     A boy grew into manhood, in whose soul     The instinct of the unknown continent burned.     He saw in his prophetic mind depicted     The opposite visage of the earth, and, turning     With joyful defiance to the ocean, sailed     Forth with two secret pilots, God and Genius.     Last of the prophets, he returned in chains     And glory. 

In the New World are the traces, as in the Old, of a restless humanity, wandering from coast to coast, growing, building cities, and utterly vanishing. There are graves and ruins everywhere; and the poet's thought returns from these scenes of unstoried desolation, to follow again the course of man in the Old World annals. But here, also, he is lost in the confusion of man's advance and retirement, and he muses:

    How many were the peoples? Where the trace     Of their lost steps? Where the funereal fields     In which they sleep? Go, ask the clouds of heaven     How many bolts are hidden in their breasts,     And when they shall be launched; and ask the path     That they shall keep in the unfurrowed air.     The peoples passed. Obscure as destiny,     Forever stirred by secret hope, forever     Waiting upon the promised mysteries,     Unknowing God, that urged them, turning still     To some kind star,—they swept o'er the sea-weed     In unknown waters, fearless swam the course     Of nameless rivers, wrote with flying feet     The mountain pass on pathless snows; impatient     Of rest, for aye, from Babylon to Memphis,     From the Acropolis to Rome, they hurried.        And with them passed their guardian household gods,     And faithful wisdom of their ancestors,     And the seed sown in mother fields, and gathered,     A fruitful harvest in their happier years.     And, 'companying the order of their steps     Upon the way, they sung the choruses     And sacred burdens of their country's songs,     And, sitting down by hospitable gates,     They told the histories of their far-off cities.     And sometimes in the lonely darknesses     Upon the ambiguous way they found a light,—     The deathless lamp of some great truth, that Heaven     Sent in compassionate answer to their prayers.        But not to all was given it to endure     That ceaseless pilgrimage, and not on all     Did the heavens smile perennity of life     Revirginate with never-ceasing change;     And when it had completed the great work     Which God had destined for its race to do,     Sometimes a weary people laid them down     To rest them, like a weary man, and left     Their nude bones in a vale of expiation,     And passed away as utterly forever     As mist that snows itself into the sea. 

The poet views this growth of nations from youth to decrepitude, and, coming back at last to himself and to his own laud and time, breaks forth into a lament of grave and touching beauty:

    Muse of an aged people, in the eve     Of fading civilization, I was born     Of kindred that have greatly expiated     And greatly wept. For me the ambrosial fingers     Of Graces never wove the laurel crown,     But the Fates shadowed, from my youngest days,     My brow with passion-flowers, and I have lived     Unknown to my dear land. Oh, fortunate     My sisters that in the heroic dawn     Of races sung! To them did destiny give     The virgin fire and chaste ingenuousness     Of their land's speech; and, reverenced, their hands     Ran over potent strings. To me, the hopes     Turbid with hate; to me, the senile rage;     To me, the painted fancies clothed by art     Degenerate; to me, the desperate wish,     Not in my soul to nurse ungenerous dreams,     But to contend, and with the sword of song     To fight my battles too. 

Such is the spirit, such is the manner, of the Prime Storie of Aleardi. The merits of the poem are so obvious, that it seems scarcely profitable to comment upon its picturesqueness, upon the clearness and ease of its style, upon the art which quickens its frequent descriptions of nature with a human interest. The defects of the poem are quite as plain, and I have again to acknowledge the critical acuteness of Arnaud, who says of Aleardi: "Instead of synthetizing his conceptions, and giving relief to the principal lines, the poet lingers caressingly upon the particulars, preferring the descriptive to the dramatic element. Prom this results poetry of beautiful arabesques and exquisite fragments, of harmonious verse and brilliant diction."

Nevertheless, the same critic confesses that the poetry of Aleardi "is not academically common", and pleases by the originality of its very mannerism.

III.

Like Primal Histories, the Hour of my Youth is a contemplative poem, to which frequency of episode gives life and movement; but its scope is less grand, and the poet, recalling his early days, remembers chiefly the events of defeated revolution which give such heroic sadness and splendor to the history of the first third of this century. The work is characterized by the same opulence of diction, and the same luxury of epithet and imagery, as the Primal Histories, but it somehow fails to win our interest in equal degree: perhaps because the patriot now begins to overshadow the poet, and appeal is often made rather to the sympathies than the imagination. It is certain that art ceases to be less, and country more, in the poetry of Aleardi from this time. It could scarcely be otherwise; and had it been otherwise, the poet would have become despicable, not great, in the eyes of his countrymen.

The Hour of my Youth opens with a picture, where, for once at least, all the brilliant effects are synthetized; the poet has ordered here the whole Northern world, and you can dream of nothing grand or beautiful in those lonely regions which you do not behold in it.

    Ere yet upon the unhappy Arctic lands,     In dying autumn, Erebus descends     With the night's thousand hours, along the verge     Of the horizon, like a fugitive,     Through the long days wanders the weary sun;     And when at last under the wave is quenched     The last gleam of its golden countenance,     Interminable twilight land and sea     Discolors, and the north-wind covers deep     All things in snow, as in their sepulchers     The dead are buried. In the distances     The shock of warring Cyclades of ice     Makes music as of wild and strange lament;     And up in heaven now tardily are lit     The solitary polar star and seven     Lamps of the Bear. And now the warlike race     Of swans gather their hosts upon the breast     Of some far gulf, and, bidding their farewell     To the white cliffs, and slender junipers,     And sea-weed bridal-beds, intone the song     Of parting, and a sad metallic clang     Send through the mists. Upon their southward way     They greet the beryl-tinted icebergs; greet     Flamy volcanoes, and the seething founts     Of Geysers, and the melancholy yellow     Of the Icelandic fields; and, wearying,     Their lily wings amid the boreal lights,     Journey away unto the joyous shores     Of morning. 

In a strain of equal nobility, but of more personal and subjective effect, the thought is completed:

    So likewise, my own soul, from these obscure     Days without glory, wings its flight afar     Backward, and journeys to the years of youth     And morning. Oh, give me back once more,     Oh, give me, Lord, one hour of youth again!     For in that time I was serene and bold,     And uncontaminate, and enraptured with     The universe. I did not know the pangs     Of the proud mind, nor the sweet miseries     Of love; and I had never gathered yet,     After those fires so sweet in burning, bitter     Handfuls of ashes, that, with tardy tears     Sprinkled, at last have nourished into bloom     The solitary flower of penitence.     The baseness of the many was unknown,     And civic woes had not yet sown with salt     Life's narrow field. Ah! then the infinite     Voices that Nature sends her worshipers     From land, from sea, and from the cloudy depths     Of heaven smote the echoing soul of youth     To music. And at the first morning sigh     Of the poor wood-lark,—at the measured bell     Of homeward flocks, and at the opaline wings     Of dragon-flies in their aërial dances     Above the gorgeous carpets of the marsh,—     At the wind's moan, and at the sudden gleam     Of lamps lighting in some far town by night,—     And at the dash of rain that April shoots     Through the air odorous with the smitten dust,—     My spirits rose, and glad and swift my thought     Over the sea of being sped all-sails. 

There is a description of a battle, in the Hour of my Youth, which. I cannot help quoting before I leave the poem. The battle took place between the Austrians and the French on the 14th of January, 1797, in the Chiusa, a narrow valley near Verona, and the fiercest part of the fight was for the possession of the hill of Rivoli.

                     Clouds of smoke     Floated along the heights; and, with her wild,     Incessant echo, Chiusa still repeated     The harmony of the muskets. Rival hosts     Contended for the poverty of a hill     That scarce could give their number sepulcher;     But from that hill-crest waved the glorious locks     Of Victory. And round its bloody spurs,     Taken and lost with fierce vicissitude,     Serried and splendid, swept and tempested     Long-haired dragoons, together with the might     Of the Homeric foot, delirious     With fury; and the horses with their teeth     Tore one another, or, tossing wild their manes,     Fled with their helpless riders up the crags,     By strait and imminent paths of rock, till down,     Like angels thunder-smitten, to the depths     Of that abyss the riders fell. With slain     Was heaped the dreadful amphitheater;     The rocks dropped blood; and if with gasping breath     Some wounded swimmer beat away the waves     Weakly between him and the other shore,     The merciless riflemen from the cliffs above,     With their inexorable aim, beneath     The waters sunk him. 

The Monte Circellio is part of a poem in four cantos, dispersed, it is said, to avoid the researches of the police, in which the poet recounts in picturesque verse the glories and events of the Italian land and history through which he passes. A slender but potent cord of common feeling unites the episodes, and the lament for the present fate of Italy rises into hope for her future. More than half of the poem is given to a description of the geological growth of the earth, in which the imagination of the poet has unbridled range, and in which there is a success unknown to most other attempts to poetize the facts of science. The epochs of darkness and inundation, of the monstrous races of bats and lizards, of the mammoths and the gigantic vegetation, pass, and, after thousands of years, the earth is tempered and purified to the use of man by fire; and that

             Paradise of land and sea, forever     Stirred by great hopes and by volcanic fires,     Called Italy, 

takes shape: its burning mountains rise, its valleys sink, its plains extend, its streams run. But first of all, the hills of Rome lifted themselves from the waters, that day when the spirit of God dwelling upon their face

    Saw a fierce group of seven enkindled hills,     In number like the mystic candles lighted     Within his future temple. Then he bent     Upon that mystic pleiades of flame     His luminous regard, and spoke to it:     "Thou art to be my Rome." The harmony     Of that note to the nebulous heights supreme,     And to the bounds of the created world,     Rolled like the voice of myriad organ-stops,     And sank, and ceased. The heavenly orbs resumed     Their daily dance and their unending journey;     A mighty rush of plumes disturbed the rest     Of the vast silence; here and there like stars     About the sky, flashed the immortal eyes     Of choral angels following after him. 

The opening lines of Monte Circellio are scarcely less beautiful than the first part of Un' Ora della mia Giovinezza, but I must content myself with only one other extract from the poem, leaving the rest to the reader of the original. The fact that every summer the Roman hospitals are filled with the unhappy peasants who descend from the hills of the Abruzzi to snatch its harvests from the feverish Campagna will help us to understand all the meaning of the following passage, though nothing could add to its pathos, unless, perhaps, the story given by Aleardi in a note at the foot of his page: "How do you live here?" asked a traveler of one of the peasants who reap the Campagna. The Abruzzese answered, "Signor, we die."

                                     What time,     In hours of summer, sad with so much light,     The sun beats ceaselessly upon the fields,     The harvesters, as famine urges them,     Draw hither in thousands, and they wear     The look of those that dolorously go     In exile, and already their brown eyes     Are heavy with the poison of the air.     Here never note of amorous bird consoles     Their drooping hearts; here never the gay songs     Of their Abruzzi sound to gladden these     Pathetic hands. But taciturn they toil,     Reaping the harvest for their unknown lords;     And when the weary tabor is performed,     Taciturn they retire; and not till then     Their bagpipes crown the joys of the return,     Swelling the heart with their familiar strain.     Alas! not all return, for there is one     That dying in the furrow sits, and seeks     With his last look some faithful kinsman out,     To give his life's wage, that he carry it     Unto his trembling mother, with the last     Words of her son that comes no more. And dying,     Deserted and alone, far off he hears     His comrades going, with their pipes in time     Joyfully measuring their homeward steps.     And when in after years an orphan comes     To reap the harvest here, and feels his blade     Go quivering through the swaths of falling grain,     He weeps and thinks: haply these heavy stalks     Ripened on his unburied father's bones. 

In the poem called The Marine and Commercial Cities of Italy (Le Città Italiane Marinare e Commercianti), Aleardi recounts the glorious rise, the jealousies, the fratricidal wars, and the ignoble fall of Venice, Florence, Pisa, and Genoa, in strains of grandeur and pathos; he has pride in the wealth and freedom of those old queens of traffic, and scorn and lamentation for the blind selfishness that kept them Venetian, Florentine, Pisan, and Genoese, and never suffered them to be Italian. I take from this poem the prophetic vision of the greatness of Venice, which, according to the patriotic tradition of Sabellico, Saint Mark beheld five hundred years before the foundation of the city, when one day, journeying toward Aquileja, his ship lost her course among the islands of the lagoons. The saint looked out over those melancholy swamps, and saw the phantom of a Byzantine cathedral rest upon the reeds, while a multitudinous voice broke the silence with the Venetian battle-cry, "Viva San Marco!" The lines that follow illustrate the pride and splendor of Venetian story, and are notable, I think, for a certain lofty grace of movement and opulence of diction.

    There thou shalt lie, O Saint!{1} but compassed round     Thickly by shining groves     Of pillars; on thy regal portico,     Lifting their glittering and impatient hooves,     Corinth's fierce steeds shall bound;{2}     And at thy name, the hymn of future wars,     From their funereal caves     The bandits of the waves     Shall fly in exile;{3} brought from bloody fields     Hard won and lost in far-off Palestine,     The glimmer of a thousand Arab moons     Shall fill thy broad lagoons;     And on the false Byzantine's towers shall climb     A blind old man sublime,{4}     Whom victory shall behold     Amidst his enemies with thy sacred flag,     All battle-rent, unrolled. 





Notes:

{1} The bones of St. Mark repose in his church at Venice.

{2} The famous bronze horses of St. Mark's still shine with the gold that once covered them.

{3} Venice early swept the Adriatic of the pirates who infested it.

{4} The Doge Enrico Dandolo, who, though blind and bowed with eighty years of war, was the first to plant the banner of Saint Mark on the walls of Constantinople when that city was taken by the Venetians and Crusaders.

The late poems of Aleardi are nearly all in this lyrical form, in which the thought drops and rises with ceaseless change of music, and which wins the reader of many empty Italian canzoni by the mere delight of its movement. It is well adapted to the subjects for which Aleardi has used it; it has a stateliness and strength of its own, and its alternate lapse and ascent give animation to the ever-blending story and aspiration, appeal or reflection. In this measure are written The Three Rivers, The Three Maidens, and The Seven Soldiers. The latter is a poem of some length, in which the poet, figuring himself upon a battle-field on the morrow after a combat between Italians and Austrians, "wanders among the wounded in search of expiated sins and of unknown heroism. He pauses," continues his eloquent biographer in the Galleria Nazionale, "to meditate on the death of the Hungarian, Polish, Bohemian, Croatian, Austrian, and Tyrolese soldiers, who personify the nationalities oppressed by the tyranny of the house of Hapsburg. A minister of God, praying beside the corpses of two friends, Pole and Hungarian, hails the dawn of the Magyar resurrection. Then rises the grand figure of Sandor Petofi, 'the patriotic poet of Hungary,' whose life was a hymn, and whose miraculous re-appearance will, according to popular superstition, take place when Hungary is freed from her chains. The poem closes with a prophecy concerning the destinies of Austria and Italy." Like all the poems of Aleardi, it abounds in striking lines; but the interest, instead of gathering strongly about one central idea, diffuses itself over half-forgotten particulars of revolutionary history, and the sympathy of the reader is fatigued and confused with the variety of the demand upon it.

For this reason, The Three Rivers and The Three Maidens are more artistic poems: in the former, the poet seeks vainly a promise of Italian greatness and unity on the banks of Tiber and of Arno, but finds it by the Po, where the war of 1859 is beginning; in the latter, three maidens recount to the poet stories of the oppression which has imprisoned the father of one, despoiled another's house through the tax-gatherer, and sent the brother of the third to languish, the soldier-slave of his tyrants, in a land where "the wife washes the garments of her husband, yet stained with Italian blood".

A very little book holds all the poems which Aleardi has written, and I have named them nearly all. He has in greater degree than any other Italian poet of this age, or perhaps of any age, those qualities which English taste of this time demands—quickness of feeling and brilliancy of expression. He lacks simplicity of idea, and his style is an opal which takes all lights and hues, rather than the crystal which lets the daylight colorlessly through. He is distinguished no less by the themes he selects than by the expression he gives them. In his poetry there is passion, but his subjects are usually those to which love is accessory rather than essential; and he cares better to sing of universal and national destinies as they concern individuals, than the raptures and anguishes of youthful individuals as they concern mankind. The poet may be wrong in this, but he achieves an undeniable novelty in it, and I confess that I read him willingly on account of it.

In taking leave of him, I feel that I ought to let him have the last word, which is one of self-criticism, and, I think, singularly just. He refers to the fact of his early life, that his father forbade him to be a painter, and says: "Not being allowed to use the pencil, I have used the pen. And precisely on this account my pen resembles too much a pencil; precisely on this account I am too much of a naturalist, and am too fond of losing myself in minute details. I am as one, who, in walking, goes leisurely along, and stops every moment to observe the dash of light that breaks through the trees of the woods, the insect that alights on his hand, the leaf that falls on his head, a cloud, a wave, a streak of smoke; in fine, the thousand accidents that make creation so rich, so various, so poetical, and beyond which we evermore catch glimpses of that grand, mysterious something, eternal, immense, benignant, and never inhuman or cruel, as some would have us believe, which is called God."




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