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Giovanni Prati - Italian Poet

by William Dean Howells

The Italian poet who most resembles in theme and treatment the German romanticists of the second period was nearest them geographically in his origin. Giovanni Prati was born at Dasindo, a mountain village of the Trentino, and his boyhood was passed amidst the wild scenes of that picturesque region, whose dark valleys and snowy, cloud-capped heights, foaming torrents and rolling mists, lend their gloom and splendor to so much of his verse. His family was poor, but it was noble, and he received, through whatever sacrifice of those who remained at home, the education of a gentleman, as the Italians understand it. He went to school in Trent, and won some early laurels by his Latin poems, which the good priests who kept the collegio gathered and piously preserved in an album for the admiration and emulation of future scholars; when in due time he matriculated at the University of Padua as student of law, he again shone as a poet, and there he wrote his "Edmenegarda", a poem that gave him instant popularity throughout Italy. When he quitted the university he visited different parts of the country, "having the need" of frequent change of scenes and impressions; but everywhere he poured out songs, ballads, and romances, and was already a voluminous poet in 1840, when, in his thirtieth year, he began to abandon his Teutonic phantoms and hectic maidens, and to make Italy in various disguises the heroine of his song. Whether Austria penetrated these disguises or not, he was a little later ordered to leave Milan. He took refuge in Piedmont, whose brave king, in spite of diplomatic remonstrances from his neighbors, made Prati his poeta cesareo, or poet laureate. This was in 1843; and five years later he took an active part in inciting with his verse the patriotic revolts which broke out all over Italy. But he was supposed by virtue of his office to be monarchical in his sympathies, and when he ventured to Florence, the novelist Guerrezzi, who was at the head of the revolutionary government there, sent the poet back across the border in charge of a carbineer. In 1851 he had the misfortune to write a poem in censure of Orsini's attempt upon the life of Napoleon III., and to take money for it from the gratified emperor. He seems to have remained up to his death in the enjoyment of his office at Turin. His latest poem, if one may venture to speak of any as the last among poems poured out with such bewildering rapidity, was "Satan and the Graces", which De Sanctis made himself very merry over.

The Edmenegarda, which first won him repute, was perhaps not more youthful, but it was a subject that appealed peculiarly to the heart of youth, and was sufficiently mawkish. All the characters of the Edmenegarda were living at the time of its publication, and were instantly recognized; yet there seems to have been no complaint against the poet on their part, nor any reproach on the part of criticism. Indeed, at least one of the characters was nattered by the celebrity given him. "So great," says Prati's biographer, in the Gallerìa Nazionale, "was the enthusiasm awakened everywhere, and in every heart, by the Edmenegarda, that the young man portrayed in it, under the name of Leoni, imagining himself to have become, through Prati's merit, an eminently poetical subject, presented himself to the poet in the Caffè Pedrocchi at Padua, and returned him his warmest thanks. Prati also made the acquaintance, at the Caffè Nazionale in Turin, of his Edmenegarda, but after the wrinkles had seamed the visage of his ideal, and canceled perhaps from her soul the memory of anguish suffered." If we are to believe this writer, the story of a wife's betrayal, abandonment by her lover, and repudiation by her husband, produced effects upon the Italian public as various as profound. "In this pathetic story of an unhappy love was found so much truth of passion, so much naturalness of sentiment, and so much power, that every sad heart was filled with love for the young poet, so compassionate toward innocent misfortune, so sympathetic in form, in thought, in sentiment. Prom that moment Prati became the poet of suffering youth; in every corner of Italy the tender verses of the Edmenegarda were read with love, and sometimes frenzied passion; the political prisoners of Rome, of Naples, and Palermo found them a grateful solace amid the privations and heavy tedium of incarceration; many sundered lovers were reconjoined indissolubly in the kiss of peace; more than one desperate girl was restrained from the folly of suicide; and even the students in the ecclesiastical seminaries at Milan revolted, as it were, against their rector, and petitioned the Archbishop of Gaisruk that they might be permitted to read the fantastic romance."

{Illustration: GIOVANNI PRATI.}

What he was at first, Prati seems always to have remained in character and in ideals. "Would you know the poet in ordinary of the king of Sardinia?" says Marc-Monnier. "Go up the great street of the Po, under the arcades to the left, around the Caffè Florio, which is the center of Turin. If you meet a great youngster of forty years, with brown hair, wandering eyes, long visage, lengthened by the imperial, prominent nose, diminished by the mustache,—good head, in fine, and proclaiming the artist at first glance, say to yourself that this is he, give him your hand, and he will give you his. He is the openest of Italians, and the best fellow in the world. It is here that he lives, under the arcades. Do not look for his dwelling; he does not dwell, he promenades. Life for him is not a combat nor a journey; it is a saunter (flânerie), cigar in mouth, eyes to the wind; a comrade whom he meets, and passes a pleasant word with; a group of men who talk politics, and leave you to read the newspapers; puis cà et là, par hasard, une bonne fortune; a woman or an artist who understands you, and who listens while you talk of art or repeat your verses. Prati lives so the whole year round. From time to time he disappears for a week or two. Where is he? Nobody knows. You grow uneasy; you ask his address: he has none. Some say he is ill; others, he is dead; but some fine morning, cheerful as ever, he re-appears under the arcades. He has come from the bottom of a wood or the top of a mountain, and he has made two thousand verses.... He is hardly forty-one years old, and he has already written a million lines. I have read seven volumes of his, and I have not read all."

I have not myself had the patience here boasted by M. Marc-Monnier; but three or four volumes of Prati's have sufficed to teach me the spirit and purpose of his poetry. Born in 1815, and breathing his first inspirations from that sense of romance blowing into Italy with every northern gale,—a son of the Italian Tyrol, the region where the fire meets the snow,—he has some excuse, if not a perfect reason, for being half-German in his feeling. It is natural that Prati should love the ballad form above all, and should pour into its easy verse the wild legends heard during a boyhood passed among mountains and mountaineers. As I read his poetic tales, with a little heart-break, more or less fictitious, in each, I seem to have found again the sweet German songs that fluttered away out of my memory long ago. There is a tender light on the pages; a mistier passion than that of the south breathes through the dejected lines; and in the ballads we see all our old acquaintance once more,—the dying girls, the galloping horsemen, the moonbeams, the familiar, inconsequent phantoms,—scarcely changed in the least, and only betraying now and then that they have been at times in the bad company of Lara, and Medora, and other dissipated and vulgar people. The following poem will give some proof of all this, and will not unfairly witness of the quality of Prati in most of the poetry he has written:

    THE MIDNIGHT RIDE.      I.      Ruello, Ruello, devour the way!       On your breath bear us with you, O winds, as ye swell!     My darling, she lies near her death to-day,—       Gallop, gallop, gallop, Ruel!      That my spurs have torn open thy flanks, alas!       With thy long, sad neighing, thou need'st not tell;     We have many a league yet of desert to pass,—       Gallop, gallop, gallop, Ruel!      Hear'st that mocking laugh overhead in space?       Hear'st the shriek of the storm, as it drives, swift and fell?     A scent as of graves is blown into my face,—       Gallop, gallop, gallop, Ruel!      Ah, God! and if that be the sound I hear       Of the mourner's song and the passing-bell!     O heaven! What see I? The cross and the bier?—       Gallop, gallop, gallop, Ruel!      Thou falt'rest, Ruello? Oh, courage, my steed!       Wilt fail me, O traitor I trusted so well?     The tempest roars over us,—halt not, nor heed!—       Gallop, gallop, gallop, Ruel!      Gallop, Ruello, oh, faster yet!       Good God, that flash! O God! I am chill,—     Something hangs on my eyelids heavy as death,—       Gallop, gallop, gallop, Ruel! 
    II.      Smitten with the lightning stroke,       From his seat the cavalier     Fell, and forth the charger broke,       Rider-free and mad with fear,—     Through the tempest and the night,     Like a winged thing in flight.      In the wind his mane blown back,       With a frantic plunge and neigh,—     In the shadow a shadow black,       Ever wilder he flies away,—     Through the tempest and the night,     Like a winged thing in flight.      From his throbbing flanks arise       Smokes of fever and of sweat,—     Over him the pebble flies       From his swift feet  swifter yet,—     Through the tempest and the night,     Like a winged thing in flight.      From the cliff unto the wood,       Twenty leagues he passed in all;     Soaked with bloody foam and blood,       Blind he struck against the wall:     Death is in the seat; no more     Stirs the steed that flew before. 
    III.      And the while, upon the colorless,       Death-white visage of the dying     Maiden, still and faint and fair,       Rosy lights arise and wane;     And her weakness lifting tremulous       From the couch where she was lying     Her long, beautiful, loose hair       Strives she to adorn in vain.      "Mother, what it is has startled me       From my sleep I cannot tell thee:     Only, rise and deck me well       In my fairest robes again.     For, last night, in the thick silences,—       I know not how it befell me,—     But the gallop of Ruel,       More than once I heard it plain.      "Look, O mother, through yon shadowy       Trees, beyond their gloomy cover:     Canst thou not an atom see       Toward us from the distance start?     Seest thou not the dust rise cloudily,       And above the highway hover?     Come at last! 'T is he! 't is he!       Mother, something breaks my heart."      Ah, poor child! she raises wearily       Her dim eyes, and, turning slowly,     Seeks the sun, and leaves this strife       With a loved name in her breath.     Ah, poor child! in vain she waited him.       In the grave they made her lowly     Bridal bed. And thou, O life!       Hast no hopes that know not death? 

Among Prati's patriotic poems, I have read one which seems to me rather vivid, and which because it reflects yet another phase of that great Italian resurrection, as well as represents Prati in one of his best moods, I will give here:

    THE SPY.      With ears intent, with eyes abased,     Like a shadow still my steps thou hast chased;     If I whisper aught to my friend, I feel     Thee follow quickly upon my heel.     Poor wretch, thou fill'st me with loathing; fly!                           Thou art a spy!      When thou eatest the bread that thou dost win     With the filthy wages of thy sin,     The hideous face of treason anear     Dost thou not see? dost thou not fear?     Poor wretch, thou fill'st me with loathing; fly!                           Thou art a spy!      The thief may sometimes my pity claim;     Sometimes the harlot for her shame;     Even the murderer in his chains     A hidden fear from me constrains;     But thou only fill'st me with loathing; fly!                           Thou art a spy!      Fly, poor villain; draw thy hat down,     Close be thy mantle about thee thrown;     And if ever my words weigh on thy heart,     Betake thyself to some church apart;     There, "Lord, have mercy!" weep and cry:                          "I am a spy!"      Forgiveness for thy great sin alone     Thou may'st hope to find before his throne.     Dismayed by thy snares that all abhor,     Brothers on earth thou hast no more;     Poor wretch, thou fill'st me with loathing; fly!                          Thou art a spy!