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Silvio Pellico, Tomasso Grossi, Luigi Career, And Giovanni Berchet - Italian Poets

by William Dean Howells

Nearly all the poets of the Romantic School were Lombards, and they had nearly all lived at Milan under the censorship and espionage of the Austrian government. What sort of life this must have been, we, born and reared in a free country, can hardly imagine. We have no experience by which we can judge it, and we never can do full justice to the intellectual courage and devotion of a people who, amid inconceivable obstacles and oppressions, expressed themselves in a new and vigorous literature. It was not, I have explained, openly revolutionary; but whatever tended to make men think and feel was a sort of indirect rebellion against Austria. When a society of learned Milanese gentlemen once presented an address to the Emperor, he replied, with brutal insolence, that he wanted obedient subjects in Italy, nothing more; and it is certain that the activity of the Romantic School was regarded with jealousy and dislike by the government from the first. The authorities awaited only a pretext for striking a deadly blow at the poets and novelists, who ought to have been satisfied with being good subjects, but who, instead, must needs even found a newspaper, and discuss in it projects for giving the Italians a literary life, since they could not have a political existence. The perils of contributing to the Conciliatore were such as would attend house-breaking and horse-stealing in happier countries and later times. The government forbade any of its employees to write for it, under pain of losing their places; the police, through whose hands every article intended for publication had to pass, not only struck out all possibly offensive expressions, but informed one of the authors that if his articles continued to come to them so full of objectionable things, he should be banished, even though those things never reached the public. At last the time came for suppressing this journal and punishing its managers. The chief editor was a young Piedmontese poet, who politically was one of the most harmless and inoffensive of men; his literary creed obliged him to choose Italian subjects for his poems, and he thus erred by mentioning Italy; yet Arnaud, in his "Poeti Patriottici", tells us he could find but two lines from which this poet could be suspected of patriotism, and he altogether refuses to class him with the poets who have promoted revolution. Nevertheless, it is probable that this poet wished Freedom well. He was indefinitely hopeful for Italy; he was young, generous, and credulous of goodness and justice. His youth, his generosity, his truth, made him odious to Austria. One day he returned from a visit to Turin, and was arrested. He could have escaped when danger first threatened, but his faith in his own innocence ruined him. After a tedious imprisonment, and repeated examinations in Milan, he was taken to Venice, and lodged in the famous piombi, or cells in the roof of the Ducal Palace. There, after long delays, he had his trial, and was sentenced to twenty years in the prison of Spielberg. By a sort of poetical license which the imperial clemency sometimes used, the nights were counted as days, and the term was thus reduced to ten years. Many other young and gifted Italians suffered at the same time; most of them came to this country at the end of their long durance; this Piedmontese poet returned to his own city of Turin, an old and broken-spirited man, doubting of the political future, and half a Jesuit in religion. He was devastated, and for once a cruel injustice seemed to have accomplished its purpose.

Such is the grim outline of the story of Silvio Pellico. He was arrested for no offense, save that he was an Italian and an intellectual man; for no other offense he was condemned and suffered. His famous book, "My Prisons", is the touching and forgiving record of one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated.

Few have borne wrong with such Christlike meekness and charity as Pellico. One cannot read his Prigioni without doing homage to his purity and goodness, and cannot turn to his other works without the misgiving that the sole poem he has left the world is the story of his most fatal and unmerited suffering. I have not the hardihood to pretend that I have read all his works. I must confess that I found it impossible to do so, though I came to their perusal inured to drought by travel through Saharas of Italian verse. I can boast only of having read the Francesca da Rimini, among the tragedies, and two or three of the canticles,—or romantic stories of the Middle Ages, in blank verse,—which now refuse to be identified. I know, from a despairing reference to his volume, that his remaining poems are chiefly of a religious cast.


A much better poet of the Romantic School was Tommaso Grossi, who, like Manzoni and Pellico, is now best known by a prose work—a novel which enjoys a popularity as great as that of "Le Mie Prigioni", and which has been nearly as much read in Italy as "I Promessi Sposi". The "Marco Visconti" of Grossi is a romance of the thirteenth century; and though not, as Cantù says, an historic "episode, but a succession of episodes, which do not leave a general and unique impression," it yet contrives to bring you so pleasantly acquainted with the splendid, squalid, poetic, miserable Italian life in Milan, and on its neighboring hills and lakes, during the Middle Ages, that you cannot help reading it to the end. I suppose that this is the highest praise which can be bestowed upon an historical romance, and that it implies great charm of narrative and beauty of style. I can add, that the feeling of Grossi's "Marco Visconti" is genuine and exalted, and that its morality is blameless. It has scarcely the right to be analyzed here, however, and should not have been more than mentioned, but for the fact that it chances to be the setting of the author's best thing in verse. I hope that, even in my crude English version, the artless pathos and sweet natural grace of one of the tenderest little songs in any tongue have not wholly perished.

{Illustration: TOMMASO GROSSI.}

    THE FAIR PRISONER TO THE SWALLOW.      Pilgrim swallow! pilgrim swallow!       On my grated window's sill,     Singing, as the mornings follow,       Quaint and pensive ditties still,     What would'st tell me in thy lay?     Prithee, pilgrim swallow, say!      All forgotten, com'st thou hither       Of thy tender spouse forlorn,     That we two may grieve together,       Little widow, sorrow worn?     Grieve then, weep then, in thy lay!     Pilgrim swallow, grieve alway!      Yet a lighter woe thou weepest:       Thou at least art free of wing,     And while land and lake thou sweepest,       May'st make heaven with sorrow ring,     Calling his dear name alway,     Pilgrim swallow, in thy lay.      Could I too! that am forbidden       By this low and narrow cell,     Whence the sun's fair light is hidden,       Whence thou scarce can'st hear me tell     Sorrows that I breathe alway,     While thou pip'st thy plaintive lay.      Ah! September quickly coming,       Thou shalt take farewell of me,     And, to other summers roaming,       Other hills and waters see,—     Greeting them with songs more gay,     Pilgrim swallow, far away.      Still, with every hopeless morrow,       While I ope mine eyes in tears,     Sweetly through my brooding sorrow       Thy dear song shall reach mine ears,—     Pitying me, though far away,     Pilgrim swallow, in thy lay.      Thou, when thou and spring together      Here return, a cross shalt see,—     In the pleasant evening weather,       Wheel and pipe, here, over me!     Peace and peace! the coming May,     Sing me in thy roundelay! 

It is a great good fortune for a man to have written a thing so beautiful as this, and not a singular fortune that he should have written nothing else comparable to it. The like happens in all literatures; and no one need be surprised to learn that I found the other poems of Grossi often difficult, and sometimes almost impossible to read.

Grossi was born in 1791, at Bollano, by lovely Como, whose hills and waters he remembers in all his works with constant affection. He studied law at the University of Pavia, but went early to Milan, where he cultivated literature rather than the austerer science to which he had been bred, and soon became the fashion, writing tales in Milanese and Italian verse, and making the women cry by his pathetic art of story-telling. "Ildegonda", published in 1820, was the most popular of all these tales, and won Grossi an immense number of admirers, every one (says his biographer Cantù) of the fair sex, who began to wear Ildegonda dresses and Ildegonda bonnets. The poem was printed and reprinted; it is the heart-breaking story of a poor little maiden in the middle ages, whom her father and brother shut up in a convent because she is in love with the right person and will not marry the wrong one—a common thing in all ages. The cruel abbess and wicked nuns, by the order of Ildegonda's family, try to force her to take the veil; but she, supported by her own repugnance to the cloister, and, by the secret counsels of one of the sisters, with whom force had succeeded, resists persuasion, reproach, starvation, cold, imprisonment, and chains. Her lover attempts to rescue her by means of a subterranean vault under the convent; but the plot is discovered, and the unhappy pair are assailed by armed men at the very moment of escape. Ildegonda is dragged back to her dungeon; and Rizzardo, already under accusation of heresy, is quickly convicted and burnt at the stake. They bring the poor girl word of this, and her sick brain turns. In her delirium she sees her lover in torment for his heresy, and, flying from the hideous apparition, she falls and strikes her head against a stone. She wakes in the arms of the beloved sister who had always befriended her. The cruel efforts against her cease now, and she writes to her father imploring his pardon, which he gives, with a prayer for hers. At last she dies peacefully. The story is pathetic; and it is told with art, though its lapses of taste are woful, and its faults those of the whole class of Italian poetry to which it belongs. The agony is tedious, as Italian agony is apt to be, the passion is outrageously violent or excessively tender, the description too often prosaic; the effects are sometimes produced by very "rough magic". The more than occasional infelicity and awkwardness of diction which offend in Byron's poetic tales are not felt so much in those of Grossi; but in "Ildegonda" there is horror more material even than in "Parisina". Here is a picture of Rizzardo's apparition, for which my faint English has no stomach:

    Chè dalla bocca fuori gli pendea     La coda smisurata d' un serpente,     E il flagellava per la faccia, mentre     Il capo e il tronco gli scendean nel ventre.      Fischia la biscia nell' orribil lutta     Entro il ventre profondo del dannato,     Che dalla bocca lacerata erutta     Un torrente di sangue aggruppato;     E bava gialla, venenosa e brutta,     Dalle narici fuor manda col fiato,     La qual pel mento giù gli cola, e lassa     Insolcata la carne, ovunque passa. 

It seems to have been the fate of Grossi as a poet to achieve fashion, and not fame; and his great poem in fifteen cantos, called "I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata", which made so great a noise in its day, was eclipsed in reputation by his subsequent novel of "Marco Visconti". Since the "Gerusalemma" of Tasso, it is said that no poem has made so great a sensation in Italy as "I Lombardi", in which the theme treated by the elder poet is celebrated according to the aesthetics of the Romantic School. Such parts of the poem as I have read have not tempted me to undertake the whole; but many people must have at least bought it, for it gave the author thirty thousand francs in solid proof of popularity.

After the "Marco Visconti", Grossi seems to have produced no work of importance. He married late, but happily; and he now devoted himself almost exclusively to the profession of the law, in Milan, where he died in 1853, leaving the memory of a good man, and the fame of a poet unspotted by reproach. As long as he lived, he was the beloved friend of Manzoni. He dwelt many years under the influence of the stronger mind, but not servile to it; adopting its literary principles, but giving them his own expression.


Luigi Carrer of Venice was the first of that large number of minor poets and dramatists to which the states of the old Republic have given birth during the present century. His life began with our century, and he died in 1850. During this time he witnessed great political events—the retirement of the French after the fall of Napoleon; the failure of all the schemes and hopes of the Carbonarito shake off the yoke of the stranger; and that revolution in 1848 which drove out the Austrians, only that, a year later, they should return in such force as to make the hope of Venetian independence through the valor of Venetian arms a vain dream forever. There is not wanting evidence of a tender love of country in the poems of Carrer, and probably the effectiveness of the Austrian system of repression, rather than his own indifference, is witnessed by the fact that he has scarcely a line to betray a hope for the future, or a consciousness of political anomaly in the present.

Carrer was poor, but the rich were glad to be his friends, without putting him to shame; and as long as the once famous conversazioni were held in the great Venetian houses, he was the star of whatever place assembled genius and beauty. He had a professorship in a private school, and while he was young he printed his verses in the journals. As he grew older, he wrote graceful books of prose, and drew his slender support from their sale and from the minute pay of some offices in the gift of his native city.

Carrer's ballads are esteemed the best of his poems; and I may offer an idea of the quality and manner of some of his ballads by the following translation, but I cannot render his peculiar elegance, nor give the whole range of his fancy:

    From the horrible profound       Of the voiceless sepulcher     Comes, or seems to come, a sound;       Is't his Grace, the Duke, astir?     In his trance he hath been laid     As one dead among the dead!      The relentless stone he tries       With his utmost strength to move;     Fails, and in his fury cries,       Smiting his hands, that those above,     If any shall be passing there,     Hear his blasphemy, or his prayer.      And at last he seems to hear       Light feet overhead go by;     "O, whoever passes near       Where I am, the Duke am I!     All my states and all I have     To him that takes me from this grave."      There is no one that replies;       Surely, some one seemed to come!     On his brow the cold sweat lies,       As he waits an instant dumb;     Then he cries with broken breath,     "Save me, take me back from death!"      "Where thou liest, lie thou must,       Prayers and curses alike are vain:     Over thee dead Gismond's dust—       Whom thy pitiless hand hath slain—     On this stone so heavily     Rests, we cannot set thee free."      From the sepulcher's thick walls       Comes a low wail of dismay,     And, as when a body falls,       A dull sound;—and the next day     In a convent the Duke's wife     Hideth her remorseful life. 

Of course, Carrer wrote much poetry besides his ballads. There are idyls, and romances in verse, and hymns; sonnets of feeling and of occasion; odes, sometimes of considerable beauty; apologues, of such exceeding fineness of point, that it often escapes one; satires and essays, or sermoni, some of which I have read with no great relish. The same spirit dominates nearly all—the spirit of pensive disappointment which life brings to delicate and sensitive natures, and which they love to affect even more than they feel. Among Carrer's many sonnets, I think I like best the following, of which the sentiment seems to me simple and sweet, and the expression very winning:

    I am a pilgrim swallow, and I roam       Beyond strange seas, of other lands in quest,     Leaving the well-known lakes and hills of home,       And that dear roof where late I hung my nest;     All things beloved and love's eternal woes       I fly, an exile from my native shore:     I cross the cliffs and woods, but with me goes       The care I thought to abandon evermore.     Along the banks of streams unknown to me,       I pipe the elms and willows pensive lays,     And call on her whom I despair to see,       And pass in banishment and tears my days.     Breathe, air of spring, for which I pine and yearn,     That to his nest the swallow may return! 

The prose writings of Carrer are essays on Aesthetics and morals, and sentimentalized history. His chief work is of the latter nature. "I Sette Gemme di Venezia" are sketches of the lives of the seven Venetian women who have done most to distinguish the name of their countrywomen by their talents, or misfortunes, or sins. You feel, in looking through the book, that its interest is in great part factitious. The stories are all expanded, and filled up with facile but not very relevant discourse, which a pleasant fancy easily supplies, and which is always best left to the reader's own thought. The style is somewhat florid; but the author contrives to retain in his fantastic strain much of the grace of simplicity. It is the work of a cunning artist; but it has a certain insipidity, and it wearies. Carrer did well in the limit which he assigned himself, but his range was circumscribed. At the time of his death, he had written sixteen cantos of an epic poem called "La Fata Vergine", which a Venetian critic has extravagantly praised, and which I have not seen. He exercised upon the poetry of his day an influence favorable to lyric naturalness, and his ballads were long popular.


GIOVANNI BERCHET was a poet who alone ought to be enough to take from the Lombard romanticists the unjust reproach of "resignation". "Where our poetry," says De Sanctis, "throws off every disguise, romantic or classic, is in the verse of Berchet.... If Giovanni Berchet had remained in Italy, probably his genius would have remained enveloped in the allusions and shadows of romanticism. But in his exile at London he uttered the sorrow and the wrath of his betrayed and vanquished country. It was the accent of the national indignation which, leaving the generalities of the sonnets and the ballads, dramatized itself and portrayed our life in its most touching phases."

Berchet's family was of French origin, but he was the most Italian of Italians, and nearly all his poems are of an ardent political tint and temperature. Naturally, he spent a great part of his life in exile after the Austrians were reestablished in Milan; he was some time in England, and I believe he died in Switzerland.

I have most of his patriotic poems in a little book which is curiously historical of a situation forever past. I picked it up, I do not remember where or when, in Venice; and as it is a collection of pieces all meant to embitter the spirit against Austria, it had doubtless not been brought into the city with the connivance of the police. There is no telling where it was printed, the mysterious date of publication being "Italy, 1861", and nothing more, with the English motto: "Adieu, my native land, adieu!"

The principal poem here is called "Le Fantasie", and consists of a series of lyrics in which an Italian exile contrasts the Lombards, who drove out Frederick Barbarossa in the twelfth century, with the Lombards of 1829, who crouched under the power defied of old. It is full of burning reproaches, sarcasms, and appeals; and it probably had some influence in renewing the political agitation which in Italy followed the French revolution of 1830. Other poems of Berchet represent social aspects of the Austrian rule, like one entitled "Remorse", which paints the isolation and wretchedness of an Italian woman married to an Austrian; and another, "Giulia", which gives a picture of the frantic misery of an Austrian conscription in Italy. A very impressive poem is that called "The Hermit of Mt. Cenis". A traveler reaches the summit of the pass, and, looking over upon the beauty and magnificence of the Italian plains, and seeing only their loveliness and peace, his face is lighted up with an involuntary smile, when suddenly the hermit who knows all the invisible disaster and despair of the scene suddenly accosts him with, "Accursed be he who approaches without tears this home of sorrow!"

At the time the Romantic School rose in Italian literature, say from 1815 till 1820, society was brilliant, if not contented or happy. In Lombardy and Venetia, immediately after the treaties of the Holy Alliance had consigned these provinces to Austria, there flourished famous conversazioni at many noble houses. In those of Milan many distinguished literary men of other nations met. Byron and Hobhouse were frequenters of the same salons as Pellico, Manzoni, and Grossi; the Schlegels represented the German Romantic School, and Madame de Staël the sympathizing movement in France. There was very much that was vicious still, and very much that was ignoble in Italian society, but this was by sufferance and not as of old by approval; and it appears that the tone of the highest life was intellectual. It cannot be claimed that this tone was at all so general as the badness of the last century. It was not so easily imitated as that, and it could not penetrate so subtly into all ranks and conditions. Still it was very observable, and mingled with it in many leading minds was the strain of religious resignation, audible in Manzoni's poetry. That was a time when the Italians might, if ever, have adapted themselves to foreign rule; but the Austrians, sofar from having learned political wisdom during the period of their expulsion from Italy, had actually retrograded; from being passive authorities whom long sojourn was gradually Italianizing, they had, in their absence, become active and relentless tyrants, and they now seemed to study how most effectually to alienate themselves. They found out their error later, but when too late to repair it, and from 1820 until 1859 in Milan, and until 1866 in Venice, the hatred, which they had themselves enkindled, burned fiercer and fiercer against them. It is not extravagant to say that if their rule had continued a hundred years longer the Italians would never have been reconciled to it. Society took the form of habitual and implacable defiance to them. The life of the whole people might be said to have resolved itself into a protest against their presence. This hatred was the heritage of children from their parents, the bond between friends, the basis of social faith; it was a thread even in the tie between lovers; it was so intense and so pervasive that it cannot be spoken.

Berchet was the vividest, if not the earliest, expression of it in literature, and the following poem, which I have already mentioned, is, therefore, not only intensely true to Italian feeling, but entirely realistic in its truth to a common fact.

    REMORSE.      Alone in the midst of the throng,       'Mid the lights and the splendor alone,     Her eyes, dropped for shame of her wrong,       She lifts not to eyes she has known:     Around her the whirl and the stir       Of the light-footing dancers she hears;     None seeks her; no whisper for her       Of the gracious words filling her ears.      The fair boy that runs to her knees,       With a shout for his mother, and kiss     For the tear-drop that welling he sees       To her eyes from her sorrow's abyss,—     Though he blooms like a rose, the fair boy,       No praise of his beauty is heard;     None with him stays to jest or to toy,       None to her gives a smile or a word.      If, unknowing, one ask who may be       This woman, that, as in disgrace,     O'er the curls of the boy at her knee       Bows her beautiful, joyless face,     A hundred tongues answer in scorn,       A hundred lips teach him to know—     "Wife of one of our tyrants, forsworn       To her friends in her truth to their foe."      At the play, in the streets, in the lanes,       At the fane of the merciful God,     'Midst a people in prison and chains,       Spy-haunted, at home and abroad—     Steals through all like the hiss of a snake       Hate, by terror itself unsuppressed:     "Cursed be the Italian could take       The Austrian foe to her breast!"      Alone—but the absence she mourned       As widowhood mourneth, is past:     Her heart leaps for her husband returned       From his garrison far-off at last?     Ah, no! For this woman forlorn       Love is dead, she has felt him depart:     With far other thoughts she is torn,       Far other the grief at her heart.      When the shame that has darkened her days       Fantasmal at night fills the gloom,     When her soul, lost in wildering ways,       Flies the past, and the terror to come—     When she leaps from her slumbers to hark,       As if for her little one's call,     It is then to the pitiless dark       That her woe-burdened soul utters all:      "Woe is me! It was God's righteous hand       My brain with its madness that smote:     At the alien's flattering command       The land of my birth I forgot!     I, the girl who was loved and adored,       Feasted, honored in every place,     Now what am I? The apostate abhorred,       Who was false to her home and her race!      "I turned from the common disaster;       My brothers oppressed I denied;     I smiled on their insolent master;       I came and sat down by his side.     Wretch! a mantle of shame thou hast wrought;       Thou hast wrought it—it clingeth to thee,     And for all that thou sufferest, naught       From its meshes thy spirit can free.      "Oh, the scorn I have tasted! They know not,       Who pour it on me, how it burns;     How it galls the meek spirit, whose woe not       Their hating with hating returns!     Fool! I merit it: I have not holden       My feet from their paths! Mine the blame:     I have sought in their eyes to embolden       This visage devoted to shame!      "Rejected and followed with scorn,       My child, like a child born of sin,     In the land where my darling was born,       He lives exiled! A refuge to win     From their hatred, he runs in dismay       To my arms. But the day may yet be     When my son shall the insult repay,       I have nurtured him in, unto me!      "If it chances that ever the slave       Snaps the shackles that bind him, and leaps     Into life in the heart of the brave       The sense of the might that now sleeps—     To which people, which side shall I cleave?       Which fate shall I curse with my own?     To which banner pray Heaven to give       The triumph? Which desire o'erthrown?      "Italian, and sister, and wife,       And mother, unfriended, alone,     Outcast, I wander through life,       Over shard and bramble and stone!     Wretch! a mantle of shame thou hast wrought;       Thou hast wrought it—it clingeth to thee,     And for all that thou sufferest, naught       From its meshes thy spirit shall free!"