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Vittorio Alfieri - Italian Poet

by William Dean Howells

Vittorio Alfieri, the Italian poet whom his countrymen would undoubtedly name next after Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso, and who, in spite of his limitations, was a man of signal and distinct dramatic power, not surpassed if equaled since, is scarcely more than a name to most English readers. He was born in the year 1749, at Asti, a little city of that Piedmont where there has always been a greater regard for feudal traditions than in any other part of Italy; and he belonged by birth to a nobility which is still the proudest in Europe. "What a singular country is ours!" said the Chevalier Nigra, one of the first diplomats of our time, who for many years managed the delicate and difficult relations of Italy with France during the second empire, but who was the son of an apothecary. "In Paris they admit me everywhere; I am asked to court and petted as few Frenchmen are; but here, in my own city of Turin, it would not be possible for me to be received by the Marchioness Doria;" and if this was true in the afternoon of the nineteenth century, one easily fancies what society must have been at Turin in the forenoon of the eighteenth.


It was in the order of the things of that day and country that Alfieri should leave home while a child and go to school at the Academy of Turin. Here, as he tells in that most amusing autobiography of his, he spent several years in acquiring a profound ignorance of whatever he was meant to learn; and he came away a stranger not only to the humanities, but to any one language, speaking a barbarous mixture of French and Piedmontese, and reading little or nothing. Doubtless he does not spare color in this statement, but almost anything you like could be true of the education of a gentleman as a gentleman got it from the Italian priests of the last century. "We translated," he says, "the 'Lives of Cornelius Nepos'; but none of us, perhaps not even the masters, knew who these men were whose lives we translated, nor where was their country, nor in what times they lived, nor under what governments, nor what any government was." He learned Latin enough to turn Virgil's "Georgics" into his sort of Italian; but when he read Ariosto by stealth, he atoned for his transgression by failing to understand him. Yet Alfieri tells us that he was one of the first scholars of that admirable academy, and he really had some impulses even then toward literature; for he liked reading Goldoni and Metastasio, though he had never heard of the name of Tasso. This was whilst he was still in the primary classes, under strict priestly control; when he passed to a more advanced grade and found himself free to do what he liked in the manner that pleased him best, in common with the young Russians, Germans, and Englishmen then enjoying the advantages of the Academy of Turin, he says that being grounded in no study, directed by no one, and not understanding any language well, he did not know what study to take up, or how to study. "The reading of many French romances," he goes on, "the constant association with foreigners, and the want of all occasion to speak Italian, or to hear it spoken, drove from my head that small amount of wretched Tuscan which I had contrived to put there in those two or three years of burlesque study of the humanities and asinine rhetoric. In place of it," he says, "the French entered into my empty brain"; but he is careful to disclaim any literary merit for the French he knew, and he afterward came to hate it, with everything else that was French, very bitterly.

It was before this, a little, that Alfieri contrived his first sonnet, which, when he read it to the uncle with whom he lived, made that old soldier laugh unmercifully, so that until his twenty-fifth year the poet made no further attempts in verse. When he left school he spent three years in travel, after the fashion of those grand-touring days when you had to be a gentleman of birth and fortune in order to travel, and when you journeyed by your own conveyance from capital to capital, with letters to your sovereign's ambassadors everywhere, and spent your money handsomely upon the dissipations of the countries through which you passed. Alfieri is constantly at the trouble to have us know that he was a very morose and ill-conditioned young animal, and the figure he makes as a traveler is no more amiable than edifying. He had a ruling passion for horses, and then several smaller passions quite as wasteful and idle. He was driven from place to place by a demon of unrest, and was mainly concerned, after reaching a city, in getting away from it as soon as he could. He gives anecdotes enough in proof of this, and he forgets nothing that can enhance the surprise of his future literary greatness. At the Ambrosian Library in Milan they showed him a manuscript of Petrarch's, which, "like a true barbarian," as he says, he flung aside, declaring that he knew nothing about it, having a rancor against this Petrarch, whom he had once tried to read and had understood as little as Ariosto. At Rome the Sardinian minister innocently affronted him by repeating some verses of Marcellus, which the sulky young noble could not comprehend. In Ferrara he did not remember that it was the city of that divine Ariosto whose poem was the first that came into his hands, and which he had now read in part with infinite pleasure. "But my poor intellect," he says, "was then sleeping a most sordid sleep, and every day, as far as regards letters, rusted more and more. It is true, however, that with respect to knowledge of the world and of men I constantly learned not a little, without taking note of it, so many and diverse were the phases of life and manners that I daily beheld." At Florence he visited the galleries and churches with much disgust and no feeling, for the beautiful, especially in painting, his eyes being very dull to color. "If I liked anything better, it was sculpture a little, and architecture yet a little more"; and it is interesting to note how all his tragedies reflect these preferences, in their lack of color and in their sculpturesque sharpness of outline.

From Italy he passed as restlessly into France, yet with something of a more definite intention, for he meant to frequent the French theater. He had seen a company of French players at Turin, and had acquainted himself with the most famous French tragedies and comedies, but with no thought of writing tragedies of his own. He felt no creative impulse, and he liked the comedies best, though, as he says, he was by nature more inclined to tears than to laughter. But he does not seem to have enjoyed the theater much in Paris, a city for which he conceived at once the greatest dislike, he says, "on account of the squalor and barbarity of the buildings, the absurd and pitiful pomp of the few houses that affected to be palaces, the filthiness and gothicism of the churches, the vandalic structure of the theaters of that time, and the many and many and many disagreeable objects that all day fell under my notice, and worst of all the unspeakably misshapen and beplastered faces of those ugliest of women."

He had at this time already conceived that hatred of kings which breathes, or, I may better say, bellows, from his tragedies; and he was enraged even beyond his habitual fury by his reception at court, where it was etiquette for Louis XV. to stare at him from head to foot and give no sign of having received any impression whatever.

In Holland he fell in love, for the first time, and as was requisite in the polite society of that day, the object of his passion was another man's wife. In England he fell in love the second time, and as fashionably as before. The intrigue lasted for months; in the end it came to a duel with the lady's husband and a great scandal in the newspapers; but in spite of these displeasures, Alfieri liked everything in England. "The streets, the taverns, the horses, the women, the universal prosperity, the life and activity of that island, the cleanliness and convenience of the houses, though extremely little,"—as they still strike every one coming from Italy,—these and other charms of "that fortunate and free country" made an impression upon him that never was effaced. He did not at that time, he says, "study profoundly the constitution, mother of so much prosperity," but he "knew enough to observe and value its sublime effects."

Before his memorable sojourn in England, he spent half a year at Turin reading Rousseau, among other philosophers, and Voltaire, whose prose delighted and whose verse wearied him. "But the book of books for me," he says, "and the one which that winter caused me to pass hours of bliss and rapture, was Plutarch, his Lives of the truly great; and some of these, as Timoleon, Caesar, Brutus, Pelopidas, Cato, and others, I read and read again, with such a transport of cries, tears, and fury, that if any one had heard me in the next room he would surely have thought me mad. In meditating certain grand traits of these supreme men, I often leaped to my feet, agitated and out of my senses, and tears of grief and rage escaped me to think that I was born in Piedmont, and in a time, and under a government, where no high thing could be done or said; and it was almost useless to think or feel it."

{Illustration: Vittorio Alfieri.}

These characters had a life-long fascination for Alfieri, and his admiration of such types deeply influenced his tragedies. So great was his scorn of kings at the time he writes of, that he despised even those who liked them, and poor little Metastasio, who lived by the bounty of Maria Theresa, fell under Alfieri's bitterest contempt when in Vienna he saw his brother-poet before the empress in the imperial gardens at Schonbrunn, "performing the customary genuflexions with a servilely contented and adulatory face." This loathing of royalty was naturally intensified beyond utterance in Prussia. "On entering the states of Frederick, I felt redoubled and triplicated my hate for that infamous military trade, most infamous and sole base of arbitrary power." He told his minister that he would be presented only in civil dress, because there were uniforms enough at that court, and he declares that on beholding Frederick he felt "no emotion of wonder, or of respect, but rather of indignation and rage.... The king addressed me the three or four customary words; I fixed my eyes respectfully upon his, and inwardly blessed Heaven that I had not been born his slave; and I issued from that universal Prussian barracks ... abhorring it as it deserved."

In Paris Alfieri bought the principal Italian authors, which he afterwards carried everywhere with him on his travels; but he says that he made very little use of them, having neither the will nor the power to apply his mind to anything. In fact, he knew very little Italian, most of the authors in his collection were strange to him, and at the age of twenty-two he had read nothing whatever of Dante, Petrarch, Tasso, Boccaccio, or Machiavelli.

He made a journey into Spain, among other countries, where he admired the Andalusian horses, and bored himself as usual with what interests educated people; and he signalized his stay at Madrid by a murderous outburst of one of the worst tempers in the world. One night his servant Elia, in dressing his hair, had the misfortune to twitch one of his locks in such a way as to give him a slight pain; on which Alfieri leaped to his feet, seized a heavy candlestick, and without a word struck the valet such a blow upon his temple that the blood gushed out over his face, and over the person of a young Spanish gentleman who had been supping with Alfieri. Elia sprang upon his master, who drew his sword, but the Spaniard after great ado quieted them both; "and so ended this horrible encounter," says Alfieri, "for which I remained deeply afflicted and ashamed. I told Elia that he would have done well to kill me; and he was the man to have done it, being a palm taller than myself, who am very tall, and of a strength and courage not inferior to his height. Two hours later, his wound being dressed and everything put in order, I went to bed, leaving the door from my room into Elia's open as usual, without listening to the Spaniard, who warned me not thus to invite a provoked and outraged man to vengeance: I called to Elia, who had already gone to bed, that he could, if he liked and thought proper, kill me that night, for I deserved it. But he was no less heroic than I, and would take no other revenge than to keep two handkerchiefs, which had been drenched in his blood, and which from time to time he showed me in the course of many years. This reciprocal mixture of fierceness and generosity on both our parts will not be easily understood by those who have had no experience of the customs and of the temper of us Piedmontese;" though here, perhaps, Alfieri does his country too much honor in making his ferocity a national trait. For the rest, he says, he never struck a servant except as he would have done an equal—not with a cane, but with his fist, or a chair, or anything else that came to hand; and he seems to have thought this a democratic if not an amiable habit. When at last he went back to Turin, he fell once more into his old life of mere vacancy, varied before long by a most unworthy amour, of which he tells us that he finally cured himself by causing his servant to tie him in his chair, and so keep him a prisoner in his own house. A violent distemper followed this treatment, which the light-moraled gossip of the town said Alfieri had invented exclusively for his own use; many days he lay in bed tormented by this anguish; but when he rose he was no longer a slave to his passion. Shortly after, he wrote a tragedy, or a tragic dialogue rather, in Italian blank verse, called Cleopatra, which was played in a Turinese theater with a success of which he tells us he was at once and always ashamed.

Yet apparently it encouraged him to persevere in literature, his qualifications for tragical authorship being "a resolute spirit, very obstinate and untamed, a heart running over with passions of every kind, among which predominated a bizarre mixture of love and all its furies, and a profound and most ferocious rage and abhorrence against all tyranny whatsoever; ... a very dim and uncertain remembrance of various French tragedies seen in the theaters many years before; ... an almost total ignorance of all the rules of tragic art, and an unskillfulness almost total in the divine and most necessary art of writing and managing my own language." With this stock in trade, he set about turning his Filippo and his Polinice, which he wrote first in French prose, into Italian verse, making at the same time a careful study of the Italian poets. It was at this period that the poet Ossian was introduced to mankind by the ingenious and self-sacrificing Mr. Macpherson, and Cesarotti's translation of him came into Alfieri's hands. These blank verses were the first that really pleased him; with a little modification he thought they would be an excellent model for the verse of dialogue.

He had now refused himself the pleasure of reading French, and he had nowhere to turn for tragic literature but to the classics, which he read in literal versions while he renewed his faded Latin with the help of a teacher. But he believed that his originality as a tragic author suffered from his reading, and he determined to read no more tragedies till he had made his own. For this reason he had already given up Shakespeare. "The more that author accorded with my humor (though I very well perceived all his defects), the more I was resolved to abstain," he tells us.

This was during a literary sojourn in Tuscany, whither he had gone to accustom himself "to speak, hear, think, and dream in Tuscan, and not otherwise evermore." Here he versified his first two tragedies, and sketched others; and here, he says, "I deluged my brain with the verses of Petrarch, of Dante, of Tasso, and of Ariosto, convinced that the day would infallibly come in which all these forms, phrases, and words of others would return from its cells, blended and identified with my own ideas and emotions."

He had now indeed entered with all the fury of his nature into the business of making tragedies, which he did very much as if he had been making love. He abandoned everything else for it—country, home, money, friends; for having decided to live henceforth only in Tuscany, and hating to ask that royal permission to remain abroad, without which, annually renewed, the Piedmontese noble of that day could not reside out of his own country, he gave up his estates at Asti to his sister, keeping for himself a pension that came only to about half his former income. The king of Piedmont was very well, as kings went in that day; and he did nothing to hinder the poet's expatriation. The long period of study and production which followed Alfieri spent chiefly at Florence, but partly also at Rome and Naples. During this time he wrote and printed most of his tragedies; and he formed that relation, common enough in the best society of the eighteenth century, with the Countess of Albany, which continued as long as he lived. The countess's husband was the Pretender Charles Edward, the last of the English Stuarts, who, like all his house, abetted his own evil destiny, and was then drinking himself to death. There were difficulties in the way of her living with Alfieri which would not perhaps have beset a less exalted lady, and which required an especial grace on the part of the Pope. But this the Pope refused ever to bestow, even after being much prayed; and when her husband was dead, she and Alfieri were privately married, or were not married; the fact is still in dispute. Their house became a center of fashionable and intellectual society in Florence, and to be received in it was the best that could happen to any one. The relation seems to have been a sufficiently happy one; neither was painfully scrupulous in observing its ties, and after Alfieri's death the countess gave to the painter Fabre "a heart which," says Massimo d'Azeglio in his Memoirs, "according to the usage of the time, and especially of high society, felt the invincible necessity of keeping itself in continual exercise." A cynical little story of Alfieri reading one of his tragedies in company, while Fabre stood behind him making eyes at the countess, and from time to time kissing her ring on his finger, was told to D'Azeglio by an aunt of his who witnessed the scene.

In 1787 the poet went to France to oversee the printing of a complete edition of his works, and five years later he found himself in Paris when the Revolution was at its height. The countess was with him, and, after great trouble, he got passports for both, and hurried to the city barrier. The National Guards stationed there would have let them pass, but a party of drunken patriots coming up had their worst fears aroused by the sight of two carriages with sober and decent people in them, and heavily laden with baggage. While they parleyed whether they had better stone the equipages, or set fire to them, Alfieri leaped out, and a scene ensued which placed him in a very characteristic light, and which enables us to see him as it were in person. When the patriots had read the passports, he seized them, and, as he says, "full of disgust and rage, and not knowing at the moment, or in my passion despising the immense peril that attended us, I thrice shook my passport in my hand, and shouted at the top of my voice, 'Look! Listen! Alfieri is my name; Italian and not French; tall, lean, pale, red hair; I am he; look at me: I have my passport, and I have had it legitimately from those who could give it; we wish to pass, and, by Heaven, we will pass!'"

They passed, and two days later the authorities that had approved their passports confiscated the horses, furniture, and books that Alfieri had left behind him in Paris, and declared him and the countess—both foreigners—to be refugee aristocrats!

He established himself again in Florence, where, in his forty-sixth year, he took up the study of Greek, and made himself master of that literature, though, till then, he had scarcely known the Greek alphabet. The chief fruit of this study was a tragedy in the manner of Euripides, which he wrote in secret, and which he read to a company so polite that they thought it really was Euripides during the whole of the first two acts.

Alfieri's remaining years were spent in study and the revision of his works, to the number of which he added six comedies in 1800. The presence and domination of the detested French in Florence embittered his life somewhat; but if they had not been there he could never have had the pleasure of refusing to see the French commandant, who had a taste for literary people if not for literature, and would fain have paid his respects to the poet. He must also have found consolation in the thought that if the French had become masters of Europe, many kings had been dethroned, and every tyrant who wore a crown was in a very pitiable state of terror or disaster.

Nothing in Alfieri's life was more like him than his death, of which the Abbate di Caluso gives a full account in his conclusion of the poet's biography. His malady was gout, and amidst its tortures he still labored at the comedies he was then writing. He was impatient at being kept in-doors, and when they added plasters on the feet to the irksomeness of his confinement, he tore away the bandages that prevented him from walking about his room. He would not go to bed, and they gave him opiates to ease his anguish; under their influence his mind was molested by many memories of things long past. "The studies and labors of thirty years," says the Abbate, "recurred to him, and what was yet more wonderful, he repeated in order, from memory, a good number of Greek verses from the beginning of Hesiod, which he had read but once. These he said over to the Signora Contessa, who sat by his side, but it does not appear, for all this, that there ever came to him the thought that death, which he had been for a long time used to imagine near, was then imminent. It is certain at least that he made no sign to the contessa though she did not leave him till morning. About six o'clock he took oil and magnesia without the physician's advice, and near eight he was observed to be in great danger, and the Signora Contessa, being called, found him in agonies that took away his breath. Nevertheless, he rose from his chair, and going to the bed, leaned upon it, and presently the day was darkened to him, his eyes closed and he expired. The duties and consolations of religion were not forgotten, but the evil was not thought so near, nor haste necessary, and so the confessor who was called did not come in time." D'Azeglio relates that the confessor arrived at the supreme moment, and saw the poet bow his head: "He thought it was a salutation, but it was the death of Vittorio Alfieri."

I once fancied that a parallel between Alfieri and Byron might be drawn, but their disparities are greater than their resemblances, on the whole. Both, however, were born noble, both lived in voluntary exile, both imagined themselves friends and admirers of liberty, both had violent natures, and both indulged the curious hypocrisy of desiring to seem worse than they were, and of trying to make out a shocking case for themselves when they could. They were men who hardly outgrew their boyishness. Alfieri, indeed, had to struggle against so many defects of training that he could not have reached maturity in the longest life; and he was ruled by passions and ideals; he hated with equal noisiness the tyrants of Europe and the Frenchmen who dethroned them.

When he left the life of a dissolute young noble for that of tragic authorship, he seized upon such histories and fables as would give the freest course to a harsh, narrow, gloomy, vindictive, and declamatory nature; and his dramas reproduce the terrible fatalistic traditions of the Greeks, the stories of Oedipus, Myrrha, Alcestis, Clytemnestra, Orestes, and such passages of Roman history as those relating to the Brutuses and to Virginia. In modern history he has taken such characters and events as those of Philip II., Mary Stuart, Don Garzia, and the Conspiracy of the Pazzi. Two of his tragedies are from the Bible, the Abel and the Saul; one, the Rosmunda, from Longobardic history. And these themes, varying so vastly as to the times, races, and religions with which they originated, are all treated in the same spirit—the spirit Alfieri believed Greek. Their interest comes from the situation and the action; of character, as we have it in the romantic drama, and supremely in Shakespeare, there is scarcely anything; and the language is shorn of all metaphor and picturesque expression. Of course their form is wholly unlike that of the romantic drama; Alfieri holds fast by the famous unities as the chief and saving grace of tragedy. All his actions take place within twenty-four hours; there is no change of scene, and so far as he can master that most obstinate unity, the unity of action, each piece is furnished with a tangible beginning, middle, and ending. The wide stretches of time which the old Spanish and English and all modern dramas cover, and their frequent transitions from place to place, were impossible and abhorrent to him.

Emiliani-Giudici, the Italian critic, writing about the middle of our century, declares that when the fiery love of freedom shall have purged Italy, the Alfierian drama will be the only representation worthy of a great and free people. This critic holds that Alfieri's tragical ideal was of such a simplicity that it would seem derived regularly from the Greek, but for the fact that when he felt irresistibly moved to write tragedy, he probably did not know even the names of the Greek dramatists, and could not have known the structure of their dramas by indirect means, having read then only some Metastasian plays of the French school; so that he created that ideal of his by pure, instinctive force of genius. With him, as with the Greeks, art arose spontaneously; he felt the form of Greek art by inspiration. He believed from the very first that the dramatic poet should assume to render the spectators unconscious of theatrical artifice, and make them take part with the actors; and he banished from the scene everything that could diminish their illusion; he would not mar the intensity of the effect by changing the action from place to place, or by compressing within the brief time of the representation the events of months and years. To achieve the unity of action, he dispensed with all those parts which did not seem to him the most principal, and he studied how to show the subject of the drama in the clearest light. In all this he went to the extreme, but he so wrought "that the print of his cothurnus stamped upon the field of art should remain forever singular and inimitable. Reading his tragedies in order, from the Cleopatra to the Saul, you see how he never changed his tragic ideal, but discerned it more and more distinctly until he fully realized it. Aeschylus and Alfieri are two links that unite the chain in a circle. In Alfieri art once more achieved the faultless purity of its proper character; Greek tragedy reached the same height in the Italian's Saul that it touched in the Greek's Prometheus, two dramas which are perhaps the most gigantic creations of any literature." Emiliani-Giudici thinks that the literary ineducation of Alfieri was the principal exterior cause of this prodigious development, that a more regular course of study would have restrained his creative genius, and, while smoothing the way before it, would have subjected it to methods and robbed it of originality of feeling and conception. "Tragedy, born sublime, terrible, vigorous, heroic, the life of liberty, ... was, as it were, redeemed by Vittorio Alfieri, reassumed the masculine, athletic forms of its original existence, and recommenced the exercise of its lost ministry."

I do not begin to think this is all true. Alfieri himself owns his acquaintance with the French theater before the time when he began to write, and we must believe that he got at least some of his ideas of Athens from Paris, though he liked the Frenchmen none the better for his obligation to them. A less mechanical conception of the Greek idea than his would have prevented its application to historical subjects. In Alfieri's Brutus the First, a far greater stretch of imagination is required from the spectator in order to preserve the unities of time and place than the most capricious changes of scene would have asked. The scene is always in the forum in Rome; the action occurs within twenty-four hours. During this limited time, we see the body of Lucretia borne along in the distance; Brutus harangues the people with the bloody dagger in his hand. The emissaries of Tarquin arrive and organize a conspiracy against the new republic; the sons of Brutus are found in the plot, and are convicted and put to death.

But such incongruities as these do not affect us in the tragedies based on the heroic fables; here the poet takes, without offense, any liberty he likes with time and place; the whole affair is in his hands, to do what he will, so long as he respects the internal harmony of his own work. For this reason, I think, we find Alfieri at his best in these tragedies, among which I have liked the Orestes best, as giving the widest range of feeling with the greatest vigor of action. The Agamemnon, which precedes it, and which ought to be read first, closes with its most powerful scene. Agamemnon has returned from Troy to Argos with his captive Cassandra, and Aegisthus has persuaded Clytemnestra that her husband intends to raise Cassandra to the throne. She kills him and reigns with Aegisthus, Electra concealing Orestes on the night of the murder, and sending him secretly away with Strophius, king of Phocis.

In the last scene, as Clytemnestra steals through the darkness to her husband's chamber, she soliloquizes, with the dagger in her hand:

It is the hour; and sunk in slumber now
Lies Agamemnon. Shall he nevermore
Open his eyes to the fair light? My hand,
Once pledge to him of stainless love and faith,
Is it to be the minister of his death?
Did I swear that? Ay, that; and I must keep
My oath. Quick, let me go! My foot, heart, hand—
All over I tremble. Oh, what did I promise?
Wretch! what do I attempt? How all my courage
Hath vanished from me since Aegisthus vanished!
I only see the immense atrocity
Of this, my horrible deed; I only see
The bloody specter of Atrides! Ah,
In vain do I accuse thee! No, thou lovest
Cassandra not. Me, only me, thou lovest,
Unworthy of thy love. Thou hast no blame,
Save that thou art my husband, in the world!
Of trustful sleep, to death's arms by my hand?
And where then shall I hide me? O perfidy!
Can I e'er hope for peace? O woful life—
Life of remorse, of madness, and of tears!
How shall Aegisthus, even Aegisthus, dare
To rest beside the parricidal wife
Upon her murder-stained marriage-bed,
Nor tremble for himself? Away, away,—
Hence, horrible instrument of all my guilt
And harm, thou execrable dagger, hence!
I'll lose at once my lover and my life,
But never by this hand betrayed shall fall
So great a hero! Live, honor of Greece
And Asia's terror! Live to glory, live
To thy dear children, and a better wife!
—But what are these hushed steps? Into these rooms
Who is it comes by night? Aegisthus?—Lost,
I am lost!

Aegisthus. Hast thou not done the deed?

Cly. Aegisthus——

Aeg. What, stand'st thou here, wasting thyself in
Woman, untimely are thy tears; 't is late,
'T is vain, and it may cost us dear!

Cly. Thou here?
But how—woe's me, what did I promise thee!
What wicked counsel—

Aeg. Was it not thy counsel?
Love gave it thee and fear annuls it—well!
Since thou repentest, I am glad; and glad
To know thee guiltless shall I be in death.
I told thee that the enterprise was hard,
But thou, unduly trusting in the heart,
That hath not a man's courage in it, chose
Thyself thy feeble hands to strike the blow.
Now may Heaven grant that the intent of evil
Turn not to harm thee! Hither I by stealth
And favor of the darkness have returned
Unseen, I hope. For I perforce must come
Myself to tell thee that irrevocably
My life is dedicated to the vengeance
Of Agamemnon.

He appeals to her pity for him, and her fear for herself; he reminds her of Agamemnon's consent to the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and goads her on to the crime from which she had recoiled. She goes into Agamemnon's chamber, whence his dying outcries are heard:—

O treachery!
Thou, wife? O headens, I die! O treachery!

Clytemnestra comes out with the dagger in her hand:

The dagger drips with blood; my hands, my robe,
My face—they all are wet with blood. What vengeance
Shall yet be taken for this blood? Already
I see this very steel turned on my breast,
And by whose hand!

The son whom she forebodes as the avenger of Agamemnon's death passes his childhood and early youth at the court of Strophius in Phocis. The tragedy named for him opens with Electra's soliloquy as she goes to weep at the tomb of their father:—

Night, gloomy, horrible, atrocious night,
Forever present to my thought! each year
For now two lusters I have seen thee come,
Clothed on with darkness and with dreams of blood,
And blood that should have expiated thine
Is not yet spilt! O memory, O sight!
Upon these stones I saw thee murdered lie,
Murdered, and by whose hand!...
I swear to thee,
If I in Argos, in thy palace live,
Slave of Aegisthus, with my wicked mother,
Nothing makes me endure a life like this
Saving the hope of vengeance. Far away
Orestes is; but living! I saved thee, brother;
I keep myself for thee, till the day rise
When thou shalt make to stream upon yon tomb
Not helpless tears like these, but our foe's blood.

While Electra fiercely muses, Clytemnestra enters, with the appeal:

Cly. Daughter!

El. What voice! Oh Heaven, thou here?

Cly. My daughter,
Ah, do not fly me! Thy pious task I fain
Would share with thee. Aegisthus in vain forbids,
He shall not know. Ah, come! go we together
Unto the tomb.

El. Whose tomb?

Cly. Thy—hapless—father's.

El. Wherefore not say thy husband's tomb? 'T is well:
Thou darest not speak it. But how dost thou dare
Turn thitherward thy steps—thou that dost reek
Yet with his blood?

Cly. Two lusters now are passed
Since that dread day, and two whole lusters now
I weep my crime.

El. And what time were enough
For that? Ah, if thy tears should be eternal,
They yet were nothing. Look! Seest thou not still
The blood upon these horrid walls the blood
That thou didst splash them with? And at thy presence
Lo, how it reddens and grows quick again!
Fly, thou, whom I must never more call mother!

* * * *

Cly. Oh, woe is me! What can I answer? Pity—
But I merit none!—And yet if in my heart,
Daughter, thou couldst but read—ah, who could look
Into the secret of a heart like mine,
Contaminated with such infamy,
And not abhor me? I blame not thy wrath,
No, nor thy hate. On earth I feel already
The guilty pangs of hell. Scarce had the blow
Escaped my hand before a swift remorse,
Swift but too late, fell terrible upon me.
From that hour still the sanguinary ghost
By day and night, and ever horrible,
Hath moved before mine eyes. Whene'er I turn
I see its bleeding footsteps trace the path
That I must follow; at table, on the throne,
It sits beside me; on my bitter pillow
If e'er it chance I close mine eyes in sleep,
The specter—fatal vision!—instantly
Shows itself in my dreams, and tears the breast,
Already mangled, with a furious hand,
And thence draws both its palms full of dark blood,
To dash it in my face! On dreadful nights
Follow more dreadful days. In a long death
I live my life. Daughter,—whate'er I am,
Thou art my daughter still,—dost thou not weep
At tears like mine?

Clytemnestra confesses that Aegisthus no longer loves her, but she loves him, and she shrinks from Electra's fierce counsel that she shall kill him. He enters to find her in tears, and a violent scene between him and Electra follows, in which Clytemnestra interposes.

Cly. O daughter, he is my husband. Think, Aegisthus,
She is my daughter.
Aeg. She is Atrides' daughter!

El. He is Atrides' murderer!

Cly. Electra!
Have pity, Aegisthus! Look—the tomb! Oh, look,
The horrible tomb!—and art thou not content?

Aeg. Woman, be less unlike thyself. Atrides,—
Tell me by whose hand in yon tomb he lies?

Cly. O mortal blame! What else is lacking now
To my unhappy, miserable life?
Who drove me to it now upbraids my crime!

El. O marvelous joy! O only joy that's blessed
My heart in these ten years! I see you both
At last the prey of anger and remorse;
I hear at last what must the endearments be
Of love so blood-stained.

The first act closes with a scene between Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, in which he urges her to consent that he shall send to have Orestes murdered, and reminds her of her former crimes when she revolts from this. The scene is very well managed, with that sparing phrase which in Alfieri is quite as apt to be touchingly simple as bare and poor. In the opening scene of the second act, Orestes has returned in disguise to Argos with Pylades the son of Strophius, to whom he speaks:

We are come at last. Here Agamemnon fell,
Murdered, and here Aegisthus reigns. Here rose
In memory still, though I a child departed,
These natal walls, and the just Heaven in time
Leads me back hither.

Twice five years have passed
This very day since that dread night of blood,
When, slain by treachery, my father made
The whole wide palace with his dolorous cries
Echo again. Oh, well do I remember!
Electra swiftly bore me through this hall
Thither where Strophius in his pitying arms
Received me—Strophius, less by far thy father
Than mine, thereafter—and fled onward with me
By yonder postern-gate, all tremulous;
And after me there ran upon the air
Long a wild clamor and a lamentation
That made me weep and shudder and lament,
I knew not why, and weeping Strophius ran,
Preventing with his hand my outcries shrill,
Clasping me close, and sprinkling all my face
With bitter tears; and to the lonely coast,
Where only now we landed, with his charge
He came apace; and eagerly unfurled
His sails before the wind.

Pylades strives to restrain the passion for revenge in Orestes, which imperils them both. The friend proposes that they shall feign themselves messengers sent by Strophius with tidings of Orestes' death, and Orestes has reluctantly consented, when Electra re-appears, and they recognize each other. Pylades discloses their plan, and when her brother urges, "The means is vile," she answers, all woman,—

Less vile than is Aegisthus. There is none
Better or surer, none, believe me. When
You are led to him, let it be mine to think
Of all—the place, the manner, time, and arms,
To kill him. Still I keep, Orestes, still
I keep the steel that in her husband's breast
She plunged whom nevermore we might call mother.

Orestes. How fares it with that impious woman?

Electra. Ah,
Thou canst not know how she drags out her life!
Save only Agamemnon's children, all
Must pity her—and even we must pity.
Full ever of suspicion and of terror,
And held in scorn even by Aegisthus' self,
Loving Aegisthus though she know his guilt;
Repentant, and yet ready to renew
Her crime, perchance, if the unworthy love
Which is her shame and her abhorrence, would;
Now wife, now mother, never wife nor mother,
Bitter remorse gnaws at her heart by day
Unceasingly, and horrible shapes by night
Scare slumber from her eyes.—So fares it with her.

In the third scene of the following act Clytemnestra meets Orestes and Pylades, who announce themselves as messengers from Phocis to the king; she bids them deliver their tidings to her, and they finally do so, Pylades struggling to prevent Orestes from revealing himself. There are touchingly simple and natural passages in the lament that Clytemnestra breaks into over her son's death, and there is fire, with its true natural extinction in tears, when she upbraids Aegisthus, who now enters:

My only son beloved, I gave thee all.

All that I gave thou did'st account as nothing
While aught remained to take. Who ever saw
At once so cruel and so false a heart?
The guilty love that thou did'st feign so ill
And I believed so well, what hindrance to it,
What hindrance, tell me, was the child Orestes?
Yet scarce had Agamemnon died before
Thou did'st cry out for his son's blood; and searched
Through all the palace in thy fury. Then
The blade thou durst not wield against the father,
Then thou didst brandish! Ay, bold wast thou then
Against a helpless child!...
Unhappy son, what booted it to save thee
From thy sire's murderer, since thou hast found
Death ere thy time in strange lands far away?
Aegisthus, villainous usurper! Thou,
Thou hast slain my son! Aegisthus—Oh forgive!
I was a mother, and am so no more.

Throughout this scene, and in the soliloquy preceding it, Alfieri paints very forcibly the struggle in Clytemnestra between her love for her son and her love for Aegisthus, to whom she clings even while he exults in the tidings that wring her heart. It is all too baldly presented, doubtless, but it is very effective and affecting.

Orestes and Pylades are now brought before Aegisthus, and he demands how and where Orestes died, for after his first rejoicing he has come to doubt the fact. Pylades responds in one of those speeches with which Alfieri seems to carve the scene in bas-relief:

Every fifth year an ancient use renews
In Crete the games and offerings unto Jove.
The love of glory and innate ambition
Lure to that coast the youth; and by his side
Goes Pylades, inseparable from him.
In the light car upon the arena wide,
The hopes of triumph urge him to contest
The proud palm of the flying-footed steeds,
And, too intent on winning, there his life
He gives for victory.

Aeg. But how? Say on.

Pyl. Too fierce, impatient, and incautious, he
Now frights his horses on with threatening cries,
Now whirls his blood-stained whip, and lashes them,
Till past the goal the ill-tamed coursers fly
Faster and faster. Reckless of the rein,
Deaf to the voice that fain would soothe them now,
Their nostrils breathing fire, their loose manes tossed
Upon the wind, and in thick clouds involved
Of choking dust, round the vast circle's bound,
As lightning swift they whirl and whirl again.
Fright, horror, mad confusion, death, the car
Spreads in its crooked circles everywhere,
Until at last, the smoking axle dashed
With horrible shock against a marble pillar,
Orestes headlong falls—

Cly. No more! Ah, peace!
His mother hears thee.

Pyl. It is true. Forgive me.
I will not tell how, horribly dragged on,
His streaming life-blood soaked the arena's dust—
Pylades ran—in vain—within his arms
His friend expired.

Cly. O wicked death!

Pyl. In Crete
All men lamented him, so potent in him
Were beauty, grace, and daring.

Cly. Nay, who would not
Lament him save this wretch alone? Dear son,
Must I then never, never see thee more?
O me! too well I see thee crossing now
The Stygian stream to clasp thy father's shade:
Both turn your frowning eyes askance on me,
Burning with dreadful wrath! Yea, it was I,
'T was I that slew you both. Infamous mother
And guilty wife!—Now art content, Aegisthus?

Aegisthus still doubts, and pursues the pretended messengers with such insulting question that Orestes, goaded beyond endurance, betrays that their character is assumed. They are seized and about to be led to prison in chains, when Electra enters and in her anguish at the sight exclaims, "Orestes led to die!" Then ensues a heroic scene, in which each of the friends claims to be Orestes. At last Orestes shows the dagger Electra has given him, and offers it to Clytemnestra, that she may stab Aegisthus with the same weapon with which she killed Agamemnon:

Whom then I would call mother. Take it; thou know'st how
To wield it; plunge it in Aegisthus' heart!
Leave me to die; I care not, if I see
My father avenged. I ask no other proof
Of thy maternal love from thee. Quick, now,
Strike! Oh, what is it that I see? Thou tremblest?
Thou growest pale? Thou weepest? From thy hand
The dagger falls? Thou lov'st Aegisthus, lov'st him
And art Orestes' mother? Madness! Go
And never let me look on thee again!

Aegisthus dooms Electra to the same death with Orestes and Pylades, but on the way to prison the guards liberate them all, and the Argives rise against the usurper with the beginning of the fifth act, which I shall give entire, because I think it very characteristic of Alfieri, and necessary to a conception of his vehement, if somewhat arid, genius. I translate as heretofore almost line for line, and word for word, keeping the Italian order as nearly as I can.

AEGISTHUS and Soldiers.

Aeg. O treachery unforseen! O madness! Freed,
Orestes freed? Now we shall see....


Cly. Ah! turn
Backward thy steps.

Aeg. Ah, wretch, dost thou arm too
Against me?

Cly. I would save thee. Hearken to me,
I am no longer—

Aeg. Traitress—

Cly. Stay!

Aeg. Thou 'st promised
Haply to give me to that wretch alive?

Cly. To keep thee, save thee from him, I have sworn,
Though I should perish for thee! Ah, remain
And hide thee here in safety. I will be
Thy stay against his fury—

Aeg. Against his fury
My sword shall be my stay. Go, leave me!
I go—

Cly. Whither?

Aeg. To kill him!

Cly. To thy death thou goest!
O me! What dost thou? Hark! Dost thou not hear
The yells and threats of the whole people? Hold!
I will not leave thee.

Aeg. Nay, thou hop'st in vain
To save thy impious son from death. Hence! Peace!
Or I will else—

Cly. Oh, yes, Aegisthus, kill me,
If thou believest me not. "Orestes!" Hark!
"Orestes!" How that terrible name on high
Rings everywhere! I am no longer mother
When thou 'rt in danger. Against my blood I grow
Cruel once more.

Aeg. Thou knowest well the Argives
Do hate thy face, and at the sight of thee
The fury were redoubled in their hearts.
The tumult rises. Ah, thou wicked wretch,
Thou wast the cause! For thee did I delay
Vengeance that turns on me now.

Cly. Kill me, then!

Aeg. I'll find escape some other way.

Cly. I follow—

Aeg. Ill shield wert thou for me. Leave me—away, away!
At no price would I have thee by my side! {Exit.

Cly. All hunt me from them! O most hapless state!
My son no longer owns me for his mother,
My husband for his wife: and wife and mother
I still must be! O misery! Afar
I'll follow him, nor lose the way he went.


El. Mother, where goest thou! Turn thy steps again
Into the palace. Danger—

Cly. Orestes—speak!
Where is he now? What does he do?

El. Orestes,
Pylades, and myself, we are all safe.
Even Aegisthus' minions pitied us.
They cried, "This is Orestes!" and the people,
"Long live Orestes! Let Aegisthus die!"

Cly. What do I hear?

El. Calm thyself, mother; soon
Thou shalt behold thy son again, and soon
Th' infamous tyrant's corse—

Cly. Ah, cruel, leave me!
I go—

El. No, stay! The people rage, and cry
Out on thee for a parricidal wife.
Show thyself not as yet, or thou incurrest
Great peril. 'T was for this I came. In thee
A mother's agony appeared, to see
Thy children dragged to death, and thou hast now
Atoned for thy misdeed. My brother sends me
To comfort thee, to succor and to hide thee
From dreadful sights. To find Aegisthus out,
All armed meanwhile, he and his Pylades
Search everywhere. Where is the wicked wretch?

Cly. Orestes is the wicked wretch!

El. O Heaven!

Cly. I go to save him or to perish with him.

El. Nay, mother, thou shalt never go. Thou ravest—

Cly. The penalty is mine. I go—

El. O mother!
The monster that but now thy children doomed
To death, wouldst thou—

Cly. Yes, I would save him—I!
Out of my path! My terrible destiny
I must obey. He is my husband. All
Too dear he cost me. I will not, can not lose him.
You I abhor, traitors, not children to me!
I go to him. Loose me, thou wicked girl!
At any risk I go, and may I only
Reach him in time! {Exit.

El. Go to thy fate, then, go,
If thou wilt so, but be thy steps too late!
Why can not I, too, arm me with a dagger,
To pierce with stabs a thousand-fold the breast
Of infamous Aegisthus! O blind mother, oh,
How art thou fettered to his baseness! Yet,
And yet, I tremble—If the angry mob
Avenge their murdered king on her—O Heaven!
Let me go after her—But who comes here?
Pylades, and my brother not beside him?


Oh, tell me! Orestes—?

Pyl. Compasses the palace
About with swords. And now our prey is safe.
Where lurks Aegisthus! Hast thou seen him?

El. Nay,
I saw and strove in vain a moment since
To stay his maddened wife. She flung herself
Out of this door, crying that she would make
Herself a shield unto Aegisthus. He
Already had fled the palace.

Pyl. Durst he then
Show himself in the sight of Argos? Why,
Then he is slain ere this! Happy the man
That struck him first. Nearer and louder yet
I hear their yells.

El. "Orestes!" Ah, were't so!

Pyl. Look at him in his fury where he comes!

Enter ORESTES and his followers.

Or. No man of you attempt to slay Aegisthus:
There is no wounding sword here save my own.
Aegisthus, ho! Where art thou, coward! Speak!
Aegisthus, where art thou? Come forth: it is
The voice of Death that calls thee! Thou comest not?
Ah, villain, dost thou hide thyself? In vain:
The midmost deep of Erebus should not hide thee!
Thou shalt soon see if I be Atrides' son.
El. He is not here; he—

Or. Traitors! You perchance
Have slain him without me?

Pyl. Before I came
He had fled the palace.

Or. In the palace still
Somewhere he lurks; but I will drag him forth;
By his soft locks I'll drag him with my hand:
There is no prayer, nor god, nor force of hell
Shall snatch thee from me. I will make thee plow
The dust with thy vile body to the tomb
Of Agamemnon,—I will drag thee thither
And pour out there all thine adulterous blood.

El. Orestes, dost thou not believe me?—me!

Or. Who'rt thou? I want Aegisthus.

El. He is fled.

Or. He's fled, and you, ye wretches, linger here?
But I will find him.


Cly. Oh, have pity, son!

Or. Pity? Whose son am I? Atrides' son
Am I.

Cly. Aegisthus, loaded with chains—

Or. He lives yet?
O joy! Let me go slay him!

Cly. Nay, kill me!
I slew thy father—I alone. Aegisthus
Had no guilt in it.

Or. Who, who grips my arm!
Who holds me back? O Madness! Ah Aegisthus!
I see him; they drag him hither—Off with thee!

Cly. Orestes, dost thou not know thy mother?

Or. Die,
Aegisthus! By Orestes' hand, die, villain! {Exit.

Cly. Ah, thou'st escaped me! Thou shalt slay me
first! {Exit.

El. Pylades, go! Run, run! Oh, stay her! fly;
Bring her back hither! {Exit PYLADES.
I shudder! She is still
His mother, and he must have pity on her.
Yet only now she saw her children stand
Upon the brink of an ignoble death;
And was her sorrow and her daring then
As great as they are now for him? At last
The day so long desired has come; at last,
Tyrant, thou diest; and once more I hear
The palace all resound with wails and cries,
As on that horrible and bloody night,
Which was my father's last, I heard it ring.
Already hath Orestes struck the blow,
The mighty blow; already is Aegisthus
Fallen—the tumult of the crowd proclaims it.
Behold Orestes conqueror, his sword
Dripping with blood!


O brother mine, come,
Avenger of the king of kings, our father,
Argos, and me, come to my heart!

Or. Sister,
At last thou seest me Atrides' worthy son.
Look,'t is Aegisthus' blood! I hardly saw him
And ran to slay him where he stood, forgetting
To drag him to our father's sepulcher.
Full twice seven times I plunged and plunged my sword
Into his cowardly and quaking heart;
Yet have I slaked not my long thirst of vengeance!

El. Then Clytemnestra did not come in time
To stay thine arm?

Or. And who had been enough
For that? To stay my arm? I hurled myself
Upon him; not more swift the thunderbolt.
The coward wept, and those vile tears the more
Filled me with hate. A man that durst not die
Slew thee, my father!

El. Now is our sire avenged!
Calm thyself now, and tell me, did thine eyes
Behold not Pylades?

Or. I saw Aegisthus;
None other. Where is dear Pylades? And why
Did he not second me in this glorious deed?

El. I had confided to his care our mad
And desperate mother.

Or. I knew nothing of them.


El. See, Pylades returns—O heavens, what do I see?
Returns alone?

Or. And sad? Oh wherefore sad,
Part of myself, art thou? Know'st not I've slain
Yon villain? Look, how with his life-blood yet
My sword is dripping! Ah, thou did'st not share
His death-blow with me! Feed then on this sight
Thine eyes, my Pylades!

Pyl. O sight! Orestes,
Give me that sword.

Or. And wherefore?

Pyl. Give it me.

Or. Take it.

Pyl. Oh listen! We may not tarry longer
Within these borders; come—

Or. But what—

El. Oh speak!
Where's Clytemnestra?
Or. Leave her; she is perchance
Kindling the pyre unto her traitor husband.

Pyl. Oh, thou hast far more than fulfilled thy vengeance.
Come, now, and ask no more.

Or. What dost thou say?

El. Our mother! I beseech thee yet again!
Pylades—Oh what chill is this that creeps
Through all my veins?

Pyl. The heavens—

El. Ah, she is dead!

Or. Hath turned her dagger, maddened, on herself?

El. Alas, Pylades! Why dost thou not answer?

Or.. Speak! What hath been?

Pyl. Slain—

Or. And by whose hand?

Pyl. Come!

El. (To ORESTES.) Thou slewest her!

Or. I parricide?

Pyl. Unknowing
Thou plungèdst in her heart thy sword, as blind
With rage thou rannest on Aegisthus—

Or. Oh,
What horror seizes me! I parricide?
My sword! Pylades, give it me; I'll have it—

Pyl. It shall not be.

El. Brother—

Or. Who calls me brother?
Thou, haply, impious wretch, thou that didst save me
To life and matricide? Give me my sword!
My sword! O fury! Where am I? What is it
That I have done? Who stays me? Who follows me?
Ah, whither shall I fly, where hide myself?—
O father, dost thou look on me askance?
Thou wouldst have blood of me, and this is blood;
For thee alone—for thee alone I shed it!

El. Orestes, Orestes—miserable brother!
He hears us not! ah, he is mad! Forever,
Pylades, we must go beside him.

Pyl. Hard,
Inevitable law of ruthless Fate!


Alfieri himself wrote a critical comment on each of his tragedies, discussing their qualities and the question of their failure or success dispassionately enough. For example, he frankly says of his Maria Stuarda that it is the worst tragedy he ever wrote, and the only one that he could wish not to have written; of his Agamennone, that all the good in it came from the author and all the bad from the subject; of his Fillippo II., that it may make a very terrible impression indeed of mingled pity and horror, or that it may disgust, through the cold atrocity of Philip, even to the point of nausea. On the Orestes, we may very well consult him more at length. He declares: "This tragic action has no other motive or development, nor admits any other passion, than an implacable revenge; but the passion of revenge (though very strong by nature), having become greatly enfeebled among civilized peoples, is regarded as a vile passion, and its effects are wont to be blamed and looked upon with loathing. Nevertheless, when it is just, when the offense received is very atrocious, when the persons and the circumstances are such that no human law can indemnify the aggrieved and punish the aggressor, then revenge, under the names of war, invasion, conspiracy, the duel, and the like, ennobles itself, and so works upon our minds as not only to be endured but to be admirable and sublime."

In his Orestes he confesses that he sees much to praise and very little to blame: "Orestes, to my thinking, is ardent in sublime degree, and this daring character of his, together with the perils he confronts, may greatly diminish in him the atrocity and coldness of a meditated revenge.... Let those who do not believe in the force of a passion for high and just revenge add to it, in the heart of Orestes, private interest, the love of power, rage at beholding his natural heritage occupied by a murderous usurper, and then they will have a sufficient reason for all his fury. Let them consider, also, the ferocious ideas in which he must have been nurtured by Strophius, king of Phocis, the persecutions which he knows to have been everywhere moved against him by the usurper,—his being, in fine, the son of Agamemnon, and greatly priding himself thereon,—and all these things will certainly account for the vindictive passion of Orestes.... Clytemnestra is very difficult to treat in this tragedy, since she must be here,

"Now wife, now mother, never wife nor mother,

"which is much easier to say in a verse than to manage in the space of five acts. Yet I believe that Clytemnestra, through the terrible remorse she feels, the vile treatment which she receives from Aegisthus, and the awful perplexity in which she lives ... will be considered sufficiently punished by the spectator. Aegisthus is never able to elevate his soul; ... he will always be an unpleasing, vile, and difficult personage to manage well; a character that brings small praise to the author when made sufferable, and much blame if not made so.... I believe the fourth and fifth acts would produce the highest effect on the stage if well represented. In the fifth, there is a movement, a brevity, a rapidly operating heat, that ought to touch, agitate, and singularly surprise the spirit. So it seems to me, but perhaps it is not so."

This analysis is not only very amusing for the candor with which Alfieri praises himself, but it is also remarkable for the justice with which the praise is given, and the strong, conscious hold which it shows him to have had upon his creations. It leaves one very little to add, but I cannot help saying that I think the management of Clytemnestra especially admirable throughout. She loves Aegisthus with the fatal passion which no scorn or cruelty on his part can quench; but while he is in power and triumphant, her heart turns tenderly to her hapless children, whom she abhors as soon as his calamity comes; then she has no thought but to save him. She can join her children in hating the murder which she has herself done on Agamemnon, but she cannot avenge it on Aegisthus, and thus expiate her crime in their eyes. Aegisthus is never able to conceive of the unselfishness of her love; he believes her ready to betray him when danger threatens and to shield herself behind him from the anger of the Argives; it is a deep knowledge of human nature that makes him interpose the memory of her unatoned-for crime between her and any purpose of good.

Orestes always sees his revenge as something sacred, and that is a great scene in which he offers his dagger to Clytemnestra and bids her kill Aegisthus with it, believing for the instant that even she must exult to share his vengeance. His feeling towards Aegisthus never changes; it is not revolting to the spectator, since Orestes is so absolutely unconscious of wrong in putting him to death. He shows his blood-stained sword to Pylades with a real sorrow that his friend should not also have enjoyed the rapture of killing the usurper. His story of his escape on the night of Agamemnon's murder is as simple and grand in movement as that of figures in an antique bas-relief. Here and elsewhere one feels how Alfieri does not paint, but sculptures his scenes and persons, cuts their outlines deep, and strongly carves their attitudes and expression.

Electra is the worthy sister of Orestes, and the family likeness between them is sharply traced. She has all his faith in the sacredness of his purpose, while she has, woman-like, a far keener and more specific hatred of Aegisthus. The ferocity of her exultation when Clytemnestra and Aegisthus upbraid each other is terrible, but the picture she draws for Orestes of their mother's life is touched with an exquisite filial pity. She seems to me studied with marvelous success.

The close of the tragedy is full of fire and life, yet never wanting in a sort of lofty, austere grace, that lapses at last into a truly statuesque despair. Orestes mad, with Electra and Pylades on either side: it is the attitude and gesture of Greek sculpture, a group forever fixed in the imperishable sorrow of stone.

In reading Alfieri, I am always struck with what I may call the narrowness of his tragedies. They have height and depth, but not breadth. The range of sentiment is as limited in any one of them as the range of phrase in this Orestes, where the recurrence of the same epithets, horrible, bloody, terrible, fatal, awful, is not apparently felt by the poet as monotonous. Four or five persons, each representing a purpose or a passion, occupy the scene, and obviously contribute by every word and deed to the advancement of the tragic action; and this narrowness and rigidity of intent would be intolerable, if the tragedies were not so brief: I do not think any of them is much longer than a single act of one of Shakespeare's plays. They are in all other ways equally unlike Shakespeare's plays. When you read Macbeth or Hamlet, you find yourself in a world where the interests and passions are complex and divided against themselves, as they are here and now. The action progresses fitfully, as events do in life; it is promoted by the things that seem to retard it; and it includes long stretches of time and many places. When you read Orestes, you find yourself attendant upon an imminent calamity, which nothing can avert or delay. In a solitude like that of dreams, those hapless phantasms, dark types of remorse, of cruel ambition, of inexorable revenge, move swiftly on the fatal end. They do not grow or develop on the imagination; their character is stamped at once, and they have but to act it out. There is no lingering upon episodes, no digressions, no reliefs. They cannot stir from that spot where they are doomed to expiate or consummate their crimes; one little day is given them, and then all is over.

Mr. Lowell, in his essay on Dryden, speaks of "a style of poetry whose great excellence was that it was in perfect sympathy with the genius of the people among whom it came into being", and this I conceive to be the virtue of the Alferian poetry. The Italians love beauty of form, and we Goths love picturesque effect; and Alfieri has little or none of the kind of excellence which we enjoy. But while

I look and own myself a happy Goth,

I have moods, in the presence of his simplicity and severity, when I feel that he and all the classicists may be right. When I see how much he achieves with his sparing phrase, his sparsely populated scene, his narrow plot and angular design, when I find him perfectly sufficient in expression and entirely adequate in suggestion, the Classic alone appears elegant and true—till I read Shakespeare again; or till I turn to Nature, whom I do not find sparing or severe, but full of variety and change and relief, and yet having a sort of elegance and truth of her own.

In the treatment of historical subjects Alfieri allowed himself every freedom. He makes Lorenzo de' Medici, a brutal and very insolent tyrant, a tyrant after the high Roman fashion, a tyrant almost after the fashion of the late Edwin Forrest. Yet there are some good passages in the Congiura dei Pazzi, of the peculiarly hard Alfierian sort:

An enemy insulted and not slain!
What breast in triple iron armed, but needs
Must tremble at him?

is a saying of Giuliano de' Medici, who, when asked if he does not fear one of the conspirators, puts the whole political wisdom of the sixteenth century into his answer,—

Being feared, I fear.

The Filippo of Alfieri must always have an interest for English readers because of its chance relation to Keats, who, sick to death of consumption, bought a copy of Alfieri when on his way to Rome. As Mr. Lowell relates in his sketch of the poet's life, the dying man opened the book at the second page, and read the lines—perhaps the tenderest that Alfieri ever wrote—

Misero me! sollievo a me non resta
Altro che il pianto, e il pianto è delitto!

Keats read these words, and then laid down the book and opened it no more. The closing scene of the fourth act of this tragedy can well be studied as a striking example of Alfieri's power of condensation.

Some of the non-political tragedies of Alfieri are still played; Ristori has played his Mirra, and Salvini his Saul; but I believe there is now no Italian critic who praises him so entirely as Giudici did. Yet the poet finds a warm defender against the French and German critics in De Sanctis, {note: Saggi Critici. Di Francesco de Sanctis. Napoli: Antonio Morano. 1859.} a very clever and brilliant Italian, who accounts for Alfieri in a way that helps to make all Italian things more intelligible to us. He is speaking of Alfieri's epoch and social circumstances: "Education had been classic for ages. Our ideal was Rome and Greece, our heroes Brutus and Cato, our books Livy, Tacitus, and Plutarch; and if this was true of all Europe, how much more so of Italy, where this history might be called domestic, a thing of our own, a part of our traditions, still alive to the eye in our cities and monuments. From Dante to Machiavelli, from Machiavelli to Metastasio, our classical tradition was never broken.... In the social dissolution of the last century, all disappeared except this ideal. In fact, in that first enthusiasm, when the minds of men confidently sought final perfection, it passed from the schools into life, ruled the imagination, inflamed the will. People lived and died Romanly.... The situations that Alfieri has chosen in his tragedies have a visible relation to the social state, to the fears and to the hopes of his own time. It is always resistance to oppression, of man against man, of people against tyrant.... In the classicism of Alfieri there is no positive side. It is an ideal Rome and Greece, outside of time and space, floating in the vague, ... which his contemporaries filled up with their own life."

Giuseppe Arnaud, in his admirable criticisms on the Patriotic Poets of Italy, has treated of the literary side of Alfieri in terms that seem to me, on the whole, very just: "He sacrificed the foreshortening, which has so great a charm for the spectator, to the sculptured full figure that always presents itself face to face with you, and in entire relief. The grand passions, which are commonly sparing of words, are in his system condemned to speak much, and to explain themselves too much.... To what shall we attribute that respectful somnolence which nowadays reigns over the audience during the recitation of Alfieri's tragedies, if they are not sustained by some theatrical celebrity? You will certainly say, to the mediocrity of the actors. But I hold that the tragic effect can be produced even by mediocre actors, if this effect truly abounds in the plot of the tragedy.... I know that these opinions of mine will not be shared by the great majority of the Italian public, and so be it. The contrary will always be favorable to one who greatly loved his country, always desired to serve her, and succeeded in his own time and own manner. Whoever should say that Alfieri's tragedies, in spite of many eminent merits, were constructed on a theory opposed to grand scenic effects and to one of the two bases of tragedy, namely, compassion, would certainly not say what was far from the truth. And yet, with all this, Alfieri will still remain that dry, harsh blast which swept away the noxious miasms with which the Italian air was infected. He will still remain that poet who aroused his country from its dishonorable slumber, and inspired its heart with intolerance of servile conditions and with regard for its dignity. Up to his time we had bleated, and he roared." "In fact," says D'Azeglio, "one of the merits of that proud heart was to have found Italy Metastasian and left it Alfierian; and his first and greatest merit was, to my thinking, that he discovered Italy, so to speak, as Columbus discovered America, and initiated the idea of Italy as a nation. I place this merit far beyond that of his verses and his tragedies."

Besides his tragedies, Alfieri wrote, as I have already stated, some comedies in his last years; but I must own my ignorance of all six of them; and he wrote various satires, odes, sonnets, epigrams, and other poems. Most of these are of political interest; the Miso-Gallo is an expression of his scorn and hatred of the French nation; the America Liberata celebrates our separation from England; the Etruria Vendicata praises the murder of the abominable Alessandro de' Medici by his kinsman, Lorenzaccio. None of the satires, whether on kings, aristocrats, or people, have lent themselves easily to my perusal; the epigrams are signally unreadable, but some of the sonnets are very good. He seems to find in their limitations the same sort of strength that he finds in his restricted tragedies; and they are all in the truest sense sonnets.

Here is one, which loses, of course, by translation. In this and other of my versions, I have rarely found the English too concise for the Italian, and often not concise enough:


The sad bell that within my bosom aye
Clamors and bids me still renew my tears,
Doth stun my senses and my soul bewray
With wandering fantasies and cheating fears;
The gentle form of her that is but ta'en
A little from my sight I seem to see
At life's bourne lying faint and pale with pain,—
My love that to these tears abandons me.
"O my own true one," tenderly she cries,
"I grieve for thee, love, that thou winnest naught
Save hapless life with all thy many sighs."
Life? Never! Though thy blessed steps have taught
My feet the path in all well-doing, stay!—
At this last pass 't is mine to lead the way.

There is a still more characteristic sonnet of Alfieri's, with which I shall close, as I began, in the very open air of his autobiography:


Thou mirror of veracious speech sublime,
What I am like in soul and body, show:
Red hair,—in front grown somewhat thin with time;
Tall stature, with an earthward head bowed low;
A meager form, with two straight legs beneath;
An aspect good; white skin with eyes of blue;
A proper nose; fine lips and choicest teeth;
Face paler than a throned king's in hue;
Now hard and bitter, yielding now and mild;
Malignant never, passionate alway,
With mind and heart in endless strife embroiled;
Sad mostly, and then gayest of the gay.
Achilles now, Thersites in his turn:
Man, art thou great or vile? Die and thou 'lt learn!

Book: Shattered Sighs