« PreviousContinue »
•ides were immolated on the altar of despotism, and thus escaped from the galling yoke which oppressed them. The place of their interment was easily recognised by its greater verdure, and by yielding more abundant crops than the barren and unproductive soil in its immediate vicinity. On Hit omitían, I refected, with forróte, that ilavei teem everywhere only tern to fertilize the toil on «hick they vegetate."—Vol. i. pp. 196, 197.
After this he meets with a beautiful ass at Gottingen, and regrets that his indolence prevented him from availing himself of this excellent opportunity for writing some immeasurably facetious verses "upon this rencounter of a German and an Italian ass, in so celebrated an university!" After a hasty expedition to Spa, he again traverses Germany and Holland, and returns to England in the twenty-third year of his age; where he is speedily involved in some very distressing and discreditable adventures. He engages in an intrigue with an English lady of rank, and is challenged, and slightly wounded by her husband. After this eclat, he consoles himself with the thought of marrying the frail fair, with whom he is, as usual, most heroically in love; when he discovers, to his infinite horror and consternation, that, previous to her connection with him, she had been equally lavish of her favours to her husband's groom.' whose jealous resentment had led him to watch and expose this new infidelity. After many struggles betweßn shame, resentment, and unconquerable love, he at last tears himself from this sad sample of Englieh virtue, and makes his way to Holland, bursting with grief and indignation; but without seeming to think that there was the slightest occasion for any degree of contrition or selfcondemnation. From Holland he goes to France, and from France to Spain—as idle, and more oppressed with himself than ever —buying and caressing Andalusian horses, and constantly ready to sink under the heavy burden of existence. At Madrid he has set down an extraordinary trait of the dangerous impetuosity of his temper. His faithful servant, in combing his hair one day, happened accidentally to give him pain by stretching one hair a little more than the rest, upon which, without saying a word, he first seized a candlestick, and felled him to the ground with a huge wound on his temple, and then drew his sword to despatch him, upon his offering to make some resistance. The sequel of the story is somewhat more creditable to his magnanimity, than this part of it is to his eelf-command.
"I was shocked at the brutal excess of passion into which I had fallen. Though Elias was somewhat calmed, he still appeared 10 retain a certain degree of resentment; yet I was not disposed to display towards him the smallest distrust. Two hours after his wound was dressed I went to bed, leaving the door open, as usual, between my apartment and the chamber in which he slept; notwithstanding the remonstrance of the Spaniards, who pointed out to me the absurdity of nutting vengeance in the power of a man whom I nad so much irritated. I said even aloud to Elias, who was already in bed, that he might kill me, if he was so inclined, during the night ; and that I justly merited antch л fate. But this brave man, who possessed u
mach elevation of soul as myself, took no other revenge for my outrageous conduct, except presening for several years two handkerchiefs stained with blood which had been bound round his head, aod which he occasionally displayed to my view. It is necessary to be fully acquainted with the chancier and manners of the Picqmonteso, in order to comprehend the mixture of ferocity and generosity displayed on both sides in this affair.
"When at a more mature age, I endeavoured 10 discover the cause of this violent transport of rage. I became convinced that the trivial circumstance which gave rise to it, was, so to speak, like the list drop poured into a vessel ready to run over. Мт irascible temper, which must have been rendered still more irritable by solitude and perpetual idleness, required only the slightest impulse to cause Í: to burst forth. Besides, I never lifted a hand against a domestic, as that would have been putting them on a level with myself. Neither did 1 етег employ a cane, nor any kind of weapon in order • chastise them, though I frequently threw at them any moveable that fell in my way, as many young people do, during the first ebullitions of anger; yet I dare to affirm that I would have approved, and even esteemed the domestic who should on such occasions have rendered me back the treatment be received, since I never punished them as a master, but only contended with them as one man widl another."—Vol. i. pp. 244—246.
At Lisbon he forms an acquaintance with a literary countryman of his own, and feel^ for the first time of his life, a glow of admiration on perusing some passages of Italian poetry From this he returns to Spain, and, a/let lounging over the whole of that kingdom, returns through France to Italy, and arrive« at Turin in 1773. Here he endeavours to maintain the same unequal contest of dissipation against ennui and conscious folly, and fall« furiously in love, for the third time, with a woman of more man doubtful reputation, ten years older than himself. Neither the intoxication of this passion, however, nor the daily exhibition of his twelve fine horses, could repress the shame and indignation which he felt at thus wasting his days in inglorious licentiousness; and his health was at last seriously affected by those compunctious visitings of his conscience. In 1774, whfle watching by his unworthy mistress in a fit ui sickness, he sketched out a few scenes of a dramatic work in Italian, which was thrown aside and forgotten immediately on her recovery; and it was not till the year after, that, after many struggles, he formed the resolution of detaching himself from this degrading connection. The efforts which this cost him, and the means he adopted to ensure his own adherence to his resolution, appear aJ together wild and extravagant to our norther, imaginations. In the first place, he had himself lashed with strong cords to his elbow chair, to prevent him from rushing into the presence of the syren ; and, in the next pía«1! he entirely cut off his hair, in order to max« it impossible for him to appear with deceno) in any society! The first fifteen days, h< assures us, he spent entirely "in uttering to« most frightful groans and lamentations," and the next in riding furiously through all the solitary places in the neigh^»ourhood. At law. however, this frenzy of grief began to Sudside; and, moet fortunately for the world ana
the author, gave place to a passion for literature, which, absorbed the powers of this fiery •pint during the greater part of his future exietence. The perusal of a wretched tragedy on the story of Cleopatra, and the striking resemblance he thought he discovered between his own case and that of Antony, first inspired him with the resolution of attempting a dramatic piece on the same subject; and, after encountering the most extreme difficulty from his utter ignorance of poetical diction, and of pure Italian, he at last nammered out a trageaj, which was represented with tolerable «access in 1775. From this moment his whole heart was devoted to dramatic poetry; and literary glory became the idol of his imagination.
In entering upon this new and arduous career, he soon discovered that greater sacrifices were required of him than ne had hitherto offered to any of the former objects of his idolatry. The defects of his educationj and hjs IonTM habits of indolence and inattention to етегу thing connected with letters, imposed npon him far more than the ordinary labour w a literary apprenticeship. Having never teen accustomed to the use of the pure Tusan, and being obliged to speak French during vj many years of travelling, he found himself dumefufiv deficient in the knowledge of that Beautiful language, in which he proposed to ¿nter his claims to immortality; and began, therefore, a course of the most careful and critical reading of the great authors who had adorned it. Dante and Petrarca were his great models of purity; and, next to them, Ariosto and Tasso; in which four writers, he are* it ad his opinion, that there is to be found the perfection of every style, except (hit fitted for dramatic poetry—of which( he more than insinuates, that his own writings i:e the only existing example. In order to acquire a perfect knowledge and command of their divine language, he not only made many long visits to Tuscany, but absolutely interdicted himself the use of every other wrt of reading, and abjured for ever that French literature which he seems to have Always regarded with a mixture of envy and disdain. To make amends for this, he went resolutely back to the rudiments of his Latin; *nd read over all the classics in that language with a most patient and laborious attention. He likewise committed to memory many thou«and lines from the authors he proposed to imitate: and sought, with the greatest assi¡i.ty. the acquaintance of all the scholars and entice that came in his way,—pestering them «¡lh continual queries, and with requesting thfir opinion upon the infinite quantity of bad Terses which he continued to compose by way of exercise. His two or three first tragedies be composed entirely in French prose; and ifterwards translated, with infinite labour, into !u!um verse.
"In ihi» manner, without any other judge than my own feelings, I have only finished those, the 'kiichfs of which I had written with energy and "Ki»n»i»»ni; or, if I have finished any other. I fose it least never taken the trouble to clothe them
in verse. This was the case with Charlea I., which I began to write in French prose, immediately alter finishing Philippe. When I had reached to about the middle of the third act, my heart and my hand became so benumbed, that I found it impossible to hold my pen. The same thing happened in regard to Romeo and Juliet, the whole of which I nearly, expanded, though wilh much labour to myself, and nt long intervals. On reperusing this sketch, I found my enthusiasm so much lowered, that, transponed with rage against myself, I could proceed no further, but threw my work into the fire."—Vol. ii. pp. 48—51.
Two or three years were passed in these bewitching studies; and, during this time, nine or ten tragedies, at least, were in a considerable state of forwardness. In 1778, the study of Machiavel revived all that early zeal for liberty which he had imbibed from the perusal of Plutarch; and he composed with great rapidity his two books of "La Tiranide;" —perhaps the most nervous and eloquent of all his prose compositions. About the same period, his poetical studies experienced a still more serious interruption, from the commencement of his attachment to the Countess of Albany, the wife of the late Pretender;—an attachment that continued to soothe or to agitate all the remaining part of his existence. This lady, who was by birth a princess of the house of Stolberg, was then in her twentyfifth year, and resided with her ill-matched husband at Florence. Her beauty and accomplishments made, from the first,* a powerful impression on the inflammable heart of Alfieri, guarded as it now was with the love of glory and of literature; and the loftiness of his character, and the ardour of his admiration, soon excited corresponding sentiments in her, who had suffered for some time from the ill temper and gross vices of her superannuated husband. Though the author takes the trouble to assure us that "their intimacy never exceeded the strictest limits of honour,'1 it is not difficult to understand, that it should have aggravated the ill-humour of the old husband; which increased, it seems, so much, that the lady was at last forced to abandon his society, and to take refuge with his brother, the Cardinal York, at Rome. To this place Alfieri speedily followed her; and remained there, divided between love and study, for upwards of two years; when her holy guardian becoming scandal i zed at their intimacy, it was thought necessary for her reputation, that they should separate. The effects of this separation he has himself described in the following short, but eloquent passage.
"For two years I remained incapable of any kind of study whatever, so different was my pres
* His first introduction to her, we have been informed, was in the ereat gallery of Florence;—a circumstance which ted him to signalize his admira, lion by an extraordinary act of gallantry. As ihey slopped to examine the picture of Charles XII. of Sweden, the Countess observed, that the singular uniform in which that prince is usually painted, appeared to her extremely becoming. Nothing more was said at the time ; but, in two days after, Alfieri appeared in the streets in the exact coutume, of that warlike sovereign.—to the utter consternation of all the peaceful inhabitants.
ent forlorn stale from ihe happiness I enjoyed during my late residence in Rome :—ihere the V ilia Strozzi near to the warm baths of Dioclesian, afforded me a delightful retreat, where I passed my mornings in study, only riding for an hour or two through the vast solitudes which, in the neighbourhood of Rome, invite to melancholy, meditation, and poetry. In the evening, I proceeded to the city, and found a relaxation Irom study in the society of her who constituted the charm of my existence; and, contented and happy, I returned to my solitude, never at a later hour than eleven o'clock. It was impossible to and, in the circuit of a great city, an abode more cheerful, more retired,—or better suited to my taste, my character, and my pursuits. Delightful spot!—the remembrance of which I shall ever cherish, and which through life I shall long to revisit."—Vol. ii. pp. 121, 122.
Previously to this time, his extreme love of independence, and his desire to be constantly with the mistress of his affections, had induced him to take the very romantic step of resigning his whole property to his sister: reserving to himself merely an annuity of 14,000 livres, or little more than 500Í. Ae this transference was made with the sanction of the King, who was very well pleased, on the whole, to get rid of so republican a subject, it was understood, upon both sides, as a tacit compact of expatriation; so that, upon his removal from Rome, he had no house or fixed residence to repair to. In this desolate and unsettled state, his passion for horses revived with additional fury ; and he undertook a voyage to England, for the sole purpose of purchasing a number of those noble animals; and devoted eight months "to the study of noble heads, fine necks, and well-turned buttocks, without once opening a book or pursuing any literary avocation.'-' In London, he purchased fourteen horses.—in relation to the number of his tragedies !—and thi« whimsical relation frequently presenting itself to his imagination, he would say to himself with a smile—"Thou hast gained a horse by each tragedy !:>—Truly the poblé author must have been far gone in love; when he gave way to such innocent deliration.—He conducted his fourteen friends, however, with much judgment across the Alps; and gained great glory and notoriety at Sienna, from their daily procession through the streets, and the feats of dexterity he exhibited in riding and driving them.
In Ihe mean time, he had printed twelve of his tragedies; and imbibed a sovereign contempt for such of his countrymen as pretended to find them harsh, obscure, or afi'cctedly sententious. In 1784, after an absence of more than two years, he rejoined his mistress at Baden in Alsace; and, during a stay of two months with her, sketched out three new tragedies. On his return to Italy, he took up his abode for a short time at Pisa.— where, in a fit of indignation at the faults of Pliny's Panegyric on Trajan, he composed in fivi; days that animated and eloquent piece of the same name, which alone, of all his works have fallen into our hands, has left on out minds the impression of ardent and flowing eloquence. His rage for liberty likewise
prompted him to compose several odes on the subject of American independence, and K-vi • ral miscellaneous productions of a similar character: — at last, in 1786, he is ptrmitted to take up his permanent abode with his mistress, whom he rejoins at Alsace, and i.ew; afterwards abandons. In the course of the following year, they make a journey toIV:r with which he is nearly as much dWatisfiei!
as on his former visit.— and makes ments with Didot for printing his a superb form. In 1788, however, he íesoires upon making a complete edition of his u hole works at Kehl; and submits, for the accommodation of his fair friend, to take tp his residence at Paris. There they receive Íltelligeuce of the death of her husband. which seems, however, to make no chaîne Ь their way of life; — and there he continues busily employed in correcting his various works for publication, till the у tar 1790. wh-¡. the first part of these memoirs closes with anticipations of misery from the progress ot the revolution, and professions of devoted attachment to the companion whom time had only rendered more dear and respected.
The supplementary part bears date in May 1803 — but a few months prior to the death of the author, — and brings down his history, though in a more summary manner, to that period. He seems to have lived in much uneasiness and fear in Paris, after the ccc,mencement of the revolution; from all approbation, or even toleration of which trafic farce, as he terms it, he exculpates hmw¡: with much earnestness and solemnity: U:. having vested the greater part of his fortune in that country, he could not conveniently abandon it. In 1791, he and his companion made a short visit to England, with which be was less pleased than on any former оссаач1.
— the damp giving him a disposition to gwi!. and the late hours interfering with his habits of study. The most remarkable incident in this journey, occurred at its termination. As he was passing along the quay at Dover, on his way to the packet-boat, he caught a glimpse of the bewitching woman on whose account he had suffered so much, in lus !"'• mer visit to this country nearly twenty y«" before! She still looked beautiful, he fa;*, and bestowed on him one of those enchanting smiles which convinced him that he was recognised. Unable to control his emotion, ne rushed instantly aboard — hid himself hi1)' ll
— and did not venture to look up till he «as landed on the opposite shore, rrom Сада he addressed a letter to her of kind inquiry and offers of service ; and received an answei
; which, on account of the singular tone of candour and magnanimity which it exhibits, he has subjoined in the appendix. It " Ll
I doubtedly a very rt-maikable production. .au1 shows both a strength of mind and a kindness of disposition which seem worthy of a MPP'e foi tune.
In the end of 1792, the increasing turv o^
1 the revolution rendered Pa ris no longer a pul of safety for foreigners of hij;h birth: з:л Alfieri and his countess with some dimcuir» effected their escape from it, and established themselves, with a diminished income, at his belored Florence. Here, with his usual impetuosity, he gave vent to his anti-revolutionary feelings, by composing an apology for Louis XVI.. and a short satirical view of the French excesses, which he entitled "The Antigallican." He then took to acting his own plays i anil, for two or three years, this new passion seduced him in a good degree from literature. In 1795, however, he tried his ¿and in some satirical productions; and began, with much zeal, to reperuse and translate various passages from the Latin classics. Latin naturally led to Greek; and, in the forty-ninth year of his age, he set seriously to the study of this language. Two whole years dij this ardent genius dedicate to solitary drudgery, without being able to master the »object he had undertaken. At last, by dint of persévérance and incredible labour, he began to understand a little of the easier authors; and, by the time he had completed his fiftieth year, succeeded in interpreting a considerable pan of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Homer. The perusal of Sophocles, in the following year, impelled him to compose his last tragedy of Alceste in 1798. in the end of this year, the progress of the French armies threatened to violate the tranquillity of his Tuscan retreat! and, in the spring following, upon the occupation of Florence, he and his friend retired to a small habitation in the country. From this asylum, however, they returned so precipitately on the retreat of the enemy, that they were surprised by them on their second invasion of Tuscany in 1800; but had more to suffer, it appears, from the importunate civility, than from the outrages of the conquerors. The French general, it seems, was a man of letters, and made several attempts to be introduced to Alfieri. When evasion became impossible, the latter made the following haughty but guarded reply to his warlike admirer :—
"If the general, in his official capacity, commands hie presence, Victor Alfieri, who never rer.sis constituted authority of any kind, will immediately hasten to obey the order; but if, on the contrary, he requests an interview only as a private individual, Alfieri bege leave to observe, thai be¡пц ot a very retired turn of mind, he wishes not to farm any new acquaintance; and therefore entreats the French general to hold him excused."—Vol. ii. pp. 286, 2,*7.
Under these disastrous circumstances, he was suddenly seized with the desire of signalizing himself in a new field of exertion; and sketched out no fewer than six comedies at once, which were nearly finished before the end of 1802. His health, during this year, v-as considerably weakened by repeated attacks of irregular gout and inflammatory aftectkms: and the memoir concludes with the description of a collar and medal which he had invented, as the badge of "the order of Homer," which, in his late sprung ardour for Greek literature, he had founded and endowed. Annexed to this record is a sort of postscript, addressed, by his friend the Abbé Calato, to lie Countess of Albany ; from which
it appears, that he was carried off by an inflammatory or gouty attack in his bowels, which put a period to his existence after a few days' illness, in the month of October 1803. We have since learned, that the publication of his posthumous works, which had been begun by the Countess of Albany at Milan, has been stopped by the French government; and that several of the manuscripts have, by the same authority, been committed to the names.
We have not a great deal to add to this copious and extraordinary narrative. Many of the peculiarities of Aliieri may be safely referred to the accident of his birth, and the errors of his education. His ennui, arrogance, and dissipation, are not very unlike those of many spoiled youths of condition ; nor is there any thing very extraordinary in his subsequent application to study, or the turn of his first political opinions. The peculiar nature of his pursuits, and the character of his literary productions, afford more curious matter for speculation.
In reflecting on the peculiar misery which Alfieri and some other eminent persons are recorded to have endured, while their minds were w-ithheld from any worthy occupation, we have sometimes been tempted to conclude, that to suffer deeply from ennut is an indication of superior intellect; and that it is only to minds destined for higher attainment» that the want of an object is a source of real affliction. Upon a little reflection, however, we are disposed to doubt of the soundness of this opinion; and really cannot permit all the shallow coxcombs who languish under the burden of existence, to take themselves, on our authority, for spell-bound geniuses. The most powerful stream, indeed, will stagnate the most deeply, and will burst out to more wild devastation when obstructed in its peaceful course; but the weakly current is, upon the whole, most liable to obstruction ; and will mantle and rot at least as dismally as its betters. The innumerable blockheads, in short, who betake themselves to suicide, dramdrinking, or dozing in dirty nightcape, will not allow us to suppose that there is any real connection between ennui and talent; or that fellows who are fit for nothing but mending shoes, may not be very miserable if they are unfortunately raised above their proper occupation.
If it does frequently happen that extraordinary and vigorous exertions are found to follow this heavy slumber of the faculties, the phenomenon, we think, may be explained without giving any countenance to the supposition, that vigorous faculties are most liable to such an obscuration. In the first place, the relief and delight of exertion must act with more than usual force upon a mind which has suffered from the Avant of it; and will be apt to be pushed further than in cases where the exertion has been more regular. The ch'ef cause, however, of the siffnal success which has sometimes attended those who have been rescued from ennui, we really believe to be their ignorance of the difficulties they have to encounter, and that inexperience whic makes them venture on undertakings whic more prudent calculators would decline. W have already noticed, more than once, th effect of early study and familiarity with th best models in repressing emulation by de spair; and have endeavoured, upon this prin ciple. to explain why so many original author iiave been in a great degree without educa lion. Now, a youth spent in lassitude ant dissipation leads necessarily to a manhood о ignorance and inexperience; and has all the advantages, as well as the inconveniences, o' buch a situation. If any inward feeling o] strength, ambition, or other extraordinary im pulse, therefore, prompt such a person to at tempt any thing arduous, it is likely that h< will go about it with all that rash and vehe ment courage which results from unconsciousness of the obstacles that are to be overcome and it is needless to say how often success is ensured by this confident and fortunate auda city. Thus Alfieri, in the outset of his literary career, ran his head against dramatic poetry almost before he knew what was meant eithei by poetry or the drama; and dashed out a tragedy while but imperfectly acquainted with the language in which he was writing and utterly ignorant either of the rules tha had been delivered, or the models which hac been created by the genius of his great predecessors. Had he been trained up from his early youth in fearful veneration for these rules and these models, it is certain that he would have resisted the impulse which led him to place himself, with so little preparation, within their danger; and most probable that he would never have thought himself qualified to answer the test they required of him. In giving way, however, to this propensity, with all the thoughtless freedom and vehemence which had characterised his other indulgences, he found himself suddenly embarked in an unexpected undertaking, and in sight of unexpected distinction. The success he had obtained with so little knowledge of the subject, tempted him to acquire what was wanting to deserve it; and justified hopes and stimulated exertions which earlier reflection would, in all probability, have for ever prevented.
The morality of Alfieri seems to have been at least as relaxed as that of the degenerate nobles, whom in all other things he professed to reprobate and despise. He confesses, without the slightest appearance of contrition, that his general intercourse with women was profligate in the extreme; and has detailed the particulars of three several intrigues with married women, without once appearing to imagine that they could require any apology or expiation. On the contrary, while recording the deplorable consequences of one of them, he observes, with great composure, that it was distressing to him to contemplate a degradation, of which he had, "though innocently," been the occasion. The general arrogance of his manners, too, and the occasional brutality of his conduct towards his inferiore, are far from giving us an amiable
impression of his general character; nor патл we been able to find, in the whole of these confessions, a single trait of kindness of heart, or generous philanthropy, to place in the lalanee against so many indications of selfishness and violence. There are proofs enough, indeed, of a firm, elevated, and manly spirit; but small appearance of any thing gentle, or even, in a moral sense, of any thing very respectable. In his admiration, in short, of the worthies of antiquity, he appears to have copied their harshness and indelicacy at leatt as faithfully as their loftiness of character; and. at the same time, to have combined wilh it all the licentiousness and presumption of» modern Italian noble.
We have been somewhat perplexed with his politics. After speaking as we have seen, of the mild government of the kings of Sardinia,—after adding that, "when he had read Plutarch and visited England, he felt the most unsurmountable repugnance at marrying, or having his children bom at Turin,"—after recording that a monarch is a master, and a subject a slave.—and г< that he shed tears of mingled grief and rage at having been born in such a state as Piedmont ;"—after all this —after giving up his estates to escape from this bondage, and after writing his books on the Tiranide, and his odes on Americau liberty,—we really were prepared to find him taking the popular side, at the outset at least of the French Revolution, and exulting in the downfal of one of those hateful despotisms, against the whole system of -which he had previously inveighed with no extraordinary moderation. Instead of this; ho-vever. we înd him abusing the revolutionists, and exoiling their opponents with all the zeal ol a professed antijacobin,—writing an eulojritm on the dethroned monarch like Mr. Pybiis, and an Antigallican like Peter Porcupine. Vow, we are certainly very far from sayinf. hat a true friend of liberty might not eiecrate the proceedings of the French retohlionists; but a professed hater of royalty might have felt more indulgence for the new cpublic; such a crazy zealot for liberty, as Alfieri showed himself in Italy, both by his ritings and his conduct, might well have *?en carried away by that promise of emancipation to Franco, which deluded sounder leads than his in ail the countries of Europe. nhere are two keys, we think, in the work >efore u?, to this apparent inconsistency ilfieri, with all his abhorrence of tyrants, vas, in his heart, a great lover of aristocracy; nd, he had a great spite and antipathy at зе French nation, collectively and individally.
Though professedly a republican, it is ra«y о see, that the republic he wanted was ore n the Roman model.—where there were 'atricians as well as Plebeians, and where a man of great talents had even a good chance f being one day appointed Dictator. He dki ot admire kings indeed,—because he did not appen to be boni one, and because they •ere the only beings to whom he was bom iferior: but he had the utmost veneration