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Italy.—Comparatively late application of its language to poetic purposes.—Use of other tongues.—Early Italian poets.— Sicilian school.—Tuscan school.—Character of early Italian poetry.—Petrarch. Northern France.—Formation of the Northern Romance.—Intercourse between North and South France.—First attempts at poetry in the former.—Patronage of the Anglo-Norman court.—Lais and Fabliaux.—Lyric poetry.—Pastorals.—Comparative merits of the Northern and Southern tongues.
Considering the perfection in which the earliest known specimens exhibit the language of Italy,—the delight which it is clear its inhabitants felt in the poetry and romances of the North and South French, —and the free intercourse with other nations which existed during their connexion with the Norman princes of Sicily and with the German Empire,
Sotto 1' imperio del buon Barbarossa
and his successors,—it appears strange that Italian literature should have been so far behind that of almost every other country ;—that its earliest poets should have preferred foreign tongues, without making any attempt to cultivate their own, though in many respects superior;—and yet that, after so much torpor, it should at length break forth all at once in such comparative splendour and perfection. The Provencal writers must have been perfectly familiar to the Italians; for their early writers, such as Guittone d'Arrezzo (in his Letters), Dante, and Petrarch, are full of allusions to them, and of the warmest eulogiums on their works. Several of the Troubadours themselves, for example Sordel, (who is introduced in the 6th and 9th cantos of the Purgatorio,) Boniface Calvo, and Folquet, who, as Petrarch tells us,
—a Marsiglia il nome ha dato,
were Italians. Even the German language,—so unharmonious as we should conceive to the delicate ears of Italians,—was adopted by at least one of their ancient poets. The poem alluded to is of the 13th century, written probably under the patronage of the Emperor Frederic II., whom it eulogizes, and directed, in the usual strain of invective, against the vices and the follies of the day. It is entitled Der Welsche Gast,—The Welch Guest,—Welch being a name then used by the Germans for all the Southern or Latin nations. The author, who is called Thomasin von Ferrera, with some half-dozen aliases (see Eschenburg's Denkmaler), announces himself thus modestly :—
Ich bin von Friul geborn,
Towards the end of the poem he gives the reason
for the title assumed by him, as being a foreigner,
a "guest," among Germans:
Mein buch heizet der welsche Gast,
And he craves excuse on the same account for
writing bad German:
Missprich ich der tutsche icht,
But the foreign language most popular in Italy seems to have been the North French, in which many of its writers avowedly composed. One of them, Brunetto Latini, in the 13th century declares that he did so "parceque Francois est plus delitables langages et plus communs que tous autres." Yet amidst all this admiration of the various classes of poetry and romance which were holding their bright reign all around, scarcely any attempts were made at imitation of them in the vernacular tongue of the Italians. They seem to have been restrained by a proud and lingering attachment to classical tastes, and a distrust of the new literature, from which they still could
* "If I blunder in my German, think it not wonderful, since T am a Welch, as will appear by my German."
not withhold the homage of affection. At length, however, the Troubadour spirit, when expiring in France, revived in the colder but more classical rimes of the Petrarchan school: and again, when the glory of Romance was fading away in its native climes, the Italian poets adopted, fostered, and matured it in the most beautiful specimens of their art.
The native Italian poetry seems to have made its first appearance at the court of Sicily, where the French and German poets had resorted in great numbers under the Norman princes, and afterwards under the sovereigns of the houses of Swabia and Anjou. But the number of attempts to adapt the Italian tongue to the purposes of poetry appears for a long time to have been very limited. Yet it cannot be thought that the language was previously too crude and unfashioned for poetic use. Whatever side we may take in the disputes as to the very remote antiquity claimed for it by some critics, it cannot be doubted that it had at any rate kept pace with the other tongues which had arisen from the Latin, and which were so much sooner consecrated to the service of the Muses. The truth is, that in the 11th and 12th centuries, the society and literature of Italy were very differently characterized from those of other European countries. While the pride of feudal aristocracy and the pomp of chivalry were elsewhere at their height, the commercial states of Italy were
arising, and directing men's minds to subjects alien from the gay institutions and popular feelings which gave their life and spirit to the Troubadour muse. The states of the Church were as little congenial with such pursuits. Italy had none of the romantic gallantry, the ardent enterprise, which, amidst all their irregularities, roused the genius and passions of the surrounding nations. It could boast of erudite research, of the classical studies and intricate dialectics of the philosophic schools of Salernum; but gallantry and the Gai Saber found no fellowship with the Trivium and Quadrivium. It had no childhood of romantic poetry, arising as it were naturally from its institutions and society; though it afterwards adopted the spirit of the new school, mixed with a peculiar affected and metaphysical turn of thought, which has given, even to the works of some of the most distin•guished Italian poets, a coldness and conceit that speak to the wit more than to the heart. They sang of love, but as of a principle, a platonic abstraction, not a tender or glowing feeling; and all allusions to sense were banished from what now became the empire of busy thought.
Little can be quoted, that possesses any interest, from the Italian poets before Petrarch: but to complete the circle of our view, a few specimens may be produced, more for the sake of elucidating the state of the language than for the excellence of the matter.