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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
From ‘Corinne’
By Madame de Staël (1766–1817)
 
THE FOLLOWING day, the same company 1 again assembled at her house; and to interest her in conversation, Lord Nelvil turned the talk to Italian literature, and excited her natural animation by affirming that England possessed a greater number of true poets than all those of which Italy could boast,—poets superior in strength and delicacy of feeling.  1
  “In the first place,” answered Corinne, “foreigners only know, for the most part, our poets of the highest rank,—Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Guarini, Tasso, and Metastasio; while we have a number of others, such as Chiabrera, Guidi, Filicaja, Parini, etc.,—without counting Sannazaro, Politian, etc., who have written admirably in Latin. All these poets, with more or less talent, know how to bring the marvels of the fine arts, and of nature, into the pictures created by words. Undoubtedly there is not in our poets that profound melancholy, that knowledge of the human heart, that characterizes yours; but does not this kind of superiority belong rather to philosophical writers than to poets? The brilliant melodiousness of the Italian language is better suited to express the splendor of external objects than the moods of meditation. Our language is more adapted to depict passion than sadness, because the sentiments of reflection demand more metaphysical expressions than it possesses.”…  2
  “Undoubtedly,” answered Lord Nelvil, “you explain as well as possible both the beauties and the deficiencies of your poetry; but when these deficiencies, without the beauties, are perceived in prose, how will you defend them? What is only vagueness in poetry becomes emptiness in prose; and this crowd of commonplace ideas that your poets know how to embellish by the melodious and the imaginative qualities of their language, reappears unveiled in prose with wearisome vividness. The greater part of your prose writers, to-day, use a language so declamatory, so diffuse, so abounding in superlatives, that one would say they all wrote by command with every-day phrases, and for an artificial intelligence: they seem not to suspect that to write is to express one’s personal character and one’s own thought.”…  3
  “You forget,” Corinne eagerly interrupted, “first Machiavelli and Boccaccio; then Gravina, Filangieri; and in our own day, Cesarotti, Verri, Bettinelli, and so many others who know how to write and to think. But I agree with you that during these last centuries, unfortunate circumstances having deprived Italy of her independence, her people have lost all interest in truth, and often even the possibility of uttering it. From this has resulted the habit of taking pleasure in words, without daring to approach ideas…. When prose writers have no sort of influence on the happiness of a nation, when men write only to become conspicuous, when the means is substituted for the end,—a thousand steps are taken, but nothing is attained…. Besides, southern nations are constrained by prose, and depict their true feelings only in verse. It is not the same with French literature,” she added, addressing Count d’Erfeuil: “your prose writers are often more poetic than your poets.”  4
  “It is true,” replied Count d’Erfeuil, “that we have in this style true classical authorities: Bossuet, La Bruyère, Montesquieu, Buffon, cannot be surpassed…. These perfect models should be imitated as far as possible by foreigners as well as by ourselves.”  5
  “It is difficult for me to believe,” answered Corinne, “that it would be desirable for the whole world to lose all national color, all originality of heart and mind; and I venture to say that even in your country, Count d’Erfeuil, this literary orthodoxy, if I may so call it, which is opposed to all happy innovation, would in the long run render your literature very sterile.”…  6
  “Would you desire, fair lady,” answered the count, “that we should admit among us the barbarisms of the Germans, the ‘Night Thoughts’ of the English Young, the concetti of the Italians and the Spaniards? What would become of the truthfulness, the elegance, of the French style, after such a mixture?”  7
  Prince Castel-Forte, who had not yet spoken, said: “It seems to me we all have need of each other: the literature of each country opens, to one familiar with it, a new sphere of ideas. The Emperor Charles V. said that a man who knows four languages is four men. If this great political genius so judged in regard to affairs, how much truer it is as regards letters! All foreigners know French, and so their point of view is more extensive than that of Frenchmen who do not know foreign languages.”…  8
  “You will at least acknowledge,” answered the count, “that there is one matter in which we have nothing to learn from any one. Our theatrical works are certainly the first in Europe; for I do not think that even the English themselves would dream of opposing Shakespeare to us.”  9
  “I beg your pardon,” interrupted Mr. Edgermond: “they do imagine that.”  10
  “Then I have nothing to say,” continued Count d’Erfeuil with a smile of gracious disdain. “Every man may think what he will: but still I persist in believing that it may be affirmed without presumption that we are the first in the dramatic art; and as to the Italians, if I may be allowed to speak frankly, they do not even suspect that there is such a thing as dramatic art. The music of a play is everything with them, and what is spoken, nothing. If the second act of a play has better music than the first, they begin with the second act; if they like two first acts of two different pieces, they play these two acts the same day, and put between the two one act of a prose comedy…. The Italians are accustomed to consider the theatre as a great drawing-room, where people listen only to the songs and the ballet. I say rightly, where they listen to the ballet, for it is only when that begins that there is silence in the theatre; and this ballet is a masterpiece of bad taste.”…  11
  “All you say is true,” answered Prince Castel-Forte gently: “but you have spoken only of music and dancing; and in no country are those considered dramatic art.”  12
  “It is much worse,” interrupted Count d’Erfeuil, “when tragedies are represented: more horrors are brought together in five acts than the imagination could conceive…. The tragedians are perfectly in harmony with the coldness and extravagance of the plays. They all perform these terrible deeds with the greatest calmness. When an actor becomes excited, they say that he appears like a preacher; for in truth there is much more animation in the pulpit than on the stage…. There is no better comedy than tragedy in Italy…. The only comic style that really belongs to Italy is the harlequinades: a valet, who is a rascal, a glutton, and a coward, and an old guardian who is a dupe, a miser, and in love,—that’s the whole subject of these plays…. You will agree that ‘Tartuffe’ and ‘The Misanthrope’ imply a little more genius.”  13
  This attack from Count d’Erfeuil greatly displeased the Italians who were listening to it, but yet they laughed; and Count d’Erfeuil in conversation liked better to display wit than courtesy…. Prince Castel-Forte, and other Italians who were there, were impatient to refute Count d’Erfeuil, but they thought their cause better defended by Corinne than by any one else; and as the pleasure of shining in conversation scarcely tempted them, they begged Corinne to make reply, and contented themselves with only citing the well-known names of Maffei, Metastasio, Goldoni, Alfieri, Monti.  14
  Corinne at once agreed that the Italians had no great body of dramatic works; but she was ready to prove that circumstances and not lack of talent were the cause of this. The play-writing which is based on the observation of society, can exist only in a country where the writer lives habitually in the centre of a populous and brilliant world: in Italy there are only violent passions or lazy enjoyments…. But the play-writing that is based on the unreal, that springs from the imagination, and adapts itself to all times as to all countries, was born in Italy.  15
  The observation of the human heart is an inexhaustible source for literature; but the nations who are more inclined to poetry than to reflection give themselves up rather to the intoxication of joy than to philosophic irony. There is something, at bottom, sad in the humor that is based on knowledge of men: true gayety is the gayety of the imagination only. It is not that Italians do not ably study men with whom they have to deal; and they discover more delicately than any others the most secret thoughts: but it is as a method of action that they have this talent, and they are not in the habit of making a literary use of it…. One can see in Machiavelli what terrible knowledge of the human heart the Italians are capable of: but from such depths comedy does not spring; and the leisureliness of society, properly so called, can alone teach how to depict men on the comic stage….  16
  The true character of Italian gayety is not derision, it is fancy; it is not the painting of manners, but poetic extravagances. It is Ariosto and not Molière who has the power to amuse Italy…. But to know with certainty what comedy and tragedy might attain to in Italy, there is need that there should be somewhere a theatre and actors. The multitude of little cities who all choose to have a theatre, waste by dispersing them the few resources that could be collected….  17
  These different ideas and many others were brilliantly developed by Corinne. She understood extremely well the rapid art of light talk, which insists on nothing; and the business of pleasing, which brings forward each talker in turn….  18
  Mr. Edgermond had so eager a desire to know what she thought about tragedy, that he ventured to speak to her on this subject. “Madam,” he said, “what seems to me especially lacking in Italian literature are tragedies: it seems to me there is less difference between children and men than between your tragedies and ours…. Is not this true, Lord Nelvil?”  19
  “I think entirely with you,” answered Oswald. “Metastasio, who is famed as the poet of love, gives to this passion, in whatever country, in whatever situation he represents it, precisely the same color…. It is impossible for us who possess Shakespeare—the poet who has most deeply sounded the history and the passions of man—to endure the two couples of lovers who divide between them almost all the plays of Metastasio…. With profound respect for the character of Alfieri, I shall permit myself to make some criticisms on his plays. Their aim is so noble, the sentiments that the author expresses are so in accord with his personal conduct, that his tragedies must always be praised as actions, even when criticized in some respects as literary works. But it seems to me that some of his tragedies have as much monotony of strength as Metastasio has monotony of sweetness.”…  20
  “My lord,” said Corinne, “I am of your opinion almost entirely; but I would offer some exceptions to your observations. It is true that Metastasio is more a lyrical than a dramatic poet…. By force of writing amorous verses, there has been created among us a conventional language in this direction; and it is not what the poet has felt, but what he has read, that serves for his inspiration…. In general, our literature but little expresses our character and our modes of life….  21
  “Alfieri, by a singular chance, was, so to speak, transplanted from antiquity into modern days: he was born to act, and he was able only to write…. He desired to accomplish through literature a political purpose: this purpose was undoubtedly the noblest of all; but no matter: nothing so distorts works of imagination as to have a purpose…. Although the French mind and that of Alfieri have not the least analogy, they are alike in this, that both carry their own contours into all the subjects of which they treat.”  22
  Count d’Erfeuil, hearing the French mind spoken of, entered again into the conversation. “It would be impossible for us,” he said, “to endure on the stage the inconsequences of the Greeks, or the monstrosities of Shakespeare: the taste of the French is too pure for that…. It would be to plunge us into barbarism, to wish to introduce anything foreign among us.”  23
  “You would do well, then,” said Corinne, smiling, “to surround yourselves with the great wall of China. There are assuredly rare beauties in your tragic authors; perhaps new ones would develop among them if you sometimes permitted to be shown you on the stage something not French,… the ‘Merope’ of Maffei, the ‘Saul’ of Alfieri, the ‘Aristodemo’ of Monti, and above all else, the poem of Dante—though he composed no tragedy, it seems to me, capable of giving the idea of what dramatic art in Italy might be.”…  24
  “When Dante lived,” said Oswald, “the Italians played a great political part in Europe and at home. Perhaps it is impossible for you now to have national tragedies. That such works should be produced, it is needful that great circumstances should develop in life the sentiments expressed on the stage.”…  25
  “It is unfortunately possible that you are right, my lord,” answered Corinne; “nevertheless I always hope much for us from the natural intellectual vigor in Italy:… but what is especially lacking to us for tragedy are the actors;… yet there is no language in which a great actor could show as much talent as in ours.”…  26
  “If you would convince us of what you say,” interrupted Prince Castel-Forte, “you must prove it to us:… give us the inexpressible pleasure of seeing you play tragedy.”…  27
  “Well,” she replied, “we will accomplish, if you desire it, the project I have had for a long time, of playing the translation I have made of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”  28
  “The ‘Romeo and Juliet’ of Shakespeare!” cried Mr. Edgermond: “you love Shakespeare!”  29
  “As a friend,” she answered; “for he knows all the secrets of grief.”  30
  “And you will play it in Italian?” he exclaimed: “ah! how fortunate we shall be to assist at such a spectacle!”  31
 
Note 1. The principal personages were Lord Nelvil and Mr. Edgermond, Englishmen; the Count d’Erfeuil, a Frenchman; and the Prince Castel-Forte, an Italian. Corinne was an Italian. [back]
 
 
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