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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Aleardo Aleardi (1812–1878)

THE ITALIAN patriot and poet, Aleardo Aleardi, was born in the village of San Giorgio, near Verona, on November 4th, 1812. He passed his boyhood on his father’s farm, amid the grand scenery of the valley of the Adige, which deeply impressed itself on his youthful imagination and left its traces in all his verse. He went to school at Verona, where for his dullness he was nick-named the “mole,” and afterwards he passed on to the University of Padua to study law, apparently to please his father, for in the charming autobiography prefixed to his collected poems he quotes his father as saying:—“My son, be not enamored of this coquette, Poesy; for with all her airs of a great lady, she will play thee some trick of a faithless grisette. Choose a good companion, as one might say, for instance the law: and thou wilt found a family; wilt partake of God’s bounties; wilt be content in life, and die quietly and happily.” In addition to satisfying his father, the young poet also wrote at Padua his first political poems. And this brought him into slight conflict with the authorities. He practiced law for a short time at Verona, and wrote his first long poem, ‘Arnaldo,’ published in 1842, which was very favorably received. When six years later the new Venetian republic came into being, Aleardi was sent to represent its interests at Paris. The speedy overthrow of the new State brought the young ambassador home again, and for the next ten years he worked for Italian unity and freedom. He was twice imprisoned, at Mantua in 1852, and again in 1859 at Verona, where he died April 17th, 1878.

Like most of the Italian poets of this century, Aleardi found his chief inspiration in the exciting events that marked the struggle of Italy for independence, and his best work antedated the peace of Villafranca. His first serious effort was ‘Le Prime Storie’ (The Primal Histories), written in 1845. In this he traces the story of the human race from the creation through the Scriptural, classical, and feudal periods down to the present century, and closes with foreshadowings of a peaceful and happy future. It is picturesque, full of lofty imagery and brilliant descriptive passages.

‘Una Ora della mia Giovinezza’ (An Hour of My Youth: 1858) recounts many of his youthful trials and disappointments as a patriot. Like the ‘Primal Histories,’ this poem is largely contemplative and philosophical, and shines by the same splendid diction and luxurious imagery; but it is less wide-reaching in its interests and more specific in its appeal to his own countrymen. And from this time onward the patriotic qualities in Aleardi’s poetry predominate, and his themes become more and more exclusively Italian. The ‘Monte Circello’ sings the glories and events of the Italian land and history, and successfully presents many facts of science in poetic form, while the singer passionately laments the present condition of Italy. In ‘Le Citta Italiane Marinore e Commercianti’ (The Marine and Commercial Cities of Italy) the story of the rise, flourishing, and fall of Venice, Florence, Pisa, and Genoa is recounted. His other noteworthy poems are ‘Rafaello e la Fornarina,’ ‘Le Tre Fiume’ (The Three Rivers), ‘Le Tre Fanciulle’ (The Three Maidens: 1858), ‘I Sette Soldati’ (The Seven Soldiers: 1859), and ‘Canto Politico’ (Political Songs: 1862).

A slender volume of five hundred pages contains all that Aleardi has written. Yet he is one of the chief minor Italian poets of this century, because of his loftiness of purpose and felicity of expression, his tenderness of feeling, and his deep sympathies with his struggling country.

“He has,” observes Howells in his ‘Modern Italian Poets,’ “in greater degree than any other Italian poet of this, or perhaps of any age, those merits which our English taste of this time demands,—quickness of feeling and brilliancy of expression. He lacks simplicity of idea, and his style is an opal which takes all lights and hues, rather than the crystal which lets the daylight colorlessly through. He is distinguished no less by the themes he selects than by the expression he gives them. In his poetry there is passion, but his subjects are usually those to which love is accessory rather than essential; and he cares better to sing of universal and national destinies as they concern individuals, than the raptures and anguishes of youthful individuals as they concern mankind.” He was original in his way; his attitude toward both the classic and the romantic schools is shown in the following passage from his autobiography, which at the same time brings out his patriotism. He says:—

  • “It seemed to me strange, on the one hand, that people who, in their serious moments and in the recesses of their hearts, invoked Christ, should in the recesses of their minds, in the deep excitement of poetry, persist in invoking Apollo and Pallas Minerva. It seemed to me strange, on the other hand, that people born in Italy, with this sun, with these nights, with so many glories, so many griefs, so many hopes at home, should have the mania of singing the mists of Scandinavia, and the Sabbaths of witches, and should go mad for a gloomy and dead feudalism, which had come from the North, the highway of our misfortunes. It seemed to me, moreover, that every Art of Poetry was marvelously useless, and that certain rules were mummies embalmed by the hand of pedants. In fine, it seemed to me that there were two kinds of Art: the one, serene with an Olympic serenity, the Art of all ages that belongs to no country; the other, more impassioned, that has its roots in one’s native soil…. The first that of Homer, of Phidias, of Virgil, of Tasso; the other that of the Prophets, of Dante, of Shakespeare, of Byron. And I have tried to cling to this last, because I was pleased to see how these great men take the clay of their own land and their own time, and model from it a living statue, which resembles their contemporaries.”
  • In another interesting passage he explains that his old drawing-master had in vain pleaded with the father to make his son a painter, and he continues:—

  • “Not being allowed to use the pencil, I have used the pen. And precisely on this account my pen resembles too much a pencil; precisely on this account I am often too much of a naturalist, and am too fond of losing myself in minute details. I am as one who in walking goes leisurely along, and stops every minute to observe the dash of light that breaks through the trees of the woods, the insect that alights on his hand, the leaf that falls on his head, a cloud, a wave, a streak of smoke; in fine, the thousand accidents that make creation so rich, so various, so poetical, and beyond which we evermore catch glimpses of that grand mysterious something, eternal, immense, benignant, and never inhuman nor cruel, as some would have us believe, which is called God.”
  • The selections are from William Dean Howells’s ‘Modern Italian Poets.’