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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 Frank Sewall (1837–1915)

By Giosuè Carducci (1835–1907)

RARELY in the history of ancient or modern literature has a writer, while living, been so generally recognized by his countrymen as their national prophet as has the Italian poet and essayist Carducci. In January, 1896, he completed his thirty-fifth year as Professor of Belles-Lettres in the University of Bologna; and the solemn and brilliant festivities with which the event was celebrated, extending over three days and including congratulatory addresses from the king, from the municipality, from the students and graduates, from foreign universities, and from distinguished scholars at home and abroad, testified to the remarkable hold this poet has gained on the affections and esteem of the Italian people, and the deep impress his writing has made on the literature of our time.

Born in northern Italy and entering upon his literary career at a time coincident with the downfall of foreign power in Tuscany, the history of his authorship is a fair reflection of the growth of the new Italy of to-day. In an autobiographical sketch with which he prefaces his volume of ‘Poesie’ (1871) he depicts with the utmost sincerity and frankness the transition through which his own mind has passed, in breaking from the old traditions in which he had been nursed at his mother’s knee, and in meeting the dazzling radiance of modern thought and feeling; the thrill of national liberty and independence,—no longer a glory dreamed of, as by Alfieri, nor sung in tones of despair, as by Leopardi, but as a living experience of his own time. He felt the awakening to be at once a literary, political, and religious one; and following his deep Hellenic instincts, the religious rebound in him was rather to the paganism of the ancient Latin forefathers than to the spiritual worship that had come in with the infusion of foreign blood.

“This paganism,” he says, “this cult of form, was naught else but the love of that noble nature from which the solitary Semitic estrangements had alienated hitherto the spirit of man in such bitter opposition. My sentiment of opposition, at first feebly defined, thus became confirmed conceit, reason, affirmation; the hymn to Apollo became the hymn to Satan. Oh! the beautiful years from 1861 to 1865, passed in peaceful solitude and quiet study, in the midst of a home where the venerable mother, instead of fostering superstition, taught us to read Alfieri. But as I read the codices of the fourteenth century, the ideas of the Renaissance began to appear to me in the gilded initial letters like the eyes of nymphs in the midst of flowers, and between the lines of the spiritual laude I detected the Satanic strophe.”

So long had Italy lived in passive dependence on the fame of her great writers of the times of Augustus and of the Medici, and in the apathy of a long-abandoned hope of political independence and achievement, that it required a man of powerful instinct and genius to rouse the people to a sense of their actual possession of a national life and of a literature that is not alone of the past, and so to throw off both the “livery of the slave and the mask of the courtesan.” Such was the mission of Carducci. As Howells in his ‘Modern Italian Poets’ remarks of Leopardi:—“He seems to have been the poet of the national mood; he was the final expression of that hopeless apathy in which Italy lay bound for thirty years after the fall of Napoleon and his governments.” So it may be said of Carducci that in him speaks the hope and joy of a nation waking to new life, and recalling her past glories, no longer with shame but a purpose to prove herself worthy of such a heritage.

A distinguished literary contemporary, Enrico Panzacchi, says of Carducci:—

“I believe that I do not exaggerate the importance of Carducci when I say that to him and to his perseverance and steadfast work we owe in great part the poetic revival in Italy.”

Cesar Lombroso, in the Paris Revue des Revues, says:—“Among the stars of first magnitude shines one of greatest brilliance, Carducci, the true representative of Italian literary genius.”

The poem that first attracted attention and caused no little flutter of ecclesiastical gowns was the ‘Hymn to Satan,’ which appeared in 1865 in Pistoja, over the signature “Enotrio Romaho,” and bore the date “MMDCXVIII from the foundation of Rome.” It is not indeed the sacrilegious invective that might be imagined from the title, but rather a hymn to Science and to Free Thought, liberated from the ancient thraldom of dogma and superstition. It reveals the strong Hellenic instinct which still survives in the Italian people beneath the superimposed Christianity, and which here, as in many other of Carducci’s poems, stands out in bold contrast with the subjective and spiritual elements in religion. It is this struggle of the pagan against the Christian instinct that accounts for the commingled sentiment of awe and of rebellion with which Carducci contemplates his great master Dante; for while he must revere him as the founder of Italian letters and the immortal poet of his race, he cannot but see both in the spirituality of Dante’s conception of the Church and in his absolute loyalty to the Empire, motives wholly foreign to the ancient national instinct. Referring again to his transition years, he writes:

“Meanwhile the shadow of Dante looked down reproachfully upon me; but I might have answered:—‘Father and Master, why didst thou bring learning from the cloister to the piazza, from the Latin to the vulgar tongue? Thou first, O great public accuser of the Middle Ages, gavest the signal for the rebound of thought. That the alarm was sounded from the bells of a Gothic campanile mattered but little.’”

Without a formal coronation, Carducci may be regarded as the actual poet laureate of Italy. He is still, at sixty years of age, an active and hard-working professor at the University of Bologna, where his popularity with his students in the lecture-room is equal to that which his writings have gained throughout the land. A favorite with the Court, and often invited to lecture before the Queen, he is still a man of great simplicity, even to roughness, of manners, and of a genial and cordial nature. Not only do the Italians with one voice call him their greatest author, but many both in Italy and elsewhere are fain to consider him the foremost living poet in Europe.

The citations here given have been selected as illustrating the prominent features of Carducci’s genius. His joy in mental emancipation from the thraldom of dogma and superstition is seen in the ‘Roma’ and in the ‘Hymn to Satan.’ His paganism and his “cult of form,” as also his Homeric power of description and of color, are seen in ‘The Ox’ and in ‘To Aurora.’ His veneration for the great masters finds expression in the sonnets to Homer and Dante, and the revulsion of the pagan before the spiritual religious feeling is shown in the lines ‘In a Gothic Church’ and in the sonnet ‘Dante.’

The poems of Carducci have appeared for the most part in the following editions only:—‘Poesie,’ embracing the ‘Juvenilia,’ ‘Levia Gravia,’ and the ‘Decennali’; ‘Nuove Poesie,’ ‘Odi Barbare,’ ‘Nuove Rime,’ and ‘Rime e Ritme.’ There is a complete edition of his works published by Zanichelli of Bologna. His critical essays appeared generally in the Nuova Antologia, and covered a wide range of literary and historical subjects.

He sat for a few months in 1876 in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, became a member of the Superior Council of Public Instruction in 1881, and in 1890 was appointed to the Senate. The Nobel prize was awarded to him in 1906; he died the following year, February 15th, 1907.