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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 Maurice Francis Egan (1852–1924)

By Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873)

ALESSANDRO MANZONI was looked upon during his life as a man who had deserved well of Heaven. “He gazed,” as one of his countrymen said, “at Fortune straight in the eyes, and Fortune smiled.” And Manzoni might well have looked with clear eyes, for there was nothing in his heart—if a man’s heart may be judged from his constant utterances—that was base.

He lived in a time best suited to his genius and his temperament. And his genius and his time made an epoch in Italian history worthy of most serious study. In 1815 Italy was inarticulate; she had to speak by signs. She dared only dream of a future which she read in a glorious past. The Austrians ruled the present, the future was veiled, the past was real and golden. Manzoni, Pellico, and Grossi were romanticists because they were filled with aspiration; and their aspiration, clothing itself in the form which Goethe’s ‘Götz’ and Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Marmion’ had given to the world, tried to obliterate the present and find relief at the foot of the cross in the shadow of old Gothic cathedrals. The Comte de Mun, Vicomte de Vogüe, Sienkiewicz, and others of the modern neo-Catholic school, represent reaction rather than aspiration. Manzoni, Chateaubriand, Montalembert, Overbeck in art, Lamartine and Lamennais, were not only fiercely reactionary, but fiercely sentimental, hopeful, and romantic.

With Austrian bayonets at the throat of Italy, it was not easy to emit loud war-cries for liberty. The desire of the people must therefore be heard through the voice of the poet. And the desire of the Italians is manifest in the poetry and the prose of the author of ‘The Betrothed’ (I Promessi Sposi), and the ‘Sacred Hymns.’ Only two reproaches were made against Manzoni: he was praised by Goethe,—which, “says a sneer turned proverb,” as Mr. Howells puts it, “is a brevet of mediocrity,”—and he was not persecuted. “Goethe,” Mr. Howells continues, “could not laud Manzoni’s tragedies too highly; he did not find one word too much or too little in them; the style was free, noble, full, and rich. As to the religious lyrics, the manner of their treatment was fresh and individual although the matter and the significance were not new, and the poet was ‘a Christian without fanaticism, a Roman Catholic without bigotry, a zealot without hardness.’”

In 1815 the Continental revolt against the doctrines of Rousseau and Voltaire was at its highest. The period that produced Cesare Cantù was likewise the period when Ossian and Byron had become the favorite poets of the younger men. Classicism and infidelity were both detested. The last king was not, after all, to be strangled with the entrails of the last priest. “God might rest,” as a writer on the time remarks with naïveté. It was the fashion to be respectful to him. Italy was willing to disown the paganism of the Renaissance for the moral teaching of the ages that preceded it. Manzoni and his school held that true patriotism must be accompanied by virtue; and in a country where Machiavelli’s ‘Prince’ had become a classic, this seemed a new doctrine. The movement which Manzoni represented was above all religious; the pope was again transfigured, and in his case by a man who had begun life with the most liberal tendencies. As it was, he never accepted the belief that the pope must necessarily be a ruler of great temporalities; but of the sincerity and fervor of his faith in the Catholic Church one finds ample proof in his ‘Sacred Hymns.’

Born at Milan in 1785, he married Mademoiselle Blondel in 1808. Her father was a banker of Geneva; and tradition says that he was of that cultivated group of financiers to whom the Neckers belonged, and that his daughter was of a most dazzling blonde beauty. The Blondels, like the Neckers, were Protestants; but at Milan, Louise Blondel entered the Catholic Church and confirmed the wavering faith of her young husband, who began at once the ‘Sacred Hymns.’ In these Mr. Howells praises “the irreproachable taste and unaffected poetic appreciation of the grandeur of Christianity.” One may go even further; for they have the fervor, the exultation, the knowledge that the Redeemer liveth, in a fullness which we do not find in sacred song outside the Psalms of David, the ‘Dies Iræ,’ and the ‘Stabat Mater.’

Manzoni’s poems were not many, but they all have the element of greatness in them. We can understand why the invading Austrians desired to honor him, when we read his ode ‘The Fifth of May’ (on the death of Napoleon), or his two noble tragedies ‘The Count of Carmagnola’ and ‘Adelchi,’ or that pride of all Italians, his masterpiece, ‘The Betrothed’ (‘I Promessi Sposi’). We can understand too the lofty haughtiness that induced him to refuse these honors, and to relinquish his hereditary title of Count, rather than submit to the order that he must register himself as an Austrian subject. The government, however, did not cease to offer honors to him; all of which, except the Italian senatorship proffered him in 1860, he declined. Great tragedies, like Shelley’s ‘Cenci,’ Sir Henry Taylor’s ‘Philip van Artevelde,’ and Sir Aubrey De Vere’s ‘Mary Tudor,’ may be unactable; they may speak best to the heart and mind only through the written word. Manzoni’s are of this class. They have elevation, dramatic feeling, the power of making emotion vital and of inspiring passionate sympathy with the intention of the author; but even Salvini, Rossi, or Ristori could not make them possible for the stage. In the ‘Count of Carmagnola,’ which celebrated the physical ruin but moral success of a noble man, Manzoni in 1820 shocked the classicists and won their hatred. They loved Aristotle and his rules; Manzoni broke every rule as thoroughly as Shakespeare and as consciously as Victor Hugo. He was looked upon as a literary, artistic apostate. In his explanation of his reasons for this assault on an old world, he makes an audacious apologia which Alfred de Musset might have read with profit before despairing of a definition of romanticism. ‘Adelchi’ followed in 1822, still further exasperating the fury of the classicists, who hated Manzoni and romance; foreseeing perhaps by intuition that the romantic school was to be the ancestor of the realistic school, whose horrors were only dimly dreamed of.

The ‘Sacred Hymns,’ ‘The Count of Carmagnola,’ ‘Adelchi,’ ‘The Betrothed,’ and the great ‘Fifth of May’ ode on the death of Napoleon, are the works by which Manzoni’s fame was established. The tragedies—‘Carmagnola’ of the fifteenth century, ‘Adelchi’ of the eighth—would live for their strong lyrical element, even were the quality of eloquence and the fire that must underlie eloquence lacking. Pathos is exquisite in both these plays; the marble hearts of the Italian classic tragedy are replaced here by vital, palpitating flesh. When Carmagnola dies for his act of humanity in releasing his prisoners of war, and Ermengarda, whose loveliness is portrayed with the delicacy of the hand that drew Elaine, passes away in her convent, one feels that the world may indeed mourn. And when a poet can force us to take the shades of the Middle Ages for real human beings, no man may deny his gift.

‘The Fifth of May,’ the noblest ode in the Italian language, almost defies translation. Mr. Howells has made the best possible version of it. Napoleon had wronged Italy, but Italy speaking through its poet forgave him.

  • “Beautiful, deathless, beneficent,
  • Faith! used to triumphs even
  • This also writes exultingly;
  • No loftier pride ’neath heaven
  • Unto the shame of Calvary
  • Stooped ever yet its crest.
  • Thou from his weary mortality
  • Disperse all bitter passions;
  • The God that humbleth and hearteneth,
  • That comforts and that chastens,
  • Upon the pillow else desolate
  • To his pale lips lay pressed!”
  • ‘The Betrothed’ is one of the classics of fiction. It appeared in 1825. Since that time it has been translated into every language in the civilized world. It deserves the verdict which time has passed upon it. Don Abbondio and Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, Renzo and Lucia, and Don Rodrigo, go on from year to year seeming to gain new vitality. It will bear the test of a reading in youth and a re-reading in old age; and there are few books of fiction of which this can be said,—it is a standard of their greatness.

    Manzoni died in 1873. His patriotic dreams had not been entirely realized; but he passed away content, in faith and hope. His career was on the whole happy and serene. He loved the simple things of life, and looked on life itself as only a vestibule—to be nobly adorned, however—to a place of absolute peace.

    Arnaud’s ‘I Poetti Patriottica’ (1862); ‘Storia della Litteratura Italiana,’ by De Sanctis (1879); and William Dean Howells’s ‘Modern Italian Poets’ (Harper & Brothers: 1887),—are valuable books of reference on the romantic movement in Italy, and on the position of Manzoni in that movement. The best translation of ‘The Betrothed’ is included in the Bohn Library.