Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Ariosto and Tasso.

It surprises one to find among the literary Italians the merits of Ariosto most keenly disputed: slaves to classical authority, they bend down to the majestic regularity of Tasso. Yet the father of Tasso, before his son had rivalled the romantic Ariosto, describes in a letter the effect of the “Orlando” on the people:—“There is no man of learning, no mechanic, no lad, no girl, no old man, who is satisfied to read the ‘Orlando Furioso’ once. This poem serves as the solace of the traveller, who fatigued on his journey deceives his lassitude by chanting some octaves of this poem. You may hear them sing these stanzas in the streets and in the fields every day.” One would have expected that Ariosto would have been the favourite of the people, and Tasso of the critics. But in Venice the gondoliers, and others, sing passages which are generally taken from Tasso, and rarely from Ariosto. A different fate, I imagined, would have attended the poet who has been distinguished by the epithet of ”The Divine.“ I have been told by an Italian man of letters, that this circumstance arose from the relation which Tasso’s poem bears to Turkish affairs; as many of the common people have passed into Turkey either by chance or by war. Besides, the long antipathy existing between the Venetians and the Turks gave additional force to the patriotic poetry of Tasso. We cannot boast of any similar poems. Thus it was that the people of Greece and Ionia sang the poems of Homer.

The Accademia della Crusca gave a public preference to Ariosto. This irritated certain critics, and none more than Chapelain, who could taste the regularity of Tasso, but not feel the “brave disorder” of Ariosto. He could not approve of those writers,

Who snatch a grace beyond the reach of art.

“I thank you,” he writes, “for the sonnet which your indignation dictated, at the Academy’s preference of Ariosto to Tasso. This judgment is overthrown by the confessions of many of the Cruscanti, my associates. It would be tedious to enter into its discussion; but it was passion and not equity that prompted that decision. We confess, that, as to what concerns invention and purity of language, Ariosto has eminently the advantage over Tasso; but majesty, pomp, numbers, and a style truly sublime, united to regularity of design, raise the latter so much above the other that no comparison can fairly exist.”

The decision of Chapelain is not unjust; though I did not know that Ariosto’s language was purer than Tasso’s.

Dr. Cocchi, the great Italian critic, compared “Ariosto’s poem to the richer kind of harlequin’s habit, made up of pieces of the very best silk, and of the liveliest colours. The parts of it are, many of them, more beautiful than in Tasso’s poem, but the whole in Tasso is without comparison more of a piece and better made.” The critic was extricating himself as safely as he could out of this critical dilemma; for the disputes were then so violent, that I think one of the disputants took to his bed, and was said to have died of Ariosto and Tasso.

It is the conceit of an Italian to give the name of April to Ariosto, because it is the season of flowers; and that of September to Tasso, which is that of fruits. Tiraboschi judiciously observes that no comparison ought to be made between these great rivals. It is comparing “Ovid’s Metamorphoses” with “Virgil’s Æneid;” they are quite different things. In his characters of the two poets, he distinguishes between a romantic poem and a regular epic. Their designs required distinct perfections. But an English reader is not enabled by the wretched versions of Hoole to echo the verse of La Fontaine, ”Je cheris L’Arioste et J’estime le Tasse.”

Boileau, some time before his death, was asked by a critic if he had repented of his celebrated decision concerning the merits of Tasso, which some Italians had compared with those of Virgil? Boileau had hurled his bolts at these violators of classical majesty. It is supposed that he was ignorant of the Italian language, but some expressions in his answer may induce us to think that he was not.

“I have so little changed my opinion, that, on a re-perusal lately of Tasso, I was sorry that I had not more amply explained myself on this subject in some of my reflections on ‘Longinus.’ I should have begun by acknowledging that Tasso had a sublime genius, of great compass, with happy dispositions for the higher poetry. But when I came to the use he made of his talents, I should have shown that judicious discernment rarely prevailed in his works. That in the greater portion of his narrations he attached himself to the agreeable, oftener than to the just. That his descriptions are almost always overcharged with superfluous ornaments. That in painting the strongest passions, and in the midst of the agitations they excite, frequently he degenerates into witticisms, which abruptly destroy the pathetic. That he abounds with images of too florid a kind; affected turns; conceits and frivolous thoughts; which, far from being adapted to his Jerusalem, could hardly be supportable in his ‘Aminta.’ So that all this, opposed to the gravity, the sobriety, the majesty of Virgil, what is it but tinsel compared with gold?”

The merits of Tasso seem here precisely discriminated; and this criticism must be valuable to the lovers of poetry. The errors of Tasso were national.

In Venice the gondoliers know by heart long passages from Ariosto and Tasso, and often chant them with a peculiar melody. Goldoni, in his life, notices the gondolier returning with him to the city: “He turned the prow of the gondola towards the city, singing all the way the twenty-sixth stanza of the sixteenth canto of the Jerusalem Delivered.” The late Mr. Barry once chanted to me a passage of Tasso in the manner of the gondoliers; and I have listened to such from one who in his youth had himself been a gondolier. An anonymous gentleman has greatly obliged me with his account of the recitation of these poets by the gondoliers of Venice.

There are always two concerned, who alternately sing the strophes. We know the melody eventually by Rousseau, to whose songs it is printed; it has properly no melodious movement, and is a sort of medium between the canto fermo and the canto figurato; it approaches to the former by recitativical declamation, and to the latter by passages and course, by which one syllable is detained and embellished.

I entered a gondola by moonlight: one singer placed himself forwards, and the other aft, and thus proceeded to Saint Giorgio. One began the song: when he had ended his strophe the other took up the lay, and so continued the song alternately. Throughout the whole of it, the same notes invariably returned; but, according to the subject matter of the strophe, they laid a greater or a smaller stress, sometimes on one, and sometimes on another note, and indeed changed the enunciation of the whole strophe, as the object of the poem altered.

On the whole, however, their sounds were hoarse and screaming: they seemed, in the manner of all rude uncivilised men, to make the excellency of their singing consist in the force of their voice: one seemed desirous of conquering the other by the strength of his lungs, and so far from receiving delight from this scene (shut up as I was in the box of the gondola), I found myself in a very unpleasant situation.

My companion, to whom I communicated this circumstance, being very desirous to keep up the credit of his countrymen, assured me that this singing was very delightful when heard at a distance. Accordingly we got out upon the shore, leaving one of the singers in the gondola, while the other went to the distance of some hundred paces. They now began to sing against one another; and I kept walking up and down between them both, so as always to leave him who was to begin his part. I frequently stood still, and hearkened to the one and to the other.

Here the scene was properly introduced. The strong declamatory, and, as it were, shrieking sound, met the ear from far, and called forth the attention; the quickly succeeding transitions, which necessarily required to be sung in a lower tone, seemed like plaintive strains succeeding the vociferations of emotion or of pain. The other, who listened attentively, immediately began where the former left off, answering him in milder or more vehement notes, according as the purport of the strophe required. The sleepy canals, the lofty buildings, the splendour of the moon, the deep shadows of the few gondolas that moved like spirits hither and thither, increased the striking peculiarity of the scene, and amidst all these circumstances it was easy to confess the character of this wonderful harmony.

It suits perfectly well with an idle solitary mariner, lying at length in his vessel at rest on one of these canals, waiting for his company or for a fare; the tiresomeness of which situation is somewhat alleviated by the songs and poetical stories he has in memory. He often raises his voice as loud as he can, which extends itself to a vast distance over the tranquil mirror; and, as all is still around, he is as it were in a solitude in the midst of a large and populous town. Here is no rattling of carriages, no noise of foot passengers; a silent gondola glides now and then by him, of which the splashing of the oars is scarcely to be heard.

At a distance he hears another, perhaps utterly unknown to him. Melody and verse immediately attach the two strangers; he becomes the responsive echo to the former, and exerts himself to be heard as he had heard the other. By a tacit convention they alternate verse for verse; though the song should last the whole night through, they entertain, themselves without fatigue; the hearers, who are passing between the two, take part in the amusement.

This vocal performance sounds best at a great distance, and is then inexpressibly charming, as it only fulfils its design in the sentiment of remoteness. It is plaintive, but not dismal in its sound; and at times it is scarcely possible to refrain from tears. My companion, who otherwise was not a very delicately organised person, said quite unexpectedly, “E singolare come quel canto intenerisce, e molto più quando la cantano meglio.”

I was told that the women of Lido, the long row of islands that divides the Adriatic from the Lagouns, particularly the women of the extreme districts of Malamocca and Palestrina, sing in like manner the works of Tasso to these and similar tunes.

They have the custom, when their husbands are fishing out at sea, to sit along the shore in the evenings and vociferate these songs, and continue to do so with great violence, till each of them can distinguish the responses of her own husband at a distance.

How much more delightful and more appropriate does this song show itself here, than the call of a solitary person uttered far and wide, till another equally disposed shall hear and answer him! It is the expression of a vehement and hearty longing, which yet is every moment nearer to the happiness of satisfaction.

Lord Byron has told us that with the independence of Venice the song of the gondolier has died away —

In Venice Tasso’s echoes are no more.

If this be not more poetical than true, it must have occurred at a moment when their last political change may have occasioned this silence on the waters. My servant Tita, who was formerly the servant of his lordship, and whose name has been immortalised in the “Italy” of Mr. Rogers, was himself a gondolier. He assures me that every night on the river the chant may be heard. Many who cannot even read have acquired the whole of Tasso, and some chant the stanzas of Ariosto. It is a sort of poetical challenge, and he who cannot take up the subject by continuing it is held as vanquished, and which occasions him no slight vexation. In a note in Lord Byron’s works, this article is quoted by mistake as written by me, though I had mentioned it as the contribution of a stranger. We find by that note that there are two kinds of Tasso; the original, and another called the ”Canta alla Barcarola,“ a spurious Tasso in the Venetian dialect: this latter, however, is rarely used. In the same note, a printer’s error has been perpetuated through all the editions of Byron; the name of Barry, the painter, has been printed Berry.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37