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A History of Italian Literature

Richard Garnett

213 pages
Library of Alexandria
Great literatures, like great rivers, seldom derive their origin from a single fountain, but rather ooze from the soil in a multitude of almost imperceptible springs. The literature of Greece may appear an exception, but we know that the broad stream of Homeric song in which we first behold it must have been fed by a number of rills which it has absorbed into itself, and whose original sources lie beyond the range of scrutiny. In no literature is this general maxim better exemplified than the Italian, if, at least, as the economy of this little history demands, we restrict this appellation to its modern period. It might be plausibly contended that the Latin and Italian literatures, like the Roman and Byzantine empires, are, in truth, a single entity, but the convenience of the student precludes a view in support of which much might be adduced by the critic and philologist. Defining Italian literature, therefore, so as to comprise whatsoever is written in any dialect of that “soft bastard Latin” which bears the Italian name, and to exclude all compositions in a language which a Roman would have called Latin, we find none among great literatures whose beginnings are more humble and obscure, or, which at first seems surprising, more recent. The perfection of form which the literature of Italy had attained while all others, save the Provençal, were yet devoid of symmetry and polish, the comparative intelligibility of the diction of “Dante and his circle” at the present day, while the contemporary writers in other tongues require copious glossaries, lead to the tacit and involuntary assumption of a long antecedent period of development and refinement which did not in fact exist. In truth, the earliest literary compositions definable as Italian are scarcely older than the thirteenth century. There is, perhaps, no other such example in history of the obliteration of literary taste and method as that which in Italy befell one of the most gifted peoples of the world for nearly six hundred years. After Boethius (about 530 A.D.) the little that is left of literature becomes entirely utilitarian, and is, with rare exceptions, restricted to theology, jurisprudence, and monkish chronicles. There is still much evidence that the Latin classical writers had not passed out of the knowledge of men; but—except when like Virgil they became heroes of popular legend—little that they exercised any appreciable influence upon men’s ideas and imaginations. One unfortunate precursor of the Renaissance, indeed, Vilgardus of Ravenna (about A.D. 1000), was led by his admiration for the classics to disparage Christianity, and suffered death in consequence. As a rule, however, the Latin poets merely served as a magazine of commonplace quotations and an arsenal of metrical rules, which some of the least degenerate writers of the period apply with considerable skill. The explanation of this paralysis of Latin literature in Italy, while Greek was still an efficient organ of thought in the Eastern Empire, is no doubt to be found in the fact that it had never been a robust national growth. The property of the learned and cultivated, it had taken no deep hold upon the mass of the people; and when culture and learning perished amid the vicissitudes of barbarian conquest, it was only preserved, apart from the services of the Church, by the absolute necessity of maintaining some vestiges of law, physic, and divinity, and the impossibility of conveying instruction in the debased dialects into which the old Latin language was resolving itself.