Read PREFACE of Stories from the Italian Poets: With Lives of the Writers‚ Vol.1, free online book, by Leigh Hunt, on

The purpose of these volumes is, to add to the stock of tales from the Italian writers; to retain as much of the poetry of the originals as it is in the power of the writer's prose to compass; and to furnish careful biographical notices of the authors. There have been several collections of stories from the Novellists of Italy, but none from the Poets; and it struck me that prose versions from these, of the kind here offered to the public, might not be unwillingly received. The stories are selected from the five principal narrative poets, Dante, Pulci, Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso; they comprise the most popular of such as are fit for translation; are reduced into one continuous narrative, when diffused and interrupted, as in the instances of those of Angelica, and Armida; are accompanied with critical and explanatory notes; and, in the case of Dante, consist of an abstract of the poet's whole work. The volumes are, furthermore, interspersed with the most favourite morceaux of the originals, followed sometimes with attempts to versify them; and in the Appendix, for the furtherance of the study of the Italian language, are given entire stories, also in the original, and occasionally rendered in like manner. The book is particularly intended for such students or other lovers of the language as are pleased with any fresh endeavours to recommend it; and, at the same time, for such purely English readers as wish to know something about Italian poetry, without having leisure to cultivate its acquaintance.

I did not intend in the first instance to depart from the plan of selection in the case of Dante; but when I considered what an extraordinary person he was,—how intense is every thing which he says,—how widely he has re-attracted of late the attention of the world,—how willingly perhaps his poem might be regarded by the reader as being itself one continued story (which, in fact, it is), related personally of the writer,—and lastly, what a combination of difficulties have prevented his best translators in verse from giving the public a just idea of his almost Scriptural simplicity,—I began to think that an abstract of his entire work might possibly be looked upon as supplying something of a desideratum. I am aware that nothing but verse can do perfect justice to verse; but besides the imperfections which are pardonable, because inevitable, in all such metrical endeavours, the desire to impress a grand and worshipful idea of Dante has been too apt to lead his translators into a tone and manner the reverse of his passionate, practical, and creative style—a style which may be said to write things instead of words; and thus to render every word that is put out of its place, or brought in for help and filling up, a misrepresentation. I do not mean to say, that he himself never does any thing of the sort, or does not occasionally assume too much of the oracle and the schoolmaster, in manner as well as matter; but passion, and the absence of the superfluous, are the chief characteristics of his poetry. Fortunately, this sincerity of purpose and utterance in Dante render him the least pervertible of poets in a sincere prose translation; and, since I ventured on attempting one, I have had the pleasure of meeting with an express recommendation of such a version in an early number of the Edinburgh Review.

The abstract of Dante, therefore, in these volumes (with every deprecation that becomes me of being supposed to pretend to give a thorough idea of any poetry whatsoever, especially without its metrical form) aspires to be regarded as, at all events, not exhibiting a false idea of the Dantesque spirit in point of feeling and expression. It is true, I have omitted long tedious lectures of scholastic divinity, and other learned absurdities of the time, which are among the bars to the poem's being read through, even in Italy (which Foscolo tells us is never the case); and I have compressed the work in other passages not essentially necessary to the formation of a just idea of the author. But quite enough remains to suggest it to the intelligent; and in no instance have I made additions or alterations. There is warrant—I hope I may say letter—for every thing put down. Dante is the greatest poet for intensity that ever lived; and he excites a corresponding emotion in his reader—I wish I could say, always on the poet's side; but his ferocious hates and bigotries too often tempt us to hate the bigot, and always compel us to take part with the fellow-creatures whom he outrages. At least, such is their effect on myself. Nor will he or his worshippers suffer us to criticise his faults with mere reference to the age in which he lived. I should have been glad to do so; but the claims made for him, even by himself, will not allow it. We are called upon to look on him as a divine, a prophet, an oracle in all respects for all time. Such a man, however, is the last whom a reporter is inclined to misrepresent. We respect his sincerity too much, ferocious and arrogant though it be; and we like to give him the full benefit of the recoil of his curses and maledictions. I hope I have not omitted one. On the other hand, as little have I closed my feelings against the lovely and enchanting sweetness which this great semi-barbarian sometimes so affectingly utters. On those occasions he is like an angel enclosed for penance in some furious giant, and permitted to weep through the creature's eyes.

The stories from goodnatured Pulci I have been obliged to compress for other reasons—chiefly their excessive diffuseness. A paragraph of the version will sometimes comprise many pages. Those of Boiardo and Ariosto are more exact; and the reader will be good enough to bear in mind, that nothing is added to any of the poets, different as the case might seem here and there on comparison with the originals. An equivalent for whatever is said is to be found in some part of the context—generally in letter, always in spirit. The least characteristically exact passages are some in the love-scenes of Tasso; for I have omitted the plays upon words and other corruptions in style, in which that poet permitted himself to indulge. But I have noticed the circumstance in the comment. In other respects, I have endeavoured to make my version convey some idea of the different styles and genius of the writers,—of the severe passion of Dante; of the overflowing gaiety and affecting sympathies of Pulci, several of whose passages in the Battle of Roncesvalles are masterpieces of pathos; of the romantic and inventive elegance of Boiardo; the great cheerful universality of Ariosto, like a healthy anima mundi; and the ambitious irritability, the fairy imagination, and tender but somewhat effeminate voluptuousness of the poet of Armida and Rinaldo. I do not pretend that prose versions of passages from these writers can supersede the necessity of metrical ones, supposing proper metrical ones attainable. They suffice for them, in some respects, less than for Dante, the manner in their case being of more importance to the effect. But with all due respect to such translators as Harrington, Rose, and Wiffen, their books are not Ariosto and Tasso, even in manner. Harrington, the gay "godson" of Queen Elizabeth, is not always unlike Ariosto; but when not in good spirits he becomes as dull as if her majesty had frowned on him. Rose was a man of wit, and a scholar; yet he has undoubtedly turned the ease and animation of his original into inversion and insipidity. And Wiffen, though elegant and even poetical, did an unfortunate thing for Tasso, when he gave an additional line and a number of paraphrastic thoughts to a stanza already tending to the superfluous. Fairfax himself, who, upon the whole, and with regard to a work of any length, is the best metrical translator our language has seen, and, like Chapman, a genuine poet, strangely aggravated the sins of prettiness and conceit in his original, and added to them a love of tautology amounting to that of a lawyer. As to Hoole, he is below criticism; and other versions I have not happened to see. Now if I had no acquaintance with the Italian language, I confess I would rather get any friend who had, to read to me a passage out of Dante, Tasso, or Ariosto, into the first simple prose that offered itself, than go to any of the above translators for a taste of it, Fairfax excepted; and we have seen with how much allowance his sample would have to be taken. I have therefore, with some restrictions, only ventured to do for the public what I would have had a friend do for myself.

The Critical and Biographical Notices I did not intend to make so long at first; but the interest grew upon me; and I hope the reader will regard some of them—Dante's and Tasso's in particular—as being "stories" themselves, after their kind,—"stories, alas, too true;" "romances of real life." The extraordinary character of Dante, which is personally mixed up with his writings beyond that of any other poet, has led me into references to his church and creed, unavoidable at any time in the endeavour to give a thorough estimate of his genius, and singularly demanded by certain phenomena of the present day. I hold those phenomena to be alike feeble and fugitive; but only so by reason of their being openly so proclaimed; for mankind have a tendency to the absurd, if their imaginations are not properly directed; and one of the uses of poetry is, to keep the faculty in a healthy state, and cause it to know its duties. Dante, in the fierce egotism of his passions, and the strange identification of his knowledge with all that was knowable, would fain have made his poetry both a sword against individuals, and a prop for the support of the superstition that corrupted them. This was reversing the duty of a Christian and a great man; and there happen to be existing reasons why it is salutary to chew that he had no right to do so, and must not have his barbarism confounded with his strength. Machiavelli was of opinion, that if Christianity had not reverted to its first principles, by means of the poverty and pious lives of St. Francis and St. Dominic, the faith would have been lost. It may have been; but such are not the secrets of its preservation in times of science and progression, when the spirit of inquiry has established itself among all classes, and nothing is taken for granted, as it used to be. A few persons here and there, who confound a small superstitious reaction in England with the reverse of the fact all over the rest of Europe, may persuade themselves, if they please, that the world has not advanced in knowledge for the last three centuries, and so get up and cry aloud to us out of obsolete horn-books; but the community laugh at them. Every body else is inquiring into first principles, while they are dogmatising on a forty-ninth proposition. The Irish themselves, as they ought to do, care more for their pastors than for the Pope; and if any body wishes to know what is thought of his Holiness at head-quarters, let him consult the remarkable and admirable pamphlet which has lately issued from the pen of Mr. Mazzini. I have the pleasure of knowing excellent Roman Catholics; I have suffered in behalf of their emancipation, and would do so again to-morrow; but I believe that if even their external form of Christianity has any chance of survival three hundred years hence, it will have been owing to the appearance meanwhile of some extraordinary man in power, who, in the teeth of worldly interests, or rather in charitable and sage inclusion of them, shall have proclaimed that the time had arrived for living in the flower of Christian charity, instead of the husks and thorns which may have been necessary to guard it. If it were possible for some new and wonderful Pope to make this change, and draw a line between these two Christian epochs, like that between the Old and New Testaments, the world would feel inclined to prostrate itself again and for ever at the feet of Rome. In a catholic state of things like that, delighted should I be, for one, to be among the humblest of its communicants. How beautiful would their organs be then! how ascending to an unperplexing Heaven their incense! how unselfish their salvation! how intelligible their talk about justice and love! It would be far more easy, however, for the Church of England to do this than the Church of Rome; since the former would not feel itself hampered with pretensions to infallibility. A Church once reformed, may reform itself again and again, till it remove every blemish in the way of its perfection. And God grant this may be the lot of the Church of my native country. Its beautiful old ivied places of worship would then want no harmony of accordance with its gentle and tranquil scenery; no completeness of attraction to the reflecting and the kind.

But if Charity (and by Charity I do not mean mere toleration, or any other pretended right to permit others to have eyes like ourselves, but whatever the delightful Greek word implies of good and lovely), if this truly and only divine consummation of all Christian doctrine be not thought capable of taking a form of belief "strong" enough, apart from threats that revolt alike the heart and the understanding, Superstition must look out for some new mode of dictation altogether; for the world is outgrowing the old.

I cannot, in gratitude for the facilities afforded to myself, as well as for a more obvious and public reason, dismiss this Preface without congratulating men of letters on the establishment and increasing prosperity of the London Library, an institution founded for the purpose of accommodating subscribers with such books, at their own houses, as could only be consulted hitherto at the British Museum. The sole objection to the Museum is thus done away, and the literary world has a fair prospect of possessing two book-institutions instead of one, each with its distinct claims to regard, and presenting in combination all that the student can wish; for while it is highly desirable that authors should be able to have standard works at their command, when sickness or other circumstances render it impossible for them to go to the Museum, it is undoubtedly requisite that one great collection should exist in which they are sure to find the same works unremoved, in case of necessity,—not to mention curious volumes of all sorts, manuscripts, and a world of books of reference.