The product of a classical culture, Alessandro Manzoni held the written word in high regard: the fitting expression, the eloquent turn of phrase, the correct vocabulary. Poetry, which emphasized all of these things, was seen as the most fitting genre for artistic utterance. More than this, however, poetry was to be concerned with moral and civic problems rather than indulging itself in languid lyricism and autobiography. Hence, Manzoni’s early verses contained barbs against the Church, tyrants, poetasters, the decadent rich, unworthy teachers, and dissolute women. In part, the impetus for this manner came from idealistic pronouncements made during the Napoleonic era (concerning justice, reason, human rights, artistic value, and civic duty) which were never translated into practice, a double standard which easily aroused the indignation of a youthfully vigorous poet.
Although in the background of Manzoni’s poetry, besides a list of French authors headed by Voltaire, one finds Alfonso Varano, Giuseppe Parini, Vittorio Alfieri, Ugo Foscolo, and the early revolutionary Vincenzo Monti, the spirit of imitation never guided Manzoni’s pen. Conscious of this, in the 1802 sonnet “Alla musa,” he bids the deity to show him “new paths.”
Manzoni’s best poetry exudes a Christian ethos. Hence Goethe’s praise, which went beyond Manzoni’s “new” poetic manner and his “simplicity of feeling”; Goethe extolled the poet’s “boldness of genius, metaphors, transitions,” Manzoni’s way of being “Christian without fanaticism, Roman Catholic without sanctimoniousness, zealous without hardness.” Put otherwise, Manzoni’s art was an inspired function of his humanitarianism.
“Il trionfo della libertà”
Manzoni’s first significant piece was his still somewhat classical “Il trionfo della libertà,” written after the peace of Lunéville (1801), in four cantos and hendecasyllabic tercets, heavy with references to ancient heroes and myths. Typically pessimistic in approach, the poem at one point considers the figure of the French General Louis-Charles Desaix, who died fighting for the independence of an indifferent land, where he lay a “barbarian . . . foreign corpse.” Liberty’s “triumph” is limited by the extent of the crimes committed in her name. A similar lament echoes in “A Francesco Lomonaco,” a political sonnet chastising Italy for not extolling the heroic martyr for liberty—who, to make matters worse, was even exiled from his native Naples. The true sense of liberty, therefore, cannot be imposed from without; it must grow from within.
Perhaps beauty, instead of liberty, may emerge as the noblest ideal—beauty in a woman of moral and spiritual perfection, “whose sweet mouth conceals a pure smile wherein speaks the soul.” This is found in Manzoni’s Vergilian “Ode,” though late in the poem, he turns incongruously to thoughts of bloodstained Italy. He found it hard to relinquish his youthful pessimism, which also colors a group of four sarcastic poems gathered under the title of Sermoni: the Horatian “A Giovan Battista Pagani,” the Petronian satire on the enriched plebeian “Panegirico di Trimalcione,” the invective against poetasters “Della poesia,” and the pungently bitter “love” poem “A Delia.” Manzoni blames individuals rather than institutions for a corrupt society in which women become playthings of lust, parlor games mask eroticism, inept poets recite “hard verses,” and lovers chase after “incautious virgins”—a society symbolized by rich Trimalchio’s vulgar ostentation. A brief attempt to break out of the pessimistic mold, when in 1803 he wrote an idyll on his beloved Lombard river, “L’Adda,” found Manzoni this time erring in the direction of stiltedness, bound as he was to classical formulas in composing elegiac verses. The same rigidity appears in his mythologico-philosophical poem of 1808-1809, “Urania,” a disquisition on the moral and utilitarian value of poetry, which is so oratorical that he himself later described it to Fauriel as “hateful.”
“In morte di Carlo Imbonati”
Manzoni had, however, gone to Paris in 1805, and his best poem of that time, “In morte di Carlo Imbonati,” reveals greater detachment and intellectual depth, avoiding the polemical and aggressive manner of his other pieces of the time. The young poet, very devoted to his mother, justifies on the grounds of pure love her cohabitation with Imbonati, defends it against the petty gossip of Milanese society, and places her consort in a paternal role, delivering a Polonius-like counsel to Manzoni, who must be guided by feeling and meditation:
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