Ugo Foscolo

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Antonio Cippico (essay date 1924)

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SOURCE: “The Poetry of Ugo Foscolo,” in Proceedings of the British Academy, Kraus Reprint, 1976, pp. 13-25.

[In the following essay originally presented in 1924, Cippico provides an overview of Foscolo's life and examines how his various poetic works were affected by—and sometimes stand in contrast to—the historical events and romantic interludes of his life.]

If we are to draw our conclusions from events of the last centuries, all great crises in the history of nations, be it wars or revolutions, cause humanity to gather the illusion of an essential renovation of human nature itself. It matters little if wise philosophers and impartial historians, especially if placed at a reasonable distance from such events, are only able to perceive in them the inevitable and monotonous repetition of all that constitutes the deepest instincts of the human soul, from the day on which Adam, our first father, ‘the man who was never born’, together with Eve, was banished for ever from the richly fertile and flowered regions of the terrestrial paradise.

In the history of humanity there is neither progress nor regression: there are waves as on the ocean, now caressed by ethereal zephyrs, anon convulsed by the fury of tempests.

Immediately before and after the storm, however, Nature appears to be preparing herself for some sort of a mysterious change. Before the breaking of the storm, dark threatening clouds, heavy with thunder, pile up on the horizon; when the storm is over, the clear and rarefied atmosphere, and the earth made fruitful by rain, create an illusion of renovation, of a new rhythm in the tuning of the universe. The landscape around us takes on the clearest lines and the vivid colours of horizons in the so-called classical painting.

Thus it happens before and after all great human crises. It was thus when Jean-Jacques Rousseau inspired those Encyclopaedists who were to close an historical epoch and prepare the Revolution; the return to Nature, already foretold in the vapid poetry of the Arcadian academies, took shape and form in the new theories set forth in Émile and in the Contrat Social, the heralds of the Droits de L'homme, and of modern democracies. In spite of these, however, albeit the style of the preachings of the Revolution sprang from all that was mere rhetoric amongst the Greeks and Romans, especially in Plutarch and Cicero, the Revolution itself acted as a fertilizer for the soil of neo-classicism, and contemporary with, yet as a reaction against the latter, it caused the first inspiration towards romanticism.

According to Wolfgang von Goethe the classical school is sane, whereas the romantic is unhealthy: for Victor Hugo, the romantic school is liberal, but the classical is the antithesis of liberalism. Another critic places reason in the very heart of classicism, and sentiment as the pivot of romanticism.

Our task does not consist in discussing these various and contrasting definitions, all the more so as no critic has heretofore succeeded in stating where one school ends and the other begins. As a matter of fact, their chief exponents themselves, whether in France or Italy, Germany or England, frequently unite and intermingle, just as in poetry we often find the intermingling of thought and emotion.

It is positive, however, that if the French Revolution sowed the seeds of a new classicism in arts and letters, we for our part can pick out the names of three great poets, practically contemporary, who, if only because of their primary inspiration and the style and form of their works, were its exponents. In their writings we find a decisive return to...

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the serene sources, to the mythical fables, to the fascinating landscapes of classical poetry, especially as found in the sacredHellas of Homer.

Nearly contemporary, yet unknown to each other, they again found the lost lyre of the Homerides, of Sappho, of Alcaeus, of Alcman. For them life was what is permanently beautiful in it: they rose above the horrors of their times into regions of beauty, and to humanity blindly groping and struggling midst political, social, and economic passions, nearly always fed by historical materialism, they pointed out a loftier goal, and a religion superior to all literary contingencies: Beauty.

From the very midst of the turmoils and destruction of the sanguinary Jacobean era in Paris, André Chénier, by origin a Greek, builds his ideal world, and pens his serene poems that reflect the sunny smile of the Aegean Sea, on the eve of his execution.

John Keats, with no knowledge of Greek, discovers his soul in Chapman's translation of Homer; buried in the grime and fogs of London, he sings of immortal Endymion and Hyperion, and inspires with life everlasting, and truer than life itself, a bas-relief on a Grecian urn.

Ugo Foscolo, born in Zante, but Italian to his very soul, both by election and education, while adopting the Grecian style, sings of the beauty of his many lady-loves, and from the sunny slopes of Bellosguardo dedicates to the Graces the most melodious and charming verses ever yet conceived by any poet from Pindar to our days, in celebration of the harmonious conception of Life, Love, and Death, which was the essence of Hellenic thought between the shores of the sacred Ilissus and the severe marbles of the Stoa.

The life of Ugo Foscolo, filled as it was with adventures, was infinitely more adventurous than that of other contemporary poets. Born in Zante in 1778, son of Andrea Foscolo, a doctor, and of Diamante Spattis, daughter of a tailor and widow of a Genoese, his soul in childhood drank the shining light, and fed on the myths of the Ionian. Gifted with a vision of ancient times, from the heart of the existing poverty of the island he was able to reconstruct the ‘sacred city’ of the past; for him the great temples still stood in the bright sunshine. His childish ramblings took him into the shaded woods ‘sacred to the jubilations of Diana and of her chorus’; in his keen imagination he saw and admired the landscape as it must have appeared to the islanders before Neptune girdled Ilion with the renowned towers for Laomedontes. He gloried in the sun, the soft clouds, the verdant slopes covered with olive groves, vineyards, orange and lemon trees.

Later in life, from the midst of youthful errors, his homesick mind groped its way back to this paradise of his childhood, and he sang A Zacinto:

‘Never more shall I touch the sacred shores where my boyhood's body lay, my Zante, that dost mirror thyself in the waves of the Greek Sea, from which as maiden Venus was born, and made these islands fertile with her first smile; wherefore of thy limpid clouds and thy green boughs spoke the famous song of him who sang of the fateful waters, and the varied exile, for which, adorned with fame and with misfortune, Ulysses kissed his rocky Ithaca.

‘Thou shalt have nought of thy son save his song, O my mother land: to us both Fate prescribed a tomb upon which none shall weep.’

In his birthplace the child, ‘frequently unwell as a result of melancholia, and at times ferocious and insane with rage’, received the first elements of education. His first teacher was a learned priest, who was wont to describe him as a ‘volcano’. Amongst other incidents, once, in obedience to a generous impulse, he led a band of followers of his age, against the will of the people and of the soldiery, in an attempt to release the Jews imprisoned in the Ghetto behind iron gates: naturally, he was arrested.

Later on, his father having been appointed Director of the Hospital in Spalato (Dalmatia), he went to the Italian elementary school in that city. Soon after his father's death, his mother took him and the other children to Venice, where they lived in great poverty. Nearly a year before Campoformio, Venice, although inured to marvels of all sorts in art and genius, to the heedlessness of carnivals and festivals, could not but wonder at the sight of a pale youth with russet locks, tall yet stooping, of impassioned speech, who wore a patched green overcoat, made no secret of his poverty, yet was welcomed and made much of ‘in the houses of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, Rinier Michiel, and other ladies of nobility and charm, cherished and honoured by enchanting masks and by all the people’. In 1796 a small volume of his poems was in everybody's hands, and reached its fifth edition. The principal writers of the day—Cesarotti, Pindemonte, Bertola—held him up as the new literary hope. His first and favourite authors were Homer, Dante, Plutarch, Milton, Rousseau, Alfieri, and Monti.

Having extolled Dante and Italy in his verses, and at heart being more republican than liberal, he soon became an object of suspicion to the government inquisitors. As a result, his mother favoured his trip to the Euganean Hills, where, inspired by love and Petrarch's tomb, he started a novel in epistolary style entitled Laura, and wrote his first tragedy, Tieste, which was a great success, soon afterwards, when presented at the Sant' Angelo Theatre, January 4, 1797.

At about this time Napoleon defeated the Piedmontese and Austrian armies (April 1796), and flung his victorious soldiers on undefended Italy: Milan, Brescia, Verona, and Bologna fell into his hands. The small Italian states were on the verge of collapse, either as a result of the irruption of the victorious French, or of internal strife. ‘The time has come’—so wrote the General to the Bologna Senate after the victory of Bassano—‘when Italy must take her place with honour amongst the powerful nations.’ After the defeat of five Austrian armies at Castiglione, Arcole, and Rivoli, the cities of Bologna, Reggio, Ferrara, and Modena, ‘desirous of liberty at any cost’, formed the Cispadane Confederation. In the meanwhile Bonaparte pursued the Austrians nearly to the gates of Vienna, then signed the Peace of Leoben (1797). The final defeat of the Austrians was the signal for the collapse of the old, weak and pusillanimous Republic of San Marco. Only a few months earlier the Venetians, obeying a mistaken idea of neutrality, had rejected Napoleon's offer of an alliance, and for this had been reproached in a sonnet by Foscolo. On May 12 the Maggior Consiglio received the death warrant of the Republic.

A few weeks prior to these events, Foscolo, accompanied by various other liberals, also victims of the persecutions of the timorous Venetian Government, had taken refuge in Bologna, where he volunteered for service in a cavalry corps. Republican to his very soul, steeped in admiration of the Athenian and Roman classics, in those days he dreamt of ‘the regeneration of the Mother Country’, of becoming the Archilocus, the Simonides, or the Tyrtaeus of Italy:

Italia, Italia, con eterei rai
Su l'orizzonte tuo torna l'aurora
Annunziatrice di perpetuo solo …
(Italy, Italy, with ethereal rays
Dawn returns on thy horizon
Foreteller of perpetual sunshine.)

was the expression of his short-lived dream in an ode, To Buonaparte, the Liberator.

On his return to Venice he was appointed secretary to the democratic municipality, but soon was nauseated at sight of the foolish intoxication of the Jacobins, whose madness was taken full advantage of, to their own profit, by numberless unscrupulous dabblers in politics—‘immoral and idle demagogues’. The popular rejoicings round the Tree of Liberty erected in Piazza San Marco were of short duration. With the Treaty of Campoformio (October 17), Venice and her territory were handed over to Austria, and the young poet, henceforth disillusioned as to the promises of the Liberator, repaired to Milan.

His second nature, melancholia, got him in its grips. Vainly he sought consolation in love. He gave a new romantic form to those letters, To Laura, which he had begun two years before, under the fresh title of The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis. His country, however, having once more become the theatre of war in the struggle between the Austro-Russians and Napoleon, again called for his services. He was wounded at Cento. Later on, in besieged Genoa, under the command of General Masséna, he led a squad of infantry against the enemy, making a sortie from the Forte dei due Fratelli. After the victory of Marengo he was promoted Captain on the Staff.

Having been sent on a military mission to Florence, he there met and fell in love with ‘the divine maid’, Isabella Roncioni, who was engaged to be married to another against her will. This infatuation was so sudden, so melodramatic, that it nearly caused Foscolo to rave in his acts and writings—although it must be admitted that this was the case in nearly all the love affairs of which the poet was the impassioned protagonist. To his love for Isabella Roncioni we owe, however, these admirable Florentine sonnets which are amongst the finest verses that Italy has had since the immortal love poems of Petrarch's Canzoniere:

Parchè taccia il rumor di mia catena,
Di lagrime, di speme, e di amor vivo,
E di silenzio; chè pietà mi affrena,
Se con lei parlo, o di lei penso e scrivo …
(To silence the din of my chain,
I live on tears, on hope, on love,
And on silence; seeing that pity restrains me,
If I speak with her, write to her or think of her.)

Carducci, a good judge, considers these sonnets inspired by Roncioni ‘as admirable in novelty, purity, and movement, in brief, a true lyric of a superior and intense affection transformed and idealized in fantasy’.

The beauty of the beloved is refashioned in the depths of the poet's soul, and is mirrored in exquisite and nearly plastic music of imagery and words. This almost spiritual sensitiveness to beauty in Foscolo's verses is expressed more in relief than in colour, and therein lies the difference between his poetry and that of those non-Italian poets, his contemporaries—Byron, Hölderlin, Wordsworth, and Herder, among others. Although written when he was but twenty-two years of age, they are more passionately and intensely constructed than Petrarch's best ones, they ‘sound the note of an interior world, dense, almost violent’ (Donadoni). At such a tumultuous ending of a pre-romantic century, he asks himself:

Figlio infelice, e disperato amante,
E senza patria, a tutti aspro e a sè stesso,
Giovine d'anni e rugoso in sembiante.
Che stai?
(Unhappy son, and despairing lover,
Without country, stern to all and to himself,
Young in years and of rugged aspect,
Why tarryest thou?)

Love will follow him beyond life, even ‘through the infernal shadows, immortal, omnipotent’. The romantic idea of suicide, conceived in his desperate infatuation for ‘the large smiling eyes’, that had consumed ‘his heart with immortal rays’, he thrust from him only because of his love for his mother, and of his ‘passion for fame’.

Equally plastic, but without that great lyrical inspiration which burns in every line of these verses, are his two great Odes—the one dedicated to Luigia Pallavicini, Thrown from her Horse (1800), on the Sestri Riviera, the other, To My Convalescent Friend (1802-3), dedicated to Antonietta Fagnani Arese, another of the poet's lady-loves. The first is poetry cut out in Parian marble, art for art's sake: in her infirmity, the Pallavicini at first reminds him of Venus wounded by a thorn, whilst weeping over the death of Adonis; then of Pallas emerging from her bath, and finally of Diana in her coach led by stags, rushing headlong down the slopes of Mount Etna. Three classical myths—yet three religious symbols: for Foscolo's artistic religion is that of ancient fables, which are a light veiling of truth.

It must not be forgotten that this Ode was written in the midst of the horrors and hunger of besieged Genoa, and therefore in its Parnassian tranquillity it is in vivid contrast with the tragic realities surrounding Foscolo at that time. With its mythological allegories, that are rather adherent than inherent, this Ode is a worldly and gallant parenthesis, an antithesis to the daily battle. It is a poem without love, exterior but not sensual. He drew his inspiration from the contrast between beauty and the disfiguration of beautiful forms. The latter are true music in themselves. It is interesting to note the comparison made by a critic (Manacorda) of this Ode with La Jeune Tarentine of Chénier:

Pleurez, doux alcyons! ô vous, oiseaux sacrés,
Oiseaux chers à Thétis, doux alcyons, pleurez!
Elle a vécu, Myrto, la jeune Tarentine!
Un vaisseau la portait aux bords de Camarine:
Là, l'hymen, les chansons, les flûtes, lentement
Devaient la reconduire au seuil de son amant.

Myrtos, immutably beautiful, passes on to the eternity of poetry midst the laments of halcyons. Still beautiful, in spite of the disfiguration caused by her horrible accident, the young heroine of Foscolo's Ode is for evermore held up to admiration.

In the second Ode, it is love, and not beauty alone, that awakens profoundest pity. The lady's is the languid beauty of a convalescent, nor has it been disfigured:

Fiorir sul caro viso
Veggo la rosa, tornano
I grandi occhi al sorr
Insidiando …
(Flowering in her dear face
I see the rose: the great eyes
Recover their smile
Ensnaring …)

‘In it expression has assumed a religious majesty’ (Donadoni). It is true that this lyric gives no thought to virtue, still less to the senses. It is, rather, the exteriorization of all that is least transient and ephemeral in feminine beauty: the spiritual sense of beauty, which, if rebellions to colour, must necessarily be celebrated solely by a plastic artist. And very few of the greatest poets have ever been cleverer word sculptors than Ugo Foscolo.

Thanks to his love for Antonietta Fagnani, which lasted nearly two years (1801-3)—in spite of its appearing to him that the beautiful countess's ‘heart was made of brains’—Foscolo was able to complete his interrupted novel Ortis, and publish an erudite work on the Chioma di Berenice (The Tresses of Berenice) of Callimachus, translated by Valerius Catullus. Having been sent to Normandy and Picardy with the Napoleonic armies which were to have attacked England from the northern coast of France, he translated Sterne's Sentimental Journey in such clear and vivid prose as almost to make it an original masterpiece. At Valenciennes he met and loved a young Englishwoman, from whom he had a daughter, Floriana, who was to become the consolation of the last sorrowful days of his English life.

On returning to Venice to visit his old mother, one day, in the house of Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, the friend of his first youth, he heard Ippolito Pindemonte complain of the new cemetery laws. Already in 1768 the Austrian Government had decreed that all cemeteries should be removed from the neighbourhood of habitations. Now the Saint Cloud decree (1804) commanded, or so it seemed, that there should be no distinction between graves, no tombstones, and that access to cemeteries be forbidden to the living. These complaints of the new laws of democratic equality first gave Foscolo the inspiration for his poem, I Sepolcri (The Sepulchres). This poem was to take the form of an epistle to Pindemonte, who, on his side, had conceived a poem of four cantos on the theme I Cimeteri (The Cemeteries).

‘I have taken this style of poetry from the Greeks’—wrote Foscolo—‘who were used to extract moral and political sentences from ancient traditions, presenting them not to the intellect of their readers, but to poetry and to the heart.’

Just as Pindar enthusiastically sang the praises of deities and heroes, so Foscolo endeavoured to treat his subject heroically and lyrically, imbuing it with a civil, moral, and educational spirit. Therefore, ‘according to its great Pindaric significance, I Sepolcri is Italy's only lyrical poem’ (Carducci).

Poetry on cemeteries was fashionable in those days, if for no other reason than that it constituted a reaction against the vain epicurianism of the eighteenth century, and the sceptical materialism of the Revolution. In England alone Thomas Parnell, Jacob Hervey, Hugo Blair, Edward Young, and Thomas Gray won inspiration from the grave.

Gray's Elegy written in a Country Churchyard is a great poem, a celebrated elegy. Gray, however, ‘wrote as a philosopher, his elegy aims at proving the obscurity of life and the tranquillity of death’. On the other hand, both Young and Hervey seek to inspire a Christian resignation to death, and comfort in the idea of a future life. But Foscolo ‘considers the grave from a political standpoint, and his aim is to re-awaken political competition amongst Italians by the example of other nations, where the memory and the graves of great men are held in high honour’.

The influence, therefore, of this poem—also described, correctly, as a Hymn to Italy—on the new generations of the peninsula was enormous. In fact, the primal idea of the poem is the mother country, that entity of life which ever renews itself even through the sanctity of death; the verses are pervaded with the conviction that an immortal love unites the living and the dead.

The doctrine that permeates through this great ‘lyrical poem’ does not spring from a conventional classical erudition. The recent archaeological studies of Winckelmann and of Ennio Quirino Visconti barely touch it. If the poet's other lyrical works—the two ‘Odes’, Alceo, or the fragments of the hymns The Graces—show the solemn neo-Hellenic grace of the sculptorial art of his contemporary, Canova, there is nothing sugary in the marble fashioned by Foscolo. If Canova, for his impeccable works, used Carrara marble, Foscolo's genius nearly always sketched in marble of Paros. The poet's classicism sprang from his intensely passionate existence of daily turbulence, and although differing widely from Germany's aesthetic romanticism, he shared its disdain for all archaeology. ‘I am a world unto myself,’ affirmed Jacopo Ortis, the hero of the Foscolian novel. Therefore, his art, similar to that of the romantics, is a clear reflection of the Ego; it aspires to the fusion of ancient and modern, is anti-Christian and revolutionary, if only as a reaction against the restored catholicism of the Jesuits during the two centuries following on the Council of Trent. There is a profound difference between this catholicism and the ancient, especially as regards the consideration of death; for, whereas the ancients contemplated death with serenity, moderns viewed it with whimsical haughtiness and horror. Foscolo paganly puts the civil before the religious idea; he prefers terrestrial life to the celestial—as also love and glory to maceration and humility.

The classicism of his contemporaries is as strangely diverse and far removed from genuine classicism, as the Middle Ages of the romantic poets differ from the Middle Ages of the historians. But in Foscolo's case his classicism is purely personal, melancholy, yet eager with ill-restrained passion. For him death is the ‘unknown calm’ of Lucretius, ‘the mysticism of oblivion’, and it is this idea that runs all through the first part of his poem. In the second part, instead, he sings not of the immortality of the soul, but of the memory of men; these are represented by the great Italians who are buried in glory, in the Florentine Catholic Pantheon of Santa Croce: Michelangelo, Galileo, Alfieri. If anything, Tacitus, Ausonius, and Plutarch are the indirect inspirers of the antithesis between death and country, the sublime nucleus of the poem: whose conception is essentially aristocratic, anti-plebeian, and anti-equalitarian.

I Sepolcri is the epos of great spirits, just as the Inni Sacri and the Promessi Sposi of Manzoni are that of humble ones. It celebrates the Pantheon of Italians. But in it the majestic shadows of Electra being kissed by a god, of Ajax and of Hector, sole conquerors of death, are outlined. There is no veil of mystery around this song of death. Death is considered politically, but with terror, following the example of Lucretius, Seneca, and Plato. Remembrance is prized only for the dead, and as constituting immortality. Remembered by Jove, Electra was immortalized, Hector by Homer. Foscolo disdains discussing the mystery of death, of that which was Tartar or Elysium for the masses of Hellas, ‘oblivion’ for Zeno and Epicurus, and purification for Plato. For him it gives but one consolation, remembrance, which means glory, the ultimate aim of life.

Non di tesori eredità, ma caldi
Sensi e di liberal carme l'esempie …
(Not the heredity of treasures, but of warm
Senses and the example of generous poems.)

In I Sepolcri, therefore, the classical world, with its myths and historical allusions, takes on an aspect of contemporary and tangible reality; Troy and Cassandra prophesying of the smoking ruins of the city from the tumulus of Ilus, are as real and present to us, in reading the great poem, as Florence, with her monuments and her hills.

‘There rested Erichthonius, and just Ilus sleeps after death; there the Trojan women unbound their tresses, vainly, alas, to avert the imminent fate from their husbands; thither Cassandra, what time the god in her breast made her speak of Troy's deadly day, came, and sang to the shades a chant of love, and brought her nephews, and taught the lovelorn lament to the boys, and said with sighs:

“O, if ever from Argos, where you will feed the horses for Diomede and the son of Laertes, heaven allows you to return, in vain will you seek your native land. The walls, that Phoebus wrought, will smoke under their ruins. But the Penates of Troy will have their abode in these tombs; for it is the gift of the gods to preserve in miseries a lofty name. And you, palms and cypresses, that the wives of Priam's sons are planting, and that will grow, alas, soon watered by the tears of widows, protect my fathers. He who piously keeps the axe from the sacred boughs, will suffer less from fratricidal strife, and touch more holily the altar. Protect my fathers. One day you will see a blind mendicant wander under your venerable shade, and gropingly penetrate into the sepulchres, and embrace the urns, and all the tomb will tell of Ilium, twice destroyed and twice rerisen splendidly on the silent ways, ye make more glorious the last triumph of the doomed sons of Peleus.

“The sacred bard, appeasing those afflicted souls with his song, will immortalize the Argive princes through all the lands that great father Ocean embraces. And thou, Hector, shalt have tribute of tears, wherever blood shed for our native land is held holy and mourned for, as long as the sun shall shine upon the woes of mankind.”’

After having presented Italy with his great symphony on country and death, Foscolo, carried away by the fury of his restless and impassioned existence, by the vortex of his many love affairs—of which one alone, that with Quirina Mecenni, the ‘gentle lady’, stands out as worthy of his great soul—and by the agitation of political battles, has left us little else in the way of poetry. The fragments of The Graces are the most important part of his latter production; they are of a purifying beauty, holy and sanctified, yet similar to detached and incomplete bas-reliefs, and for this reason it is next to impossible to gather them together into an organic unity of poetry.

The poet's life became more and more agitated and harassed by poverty, giving him no rest, and still less a breathing time to dedicate to the joy of song.

Having contemptuously refused, in Milan, to wear the Austrian uniform, Foscolo decided to abandon Italy. Passing through Switzerland, in September 1817 he reached London. It was thus that on the eve of the political Risorgimento he gave Italy a new institution: Exile. Welcomed with much honour in the aristocratic and literary societies of London, where the fame of his name and works had preceded him, he found a new home in this country. But not even here was he destined to enjoy a peaceful existence. Having to work hard for a bare living, during the first two years he managed comfortably and well, being aided both morally and materially by the Hollands, the Dacres, and other distinguished friends and admirers of his talents. Later on, however, betrayed by his publishers, swindled by unworthy sycophants, crushed by his debts, his position became ever more desperate and miserable. He sold all that he possessed, even to his most precious books. Illness, poverty's ally, overtook him. And without ever having sung again from the hospitable shores of his exile, ever faithful to his ideals, to his own country, and to his art—having lived, in spite of his utter poverty, with all the dignity and pride of his rebellious nature, he died here in London in September 1827, and was buried in the shadows of the cypresses of the small burial-ground of Chiswick.

When, in 1871, his dream of the unity and independence of Italy, for which he had lived, fought, and sung, became an accomplished fact, the new Italian parliament proposed that his remains should be transferred to Florence. And thus Foscolo, one of the greatest lyric poets of Italian literature since the days of Petrarch, now rests in the glory of that very Santa Croce of Florence, to the cult of whose tombs, by means of his masterpiece, he had incited his contemporaries, those same Italians who were preparing the new political destiny of their country; and to this day his word is a clarion call to all Italians to turn to their Immortals for example and inspiration in their efforts to give their nation an ever higher spiritual unity, ever worthier of her poets.

If Shelley and Keats found the land of their lovely desire, of their dreams, and of their death in the Mediterranean peninsula, Foscolo, the most classical of the romantic poets of his time, succeeded in finding the truer ‘paradise of exiles’ on these most hospitable shores. It is a great destiny, which ought to make many modern politicians passionately meditate, that by which some of the highest representatives of Italian national genius should have found their second country in England, and that by which some of the noblest British spirits who ever lived should have discovered the perfect atmosphere of their nostalgic inspiration and visions under the azure and golden skies of Italy.


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Ugo Foscolo 1778-1827

(Born Niccolò Foscolo; also wrote under the pseudonym of Didimo Chierico) Greek-born Italian poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and playwright. For additional information on Foscolo's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 8.

Ugo Foscolo was a passionately idealistic writer whose works helped give rise to the Romantic period in Italian literature. Born of an Italian father and Greek mother, his verses and prose speak clearly of his longing for an Italy united and free from foreign rule and of his love for Hellenic mythology and feminine beauty. Foscolo's literary output was far from prodigious, due to a combination of his itinerate life and his penchant for constantly rewriting the works he did compose, which resulted in more literary fragments than complete publications. Nevertheless, the combination of modern and classical elements in his verse represents a transitional point in Italian literature, and his epistolary novel, Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1802), is credited by some scholars as marking the beginning of the novel as an art form in Italy.

Biographical Information

Born February 6, 1778, on the island of Zante in Greece, Foscolo was the son of an Italian doctor named Andrea Foscolo and a Greek mother named Diamantina Spathis. From an early age, Foscolo had a highly developed sense of justice, which he held onto throughout his life; circumstances beyond his control, however, slowly tainted his beliefs with cynicism. After his father became ill and died in 1788, financial problems forced Foscolo's family to leave Zante for Venice. This would mark the beginning of a life spent in fruitless pursuit of a permanent home. In Venice, Foscolo escaped the poverty of his home life by studying. Readily fluent in Greek, Italian, and Latin, he absorbed books at the Library of Saint Mark. By his teenage years he was writing poetry and impressing the Italian elite at the local salons; at the age of eighteen, his play Tieste (1797) became a successful production at the Sant'Angelo Theater.

By this time, Napoleon Bonaparte's armies had entered Italy. Foscolo, always the idealist, at first embraced the invasion and wrote his ode Bonaparte liberatore (1797) in honor of Napoleon and the French call for “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.” Foscolo felt betrayed, however, when Napoleon handed Venice over to the Austrians. To avoid persecution by Venice's new rulers, he moved to Milan, where he wrote “Laura, Letters.” A prose work inspired by his love for Isabella Teotochi, “Laura” would evolve into his 1802 novel, Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis.

Foscolo served as a soldier in the National Guard of Bologna from 1799 to 1800 and defended the city of Genoa from the British. He also served in Napoleon's army from 1804 to 1806. After resigning his officer's commission, he returned to Italy and wrote his most famous poem, I sepolcri or The Sepulchres (1807). This work earned him a position as Professor of Italian Eloquence at the University of Pavia in 1808. However, Foscolo's willingness to express his strong opinions against authority led to the loss of this position when Napoleon eliminated the eloquence position from all Italian universities.

The next years were marked by more transitions as Foscolo moved to Milan, then to Florence, then back to Milan. After the Napoleonic Empire fell in 1814, Foscolo refused to swear allegiance to the Austrians and instead moved to Switzerland for two years. Before leaving Switzerland in 1816, he published what is considered the definitive version of Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis and then moved to England. In England, Foscolo was greeted warmly by the local literati and became reacquainted with his daughter, Floriana, in 1822. Floriana was the daughter of an Englishwoman named Sophia Hamilton whom the poet had met in France while serving in Napoleon's army.

Although Foscolo still worked on his verses, such as the never-completed Le grazie, carme or The Graces (1848), most of his work while in England was limited to essays, many of which were published in The Edinburgh Review. Some of these essays are credited with renewing British interest in Dante. He also worked with John Hobhouse on “An Essay on the Present Literature of Italy,” (1818) which was part of the historical illustrations that accompanied the fourth canto of Lord Byron's Childe Harold.

With his desire to live an upper-class lifestyle, but without the financial means to do so, Foscolo fell into poverty and spent his final years living under assumed names to avoid creditors. He died in England, penniless, on September 10, 1827. However, in 1871, when Foscolo's dream of a united Italy became a reality at last, his body was exhumed and, amid much fanfare, reburied at Santa Croce in Florence, the site that was the subject of I sepolcri. His life of wandering finally at an end, he remains in Florence where he rests with such other luminaries as Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli.

Major Works

Foscolo was versatile in his writing, successfully composing everything from plays to poems to essays and a novel. He was not extremely prolific, however, and of his more major works two clearly stand out as his greatest literary accomplishments, the poem I sepolcri and the epistolary novel Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis. The inspiration for I sepolcri came to Foscolo when he heard about the French edict to have all distinguishing features removed from graves in Italy. The graveyard theme was also inspired by such poets as Thomas Gray, whose verses were well known to Foscolo. The poem, which contains 295 lines of blank verse, exhorts the reader to remember the heroes of the past, while it also calls up mythological figures in a way that illustrates Foscolo's facility with blending mythic and historic elements seamlessly.

His novel, The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, is loosely based on Foscolo's own life. The title character feels betrayed both in love and politics, as he bemoans the Treaty of Campoformio, which handed Venice to the Austrians, and his desperate love for Teresa, who likely represents Foscolo's love for Isabella Roncioni. At the novel's end, Jacopo commits suicide, an act that has special significance to Foscolo because two of his brothers killed themselves. The themes that pervade the novel have clear parallels with Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, a novel that, in fact, had been translated by Foscolo's lover, the Countess Antonietta Fagnani Arese, at the time he was reworking his final draft. However, scholars generally agree that the book is more reflective of Foscolo's personal life and not a mere reinterpretation of Goethe. The novel was a success for Foscolo, who, nevertheless, later admitted to being somewhat embarrassed by the emotionally revealing work.

Besides these two works, other significant works by Foscolo include his unfinished poem Le grazie, carme (The Graces), his plays Tieste,Aiace (1811), and Ricciarda (1811), his essays, and his translation of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1813).

Critical Reception

Today, critics generally agree that I sepolcri is Foscolo's masterpiece. With its timeless themes of the importance of art and remembering the past, the poem strikes a chord even with modern readers. Its technical achievement and lyrical appeal is undeniable, and its place among the most significant poetic works of its time is assured. The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, on the other hand, while widely acclaimed when it was first published, has fallen out of critical favor. This is partly due to the fact that it has so many similarities to Goethe's Werther, which is considered to be the more accomplished of the two.

Douglas Radcliff-Umstead (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: “Creator of Poetic Myths,” in Ugo Foscolo, Twayne Publishers, 1970, pp. 107-24.

[In the following essay, Radcliff-Umstead traces the various evolutionary stages of Foscolo's unfinished poem The Graces, and discusses how the fragments illustrate the poet's views on artistic expression and contemporary events and figures, as well as how it fuses modern and mythic elements.]

After completing Of Tombs, Foscolo considered composing several ambitious verse projects. A letter to Monti of December 12, 1808, lists the subjects of his proposed series of Italian hymns. In a poem to be entitled Alceus (Alceo), he intended to trace the history of Italian literature since the fall of the Byzantine Empire; a fragment of this work became the Hymn to the Ship of the Muses. Nothing remains of the projected composition “To the Eponian Goddess,” where Foscolo planned to celebrate the glory of equestrian arts in time of war and peace. The author sketched a detailed prose summary for another projected work, “To the Ocean,” on maritime enterprises and mercantile exploits; unfortunately, he never made a verse transcription. Inspired by Gray's Hymn to Adversity, the Italian author also wished to write a poem called To the Goddess Misfortune, which was to stress the value of adverse fortune and the heavenly virtue of compassion. All of these compositions were to be in blank verse. In addition, Foscolo had designed a complex hymn to Pindar, to be versified in rhymed Greek strophes and antistrophes. But of all the projects mentioned in the Monti letter, the only one which was realized in great part (though not fully) was a poem to The Graces, where Foscolo hoped to canonize metaphysical ideas on true Beauty. His sensitive and meticulous method of versifying made rapid progress on any project quite impossible. Eventually scattered fragments from the abandoned compositions were incorporated into The Graces.

This episodic poem exemplifies Foscolo's quest for an ever elusive sense of Harmony. Since the Graces were among the lesser divinities whose cult appeared only late in antiquity, the poet felt free of any fixed tradition, so that he could animate those mythic figures with his own sentiments. He envisioned the three goddesses as kindly mediators between troubled mankind and the all-powerful deities of Olympus. The theme of the Graces, inspirers of hospitality and the fine arts, had occurred first in Foscolo's adolescent verses. Later the opening lines of the ode to Luigia Pallavicini referred to the three gentle goddesses as the solicitous hand-maidens of Venus; and in the poem to Antonietta Arese the author begged the Graces to withdraw their smiling glance from anyone who would disturb his beloved's serenity with dreadful thoughts of fleeting beauty and death. In the letter of May 15, 1798 in Last Letters; the hero reflects how the ancients used to entreat the Graces to compensate for mortal imperfections. Throughout his life the poet saw the Graces as the mythical embodiment of man's noblest and most civilized aspirations.

Foscolo never succeeded in bringing his poem to a definitive stage. Despite his careful labor on its various sections and the numerous prose summaries which he wrote to elucidate the work's allegorical implications, he was unable to find the ideal modality that would have permitted him to finish the poem. Under the guise of a translation from an ancient Greek hymn, Foscolo had first inserted sixty-seven verses into his commentary to Berenice's Lock (1803) with the subject matter of the Graces. Ten years later he received official approval to publish the Rite of the Graces, which commemorates the military prowess of the Italian viceroy and the conjugal devotion of his wife, Amalia Augusta. Then, during the period of his exile, a few passages of the poem were printed in the Biblioteca Italiana of 1818. The most significant publication in the author's lifetime was the dissertation On an Ancient Hymn to the Graces (1822), which appeared in the text, Outline engravings and descriptions of the Woburn Abbey marbles. This dissertation, which explains in great detail the allegory of the major sections in the poem, was occasioned by the replica of Canova's statue group, “The Three Graces,” in the collection of the Duke of Bedford. After Foscolo's death, Quirina Magiotti attempted in vain to piece together the poem in its entirety, working from the author's manuscripts. Finally in 1848 the critic Orlandini, after years of labor, published The Graces as a supposedly integral work without lacunae. For over thirty years Orlandini's arbitrary reconstruction was accepted as corresponding to the poet's original intentions. But in the late nineteenth century, serious methodical examination of the variant poetic manuscripts and prose summaries proved how distorted and abortive had been Orlandini's version of fifteen hundred lines. Even today, the task of producing a critical edition of The Graces remains problematic.1

From his letters and summaries it is obvious that Foscolo first conceived of a single hymn to the beneficent influence of the Graces on human life. While working on the poem at Bellosguardo, the author decided to extend the composition to three hymns; one for each of the lovely ladies who were to figure as priestesses of the fine arts: Eleonora Nencini for music, Cornelia Martinetti for eloquence, and Madalena Bignami for the dance. Shortly afterward he modified the general design so that according to the final division there are three hymns each named for a major Olympian deity: Venus (celestial Beauty), Vesta (virginal Virtue), and Pallas (heavenly Wisdom). The three priestesses all appear in the second hymn. One structural feature is prominent throughout the various reworkings: a desire for architectonic symmetry based on the number three. Groupings in three prevail throughout the poem. The Graces are of course a pagan triad: Aglaia (Brilliance), Euphrosyne (Joy), and Thalia (Bloom). It is the function of the Graces to dispense the three heavenly gifts of beauty, virtue, and wisdom to deserving mortals. Foscolo also meant for his work to be interpreted on three levels—poetic, historical, and metaphysical. Poetically, the composition reveals how the Graces intercede on humanity's behalf before the gods of Olympus. Historically, the poem is to narrate the transfer of civilizing arts from Greece to Renaissance Italy. On a metaphysical level, grace appears as a delicate harmony which arises from beauty of body, goodness of soul, and depth of intelligence. The poet's faith in the moral perfectibility of mankind determines the allegorical system of the three hymns.

As a protasis to the whole poem, Foscolo placed nine verses in rhyming tercet groups; the first line is a septenary while the following two are hendecasyllables. Otherwise, the entire composition is in hendecasyllabic blank verse. In the protasis the author consecrates to the Graces an altar in his villa at Bellosguardo. The first hymn opens with an invocation to the three charming goddesses, whose aid the poet requests. Then the author invites Canova—sculptor of the Graces and inspirer of the poem—to come and worship at the hillside shrine. All at once, without transition, there is a temporal switch to the imperfect tense, which re-creates a fabled age of savage passions when cannibals roamed the untamed forests of prehistoric Greece. At that time the Graces had not yet arrived to refine the fierce instincts of the earth's earliest inhabitants and to introduce agriculture. One day, however, Venus—the sovereign force behind Nature's perennial fertility—looked with compassion upon the world's barbarian races and resolved to call forth her daughters the Graces from their birthplace in the Ionian Sea. Foscolo departed from the standard mythic identification of Eurynone (daughter of Oceanus) as the mother of the three divinities. The thought that Venus and the Graces were born in the depths of Grecian seas fills the poet with pride because of his own birth on Zante, and he breaks the narrative in eighteen ardent verses which evoke his homeland. Unlike the sonnet to Zante and the strophe in his second ode that speaks of the island, here focus is one of exterior admiration of the isle's woods, serene skies, and sacred temples. Originally these verses, with their religious intensity, were to appear in the hymn Alceus, but in their new context they add a picturesque quality to the tale.

A vividly animated scene resumes the narrative thread as Venus and the Graces sail atop a seashell to the shore where an infinite number of Nereids rush forth to pay homage to the supreme ethereal goddess and her divine daughters by Jove. To reproduce mimetically the excitement of the Nereids in the presence of the deity, Foscolo experiments with the rhythm by employing limping sdrucciolo lines of twelve syllables. He also introduces a simile (a rare image in his other poetic compositions) which compares the joyful commotion of the sea-nymphs as they crowd around the divinity to the buzzing of bees about springtime flowers full of nectar. Although the author had sources in the Iliad, Aeneid, and especially Catullus' Marriage of Peleus and Thetis, the imagery of the Nereid verses displays a voluptuous exultation which expresses Foscolo's personal participation in the delighted excitement of the sea-nymphs.

Suddenly violets, emblematic of feminine modesty, sprout at the foot of a cypress tree, while red roses turn to white in order to symbolize the purity and innocence of the Graces. These three goddesses immediately assume their duties as handmaidens to their mother and garb her in a sacred robe, which the poet designates with the archaic term peplo so as to summon forth an ancient ritualistic ceremony of devotion to the Olympian personification of Beauty. Now that Venus is about to begin a triumphal journey across the wildlands of the Laconian peninsula, two hinds voluntarily leave the service of the huntress Diana and submit to the gentle Cytherean goddess by drawing her chariot. Iris (the rainbow) serves as charioteer for the procession through the savage landscape which leads to the dark forest of the Laconian isthmus. When ferocious warriors prepare to attack the cortege, Venus solemnly decrees that the land be submerged along with its brutal inhabitants. An atmosphere of marvel hovers over the author's representation of primeval Hellas.

At this point, the text becomes a chaotic succession of variant passages, digressions, and partially completed verses. The poet interrupts the narration of the goddess's cortege to sketch an historical picture of the internecine violence in the world before the coming of the Graces. In describing the Hellenic landscape he relies heavily on ancient place names so as to evoke a remote prehistoric age. During that uncivilized period, Amor, Venus' impulsive son, reigned supreme with his three assistants—Fear, Envy, and Boredom. The author prophesies that Amor will briefly agree to a truce with his chaste sisters the Graces in order for the aboriginal races to learn the rudiments of agriculture. A peaceful reign of legal and religious institutions and Spartan discipline will thrive until Amor grows envious of Hymen (god of weddings) and brings about the Trojan War. Throughout these rather confusing passages, Foscolo borrows frequently from his translation of Book II in the Iliad.

Once again the narrative returns to the divine procession. Upon the pinnacle of Mount Ida, Venus bids farewell to her daughters since she must assume her place among the gods in Olympus. The deity explains that the sublime task of the Graces is to remain on earth and placate the wrath of Olympian divinities toward sinful mortals. Those three sisters are to console the world's neglected poets, enlightened rulers, tender mothers, faithful maidens, and patriotic youths. Then in the rose-golden light of the dawn Venus ascends to the celestial spheres while throughout the universe there resounds a wondrous harmony which gives birth to painting, architecture, and sculpture. This first hymn closes with an epilogue where Foscolo relates how the Graces have had to flee Greece and seek asylum in Italy. In his own day their cult is almost forgotten, but the poet vows that his sylvan temple at Bellosguardo will be forever dedicated to their civilizing mission. Foscolo has recaptured in the opening hymn all the vigor and harshness of a primitive myth.

Neopagan ritualism characterizes the second hymn with its setting in contemporary Italy. The author summons to the altar of the Graces the three fairest ladies of the country: Nencini from Florence, Martinetti from Bologna, and Bignami from Milan. This hymn celebrates those beautiful women whose graciousness awakens in the hearts of men an appreciation for the fine arts. About these charming ladies the poet imagines he has gathered maidens and youths to participate in the sacraments of the Graces. These maidens bear roses, doves, and three chalices of the whitest milk as their chaste offerings before the altar. A hushed silence falls over the worshipers when Eleonora Nencini, in her role as priestess of music, plays a harp. Here the language recalls the ode to Antonietta Arese; even the archaic word, bisso, is employed again. Musical fervor and refined sensuality are simultaneously linked in the harp-playing sequence. The melody which soars from the chords of the instrument produces a series of harmonious visions, such as Socrates listening enraptured to the song of the hetaira Aspasia along the shores of the Ilissus. From his ecstatic absorption in the music the Grecian philosopher came to view man's fate as a frenetic pursuit of capricious Fortune that exalts individuals only to debase them later; virtue, as inspired by harmony of soul, provides the one protection and solace for mankind's sufferings. After the harp's concord fades away, Foscolo entreats the youthful throng to express their admiration for the Florentine priestess by fetching alabaster vases to water the multicolored flowers which she has planted on the slopes of Bellosguardo and in the gardens of her own villa.

Part II of the second hymn is by far the most unsuccessful section in the entire poem. As her sacrifice to the Graces, Cornelia Martinetti places on the altar a honeycomb which represents the gift of poetry that Italy received from ancient Greece. Bees since ancient times have been associated with eloquence. Foscolo alludes to the myth of the bees that nurtured the infant Jove in a Cretan cavern; later the supreme god made the bees immortal and consecrated them to Vesta.2 The divine sweetness of their honey symbolizes the poetic eloquence which the Graces transported to the Italian peninsula to produce first the glory of Latin letters and then the splendor of the Renaissance. A lengthy and tedious literary history follows (doubtlessly derived from the abandoned Alceus), which prosaically details how Mars expelled the eloquent bees of Phoebus from Constantinople and drove them to the humanistic centers of Italy. Some of the bees alighted by the Po and inspired such poets as Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso in their attempts to write chivalric epics. Foscolo's fragile survey of the transition from Greek to Latin literature also relates how the arrival of angelic bees in Tuscany had made possible the arising of a rhymed poetic tradition in the vernacular with Dante and Petrarch. This schematic résumé comes to life only in the passage which recaptures the charm of the valley of the ladies from Boccaccio's Decameron. Rather comically, Foscolo pictures the Boccaccian character Dioneo in lustful pursuit of the lovely Fiammetta. In his desire to seduce the maiden, Dioneo drives guardian doves away from the entrance to a grotto where he surprises a nymph who has surrendered to the enticements of a faun. This lascivious youth, who figures as the king of the Decameron's seventh day with its salacious tales, represented for Foscolo the exact opposite of the chaste virtues which the Graces incarnated. He sincerely felt that the Decameron was not proper reading material for innocent young ladies. After the evocation of Boccaccio's work, the second section concludes with the formal dedication of the honeycomb and Cornelia Martinetti's prayer for the gods to grant continued eloquence in speech and literature. The inherent weakness of this literary history in verse is common to almost every effort at writing an ars poetica; it becomes an unhappy mixture of didacticism and criticism which smother the author's genuine poetic personality.

In the second hymn's final division Madalena Bignami arrives at the shrine to present a swan as a votive gift from the vice-regina of the Italian Kingdom. According to the poet's fiction, the vice-regina Amalia Augusta vowed that if her consort returned home safe from the Napoleonic Wars, she would express her gratitude to the Graces by offering up a swan from her Milanese palace. Just as a harp and bees served as symbols in the two preceding sections, here the swan is emblematic of supple grace and regal beauty. During the First Empire, all three symbols appeared as ornamentation on objects d'art and elegantly appointed furniture. The swan especially represented imperial pomp because of its association with Jove. Foscolo's source for the description of the swan's floating along the stream by the temple of the Graces is the Natural History of Georges Buffon (1707-88). Pictorially, a snowy whiteness suffuses the whole swan sequence: its white feathers are contrasted to Madalena's black tresses as the bird tenderly caresses the lady's neck; its chain is made of pearls; and the attendant maidens decorate the bird with lilies. The reminiscence to Leda and the swan are obvious except that here the swan's whiteness truly signifies purity and not the seductive disguise of a god.

Foscolo composed the third section of the second Hymn at the time when the Napoleonic regime in Italy was crumbling. As usual, the poet's admiration is for a fallen hero like Eugène de Beauharnais, who had valorously led the remnants of the Grande Armée across Poland and Prussia in the disastrous winter retreat from Moscow. Verses from Foscolo's drama, Ajax, are inserted here to draw a parallel between the viceroy and the ancient Greek warrior, both of whom displayed undaunted spirit in time of defeat. A heroic tone, recalling the final section in Of Tombs, prevails as the poet depicts the courage of Amalia Augusta in the absence of her husband. Her prayer to the gods to aid her husband in the Battle of Lützen (May 1, 1813) brings to mind Cassandra's lament in Of Tombs, with its noble resolve before inexorable fate. Foscolo's apotheosis of the regal couple may seem surprising on account of his anti-Napoleonic sentiments, but he recognized the bravery of the viceroy at Lützen when Beauharnais stood almost alone with his tattered troops before the united forces of the European coalition. The poet also esteemed Amalia Augusta as the mother of Italian sons and of three lovely daughters who were, in truth, majestic Graces.

Since Madalena Bignami is the priestess of the dance, the hymn to Vesta closes with an enchanting scene of a feminine body moving in harmonious rhythm:

Often for other ages, if the language
          of Italy is to run pure for our descendants, …
I shall attempt to portray in my verses the sacred
dancer, less fair when she sits,
less fair than you, o noble harpist;
less lovable than you when you speak,
o nurse of the bees. But if she dances,
Behold her! All the harmony of sound
emanates from her beautiful body, and from the smile
on her lips; and a move, an action, a charming gesture
sends forth unexpected loveliness to gazing onlookers.
And who can depict her? While I attentively fix my 
in order to portray her, look how she slips away from 
and the dance patterns that she slowly traces
very rapidly quicken, and she flies off
running across the flowers; I hardly see
her fleeting veil vanish in a white flash amidst the

Here is the elusive beauty which Foscolo hoped to immortalize in the plastic imagery of his poetry. These verses flow like the fast steps of the dance. Spiritual and physical motion are one as Madalena is the incarnation of Hebe, goddess of youth. Whereas Cornelia Martinetti is banally described as “a beautiful woman” and relegated to the background of the second division, here the poet tries to depict the lady of Milan in the plenitude of her charms. He deliberately placed Madalena third in a rank of honor among the priestesses, for during the chaotic months which marked the fall of Napoleonic Italy she signified for him physical beauty enhanced by personal misfortune. In the entire second hymn, Foscolo has presented idealized portraits of the three ladies whose individual loveliness inspired that fire of Vestal virtue which burns eternal in noble hearts.

Since the third hymn is to transport the reader to a mythic pre-Hellenic age, the author invokes three ancient poets—Amphion, Pindar, and Catullus—to assist him in adapting the eloquence of Greek and Latin letters to the Tuscan tradition. Although the actions of this hymn are to take place in an atemporal realm, Foscolo appeals to Clio, muse of history, to help him discern the truth hidden behind myth. In a simile, he compares the flight of the terrified Graces from the relentless persecution of their brother Amor to the dismay of turtledoves escaping in a forest from a rapacious owl. Fortunately Pallas-Minerva, the deity of arts which console life's afflictions, intervenes and promises the Graces a gift that will protect them from Amor's violent passions. Then Pallas' chariot, drawn by young lionesses, conveys the goddesses to a kingdom beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Foscolo refers here to the fabled lost island of Atlantis, which Plato first introduced in the Timaeus and the Critias. The ancients thought of Atlantis as an antediluvian paradise lost on account of man's greed for power. For Foscolo the legendary island seemed an ideal refuge from the oppressive atmosphere of a world caught up in revolutionary upheavals. The Italian poet relates how Pallas exiled the isle's original inhabitants to Asia because of their ingratitude toward the gods who had given them a land of perennial springtime and self-renewing harvests. Ever since that time, navigators have studied in vain their charts in an effort to locate Atlantis, which remains accessible only to the divinities of Olympus. The isle appears as an unattainable mirage, except in the imagination of a poet like Foscolo who possessed the magical ability to suggest the vast expanses of ocean and the rush of marine winds about the lost continent; among his contemporaries only Shelley, in works like Ode to the West Wind, revealed a similar lyrical sensitivity. On Foscolo's Atlantis dwell Pallas and the lesser feminine deities.

To fulfill her promise to the Graces, the goddess of wisdom orders the weaving of a mystic veil which will provide defense from Amor's assaults. Every detail of the labor on the veil follows a grouping by threes. First, three nude Hours draw thin the sun's rays to stretch the warp on the divine loom. Then the three Fates, whose normal duty is to spin the thread of human destiny, fill the shuttles with a diamondlike yarn that will last forever. After Iris descends with heaven's many colors, Flora (goddess of flowers) employs the infinite hues in her needlework. Meanwhile, Psyche, though silently pondering over the grief that her lover Amor brought her, attends to tightening the varicolored threads with a sewing comb. In order to inspire the goddesses in their tasks, three of the nine muses perform around the loom: Thalia plucks a harp, Terpsichore dances, and Erato sings. The muse's song takes up five symmetrically arranged strophes that begin with the verb mesci (mix in, add) as Erato encourages Flora to add differently colored threads to the veil.

Onto the veil are woven images of every sentiment that is sacred and worthwhile in life. Optimistic rose-colored threads depict Youth as a girl dancing gaily to a tune played by Time's lyre; Youth disappears over a slope from which no one returns as Old Age comes to steal her blonde tresses. Snowy-white threads picture a pair of turtledoves that stand for conjugal love threatened by the profane emotions which a nightingale symbolizes. Filial devotion is shown in laurel-hued threads that portray a triumphant soldier dreaming toward dawn of his parents and then experiencing compassion for his prisoners of war. On the right-hand border of the veil there appears in golden strokes an embroidered tableau of a banquet that celebrates gracious hospitality. The other border bears in cerulean threads the image of a young mother attending her ill son through the late hours of the night; this scene of maternal love is rendered all the more touching by the poet's prophecy that the child will survive his illness only to lead a troubled life. When Erato's song and Flora's needlework come to an end, Aurora garlands the veil with heavenly roses which are unknown to mortals. After Hebe annoints the veil with ambrosia (a typical Foscolian motif), it is made eternal. Although the veil is transparent, it will work like an invisible shield to safeguard the Graces from the unholy fire of Amor's passions. As an act of formal consecration Pallas herself garbs the goddesses in the magical cloak. Then a strange melody rings out:

And the veil of the Goddesses suddenly sends forth
a sound, like that of a faraway harp, flying
sweetly on the wings of Zephyrs …

(Hymn III, vv. 231-33)

Just as when the Bacchantes slew Orpheus, and the lyre of that primeval poet diffused an arcane harmony throughout the Ionian and Aegean seas; there vibrates from the veil an ethereal music that betokens peace in heart for anyone who worships the Graces. Precedent for the painterly verses of the veil-weaving episode exist in tableaux on the shields of Achilles and Hercules in Homer and Hesiod, the frescoes of Juno's temple in Carthage as described in Book I of the Aeneid, and the reliefs on the gates of Venus' palace in Politian's Stanzas for the Joust. The closest parallel is the embroidered representation of the tale of Theseus and Ariadne upon a nuptial couch in Catullus' Marriage of Peleus and Thetis. Foscolo surpasses all of his models by not presenting a static description but dynamically reproducing the mobile process of weaving pictures on the veil. Even with the structural grouping in threes, there is no monotony, as each figure among the weavers is individually characterized in her task. The allegory of the veil affirms the virtues which ennoble human actions.

Now that the Graces no longer have to fear their brother Amor, the poet prepares his envoi to the three gentle goddesses. He promises that, when April returns, the lovely priestesses will once again sacrifice at the verdant shrine. April is the month chosen for those rites since it is the anniversary both of Petrarch's first meeting with Laura and of the lady's death. The hymn closes with the poet's prayer imploring the Graces to console Madalena Bignami for the deaths in her family. A sepulchral theme returns momentarily as Foscolo imagines how one day the Milanese lady will mourn at his tomb if Fate does not decree burial in a foreign land for him; the mood of earlier poems like “To Zante” and Of Tombs is not altogether alien to The Graces. Briefly, the poet relives happier days in the past when Madalena took part in dances with country girls on the hillside of Brianza. But with a painful switch to the present tense, the lady is shown grieving silently by the moonlit shores of Lake Pusiano. Foscolo's final request is for the Graces to restore the smiling gleam to Madalena's eyes. Human pathos, then, is the last note in this celestial poem.

Is there a theme which lends unity to the fragmentary passages of the three hymns in The Graces? Above all, the poem is a culmination of Foscolo's lifelong desire to attain Harmony. Through Harmony, violent passions are subdued; and virtue triumphs. Without Harmony between body and soul, there can be no lasting beauty. As a result of the poet's longing to see Harmony realized on earth, The Graces becomes a paean to music. The first hymn opens with the present participle, cantando (singing), and the third ends with the elegiac song of a nightingale that laments along with Madalena Bignami. All through the poem various forms of the word for “song” (canto) appear frequently; other common musical terms are armonia, melodia, suono, coro, voce, note, and concento. The verb udire (to listen) appears prominently to indicate enthralled attention. Music functions as a major motif in the hymns since it is the most sublime manifestation of Harmony.

This preoccupation with musical harmony makes of the poem almost a symphonically orchestrated work. References to musical instruments like the harp, harpsichord, lyre, zither, and flute abound. For the poet, a musical instrument served to unlock a mysterious drama. The episode of the “solitary maiden” (Vergine romita), which occurs after Venus' departure for Olympus toward the end of the first hymn, illustrates music's magical power to stir human emotions. As the solitary maiden sits in her cloistered study, she ecstatically contemplates the vast expanses of the heavens. All at once, the divine spirit of Venus penetrates the girl's heart and takes expression in the fluid movement of her fingers across the keyboard of a harpsichord. As the tender modulations of the ivory keys begin to soar through the stellar silence of the skies, poignant memories of love cause the maiden's hands to move more slowly, so that the melody sweetly vibrates across the stillness of the night. What Foscolo has composed in this episode is a verse nocturne. The story of the solitary maiden also demonstrates how Foscolo's love of music did not reside solely in pure sound devoid of human implications.

The poet recognized in music the metaphysical principle which held the universe together. Nature for him depended on the harmonious reconciliation of opposing forces. The sound that flows from the chords of Eleonora Nencini's harp is a brilliant affirmation of the harmony which resolves dissonances:

Already with her foot, her fingers and wandering
          inspiration, and with her eyes intent on the strings;
          impassioned she hastens the notes
          which picture how Harmony gave motion
          to the stars, the ethereal wave, and the earth
          floating on the ocean; and how it broke
          uniform creation into a thousand kinds
          with light and shade and joined them again into one,
          and gave sounds to the air, and colors to the sun,
          and changing yet continuous course
          to restless fortune and time;
          so that dissonant things may together
          give out a concert of divine Harmony
          and exalt minds beyond the earth.

(Hymn II, vv. 102-20)

          In such a guise the harp's song wanders
          through our vale; and while the player
          rests, the hills are still listening.

(Hymn II, vv. 133-35)

Form and meaning fuse here in the forward flight of images that express awe and gather toward a concentration of effect built on a series of oxymoronic antitheses. Although time and fortune work for mutability, Harmony produces a continuity of physical events. Foscolo has returned to the Pythagorean concept of musical harmony to determine how variety and uniformity are both necessary to sustain a cosmic rhythm. While Eleonora plays the harp, the surrounding Tuscan landscape resounds with a corresponding melody. Those who listen spellbound to the concert participate in a transcendental experience.

In his attempt at a full orchestration of musical effects, the author fully utilized the auditory elements of his poetic language. Imagery arises through the absolute enchantment of sound. Alliteration and assonance are common devices, as in these lines that relate the arrival of the Fates garbed in regal purple and garlanded with oak leaves:

Venner le Parche di purpurei pepli
Velate e il crin di quercia …

(Hymn III, vv. 129-30)

Violinlike v's join with the piercingly explosive p's and mournful u's to accentuate the supreme authority of the three divinities who determine the duration of mortal existence. Although Foscolo wrote The Graces in blank verse, occasional final rhyme occurs as an emphatic repetition. Still more effective are the sonorous internal rhymes which can reproduce a wide range of tonalities. The echolike reverberations of internal rhyme are illustrated by a passage which evokes Echo's plaint for her disdainful lover Narcissus:

… invisibil Ninfa,
          che ognor delusa d'amorosa speme,
          pur geme per le quete aure diffusa,
          e il suo altero nemico ama e richiama.

(Hymn II, vv. 272-75)

Foscolo here mimes the wistful moans of the unfortunate nymph who was transformed into a rock. At times the auditory elements can work with visual and olfactory sensations to recreate a synaesthetic experience, as when a traveler (Hymn II, vv. 142-47) enters a brightly lit Florentine theater and is taken up in a voluptuous transport caused by the song of a soprano on stage and the fragrance of the perfumed ladies in the audience. Foscolo's experiments with musicality greatly anticipate the modernist use of musical analogies.3

In addition to music, this poem also celebrates the visual arts. Its dedication to Canova is much more than a friendly gesture, for many of the themes which Foscolo treats here also figure in the productions of the leading artists of the Napoleonic era. The statues of Canova and the paintings of Andrea Appiani also include versions of the Graces, Psyche, Hebe, Cupid, and the Muses. Because of his predilection for flowing rhythm, Canova often portrayed dancers. Foscolo shared the admiration of his contemporaries for Canova as the greatest Italian sculptor since Michelangelo; he saw beneath the superficial elegance of the statues the very soul of feminine life. Even those pieces which, to twentieth-century critics appear mannered and frigid copies of statuary from Pompei and Herculaneum, possessed for Foscolo a palpitating immobility that belonged to Olympian divinities. According to the poet, the creation of a nude statue resulted from the sublimation of an original erotic impulse. In the final section of the first hymn he explains the creative process:

you who first imaged your lady
in marble: Love first fired
your heart with the desire to see
her beauty unveiled and profaned
in the eyes of men. But the Graces came
to you and by coming diffused
such loveliness in her face and charm
through her body, that with a gentle harmony
they inspired tender affections
for the naked girl; and thus you worshiped
in marble not your beloved but the goddess Venus.

(Hymn I, vv. 354-64)

For Foscolo, art involved ascending to the ideal from the particular; his odes had effected a similar transfiguration of beautiful women into goddesses. In the poet's opinion, Canova had discovered the sensual but then aspired to the spiritual. The chaste nudity in Canova's versions of the Graces was an emblem of naive pagan modesty, while the affectionate embrace of the goddesses remained touchingly human.

Since the author believed in the primacy of poetry over the figurative arts, he intended to provide in his composition new subject matter for painters and sculptors. He sincerely felt that artists had to depend on writers for inspirations:

I scorn the verse that sounds and does not create;
Because Phoebus told me: I first
guided Phidias and Apelles with my lyre.

(Hymn I, vv. 25-27)

For Foscolo, poetry invents, whereas painting and sculpture merely copy and embellish the images first fashioned in fables. In his judgment, neither Canova nor Appiani would have risen above careers as slavish portraitists had it not been for the mythological subject matter of their major works. Obviously, Foscolo's esthetic theories were not free of the ancient prejudice favoring literature over the other arts. Sculpture and painting were for him supremely imitative arts.

What Foscolo sought to create in his own works was not empty resounding verse but a form of poetry which would blend music and painting in vivid images. At the very start of the first hymn he makes this request of the Graces: “I beg of you the arcane / harmonious pictorial melody / of your beauty …” (vv. 4-6). The poet should be a painter and sculptor in musical verse; his task is not to describe but to stir the reader's imagination with a rapid series of pictorial impressions. Foscolo attempted to avoid the picturesque piling-up of descriptive elements. His evocation of Florence in the second hymn typified the painterly harmony of the style:

here Galileo used to sit and spy out the star
of their queen; and the distant water would distract
with its nocturnal sound while it flew from
his gaze, furtive and silvery,
under the poplars on the banks of the Arno.
Here the dawn, the moon, and the sun displayed
for him, by rivaling each other's hues, now the severe
clouds sitting on the blue mountains,
now the plain which flees to the Tyrrhenian
Nereids, an immense scene of cities and forests
and temples and happy plowmen,
now a hundred hills, with which the Apennines
crown with olive trees and caves and marble villas
the elegant city, where with Flora
the Graces have garlands and a delightful language.

(Hymn II, vv. 12-26)

The scene opens with Galileo studying the star of Venus (queen of the Graces), but astronomy immediately gives way to the enchantment of the Tuscan landscape as viewed from a hillside villa. Through the audible flow of the Arno the observer's vision is carried along an everexpanding panoramic journey. Whereas Foscolo's sonnets are noticeably lacking in adjectives of color, here the fullness of ecstatic contemplation is clearly indicated by the vying play of colors at the hour of morning when the moon grows pale as the sun's first rays shine over the mist-capped mountains. The poet still sees the scene as charged with the presence of mythic creatures, for the Tyrrhenian Sea is designated as the dwelling place of Nereids. Not once does the poet attempt to describe the city of Florence, which in an early sonnet appeared as the austere background for a love affair and in Of Tombs figured as the repository of former Italian greatness. Foscolo merely indicates Florence by a periphrasis as the city of flowers and elegant speech. He melodiously reveals the setting as if he were viewing it from an astral height. His concept of poetry as musically plastic vision never lapses into a mechanical formula but results spontaneously from the author's enraptured contemplation of Nature.

Because of the supreme role which music and the visual arts play in The Graces, it is easy to overlook the poem's patriotic fervor. The theme of the afflicted fatherland pervades the composition but never with the dramatic urgency which characterizes Of Tombs. Through the cult of the Graces, Foscolo hoped to inspire love of country. Their altar at Bellosguardo figures as a symbol of Italian unity to which priestesses from three different regions come to appeal for the consolation of the peaceful goddesses during the warlike times. Since the poet completed the longest sustained passages of the hymns in 1813 and 1814—the period of Napoleon's Russian retreat and its catastrophic aftermath—he often pauses in the work to consider the pitiless spectacle of war: conscription of Italian youths into the ill-fated Grande Armée, the bones of fallen soldiers scattered across the countryside, the savage descent of invading forces. Usually, the author's sorrow is attenuated by a mytho-poetic process which distances a scene of contemporary tragedy to the remote past: Russia, for instance, is consistently called Scizia (Scythia), so that the horrible events of the Russian campaign seem to have occurred thousands of years before. Only once does the poem rise to a level of bitter antirevolutionary and anti-Napoleonic invective. In the third hymn the discussion of Atlantis' belligerent inhabitants turns into a scathing condemnation of the foreign tyrants who have perverted the name of divine liberty to enslave innocent nations; those despots are contrasted in typical Alfierian fashion to the “magnanimous heroes” who fight to defend the civilized institutions of laws and religion. Ordinarily, however, Foscolo's final poetic composition expresses melancholy lament rather than wrathful protest.

Perhaps the most unique feature of this work is the effortless fusion of modern and mythic ages. Foscolo here exemplifies the intense yearning of the Napoleonic generation toward a rebirth of pagan splendor. The rhetoric and life-style of the neoclassical era were deliberately Greco-Roman. Napoleon seemed to be the reincarnation of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. In its clothes fashions and interior design, the First Empire attempted to revive antiquity, carefully copying the relics of Pompei and Herculaneum. Articles of furniture bore images of gods and goddesses; even clocks were decorated with little Graces or Cupids. Mirrors were actually called “Psyche.” Sensitive young ladies used to keep statuettes of Venus in their private chambers, as Foscolo himself mentions in the ode to Antonietta Arese. The Graces, then, does reflect the tastes of the era in which it was written. What raises the poem above contemporary chic is the author's ardent penetration of the mythological world in its most profoundly human implications. He reweaves ancient fables to discover an eternal truth, as in his reworking of the myth of Tiresias. Foscolo relates in the third hymn how the young hunter Tiresias surprised Pallas bathing. The gods punished the youth's impudent gaze by striking him blind for life. Not only does the Italian poet surpass in artistry his ancient source in Callimachus' Hymn to Pallas, with the portrayal of the naked goddess's rose-colored flesh and auburn hair as well as the hunter's free life in nature, but he also creates an allegory that there can be no direct and unobstructed vision of divine mysteries. Man may view celestial beauty only through the veil of tears. Human dimensions heighten Foscolo's novel interpretation of myths.4

Classicism in the three hymns is not ornament but religious sentiment expressed in ritualistic language. There exists no precedents for The Graces in Italian literature except The Globe of Venus by abbé Antonio Conti (1677-1749), a theorist on esthetics who attempted a blank-verse allegory on the arts. Foscolo's positive paganism seems on first examination to anticipate the poetry of the French Parnassian movement and the Italian Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907) during the second half of the nineteenth century. Like the Parnassians, Foscolo worshiped the serenity and discipline of Hellenic art, but he never felt that he had to resurrect Hellas in archaeological details. By contrast, the leading Parnassian Leconte de Lisle (1818-94) scrupulously employed original Grecian names of gods while Foscolo was content to use the common Latin names. The Parnassians were escapists from the drab materialistic world of the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism, seeking refuge in the dream of a lost Hellenic springtime or in violent tales of barbarian races. Foscolo, however, lived during a heroic age which—though at times it might have seemed prosaic—consciously assumed the attributes of ancient grandeur. Exoticism is completely alien to his poetry while it characterizes the work of the Parnassians with their evocations of Indian, Egyptian, Scandinavian, and Celtic legends. In the first hymn of The Graces, Foscolo angrily denounced the romantic cult of Nordic myths which he judged a menace to the Mediterranean tradition. Borrowing from Conti's Reflections on the Northern Lights, he imagined a Nordic Fury arising out of Iceland in a monstrous apparition of the aurora borealis to chase away Italy's charming pagan dryads and sylvan deities with nightmarish chimaeras. The gods of classical antiquity were familiar figures to Foscolo, and he thus rejected the exotic vogue for Germanic myths. His fondness for the classical did not involve either the opulent sensuality or the impersonal use of myths that were to distinguish the Parnassian movement.

Few poems could be as intimately personal and at the same time universal as this one. All that the author held dear has its place in the composition: his native isle, the Italian cities where he learned to adore feminine beauty, the persons who merited his affection, the ancient and modern authors who offered him models of excellence. And yet the three hymns present a sweeping panorama of human history from prehistoric barbarism to the waning of the Napoleonic era and then beyond to a translucent world of illusions. Although Foscolo never summoned forth that state of creative concentration which would have brought the poem to formal completion, an organic unity still exists in the musical-visual Harmony that pervades the apparently isolated fragments. Except where didacticism stifles lyrical impulse, the composition is superior to its structural defects. The author's longing to transcend the desires and fears of his generation and arrive at an experience of Harmony precludes a rigid and consistent pattern for the work. With its alternating tones of mythology and religious striving toward the eternal, The Graces represents the natural conclusion to Foscolo's poetic career.5


  1. Giuseppe Chiarini deserves credit for the first genuine critical edition (Livorno, 1904) of the fragments in The Graces. We have followed Luigi Russo's edition in Ugo Foscolo, Prose e Poesie (Florence, 1963), pp. 160-262.

  2. Sources for the myth of the bees are in the Iliad, The Works and the Days, and especially the Georgics. See Rosa Lida de Malkiel, “La Abeja: historia de un motivo poetico,” RP, XVII, No. 1 (August 1963), 75-86.

  3. Fubini, [Ugo Foscolo Saggio Critico (Florence, 1962)] pp. 243-44; and Francesco Flora, Foscolo (Milan, 1940), p. 124, examine the musicality of the poem.

  4. The reflection of neoclassical tastes in The Graces is studied by Mario Praz, Gusto Neoclassico (Naples, 1959), pp. 243-66 and 367-88.

  5. Assertions about the underlying unity of inspiration are made by Caraccio, pp. 467-577; and Sante Marotta, Nuovo Studio sulle ‘Grazie’ di Ugo Foscolo (Padua, 1963), passim.

Principal Works

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Tieste (drama) 1797

Bonaparte liberatore (poetry) 1797

Orazione a Bonaparte pel Congresso di Lione (lecture) 1802

Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (novel) 1802; revised as Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, 1816 and The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, 1818

La chioma di Berenice [translator; from The Locks of Berenice by Callimachus] (poetry) 1803

*Poesie (poetry) 1803

Esperimento di traduzione della “Illiade” di Omero [translator; from The Iliad by Homer] (poetry) 1807

I sepolcri [The Sepulchres, 1820?] (poetry) 1807; published as On Sepulchres: An Ode to Ippolito Pindemonte, 1971

Dell'origine e dell'ufficio della letteratura (lecture) 1809

Aiace (drama) 1811

Ricciarda [Ricciarda, 1823] (drama) 1811

Viaggo sentimentale di Yorick Iungo la Francia e l'Italia [translator as Didimo Chierico; from A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne] (novel) 1813

Lettere scritte dall'Inghilterra [also known as Gazzettino del bel mundo] (travel essay) 1818

“An Essay on the Present Literature of Italy” [with John Cam Hobhouse] (essay) 1818; published in Historical Illustrations of the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold

Essays on Petrarch (essays) 1821

“Discorso storico sul testo del Decamerone” (essay) 1825; published in Decamerone

Discorso sul testo e su le opinioni diverse prevalenti intorno alla storio e alla emendazione critica della “Commedia” di Dante (essay) 1825

†“On the New Dramatic School in Italy” (essay) 1826?

Le grazie, carme [The Graces] (poetry) 1848

Opere edite e posthume di Ugo Foscolo. 12 vols. (poetry, novel, essays, and letters) 1850-90

Edizione nationale delle opere di Ugo Foscolo. 21 vols. to date (poetry, novel, essays, and letters) 1933-

The J. C. Translations of Poems by Ugo Foscolo (poetry) 1963

*Many of the poems in this work were originally published in the journal Nuovo giornale de' letteratti in 1802.

†Although most critics believe that Foscolo wrote this essay in 1826, they are unable to establish when or where it was first published.

Glauco Cambon (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: “Ugo Foscolo and the Poetry of Exile,” in Mosaic, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1975, pp. 123-42.

[In the following essay, Cambon explains how Foscolo's increasing distance from his original homeland of Greece created a strong mythos in his poetry that reflects not just nostalgia but an urge to transcend the present.]

For our Western tradition, the literature of exile begins with two very different sources: the Old Testament on the one hand, and Ovid's Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto on the other. Interdiction of his Roman aqua et ignis wrought a metamorphosis on the jolly author of Ars Amatoria; he now wrote letter upon letter in verse from the ice-caked harbor of Tomis on the Black Sea, from the winter of his life, reiterating both his guilt and his innocence in turn, in desperate flattery of Augustus and desperate entreaty, from among the shaggy, breech-clad, dagger-happy barbarians of Sarmathian and Gothic extraction who made him feel like the barbarian because his Latin was incomprehensible to them. To this day his obsessive plea echoes in our mind as the voice of one who has faced a destructive cultural situation and, to survive, has mobilized his extreme resources—in the terror that they too (language, imagination, tradition) might fail him.1 It is a very personal voice, at times endearingly petulant, in turn wily, peevish, hopeful and dejected, and instinct throughout with the diplomacy of despair—the true, and poetically redeeming note, that rings out from his repeated gestures of abject confession, from the self-abasement of his flatteries to Augustus, the unresponsive demigod.

If after reading Fustel de Coulanges one wants a final illustration of what the ancient city meant to its children, one should turn to exilic Ovid, who struggles so hard not to lose twice the city he has already lost once. It has become for him an invisible city, a city of the mind, a memory and an exchange of signs across an otherwise unbridgeable distance; and his raison d'être is to reaffirm his fidelity to it. In the last resort, it is of course literature, the written word, that saves Ovid and makes him, the unrecalled exile, a hero of language. His values, those that make him humane rather than just human, have been put to the supreme test by the predicament of exile, and he has to keep the City alive in himself if he wants to live. Hence the inextricable nexus between absent City and rejected citizen, between community and individual, from the individual's own side; language makes the nexus reciprocal because it is Ovid's one inalienable possession, the gift of the City he has lost:

ne tamen Ausoniae perdam commercia linguae,
          et fiat patrio vox mea muta sono,
ipse loquor mecum desuetaque verba retracto,
          et studii repeto signa sinistra mei.
sic animum tempusque traho, sic meque reduco
          a contemplatu summoveoque mali.
carminibus quaero miserarum oblivia rerum:
          praemia si studio consequar ista, sat est.(2)

As the preceding part of this poem makes clear, fear of losing his very language after losing his city springs from the daily spectacle of those descendants of Greek colonists who have given up both speech and fashions of Hellas.

How paramount the city values are to civilized man we also know from so many pages of the Bible, where the lamentations by the waters of Babylon convey the predicament of a whole community uprooted from its Jerusalem. Once the nomadic people has been chosen for sedentary civilization, collective exile becomes to the enslaved Jews what removal from Rome means to one gifted individual, Ovid. Both are radical situations, both impose a grim existential challenge: will you preserve your identity? The poetry elicited by this predicament amounts to a kind of victory in defeat, and it countervails, if it does not justify, the doom visited upon the respective protagonists. Something of each paradigmatic situation, and of the correlative literary response, reappears in Dante's medieval career, which would be unthinkable apart from the wound of unjust banishment and without the Biblical and classical models that went into the imaginative reshaping of his singular experience. Once the Tuscan poet saw himself struck by the same fate that had hounded the Hebrews and afflicted the once carefree Ovid, he recognized in the sudden blow an affinity of election. The persona he projected in the Divine Comedy, a sinning wanderer in the wilderness, took on the traits of the peculiar people, Jacob's people, chosen because peculiar, and the penitential stance went hand in hand with the vatic. But from Ovid, temperamentally alien though he was, Dante inherited the individual emphasis, the vindication of self as a center of experience, which he was the first and possibly the only poet to weave with striking results into the large pattern of a cosmic epos. St. Augustine mediated between classical and Scriptural sources, to be sure; and as a result, the prophet and the penitent, the communal spokesman invested with a sacred mission and the citizen of human contingency, the type and the individual make themselves heard in the semantic chords of Dante's music, consonant as it proved with David's harp as well as with Ovid's or Virgil's lyre. And—again like Ovid—our Florentine exile turns to language as his sacred trust. Whether we read his major poem, or his treatises, or his letters, we can hardly miss this note. The fury, of course, was neither Ovidian nor Virgilian; for that, he had the Biblical prophets at hand; but most of all his own eagle-gnawed liver and his heart, love-devoured. Dante's Florence, a creation of love and hate, is neither Ovid's Rome nor the Bible's Jerusalem, though it has something of both, and much more. It is both everyday city and Holy City, both Egypt and Promised Land.

Even in the sketchiest bird's-eye view, the landscape of Western literary history unfolds as one defined by certain rare landmarks which prove ultimately essential to the total apprehensible shape of the terrain. To translate into less metaphoric terms: the literature of exile reflects an exceptional experience, but without it our literary heritage would be vastly different and immeasurably poorer. Whether this flies in the face of any comfortable theory of gradual continuity or homogeneous quality in literary tradition is not my present concern. I am quite prepared to entertain the paradox that, in literature as well as in other cultural domains, exceptions in the last resort determine the norm—any “norm” of course having to be periodically redefined by either upheavals or cumulative erosions. Anthropologically speaking, the collective experience of the Jewish people is the exception: nomadism, Covenant, Promised Land, exile, diaspora—and through the literary vehicle of the Bible it has become exemplary to a huge part of mankind. Artistically and biographically, we do not expect every writer to go through the ordeal of exile, in fact we insist on the necessity of cultural roots, of close contact between writer and community; but the phenomena which contradict or at east qualify this symbiotic ecology of art—like those I have been surveying so far—do give us pause. At this writing (Summer 1974) it is impossible to say whether the exile imposed on Solzhenitsyn by the Soviet bureaucrats will blight or enhance his creative vein. Several decades ago, political banishment failed to dry up Thomas Mann's vein; and the American expatriates (first Henry James, then Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, along with Irishman Joyce)3 successfully passed the test of self-uprooting. Here let us marginally note how, not unaccountably, Pound and Eliot pioneered in the conversational style which has in Ovid's epistolary poetry its remote fountainhead;4 how, again, they and Joyce looked up to Dante's example; and how questions of language, of the meeting or attrition of cultures, are intrinsic to their preoccupation and accomplishment. Vatic utterance, stimulated by their Biblical and Dantesque affinities, sooner or later came to characterize the work of Eliot and Pound.

Perhaps it is unfair to equate the condition of freely chosen expatriation with exile under duress—which was the lot of the three classical prototypes I touched upon to begin with. Neither the Old-Testament Jews, nor Ovid or Dante had a choice. Jerusalem, Rome and Florence respectively were taken away from them by unappealable fiat. Nor would it do justice to Ovid's Grenzsituation (to say it in Karl Jaspers' word)5 to compare his actual way of life as an outcast among barbarians to Pound's and Joyce's wanderings and residences among civilized peoples who shared with them the basic European tradition, and to James' or Eliot's privilege of taking up residence in what was the original homeland of their own native language? Yet an uprooting is still an uprooting, no matter how circumstantially muffled the trauma may be; James and Eliot never forgot their native land, and Joyce and Pound looked upon it with fierce ambivalence to the end. Besides, Pound's spontaneous expatriation became a forced exile in 1941 when he was denied return to America, and this aggravation was compounded in 1945 when American military authorities put him in the notorious cage at the Detention Training Camp near Pisa—the Pisan Cantos being the unpremeditated literary upshot. Here it seems fair to observe that forced exile has reappeared elsewhere in twentieth century society as a consequence of ideological fanaticism, to judge from Nazi and Stalinist or neo-Stalinist actions. We thought that we had left the Dark Ages far behind in our dim historical past, but history has a way of being unpredictable, even though in retrospect some of its unplanned byproducts—like exilic poetry—may seem providential. And so they are in a way, but this kind of providence can hardly make anyone feel comfortable. Least of all the likes of Pope Boniface VIII.

If Pound leads us back to Dante and the Bible and the Latin or Greek classics, he also reminds us of the post-Enlightenment conditions that have confronted the countless many and the gifted and articulate few in our disconcerting time to make a new “medieval” literature possible. Up to now it would have been sensible to say that while the ancient and medieval writers were sometimes chosen by exile, against their wish, modern writers from Romanticism on tended quite often to choose exile as a vital act and a theme; but cases like Mann or Mandelstam or Singer or Solzhenitsyn have reversed the trend. At any rate there can be little doubt that the “lost generation” had its direct ancestry in the Romantic generation of Byron, Keats and Shelley, to whose obvious names I now claim the privilege of adding the less widely known one of their contemporary, Ugo Foscolo.6 He was somehow, as E. R. Vincent has said,7 a Byron in reverse, starting his existential itinerary from the Greek island of Zante (the Homeric Zacynthos, still under Venetian rule in 1778, when Foscolo was born to an Italian father and a Greek mother) to pursue it through a progression of exiles which was to end with his death at Turnham Green near London in 1827.

The Hellas Byron went to die for became Foscolo's lifelong myth—in an Italian version, to be sure, because apart from the fact that his father was an Italian, Italy provided the longest and decisive station of his earthly pilgrimage. He was still a child of ten when his father died and the family moved from the Dalmatian town of Spalato (now Split) to Venice. Here Ugo grew up to be a learned, fiery young man with radical ideas nurtured by such disparate sources as Alfieri and Rousseau. He greeted Napoleon as a liberator in 1796, but suffered a bitter disappointment a year later when the Corsican general, after putting a forcible end to the thousand-year old Venetian Republic, handed over its territories to the Austrian Empire at the bargaining table of Campoformido. Now the former citizen of the “Most Serene Republic” had to leave his adoptive city and ancestral homeland, to avoid political persecution at the hands of the counterrevolutionary pro-Austrian police. This second exile differed from the first, which took place in 1784 when his father left Zante for Spalato; it was consummated in full adult consciousness, it entailed leaving mother and siblings behind, namely his whole remaining family, and it left him to his own devices in Napoleon-dominated Lombardy, not a culturally foreign country of course, but still a new land in every other way. The Cisalpine Republic that came into being there under French sponsorship drew Foscolo to itself, like many other Italian liberal patriots, as the only hope for nationwide political emancipation, and he brilliantly served as an officer of the Cisalpine army in many a hard campaign. Meanwhile, as the French Republic turned into the Napoleonic Empire and the Cisalpine Republic accordingly changed into the Italian kingdom under a French Viceroy, Milan its capital became another Venice for Foscolo, who now enjoyed a rising reputation as the author of the Wertherian epistolary novel The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (1798) (written in the aftermath of departure from enslaved Venice) and of the terse Odes and Sonnets (1802, 1803), then of The Sepulchers (1806). This singular protest poem was sparked by the author's reaction against French sanitary regulations on burial practices (Edict of St. Cloud, 1804), but his poetic temper submerged the polemical occasion in wave after wave of prophetic vision, culminating in the scene of blind Homer groping his way into the Trojan necropolis to awaken the voice of the dead heroes there for his deathless song.

The first fifteen years of the new century, which correspond to the span of Napoleon's empire, are the time of full fruition for Ugo Foscolo the poet and the man. He goes from love to intense love; he fights in Napoleon's armies because Napoleon is the lesser of two evils, but openly criticizes the Emperor's political impositions on democratic ideals; he takes an active interest in public life, and briefly teaches at Pavia University (1809), only to become a casualty of his own refusal to compromise with political expediency; he follows up the success of his fiction and verse with the unfinished rhapsody, The Graces, and an equally unfinished translation of the Iliad; he pioneers in literary criticism. All of this helps us to appreciate what it must have meant for our Greco-Venetian refugee to face a third exile when the Empire fell in 1815 and once again he had to leave a whole world behind—since he, an officer in Viceroy Beauharnais' Italian army, turned down the option of swearing allegiance to the reinstated Austrian occupying power after Waterloo.

After a short stay in Switzerland, he found a new home in hospitable England, thanks to the good offices of an English Italophile littérateur, W. S. Rose, whom he had known in Florence. The story of Foscolo's eleven years in England has been beautifully told by E. R. Vincent, and one can do no better than refer to that biography here. Those were in effect the years of Foscolo's decline, despite the heartening welcome he had from literate and affluent English society. No new poetry to speak of came from his pen, though he kept tinkering with The Graces and the Iliad translation.8 At the same time, his vein flowed forth in a different direction—he freelanced as literary critic and historian in journals like The Edinburgh Review, The Westminster Review, The Quarterly Review, The European Review, to illustrate the Italian heritage for an eager English readership. So this, the third main period of his life, was not altogether sterile; on the contrary, we owe to it the fine essays on Petrarch and Dante, among others, and they would be enough to insure a niche in the nation's memory for the man of whom later Risorgimento patriots (many of whom were to follow him to England during the ups and downs of Italy's struggle for liberty and unification) said that he had “given his country a new institution: exile.”

The political implications of that expression do have a clear counterpart in tone and themes of Foscolo's work, yet, as I hope to show further on, there are deeper resonances to be overheard in his writing. His youthful persona, Jacopo Ortis, opens his fictional self-portrait by saying that he is now a man without a country (“senza patria”), and he ends a suicide for political as well as sentimental reasons à la Werther. Shortly after, the death by suicide of Foscolo's brother, Giovanni, inspires one of his greatest sonnets, In morte del fratello Giovanni (1803), where the desperate option is implicitly exorcised by the Stoic persona. A later tragedy on Ajax likewise turns on suicide as the inevitable conclusion for a certain type of man in a certain situation. Another sonnet, “Che stai?” (Why do you tarry?), the twelfth and last of the series, styles its self-addressing author a “senza patria, and the same epithet applies to the fictional mask of Didimo Chierico, Didymus the Clergyman, whom Foscolo projected as the translator of Sterne's Sentimental Journey (1805), a work clearly meant, in our writer's inner economy, to offset the Sturm-und-Drang extremism of Jacopo Ortis:

“As a boy, circumstances led to my being trained in a seminary; then nature stopped me from becoming a priest: it would have caused me remorse to go on, and shame to go back: and since I practically despise whoever changes his way of life, I peacefully wear this tonsure and this black suit: this way I can either take a wife, or seek a bishopric.” I asked him which solution he would choose. He answered: “I haven't thought of it; a man without a country cannot decently be either a priest, or a father.”9

Self-irony and humor, worn as a mask by the death-haunted poet, counter-balanced his self-destructive tendencies and helped to enrich his literary gamut. The predicament of being “without a country,” which destroys the fictional Jacopo Ortis, is accepted by Didymus and enables Ugo to dissociate exile from inevitable death; he now lives in a delicate balance which allows him to face his own uprootings without flinching—as witness the Stoic Sonnets—or even (it's the case of The Sepulchers) to place his individual destiny within the objective framework of mankind's historical instability—for history viewed without a transcendent guarantee is a cumulation of exiles, a parade of cemeteries. Plus the reiterated struggle to wrest precarious life from perennial death, the heroic continuity of civilization, a human thing, a feat of memory, memory (Mnemosyne) banking on tombs as testimonials:

Siedon custodi de' sepolcri e quando
Il tempo con sue fredde ali vi spazza
Fin le rovine, le Pimplée fan lieti
Di lor canto i deserti, e l'armonia
Vince di mille secoli il silenzio.
They sit to watch the sepulchers, and when
Time with its cold wings there brushes off
Even the last ruins, the Pierian sisters gladden
The desert wastes with their singing, and harmony
Overwhelms the silence of a thousand ages.

(The Sepulchers, 230-34)10

These are neither the conventional Muses of rococo or neoclassical décor, nor the Disquieting Muses of De Chirico, but they are closer to the latter—they radiate a halo of weird, numinous hilarity over the frightening void to which the landscape of human history (as Ozymandias knows) periodically returns. Old Rocky Face, instructed in Vico's theory of cycles, looks forth and listens—and Hyperion's Schicksalslied fills the space. Contemplation of man's collective fate reconciles man to individual calamity—especially if, like Hölderlin or Foscolo, he feels invested with the mission of song, that sole possible victory over ravaging time:

E me che i tempi ed il desìo d'onore
Fan per diversa gente ir fuggitivo,
Me ad evocar gli eroi chiamin le Muse
Del mortale pensiero animatrici.
And me, whom the complexion of the times
And steadfastness in honor drive to flee
Through alien peoples, me may the Muses summon
To evoke all heroes, for the Muses only
Forever breathe life into human thought.

(The Sepulchers, 226-29)

Personal reality, the self as such, is far from denied in The Sepulchers; the self is not submerged without a trace in the vistas of history; on the contrary, he is very much there when surfacing in the waves of the epic hymn to reaffirm his commitment to his own hopeless-hopeful destiny—which is more a matter of moral choice than of external imposition, as the above lines show with their variation in a new key on Dante's topical “l'essilio che m'è dato, onor mi tegno” (the exile imposed on me I hold as an honor). The passage quoted here initially recalls the opening lines of the Sonnet on the death of Foscolo's brother:

Un dì, s'io non andrò sempre fuggendo
di gente in gente, mi vedrai seduto
su la tua tomba, o fratel mio, gemendo
il fior de' tuoi gentili anni caduto.
One day, should I stop wandering forever
from one nation to another, you will see me seated
at your tomb, O my brother, there to mourn
over your gentle youth cut down in its prime.

The chord set up by this juxtaposition contains a dissonance: in the sonnet, written a few years earlier, the self appears as “I,” whereas in the Sepulchers he is an objectified “Me,” first as the victim of fate and of his own resolution and independence, then as the hopefully chosen vehicle of the goddesses of poetry. The “I” of the sonnet holds private conversation with the victim of self-inflicted, untimely death; the self of The Sepulchers summarizes all his private woes to purge them in the catharsis of poetry, which is conceived as a communal mission, as the commemoration and redemption of mankind's woes. In the sonnet, conversation with the beloved shade takes place as a parenthesis in the restlessness of exile; in the Sepulchers, the condition of poetry is directly connected with the condition of exile, which seems to be necessary to the poetical investiture, and which, anyhow, is felt to be something that brings the individual man, as singer, closer to the rest of mankind. The vicissitudes of mankind are themselves a sort of perennial exile, a perpetual loss of the ubi consistam, of the sacred grounds and roots to be restored by collective effort, by communal memory—through the proper single vessel, the rhapsode.

Homer's figure, the archetypal poet in his civilizing mission, is evoked at the end by prophetess Cassandra and thereby placed in a perennial future, out of a mythical past, to resolve in himself all the poets, Foscolo included, who have made themselves heard in this concentrated epos of civilization. Exiled Dante, wandering Petrarch and roving Alfieri were among them; and even in this regard does Homer recapitulate (or forecast) an essential trait of theirs, for he appears in Foscolo's grand evocation as a wandering beggar:

                                                                                 … Un di vedrete
Mendico un cieco errar intra le vostre
Antichissime ombre, e brancolando
Penetrar negli avelli, e abbracciar l'urne
E interrogarle. Gemeranno gli antri
Secreti, e tutta narrerà la tomba
Ilio raso due volte e due risorto …
                                                                       … One day you will see
A blind beggar roam among your ancient shades,
And grope his way into the burial chambers,
And embrace the urns, and interrogate them.
At this, a moan will issue from the secret
Vaults, and the whole tomb will tell the story
Of Ilion twice razed and twice rebuilt …

(The Sepulchers, 279-285)

The poet, as an exile, is a marked man, and therefore sacred:

                                                                       … Il sacro vate,
Placando quelle afflitte alme col canto,
I prenci Argivi eternerà per quante
Abbraccia terre il gran padre Oceàno.
E tu onore di pianti, Ettore, avrai
Ove fia santo e lacrimato il sangue
Per la patria versato, e finché il Sole
Risplenderà su le sciagure umane.
                                                             … The sacred bard,
Soothing the hurt of those souls with his song,
Will make Greek princes immortal through all
The lands that father Ocean embraces.
And you, Hector, will be honored by tears
Wherever blood shed for one's homeland is
Holy and revered, and as long as the sun
Keeps shining on the disasters of mankind.

(The Sepulchers, 288-295, the end)

The adjective “sacro,” so climactically used by the dramatis persona (Cassandra) in this finale which reconciles patriotism, the religion of motherland, with the religion of mankind at large, has the same ring its German equivalent heilig acquires in Hölderlin's likewise Hellenizing (and Pindaric) odes.

The poet, as a marked man, begins in the role of a scapegoat, and if he has the strength to resist the temptation of Werther, of Jacopo Ortis, of Giovanni Foscolo, he becomes Ugo Foscolo, who survives to tell the story because he has accepted the branding mark of his destiny as an initiation. In ancient Latin the word sacer could refer either to the criminal set apart by his crime (Law of the Twelve Tables) or to the privileged person or object marked for cult and reverence. In Foscolo's myth, the haunted romantic persona undergoes a consecration precisely by choosing his fate as an outcast to convert it into an election: vatic poetry. Hence the vatic stance, which goes with the solemn diction, in a style quite germane to Keats as well as Milton (the latter writer being acknowledged by Foscolo as his own stylistic counterpart).11 Fate in the form of repeated exile has stripped him bare as he, going forth from country to country, shed a world each time; now he reaps his reward, by donning the robe of the poet-prophet. Like Didymus' ironic garb, this mantle emblazons a liberating distance—but also a passionate lucidity vis-à-vis the turmoil of experience.

According to Mario Fubini, who has written the best study of Foscolo's poetry to date,12 this vatic persona appears only in The Sepulchers, while in the great sonnets, deeply inspired by exile though they may be, it would be only the private lyrical persona that speaks. They, according to Fubini, are the harvest of Foscolo's youth, while The Sepulchers expresses his full ripening. The statement needs qualification if we keep in mind the sonnet to Zante, where already the persona dons the cursed-sacred garments of the vates. This shows not only in the description of himself as singer (with an implicit linkage to Homer), but also in the striking styleme of the last line which applies to the persona a solemn plurale majestatis (“noi,” us) superseding the first person singular that prevailed earlier (“toccherò,” I shall touch; “il mio corpo,” my body):

Né più mai toccherò le sacre sponde
ove il mio corpo fanciulletto giacque,
Zacinto mia, che te specchi nell'acque
del greco mar da cui vergine nacque
Venere, e fea quell'isole feconde
col suo primo sorriso, onde non tacque
le tue limpide nubi e le tue fronde
l'inclito verso di colui che l'acque
cantò fatali, ed il diverso esiglio
per cui bello di fama e di sventura
baciò la sua petrosa Itaca Ulisse.
Tu non altro che il canto avrai del figlio,
o materna mia terra; a noi prescrisse
il fato illacrimata sepoltura.
Nor shall I touch again the sacred shores
wherein my body lay in blissful childhood,
O my Zacynthos, mirrored in the waves
of the Greek sea from which in virgin splendor
Venus arose to make those islands fruitful
with her first smile, so that your sunbright clouds
and your groves found their proper celebration
in the undying verse of the man who sang
the fatal waters and the manifold exile
that was Ulysses' lot, who, burdened with fame
and sorrow, finally kissed his stony Ithaca.
Of your son, you will get nothing but the song,
O my motherland; fate decreed for us
only an unmourned burial in the end.

Needless to say, no translation can approximate, let alone duplicate, the unique musical effect Foscolo extracts from cumulative syntactical progression coupled with the cannily exploited vocalic melody and consonantal harmony of the Italian language. It is something else than commonplace bel canto mellifluousness. The phrasing, overflowing metrical boundaries, has a wiry resilience which helps to create a kind of inexhaustible rhythm within the absolute circumscription of the sonnet form. Eloquence sustains, instead of mortifies, pure vision. One breathless sentence, in wave after wave of subordinate clauses, sweeps through the first eleven lines of the sonnet, subverting its classical structure (and indeed this imbalance created by the Foscolian wavelength puzzled some early readers, presumably the same kind of readers that resented the Pindaric flights of The Sepulchers),13 where narrative ellipse keeps short-circuiting the logic of ideas, to the advantage of dramatic imagery. The semantic space thus ranged matches that noteworthy hypotactical cumulation whereby clause generates clause (mostly in a straight descending order, but with some lateral ramification of syntax to avert monotony) and image sparks image. To be specific: the governing clause (line 1), after begetting one directly dependent clause in Line 2, resumes with the pivotal vocative at Line 3, which promptly sprouts into another directly dependent clause overflowing into Line 4, and that clause in turn engenders five more in quick succession. Of these, the first and the second one (from the midst of Line 4 to the midst of Line 5) stay on the same syntactical level, being mutually coordinated, as if to suspend for a moment the relentless rush that will come to a head in Line 11 with the finality of

baciò la sua petrosa Itaca Ulisse.

The headlong waters of eloquence spring at the outset from a subterranean source (as indicated by the initial “ …,” Nor …, which marks the transition from silent inner monologue to open utterance) to cataract through five successive ledges of rock; but on the second ledge they deviate part of their mass into a placid pool:

ove il mio corpo fanciulletto giacque,

and on the third ledge they find an even more spacious basin to gather in:

                                                                                 … da cui vergine nacque
Venere, e fea quell'isole feconde
col suo primo sorriso, …

The first pool reflects the privileged image of the speaker's own divinely favored childhood. Foscolo's equivalent of Hölderlin's “Da ich ein Knabe war, / Rettet'ein Gott mich oft”;14 the second, and larger, pool mirrors the correspondingly privileged image of Venus-Aphrodite rising from the sea to quicken the Ionian archipelago (and implicitly the whole world) into verdant life. In other words, the tempo of the cumulative hypotactic movement—which allusively encompasses no less than the origins and fatal course of history, through the topical vicissitudes of Homeric Greece—relaxes twice in mid course to let the voice longingly dwell on two mythical beginnings: the speaker's prehistorical innocence in his paradisal island, and Nature's intact origins, Aphrodite's “first smile,” this side of history yet ushering history in with all its devastations as weathered by the typical hero, Ulysses.

What we have here is a cosmogony, poles apart from any mere rehash of classical commonplaces; Foscolo, as Mario Fubini has remarked, found his gods in himself rather than in books15—and in this he again paralleled or anticipated the mythopoeia of those two kindred spirits, John Keats and Friederich Hölderlin, for whom Hellas was the lost homeland, never actually known except through Lord Elgin's marbles or Homer's and Pindar's pages, and forever dreamed as the only possible release from the burden of history. To Foscolo, however, Hellas was both a never-never dreamland and a concrete personal experience, the unrenounceable bond of birth. As repeated exile pushed that experience farther and farther back into the recesses of memory, it blossomed into a myth whose nomenclature was naturally re-appropriated from the seemingly worn-out stock of Greek fables once mandatory to the literary trade and now increasingly optional, or even suspect, with the advent of the romantic dispensation. A cruel distance in time and space widened between Ugo Foscolo of Zante and his lost insular Eden, and then also between himself and his mother Diamantina, the living testimonial of his Hellenic identity. But once the Edenic origin receded to the threshold of dimness, individual memory could bridge the gap by broadening into racial memory, and the carnal beginnings of Ugo became consubstantial to the cosmic beginnings of Greece, that epitome of the whole meaningful world.

Zacynthos happens to be an island. In the poem, its earth and rock is retranslated into flesh and bone, its surrounding waters into the womb's amniotic fluid. Within its “sacred shores” the poetic persona's “body in his first childhood” “lay” safely sheltered. The mythical equation island-womb-bosom parallels the equation Zacynthos-Diamantina-Venus, to be sensed in the progression of images from “sacred shores” to “body in his first childhood” to Zacynthos “mirroring” herself in the “waves of the Greek sea” from which the birth of Venus is reenacted as if the goddess rising from those waters were the transfigured specular image of Zacynthos-Mother. And indeed Aphrodite appears as a sublimated mother figure, with the attributes of virgin fertility and beauty.16 In this regard it pays to consider the syntactical bivalence of the epithet “vergine” (virgin) in Line 4. At first the reader may doubt whether it proleptically refers to Venus (“Venere,” in the subsequent line) or postpositionally modifies “Greek sea” (“greco mar,” preceding “vergine” in the same line). Then the latter option is favored by semantic plausibility, since it seems pleonastic to emphasize the goddess' virginity at birth, and it makes sense to ascribe that inviolate quality to the living ocean that bore Aphrodite as the first of its creatures. On the other hand, excluding Venus in this context from the moot predicate, to the sole benefit of “the Greek sea,” would force us to break the effortless line

del greco mar da cui vergine nacque

with a grating caesura between “vergine” and “nacque,” thereby crippling the momentum of utterance, which also banks on a masterly enjambment. Beyond metric partitions and commonsense logic, the impulsion of the voice catapults “vergine” into the semantic field radiating from “Venere,” a word that happens to echo “vergine” by initial alliteration, syllabic structure, stress placement and vocalic chromatism. It is another internal “mirroring,” like the cosmic event connecting Zacynthos with Venus, and like the self-reflection of the exiled poet persona in bardic Homer and roaming Ulysses. Virginity, then, becomes a mystical quality enveloping Venus herself and permeating her cosmic matrix, as witness the goddess' “first smile.” Since this is not the cold and hateful virginity of Hérodiade, it does not surprise us to find it endowed with the magical power of fecundity:

                                                                                 … vergine nacque
Venere, e fea quell'isole feconde
col suo primo sorriso, …

Whether we listen to the chant of Italian e vowels, a kind of bass counterpointed by the trilling Italian i of “ìsole,” “prìmo,” “sorso,” or to the alliterative echoes whereby “nere” projects “fea” (made), and “fea” generates “feconde,” with a memorable etymological improvisation, we experience an expansion of breath and inner vision. This in turn is aided by the strong stress on the first syllable of the line in the word “nere,” which opens up a cosmogonic vista. The hendecasyllable prolongs itself, helped by strategic enjambments, into ecstatic duration.

The expansive movement of self-regenerating syntax which took over the two quatrains and the first tercet is brought up short by the strong pause after “Ulisse.” Then what is left for the second tercet but to seal the whole exuberant utterance with a dry prophetic epitaph which sharply offsets the previous release of personal and mythic memory. The voice had expanded, now it contracts; so does the vision, which comes to rest, after so much exciting amplitude, on a derelict tombstone looming in the future. Yet from such shrinkage what liberation!

                                                                       … a noi prescrisse
il fato illacrimata sepoltura.

The exile persona who had recognized a similarity between his fate and Ulysses' must now deny it, because his own “manifold exile” will not end up in a homecoming. His lot is exile outlasting death. And in that last line the poet sings his own dirge, with the fullness of vowels—all five of them—sustaining the voice in hieratic slowness (an Adagio after the Allegro of the first part) as it ranges the chromatic scale from the openness of luminous ah sounds down to the progressively occlusive, dark notes in sepoltura. Only the song will be left, nothing else; but it is already to be heard here, and we now understand why the implicit claim of kinship with antonomastically introduced Homer. Foscolo the singer, last of a great lineage, will survive Ugo the wanderer; he has mirrored himself both in Ulysses and in Homer, no small feat of self-dramatization but no hybris either, since it really amounts to an act of allegiance toward the cultural source from which the validating types emerge for personal use. In a kindred spirit, Melville, another authority on exile, at least of the inner kind, was to speak of “reverence for archetype.”

If the final line sounds like a matchless climax, the whole last tercet lays claim on our attention. It both contrasts and summarizes the long preceding part of the sonnet. Where the contrasting traits are, we have seen; we might actually add a further one, namely, the prevalence of the future tense, the tense of prophecy, as against the prevalence of the past, the tense of personal and ethnic memory. The “prescrisse” (prescribed, decreed) of the last line but one, though a grammatical past, works as a function of the future in “Tu non altro che il canto avrai del figlio” (Of your son, you will get nothing but the song); Karl Kroeber aptly spoke of “commemorative prophecy” apropos of Foscolo and other Romantic poets. The “pre-scribing” of Fate is, even etymologically, a future in the past, and a past prolonged into the actual future; moreover, not a datable past, like the milestones of individual and collective history, but an indefinite past, one and the same thing with the hidden force that actuates and consummates one's own existence. In using the classical word, Fate, the modern poet acknowledged his restlessness as the vocation of exile, and once again personalized the classical vocabulary. But to go on with the structural relationship of our sonnet's last tercet to the rest of the lyric, we must see how dialectical that relationship is, since the traits shared by the two syntactical units that make up the sonnet seem to counterbalance the striking difference in relative length and complexity between those units. Parataxis supersedes hypotaxis as prophecy supersedes reminiscence in this conclusive part, yet that negative prophecy had already loomed in the opening line of the sonnet,

Né più mai toccherò le sacre sponde
Nor shall I touch again the sacred shores,

thus paving the way for a reiterated negation that brings out the elegiac essence of the tone. Just as in the first three lines of Quatrain 1 the dependent clause describing the persona's island-sheltered childhood is literally cradled between two segments of the governing clause which addresses the insular motherland, Venus-like Zacynthos, just so the clause addressing Motherland in the last tercet expressively encases the object of its verb, “the song … of your son” (il canto … del figlio), between the Thou (Tu) that replaces the direct name of the island as governing pronoun, and the vocative apposition that defines that pronoun to emphasize the maternal quality, “o materna mia terra” (O my motherland). In the quick review of his earthly destiny from remembered protection within the remote native shores to anticipated exposure and dereliction in exile-ridden death, the poet persona still expects one kind of return to the sheltering bosom of the island which is Mother—through his song, a posthumous gift, a disembodied visit. Analogously, though on a more literal level, he concludes the sonnet on his brother's death with the imploration to render his “bones” to “the sad bosom of Mother.” There are ways and ways to go home again.

Yet one must lose home and mother and one's version of earthly paradise if one wants to find it all again—in memory and song. One must go forth from the enveloping bosom, into the threatening-enticing waters and wastes, into the pitiless light of the sun. Foscolo's vocation of exile, stronger than nostalgia, is the urge to grow, to know and see, to “experience the world and human vices and virtues,” as Dante's Ulysses has it, a congenial figure no doubt. Insofar as this urge, aided by circumstance (“Fate”), takes on hyperbolic proportions with Foscolo, it marks his personal destiny as singular yet utterly representative of man's deep drives and conflicts; hence the poetry he wrung from his suffering can still speak to us, beyond any change of epochal styles, as no period piece could.

If at a first reading one might mistake its vatic stance for rhetorical decorativeness, a closer look and a more intent ear will grasp its essential spareness, along with its driving energy. No concession is made to the picturesque or the merely descriptive, as witness the lack of color modifiers, for one thing, in the sonnets. Green is suggested by the bare noun “fronde” (fronds); white as the color of unthreatening clouds is implied by “limpide,” an adjective which transcends color to catch the essence of light in a serene climate; and as for the sea, it is defined by its cultural, mythical connotations: “Greek”—rather than by a sensory epithet like “deep blue” or “winedark.” Everything is caught in motion, or in some kind of essential action that pinpoints its identity; verbs carry the burden of expression. Rhymes enhance meaning, as the Zacynthos sonnet shows with its marked transition from the joyful resonance of the -onde … -acque pattern in the octet to the plaintive -iglio, the moaning -ura and the hissing -isse combination of the sextet; this chromatic transition underscores the shift from vocal diastole to systole I noticed before both in the global syntactical configuration and in the chromatic physiognomy of the last line. Furthermore, the amenable semantic implications of -onde (waves) and -acque (waters) are dominant in the octet, in contrast to the refractory stoniness of “petrosa Itaca,” “prescrisse,” and “sepoltura” in the sextet; sound, imagery, syntax and connotative logic conspire to effect the crucial passage from a liquid, generative, sheltering world to a hardened, sterile, ineluctable one. The movement hinges on the semantic permutation of “acque fatali” at lines 8-9, which signals a change in the very quality of the so far trustworthy marine ambience: it was enveloping, protective, womblike; now it is estranging and fraught with a dangerous challenge, a call to menacing openness. The self is challenged to leave the indefiniteness of his matrix for the ordeal of self-definition—a process entailing the confrontation of death, from which the root meaning of exile emerges: the dying away from one's intact source, toward a possible rebirth. If we experimentally isolate the rhyme words we shall be sketching a skeletal diagram of the whole poem's semantic itinerary along those very lines: sponde-giacque - onde - nacque - feconde - tacque - fronde - acque - esiglio - sventura - Ulisse - figlio - prescrisse - sepoltura (shores - lay - waves - was born - fruitful - hushed - fronds - waters - exile - calamity - Ulysses - son - prescribed - burial). Even this, however, would fail to clinch the point without the help of prolepsis, an element of utterance which does its part to activate the whole structure.

The conspicuous recurrence of this rhetorical module in Foscolo's best poetry warrants some close consideration. In the sonnet to Zante, it operates with focal pervasiveness. To begin with, the climactic vocative “Zacinto mia” (O my Zacynthos) rings out long after the essential completion of its relevant clause (Line 1) and after a whole dependent clause (Line 2) has had a chance to intervene. The vocative itself comes as a surprise, in a way, because the governing and the relative clause preceding it could very well stand on their own feet grammatically and semantically; they would make sense by themselves. Yet when the in-voked name appears, it changes everything; it refocuses on itself the whole syntactic structure completed so far: everything now points to Zacynthos, everything gravitates on “my” Zacynthos, and only Zacynthos, as a supervening grace, can make sense of the seemingly self-contained world where she has appeared. The delayed action effect amounts to an epiphany in the given context, and epiphany will elicit a theophany in turn when, shortly after, the goddess Venus surfaces from the remembered waters of Zacynthos. The proleptic pattern may be defined as inversion compounded with retardation of some kind and the attribution of climactic importance to the member accordingly shifted to last position in a clause or syntagm. It is intrinsic to the hypotactical chain of our sonnet's first part as well as to the isolated last tercet. The names of Venus and Ulysses, no less than the hieratically un-named Homer, all come at the end of their respective clauses, and so does the vocative “o materna mia terra” (O my motherland), so symmetrical to the first one, in the last tercet. What in less strong hands might have remained a conventional figure of speech, Foscolo refashions into a propulsive device of utterance. Combined with the many enjambments, it energizes discourse by keeping it in forward motion from idea to idea, each climax becoming a hinge, each provisional goal a new departure. In this way a purely personal memory—childhood spent lounging on the shores of a Mediterranean island—can release a flood of historical and mythical memories, of which it becomes a part.

Combined with apostrophe, prolepsis characterizes other fine sonnets of Foscolo's, notably the already quoted “In morte del fratello Giovanni” and the sonnet to Evening (“Alla Sera”):

Forse perché de la fatal quïete
tu sei l'immago, a me si cara vieni,
o Sera, …
Perhaps because you are the very image
of the ultimate quiet, your coming is so dear to me,
O Evening. …(17)

where the maternal function is taken over by Death, the promise of peace after so much tumult, the ultimate exile which now appears as a homecoming? Less pervasively, but still significantly, the proleptic pattern (with or without apostrophe) propels the feverish transitions of The Sepulchers, from scene to scene of European history down to the crowning evocation of Homer in the act of wresting life from a penetrated tomb—as if the whole poem were one gigantic prolepsis, gravitating on that absolute image. Utterance surges forward toward its apogee by moving backward in time—mythic-historical time, the memory of the West. And memory is prophetic—it disinters mankind's future from mankind's past, not just the foregone fictional future of Troy, or of any one city. The figures of Homer and of Cassandra, who prophesies Homer's coming to the still dancing youths of intact Troy, are complementary, and they converge in the vatic persona of Foscolo. This happens most ostensibly in The Sepulchers, but it was foreshadowed in the sonnet to Zante, where the figure of Fate partly functioned in a Cassandra-like way, and where again personal memory delved into its ethnic source.

In the present editorial framework it has seemed advisable to sample that one sonnet for special focus as the best way to illustrate depth and thematic range of Foscolo's writing, as well as the connections between his haunted life and his work. “A Zante” is indeed a culmination of poetic maturity and a portent of things to come for its author, both existentially and artistically. We have glimpsed some of its seminal relevance to the later Sepolcri, and space prevents me from showing in detail how it relates to the still later opus, the unfinished Le Grazie, which Foscolo wrote mainly in the shadow of Napoleon's impending collapse, and on the eve of his own last exile. But I can at least point out the recurrence of the island theme in Part III of The Graces. As a novel celebration of Zacynthos it already crops up in Part I, but in Part III it becomes a myth of Atlantis, the vanished continent which now can only dawn on the sailor as a mirage. It is a world suspended beyond reality, the last refuge of Athena Pallas and of the Graces, the powers of civilization perpetually exiled by human recklessness or brutality and eternally committed to the immunity of art. Once again, the island forever lost is the sanctuary of imagination, and there Pallas and the Fates weave a magic veil for the Graces, a synaesthetic Kunstwerk der Zukunft that depicts reality and generates cosmic harmony, conquering Time and its ravages. This is Foscolo's version of Paradise, sustained by longing and not by faith, unlike Dante's, in the face of stark science. It is a man-made paradise; it is poetry trying to capture its own essence: poetry, that is, on the making of poetry. Perhaps Foscolo's failure to write more poetry (apart from his work on the translation of the Iliad) in his not altogether fruitless English exile should not be blamed on that exile itself. The poet of history had achieved the myth of meta-history and thereby completed his cycle; now he could commit his creative powers only to critical prose, moving among several languages since exile had sharpened his ear.

Exile prompted him to correlate different cultures to his own Mediterranean heritage; it also spurred him to “keep his erasers in order,” this being the only way to keep faith with the initial vision. Europe had come a long way from the time when exiled Ovid could feel it as a half-comical degradation to have to learn the language of the host country. In the same context, Foscolo's activity as a translator (whether of Sterne or of Catullus, Sappho and Homer) bears scrutiny. Along with his essays on translation, it mediates between his poetical and his noteworthy critical contributions, extending from the golden Milanese period to the silver Londoner one. There are invaluable technical observations to be gleaned from this part of Foscolo's work, and they place him in the forefront or even well in advance of his age, since his vatic stance goes hand in hand with a keen consciousness of his craft; this in turn makes him intolerant of classicist Aristotelian rules which he resents for having hamstrung the Italian genius from the high Renaissance on. His Greekness, though preeminently Apollonian, has a Dionysian touch, like an intimation of things to come in European culture. The philologist in him, as the essay on Homer's Zeus shows,18 was as perceptive as the critic; and as a critic, whether of his own work or of the work of others, again he proved how the recognition of affinities between oneself and one's brethren need not blur objective vision.

We have something to learn from his statement that Dante's chief quality was a swiftness of language and imagery, or that to Petrarch19 the Italian language, so exactingly shaped into polished verse, was (as a consequence of the man's wandering life) “both native and foreign.” These judgments are fairly self-descriptive on Foscolo's part, yet perfectly relevant to their historical subjects. Again in Epochs of the Italian Language (1818) he insists on dynamism and rapidity as the native virtue of that tongue, though he places ancient Greek above even Italian in the matter of “harmony.” Then in an unsigned piece on modern Italian writers,20 which he did for Hobhouse as a commentary on Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Book IV, he defines his own achievement in terms of rhythmical mimesis (against Dr. Johnson's dictates), for his hendecasyllables are supposed to bear a unique stamp; he wants a different melody, whether vocalic or consonantal, from each line, and a different harmony from each sentence. And he goes on to say that the intellectual tension his writing demands from the reader is of one piece with the vehemence—also physical—of his conversation; poetry to him was evidently gesture and dance, a kinetic instinct. One could also profitably read his foreword to the Experiment of translation from the Iliad (1807) for the pointed remarks on style,21 which seems to anticipate those of an Ezra Pound. Whether engaged in repossessing his complex heritage through poetry, criticism, or literary historiography, he never ceased revitalizing the great tradition which was to him a matter of life and death. The lesson of exile, coming to him from Dante and Petrarch and the Bible, fostered constant exercise of critical judgment as the accompaniment—or antiphon—to the ascetically cultivated poetical gift which enabled him to dream of his Zacynthian “pre-existence”22 while squarely facing the wounds and blights of existence.


  1. Two relevant passages, among others, are Tristia V, vii, lines 40-68, and Tristia V, x, 33-44. I am referring to the Loeb Classical Library volume: Ovid—Tristia, Ex Ponto, tr. by A. L. Wheeler (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England, 1924, 1965).

  2. Tristia V, vii, 61-68: “Yet for fear of losing the use of the Latin language, and so that my voice will not grow dumb in its native sound, I talk to myself and revive obsolete words, and revert to the ill-starred practice of my art. In this way do I drag out my life and time, in this way do I manage to withdraw from contemplation of my troubles. Through song I endeavor to forget my wretchedness: and if I do obtain such a reward, it is enough.” (Tr. mine).

  3. One remembers Stephen Dedalus' motto: “silence, cunning, and exile.”

  4. Not only Ovid's, but also Horace's epistolary verse and his satires come to mind in this connection. In his comments on his own free translation of Propertius (“Homage to Sextus Propertius”), Pound said that the Roman poets of the imperial age were culturally our contemporaries, this being one reason why he gave Propertius, as a mask of himself, an English voice attuned to prosy cadences and style and free of any archaism. Disenchantment can be a defense—whether against exile or against the corruption of the times.

  5. Literally, a “threshold situation,” a predicament which strains our moral or intellectual resources to the utmost. It is interesting to remember that Karl Jaspers, the modern German philosopher, began as a psychiatrist.

  6. Croce considered him a true European, for reasons that go beyond the biographical vicissitudes I am now summarizing. See Croce's European Literature in the Nineteenth Century (1924), as well as Karl Kroeber's The Artifice of Reality—Poetic Style in Wordsworth, Foscolo, Keats, and Leopardi, (Madison, Wisconsin, 1964). Foscolo was by temperament and achievement a member of the “visionary company,” and he showed an affinity for English literature even before moving to England, where he acted as a cultural liaison officer of sorts.

  7. E. R. Vincent, Ugo Foscolo—an Italian in Regency England (Cambridge, 1953).

  8. Foscolo's Esperimento di traduzione dell'Iliade di Omero had been published by Bettoni in Brescia in 1807, but the project kept him busy far beyond that date and well into his last years. The completed part of the project, with the variants, has been published in the Edizione nazionale delle opere di U. F., a long, committee-directed scholarly enterprise in many volumes, the publisher being Le Monnier of Florence. Le Grazie, despite the author's tireless self-editing, remained unfinished though not incomplete at his death, and its entire publication (posthumous, of course) has engaged the guessing and the polemical skills of generations of scholars. May I refer to Vincent, cit., and Fubini in this regard. The essential structure of the rhapsody consists of three hymns (respectively to Venus, Vesta and Athena Pallas) celebrating the graces of civilization and dedicated each to a lovely young lady who cultivates an art (in the order, dancing, apiculture, music). The three Hellenic goddesses of beauty and harmony are thus personified and at the same time depicted as forms of the creative process.

  9. I am translating my text from Opere di Ugo Foscolo, a cura di Mario Puppo, Ugo Mursia editore (Milan, 1962-71), p. 709 (“Notizia intorno a Didimo Chierico”). It has been pointed out that at about the same time Foscolo also took an interest in the urbane work of Horace.

  10. A recent translation of I Sepolcri, by Thomas G. Bergin, has been published in 1971 by The Bethany Press at Bethany, Conn. The translation of excerpts here given is mine.

  11. In a review article on Ippolito Pindemonte's translation of the Odyssey, dating from 1810 and now available in Vol. VII of the Edizione Nazionale delle Opere, pp. 197-230. In this context, talking of the general problem of translation, Foscolo digresses to criticize his own experiment as a translator of the Iliad, and says (p. 210) he has been better at writing essays on the question than at conveying Homer's own spirit in his version, because Nature seems to have made him “an apter follower of Pindar and Milton than of Virgil and Homer.”

  12. Mario Fubini, Ugo Foscolo, La Nuova Italia (Florence, 1962). Fubini's first study of F. appeared in 1928. At p. 188 he has this to say of Foscolo: “… only his being an exile, an Italian, a poet, could enable him to feel the universal human sorrow as his own intimate sorrow.”

  13. See Foscolo's own report on some strictures from friend and foe, chiefly aimed at his compressed eloquence, in Essay on the Present Literature of Italy, Ediz. Naz. delle Opere, vol. XI, Part II, 479-80.

  14. “In my boyhood days a god often saved me …”, from Hölderlin—Selected Verse, with an introduction and prose translations by Michael Hamburger. The Penguin Poets (Baltimore, Md., 1961), p. 26. See also “Der Archipelagus,” p. 81.

  15. Fubini, cit., p. 124.

  16. The myth of Aphrodite Anadyomene, Venus rising from the sea, had a particular fascination for Foscolo, who used it also in his Odes.

  17. Because the imagery of this sonnet is so antiphonal to that of the Zacynthos sonnet, I am appending here my free translation:

    Perhaps because you are the very image of the ultimate quiet, your coming is so dear to me, O Evening, and whether the summer clouds blithely court you along with the mild breezes or through the snow-ridden air you bring disquieting, long darkness to the world, you always alight as a presence invoked, and softly win secret access to my heart. You make me roam with my thoughts along the way that leads to eternal nothingness; meanwhile this wretched age flees, and with it go the herds of worries that devour me in its wake; and while I contemplate your peace, there slumbers within me the warlike spirit, its roars hushed.

  18. More easily than in the exhaustive Edizione Nazionale delle Opere, cit., this remarkable piece of sensitive erudition which holds a clue to Foscolo's poetics as well can be found in Opere di Ugo Foscolo a cura di Mario Puppo, cit., pp. 420-27 (“Su la traduzione del cenno di Giove,” On the translation of Zeus' nod).

  19. The original English text as published in 1821 (Essays on Petrarch) can be found, along with the Italian translation, by Ugoni in Edizione Nazionale delle Opere, cit., vol. X. The Italian text alone is reprinted in Opere di U. F. a cura di M. Puppo, cit. which also includes the Italian text of Epochs of the Italian Language. The revealing statement on the ambivalent nature of the Italian language to Petrarch is at p. 64 of Edizione Naz. delle Opere, vol. X: “At the same time that he improves the materials in which the Italian language already abounded, he seems to create it afresh, for it was in reality both native and foreign to him.”

  20. The Essay on the Present Literature of Italy is to be found, both in its English and in its Italian versions, in Edizione Nazionale delle Opere, cit., vol. XI, Part II. See Vincent, cit.

  21. See Note 8. In the foreword F. names imagery, style and passion as essential to both poet and translator, translation being for him contiguous to poetry as such. While he declines to define the element of passion, he analyzes style to break it down into the three components of harmony, movement and color; harmony results both from the “absolute sound” of words and from their rhythmical combinations, movement dwells in verbs because they express action, and color attaches to nouns. Furthermore, he makes much of the connotative function of literature (“accessory and concomitant ideas”), which gets lost in dictionaries and in most translations. Finally, he postulates an elective affinity between author and translator, calling it a “harmony of souls” bestowed by Nature alone and to be discovered only by experiment. If we dissolve the element of “passion” into the tangibles of imagery and style as defined by Foscolo, we shall move in a very Poundian sphere indeed, the more so as the exercise of translation as self-discovery or self-masking was intrinsic to Pound's work no less than to Foscolo's. The relevant passage is to be found in vol. cit. of Ediz. Naz. cit., p. 210.

  22. The expression coined by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (“Preexistenz”) to define what Blake would have called innocence, a basic myth to Romantics and moderns alike, seems strikingly apt for the condition evoked and cherished in Foscolo's Zacynthos sonnet; a condition forever lost yet mentally reattainable in poetry, with the help of the “Graces.”

Glauco Cambon (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “The Demon of Suicide and the Demon of Fiction,” in Ugo Foscolo, Poet of Exile, Princeton University Press, 1980, pp. 27-116.

[In the following essay, Cambon compares and contrasts Foscolo's Letters of Ortis with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's thematically similar The Sorrows of Young Werther. The critic also discusses the input provided by the Countess Antonietta Fagnani Arese, who had translated Goethe's work, and with whom Foscolo was in love.]

If we are to believe Foscolo's love letters to her, Countess Antonietta Fagnani Arese, that naughty Milanese beauty who irritated him into some of his finest writing, said teasingly that he was a little novel in the flesh.1 And a novel in the making, if we want to translate her humorous expression in a way that does justice to its larger implications. Ugo Foscolo, restless exile, patriot, soldier, scholar, poet, Byronic lover, was himself the stuff of which Romantic novels are made, and he knew it so well that he kept trying to pour his whole incandescent life-experience into some adequate narrative, from The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis on. However, in the intimacy of drawing room or boudoir, Antonietta did not call him “un personaggio da romanzo,” a character fit for a novel, as she well might have if she had tried to fit him into the mold of an available idiom. She called him a novel as such. The metaphor was more than a society quip or bon mot, and more than a simple idiosyncrasy of the kind that the private language of lovers can foster. It was attuned to his rapid style. It both revealed the large scope of his personality and good-humoredly punctured his (however sincere) addiction to heroic roles and melodrama. Above all, it wittily stated that convergence of life and literature which operated at the center of Foscolo's concerns.

Countess Arese can be credited with her share of wit and insight, despite (or because of) the fact that she cynically played her men one against the other in the game of love. Besides, it is hard to see how Ugo Foscolo of all lovers could have become so passionately involved in her if she had been just a mindless, ravishing brunette beauty with wealthy leisure at her command, instead of an intelligent and pretty cultivated woman who, in the patriarchal society of her conservative class, place, and age, had to use marriage as a shield and duplicity as a weapon for her urge to live a fuller life than convention allowed. The role of Aspasia was dangerous; and if we grant exceptional men like Foscolo, Byron, or Goethe the right to fulfill themselves at the expense of several women's feelings, we might as well concede that a true Aspasia is as rare as a good poet. The poet at any rate seems to need her in some form. Giacomo Leopardi—Foscolo's direct literary descendant—certainly did, no less than his physically more fortunate master.

Readers of good poetry, then, should acknowledge their debt to women like Antonietta Fagnani Arese, or Fanny Targioni Tozzetti (the inspirer of Leopardi's “Aspasia” lyrics). That is the very debt which the purveyors of that poetry could not bring themselves to admit—except by writing their verse and prose in fierce or desolate protest. Foscolo's occasionally patronizing words to his Antonietta (whom, at the height of their liaison, he credits with much heart and little imagination) surely do little justice to her mind—which he seems to respect far more, despite himself, when he lashes out at her infidelity in the parting letter—last but one of the series, undated but probably written in February 1803, and numbered 284 by Plinio Carli.2 Here Foscolo, in cold rage, calls her “a feminine Lovelace”—referring to a notorious character in Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe, the book which, along with Pamela, had started in eighteenth-century Europe the clamorous tradition of the epistolary novel. That tradition of course included, in a straight line of succession, Rousseau's La nouvelle Héloïse, Goethe's Werther, and Foscolo's own Jacopo Ortis.

Pinpointing the above-mentioned convergence of literature and life, Ortis is named in this letter (he had actually appeared in many as the author's alias); as for Werther, which Foscolo variously recognized as a kindred book and a model source at least for the reshaping of his own novel, Antonietta was apparently translating it for him at the time of their passion.3 The Arese translation, which Foscolo rated above the ones then in print, was never published (and he was probably reworking it for a while); but he mentions it honorably in his January 16, 1802 letter to Goethe.4 This letter announces the arrival, by private delivery, of a complimentary copy of Le ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1801 edition, Mainardi publisher)—and that copy was duly preserved in Weimar's Goethe Archive. Goethe's opinion of the handsome tribute is not known, or at least did not prompt a reply to Foscolo (whose name fails to appear, for instance, in Eckermann's Gespräche mit Goethe); a strange omission in view of Goethe's keen interest in contemporary Italian literature, for whose sake he eventually took up the cudgels when it came to defending Manzoni's artistry. Perhaps the by now classically oriented genius of Weimar did not want to be admired for the radical work of his Sturm-und-Drang youth, as the epistolary exchange with Schiller in those very years5 may confirm. He was, let us remember, cool to Hölderlin and hostile to Kleist.

On our part, in any case, we can hardly fail to notice the decisive intersections, at the beginning of the new century, in Foscolo's life and work. Given his strong autobiographical bent, his sense of history, and his political commitment, we can hardly discount the juncture of certain shocks at the moment of his literary flowering between the last years of the eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth: Napoleon's ambiguous role, with the destruction of any hope for Venetian liberal patriots; the suicide, in real life, of Foscolo's own brother, Giovanni, and of the Paduan student Girolamo Ortis; Antonietta Arese's comet-like visitation from 1801 to early 1803, which coincided with the reworking and completion of Ortis. The novel had been originally written (Part i) in 1798, in the wake of the Campoformio treaty (1797); interrupted by the political vicissitudes of 1799 which saw Italy invaded by Austrian and Russian forces during Napoleon's expedition to Egypt; “completed” by an Angelo Sassoli at the behest of the original publisher, Marsigli of Bologna; then resumed by Foscolo after Napoleon's return, and finally printed in 1802.6 Foscolo had trouble with pirated editions and fakes—an odd compliment to him, to be sure, if rather unwelcome.

If ever the making of a novel could itself be a novel in the making, such was the case with Le ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis; and since the fictional suicide, Jacopo, is Fascolo's self-portrait, we are sent back once more to Countess Arese's teasing quip about her fiery poet lover. It would not be until 1817 that the final authoritative edition could appear, in London, with further changes (including the division of the story in two parts), but in this regard the turning point had occurred with the Milan edition of 1802. If Goethe presided over the development of the book with his long-standing example, Antonietta Arese gave it the central impulse with her intervention in Foscolo's life; the crucial intertwining of these concomitant stimuli is documented also by the fact that some of the fictional letters Jacopo Ortis addresses to his friend Lorenzo Alderani (the Wilhelm of Jacopo Ortis' Werther) closely mirror some of the letters Ugo Foscolo was actually writing at the time to his bewitching mistress and translator of Werther. This is true in particular of Ortis' July 19 letter to Teresa, his beloved, which in the 1802 edition markedly changes from its first version in the incomplete 1798 edition (where it was numbered xlv and happened to be the very last part penned by Foscolo himself).7 The changes overwhelmingly reflect phrases and ideas from Foscolo's own letters to Isabella Roncioni (a real life model of chaste Teresa he had had to give up in Florence) and to Antonietta herself, as Giovanni Gambarin has pointed out in a detailed footnote to his critical edition.8 For instance, the 1802 version introduces the motif of Jacopo's request of his beloved's portrait as a souvenir—a request Foscolo made to Isabella Roncioni in his parting letter of 1801 from Florence, and also to Antonietta in several letters.

In one of these,9 probably written in December 1801 or January 1802, he talks of an exchange of portraits and dwells on the way he would like to have them done, fashions, posture and all. Here is what he envisages for her:

… I still don't know what to suggest about your portrait. I would long to have it in a melancholy attitude, picturesque but not romanesque, and in the background [sic] some tree of a dark green, like cypress or oak. For the rest, leave it to the painter: if he is a real artist and has ever been in love, he'll be able to do much better than what I could tell him. And which painter, seeing you so beautiful, could not bank on your divine physiognomy? Don't put on your head any coiffure, or French rags, or flowers. Let your hair go as it stands, and nature will make it much lovelier than your hairdresser could ever do with all his art. The arm naked, and the dress white; if you want a shawl, the fittest color would seem to be the black; or if it were to stand out too sharply on the white, choose one that is less violent but tending to the pathetic. I'd like for you to have a book on your knees or in your hand: Werther, or Ortis, and have the painter put small capital letters in the pages, so one may see that you have either one of these two books …

Antonietta's portrait is already painted here, and the disappointment expressed in the following letter10 at the preliminary sketch the painter (a lady) had done, only enhances the vividness of Foscolo's own verbal brushwork:

No, no, the more I think of it the more I dislike that drawing: you hold the book too awkwardly; I would want you seated with the book loosely opened on your knees; the arm then would be stretched and the hand would have something soft and nonchalant. Do consult more carefully yesterday's letter; in fact, why don't you copy that pictorial article and have the painter read it …

Taken together in their sequence, or even each by itself, the two letters are also quite a lively portrait of Ugo Foscolo, showing his intimate side, playful and vehement in turn, and if the second one is signed “Il tuo Ortis” (Your Ortis), the obsessively passionate and self-destructive aspect—the one that chiefly went into the novel, very cathartically—is not allowed to hold unchallenged sway; Didymus tempers him into self-irony or supersedes him in joyful release:

… Now I'll tell you my life after your last kiss. I took the way of the old city ramparts, and I made love to yesterday's utterly beautiful sun. Back home, a bit tired, I took three or four cups of tea, and then lay down, but had no chance to sleep. I have chatted with [my brother's] teacher until evening, and he was fondly advising me not to get up so early any more, because the air of this season and sky is most fatal, so much so as he believes I have spent my hours in walking and philosophizing. Thus from story to story night came, and that Chaldean face did so many crazy things, and said such strange ones, that I laughed to split my sides. … It was months since I had had such a laugh, unless you except the story of the Church with which my Scimiotta (Monkey pet) made me laugh while I ate panettone (Milanese Xmas cake). Then supper time came … or rather, I made it come around seven; my little family had already supped. Therefore I got up to take a stroll; but who knows how, at nine or shortly before I found myself in bed, at ten I was asleep; I woke up this morning after six; I had my servant (mine and not mine) light the fire, where I am now writing you and sipping a piping hot tea; and may the Lord God bless you. …

That is the breezy finale of the first letter, a true hymn to joy, while the second letter, after the “pictorial” beginning, harps on possible rivals or disturbers of the amatory peace in comically violent, self-parodying terms, only to subjoin that “Werther and Jacopo Ortis are the two only real honest men on earth,” for the others are despicable “courtly polished rabble” who “play satellite to your planet [meaning obviously Antonietta]” and “talk very badly of anybody, who do no good because they have no virtue, and do no evil because they do not have courage.” “Yet,” Foscolo goes on, “Werther and Ortis, despite their heart, talent and honesty, are not preferred to certain wretches who act as pimps to women in order to satisfy their lust, and sell their honor to men in order to foster their vices. Hooray! As for me, I'd say goodby to all society and all belles if I had to be soiled by such wretches.—I am obviously on a preaching stunt. Never mind: when on earth shall I come to stay with you? You are wrong if you think letters are enough for me. …”

Whichever way we approach it, the pulsing knot of life and literature, image and passion, reading, living and writing, appears harder and harder to disentangle: their interplay is so complex. On the one hand, these letters give us as nearly unreflected an experience as was possible for such a cultivated writer as Foscolo to have. They actually show the urgency of all but instant communication rather than the niceties of elaborate composition, and we may regard them in part as “sources” for the novel that was still in progress during the first year of Foscolo's love affair with Countess Arese. On the other hand, the letters cannot help being literary prose of a frequently high order; their addressee was a most provocative Muse, the same who, in that very period, elicited from her exuberant worshiper the Ode all'amica risanata (Ode to His Lady on Her Recovery)—one of Foscolo's enduring lyrics, a memorable celebration of feminine beauty and capriciousness. And nothing of what he wrote her, be it ever so intimate and circumstantial, could fail to respond in style to that thoroughly enjoyed yet repeatedly elusive Aphrodite.

Moreover, the letters as such, and what they reveal of the liaison that prompted them, bask in the reflected light of the novel in progress—Jacopo Ortis' Last Letters—as well as of Werther. Werther, we saw, had hovered on the creative horizon of Ortis in its 1798 inception (Letter xlv of the 1799 edition has a direct reference to Goethe's book along with others, Clarissa included), but it re-entered Foscolo's creative orbit even more forcefully when, having resumed work on his own interrupted book, he could have Antonietta Arese as officiating mediator between the German text and his literary consciousness. Life mirrored literature and the nexus between Foscolo's own work and that of an inspiring literary model, just as much as literature fed on his turbulent life.

The resulting constellation of interacting forces is emblematized by him in that letter which contains directives for the prospective painter of Antonietta's portrait. That letter is life directly experienced—and at the same time, literature. It utters an intimate message and grasps a living image; the image in turn, statically conceived as a tableau à la Gainsborough, and abounding in color as Foscolo's poems rarely are (but then note how the Ode to his Lady on her Recovery antithetically seizes her image as pure motion), fixes the important elements of Foscolo's creative life in that feverish phase: with Antonietta as presiding Muse, holding the key to his communion with Nature in the background and congenial literature (Goethe) in the foreground. She is actually projected as part of Nature herself, a privileged, culminating part, to be sure, the crown of creation. In the mentioned farewell letter to Isabella Roncioni, as well as in the corresponding first redaction of Ortis' letter to Teresa at the end of the novel's 1798 draft, the request of a souvenir portrait entails no such painterly and emblematic elements as this paramount real life missive to Antonietta does.

Needless to say, the portrait motif, which at its best embodies the endeavor to rescue a significant image, figure or situation from the erosion of time, was to be found also in Werther, and will be found in Mme. De Staël's Corinne (known to Foscolo) as well as, decades later, in a novel related to Corinne: Melville's Pierre. What Foscolo does with it in his epistolary exchange with Countess Arese finds little counterpart in Jacopo Ortis (where Teresa herself, the chaste, sad, unpossessible sweetheart, is the painter), and places these letters as a whole much above the level of mere source material or side illustration for the novel's composition. I will return to this question eventually; at the moment what matters is the work of narrative art which Aphrodite Antonietta helped to elicit. Its “intertextual” or analogical relationship to Goethe's exemplary novel never ceased busying Foscolo's critical awareness, as we can see from the detailed comparison he draws between Ortis and Werther in the 1817 Notizia Bibliografica,11 a disguised self-descriptive account he published on the occasion of his novel's definitive London edition.

Thematic analogy is no consequence of servile imitation on Foscolo's part, but rather a deliberate choice springing from a recognition of affinity. The affinity extended to the existential predicament and real life cues; the epistolary form and the theme of suicide as catastrophe seemed viable enough,12 instead of preemptive, to the eager Italian writer who needed models to emulate, whether classical or modern, in his urge to shape the inner turmoil of a restless, adventurous life into the kind of incisive formulation that would make a difference in Italian literature, indeed shake it from Arcadian complacency. Foscolo's own Arcadian phase, which accounted for the repudiated youthful lyrics (their Ossianic dark shudders notwithstanding), was already overcome by his forceful if rhetorically Alfierian tragedy, Thyestes, of 1796 (a great success on the Venetian stage). In a sense, Thyestes' liberty-minded suicide foreshadows Jacopo Ortis', who significantly quotes Dante's purgatorial episode of Cato:13 “libertà va cercando, ch'è sì cara / come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta (He is seeking liberty, which is so precious, / as those well know who for its sake repudiate life). Both gestures symbolically purge an existential despair at the stagnation Foscolo sensed all around him, but by the same token enact a preliminary to rebirth.

Here it pays to observe the preponderance of the political element as description, discussion and motivation, in Ortis' Part i—an element which sharply differentiates Foscolo's novel from its great German model even though it does not lead to a successfully unified poetical treatment of the largely autobiographical character. Libertarian political passion entered neither Werther's compass nor that of its immediate artistic predecessor, La Nouvelle Héloïse, as a motivating element; it came into Ortis from revered Alfieri's example and it was no matter of mere literary infatuation. Indeed one of the reasons why Werther is the greater work of art is the avoidance of political passion as such, regardless of the noteworthy admixture of social critique into what is after all a subversive Sturm-und-Drang novel rather than just a pathetic bourgeois idyll.14 Instead of impoverishing Goethe's book, that basic lack of a political protest—due no doubt to the chronology of Werther (1774) which, unlike Ortis (1798, 1802), antedates both the American and the French Revolution—makes for better focus, more sustained narrative development, and richer treatment of the dominant love motif within the chosen narrower compass.

One follows with growing interest the peripeteia of Werther from the joyous effusions of his first contacts with the idyllic world of Waldheim—which afford him a refreshing communion with living Nature no less than with her well attuned human denizens—to the blossoming of his love for Lotte, which, instead of fulfilling the initial auspices of natural and human harmony, gradually turns into a growth of destructive alienation, a ripening to death.15 The expansion of consciousness at first makes Werther say Yes to the world—it happens to be an Edenic world—and gives that world a chance to live in his consciousness, from its cosmic perspective of forest, field, valley, river, mountain, and sky down to the minimal creatures and events which alert his perception to the verge of ecstasy. In keeping with the intrinsic freedom of the letter form, style in such moments effortlessly heightens into rhythmical prose, sustained by waves of musical anaphora:

Wenn das liebe Tal um mich dampft, und die hohe Sonne an der Oberfläche der undurchdringlichen Finsternis meines Waldes ruht, und nur einzelne Strahlen sich in das innere Heiligtum stehlen, ich dann im hohem Grase am fallendem Bache liege, und näher an der Erde tausend mannigfaltige Gräschen mir merkwürdig werden; wenn ich das Wimmeln der kleinen Welt zwischen Halmen, die unzähligen, unergründlichen Gestalten der Würmchen, der Mückchen, näher an meinem Herzen fühle, und fühle die Gegenwart des Allmächtigen, der uns nach seinem Bilde schuf, das Wehen des Alliebenden, der uns in ewiger Wonne schwebend trägt und erhält; mein Freund! wenn's dann um meine Augen dämmert, und die Welt um mich her und der Himmel ganz in meiner Seele ruhn wie die Gestalt einer Geliebten—dann sehne ich mich oft und denke: Ach könntest du das wieder ausdrücken, könntest du dem Papiere das einhauschen, was so voll, so warm in dir lebt, dass es würde der Spiegel deiner Seele, wie deine Seele ist der Spiegel des unendlichen Gottes!—Mein Freund—Aber ich gehe darüber zugrunde, ich erliege unter der Gewalt der Herrlichkeit dieser Erscheinungen.16

When the lovely valley steams around me, and the high sun rests on the surface of my wood's impenetrable darkness, and only single rays sneak into the inner sanctum, and I then lie down in the high grass near the brook's falls, and closer to earth a thousand small herbs become perceptible to me; when I feel the teeming of the little world between grass stalks, the numberless, unfathomable shapes of the mites, of the midges closer to my heart, and feel the presence of the Almighty, who made us in his image, the blowing wind of the All-loving, who carries and sustains us in perennial delight; o my friend! when then twilight gathers around my eyes, and the world about me and the sky wholly rest in my soul like the figure of a beloved woman—then do I often sigh and think: O could you only express all this again, could you infuse onto the paper what in you lives so fully, so warmly, so that it would become the mirror of your soul as your soul is the mirror of infinite God!—o my friend—But I founder on that, I succumb to the sovereign power of these phenomena.

Whispering or rich spirant alliterations conspire with the cadence created by the insistent end-verbs sealing clause after clause to create a syntactical crescendo effect. The specific resources of the German language generate a chiasmic design to make live microcosm and God-pervaded microcosm hinge on the sentient “I” of the writer persona through the pivotal verb fühle (I feel), while the persona's soul (“deine Seele”) becomes a central mediator between the inspired writing which should mirror it on paper and the inspiring Godhead of whom it in turn is the mirror. The pulsing prose achieves a unique intensity, and critics17 have accordingly noted the affinity between such lyrical effusions in Werther and the coeval Sturm und Drang hymns (especially Ganymed) freely uttering the ecstatic transport of a lay religiousness disentangled from any church.

But our main concern now is to realize how motifs spontaneously coming up so early in the story become clues to later developments of structural and thematic import, for Goethe is nothing if not a profoundly organic writer. For instance, when world and sky, an all-encompassing reality (one could almost say a cosmic womb), are internalized by the speaker persona as “the figure of a beloved woman,” the simile prophesies Werther's falling in hopeless love with Lotte, in whom all the God-suffused beauty of living nature will come to a focus for him. She will be the emotional and aesthetic epitome of the All, and her hold on him (as inner image) will be unshakable. He cannot have her in the circumstances of a relative human world to which she is committed, but since she is by then his absolute, and he wants nothing less than an absolute, he will then have to kill himself—thereby attaining a negative absolute, death, a love death consecrated to her. Erich Trunz, who has appended an insightful commentary to his critical edition of the novel, aptly says that this love death for Werther is an “Entgrenzung,” a liberation from the constraining finite—an inverted fulfillment of sorts, I would add, foreshadowing many a Liebestod in German literature and music, but differing to some extent from the more extremely nihilist implications of Jacopo Ortis' suicide.

The death-wish looming in Werther's lovesick mind when he realizes that Lotte cannot be his other than in friendship—because she marries and loyally loves her sensible, thoughtful Albert—prompts a recurrence of scene and rhythm in the August 18 letter to friend Wilhelm, in which it is inevitable to overhear the direct echo of the May 10 letter in mournful key. At the outset we have once again the surging syntax scanned by the heightening repetition of temporal clauses introduced by Wenn, and the energizing view of the living world in panoramic as well as in microscopic scale. The awareness of creative natural forces underneath, a joyful dynamism, is retrospectively colored by sadness at the loss of such communion—for now “a curtain has been pulled open before my soul, and the spectacle of endless life changes under my eyes into the abyss of the eternally yawning grave …”; Nature the tireless creative force becomes Nature the voracious destroyer:

Himmel und Erde und ihre webenden Kräfte um mich her: ich sehe nichts als ein ewig verschlingendes, ewig wiederkäuendes Ungeheuer.18

Sky and Earth and their busy forces all around me: I see nothing but an eternally devouring, eternally ruminating monster.

The vision of a sustaining Nature invested by divine afflatus and benevolence, which ecstatically climaxed the May 10 letter on a note of defeat before the inexpressible, has made way for the infernal revelation of the irrational dark powers that underlie the deceptive grace and majesty of visible phenomena—a transmogrification already hinting at Schopenhauer's and Melville's Weltanschauung, and, before them, at Foscolo's own, in Jacopo Ortis.

Goethe will overcome the impasse in the integrative vision of Faust, whose Erdgeist (Spirit of the Earth) demonically unites in himself the destructive and the creative powers that here in polarized separation haunt Werther's doomed mind. Within the scope of this novel, let us go on to observe how the rhythmical scansion and darkening tone of this August 18 letter forecast the funereal Ossian passages which Werther will read to Lotte (in Goethe's own translation) toward the end, to express his own lugubrious passion and finally snatch a kiss before the final catastrophe. In Werther's own confession, the conversion to a sinister view of reality, and to a deathbound approach, is marked by the fact that Ossian supersedes Homer in his literary taste. Homer had presided, along with the Bible, over the earlier scenes of an idyllic world amounting to an objective, warm reality, while sunny Homer's disappearance from the horizon heralds the advent of a night of the soul under the sign of Ossian: the night of the self-involved, tendentially wordless and therefore self-destructive subjectivity.

Thus the literary references conspire with the development of imagery and style to articulate the theme, and there is a perfect convergence in this case when hymn is eventually metamorphosed into dirge. Rhythm and tone of Goethe's Ossian well suit the fateful occasion—Werther's kiss and his decision to die—while clearly recalling, in the changed key, Werther's early effusions of May 10 and his transition from ecstatic contemplation of the living universe to the horror of its demoniac destructiveness in the August 18 letter. A musical permutation occurs from the very start:19

Stern der dämmernden Nacht, schön funkelst du im Westen, hebst dein strahlend Haupt aus deiner Wolke, wandelst stattlich deinen Hügel hin. Wornach blickst du auf die Heide? Die stürmenden Winde haben sich gelegt; von ferne kommt des Giessbachs Murmeln; rauschende Wellen spielen am Felsen ferne; das Gesumme der Abendfliegen schwärmet übers Feld. Wornach siehst du, schönes Licht? Aber du lächelst und gehst, freudig umgeben dich die Wellen und baden dein liebliches Haar. Lebe wohl, ruhiger Strahl. Erscheine, du herrliches Licht von Ossians Seele!

Und es erscheint in seiner Kraft. Ich sehe meine geschiedenen Freunde, sie sammeln sich auf Lora, …

Star of descending night! fair is thy light in the west! thou liftest thy unshorn head from thy cloud; thy steps are stately on thy hill. What dost thou behold in the plain? The stormy winds are laid. The murmur of the torrent comes from afar. Roaring waves climb the distant rock. The flies of evening are on their feeble wings; the hum of their course is on the field. What dost thou behold, fair light? But thou dost smile and depart. Thy waves come with joy around thee: they bathe thy lovely hair. Farewell, thou silent beam. Let the light of Ossian's soul arise!

And it does arise in its strength! I behold my departed friends. Their gathering is on Lora, …

Now that the infectious vogue of Ossian is a matter of literary archaeology, we might well feel that this episode, with the emphasis it receives from the extended quotation (over six pages), from the climactic placement and function, and Lotte's tearful response, dates Werther beyond salvage—were it not that the structural reasons I just mentioned concur with deft handling and seminal value of theme to make us reconsider.

It is Werther, not Goethe, who succumbs to literature, just as in Inf. v it is Paolo and Francesca, not Dante, who succumb to (meretricious) literature; just as, later on in European writing, it will be “Tristan,” not Thomas Mann, who succumbs to literary and musical seduction, and again Aschenbach, not Thomas Mann, who lets literature strengthen the call of homoerotic love to death. Werther, the overly sensitive mind, the potential creator, is dominated by Ossian; Goethe dominates Ossian by incorporating the dirge in his own language and fictional context. Incidentally, I tend to agree with Roy Pascal, who sees in Werther certain problems of the creative spirit who is made vulnerable by his very creativity, rather than with Erich Trunz, who sees him merely as the artist manqué because he fails to commit himself to the initially cultivated art of painting.

Werther is not just the man of feeling, this side of reason and of objective creativity; he is a spontaneous artist in his letters and an intentional one in what is fictionally purported to be his translation from Ossian (Goethe being, of course, the actual translator). That solemn, tearful scene, then, though it may grate on a modern reader's taste, must be seen also as Werther's swansong as an artist—the limited artist he can be. One touch of parody, and we would have Thomas Mann's Tristan instead of Goethe's terribly serious Werther. Make friend Wilhelm, the dutiful reporting voice, a bit more detached; make him sarcastic, and he would play Mephistopheles to the budding Faust that Werther is. But Faust is involved in open experience, not in absolutist love-death. Analogously, the need to pursue his radical theme to the bitter end prevented Foscolo from augmenting his dosage of Sternian ingredients in Ortis to the point where humor, the Didymean antidote, would have stopped poor Jacopo from taking that last destructive step. It was in the nature of the theme that these Sturm-und-Drang heroes should be taken seriously by their authors and, above all, by themselves. If these novels date in some regards, then after all greater works of literature tend to date: Othello's jealousy, Achilles' wrath, Hamlet's perplexity, Lear's and Goriot's paternal folly, Emma Bovary's dreamy yearning, need our cooperation to be taken as seriously as they are supposed to be; we need only remember that a reader of Robert Graves' sophistication has seen the Iliad as intentional satire.

The obvious lack of parody in Goethe's presentation of his hero in Werther (the novel as such is not devoid of humorous touches, at least in Part i) does not imply lack of criticism; the writer lets him follow his path to self-destruction, and that is an implicit criticism, not an invitation to imitate Werther's example, as some readers actually did. The latter grotesquely brought the work of art back to one occasional source in real life—the suicide of Mr. Jerusalem, whose yellow waistcoat and blue jacket were also donned by Werther and became as famous for decades as Gautier's red waistcoat was to be somewhat later, for different reasons. The inner logic that brings Werther to suicide is sustained by many an artful touch in the handling of narrative incident, dialogue, imagery, and word-play, as we already saw in part when touching on the organic growth of the overall theme. We saw that Werther's initial opening to a new life gradually becomes a ripening for death, and he himself characterizes the process when he says toward the end, in the December 10 letter: “It is necessary that nothing should be harvested before it is ripe,”20 though he says it in a seemingly casual way. The curve of his “ripening” develops against the background of the seasonal cycle: the joyful first letters are penned in spring, and the suicide is consummated in December of the following year; the handsome old walnuts he so much cherished in the parsonage (letter of July 1st, Part i) are eventually chopped down (letter of Sept. 15, Part ii), and it is an intimation of waste and death. When Werther says to Wilhelm “Mir wäre besser, ich ginge” (It is better for me to go),21 he is punning in a macabre way. When Werther says to Lotte, at the end of Part i, “We shall see each other again,”22 that auspicious expression carries a funereal overtone to be borne out later by his last passionate message to her: “We shall be! We shall see each other again!”23—for here he specifies that he dies for her and he feels sure that he will be reunited to her in death, or in another world. When it is autumn around him in Nature, it is autumn in his soul,24 and winter cannot be far behind. Shortly later (November 30) he meets the deranged youth who seeks flowers in winter and finds none.25 Intimations of world repudiation and suicide have cropped up almost from the start, and they have counterpointed even the early happy messages, for Werther feels like a prisoner in a world that has no use for his higher forces, which he thinks must remain unused and disguised, to rot away; only with his deceased lady friend (letter of May 17, first year) could he be wholly himself and rise above the level of mere social pleasantry and heartiness. His (largely unachieved) potential is what sets him apart and condemns him to suicide since he cannot fully express it; here we have the theme of the artist's alienation from bourgeois society, long before Flaubert, Mann, and Joyce.

In such a carefully orchestrated development, the cues and inner echoes never sound contrived. Such is the case with the motif of the pistols, which Werther asks of Albert once in the early phase (occasioning a heated discussion of the ethical merits of suicide) and then again later, to use them for killing himself. The same goes for the episodes which could be mistaken for accessory, and work instead as figures (or counter-figures) of Werther's own destiny, since it is strictly through his perception that we are exposed to them: the young handyman who kills his lady out of jealousy, and the young madman at large in the fields. In both cases Werther recognizes alternative destinies to his own, choices he must discard: killing Albert, who stands legally and emotionally between Lotte and himself, and yielding to the seduction of gentle madness. The episodic characters thus introduced are artistically realized in their own right, thanks to the dramatic and epic gift Goethe shares with his beloved Shakespeare; otherwise they could not convincingly perform their structural function of thematic reinforcement through mirroring and enrichment. In retrospect, even the masterly and ostensibly joyous scene of the dance in Part i, when Werther first gets to know Lotte (in a quite casual way), takes on ominous implications, not just because of the storm that breaks out (it's very un-Virgilian meteorology after all), but on account of its breathless crescendo; Werther and Lotte whirl around as if caught in a storm of their own, from which Lotte can escape, and Werther cannot. And all the time, needless to say, the symbolic dimension makes itself felt as a natural projection of the straight narrative. The dance scene is first and foremost a lovely verbal picture of social behavior, which advances the plot while adding to the character portrayal of both Werther and Lotte.

No one, in short, can read Werther today as mere sentimental effusion, of mainly historical interest. It is too subtly organized—and formally organic—for that. The vegetal imagery conspires with the year-cycle framework to give it a firm warp and woof. And, in this context, Werther's self-portrayal achieves a dramatic climax in the Christological references of November 15, 21, and 30,26 which find a most striking echo in his farewell letter to Lotte27 penned just before his suicide, between eleven and twelve p.m.:

Hier, Lotte! Ich schaudre nicht, den kalten, schrecklichen Kelch zu fassen, aus dem ich den Taumel des Todes trinken soll! Du reichtest mir ihn, und ich zage nicht. All! All! So sind alle die Wünsche und Hoffnungen meines Lebens erfüllt!

Here, Lotte! I am not shuddering at grasping the cold, fearsome cup from which I must drink the tumult of death! You are offering it to me, and I do not tremble. All! All! Thus are fulfilled all the desires and hopes of my life!

The chalice motif had come up, as a forceful existential protest, in the November 15 letter:28

Was ist es anders als Menschenschicksal, sein Mass auszuleiden, seinen Becher auszutrinken?—Und ward der Kelch dem Gott vom Himmel auf seinem Menschenlippe zu bitter, warum soll ich grosstun und mich stellen, als schmeckte er mir süss?

Is it anything but human destiny to fill one's measure of suffering, to empty one's cup?—And if the cup (chalice) tasted too bitter to the Heaven-sent God on his human lips, why should I act grandly and pretend it tastes sweet to me?

His religious feeling, wholly heretical, can only express itself in “a whole litany of antitheses”;29 and in fact, in the Nov. 21 letter, it is Lotte who gives him the cup “full of poison” from which he drinks his destruction.30 Place this alongside the Nov. 15 reference in the immediately preceding letter, and the final Dec. 13 letter to Lotte quoted above, and you will have a rendingly dissonant chord: one Gospel image through its dizzy variations gives the graph of Werther's abysmal swaying “zwischen Sein und Nichtsein,”31 so that the Hamletic despair can find its fearful release in the Golgotha cry:

Mein Gott! mein Gott! warum hast du mich verlassen?

My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?

Werther can identify with Christ in his non-Christian way because he has his own Olive Garden and his Calvary; the language of prayer becomes one and the same thing with the language of protest and despair; it is as if the individual could come to know himself only in utter repudiation and abandon, in the curse of individuality. Werther can identify with Christ because he—like Christ—wants to go back to the Father; but he does not know this Father, this arch, inscrutable Protestant God:

Vater, den ich nicht kenne! Vater, der sonst meine ganze Seele Füllte und nun sein Angesicht von mir gewendet hat, rufe mich zu dir! Schweige nicht lange! Dein Schweigen wird diese dürstende Seele nicht aufhalten—Und würde ein Mensch, ein Vater, zürnen können, dem sein unvermutet rückkehrender Sohn um den Hals fiele und riefe: “Ich bin wieder da, mein Vater! Zürne nicht, dass ich die Wanderschaft abbreche, die ich nach deinem Willen länger aushalten sollte. Die Welt ist überall einerlei, auf Mühe und Arbeit Lohn und Freude; aber was soll mir das? mir ist nur wohl, wo du bist, und vor deinem Angesichte will ich leiden und geniessen.”—Und du, lieber himmlishcher Vater, solltest ihn von dir weisen?32

Father, whom I do not know! Father, who once filled my whole soul and now has turned his face away from me, call me to you! Be silent no more! Your silence will not stop this thirsty soul—And could a man, a father, indeed be angry when his unexpectedly returning son threw his arms around his neck and called out: “Here I am again, father! Do not be angry if I cut short the wandering that according to your will I should have borne longer. The world is the same all over, for toil and work, wages and joy; but what matters that to me? I am well only where you are, and in your presence only will I suffer and rejoice.”—And you, dear heavenly Father, you should cast him away?

The suicide is a prodigal son presumptive, and in competition with Christ rather than in imitation of him, so that Werther can appropriate His last cry of anguish without falling back on the established religion—and yet the whole book vibrates with religious feeling, of such a personal nature that we have no trouble recognizing here a forerunner of the existentialist attitude instigated by modern man's loss of the reassuring old creeds.

It is this religious feeling that powers the recurrent wave-like rhythms of Werther as they move from the hymnic to the elegiac tone and back again to a hymn in the teeth of despair: Werther's final letter to Lotte, who turns out to be his true godhead and will presumably answer the desolate question that God the Father, unknown and absent, has left unanswered. The crowning of this strong drive toward a feminine godhead will be seen in Faust, whose Part ii ends with the glorification of redeeming-redeemed Gretchen in the sight of Mary, both translated into “das Ewig Weibliche.” Here in Werther's final sequences, it is significant that twice, when an impassioned appeal to the absent God takes shape, that father figure is superseded by Lotte in a comparably exalted capacity. Her deification springs from the absolutist claim of an unfulfilled Eros, for whom the all becomes nothing without her, and she—visually epitomized in her black eyes—invades the all:

Wie mich die Gestalt verfolgt! Wachend und träumend füllt sie meine ganze Seele! Hier, wenn ich die Augen schliesse, hier in meiner Stirne, wo die innere Sehkraft sich vereinigt, stehen ihre schwarzen Augen. Hier! ich kann dir es nicht ausdrücken. Mache ich meine Augen zu, so sind sie da; wie ein Meer, wie ein Abgrund ruhen sie vor mir, in mir, füllen die Sinne meiner Stirn. …33

How her form pursues me! In waking or in dreaming she fills my whole soul! Here, when I close my eyes, here in my forehead, where the inner power of vision unites, stand her black eyes. Here! I cannot express it for you. If I close my eyes, there hers are; as a sea, as an abyss they rest before me, in me, and fill the senses of my forehead. …

Just as Laura obsesses Petrarch, Lotte obsesses Werther, and there is a touch of the demonic as well as of the divine in the surreal visionary climax reported here; in Werther's subjective world she supersedes God the Father, that God who used to “fill” him while she is the only fullness he now knows. The ambiguities of erotic-religious experience are conveyed with rare force by the web of recurrent-developing imagery allied to the surging rhythms of a prose which repeatedly aspires to the condition of music. Although Werther declares himself unable to render this deep experience in adequate words, he manages to do it so well that his expression projects for us a tangible, dynamic infinity, the divine-demonic essence of Lotte, goddess of love and death, nocturnal, unseizable and inescapable, funereal and splendid. This “Entgrenzung”34 of Lotte—a prefiguring of Werther's own submersion in death—has little to do with the plain, reasonable, if sensitive, and practical Lotte of real life, and the discrepancy is underlined by Goethe himself by way of juxtaposition, as we see by comparing this letter with the previous one featuring Lotte's own innocently solicitous words to her friend. It all bears out the intrinsic critique Goethe implants in the self-description of his tragic hero. It is as if he resumed, to bring it to a head, the troubadour tradition of doomed love, from Cavalcanti to Petrarch, while looking forward to a different solution, as his later fiction was to attest. Werther's extreme subjectivism is its own doom; the later Goethe will have left this crucial phase behind, just as the mature Dante was to leave behind his Cavalcantian phase of death-ridden, subjectivized love. Love in the Western world, certainly in the literary one, had had a long heterodox tradition, as Denis de Rougemont pointed out;35 and through whatever modifications it has led, chiefly with Goethe but also Rousseau before and Foscolo after him, to the confessional strain of modern writing.

The very passionate intensity Goethe injected into the confessions of his own enfant du siècle testifies to the closeness of creature to creator in this model case, where bringing forth the fictional child was also an act of necessary repudiation, and the repudiation, a saving exorcism. Werther secretly haunted Goethe, and only in his old age, when writing the Trilogy of Passion, could the poet bring himself to welcome back the prodigal son of his own stormy youth. Likewise Ugo Foscolo, for whom the writing of Le ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis amounted to a cathartic endeavor, spent the rest of his literary life neutralizing that confessional character, Jacopo Ortis, whose self-destructive bent paradoxically supplied him with the quick of creativeness, and called forth the ironic Didymus, an anti-self terribly needed in the saving dialectic of imagination. There was so much to kill in the domain of his turbulent self, and so much to revive, that only by this symbolic sacrifice could Ugo Foscolo liberate himself for the exceptional task awaiting him. Out of this total negation the difficult limited affirmations historical flesh is heir to could arise. The initial claim to an unqualified fulfillment, to an emotional infinite, would thus make the limited fulfillments possible, for both writers. Ortis is not born as a mere literary imitation of Werther; at any rate it takes courage to snatch the club from the hands of Hercules, and Foscolo was the first to acknowledge his debt to the formidable German model, which helped him to channel and release his creative powers instead of stifling them—as might have happened to a less vigorous talent.

Foscolo was also the first to analyze in detail the similarity along with the telling differences between Ortis and Werther, in his bibliographical notice appended to the 1817 London edition of the novel that had suddenly made him famous almost a score of years before. The comparison is as penetrating and straightforward as we could expect from a man of his temper, who had not hesitated to enter a direct confrontation with Goethe's early masterpiece when the circumstances of his own life had impelled him to voice his “heroic furies” through the mask of Jacopo Ortis and thereby control them. The analogy of conception and vehicle acted as a stimulant on Foscolo's inventive talent, which found repeated incentive in extant literature (whether as translator-critic or conscious imitator) for the expressive release of his tumultuous experience. He is as literary as a writer can afford to be precisely because he is as personal as one could ever be; he needed molds to contain and shape that lava. In this again he resembles Ezra Pound, and certainly his impact on the Italian literary scene was revolutionary, and far from short-lived. But if he looms larger on the Italian horizon, he demands to be placed in a European perspective too, if only because of the enduring enrichment he had brought to poetry and of the tireless experimentation that marked his intense career—an experimentation we are in a better position to evaluate after Ezra Pound.

Ortis, as its author indicates, differs from Werther not just because the political element plays such a large part in it that it precedes and almost forestalls unhappy love as the motivation of suicide, but also because it is a story contained within a narrower compass of development, and jerkier in narrative treatment. In Werther we follow the organic development of the hero's attitude from joyful expansiveness to brooding despair through a tragic peripeteia of sorts, though the seeds of alienation were there to begin with; in Ortis instead, the chips are down from the start, for the axe has fallen on the protagonist's hopes for a better or simply viable world:

Il sacrificio della patria è consumato.

The sacrifice of our fatherland is consummated.

That opening clause of the novel (which refers to Napoleon's ruthless bartering of Venice's freedom in 1797 for the political advantages a settlement with Austria would afford) already hints at the final sacrifice which Jacopo will consummate in his own person when even the love of Teresa will be denied him, and he will see no reason to cling to an uprooted life. Thus, properly speaking, in Ortis we have no dramatic development because we have no reversal of situation and attitude, no peripeteia to say it in Aristotelian terms; it is a more static novel than its German counterpart, and Jacopo Ortis' “tragic monologue,” as Angelo Jacomuzzi has aptly called it,36 is already an epilogue, a predetermined catastrophe which the episode of Teresa can only temporarily delay; one could graphically abstract it as a descending curve with a rebounding tract in the midst, or, in more concrete terms, one could describe it as a positive reversal manqué.

The painful realization of defeat for his liberal ideals, supported by objective description and philosophizing interludes, passes into the reawakening of hope when Teresa appears, but the ecstatic moment makes way for another disappointment and then nothing is left but suicide—a gesture compounded of Plutarchian as well as Wertherian aspects, but still significant as a radical challenge to a world which has no providential God to illuminate it and no human justice to sustain it either. In this sense, Ortis in the literary sphere amounts to a more extreme act of contestation than its poetically richer and more coherent model. Cheated in his revolutionary hopes (a terrible thing for an aspiring young man who has seen the initial promise of the French Revolution, that revolution to which Goethe's Werther and the whole Sturm und Drang movement were only tentatively pointing), robbed of a country he loved, and forced to renounce the one thing which might have reconciled him to this existence—a great love, itself frustrated by the political circumstances—Jacopo Ortis flings his body in bloody protest at the world, and at God himself if such an entity be conceivable anymore.

Werther's ultimate sacrifice is preceded by prayer, heretical of course, but sublime; Ortis argues with God or “God” only to blaspheme, blasphemy being his only way to acknowledge a possible godhead. This reflects the overall physiognomy of each novel, Werther's being clearly more focused and narratively modulated, with the consequence that its Pietist inspiration ultimately reabsorbs the concurrent Sturm-und-Drang ideology, with which it seemed bound to clash. Pietism transforms protest into prayer and violence itself into a strange gentleness, while Ortis seesaws between gentleness and violence for the same reason that its Christian and biblical component conflicts with its Jacobin, materialist, ultimately Hobbesian37 ideology without ever bringing such tense polarity to a resolution. As happens with so many disaffected Catholics, blasphemy, that verbal violence, becomes a negative verification of God's presence, or a stratagem to summon him back from an unendurable absence. Werther never accuses his “unknown Father,” he actually makes his suicide a sacrificial offering in which the person of the priest and the person of the victim are one, and God the Father and God the Mother—in Lotte—are also one. His self-removal from the world of flesh and blood is a way of seeking God beyond the established creeds. Ortis instead quarrels with God because he cannot find Him, and the contradiction between the letters in which he invokes or praises God, and those which describe his desolate, infernal view of nature and history as a product of blind forces, is nearly schizoid; it actually pulls his mind apart at the seams and goes a long way toward justifying his suicide.

The later work of Foscolo will show no such destructive tension between the ancestral creed and the stark image of reality that modern science has begun to formulate; Foscolo will accept the latter and stoically build on it what can be called a newfangled humanism deprived of any metaphysical guarantees. Thus I Sepolcri, thus Le Grazie, works where characteristically we find no reference to a Christian God, and therefore no blasphemy; the Greek gods that populate these poems are cherished fictions, cultural data, ciphers of man-made values. Thus the storm of Ortis was cathartic to Foscolo in a different way than Werther proved cathartic to Goethe, for the German poet evolved a kind of humanism steeped in an immanent spiritualism (and the end of Faust ii actually comes pretty close to a neo-Catholic mythology), while Foscolo made a pretty radical choice between his received transcendent faith and the bare world-view conveyed by Enlightenment philosophy. When Jacopo Ortis, toward the very end, in his letter to Teresa asks God to annihilate him, he is in effect annihilating God:

T'amai dunque t'amai, e t'amo ancor di un amore che non si può concepire che da me solo. E' poco prezzo, o mio angelo, la morte per chi ha potuto udir che tu l'ami, e sentirsi scorrere in tutta l'anima la voluttà del tuo bacio e piangere teco—io sto col piè nella fossa; eppure tu anche in questo frangente ritorni, come solevi, davanti a questi occhi che morendo si fissano in te, in te che sacra risplendi di tutta la tua bellezza. E fra poco! Tutto è apparecchiato: la notte è già troppo avanzata—addio—fra poco saremo disgiunti dal nulla, o dalla incomprensibile eternità. Nel nulla? Sì, sì; poiché sarò senza di te, io prego il sommo Iddio, se non ci riserba alcun luogo ov'io possa riunirmi teco per sempre, lo prego dalle viscere dell'anima mia, e in questa tremenda ora della morte, perché egli m'abbandoni soltanto nel nulla. Ma io moro incontaminato, e padrone di me stesso, e pieno di te, e certo del tuo pianto! Perdonami, Teresa, se mai—ah consolati, e vivi per la felicità de' nostri miseri genitori; la tua morte farebbe maledire le mie ceneri. …38

I loved you then I loved you, and I still love you with a love that can only be conceived by myself. It is a small price, o my angel, to die when one has heard you say that you love him and felt his whole soul flooded by the delight of your kiss, and wept with you—I have one foot in the grave; yet you even now return, as you used to, before these eyes which dying come to rest on you, on you who sacred shine with all your beauty. And before long! All is prepared: the night wears on—goodbye—before long we shall be divided by nothingness, or by the incomprehensible eternity. In nothingness? Yes—Yes, yes; since I shall be without you, I pray almighty God, if He reserves no place where I can be reunited to you forever, I pray Him from my deepest soul, and in this dreadful hour of death, that He may only abandon me in nothingness. But I die untainted, and self-possessed, and full of you, and sure of your tears! Forgive me, Teresa, if ever—ah console yourself, and live for the happiness of our poor parents; your death would cause my ashes to be cursed. …

Consider the equivalence of “nothingness” and “incomprehensible eternity,” and the resolution of religion in nihilism; consider the idea that Jacopo and his beloved Teresa will be separated, instead of united, by death, and compare this tolling insistence on the word “nulla,” nothingness, with the quite different tone and tenor of Werther's final letter to Lotte, which rings with the certainty of reunion in the beyond, echoing triumphantly, in the funereal context, the earlier words “We shall be! We shall see each other again!” Jacopo's final words are an utter denial of the Beyond, and a protesting assertion of this world's values—the “incomprehensible eternity” is really nothing when compared to the fleeting plenitude of Jacopo's timebound consciousness in his last moments.

To ask God for annihilation is itself blasphemy, since God is traditionally, for a Christian mind, the creator and preserver of being; and blasphemy indeed had occurred earlier in the novel:39


I used to send my thanks to the Godhead, and my prayers, but I never feared it. Yet now that I feel the whole flagellation of misfortune I fear and beseech it.

My intellect is blinded, my soul is prostrate, my body is buffeted by death's languor.

It is true! the wretched need another world, different from this one where they eat a bitter bread, and drink water mingled with tears. The imagination creates that world, and the heart is consoled. Virtue, always unhappy down here, holds out by the hope of a reward—but woe to those who in order not to be rascals need religion!

I have knelt in a little church at Arquà, because I felt that God's hand weighed on my heart.

Am I perhaps weak, Lorenzo? May Heaven never let you feel the need for solitude, for tears, and for a church!

Two a.m.

The sky is stormy: the stars few and pale; and the moon half buried in the clouds beats at my windows with livid rays.


Lorenzo, don't you hear? your friend is invoking you: what a sleep! a ray of daylight is glimmering and perhaps only to revive my pain in blood—God does not hear me. He actually condemns me at every minute to the agony of death; and He compels me to curse my days which are not stained by crime.

What? if you are a strong, intolerant, jealous God, who avenges the iniquities of the fathers on the sons, and who visits in his fury the third and the fourth generation, shall I hope to appease you? Send into me—but not into anyone else—your anger which kindles in hell the flames that shall burn millions and millions of peoples to whom you did not make yourself known.—But Teresa is innocent: and instead of deeming you cruel, she worships you with most sweet serenity. I do not worship you, because in fact I fear you—and I feel that I need you. Do, do strip yourself of the attributes in which men have clothed you to make you like themselves. Aren't you the Consoler of the Afflicted? And was not your Divine Son called the Son of Man? Hear me then. This heart feels you, but do not be offended at the moan Nature wrings from man's lacerated inside. And I murmur against you, and cry, and invoke you, hoping to free my soul—free it? but how, if it is not full of you? if it has not implored you in prosperity, and only runs to you for help, and asks for your arm's support now that it is downcast in misery? if it fears you, and has no hope in you? Neither does it hope or desire anything but Teresa: and I see you in her alone.

Here, o Lorenzo, here comes from my lips the crime for which God has withdrawn His look from me. I have never worshiped Him as I worship Teresa.—Blasphemy! The equal of God, she who at a mere gust will be bones and nothing? You see man humiliated. Shall I then put Teresa before God?—Ah! from her a beauty celestial and immense radiates, omnipotent beauty. I measure the universe with one glance; I contemplate eternity with astonished eyes; everything is chaos, everything fades, and sinks into nothingness; God becomes incomprehensible to me; and Teresa is always before me.

The emotional charge is unmistakable, and it affects everything Foscolo is appropriating from Werther—notably the motif of the unknown God, who no longer fills the soul of Jacopo because Teresa takes over and becomes his godhead; but, unlike Werther, Jacopo Ortis experiences an eclipse of God into chaos and nothingness, and no wonder, considering the shaken faith that the midnight entry voices with its ruthless critique of popular religion and its intellectual destruction of the idea of a Beyond in anthropological terms. Jacopo has a bitterer cup to empty than Werther (and the chalice motif likewise echoes in several passages of Ortis), his Gethsemane is more excruciating, because it will lead to nihilism or at least a totally irreligious stance, sharply contrasting with the very personal faith Werther is left with in his supreme moments.

As against the hymnal rhythm that surges from Werther's fictional pen in ample waves of liberated prose, Ortis' lines achieve a hammering and often staccato effect with their repeated questions and exclamations—just as the total narrative structure of Ortis tends to the staccato versus the legato shape of Werther. Even the lovely 2 a.m. entry, with its utter brevity and powerful synaesthetic image of the moon beating at the windows, contributed to syncopate the rhythmic form of a prose which is the portrait of a “lacerated inside,” of an intense, torn mind, caught between irreconcilable values and struggling to free itself from those it no longer finds viable even if it has a residual attachment to them, because they are part of its background. And this is where the persona Jacopo Ortis coincides with his creator Ugo Foscolo—never mind how carefully he tried to dissociate himself from the identity of his tormented creature in his public pronouncements on the novel, for instance this:

But would Ortis seem any longer the twenty-year old youth who feels his passions so strongly and quickly, to the point where he can never find a way to develop them? If instead of concentrating the excessive warmth of his style according to his way of feeling and conceiving, he had endeavored to expand it conformably to art's dictates, the readers would have seen the author in him instead of the man;40

The fact is, that in Ortis' case the persona is much closer to the author than in the case of Werther, both novels clearly having a strong confessional touch to begin with, the mark of ebullient adolescence weathered in imaginative minds that must come to terms with a crucial alternative to which their projected heroes succumb: All or Nothing. The sacrifice of Werther and Jacopo Ortis, consummated as it was on the white page, enabled their creators to survive.


  1. The actual expression he quotes (or refers to) from their conversation in three of the letters he wrote her between 1801 and 1803 is “un romanzetto ambulante,” a little novel going around on two feet. The letters in question are respectively numbered 158, 210 (where he begins: “You are right, perhaps I am like this because my life is a continuous novel [un continuo romanzo] …”), and 273 in Vol. i of Foscolo's Epistolario, ed. by Plinio Carli (in Edizione Nazionale, Vol. xiv, Florence: Le Monnier, 1949). In that volume the letters to Antonietta, including two she wrote Foscolo to accompany her translation of Werther [Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, in Goethes werke, Hamburger Ausgabe, Band 6 (Romane und Novellen), herausgegeben von Erich Trunz. Hamburg: Christianwegner Verlag, 1963] and to request restitution of her correspondence, are printed together to emphasize their dramatic sequence.

  2. Epistolario i, p. 410.

  3. See Letter 283, p. 410 of Epistolario i, dated January 14, 1803. It is by Antonietta and it accompanies her completed translation of Werther. A much decried scurrilous phrase seals this not altogether unfriendly farewell.

  4. Epistolario i, p. 129, No. 86. The relevant part of this letter reads as follows: “You will receive from Mr. Grassi the first small volume of a modest work of mine which your Werther perhaps originated … Countess Antonietta Aresi [sic], my eternal and only lady friend, translated Werther from its last edition into the style of Ortis: and this will be the only Italian version to be spared mutilation by the ignorance of translators or by the preposterousness of governments. …” Plinio Carli, the editor of Foscolo's letters for the Edizione Nazionale, appends very informative footnotes on scholarly discussions of this letter's authenticity and on historical and bibliographical references, including one to a book by F. Zschek, dated 1894, which discusses this letter in the framework of a comparison between Werther and Ortis. Since Foscolo elsewhere (Letter of Sept. 1808 to Bartholdy, and Bibliographical note prepared for the Zurich 1816 edition of Ortis) makes Werther much less influential on Ortis, and emphasizes the differences between the two books, most scholars came to agree that the 1802 letter to Goethe reflects an unguarded youthful enthusiasm. In 1973, however, Giorgio Manacorda has made a cogent case for F.'s acquaintance with Michiel Salom's Italian translation of Werther (publ. in 1788 and 1796); an earlier translation, by Gaetano Grassi, had appeared in 1782). Manacorda's book, Materialismo e masochismo—IlWerther,Foscolo e Leopardi (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1973), also spotlights the psychoanalytical implications of certain linguistic and thematic elements in Ortis, and the agreement with some of my own independent findings is remarkable.

  5. The only reference to Werther in the rich exchange is to be found in Schiller's letter to Goethe of February 19, 1795 (p. 86 of Emil Staiger's edition: Der Briefwechsel zwischen Schiller und Goethe, Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1966). And this is what is said: “[Körner] finds in W. Meister all the strength that was in Werther's Sorrows, but controlled by a virile spirit and purified into the quiet grace of an accomplished work of art.” The letters, we should keep in mind, reach well into the spring of 1805, and they touch upon every work of the two correspondents as well as on most exponents of the European culture of the time.

  6. A detailed discussion of these adventurous circumstances surrounding the rise of Foscolo's romantic novel is to be found in Giovanni Gambarin's eighty-four-page Introduction to his critical edition of Ortis, Vol. iv of Edizione Nazionale, published in Florence in 1955 and including the 1798 edition, Sassoli's arbitrary Epilogue, and the definitive London edition of 1817 (with the variants and afterword of the 1816 Zurich edition). Apropos of the Sassoli “Epilogue” an epoch-making reassessment has come in 1970, and it cannot be ignored. Mario Martelli's article, “La parte del Sassoli,” in Studi di filologia italiana xxviii, pp. 177-251, uses painstaking linguistic and stylistic analysis to prove that Sassoli must have worked on F.'s own directions, for “the basic elements of F's compositional technique—juxtaposition of quotes, dismemberment of quotations, reuse of the greatest possible number of elements from the text quoted—are to be found … both in S.'s conclusion of Ortis and in F's other works.”

  7. My references here will be to Gambarin's critical edition; but it should be kept in mind that the novel is also available in Opere di F. and as a separate book with foreword by Carlo Muscetta (Turin: Einaudi, 1973). Both follow the 1817 London edition. Franco Gavazzeni instead, in U. F., Opere, Tomo I (Naples: Ricciardi, 1974), includes the Milan edition of 1802. Two recent English translations of Ortis are by Douglas Radcliffe-Umstead (in the series North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures) and, respectively, by Dale McAdoo and Anthony Winner (included in the volume Great European Short Novels Vol. i, Ed. with Preface and Introduction by A. Winner. New York: Harper and Row, 1968. Pp. 253-390).

  8. Edizione Nazionale, Vol. iv, p. 219.

  9. Epistolario i, p. 363: Letter 249 (numbered xcvii in the Arese sequence). Translation mine.

  10. Epistolario i, p. 365: Letter 250 (xcvii Arese sequence). Translation mine.

  11. See Gambarin's critical edition of Ortis, pp. 477-541.

  12. For the relevance of the suicide theme (and act) to the European Romantics in general (including Foscolo), see H. G. Schenk, The Mind of the European Romantics—an essay in cultural history (New York: Ungar, 1966), p. 64, and Chapter vii, “The Lure of Nothingness,” pp. 58-65.

  13. Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purg. i, 71-72. For an exemplary treatment of the Sturm und Drang movement as a whole, and of Werther's revolutionary implications, see Roy Pascal, Der Sturm und Drang (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1963). Originally published in English as The German Sturm und Drang (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1953).

  14. I refer to, and quote from, the following edition of Werther: Goethes Werke, Hamburger Ausgabe, Band 6 (Romane und Novellen, ed. Erich Trunz. Hamburg: Christian Wegner Verlag, 1963). In this volume Werther comes first, and the editor's exegetical, historical and bibliographical notes in the Appendix are excellent. They also refer to studies of Werther and Ortis. A distinguished and handy English language edition is: Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Novella, tr. by Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan, Foreword by W. H. Auden (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1973). Another fine translation is: Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther. The New Melusina Novelle, Introduction by Victor Lange, tr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1949). In both editions, of course, Macpherson's “Ossian” text which Werther reads to Lotte in the climactic scene (In Goethe's own translation) is given in the original version, from which I shall also quote later on.

  15. An intimation of the destructiveness to come can already be seen in the nearly morbid excitement with which Werther responds to the joyful messages of nature toward the end of the May 10 letter: “But I founder on that, I succumb to the sovereign power of these phenomena.”

  16. Goethes Werke, Vol. 6, Werther, Part i, May 10 letter, p. 9. Translation mine.

  17. See German Sturm und Drang and Goethes Werke 6.

  18. Goethes Werke, Vol. 6, pp. 51-53. Translation mine.

  19. Ibid., pp. 108 ff.

  20. Ibid., p. 101.

  21. Ibid., pp. 100 and 101.

  22. Ibid., p. 57; letter of September 10.

  23. Ibid., p. 117; letter of December 22.

  24. Ibid., p. 76; letter of September 4.

  25. Ibid., p. 88.

  26. Ibid., pp. 85-91.

  27. Ibid., p. 123.

  28. Ibid., p. 86.

  29. Ibid., p. 87; letter of November 22.

  30. Ibid., p. 86.

  31. Ibid., p. 86. The expression means “between being and non being.”

  32. Ibid., p. 90; letter of November 30.

  33. Ibid., p. 92; letter of December 6.

  34. This word, which might be awkwardly rendered in English as “unlimiting” or release from limits, infinite expansion, is used by Erich Trunz in the interpretive essay appended to his critical edition of Werther to convey the quality of the suicidal hero's feeling about his own death.

  35. Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World. New York: Doubleday, 1940, 1955.

  36. Angelo Jacomuzzi, Il monologo tragico di Jacopo Ortis, Torino: Fògola editore, 1974.

  37. For a recent assessment of Thomas Hobbes's impact on Italian thought (through Vico), with cursory but emphatic acknowledgment of Foscolo's part in the contact, see Ferruccio Focher, Vico e Hobbes. Naples: Giannini, 1977.

  38. Edizione Nazionale, vol. iv, p. 472. Translation mine.

  39. Ibid., pp. 377-78 (letter of June 2, 1798); pp. 382-83 (letter of July 7, 1798). Translation mine.

  40. Ibid., p. 527 (“Notizia bibliografica”). Translation mine.

Further Reading

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Howells, W. D. “Vincenzo Monti and Ugo Foscolo.” In Modern Italian Poets: Essays and Versions, pp. 102-25. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972.

Compares and contrasts the very different lives and demeanors of contemporaries Vincenzo Monti and Ugo Foscolo, both prominent writers in Lombary.

Vincent, E. R. Byron, Hobhouse and Foscolo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949, 135 p.

Uses letters and other documents to trace the indirect relationship between Foscolo and Lord Byron, who never met but who interacted through their mutual friend John Hobhouse.


Brand, C. P. “Ugo Foscolo and ‘The Edinburgh Review’: Unpublished Letters to Francis Jeffrey.” In Modern Language Review 70, No. 2 (April 1975): 306-23.

A collection of reprinted letters written by Foscolo to Francis Jeffrey, the editor of The Edinburgh Review.

Cooksey, Thomas L. “Dante's England, 1818: The Contribution of Cary, Coleridge, and Foscolo to the British Reception of Dante.” In Papers on Language and Literature 20, No. 4 (Fall 1984): 355-81.

Discusses how Foscolo, Henry Francis Cary, and Coleridge's writings on Dante swayed contemporary opinion of Dante from a figure to be deplored for his gothic tastes to a romantic figure worthy of admiration.

Hallock, Ann H. “Ugo Foscolo and the Criticism of Michelangelo's ‘Rime.’” In South Atlantic Bulletin 42, No. 4 (November 1977): 21-30.

Discusses how Foscolo's analyses of Michelangelo's poetry renewed interest in the verse compositions of the artist.

Whitfield, J. H. “But Which Foscolo Do You Admire?” In Italian Studies 37 (1982): 67-71.

Originally read at a conference in 1981, this essay examines the question of whether there is anything more to be said about Foscolo and what his place in literary history might be.

Victor A. Santi (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “The Image of the Sun in the Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, the Sepolcri, and the Grazie of Ugo Foscolo,” in Italian Culture III, edited by Douglas Radcliff-Umstead, Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1983, pp. 63-70.

[In the following essay, Santi explains how Foscolo uses images of sun and night, and light and dark to reflect the state of mind of Jacopo in The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis. The critic further discusses Foscolo's use of this imagery in his poetic works, including The Sepulchres and The Graces.]

A Central Passage relating to the image of the “sun” in the Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis is found at the end of the terse note of April 3rd. In the preceding discursive letter, Jacopo, while contemplating the deplorable condition of his country betrayed by the “Giovine Eroe” (Napoleon Bonaparte) had fallen into a dark melancholy state: “La gloria, il sapere, la gioventù, le ricchezze, la patria, tutti fantasmi che hanno fino ad or recitato nella mia commedia, non fanno più per me. Calerò il sipario. …”1 The variation of the protagonist's sentiments, however, is a constant in the narrative technique of the Ortis: the antithetical element is provided not by Lorenzo Alderani (the correspondent) but by Jacopo's own inner contradictions. Consequently, the protagonist recovers, and there follows an interlude of apparent serenity and renewed hope. In the letter of April 3rd, the pessimistic pattern of ideas and the dark moodiness of the tone switch suddenly to an ecstatic, bright homage to the “sun,” which is displayed in mythological, neoclassical imagery and rhythm:

Intanto la Natura ritorna bella—quale [a] dev'essere stata quando nascendo la prima [b] volta dall'informe abisso del caos, mandò foriera la ridente Aurora d'Aprile; ed ella abbandonando i suoi biondi capelli su l'oriente, e cingendo poi a poco a poco l'universo del roseo suo manto, diffuse benefica le fresche rugiade, e destò l'alito vergine de' venticelli per annunziare ai fiori, alle nuvole, alle onde e agli esseri tutti che la salutavano, il Sole: il Sole! [c] sublime immagine di Dio, luce, [d] anima, vita di tutto il creato.2

In the Ortis, nature is primarily meant to reflect some state of mind of the protagonist, rather than to influence him: it is a compliant, ubiquitous canvas upon which the artist projects his torments and desires. Shortly after Jacopo meets Teresa, “la divina fanciulla,” the sun or light motif appears more frequently (“E ieri appunto il Sole più sereno del solito riscaldava l'aria,” “ti scrivo di rimpetto al balcone donde miro la eterna luce,” “al Sole, ministro maggiore della Natura,” “sono uscito assai prima del Sole,” etc.). In the missive dated November 20 (Jacopo's and Teresa's visit to the house of Petrarch in Arquà) the “sun” gladdens not only the individual, but the entire universe: “S'apriva appena il più bel giorno d'autunno. Parea che la Notte seguìta dalle tenebre e dalle stelle fuggisse dal Sole, che uscia nel suo immenso splendore dalle nubi d'oriente, quasi dominatore dell'universo; e l'universo sorridea” (p. 304). The antithetical image of the night, fleeing from its enemy, emphasizes the concept of the sun as the consoling power of nature; and elsewhere in the novel the sun embodies the positive force which must conquer contrary elements, even if only for a short while:

Il Sole squarcia finalmente le nubi, e consola la mesta Natura, diffondendo su la faccia di lei un suo raggio. Ti scrivo di rimpetto [k] al balcone donde miro la eterna luce che si va a poco a poco perdendo nell'estremo orizzonte tutto raggiante di fuoco

(p. 309).

The conflict between light and darkness symbolizes essentially Jacopo's inner drama: the search for happiness (the sun) clashes against a basic unhappiness (the night). It is in this framework of images that Jacopo is often depicted as a solitary figure gazing intently at the heavens; for example, Teresa's portrait of Jacopo (which is conspicuously present in the final scene of his suicide) captures “l'amico suo che sdrajato su l'erba contempla il tramontare del Sole” (p. 463).

The night, or the absence of the sun, conveys the negative background of Jacopo's situation. In the second part of the novel (after Teresa's marriage and after the tragic accident for which Jacopo feels responsible), the narration tends more and more toward nocturnal scenes. Writing on the 28th of July from Bologna, Ortis explicitly comments on this transition: “Pare che l'anima mia siegua lo stato negro e burrascoso della Natura,”3 and when he finally feels compelled to reveal his “crime” to Lorenzo, he begins: “Era la sera; io vedeva sorgere un tempo nero …” (p. 444). The nocturnal imagery becomes increasingly pressing—shortly after his fated return to the “colli Euganei” he writes: “È notte; alta, perfetta notte,” (p. 443)—until, at its climactic moment, it coincides with the idea of death: Jacopo decides to hurl himself “nella notte della morte.” The eloquent closing scene—“La notte mi strascinai dietro al [f] cadavere che da tre lavoratori fu sotterrato sul monte de' pini” (p. 475)—thus also has its structural function within the general chiaroscuro technique displayed in the novel.

The treatment of the “sun” in the Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, as a symbol of hope and happiness, and of the “night,” as a symbol of melancholy and desperation, does not stop at the equation: Sun = Life; Absence of Sun = Death. In fact, the image of the sun as an auspice of happiness (or illusion of happiness) in the autobiographical mesh of the work (where the novel is less involved in lofty universal messages) is fused with the figure of Teresa. In the May 8 letter Jacopo states: “… ma s'io consentissi a strapparmi il velo dagli occhi, dovrei subito chiuderli in sonno eterno; poichè senza questo angelico lume (i.e. Teresa) la vita mi sarebbe terrore, il mondo caos, la Natura notte e deserto” (p. 356). Even without the negative background that would result from the absence of the “lume-sole,” the revitalizing conception of the woman finds expression in terms of “sun” or “light”:

Lorenzo! [b] l'anima sua celeste raggiava da' [c] lineamenti del viso. Vicino a lei io sono sì pieno di vita [d] che appena sento di vivere. [e] Così quand'io mi desto dopo un pacifico sonno, se il raggio del Sole mi riflette su gli occhi, la mia vista si abbaglia e si perde in un torrente di luce.4

In both passages the irradiative imagery is associated with a spiritual element: in the first, lume is qualified by angelico, and it recalls Ortis' panegyrical delineation of the incandescent heavenly sphere as “sublime immagine di Dio”; in the second, the irradiation emanates from l'anima celeste. In the last letter of Jacopo to Teresa, this associative process takes a funereal, rite-like form:

quando la notte eterna rapirà il mondo a questi occhi, allora solo seppellirò [b] meco i miei desiderj e il mio pianto. Ma gli occhi miei lagrimosi ti cercano ancora prima di chiudersi per sempre … eppure tu anche in questo frangente ritorni, [a] come solevi, davanti a questi occhi che morendo si fissano in te, in te che sacra risplendi di tutta la tua bellezza.5

The ritualistic correlation becomes more evident in the light of the following verses of the Sepolcri:

Rapian gli amici una favilla al Sole
A illuminar la sotterranea notte,
Perchè gli occhi dell'uom cercan morendo
Il Sole; e tutti l'ultimo sospiro
Mandano i petti alla fuggente luce.(6)

In the Carme the narrative figure of the woman has disappeared, but the image of the sun retains a major significance. In fact, in the initial verses of the poem (“Ove più il Sole / Per me alla terra non fecondi questa / Bella d'erbe famiglia e d'animali”) as well as the final verses (“finché il Sole / Risplenderà su le sciagure umane”) the “sun” is—at different levels—the dominant motif. The poem opens on a subjective and emotional note; here the sun image is essentially (as Teresa in the Ortis) a symbol of fertility, love, and hope. But the Carme closes with a cosmic crescendo; and here the sun appears impersonally objectified as shining above and aloof in its astronomical reality, without any symbolic connections with human destiny. The concepts of fecundity and love, still present, are confined in the feminine imagery proper. The concluding lines of the Sepolcri are the words of Cassandra who laments the fate of Troy and foresees the “vedovili lagrime,” that is, the dissolution of the love relationship. In this sense, the verses which immediately precede the discourse of Cassandra are noteworthy:

Ivi Cassandra, allor che il Nume in petto
Le fea parlar di Troia il dì mortale,
Venne; e all'ombre cantò carme amoroso,
E guidava i nepoti, e l'amoroso
Apprendeva lamento a' giovinetti.(7)

Franco Ferrucci in his book, Addio al Parnaso, also emphasizes the importance of the sun in Foscolo's poetry: “Un grande protagonista della natura foscoliana è ovviamente il sole. Ma esso è presentato in modo assai diverso secondo le circonstanze, e i suoi effetti sembrano contraddittori.”8 It is surprising, however, that Ferrucci maintains that the sun in Foscolo is a “paternal” image and consequently he equates the death of Foscolo's father to the figure of the dying sun which is seen throughout his works. If the effects of the sun in Foscolo are contradictory, as Ferrucci states, it seems that this is consistent with the romantic concept of love, which is in itself a contradiction. In the Ortis, for example, Jacopo's love for Teresa in one moment leads him to ecstasy, and in the next to despair.9

The previously cited lines of the Sepolcri (“tutti l'ultimo sospiro / Mandano i petti alla fuggente luce”) are not only conclusive in illustrating the relationship between the sun and femininity in Foscolo's conceptualization, but they also serve to link these two romanticized Ortisian myths to the figure of Venus in the Grazie.10 In the “Inno Primo” of the Grazie, Venus is the classical divinity whose appearance on earth brings light to the “terrene ombre” and a love of beauty and harmony to the “uomini ferini.” In the poet's vision of her departure from the earthly sphere, Venus is also (like Teresa in the Ortis and the sun in the Sepolcri) a “fuggente luce” which is followed by the tearful eyes and heavy hearts of those below:

Più non parlava, ma spargea co' raggi
de le pupille sue sopra le figlie
eterno il lume della fresca aurora,
e si partiva: e la seguian cogli occhi
di lagrime soffusi, e lei da l'alto
vedean conversa. …(11)

While Foscolo's association of “luce” and “aurora” with Venus is compatible with the prevalently neoclassical tone of the poem,12 the same images often announce the appearance of Teresa in the Ortis. The subliminal approximation of the “aurora” with Teresa, for example, is evident in the letter of March 5th from Rimini: “Spuntasse almeno l'aurora!—Forse Teresa si ricorda in questo momento di me—pensiero consolatore!” (p. 443). And at the beginning of the letter which recounts the pilgrimage to Arquà, nature reflects the presence of the Cytherian goddess:

… l'universo sorridea. Le nuvole dorate e dipinte a mille colori salivano su la volta del cielo che tutto sereno mostrava quasi di schiudersi per diffondere sovra [e] i mortali le cure della Divinità. [a] … i venti dell'aurora rasciugavano il soverchio umore delle piante. Avresti udito una solenne armonia spandersi confusamente fra le selve … sacra beltà della campagna.13

Jacopo's conclusion is, however, personal and limited within the scope of the work: “Allora ho veduto [d] Teresa nel più bell'apparato delle sue grazie” (p. 305).

In the Ortis, Foscolo endeavors to envelop Teresa with divine attributes by associating her with the sun (“sublime immagine di Dio”) and by using light imagery and classical motifs which evoke a vision of Venus. The result is the creation of a feminine image which closely coincides with that of the Graces. In the Grazie, one reads:

                                                                                                    Udiro intente
le Grazie; e in cor quell'armonia fatale
albergàro, e correan su per la terra
a spirarla a' mortali.(14)

In the Ortis, Teresa's response to the harmonious atmosphere emanating from the countryside of Arquà is quite similar: “In tanta piena di affetti [e] le anime si schiudono per versarli [f] nell'altrui petto: ed ella si volgeva a Odoardo.15 The Graces' main function (“a la infelice / Terra ed a' figli suoi voi rimanete / confortatrici”) is also analogous to Teresa's role in the novel (“All'apparir del suo volto ritornano le illusioni”).16 The figure of Teresa, however, remains firmly rooted to egocentric and short-ranging considerations, and the full transmutation to a myth cannot occur; it will not be until the Grazie that an idea which was present in the Ortis in embryonic form finds its proper expression and fruition.17

By following a progressive and logical conceptual and visual scheme, the “sun” in Foscolo ultimately becomes synthesized in the figure of Venus; through this symbol of love, fecundity, light, and divinity the poet transcends the illusion of happiness in the tenuous ideal of femininity and attains an apotheosis of the woman image. Thus it seems that, on one level, one passes from a purely subjective vision in the Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, to a prevalently objective correlation in the Sepolcri, to a truth fixed for eternity in the myth of Venus in the Grazie. Nevertheless, a constant basic inspiration, albeit in different forms, pervades all three; just as the romanticized divine halo of the “divina fanciulla.” in the Ortis assumes classical tones, so also under the classical veneer of the Grazie one senses the presence of the romantic idea.


  1. Ugo Foscolo, Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, edizione critica a cura di Giovanni Gambarin (Florence: Le Monnier, 1955), p. 339. Whenever relevant, the variants of the Ortis will be introduced; following the format of the “Edizione nazionale,” Gt will indicate the 1802 Milan edition and Z will refer to the Zurich edition of 1816. All italics within quotes are mine. I should also like to take this opportunity to thank Professor Fredi Chiappelli for his invaluable suggestions in the preparation of the final draft of this article.

  2. Ibid., p. 340. Gt, “la comparsa del Sole: del Sole! sublime immagine di Dio, e luce, anima, vita di tutto il creato.” By eliminating the preposition “di” and the conjunction “e” in the final version, Foscolo creates a more precise equation in which the association of the “sun” and “divinity-light” is unmistakable.

  3. Ibid., p. 400. One might mention that this is a good illustration of the concept of pathetic fallacy which is inherent in Romantic poetry.

  4. Ibid., p. 348. Gt, “I'anima sua celeste risplendeva”; Gt, “sí pieno della esistenza che appena sento di esistere.” The first change in the final version renders the sun imagery more concrete (“risplendeva” becomes “raggiava”), while the second (“esistenza” to “vita” and “esistere” to “vivere”) is consistent with Foscolo's previous definition of the sun as “vita di tutto il creato.” See also Mario Fubini, Ugo Foscolo (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1962), p. 17: “Così l'amore per Teresa ci deve apparire come l'estremo sussulto dell'istinto vitale che sopravvive a tutte le ragioni di vita e si agita come fuoco, che, vicino a spegnersi, riarde improvviso e divampa a guizzi.”

  5. Foscolo, op. cit., pp. 468-69, 472. Gt, “in questo momento torni.” The variation (from “momento” to “frangente”) is, once again, intended to underline the light motif.

  6. Ugo Foscolo, Opere a cura di Guido Bezzola (Milan: Rizzoli, 1956), p. 88.

  7. Ibid., pp. 94-95. See also the letter of April 11 in the Ortis: “una lagrima cade su l'erba che spunta su la sepoltura, e appaga l'ombra amorosa,” Foscolo, Ultime lettere, p. 341.

  8. Franco Ferrucci, Addio al Parnaso (Milan: Bompiani, 1971), p. 63.

  9. See Douglas Radcliff-Umstead, “Novelist of Despair,” in Ugo Foscolo (New York: Twayne, 1970), pp. 44-76.

  10. For a more complete discussion of the Grazie see Sante Marotta, Nuovo studio sulle “Grazie” di Ugo Foscolo (Padua: Milani, 1963); Mario Praz, “Foscolo tra romanticismo e neo-classicismo,” Cultura e Scuola 67 (1978): 17-29; and Glauco Cambon, “Vatic Conjuring: the Graces,” in Ugo Foscolo Poet of Exile (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 182-299.

  11. Foscolo, Opere, p. 142.

  12. See Alberto Frattini, Il Neoclassicismo e Ugo Foscolo (Rocca San Casciano: Cappelli, 1965), pp. 210-23.

  13. Pp. 304-5. See also the letter of May 15th in which the protagonist writes of the effects of his contact with “la divina fanciulla” in clearly Neoplatonic terms: “Dopo quel bacio io son fatto divino. … Mi pare che tutto s'abbellisca a' miei sguardi; il lamentar degli augelli, il bisbiglio de' zefiri fra le frondi son oggi più soavi che mai; le piante si fecondano, e i fiori si colorano sotto a' miei piedi” (p. 367).

  14. Foscolo, Opere, p. 143.

  15. Foscolo, Ultime lettere, p. 305. In the letter of April 17, this association is also evident: “Tu sei uno di que' pochi angioli sparsi qua e là su la faccia della terra per accreditare la virtù, ed infondere negli animi perseguitati ed afflitti l'amore dell'umanità” (p. 347).

  16. This “bridge” to divinity is also present in the respective passages: “sol per voi sovr'essa / ogni lor dono pioveranno i Numi (Foscolo, Opere, p. 141) and “l'anima mia … s'imparadisa nella contemplazione della bellezza” (Foscolo, Ultime lettere, p. 356).

  17. Giulio Natali, Ugo Foscolo (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1962), p. 141, writes of the Grazie: “qui si vede come l'arte li purifichi; come il Foscolo, devoto all'Amore più che a gli amori, trasfiguri le donne amate e le congiunga in un gruppo armonioso, dove le singole grazie, le singole bellezze compongono un'unica grazia, un'unica bellezza.”

Franco Ferrucci (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “Italian Romanticism: Myth vs. History,” in MLN, Vol. 98, No. 1, January, 1983, pp. 111-17.

[In the following essay, Ferrucci compares Foscolo's ideas on history—which Foscolo felt could be recreated as a human mythology and thus be made more culturally significant—with those of two other Italian authors of the romantic period: Leopardi and Manzoni.]

The modern notion of history was born in Italy, as elsewhere, between the late Enlightenment and the first wave of Romanticism. The effects of such a cultural revolution are visible in the three major Italian writers of the romantic period: Foscolo, Leopardi, and Manzoni.

Each of these writers has something different to say about history and what history is about. They are all witnessing the direction that history as a literary genre is taking: its transformation into a systematic study of the past, thus more of a science than a creative genre with moral purposes as it had been considered since ancient times and it was still viewed by Chateaubriand in those years.

In a page of his philosophical journal Zibaldone (I, 144) Leopardi acknowledges such transformation and writes:

“… il mondo umano è divenuto come il naturale, bisogna studiare gli avvenimenti come si studiano i fenomeni, e immaginare le forze motrici andando a tastoni come i fisici. Dal che si può vedere quanto sia scemata l'utilità della storia.”

“… the world of mankind has become similar to the world of nature, it is necessary to study human events as scientific phenomena are studied, and to imagine their driving forces as the physicists do, groping and experimenting. From this fact one can see how weakened has become history's usefulness.

With his usual sharpness, Leopardi later observes that the very name history is a contradictory one. He recalls that Aristotle had given the label of history even to natural science; a label surviving today in the definition of “natural history”. According to Leopardi, science is concerned with what does not change, like nature, history with what changes, like human events; the two terms are never put together unless they are misunderstood. There is here a pre-Darwinian idea of nature as immutable and a pre-scientific idea of history as being mainly a “narration”. I shall focus on the latter, the former being beyond the scope of the present investigation. Let us pause in order to realize that the word “history” is in fact contradictory, and far more so than Leopardi suspected. History is both the tale and a study of the tale; the paradox is even clearer in Italian where the term storia is also used to signify a children's tale or even an invented presentation of reality (as in the French histoire or in the German Geschichte). I do not want to deal with the philosophical implication of such ambiguity; it is sufficient here to say that for Leopardi storia is a tale which is turning into a science, as a youth grows into an adult: acquiring knowledge and renouncing illusions.

There is another well known passage from Zibaldone that abundantly proves this point (25 novembre 1822,II, 21-22):

“La storia greca, romana ed ebrea contengono le reminiscenze delle idee acquistate da ciascuno nella prima fanciullezza. … Quindi lo interesse che ispirano le dette storie, e loro parti, e tutto ciò che loro appartiene; interesse unico nel suo genere, come fu osservato da Chateaubriand (Gènie etc.); interesse che non può mai esserci ispirato da verun' altra storia, sia anche più bella, varia, grande, e per se più importante delle sopraddette; sia anche più importante per noi, come le storie nazionali. Le suddette tre sono le più interessanti perché sono le più note …”.

“Greek, Roman and Jewish history contain the memories of the ideas acquired by each man in early childhood. … Hence these histories and their parts and everything that belongs to them inspire an interest unique in its genre, as Chateaubriand observed (Gènie etc.); an interest that cannot be inspired in us by any other history, be it even more beautiful, varied, great and in itself more important than those mentioned above, or be it even more important for us, as are our national “histories”. The three mentioned above are the most interesting because they are the best known …”.

History and poetry seem to resemble each other; they both share the basic characteristic of being the memory of mankind, at both the collective and the individual level. Of course a modern historiographer would not deny that: but his attitude would be one of interpretation instead of trust. It is the same difference that separates today the notion of history from that of myth.

This is the point of conflict that we are trying to locate. It is a conflict that Leopardi inherits from the Italian 18th century more than from the romantic movement which he quickly dismissed and shunned. The Italian 18th century presents a twofold recreation of the mythical presence; as a decorative ornament of culture (also visible throughout the painting of the period) it was called mythology and this is the word we find in Leopardi, while the closest equivalent to the word myth in Zibaldone is storia. Where did the merging of myth and history take place? Again in the 18th century, in the work of G. B. Vico, whose message was received in the same form by Foscolo and Leopardi. La storia is the memory of the past in the form of myth and poetry; it becomes a science in moments of scarce vitality, when everything becomes “reasonable” and “rational”, i.e. without daring or passion. For Leopardi, as for Foscolo, history is a mythology (a fable) that attains a convincing level: the level of myth that only poets can reach. If this is true, it could also explain why in our post-romantic idiom storia means at the same time a truth and a lie.

One of the most famous passages in Foscolo is the page of his academic inauguration in Pavia where he addresses the Italian people and urges them to turn to their past. Here is what he says:

“O italiani, io vi esorto alle storie, perché niun popolo più di voi può mostrare nè più calamità da compiangere, nè più errori da evitare, nè più virtù che vi facciano rispettare, nè più grandi anime degne di essere liberate dalla oblivione da chiunque di noi sa che si deve amare e difendere ed onorare la terra che fu nutrice ai nostri padri ed a noi, e che darà pace e memoria alle nostre ceneri. Io vi esorto alle storie, perché angusta è l'arena degli oratori; e chi ormai può contendervi la poetica palma? Ma nelle storie tutta si spiega la nobiltà dello stile, tutti gli affetti della virtù, tutto l'incanto della poesia, tutti i precetti della sapienza, tutti i progressi e i benemeriti dell' italiano sapere.”

“Italians, I exhort you to go back to the memories of history because there has never been a people who, more than you, can show more adversities to be deplored, more errors to be avoided, more virtues for which to be respected, more noble spirits, worthy of being freed from oblivion, by anyone (of us) who knows that the land that nourished us and our forefathers, the land that will give peace, and keep the memory of our ashes, has to be loved, honoured and defended. I urge you to go back to the memories of history because the rhetorical forum has narrowed; and who can now compete with you for the poetic laurel? But it is in history that all the nobility of the style, all the affects of virtue, all the enchantments of poetry, all the teachings of wisdom, all the progress, all the achievements of the Italian knowledge are so fully manifested.”

It is the term storie which is the revealing one. Foscolo's exhortation to the Italians is to go back to le storie not to la storia: a historian would not use one word for the other. Storia as a science has no plural form; but storia as a tale has one indeed. Le storie are the events of the past conceived and presented as legends (etymologically: the things to be read) of a nation, the memorabilia which are not to be questioned or interpreted but simply re-enacted.

Vico's thought is acting on Foscolo even more directly than on Leopardi. Contemporary to the above quoted lines is the long poem I Sepolcri, his widely recognized masterpiece; here history plays a monumental role and it is presented not as an investigation but as an acceptance of the past. By definition a myth is to be either accepted or refused: if one tries to interpret it allegorically it is evident that the element of faith is no longer there. The figures of the great Italians evoked by Foscolo in I Sepolcri share the essence of mythical appearances: they exist beyond investigation, they simply are, like ancient monuments, or forces of nature. The fact that we are sure they have existed makes the myth possible since it makes it believable: which also explains why modern mythologies need a historical background in order to survive. They are dealing with a massive presence of history and attempt to transform it into a belief. The nation is one of these beliefs.

We are close to the identification of the split that occurs between Leopardi and Foscolo. They both think of history essentially as a mythological recreation of the past, as a collective poetry of mankind. They diverge on one fundamental issue: the mythological recreation is possible for Foscolo, not anymore for Leopardi. We are not coping with a minor divergence: the entire modern culture has been severed by this contrast. At the time of the Sepolcri and of the Discorso Inaugurale, Foscolo seems to have traced the territory of a new mythology: the history of the Italian people, supporting the rising myth of the nation. Something of that kind was happening all over Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution and of the Napoleonic conquests. For the moment ancient Greece (often mentioned in I Sepolcri) provides the background, waiting to enter the scene as the protagonist of a new mythological rebirth: the one attempted by Foscolo in his last and unfinished poem Le Grazie.Le Grazie, just like the paintings of David and the sculptures of Canova, are inspired directly by hellenic mythology, they all share the fate of similar contemporary experiments in neo-classicism.

There is a word that appears both in Leopardi's and Foscolo's works which is the equivalent of what we call “myth”: it is the term “illusions”. To Foscolo illusions appear necessary, to Leopardi foolish; thus Leopardi will never accept the modern mythology of nationalism or any other effort to create a “progressive faith” that tries to explain the fate of mankind.

It would not be correct to assume that we are witnessing a case of contrast between a “sentimental” poet in the schillerian sense (Leopardi) and a “naive” one (Foscolo): the distinction would rather be between a sentimental poet (still Leopardi) and a poet (like Foscolo) who tries very hard to be naive and to give new life to a myth by believing in it. Leopardi is contemplating a world in which ancient myths are dead and modern ones do not provide inspiration: the above quoted paragraph declaring the superiority of “Greek, Roman and Jewish history” over the national histories (here Leopardi uses the plural storie) might even be a direct answer to Foscolo's statement about the need to go back to the Italian storie in order to create a modern mythology, which is, a modern poetry. Leopardi accepts the role of the “sentimental” poet, the inspired philosopher who is conscious of living in a rational civilisation where myths are dead and history does not seem to make much sense. Both positions will have a future and each will open the road for generations to come.

Another writer, Manzoni, was coping in those same years with the dialectical relationship between myth and history. He does not attempt to recreate a classic (pagan) mythology nor to found a new mythology of the nation (although he writes a few patriotic poems): his mythology is a Christian one. Being a believer, Manzoni would not call the Christian faith “a myth”, nonetheless his first major creative effort (the Inni Sacri) is the equivalent of Foscolo's return to the classic myth in Le Grazie (the two works belong to the same years). The events of the Inni Sacri (evoked by Manzoni) are all taken from the Gospels and are the mythological reservoir of the Christian tradition. It is very revealing that the last poem of the unfinished series, La Pentecoste, took so many years to complete. La Pentecoste deals with the spread of the Christian teaching and the birth of the Church as a social institution: we are here at the point of separation between Christianity as a myth (the New Testament) and the history of Christianity. Manzoni's mythological attempt enters a crisis when history appears.

Manzoni boldly accepts the challenge. After the Inni Sacri history is a pervasive presence in his work. Of the two tragedies Adelchi is rooted in the Middle Ages, Il Conte di Carmagnola in Renaissance Italy. They both present insoluble conflicts of Christian characters crushed by the violence that rules the world. In both cases Manzoni's conclusions seem to be that Christianity cannot prevail in this world: his heroes finally die willingly and without regrets. History is the territory that has to be crossed and finally abandoned when the promised land is near and myth is there to direct the pilgrims.

Manzoni's masterpiece, I Promessi Sposi, is a further step in this dialectical confrontation. In his novel Manzoni attempts no less than a reconciliation of myth and history. Staged in 17th century Lombardy, it presents the Church as the actual winner in the midst of worldly events, largely because of the incompetence of its opponents, but also because of the persistent appeal of its mythological foundation. If the Church can win over society, myth can overcome history. In order to achieve this result, Manzoni was obliged to perform a continuous, subtle manipulation of the historical material he had selected, presenting it in a biased light, or simply obliterating important aspects of it. The manipulation has been well documented and it is not my purpose to deal with this part of the problem. I want to stress that Manzoni is certainly, among the writers we have mentioned so far, the most “historically” minded; his curiosity for history is almost a professional one, his passion for archives and for the reconstruction of the sequence of past events is unknown to both Foscolo and Leopardi.

Paradoxically enough, the crisis between myth and history will occur again when Manzoni comes to the conclusion that it is not possible to overlook the claim of history to be a science; this leads to the dismissal of the historical novel in the Discorso sul romanzo storico. It is understandable why Manzoni presents the crisis in the form of an opposition between historical scruples and artistic impulses: he cannot admit that the basic contrast is between the historian's desire for truth and the believer's need for reassurance. If Manzoni condemns the historical novel it might be because he realizes, half consciously, that it would be difficult to create another great novel in which the Church would assume such a prominent role.

The historical novel will have a chance to survive in Italy through the substitution of the myth of patriotism for the myth of catholicism. In modern society nationalism is a more powerful drive than religion; it was particularly so in Italy and Germany, when in the course of the 19th century they both achieved geographical unity. In these two countries Romanticism and Nationalism are entangled in a way impossible elsewhere; although the aggressive connotation of nationalism will be absent from Italian culture until D'Annunzio.

I will rapidly explore the two major achievements in this direction. One is Nievo's long novel Le Confessioni di un Italiano. The idea is to conceive a historical narration as an autobiographical one: it is Rousseau added to Manzoni, the two writers most admired by Nievo. Following the long life of the protagonist we are brought to witness the birth of a nation, and in the osmosis, history finds a new justification. The myth belongs to the present not to the past; which accounts for the optimistic, almost jubilant mood of Nievo's narration. With Nievo we are led one step further in the relationship of myth and history. Once history is accepted as not being in contradiction with our hopes we observe a phenomenon that will grow vaster and vaster in modern civilisation, the sudden appearance of a childhood distinguished from the adult world of historical events. The whole first (and most famous) section of Nievo's Confessioni is the memory of the protagonist as a child who, characteristically, lives among rural gentry immobilized and secluded from the movement of history, as is childhood itself. In decadent literature this separation will be seen as an irreducible opposition, generating regrets and nostalgia for a mythical individual past. Nievo is still sharing the romantic attitude toward the origins: they are the horizon of our fulfillment, a memory and a premonition at the same time.

The second great achievement is the Storia della Letteratura Italiana by the most famous Italian critic, Francesco De Sanctis. I do not hesitate to call this work one of the major historical novels of 19th century literature. The entire development of Italian culture throughout the centuries is seen as a growing living organism searching for its meaning and for its national identity. A great Entwicklung narration, the Storia by De Sanctis presents protagonists (the great authors of Italian literature) who have both a mythical and a historical status, like the heroes of ancient epic poetry. De Sanctis and Nievo have found a momentary equilibrium between myth and history, based on the patriotic enthusiasm of a young nation and on the credibility of what they narrate.

Born later in Italy than in other European countries Romanticism will last there as long as the search for national unity. In the latter part of the century a new phase of the dialectic relationship between myth and history will take place and will find new protagonists. The only myth left, the national one, will become more and more aggressive as if history were trying to suffocate it.

Gustavo Costa (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Ugo Foscolo's Europe: A Journey from the Sublime to Romantic Humor,” in Symposium, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 98-111.

[In the following essay, Costa reflects on how Foscolo's travels from Italy to England, his readings, and the politics of the time affected the tone of his fragmentary work Lettere scritte dall'Inghilterra, which was written between 1817 and 1818.]

The concept of Europe envisioned by Ugo Foscolo was deeply affected by the aesthetic views that dominated his life. Foscolo's Europe is a reflection of his creative spirit and, as such, must be gathered from his works in prose and verse. Fashioned in various genres, such works reflect different psychological moods by the writer and take the form of two opposite artistic expressions: the sublime and the comic. Both are linked to the theme of the journey, which can be either sublime—as is the case with Ulysses—or comic, as expressed by Yorick, the protagonist of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1768). The travel projected into the mythic past of Greece belongs to the superior sphere of the sublime, which allows us to overcome the narrow confines of geography and history in order to live in an enchanted world where geographic distance and historical remoteness disappear in a kind of mystic embrace. But travel can also be a contemporary fact, imposed by practical necessities, and, in this case, it is eminently comic. In this essay, I will show how Foscolo achieved the fusion of the sublime and the comic dimension of travel literature in his fragmentary Lettere scritte dall'Inghilterra or Gazzettino del Bel Mundo, which he initiated at the very beginning of the year 1817 and which he left unfinished on March 1818.1 In so doing, Foscolo made an artistic itinerary from the sublime to romantic humor, which more or less mirrored the journey of his existence from the Ionian Islands to Italy, and from the latter to England. Foscolo's Europe basically consisted of Greece, Italy, and England, viewed in a sublime or comic perspective, which at the end blend together in the humor pervading the Lettere.

In his Ortis (1802), Foscolo expressed his personal experience of exile from Venice and depicted Italy as a part of Europe exposed to foreign invasions, as well as to artistic influences from Northern countries. Among these, Goethe's Werther and Sterne's Sentimental Journey should be mentioned. The latter source might have directed Foscolo's creative power toward a kind of romantic humor, based on the coincidence of the sublime and the ludicrous. But it was not so, because the main component of Ortis appears to be Edmund Burke's identification of the sublime with terror and grief, as Cesarotti unwittingly pointed out in one of his letters, a point grossly misinterpreted by Walter Binni.2 In his lyric poem Dei Sepolcri (1807), Foscolo views Italy as the equivalent of Greece and implicitly adopts an image of Europe in Graeco-Roman terms, perfectly suited to the neoclassic taste of his times. What distinguishes Dei Sepolcri from other Italian neoclassical poems is its rigorous and original use of aesthetic principles, derived from the treatise On the Sublime, which is attributed to Longinus. Thanks to the inspiration drawn from Longinus, an author whom Foscolo, contrary to the majority of his contemporaries, was able to read in the original Greek text, the Italian poet was able to overcome the limits of time and space in the mystic union of great souls from different times and countries, that Longinus advocated in his treatise.3 In the unfinished Grazie, Foscolo continued to cultivate an image of Europe, mainly consisting of Greece and Italy. Such an image coincided with the triumph of the beautiful over the sublime, reflecting, on one hand, Foscolo's debt to Yves-Maire André, Raphael Mengs, and Winckelmann, and, on the other hand, Foscolo's rejection of Burke's and Mendelssohn's aesthetic theories. In his “Dissertation on an Ancient Hymn to the Graces” (1822), Foscolo writes: “If, instead of their poets furnishing subjects, attitudes, and expressions, the Athenians had possessed philosophers like Burke and Mendelssohn, it may be doubted, whether they would ever have executed those masterpieces of sculpture, which Phidias acknowledges he copied from three lines of the Iliad.”4

Paradoxically, Foscolo's disenchantment with the contemporary aesthetics of the sublime was itself a development of the treatise On the Sublime (XIV. 2) where, in the following passage, Longinus stresses the role of great models in the creative process.

Still more effectual will it be to suggest this question to our thoughts, “What sort of hearing would Homer, had he been present, or Demonsthenes have given to this or that when said by me, or how would they have been affected by the other?” For the ordeal is indeed a severe one, if we presuppose such a tribunal and theatre for our utterances, and imagine that we are undergoing a scrutiny of our writings before these great heroes, acting as judges and witnesses.5

This passage was considered highly significant by Foscolo, as it appears from his essay entitled “Traduzione de' due primi canti dell'Odissea di Ippolito Pindemonte” (1810). Here Foscolo paraphrased and lauded Longinus's preference for an audience composed exclusively of dead, though outstanding writers.

Immaginate che Demostene, Socrate e Omero leggano quanto scrivete: questo è il più bel precetto della letteratura; trovasi con altri pochissimi d'egual tempra nel libro Del Sublime di Dionisio Longino, dal quale, malgrado le magnificenze che se ne cantano, potrebbesi estrarre quattro pagine, inciderle in bronzo, o piuttosto trascriverle in lettere cubitali su le quattro pareti di tutte le scuole di eloquenza, e poi confinare il resto di quel trattato tra le inezie e le noie rettoriche.6

Foscolo's idiosyncratic sublime offered a highly sophisticated motivation to his snobbish attitude toward contemporary culture. The latter, being the opposite of the sublime, could be expressed only in comic terms. It is no wonder that the Lettere, conceived as a mirror of contemporary life, are intrinsically comic even when they deal with the sublime itself. A case in point is the following passage from the so-called “Della poesia moderna,” where Foscolo attacks the creators of contemporary aesthetics:

Fu ed è moda che i professori di metafisica francesi, inglesi e tedeschi insegnassero belle arti. Mengs diede precetti ed esempi a dipingere metafisicamente. Le nostre Accademie dissertano intorno al Bello; alla Grazia; al Sublime: teorie ignote all'età di Raffaello, del Correggio e di Michelangelo, i quali contemplavano le creazioni della natura con cuore non per anche gelato dalle speculazioni, e con mente vergine di sistemi. Ad essi bastava mostrare il Come sentivano e immaginavano la natura bella, sublime, e graziosa; or tutti vogliamo trovare il Perché.7

Foscolo's impatience with the excessive theorizing of his own times—an impatience probably inspired by Giambattista Vico's philosophy, according to which artistic creativity, based on imagination, antedates the rules of the poetics, based on reflection—reveals Foscolo's partiality toward Italy, viewed as the center of European civilization, at the expense of France, England, and Germany. Yet, in deprecating the proliferation of sterile theories, Foscolo reflected an attitude quite common among his contemporaries. Even in England, Byron attacked Coleridge in the dedication of Don Juan (2. 5-8): “And Coleridge too has lately taken wing, / But like a hawk encumbered with his hood, / Explaining metaphysics to the nation. / I wish he would explain his explanation.”8 As usual, despite his proclaimed hostility toward modernity, Foscolo was on the same wavelength of the most relevant European literatures. He sensed that the modern world, being absolutely unfit for the sublime, is ludicrous in all its manifestations, including its speculations on the sublime. For this reason, in his Lettere Foscolo adopted a highly original style, amalgamating the sublime and the comic, namely his nostalgia for the mythic past of Greece and Italy, which continued to haunt him, and his everyday experience with the petty problems connected with his condition as an expatriate in England. The result of Foscolo's creative effort is an unfinished but fascinating work that can be subsumed under the category of romantic humor, namely the reverse of the sublime, according to Jean Paul Richter's School of Aesthetics (1804).9

Foscolo had meditated on Plutarch's essay On Exile, 2 (Moralia, 599), according to which expatriation is a matter of opinion, one which can be viewed either as a calamity or as an advantage:

It is by nature that stone is hard, it is by nature that ice is cold; it is not from outside themselves, fortuitously, that they convey the sensation of rigidity and freezing; but banishment, loss of fame, and loss of honours, like their opposites, crowns, public office, and frontseat privileges, whose measure of causing sorrow and joy is not their own nature, but our judgment, every one makes light or heavy for himself, and easy to bear or the reverse.10

Plutarch proves the validity of his statement, referring to two texts. The first, drawn from Euripides's The Phoenician Maidens (388-89), contains Jocasta's question to Polyneices: “What is the loss of country? A great ill?” as well as Polyneices's unequivocal answer: “The greatest; and no words can do it justice.” The second text quoted by Plutarch is Alexander Aetolus's epigram, in which the poet Alcman expressed his satisfaction at having left Lydia, his native country, in order to become a citizen of Sparta.11 Foscolo did not ignore the exhilarating feeling of liberty that a foreign country can convey to a traveler open to new experiences. Especially his early correspondence from England reveals (to put it in Mario Scotti's words) Foscolo's “sensazione gioiosa della riscoperta libertà.”12 Yet he decided to adopt Euripides's passage as an epigraph for the fragment of the Lettere entitled “Esilio” (“tornerò ad affliggermi degli altrui guai con Euripide allorché mi sarò con voi spassionato de' miei”), leaving aside the gist in Plutarch's essay where Euripides is quoted with Alexander Aetolus (the “opuscoli di Plutarco De exilio dov'è citato”).13 Obviously, Foscolo did not resist the temptation to give an excerpt of sublime poetry that could elevate the daily problems he faced as an exile.

It would be a mistake, however, to view Foscolo's preference for Euripides as a mere literary gimmick. When he wrote “Esilio,” Foscolo harbored the tragic foreboding that he would never be able to go back to Italy, as it is clear from the following passage in which he refers to the period he spent in France (1804-1806) serving in Napoleon's army: “E temo ch'io non riavrò il piacere di cui ho goduto quando ritornando dopo due anni rividi con occhi lacrimosi di gioia i miei libri, di più gioia che non rividi gli amici miei.”14 The premonition is almost hidden in a frivolous context, dealing with the partiality of English writers, such as Addison and Fielding, for epigraphs and quotations (“Gl'Inglesi ne sono pazzi come pure di citazioni”).15 The same remark can be extended to the rest of the drafts and notes that constitute the Lettere. The most striking characteristic of Foscolo's unfinished project is the tragic feeling that lies buried under the jocular surface of its sprightly prose. One of the most convincing expressions of the ubiquitous tension between tragedy and comedy is found in the introductory letter that Foscolo completed on December 25, 1817: “E appunto perché su l'Inghilterra io scriveva, per così dir, novellando; e intanto nella mia memoria risanguinavano piaghe—per le quali il forte sdegna di lasciare udire lamenti; e il cittadino vorrebbe poterle palliare; né io bramava che di sfogarmi secretamente—io allora non m'intendeva, o lettore, che tu pure dovessi essere depositario delle lettere mie.”16 Apart from the conventional disclaimer of fictitious epistolary works, allegedly written for private consumption, what we have here is an accurate description of the two main ingredients of the Lettere: tragedy and comedy. These basic components exert upon each other a strong magnetic pull, which precludes the possibility of a purely sublime or comic expression. The ultimate result of these opposite forces is romantic humor. In the Lettere, Foscolo experimented with a style that was highly appreciated in northern Europe, especially in England. From this point of view, Foscolo's physical journey to England appears to have been also an artistic evolution toward romantic humor.

Such an evolution was the fruit of a laborious gestation, strongly influenced by Sterne, whose Sentimental Journey Foscolo translated into Italian from the original, in 1805, while in France. As reflected in the “Notizia intorno a Didimo Chierico” (1816), in Sterne's novels Foscolo discovered a new kind of irony, neither epigrammatic nor persuasive, simply and warmly narrative (a “nuova specie d'ironia, non epigrammatica, né suasoria, ma candidamente ed affettuosamente storica”).17 In the dedication of the second edition of his Tristram Shandy (1760), Sterne asserted that “every time a man smiles,—but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of life.”18 Yet Foscolo was perfectly aware that Sterne's magic style was made not only of mirth but also of tears (“ma pare ch'egli inoltre sapesse che ogni lagrima insegna a' mortali una verità”).19 Certainly, Sterne's new brand of narrative irony suggested to Foscolo a new aesthetic possibility, resulting from the blend of the tragedy and the comedy. Sterne's artistic vision was founded on a subversion of traditional rhetoric, which had separated the sublime from the ludicrous, as it appears in Tristram Shandy (I, Ch. 19) where the eloquence of Tristram's father is jocularly described as a natural gift: “Persuasion hung upon his lips. … And yet, 'tis strange he had never read Cicero nor Quintilian de Oratore, nor Isocrates, nor Aristotle, nor Longinus among the ancients.”20 Literary taste was decidedly changing, since Longinus himself, whom Pope viewed as the perfect embodiment of the sublime,21 could be quoted to poke fun at the admirers of ancient rhetoric. Such a desecrating attitude, which paved the way for modern aesthetics, was not ignored in the Venetian literary world, where a brilliant novelist such as Francesco Gritti, in his La mia istoria ovvero Memorie del signor Tommasino (1767-1768), could satirize a speech for its Longinian character (“mercé la irresistible forza de' miei sillogismi pieni zeppi di verità e della più fina quintessenze del gran Longino”).22

The most accomplished example of romantic humor that Italian literature could offer to Foscolo, however, was Alfieri's Vita, published in 1806, an autobiography that was also a travel book dealing with various countries of Europe.23 In a fragment of his Lettere, Foscolo epitomizes in a few lines the content of Alfieri's Vita, calling attention to some revealing episodes: “L'Alfieri incocciatosi che il suo cavallo saltasse una sbarra nell'Hyde Park si slogò un braccio, e dopo tre o quattro giorni duellò—poi tornato a Firenze vestiva da militare perché parevagli farsi più bello—poi scrisse tragedie e abbellì la poesia italiana dell'unica corona che le mancava.”24 Foscolo, who liked to view himself as Alfieri's heir, alludes to that part of the Vita, (I, III, X) containing a romanesque description of Alfieri's adventures during his second stay in England, namely his love affair with Penelope Pitt. One such adventure was Alfieri's fall from a horse. As a result of the accident, Alfieri's left shoulder was dislocated. In spite of the injury, Alfieri was able to fight a duel with his mistress's jealous husband who had discovered their relationship.25 Alfieri's fall from a horse suggested to Foscolo a self-serving comparison with a similar accident he had on July 25, 1817 (“non voglio spedire domani il precedente numero senza questo, tanto da non lasciarvi fantasticare cos'abbia a che fare l'Alfieri con la tribolazione della mia gamba”).26 In one of his letters, addressed to John Allen on September 2, 1817, Foscolo related his misadventure, which after immobilizing him for three weeks, left him with a limp. Even in this account, one can detect the same tension between the sublime and the ludicrous that pervades the Lettere. For Foscolo, after comparing himself to Theseus in Virgil's Aeneid (VI, 618-19) and to Philoctetes, the hero of one of Sophocles's tragedies, does not hesitate to identify himself with the anti-hero of Cervantes's Don Quijote as follows:

Le chirurgien m'a tenu dans l'immobilité du Héros Theseus pendant vingt et un jours: aeternumque sedebat—Infelix Theseus:—maintenant je suis le Héros Filoctetes; je marche boiteux comme lui; et la nuit je pousse des cris aussi aigus que les siens: car le rhumatisme n'a point declined the occasion—et je finirai par devenir la véritable figure du Héros Don Quixote mon ami, et, je crois, l'un de mes ancêtres.27

In the passage from the Lettere just cited, Foscolo also alludes to another episode in Alfieri's autobiography, one that constitutes an excellent example of romantic humor. In his Vita (I, IV, III), Alfieri confesses that, at the very time he was writing his Virginia and the essay Della Tirannide, he was still wearing the uniform of the Sardinian army, simply because he wanted to look more smart and attractive. commenting on his own vanity, Alfieri made the striking discovery of the dual nature of his own character, consisting of a giant and a dwarf: “In questa particolarità, la quale in me si troverà accoppiata con gli atti di forza che io andava pure facendo, si scorgerà da chi ben osserva e riflette, che talvolta l'uomo, o almeno, che io riuniva in me, per così dire, il gigante ed il nano.”28 Such a confession points to the same tension between the sublime and the ludicrous that Foscolo experienced in himself and expressed in his writings. It was a tension that polarized the contradictions of Foscolo's personality, reflecting an essential condition of the romantic malaise. As Alfieri discovered to have a split personality, one that allowed him to be a giant and a dwarf at the same time, in the same way Foscolo was Ortis and Didimo Chierico. While Ortis represents the traveler journeying in the mythic dimension of the sublime, Didimo Chierico represents the traveler journeying in the contemporary world—a man who has seen many countries, described them in his autobiography written in Greek, and yet regretted having seen them (“parla de' molti paesi da lui veduti, e si pente d'averli veduti”), as Foscolo stated in his “Notizia.”29 Didimo is also the fictitious author of the Hypercalypsis (1816), which contains a vitriolic attack against Urbano Lampredi. Here Foscolo depicts himself in the larger-than-life figure of the military man (“vir militaris”) who, having played the role of the archangel, in the end proclaims to be just a cavalry captain (“Non sum apostolus nec propheta nec angelus, sed centurio Draconum”).30 Didimo, like Foscolo, was a rationalist who paradoxically believed in the power of prophecy (“Credeva nell'ispirazione profetica, anzi presumeva di saperne le fonti”).31

In his Lettere, Foscolo does not fail to mention Didimo, who was well informed about the ways of the world thanks to his travels through Europe. In the “lettera sulla moda,” where he deals with the habit of kissing the ladies' hands, which did not exist in England, Foscolo fondly evokes Didimo: “Ma qui si tratta del nostro secolo, di mode e di baci—e tu sì Didimo Chierico, amico mio! tu ne sapevi più d'Anacreonte.”31 As he had already done in his “Notizia,” Foscolo feigns to have lost track of Didimo (“Poi non l'abbiamo veduto più: né so s'egli cammini ancora sopra la terra”).32 In a canceled draft of the same “Lettera sulla moda,” Foscolo describes Didimo's gift of prophecy, and mentions his own Hypercalypsis: “E' fu nella sua adolescenza invasato da uno spirito o demone di profezia, e scrisse certo libretto a modo della Scrittura che si chiama con vocabolo strano Hypercalypsis.34 Then Foscolo refers to Ch. XVII of the prophetic work he attributed to Didimo, who allegedly exposed the misery of Paris, Rome, and Milan, the three Babylons of Napoleonic Europe: “ei pronostica di tre Babilonie—Babilonia massima, Babilonia perpetua, e Babilonia minima.”35 Since the Lettere were intended for English readers, Foscolo found it expedient to overlook the fact that Didimo, in Hypercalypsis, XVII, 9, had directed his barbs against England, the rich Babylon, and had predicted its ruin (“ad te quoque perveniet calix: inebriaberis atque nudaberis”).36 However, Didimo's negative view of England did not cease to affect Foscolo's direct experience of English life, as shown by his correspondence. In the letter addressed to Quirina Mocenni Magiotti on February 20, 1818, Foscolo scorned England's materialistic mentality, based on the glorification of money: “E t'ho già avvertito, credo, che qui la povertà è vergogna che nessun merito lava. E' delitto non punito dalle leggi, ma perseguitato più crudelmente dal mondo. Sì fatto modo di pensare fa di grandi beni alla nazione—ma riduce chi ha bisogno a non potere cercare né aiuto, né sfogo.”37

After his initial enthusiasm, Foscolo made the disturbing discovery that, as an Italian writer, he could not prosper in England where the Italian language was generally ignored. In the same letter to Quirina, Foscolo laments the fact that he was unable to write in English, and, forgetting Didimo's indifference to financial matters, regrets the material success he could have attained with a full mastery of English, thanks to the reputation he enjoyed as an Italian author:

Questa Fama che no viene meritamente, ma che pure mi è data, m'arricchirebbe, se potessi scrivere Inglese;—ma chi intende il mio Italiano? … Moltissimi lo studiano, pochi l'imparano: tutti affettano o presumono di saperlo. Ma i libraji assicurano che appena d'un libro Italiano, anche classico, si vendono cinquecento copie in tre anni;—e d'un libro Inglese, d'autore di qualche nome, se ne vendono cinque e spesso sei mila copie in due o tre settimane.38

England offered Foscolo the unique opportunity to acquire a first-hand knowledge of a modern, growing literary life, supported by a thriving book market, all of which was a far cry from a stagnating situation in Italy, where men of letters who could not count on a fortune were still obliged to make a living by soliciting state patronage or private generosity. A fragment of the Lettere shows that Foscolo had grasped the interconnection between an affluent society and a vigorous culture, because he stresses the fact that a reading public is the byproduct of habit, money and self-love: “La Lettura viene da' costumi—perché per essi s'ha tempo di Leggere—dal danaro perch'e s'ha mezzo d'incivilirisi, e spendere—dalla vanità perché provoca emulazione.”39 Because English literature was financed by the readers who bought books printed by the publishers in order to satisfy their demand, the English poets were more independent and less adept to adulation than the Italian counterparts who could not rely upon a vast audience: “Quanto a' poeti inglesi sono tutti meno adulatori perché son più liberi degli italiani;—ma perché sono poeti si compiacciono anch'essi del favore de' grandi; oggi peraltro men che mai perché i lor cari mecenati sono i librai, e quindi l'intera nazione.”40 Here Foscolo was moving on untilled ground. Only in 1832, the economic underpinnings of modern culture were pointed out by Giuseppe Pecchio in the essay “Sino a qual punto le Produzioni Scientifiche e Letterarie seguano le leggi economiche della produzione in generale.” Pecchio went so far as to assert that the market generates literary perfection but refused to extend this principle to the productions of sublime writers: “il gran consumo crea la perfezione; ma questo principio non debb'essere spinto troppo lontano fino a dire che crea la sublimità.”41

In the light of his English experience, Foscolo did not hesitate to manifest, once again, his profound distaste for Italian literary life, which was not founded on a national community, because the very idea of country was stifled first by the Napoleonic regime and then by the restoration sanctioned by the Congress of Vienna:

Or da quattr'anni ogni speranza di patria dileguasi; gl'ingegni frementi sotto Napoleone si giacciono in muta costernazione; e coloro che scrivono per venalità o per vanità, non hanno altra suppellettile che di parole; e combattono fra di loro: gli uni, ad immiserire con grammaticali superstizioni la lingua—gli altri a snaturarla con formule matematiche, o con vocaboli metafisici che inorgogliscono l'intellettotè è confondono l'evidenza delle idee; stile de' romanzieri, de' poeti e degli storici d'oggi, avvampante d'entusiasmo e di passioni artefatte.”42

Here Didimo's comic dislike for the literary quarrels of Italy, which he called “eunuchs' battles” (“l'ho imparato appunto da Didimo che i duelli di penna s'hanno da chiamare eunocomachie”),43 goes hand in hand with Ortis's tragic grief for the loss of country, which is expressed in the sublime opening of Foscolo's novel (“Il sacrificio della patria nostra è consumato: tutto è perduto; e la vita, seppure ne verrà concessa, non ci resterà che per piangere le nostre sciagure e la nostra infamia”).44 Foscolo's Europe consisted of highly diversified nations, which he naturalistically regarded as representing different species of men, more adept than other living beings to love and kill each other:

… la genitrice Natura sa bene quali diverse doti e dosi bisognino meglio a tutti noi sue creature uomini e bestie. E quanto agli animali umani destinati da lei ad amarsi più ch'altri fra loro e a trucidarsi più ch'altri, essa gli ha divisi in specie—e che noi diciamo Nazioni—ed ha provveduto ciascheduna di loro dell'istinto più acconcio all'intento dell'amarsi e del trucidarsi.”45

Yet Europe was held together by a kind of unifying cement, called Western civilization, while non-European peoples constituted the barbarian world. This Eurocentric view, universally accepted at the time, was never rejected by Foscolo, although he was somewhat uneasy about it.

Thanks to his familiarity with Vico's New Science,46 Foscolo was aware of the fact that barbarism and civilization are relative concepts inasmuch as they represent different stages in the historical development of all nations, including those of Europe. This relativistic view of the dichotomy between barbarism and civilization invited comparisons between Europeans and non-European peoples in order to better understand the history of Europe, from its origins to the present. Such is the proper perspective that help us to understand Foscolo's observations on the inability of both barbarians and civilized men to think, when they reach the apex of the stage of barbarism or civilization. According to Foscolo, barbarians tend to fix their attention on very few objects, while civilized people tend to disperse their intellectual powers over a wide range of subject matter. Therefore, barbarians are comparable to maniacs, while civilized men are to be considered as fatuous: “Parmi che nel sommo della barbarie o della civiltà de' popoli la facoltà di pensare è inattiva. I barbari, per troppa intensità di passione verso pochissimi oggetti potrebbero paragonarsi ai Maniaci—e noi, per troppa distrazione a infiniti capricci, siam simila a' Fatui.47

Can Europe, the reign of fatuousness, boast of its alleged superiority over the uncivilized nations, characterized by mania? It is difficult to say. Foscolo limits himself to assert that mania is the result of an excess of feelings, and can be cured. On the other hand, Foscolo notes that fatuousness is more intractable, because it is cherished in the high society: “Notate che la Mania deriva dal troppo sentire; però è men difficile a guarire; ma à malinconica. La Fatuità non ha più forze da riaversi in salute; ma perché è spensierata ed allegra piace al Bel mondo.48 The dilemma posed by barbarism and mania, on one hand, and civilization and fatuousness, on the other, entails a geographical as well as a literary dimension that affects contemporary criticism. Foscolo believes that the Moslems who read only the Koran are no more afflicted by mania than those European critics who extol Homer or Dante over all other authors: “I dervisci e i Monaci d'ogni setta i quali non hanno libro se no il loro Alcorano, e parimenti i settari d'Omero e di Dante che infuriano contro gli autori d'ogni secolo e popolo, non sono forse Maniaci?”49 Foscolo did not want to be a maniac. Like Didimo, who liked to read all sorts of books (“Leggeva quanti libri gli capitavano”),50 Foscolo was familiar with an impressive number of European authors, as attested by the drafts of his Lettere. Yet he also felt that we should not be inclined to admire all novelties, because such an attitude generates skepticism: “Frattanto noi correndo dietro la turba tumultuosa degli scrittori viventi, combattiamo per conquistare un'infinità d'opinioni e di fantasie e di novità, finché ciascheduno di noi volendole afferrar tutte quante, si stanca, s'annoia di tutte e cade smemorato sul campo di battaglia del Pirronismo.51

Echoing what Longinus maintains in his treatise On the Sublime (XIV. 2), Foscolo again stresses the importance of great models, both ancient and modern, which enable us to think, and, in this way, help us avoid the dangerous reefs of mania and fatuousness: “Adunque è da presumersi men barbaro quel Bel mondo popolato di scrittori e lettori i quali, studiando i pochi grandi esemplari d'ogni generazione fino alla nostra, possono educarsi a pensare; e quindi, a scansare gli inconvenienti della Mania e della Fatuità.52 According to Foscolo, if we follow his advice to converse only with major writers, whom Longinus did not hesitate to call “great heroes,”53 we will learn three essential principles: the general ideas of truth and beauty, as well as a more adequate idea of taste. This aesthetic view, adhering, as it does, to the heroic, namely aristocratic and classical tenor of Longinus's treatise while replacing the sublime with the beautiful, represents Foscolo's antidote to the growing influence of German philosophy; “la Metafisica tedesca rivestita delle gonnelle di Madama di Staël.”54 Clearly, Foscolo's artistic itinerary from the sublime to romantic humor placed him in a position to complete his Grazie, the magnum opus mentioned in a fragment of the Lettere: “Un amico mio di cui forse un giorno manderò a voi … un poema intitolato Alle Grazie scrive che le Gravie ebbero da Pallade in dono un velo, che era istoriato a ricami di alcune pitture della vita umana.”55 Unfortunately, the financial problems Foscolo had to face in England hindered his tireless efforts to bring to fruition, through the Grazie, the poetic masterpiece he had strived for throughout his life.


  1. U. Foscolo, Gli appunti per le “Lettere scritte dall'Inghilterra,” Livorno, Biblioteca Labronica, ms. XIV, cc. 98v-143v, ed. L. Conti Bertini (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1975) XXXV-LXXIII. On Foscolo's stay in England see E. R. Vincent, Ugo Foscolo: An Italian in Regency England (Cambridge: UP, 1953). The validity of Vincent's book was duly stressed by an illustrious critic, who asserted that “one can do no better than refer to that biography” (G. Cambon, Ugo Foscolo: Poet of Exile [Princeton: UP, 1980] 15).

  2. On Cesarotti's opinion of the Ortis, see G. Costa, “Melchiorre Cesarotti, Vico and the Sublime,” Italica 58, 1 (Spring 1981): 10-11. On the sublime in Ortis, see A. Sole, “La sublimità malinconica di Jacopo Ortis,” Rassegna della letteratura italiana 88. 1-2 (January-August 1984): 52-79. Unfortunately, Sole fails to identify the specific character of Foscolo's sublime within the context of contemporary culture. Foscolo himself acknowledged his debt to Werther in a letter addressed to Goethe (January 16, 1802). See Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, ed. G. Gambarin (Florence: Le Monnier, 1955), Edizione Nazionale delle opere di Ugo Foscolo, IV: 542. In 1803, the Giornale dell'italiana letteratura compared Ortis to Werther: see G. Avanzi and G. Sichel, Bibliografia italiana su Goethe, 1779-1965 (Florence: Olschki, 1972) 3, no. 15; E. Guidorizzi, L'Italia, Goethe e la natura: La critica letteraria italiana (Naples: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1980) 14-15. On the Werther-Ortis relationship, see G. Manacorda, Materialismo e masochismo: Il “Werther,” Foscolo e Leopardi (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1973) 27-36 and passim; G. Nicoletti, Il “metodo” del'“Ortis” e altri studi foscoliani (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1978) 41-70. For Sterne's influence on Foscolo, see L. Berti, Foscolo traduttore di Sterne (Florence: Edizioni di Rivoluzione, 1942); P. Fasano, “L'amicizia con Sterne e la traduzione didimea del Sentimental Journey,” in Stratigrafie foscoliane (Rome: Bulzoni, 1974) 83-189; C. Varese, Foscolo: sternismo, tempo e persona (Ravenna: Longo, 1982).

  3. See G. Costa, “Foscolo e la poetica del sublime,” Forum Italicum 12. 14 (Winter 1978): 483.

  4. U. Foscolo, Poesie e carmi: Poesie—Dei Sepolcri—Poesie postume—Le Grazie, eds. F. Pagliai, G. Folena, and M. Scotti (Florence: Le Monnier, 1987), Edizione Nazionale delle opere di Ugo Foscolo I: 1098. See my review of this volume in Annali d'Italianistica 7 (1989): 470-72.

  5. Longinus, On the Sublime, ed. and tr. W. R. Roberts, 2nd ed., rpt. (Cambridge: UP, 1935) 82-83.

  6. U. Foscolo, Lezioni, articoli di critica e di polemica (1809-1811), ed. E. Santini (Florence: Le Monnier, 1933), Edizione Nazionale delle opere di Ugo Foscolo, VII: 226. Part of the same passage was quoted by Foscolo in his “Ragguaglio d'un'adunanza dell'Accademia de' Pitagorici” (1810); see ibid., 242.

  7. U. Foscolo, Prose varie d'arte, ed. M. Fubini (Florence: Le Monnier, 1951), Edizione Nazionale delle opere di Ugo Foscolo, V: 359.

  8. Lord Byron, Don Juan, eds. T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan, and W. W. Pratt (New Haven-London: Yale UP, 1982) 41.

  9. Horn of Oberon: Jean Paul Richter's School for Aesthetics, tr. M. R. Hale (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1973) 88. See G. Costa, “Il comico e il sublime nella cultura italiana del primo settecento,” Intersezioni 1 (1981): 555-73. Richter's romantic humor practically coincides with romantic irony, which was the object of various studies. See, for instance, A. K. Mellor, English Romantic Irony (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980); L. R. Furst, Fictions of Romantic Irony (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984); D. J. Enright, The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony (Oxford-New York: Oxford UP, 1986). I share Almansi's distaste for the “tragicisti, i quali presumono di teorizzare il territorio dell'arte solo dall'altopiano del sublime e non dalla bassura di ciò che suscita riso e diletto” (G. Almansi, La ragion comica [Milan: Feltrinelli, 1986] 10). However, I also believe that no serious student of the comic should ignore the implications of the sublime.

  10. Plutarch's Moralia in Fifteen Volumes, ed. and tr. P. H. De Lacy and B. Einarson (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1959) 7: 520-21.

  11. Ibid., 520-23. See Euripides, ed. and tr. A. S. Way (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1950) 3: 374-75.

  12. M. Scotti, “I primi cinque anni del Foscolo inglese, attraverso l'epistolario,” in Foscolo fra erudizione e poesia (Rome: Bonacci, 1973) 127. See also G. Costa, “Due inediti foscoliani,” Modern Language Notes 86. 1 (January 1971): 89-95.

  13. U. Foscolo, Prose varie 261. Edoardo Sanguineti remarked that Foscolo “confuse, citando a memoria, le parti di Polinice e di Giocasta” (U. Foscolo, Lettere scritte dall'Inghilterra [Gazzettino del bel mondo], ed. E. Sanguineti [Milan: Mursia, 1978] 28, note 2).

  14. Foscolo, Prose varie 263.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid., 240. Mandruzzato observed that the Lettere is characterized by “un estro,” which Foscolo “credeva arguto perché lieto,” although it lacks the “lievità” and “indifferenza di fondo del vero umorismo” (E. Mandruzzato, Foscolo [Milan: Rizzoli, 1978] 392). What Mandruzzato means by “vero umorismo” is not clear to me; certainly, he does not refer to romantic humor.

  17. Foscolo, Prose varie 176.

  18. L. Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. G. Petrie (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979) 33.

  19. Foscolo, Prose varie 39.

  20. Sterne, The Life and Opinions 79. On Sterne's attitude toward Longinus, see J. Lamb, “The Comic Sublime and Sterne's Fiction,” ELH 48. 1 (Spring 1981): 110-43.

  21. In his Essay on Criticism, 675-80, Pope pays homage to “bold Longinus,” who, being both a critic and a poet, was the incarnation of the sublime: “And Is himself that Great Sublime he draws” (The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. J. Butt [New Haven: Yale UP, 1963] 165). According to Samuel H. Monk, Pope's praise of Longinus is “a cliché echoed from Boileau” (S. H. Monk, The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England [Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1960] 22).

  22. F. Gritti, Memorie del signor Tommasino, ed. R. Damiani Milan: Curcio, 1979) 119. See G. Ficara, “Rousseau e cioccolata nel caffè veneziano,” Tuttolibri V. 15 (April 21, 1979): 11.

  23. See G. Costa, “Achilles and Thersites in the Maelstrom of French Revolution: The Sublime and the Ludicrous in Alfieri's Vita,Forum Italicum 26. 1 (Spring 1992): 28-45.

  24. Foscolo, Prose varie 334.

  25. V. Alfieri, Vita scritta da esso, ed. L. Fassò (Asti: Casa d'Alfieri, 1951), Opere di Vittorio Alfieri da Asti, I: 110-15.

  26. Foscolo, Prose varie 334. On this incident, see U. Foscolo, Epistolario, VII, ed. M. Scotti (Florence: Le Monnier, 1970), Edizione Nazionale delle opere di Ugo Foscolo, XX: 208, note 1 and passim.

  27. Ibid., 223.

  28. Alfieri, Vita I: 213.

  29. Foscolo, Prose varie 174.

  30. U. Foscolo, Prose politiche e letterarie dal 1811 al 1816: Frammenti sul Machiavelli, Ipercalisse, Storia del sonetto, Discorsi sulla servitù dell'Italia, Scritti vari, ed. L. Fassò (Florence: Le Monnier, 1933), Edizione Nazionale delle opere di Ugo Foscolo 8: 105.

  31. Foscolo, Prose varie 178.

  32. Ibid., 298.

  33. Ibid.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid. See Foscolo, Prose politiche 99-100.

  36. Ibid., 100.

  37. Foscolo, Epistolario 7: 289.

  38. Ibid.

  39. Foscolo, Gli appunti 26.

  40. Foscolo, Prose varie 412.

  41. G. Pecchio, Della produzione letteraria (Pordenone: Edizioni Studio Tesi, 1985) 73.

  42. Foscolo, Prose varie 244-45.

  43. Ibid., 288.

  44. This is the incipit of the final version of the Ortis, which Foscolo published in Zurich, 1816 (with the false imprint London, 1814). The Zurich edition reproduces, with a minor modification, the beginning of the novel as it was printed in Milan, 1802. The edition of Bologna, 1798 had a different opening: “Sia dunque così! io vivrò lontano da quanto m'avea di più caro …” See Foscolo, Ultime lettere 5, 137 and 295.

  45. Foscolo, Prose varie 285-86.

  46. B. Croce and F. Nicolini, Bibliografia vichiana (Naples: Ricciardi, 1947-1948) I: 425-27; G. Cambon, “Vico e Foscolo,” Forum Italicum 12. 4 (Winter 1978): 498-511.

  47. Foscolo, Prose varie 383.

  48. Ibid., 384.

  49. Ibid., 385.

  50. Ibid., 180

  51. Ibid., 385.

  52. Ibid.

  53. Longinus, On the Sublime 82.

  54. Foscolo, Prose varie 375.

  55. Ibid., 281. Foscolo alludes to his fragments on the veil: see Poesie e carmi 823-58.

This paper reflects my research project on the sublime in Italian culture. See E. Mattioli, “Gli studi di Gustavo Costa sul Sublime in Italia,” Studi e problemi di critica testuale 36 (1988): 139-55 (reprinted in E. Mattioli, Interpretazioni dello Pseudo-Longino [Modena: Mucchi, 1988] 67-88).

Antonio Illiano (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “From Gray's Elegy to Foscolo's Carme: Highlighting the Mediation and Sublimation of the ‘Sepulchral,’” in Symposium, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 117-31.

[In the following essay, Illiano examines Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which was known to Foscolo, for the influence it had on Foscolo's Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis and The Sepulchres. The critic also discusses Ippolito Pindemonte's I Cimiteri and its effect on The Sepulchres.]

Widely acclaimed as a masterwork of poetic expression, Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard had a far-reaching impact on Italian literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Gray was hailed as the new Pindar of England, “poeta caldo, fantastico, armonioso, sublime,”1 and the Elegy, his major composition, was soon featured among the most challenging projects in literary translation. The first version, a masterful Elegia di Tommaso Gray sopra un cimitero di campagna in unrhymed hendecasyllables, was authored by no less a luminary than Melchiorre Cesarotti. It was published in 1772 by Giuseppe Comino, a well-known printer in Padua, who, that same year, discovered and published two new versions, one in Italian by Giuseppe Gennari and one by Giovanni Costa, who transposed the poem into Latin distichs with the idea of bringing it within the classical tradition.2 Meanwhile, a translation in quatrains by Giuseppe Torelli was circulating in manuscript form and was eventually published in 1776 by the heirs of Agostino Carattoni, printers in Verona.3 The output of new translations continued even as the first four were variously collected and reprinted.4 But none approached the level of Cesarotti's compelling poetical eloquence.

Cesarotti, the most influential teacher and scholar of late eighteenth-century Italy, had distinguished himself as translator of Voltaire's tragedies,5 and, more decisively and distinctively, as author of a poetic version of Ossian, which authenticated Macpherson's “epic” and contributed to the spreading of the mood and mode of Ossianism throughout Europe.6 In that allegedly old text, Cesarotti had discovered a sublime example of the poetry of nature and sentiment, which he viewed as outclassing that of reflection. And, in its mythology and psychology, he had perceived the kind of delicate balance between the primitive and the refined, epos and pathos, which appealed to the genteel spirituality and the eudaemonic didacticism of his time.

But such poetry of nature and sentiment was wrought in a style that was fundamentally alien to a literary language long stifled by its submission to the norms of tradition. Accordingly, Cesarotti's primary objective was to promote the development of the Italian language by expanding its range and scope:

Io so bene che alcune di queste locuzioni non sarebbero sofferte in una poesia che fosse originariamente italiana, ma oso altresì lusingarmi che abbia a trovarsene più d'una, che possa forse aggiungere qualche tinta non infelice al colorito della nostra favella poetica, e qualche nuovo atteggiamento al suo stile. Questo è il capo per cui specialmente può rendersi utile una traduzione di questo genere, e questo è l'oggetto ch'io mi sono principalmente proposto,

and by awakening it to the wealth of its expressive potentialities:

Io non avea per istrumento della mia fatica che una lingua felice a dir vero, armoniosa, pieghevole forse più di qualunque altra, ma assai lontana (dica pur altri checché si voglia) dall'aver ricevuto tutta la fecondità e tutte le attitudini di cui è capace, e per colpe de' suoi adoratori eccessivamente pusillanime.7

To accomplish this challenging objective, Cesarotti worked out a poetics of translation which, while following D'Alembert's controversial precept of rendering the spirit rather than the letter of the original, allowed for even freer practices of refinement and embellishment inasmuch as Cesarotti understood his task to be not that of a mere translator, but that of a «personaggio di mezzo» between translator and author, a translator-author struggling with the tough and unyielding resistance of the original:

Mi sarebbe stato assai grato di poter presentare ai lettori, a fronte della traduzione poetica, il testo istesso di Ossian tradotto letteralmente in prosa italiana: si conoscerebbe allora chiaramente con qual atleta io fossi alle prese. … Ma se mi si vuol dar carico di aver procurato in vari luoghi di rischiarar il mio originale, di rammorbidirlo e di rettificarlo, e talora anche di abbellirlo e di gareggiar con esso, confesso chi'io sarò più facilmente tentato di pregiarmi di questa colpa che di pentirmene. Ragionando un giorno un mio dotto e colto amico con varie persone di lettere, ed essendosi detto da non so chi che l'Omero inglese di Pope non era Omero:—No invero,—diss'egli—perch'egli è qualche cosa di meglio.—Felice il traduttore che può meritar una tal censura!8

This skillfully “athletic” struggle heralded a new sensibility, along with the kind of renovation that Italian literature needed to break the hold of formalistic tradition and to open the way for future generations of poets: «C'est après la parution de la traduction d'Ossian et des études de Cesarotti que s'est formée, à la fin du siècle, une nouvelle Arcadie ‘préromantique,’ et que s'affirma la conception esthétique selon laquelle l'art vrai ne s'attarde à imiter ni les modèles classiques ni la nature, mais exprime les entiments vrais et les passions de l'âme, comme le feront la poésie d'Alfieri et celle d'Ugo Foscolo, premiers fruits de cet art.»9

It is no mere coincidence that Foscolo was the first to attempt a historical definition of the main features of Cesarotti's Ossian and of the outstanding contribution his great mentor had made to the development of Italian poetry:

His verses, in truth, are harmonious, are soft, are imbued with a colouring, and breathe an ardent spirit, altogether new; and, with the same materials, he has created a poetry, that appears written in a metre and a language entirely different from all former specimens … The translation of Ossian will, however, be always considered as an incontrovertible proof of the genius of Cesarotti, and of the flexibility of the Italian tongue.10

Cesarotti was not a radical reformer but an enlightened modernizer who achieved a “mediation” that was as much an accomplishment in cultural diplomacy as it was a masterpiece of refined literary artistry. And it was a mediation that progressed to an even higher form of sophistication with the translation of Gray's Elegy.11 Here Cesarotti's craftsmanship emerged even more assertively as it now faced the task of transposing not a ready-for-poetization narrative but a well-wrought composition that resisted any interference with the inalienable nature of its mold and texture. The mediator's genius, without departing from his basic approach to translation, opted for an inspired heightening of Arcadian sensibility in which a detached perception of time and death leads to a sense of elegiac mediation that foreshadowed the Romantic perception of the lyrical sublime.

Gray's style is sober, selective, restrained, rooted in the concrete usage of the English tongue and enriched by a tactfully literate use of archaic and Latinate elements. Cesarotti “clarifies” and “rectifies” it with an opulence of added connotations that convey the subtler implications of the text:


The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
the lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
the plowman homeward plods his weary way,
and leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
and all the air a solemn stillness holds,
save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
and drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds.
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r
the mopeing owl does to the moon complain
of such, as wand'ring near her secret bow'r,
molest her ancient solitary rein.


Parte languido il giorno; odine il segno
che il cavo bronzo ammonitor del tempo
al consueto rintoccar diffonde.
Va passo passo il mugolante armento
per la piaggia avviandosi: dal solco
move all'albergo l'arator traendo
l'affaticato fianco, e lascia il mondo
alle tenebre e a me. Già scappa al guardo
gradatamente, e più s'infosca
la faccia della terra, a l'aer tutto
silenzio in cupa maestade ingombra.
Se non che alquanto lo interrompe un basso
ronzar d'insetti e quel che il chiuso gregge
tintinnio soporoso al sonno alletta.
E là pur anco da quell' erma torre,
ch'ellera abbarbicata ammanta e stringe,
duolsi alla luna il pensieroso gufo
di quei che al muto suo segreto asilo,
d'intorno errando, osan turbare i dritti
del suo vetusto solitario regno.

The curfew becomes il cavo bronzo ammonitor del tempo, and the translator contributes quite a few touches of his own (languido, consueto, avviandosi, s'infosca, cupa maestade).12 In the following lines, the beetle is generalized into insetti and the “distant folds” are reduced to a more specific chiuso gregge, while the translator supplies erma, abbarbicata, stringe, muto, i dritti.

Gray's style, particularly in its rhythmical texture, is slow, threaded with caesura and parallel structure, heavily cadenced in its recurrent sentence patterns, starkly solemn in the alternate use of bare monosyllables and long vowels. Cesarotti is able to soften and “beautify” it according to the requirements of his own taste and the rhetoric of this time:


Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
the rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
the swallow twitt'ring from the straw-build shed
the cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
no more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.


Sotto le fronde di quegli olmi, all'ombra
di quel tasso funebre, ove la zolla
in polverosi tumuli s'innalza,
ciascun riposto in sua ristretta cella,
dormono i padri del villaggio antichi.
Voce d'augello annuziator d'albori,
auretta del mattin che incenso olezza,
queruli lai di rondinella amante
tonar di squilla o rintronar di corno
non gli alzeran dal loro letto umile.

The yew tree becomes a more striking tasso funebre, while the pervasive ruggedness of Gray's landscape is replaced by more genteel connotations. Cesarotti overlooks the rustic straw-built shed and opens the window on a tame scene of Arcadia with such cherished emblems as augello, albori, auretta, olezza, queruli lai, and rondinella amante.

Gray's imagery is reserved, austere: Cesarotti recreates it in a context that often changes the quietly majestic mood of the original into one of insistent melancholy. The presence of death and the inescapable sense of its leveling power take on a new emphasis in the sustained unfolding of Cesarotti's sciolti. Clearly, the translator is “competing” with the original not only through the rehandling of particular images (e.g., “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / and waste its sweetness on the desert air” rendered with «e molti fior son nati / a vagamente colorarsi invano / non visti, e profumar l'aer solingo / di loro ambrosia genial fragranza»), but also through his consummate mastery of Italian prosody.

Thus Cesarotti achieved an integral transformation of Gray's Elegy by lifting it from its native ground and creating its equivalent within the context of a totally new literary climate; he did not merely translate Gray's poem but thoroughly naturalized it so that it could blend with, and prosper on, its new soil.13

Cesarotti was a talented and resourceful versifier who could claim to be a poet in his own right. He had a new sense of the freedom of poetry along with a subtle perception of the dynamism of a literary language whose expressive ranges he was able to enhance by molding a new hendecasyllable that responded to the need for a revitalized prosody and captured the spirit of the sublime as perceived at the dawn of Romanticism. And it was his timely synthesis of tradition and renovation that started the process of sublimation of the sepulchral that would reach its literary and historic culmination in the heightened lyricism of Foscolo's carme.14


The Italian versions of the Elegy were readily available to the young Foscolo after he moved to Venice in 1792 and became acquainted with such prominent teachers and critics as Cesarotti and Angelo Dalmistro. The impact of the poem on his work can hardly be overlooked. His first novel, Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1798), bore, on the very title page, a striking epigraph: Naturae clamat ab ipso / vox tumulo, which Foscolo took from Costa's version of the Elegy. Equally significant is Foscolo's use of Cesarotti's translation and particularly of two passages that he paraphrased in the Letter XXXV of that first edition.

The epigraph sets the mood of regret and disenchantment that permeates the novel; but it is also significant because it involves a concept that was among Foscolo's major concerns and that was to find its full artistic expression in Dei Sepolcri (1807): the concept of man's will to immortality, which may also have critical significance for the interpretation of Gray's poem.

Nature has a variety of connotations in Foscolo's work. It may denote the Ossian-like landscape and its differing manifestations, which may be akin to, or contrast with, the feelings of the protagonist; a lyrical extension of this meaning is the poet's response to such manifestations. In other contexts, Nature refers to the totality of things and, as a materialistic principle, to the power of the ever-changing cosmos. In the context of the epigraph and related passages, however, Nature is more definitely human nature—the nature in which the living principle or life instinct reaches a new level of consciousness; the nature that feels and thinks and therefore refuses to die. Here Foscolo's intuition of man's need to escape oblivion is akin to Gray's. The difference is one of emphasis and occurs when Foscolo transfers the concept of the quest for immortality from the level of attempted or intended universality, which it occupies in Gray's poem, to the individual level of the young poet-martyr who moans and grieves over his own extinction:


For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
this pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
nor cast one longing ling-ring look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
some pious drops the closing eye requires;
ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires.


Poiché chi tutta mai cesse tranquillo
in preda a muta obblivion vorace
questa esitenza travagliosa e cara?
Chi del vivido giorno i rai sereni
abbandonò, senza lasciarsi addietro
un suo languente e sospiroso sguardo?
Ama posar su qualche petto amato
l'alma spirante, e i moribondi lumi
chieggono altrui qualche pietosa stilla.
Fuor della tomba ancor grida la voce
della natura, e sin nel cener freddo
degli usati desir vivon le fiamme.


E chi mai cede a un'eterna obblivione questa cara e travagliata esistenza? Chi mai vide per l'ultima volta i raggi del sole, chi salutò la natura per sempre, chi abbandonò i suoi diletti, le sue speranze, i suoi inganni, i suoi stessi dolori senza lasciar dietro a se un desiderio, un sospiro, uno sguardo? Le persone a noi care che ci sopravvivono sono parte di noi. I nostri occhi morenti chiedono altrui qualche stilla di pianto, e il nostro cuore ama che il recente cadavere sia sostenuto dalle braccie amorose di chi sta per raccogliere l'ultimo nostro sospiro.—Geme la natura per fin nella tomba, e il suo gemito vince il silenzio e l'oscurità della morte.

Foscolo intensifies Cesarotti's rhetoric (chi mai … chi mai …), dwells more emphatically on the sorrow of departing from life (geme instead of grida), and on the need to feel the closeness of the beloved survivors, a need that foreshadows the «corrispondenza d'amorosi sensi» in Dei Sepolcri. The last line introduces a new idea—the victory of love over death—which is perhaps the first intuition of what will be the central themes of his future poem. The general mood, however, is one of self-indulgent lamentation and continues into the next paragraph where the disenchanted poet, after seeing his final resting place near the church, a white tombstone where his loved ones will go to pay tribute to love and memory, once again utilizes Cesarotti's rendering in a poetic reproduction of the passage that leads to the concluding epitaph.

Here the open mention of the English poet («Ché se il solitario giovane innamorato chiederà la mia storia, forse l'agricoltore più vecchio … risponderà quei versi di Gray») has considerable historical significance as proof of influence. Foscolo, however, reinterprets the spirit of the original by introducing images that mirror the Ossian-like restlessness of the protagonist (onde inquiete, cupo fremere dell'acque), and emphasize the tragic nature of his thoughts and the disquieting sense of isolation and victimization that characterizes his own temperament: «Or lo vedresti presso l'ombre del bosco disdegnoso / sorridendo aggirarsi, or borbottando / quasi per doglia trasognato, o vinto / da cruda sorte, o disperato amante.» Foscolo's verse adaptation ends with the first two lines of the epitaph, «A fama ignota e a fortuna, eterno / sonno sotterra il giovinetto dorme,» which bears an interesting resemblance to Torelli's translation as well.15

But the most significant change occurs in Foscolo's transformation of Gray's thee into his unequivocal first person («la mia storia»). Gray attempted to objectify his feeling of sorrow (if thee does not refer to an imaginary personage such as a stonecutter), while Foscolo, through his use of the epitaph, expresses his protagonist's self-pity. The lines were deleted from the subsequent editions of the novel, but Foscolo's paraphrase of Cesarotti still holds a considerable literary interest both from the point of view of style and as a telling document of the new spirituality sparked by the encounter of Arcadia with the meditative sentimentality of the Elegy.


Citoyen Legouvé read his poem La Sépulture at the October 1797 meeting of the Institut National des Sciences et des Art, in Paris. The work, published four years later in the Memoirs of the Institute, brought a new dimension to the genre of sepulchral poetry by proposing that the tombs provide, in addition to a fundamental lesson in humility and equality, a constant source of civic virtue through emulation of the good citizens of the past. Jacques Delille, a poet nearly forgotten but quite popular in his time for such descriptive and didactic works as Les Jardins (1782) and L'Imagination (1806), followed Legouvé's example and emphasized the social, historical and “political” value of the cult of the dead in terms of the ennobling and beneficial effects it can produce among civilized men. It was definitely a new way of looking at the tombs. Parnell had viewed the cemeteries as proofs of transience and in terms of a deep-rooted religious belief (“Death's but a Path that must to trod, / if Man wou'd ever pass to God …”). Gray had meditated on the tombs as expressions of the pitifully human need to be remembered, a need that is universal and equally legitimate in men of both high and low station. Delille shifted the emphasis from death to life and elaborated on the good effects that life itself can derive from the respect from sepulchral monuments as emblems of a fundamentally existential preoccupation: «J'ai médité long-temps, assis sur les tombeaux, / non pas pour y chercher, dans ma mélancolie, / le secret de la mort, mais celui de la vie» (L'Imagination, VII).

Ippolito Pindemonte, a student of Torelli and a protégé of Dalmistro, was well acquainted with the works of Delille and with the English poets of the “night” school. He drew inspiration from them and imitated them in many passages of his own poetic works.16 In 1806, Pindemonte published the first canto of a projected poem in octaves entitled I Cimiteri. In it he expressed his indignation at the neglectful state of the tombs in the cemetery of Verona, and condemned the indiscriminate anonymity of burial allowed by the new laws, particularly the Napoleonic edict of St. Cloud, which banned cemeteries from residential areas.

Pindemonte's treatment of the theme is not merely didactic like Delille's, but more poignantly involved with a pressing political reality, and motivated by a zestful sense of moral indignation: «Ignoranza o saper, colpa o vertude / una sola vil tomba inghiotte e chiude.» The poem evolves around an allegorical encounter of the poet with a tearful group of discontented ghosts. Within the framework of this episode, which is partially drawn from Mazza's version of Parnell's Night-Piece on Death, Pindemonte weaves a few clumsy borrowings from Dante together with such familiar trademarks of the sepulchral genre as the moon, the owl, tranquillity, la faccia del mondo (Cesarotti's la faccia della terra from Gray's landscape). The only original touch is the poet's all too polemical outcry: «Ombre, io grido, il destino vostro orrendo / e macchia eterna della mia cittade.»

After completing the first canto of I Cimiteri in the early summer of 1806, Pindemonte sent it to Cesarotti, who promptly replied that the episode of the talking shades lacked verisimilitude, and suggested that the projected four cantos be reduced to two while the ottava could be dropped in favor of a more fitting meter.17


In July 1806, Foscolo visited with Pindemonte in Verona and learned that his friend was writing a long poem on I Cimiteri. He had the opportunity to read and hear the author recite the recently completed first can to of the work in progress. In the weeks following that meeting, Foscolo, back in Brescia, composed his own treatment, Dei Sepolcri, in the form of an epistle in verse addressed to Pindemonte.

This startling coincidence has sparked a great deal of speculation as to the nature of Foscolo's borrowing from Pindemonte's work.18 Granting that Foscolo could have been more forthright or tactful with his trusting friend, the charges of plagiarism are decidedly unfounded both in terms of content and expression. In fact, Pindemonte responded by addressing to Foscolo his own Sepolcri, a new poem of 409 hendecasyllables prefaced by a note to the reader that provides a valuable clarification about the genesis and background of his work:

Compiuto quasi io avea il primo canto, quando seppi che uno scrittore d'ingegno non ordinario, Ugo Foscolo, stava per pubblicare alcuni suoi versi a me indirizzati sopra i Sepolcri. L'argomento mio, che nuovo più non pareami, cominciò allora a spiacermi; ed io abbandonai il mio lavoro. Ma leggendo la poesia a me indirizzata, sentii ridestarsi in me l'antico affetto per quell'argomento; e sembrandomi che spigolare si potesse ancora in tal campo, vi rientrai, e stesi alcuni versi in forma di risposta all'autor de' Sepolcri benché pochissimo abbia io potuto giovarmi di quanto avea prima concepito e messo in carta su i Cimiteri.19

The kinship between I Cimiteri and Dei Sepolcri can hardly be said to extend beyond Foscolo's receptive group of the political implications and motivations of his friend's indignant reaction to the edict of St. Cloud. Nonetheless, Pindemonte deserves special recognition for what was, albeit unwittingly, his fruitful role in the conception and gestation of Dei Sepolcri: listening to his friend's plea, Foscolo was inspired to issue his own answer to a problem that had plagued two generations of poets and that he had been brooding about for some time.

The widespread concern with the issue of burial in the late eighteenth century was partly reflected in a sort of common iconography and stereotyped imagery characterized by such mannered traits as the urn, the cypress and the stone, and always leading up to doubt and questioning of their value:

Dunque a che pro l'inanimata salma
vestir di bruno ammanto, e al non suo tetto
ombrar le porte di feral cipresso?
.....Forse la spoglia del suo meglio vota
sente l'onor de' mesti uffici? Forse
a lo spirto è mistier pompa di duolo?(20)

Foscolo knew the trend from the time of his early apprenticeship in Venice.21 He understood its literary significance and the reasons for its wide appeal. He was also keenly aware of the various implications it could have for the Italian libertarians and committed intellectuals in an age of political unrest and insurgent nationalism.22 Consequently, when he finally decided to express his own lyrical view through Dei Sepolcri, he had simply to begin in medias res and did so with a sense of urgency that leaves no doubt as to the seriousness and emotional poignancy of his inspiration. The heightened diction and the startling abruptness of the beginning immediately place the issue in a novel context as Foscolo's initial questioning presses for the negative in order to convey his vibrant avowal of a deterministic materialism that denies all metaphysical solutions.

Faced with such a hopelessly definitive statement of agnosticism, the more attentive reader may justifiably hold some doubts as to the need for dwelling on the subject. Meanwhile, however, Foscolo has successfully articulated the issue in such an emphatic fashion that the reader's expectation can only be fulfilled by a fundamentally new lyrical statement. What follows is precisely such a statement, in four parts, in which the poet transcends the rhetoric of the churchyard school and establishes poetry as the ultimate means of preservation and consecration of the continuing work of history.

Whereas the themes and the concepts of Dei Sepolcri are not new, their treatment is original in that Foscolo's poetic imagination “combines” them in a complex frame of reference that blends a varied pattern of classical and modern sources. More importantly, because his impassioned plea is addressed to the emotions and not to the intellect of his readers, Foscolo is able to break away from the traditional modes of composition and to use the intuitional technique of transvolare, a decidedly novel form that allows his fantasy to progress rapidly from one segment of the poem to the next, and, within each segment, from one image to the next. The intuitional texture and the emotional élan are the unifying elements that move the composition forward, from the opening statement to the recollection of the myth of Electra, Cassandra's prophecy, and Homer's pilgrimage to the tombs of Ilion. Through these conclusive figurations, Foscolo's poetic phantasy transcends time and space in order to relive, in a romantic flight inspired by a new sense of the sublime, the dawn of classical civilization.

Admittedly, Foscolo was asking Italians to acquire a higher cognizance of history's great wisdom and exemplary accomplishments. This is essentially what he meant when he differentiated his “political” approach to the tombs from Hervey's and Young's “Christian” intention and from Gray's “philosophical” meditation: «L'autore considera i sepolcri politicamente; ed ha per iscopo di animare l'emulazione politica degli Italiani con gli esempi delle nazioni che onorarono la memoria e i sepolcri degli uomini grandi; però doveva viaggiare più di Young, di Hervey e di Gray, e predicare non la resurrezione dei corpi, ma delle virtù.»23

This kind of “political” commitment draws its inspiration from a redeeming faith in human dignity which, shunning all forms and traditions of transcendental consolation, can reassert its undaunted reliance on the immanent values of art and history.


  1. F. Algarotti, «Saggio sopra Orazio» in his Saggi, ed. G. Da Pozzo (Bari: Laterza, 1963) 459. Also, Foscolo held Gray in high esteem and, in pointing out his imitation of Petrarch, noted that the English poet «accoppia in sommo grado severità di gusto con ardire di espressione» (Saggio sopra la poesia del Petrarca). See also O. Micale's Thomas Gray e la sua influenza sulla letteratura italiana (Catania, 1934), reviewed by J. G. Fucilla in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 34 (1935): 277-79. For a review of the background of the Elegy, see Paul Harvey's Oxford Companion to English Literature; W. Powell Jones, Thomas Gray, Scholar (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1955); and Amy Louise Reed, The Background of Gray's Elegy (New York: Columbia UP, 1924).

  2. Giuseppe Gennari (1721-1800), a historian and humanist from Padua, was much admired for his elegant style and for his Dissertazione sopra il rinnovamento e i progressi delle umane lettere in Italia (Padua, 1823). Giovanni Costa (1736-1816), a learned philologist and poet, translated Pindar into Latin and published Poema Alexandri Pope de homine, Jacobi Thomson et Thomae Gray selecta carmina ex britanna in latinam linguam translata (Padua, 1775).

  3. Giuseppe Torelli (1721-1781), a man of letters and a well-known mathematician from Verona, was the influential teacher and tutor of Ippolito Pindemonte, who wrote a eulogy upon his death. Torelli opposed Bettinelli's and Voltaire's polemic against Dante in his Lettere sopra Dante e contro il signor di Voltaire (1781).

  4. Costa's and Gennari's versions were included in the second edition of Gray's poems (Dublin, 1775). Costa's piece was reprinted, together with Cesarotti's, in Poesie inglesi di Alessandro Pope, di Jacopo Thomson, di Tommaso Gray, con la traduzione in varie lingue (Venice, 1791). Costa's, Cesarotti's and Torelli's versions were published in 1793 by Bodoni of Parma, while Torelli's was also featured in Versioni dall'inglese (Venice, 1794), collected by Angelo Dalmistro (1754-1839), a Venetian poet who was a close friend of Ippolito Pindemonte and one of Foscolo's teachers at the Collegio di San Cipriano. All the early translations were later collected in Elegia di Tommaso Gray sopra un cimitero di campagna tradotta dall'inglese in varie lingue con l'aggiunta di varie cose finora inedite, by Alessandro Torri (Livorno: Tip. Migliaresi, 1817, 1843), which included the Italian translations by Torelli, Cesarotti, Gennari, Lastri, Buttura, and others; the Latin translations of Costa, Anstey, Barbieri, Bene, and Venturi. It also included the literal translation by Domenico Trant, an Irish gentleman who resided in Padua and prompted his friends Costa and Gennari to translate Gray's Elegy, and several foreign translations as well. For a complete listing of the translations of the Elegy, consult Clark S. Northup, A Bibliography of Thomas Gray (New Haven: Yale UP, 1917) and Herbert W. Starr, A Bibliography of Thomas Gray, 1917-1951, with material supplementary to C. S. Northup's Bibliography of Thomas Gray (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953).

  5. Voltaire's unconditional admiration for his Italian translator touched notes of hyperbolic humility: “J'ai trouvé dans votre style tant de force et tant de naturel, que je m'ai cru votre faible traducteur et que je vous ai cru l'auteur de l'original” (Dell' epistolario di M. Cesarotti [Florence, 1811] I: 434. For Cesarotti's high opinion of the French philosopher, see the comparison Voltaire-Lucian in his Epistolario scelto (Venice, 1826) 92-93.

  6. P. Sárközy, in Le Tournant du siècle des lumières 1760-1820: Les genres envers des lumières au romantisme (Budapest, 1982), states that Cesarotti's translation “représente la première étape de la fièvre ossianique européenne et en détermine en partie aussi l'évolution ultérieure” (385). Cf. P. Van Tieghem, “Ossian et L'Ossianisme au XVIIIe siècle,” in Le Préromantisme (Paris, 1948) I: 226-27, and G. Marzot, “Ossian,” in Il gran Cesarotti (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1949). See also C. Cooke, “La traduzione cesarottiana delle poesie di Ossian,” Aevum 3-4 (1971): 340-57, and G. Savoca, “La crisi del classicismo dall'Arcadia lugubre e sentimentale alla retorica ossianesca e sepolcrale” in La letteratura italiana, Storia e Testi 6.2 (Bari: Laterza, 1974) 266-72.

  7. From the preface to the second edition (Padua, 1772) of Poesie di Ossian antico poeta celtico, now in Dal Muratori al Cesarotti, IV: Critici e storici della poesia e delle arti nel secondo Settecento, ed. E. Bigi (Naples: Ricciardi, 1960) 87-98.

  8. Ibid. In the third part of his Saggio sulla filosofia delle lingue, Cesarotti will further elaborate on the art of translation as linguistic enrichment and will parallel the image of the author-athlete with that of the translator-athlete: “Un traduttore di genio prefiggendosi per una parte di gareggiar col suo originale, e sdegnando di restar soccombente: temendo per l'altra di riuscire oscuro e barbaro ai suoi nazionali, è costretto in certo modo a dar la tortura alla sua lingua per far conoscere a lei stessa tutta l'estensione delle sue forze, a sedurla accortamente per vincer le sue ritrosie irragionevoli e ravvicinarla alle straniere, a inventar vari modi di conciliazione e d'accordo, a renderla infine più ricca di flessioni e d'atteggiamenti senza sfigurarla o sconciarla. La lingua d'uno scrittore mostra l'andatura d'un uomo che cammina equabilmente con una disinvolturea o compostezza uniforme; quella d'un traduttore rappresenta un atleta addestrato a tutto gli esercizi della ginnastica.” On Cesarotti as translator of Homer, see G. Marzot, Il gran Cesarotti, 147-55, and M. Mari, “Le tre Iliadi di M. Cesarotti,” Giornale Storico della Letteratura Italiana 167 (1990): 321-95.

  9. Sárközy 386.

  10. “Essay on the Present Literature of Italy” in Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Ugo Foscolo, XI, II: Saggi di letteratura italiana (Florence, 1958), 404-05. Foscolo had already intuited the value of a “mediation” which Paul Hazard, “L'Invasion des littératures du nord dans l'Italie du XVIIIe siècle,” Revue de Littérature Comparée, I (1921), 30-67, attempted to define by saying that “il s'agit de créer á nouveau en transformant” (49), and W. Binni further elaborated in Preromanticismo italiano (Naples: E.S.I., 1948), 185-252, and in his chapter on Cesarotti in Storia della letteratura italiana, VI (Milan: Garzanti, 1968). For further bibliographical references on Cesarotti's translation of Ossian, see G. Frazzetto, “Ipotesi su Cesarotti: le ‘Osservazioni’ alle tradizioni ossianiche, Le forme e la storia, 4 (1983): 545-76; and G. Baldassarri, “Sull' Ossian di Cesarotti,” Rassegna della letteratura italiana, 93 (1989): 25-58. See also G. Marzot's chapter on Cesarotti in Letteratura italiana, I minori, (Milan: Marzorati, 1961) and G. Ortolani's introduction to his edition of Cesarotti's Opere scelte (Florence, 1945).

  11. For a proof of the positive reception of Cesarotti's translation, see, in his Epistolario, Angelo Mazza's letter of 12 May 1772, which is also a proof of great admiration for all of Cesarotti's literary work: “Mi sareste stato assai più cortese, se in cambio delle lodi, di cui m'avete sovrabbondantemente onorato, e che venendo da un vostro pari non lasciano di lusingarmi moltissimo, m'aveste mandato una copia della versione del Church Yard, Elegia da voi divinamente tradotta, siccome mi scrivono da Torino e da Milano. Io, che fo tesoro delle cose vostre, e le considero, quali sono, originali di vera e maschia Poesia, non so vedermene da voi frodato senza vivissimo rincrescimento” (Dell'epistolario, I, 172).

  12. What a distance separates these words from the inimitable lines that inspired Gray's opening of the Elegy: “Lo giorno se n'andava, e l'aer bruno” (Inf. II), and “che paia il giorno pianger che si more!” (Purg. VIII). For bibliographical information on Gray and Dante, and Gray and Italy, see Alan T. McKenzie, Thomas Gray: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1982). By contrast, Giuseppe Torelli's determination to adhere to the original is underscored by the adoption of the quatrain with alternate rhyme as the closest reproduction of the metric scheme of the original. But compare the beginning stanzas of his translation (“Segna la squilla il dì, che già vien manco; / mugghia l'armento, e via lento erra, e sgombra; / torna a casa il bifolco inchino, e stanco, / et a me lascia il mondo e a la fosc'ombra. / Già fugge il piano al guardo, e gli s'invola, / e de l'aere un silenzio alto's s'indonna, / fuor 've lo scarabon ronzando vola, / e un cupo tintinnir gli ovili assonna.”) with the more successful rhythms of A. Buttura's terza rima: Già la squilla serale il giorno piagne, / e a mano a mano il languido fulgore / va il sol levando ai campi; alle montagne. / Già nello scuro ogni color si muore; / e lascia il mondo all'ombra e al pensier mio / traendosi al tugurio il zappatore. / Regna quiete; il sol cupo ronzio / degl'insetti, per l'aer che tace, / s'ode e la soporosa onda del rio.”

  13. For an understanding of Cesarotti's concept of equivalency in translating poetry, see the short chapter “I traduttori” in his Prose edite e inedite, ed. G. Mazzoni (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1882), 243-45.

  14. On concept and use of the sublime, see G. Costa, “M. Cesarotti, Vico, and the Sublime,” Italica, 58 (1981): 3-15, and “Foscolo e la poetica del sublime,” Forum Italicum, 12 (1978): 472-97.

  15. As further demonstration of Foscolo's familiarity with Torelli's translation of the Elegy, see the quote in a letter to Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi: “Tu allora ti lagnavi del suo poco spirito; ed io risposi quel verso di Gray Tarpò al bell'estro povertà le piume (Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Ugo Foscolo XV, Epistolario 1804-08, II [Florence: Le Monnier, 1952], 382), which reproduces verbatim Torelli's text. The first evidence that Foscolo was acquainted with Torelli's translation occurs in a letter of 1807 to Giustina Renier Michiel, where he says: “… poi dì e notte sto qui come un gufo: E il gufo ognor pensoso / Si duole al raggio della luna amico / Di chi, guardando il suo ricetto ombroso, / Gli turba il regno solitario antico” (Ibid. 240), which is a quote of the third stanza of the Elegy as translated by G. Torelli; the only change, guardando instead of girando, may suggest that the poet was quoting from memory.

  16. N. F. Cimmino, I. Pindemonte e il suo tempo (Roma: Abete, 1968). See also F. Torraca's “I Sepolcri d'Ippolito Pindemonte” in his Discussioni e ricerche letterarie (Livorno, 1888), and the annotations to Pindemonte's work in Lirici del Settecento, ed. B. Maier (Naples: Ricciardi, 1959).

  17. Cimmino, I, 73. The text of I Cimiteri was published in G. Biadego's Da libri e manoscritti (Verona, 1883).

  18. For a list of works dealing with this question, see Lirici del Settecento, 1023-24, and Ugo Foscolo, Opere, I. ed. F. Gavazzeni (Naples: Ricciardi, 1974). For a detailed discussion, see C. Antona-Traversi's Della prima e vera origine dei “Sepolcri” di U. Foscolo (Napoli: Morano, 1882).

  19. Dei Sepolcri, poesie di U. Foscolo, I. Pindemonte e G. Torti (Brescia: Bettoni, 1808), 27-28. Of particular interest is also a notation on the use of italics in Pindemonte's text: “Questi versi io t'offerisco, lettor cortese, facendoli precedere dal componimento, cui son di risposta, e che tu potresti non aver letto. Appartengono ad esso alcune parole in carattere diverso, che trovansi nel componimento mio, il che io noto per questo, che al mio potrìa taluno andar tosto con gli occhi. Quante spezie non v'ha, come d'autori, così ancor di lettori?”

  20. From Mazza's translation of Parnell's Night-Piece on Death, included in A. Dalmistro's collection of Versioni dall'inglese. For an introduction to Mazza's contribution to late eighteenth-century poetry, see the important outline of his work in Foscolo's “Essay on the Present Literature of Italy”: “Angelo Mazza, the school-fellow and the friend of Cesarotti, may be fairly subjoined to a mention of that poet. … His first essay was made in the year 1764, when he translated the Pleasures of the Imagination, and convinced the Italian that the compressed style of Dante was capable of being applied to their blank verse, which as yet was little more than a string of sonorous syllables. The poetry published by him in a maturer age consists in great part of lyrical pieces on Harmony. … The imitations, and even the translation of Mazza, have a certain air of originality impressed not only on their style, which is extremely energetic. … His odes are composed of stanzas, the melody of which is often sacrificed to what the musicians call contrapunto, which is calculated to surprise more than please, and he has even adopted those difficult rhymes which the Italians call sdrucciole, or slippery, and which not only lengthen the eleven syllabled verse into twelve syllables, but change the position of the accent. … The only work of Mazza which has been often printed, and has hit the taste of the Italians, is a poem in thirty pages, addressed to Cesarotti [Stanze sdrucciole a M. Cesarotti, Elogio di questo tratto dalla necrologia litteraria di Luigi Bramieri, Piacenza, 1809], in which he gives a masterly sketch of the great poets of every nation, and has placed the English on a distinguished eminence amongst the immortal brotherhood. …”

  21. M. Allegri, “‘Di Grecia in Italia’: il Foscolo veneziano,” Letteratura italiana, storia e geografia, I, L'età moderna (Turin: Einaudi, 1982): 1008-12.

  22. I. B. Zumbini, “La poesia sepolcrale straiera e italiana e il carme del Foscolo,” Nuova Antologia, 19 (1889), 21-46, 449-65; V. Cian, “Per la storia del sentimento e della poesia sepolcrale in Italia ed in francia prima dei Sepolcri del Foscolo.” Giornale Storico della Letteratura Italiana, 20 (1892), 205-35; L. Sozzi, “I Sepolcri e le discussioni francesi sulle tombe negli anni del Direttorio e del Consolato,” Giornale Storico della Letteratura italiana, 144, (1967), 567-88; P. Hazard, La Révolution française et les lettres italiennes (Paris: Hachette, 1910). For the development of the genre in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see I. P. Van Tieghem's discussion of “La poésie de la nuit et des tombeaux en Europe en XVIIIe siècle,” in his Le préromantisme; R. Michea, “Le ‘plaisir des tombeaux’ en XVIIIe siècle,” Revue de Littérature Comparée, 18 (1938), 287-311, and J. W. Draper, The Funeral Elegy and the Rise of Romanticism (New York: New York UP, 1929).

  23. From the letter to Monsieur Guillon “Su la incompetenza a giudicare i poeti italiani,” in Foscolo's Opere (Milan: Bettoni, 1832), II, and in Edizione Nazionale delle Opere di Ugo Foscolo, I. See also Foscolo's restatement of the objective of I Sepolcri in his “Essay on the Present Literature of Italy”: “The aim of Foscolo in this poem appears to be the proof of the influence produced by the memory of the dead on the manners and on the independence of nations.” Cf. G. Getto, La composizione dei “Sepolcri” di Ugo Foscolo (Firenze: Olschki, 1977), and S. Gamberini, Analisi dei “Sepolcri” foscoliani (Messina-Firenze: D'Anna, 1982). For an introduction to further study and research, see also the important contributions by E. R. Vincent, Ugo Foscolo: An Italian in Regency England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1953) and G. Cambon, Ugo Foscolo: Poet of Exile (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980).