These three publications have come to hand during the last month—a cheering gleam upon the winter of our discontent, as we saw the flood of bad translations of worse books which swelled upon the country.
We love our country well. The many false deeds and low thoughts—the devotion to interest—the forgetfulness of principle—the indifference to high and noble sentiment which have, in so many ways, darkened her history for some years back, have not made us despair of her yet fulfilling the great destiny whose promise rose, like a star, only some half a century ago upon the hopes of the world.
Should that star be forsaken by its angel, and those hopes set finally in clouds of shame, the church which we had built out of the ruins of the ancient time must fall to the ground. This church seemed a model of divine art. It contained a labyrinth which, when threaded by aid of the clue of Faith, presented, re-viewed from its centre, the most admirable harmony and depth of meaning in its design, and comprised in its decorations all the symbols of permanent interest of which the mind of man has made use for the benefit of man. Such was to be the church, a church not made with hands, catholic, universal, all whose stones should be living stones, its officials the cherubim of Love and Knowledge, its worship wiser and purer action than has before been known to men. To such a church men do indeed constitute the State, and men indeed we hoped from the American church and State, men so truly human that they could not live while those made in their own likeness were bound down to the condition of brutes.
Should such hopes be baffled, should such a church fall in the building, such a state find no realization except to the eye of the poet, God would still be in the world and surely guide each bird that can be patient on the wing to its home at last. But expectations so noble which find so broad a basis in the past, which link it so harmoniously with the future, cannot lightly be abandoned. The same Power leads by a pillar of cloud as by a pillar of fire—the Power that deemed even Moses worthy only of a distant view of the Promised Land.
And to those who cherish such expectations rational education, considered in various ways and bearings, must be the one great topic of interest, an enterprise in which the humblest service is precious and honorable to any who can inspire its soul. Our thoughts anticipate with eager foresight the race that may grow up from this amalgamation of all races of the world which our situation induces. It was the pride and greatness of ancient nations to keep their blood unmixed, but it must be ours to be willing to mingle, to accept in a generous spirit what each clime and race has to offer us.
It is indeed the case that much diseased substance is offered to form this new body, and if there be not in ourselves a nucleus, a heart of force and purity to assimilate these strange and various materials into a very high form of organic life; they must needs induce one distorted, corrupt and degraded beyond the example of other times and places. There will be no medium about it. Our grand scene of action demands grandeur and purity of action; declining these one must suffer from so base failure in proportion to the success that should have been.
It would be the worthiest occupation of mind to ascertain the conditions propitious for this meeting of the Nations in their new home, and to provide preventions for obvious dangers that attend it. It would be occupation for which the broadest and deepest knowledge of human nature in its mental, moral and bodily relations; the noblest freedom from prejudice, with the finest discrimination as to differences and relations, directed and enlightened by a prophetic sense as to what Man is designed by God to become, would all be needed to fit the thinker. Yet some portion of these qualities, or of some of those qualities, if accompanied by earnestness and aspiration, may enable him to offer useful suggestions. The mass of ignorance and selfishness is such that no grain of leaven must be despised.
And as the men of all countries come hither to find a home and become parts of a new life, so do the books of all countries gravitate towards the new centre. Copious infusions from all quarters mingle daily with the new thought which is to grow into American mind and develop American literature.
As every ship brings us foreign teachers, a knowledge of living contemporary tongues must in the course of fifty years become the commonest attainment. There exists no doubt in the minds of those who can judge, that the German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese tongues might by familiar instruction and an intelligent method, be taught with perfect ease during the years of childhood, so that the child would have as distinct a sense of their several natures, and nearly as much expertness in their use as in his own. The higher uses of such knowledge can, of course, be expected only in a more advanced state of the faculties, but it is a pity that the acquaintance with the medium of thought should be deferred to a period when the mind is sufficiently grown to bend its chief attention on the thoughts themselves. Much of the most precious part of short human lives is now wasted from an ignorance of what might easily be done for children, and without taking from them the time they need for common life, play, and bodily growth more than at present.
Meanwhile the English begins to vie with German and French literature in the number, though not in the goodness of the translations from other languages. The indefatigable Germans can translate and do other things too, so that geniuses often there apply themselves to the work as an amusement; even the all-employed Goethe has translated one of the books before us (Memoirs of Cellini).–But in English, we know but if one, Coleridge’s Wallenstein, where the reader will feel the electric current undiminished by the medium through which it comes to him. And then the profligate abuse of the power of translation has been unparalleled, whether in the choice of books or the carelessness in disguising those that were good in a hideous mask. No falsehood can be worse than this of deforming the expression of a great man’s thoughts, of corrupting that form which he has watched and toiled and suffered to make beautiful and true. We know no falsehood that should call a more painful blush to the cheek of one engaged in it. We rejoice to see from Wiley & Putnam’s advertisement that attention has been drawn to this subject, and that they are anxious to offer none but good and well translated books for general reading.
We have no narrowness in our view of the contents of such books. We are not afraid of new standards and new examples. Only give enough of them, variety enough, and from well-intentioned, generous minds. America can choose what she wants, if she has sufficient range of choice, and if there is any real reason, any deep root in the tastes and opinions she holds at present, she will not lightly yield them. Only give her what is good of its kind. Her hope is not in ignorance, but in knowledge. We are, indeed, very fond of range, and that if there is check, there should be countercheck; and in this view we are delighted to see these great Italians domesticated here. We have had somewhat too much of the French and Germans of late. We value unchangeably our sparkling and rapid French friend; still more the searching, honest, and, in highest sense, visionary German genius. But there is not on earth, and, we dare to say it, will not be again genius like that of Italy, or that can compare with it, in its own way. Italy and Greece were alike in this; those sunny skies ripened their fruits perfectly. The oil and honey of Greece and the wine of Italy, not only suggest, but satisfy. There we find fulfillment, elsewhere great achievement only.
Oh, acute, cautious, calculating Yankee, oh, graceful, witty, hot-blooded, flimsy Southron, and thou, man of the West, going ahead too fast to pick up a thought or leave a flower upon thy path, look at these men with their great fiery passions, but will and intellect still greater and stronger, perfectly sincere, from a contempt of falsehood, if they had acted wrong they said and felt that they had and that it wase base and hateful in them, sagacious, as children are, not from calculation, but because the fine instincts of nature were unspoiled in them. I speak now of Alfieri and Cellini. Dante had all their instinctive greatness and deep-seated fire, with the reflective and creative faculties, beside, to an extent of which they never dreamed.
He who reads these biographies may take them from several points of view, as pictures of manners, as sincere transcripts of the men and true times, they are not and could not be surpassed. That truth which Rousseau sought so painfully and vainly by self-brooding, subtle analysis, they attained without an effort. Why they felt they cared little, but what they felt they scarcely knew, and where a fly or worm has injured the peach, its passage is exactly marked, so that you are sure the rest is fair and sound. Both as physiological and psychical histories, they are full of instruction. In Alfieri, especially, the nervous disease generated in the frame by any uncongenial tension of the brain, the periodical crises in his health, the manner in which his accesses of passion came upon him, afford infinite suggestion to one who has an eye for the circumstances which fashion the destiny of man. Let the physician compare the furies of Alfieri with the silent rages of Byron and give the mother and pedagogue the light in which they are now wholly wanting how to treat such noble plants in the early stages of growth.—We think the “hated cap” would not be put a second time on the head so easily diseased.
The biography of Cellini, it is commonly said, is more interesting than any romance. It is a romance, with the character of the hero fully brought out.—Cellini lived in all the fullness of inward vigor, all the variety of outward adventure, and passed through all the signs of the Zodiac in his circling course, occasionally raising a little vapor from the art magic. He was really the Orlando Furioso turned Goldsmith, and Angelicas and all the Peers of France joined in the show. However, he never lived deeply; he had not time; the creative energy turned outward too easily, and took those forms that still enchant the mind of Europe. Alfieri was very different in this. He was like the root of some splendid Southern plant, engaged beneath a heap of rubbish. Above him was a glorious sky, fit to develop his form and excite his colors, but he was compelled to a long and terrible struggle to get up where he could be free to receive its influence. Institutions, language, family, modes of education—all were unfit for him; and perhaps no man was ever called to such efforts, after he had reached manly age, to unmake and re-make himself before he could become what his inward aspiration craved. All this deepened his nature, and it was deep. It is his great force of will and the compression of Nature within its iron grasp, where Nature was so powerful and impulsive, that constitutes the charm of his writings. It is the man Alfieri who moves, nay, overpowers us, and not his writings, which have no flow nor plastic beauty. But we feel the vital dynamics, and imagine it all.
By us Americans, if really such we ever are to be, Alfieri should be held sacred as a godfather and holy light. He was a harbinger of what most gives this time its character and value. He was the friend of liberty, the friend of man, in the sense that Burns was—of the native nobleness of man. Soiled and degraded men he hated. He was, indeed, a man of pitiless hatred as of boundless love, and he had bitter prejudices too, but they were from antipathies too strongly intertwined with his sympathies for any hand less powerful than that of Death to rend them away.
But space does not permit to do any justice to such a life as Alfieri’s. Let others read it not from their habitual but an eternal point of view, and they cannot mistake its purport. Some will be most touched by the storms of his youth, others by the exploits and conquests of his later years, but all will find him, in the words of his friend Casella, “sculptured just as he was, lofty, strange and extreme, not only in his natural characteristics, but in every work that did not seem to him unworthy of his generous affections. And where he went too far, it is easy to perceive his excesses always flowed from some praiseworthy sentiment.”
Among a crowd of remarks suggested to the mind by re-perusal of this book, to us a friend of many years standing, we hastily note the following:
Alfieri knew how to be a friend, and had friends such as his masculine and uncompromising temper fitted him to endure and keep. He had even two or three of these noble friends. He was a perfect lover in delicacy of sentiment, in person, in devotion, in a desire for constancy, in a high ideal, growing always higher, and he was, at last, happy in love. Many geniuses have spoken worthily of women in their works, but he speaks of woman as she wishes to be spoken of and declares that he met the desire of his soul realized in life. This, almost alone, is an instance where a great nature was permanently satisfied, and the claims of man and woman equally met, where one of the parties had the impatient fire of genius. His testimony on this subject is of so rare a sort we must copy it:
“My fourth and last passion, fortunately for me, showed itself by symptoms entirely different from the three first. In the former my intellect had little of the fires of passion, but now my heart and my genius were both equally kindled, and if my passion was less impetuous, it became more profound and lasting. Such was the flame, which, by degrees absorbed every affection and thought of my being, and it will never fade away except with my life. Two months satisfied me that I had now found the true woman, for, instead of encountering in her, as in all common women, an obstacle to literary glory, a hindrance to useful occupations, and a damper to thought, she proved a high stimulus, a pure solace, and an alluring example to every beautiful work. Prizing a treasure so rare, I gave myself away to her irrevocably. And I certainly erred not. More than twelve years have passed, and while I am writing this chitchat, having reached that calm season when passion loses its blandishments, I cherish her dearer than ever, and I love her just in proportion as flow by her in the lapse of time these esteemed toll-gatherers of departing beauty. In her my soul is exalted, softened, and made better day by day, and I will dare to say and believe she has found in me support and consolation.”
We have spoken of the peculiarities in Alfieri’s physical condition. These naturally led him to seek solace in violent exercise, and as in the case of Beckford and Byron, horses were his best friends in the hour of danger. This sort of man is the modern Achilles, the “tamer of horses.” In what degree the health of Alfieri was improved and his sympathies awakened by the society and care of these noble animals is very evident. Almost all persons, perhaps all that are in a natural state, need to stand in patriarchal relations with the animals most correspondent with their character. We have the highest respect for this instinct and belief in the good it brings; if understood it would be cherished, not ridiculed. But these subjects are boundless. We must postpone what we had to say of Dante to the next occasion.*
“Italy.” New-York Daily Tribune, 13 November 1845, p. 1.