Italian literature presents this singular character, that it reached from its beginning complete formal perfection. Hardly had it taken its first steps when it produced Dante, its most universal genius; and with him Petrarch and Boccaccio. Shakespeare, Racine and Goethe only flourished after many generations of English, French and German poets; in Italy instead, Guido Guinizelli and Guido Cavalcanti had scarce time to astonish the Italians of the thirteenth century with catrzoni and ballate which made one forget the old troubadours, when they were overtaken by the master, as he himself says,
Che l'uno e l'altro caccerà di nido.
But Dante is Dante, unique. And unique also after him are Petrarch and Boccaccio. Boccaccio with his novelle, his stories, will emancipate the Italian spirit of his time and probably of all time.
But poets like Dante and Petrarch, and -- after the period of learning, of the Renaissance -- like Ariosto and Tasso, represent only themselves, and through themselves, the universal consciousness, so Leopardi in the nineteenth century.
Dante is moved by Italian passions; Petrarch thanks God that he was born Italian; but they do not represent Italy more than Racine represents France or Cervantes Spain, or Whitman the United States. For every authentic poet, the fatherland, while it remains a vivid element in his intimate life, is melted and fused into a more ample world. A poet of whom it can be said that he is entirely national is not truly a poet. Manzoni, who was a poet and who loved Italy so much, doubtless alludes to himself when, singing of Homer of whom
Argo ed Atene e Rodi e Smirne cittadin contende, adds:
Dante himself, intensely Italian though he was, declared that his fatherland was "the world in general", and to those who would have made peace for him, who worked to bring his exile to an end, but on humiliating conditions, he replied: "Cannot I then perchance contemplate wherever I may be the light of the sun and of the stars? Cannot I meditate anywhere on Supreme Truths?"
Let us then disregard the literary game of finding the soul of a people in its poets; and equally vain is it to speak of a Dantesque Italy, of a Racinian France or of a Shakespearian England. Rather the very opposite is true. It is for the universal poets to exercise an influence on successive generations and to mould their sentiments and aspirations. All Italians are brought up in the Dantesque religion; Dante has exercised a greater influence over them than Shakespeare over the English and Racine over the French. Even the most dense Italian will have been moved at least once in his life by some of those hendecasyllables in which the thought and the images are more swift and clear than in any other poetry. Certain American ladies, nurses in the armies of the United States in 1917, have told me that the convalescent soldiers of Italian origin asked very often to have Dante to read, so that it was necessary to buy many dozen copies of the poet. Neither the English nor the French possess anything comparable to this cult of Dante, and as for the Germans, too many of them have only sought in Goethe a motive of pride "vom deutschen Standpunkt"; faithless to the spirit of Goethe who so often recommended them in vain to rise to a universal spirit. Dante has become in Italy a national altar at which all are communicants -- or pretend to be. The fact is that Dante has been utilized in every age as a measure of national feeling; in the Divine Comedy we find described those "natural frontiers" that France has sought in her geography and history, but never found in her poets. When in the Parliament of 1920 I fought for a policy of friendly understanding with our Slav neighbours, finally liberated from the Austro-Hungarian chains, but at the same time maintained that Trieste and Istria were Italy, the argument purely literary and Dantesque which I found it natural to use, had a definite weight and not only with the masses; for has not Dante written that it is the Quarnero (the gulf to the east of Istria)
Ch'Italia chiude e i suoi termini bagna?
In the most unhappy moments of her history, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Italy abandoned Dante. There were more editions published of the Divine Comedy from 1818 to 1860, in the era of the Risorgimento, than during the two previous centuries.
All know that the unequalled perfection of Dante at the very origins of our literature, and with it, the art of Petrarch whose lyrics are still so near to our hearts, are at the roots of the exclusively literary formation of the greater number of Italian poets, perhaps less free to take their own way by reason of those formidable exemplars. It was simpler and more natural for a Villon to find his inspiration in his own anarchical spirit, and for an English poet to seek it in nature; for the Italian knew by heart all the canti of the Inferno and almost all the canzoni of Petrarch. Was this an obstacle? For us Italians our classics have meant for long something more than simple masterpieces of literature. They were the ideal fatherland, the only fatherland free from foreign domination; they were a promise of glory and of future independence.
In Italy the main stream of our literature is composed of two currents which combine without mixing, without being confounded: the writer who, like Dante, composes "when love inspires him" -- this is the current that flows down to Leopardi and Manzoni; and, on the other hand, those writers whose ability only produces formal or exterior results, prodigious sometimes, it is true, like those of Vincenzo Monti, but too often deprived of that real inspiration which the young Manzoni promised himself "never to betray".
It is in the epochs when liberty is lost, when an artificial order reigns in the street and in books, that all originality disappears from Italian literature; it cedes its place to clever and able writers whose arsenal is composed either of arches of Constantine and Roman eagles, or of women who please for a moment but do not remain in our hearts: the Dori, the Filli, the Ebi of the long Spanish epoch; gracious shades, but neither Italian nor universal, excepting those of Metastasio.
It is at the beginning of the heroic epoch of the Risorgimento, with Manzoni and Leopardi, that the spark of our national poetry glowed again. The unrestrained passion and the excess of sorrow in Leopardi repeat, for the first time, what we find in Dante. The same Leopardi writes -- and it is in harmony with his genius -- that from the sixteenth century to his own time Italy had known only "verses without poetry".
Manzoni and Leopardi left behind them not merely Manzonians and Leopardians; they left Italians converted to simplicity and sincerity; that is to say, to true poetry.
I have said that our classical literature reached at its birth a formal perfection, because it was born of the perfection of the Latin tongue and in the shadow of the genius of Dante. It was this very perfection, perhaps, that soon detached it from the people, exception being made, I repeat, for the Divine Comedy, and later, during many generations, for Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata.