Page images
PDF
EPUB

and festivities? Who can blame a man, thus organized and thus subdued, for retreating to a domestic nook, to watch over his aged parents, and avoid the excitement of outward life? Silvio Pellico's sufferings rendered him prematurely old. He could, with reason, plead for serenity as the only boon left. The harmony of his nature had been fatally disturbed by the wrongs he had suffered; mind and body no longer acted in effective concert; the pallor, born of a dungeon's shadow, rested on his high and smooth forehead; his sight was dimmed by years of twilight, his voice tremulous from the sighs of captivity. Instead of a stern indignation, a firm antagonism of mood, such as many of his comrades had maintained during their long imprisonment, Pellico sought to cherish a gentle, forgiving, and patient state of mind, beautiful in itself, but so destitute of the element of resistance that the iron of tyranny, if it did not so deeply enter his soul, more entirely prostrated his organism. Yet, to the last, he found comfort in his affectionate correspondence. “My health is gone,” he wrote

. to Foresti, his fellow-prisoner, and so long the endeared Italian exile, and favorite teacher of his native tongue in New York, " and I with difficulty survive threatening suffocation. Yet life has its consolations. Never forget the gifts of intelligence and of feeling which developed in you during our common misfortune. I have learned that but little is needed to beautify existence, save the society of the loved and honorable.”

The era of Pellico's early youth was not favorable to earnestness of character. He imbibed some of the ideas set afloat in the world of thought by the followers of Voltaire, and his first literary tastes were unavoidably tinged with the superficial views incident to the absence of faith which marked the era succeeding the French Revolution; but his nature was too pure and aspiring to

; succumb to these prevalent influences. Some of his contemporary authors were inspired by serious convictions; it was the epoch of Foscolo, and that gifted band of Italian poets and thinkers of which he was a central figure. At the house of the nobleman in Milan to whose children he was preceptor, Pellico associated with the best thinkers and writers of Lombardy. He there formed the acquaintance of many eminent persons — among them Count

Porro, Byron, Brougham, Thorwaldsen, Schlegel, and Madame

a

de Staël. His contributions to the Conciliatore were distinguished for the grace and elegance of their style, and at this period both the motive and the means of literary culture were fully enjoyed. The transition from such a sphere to a prison led him to reflect, with new zest, upon the discipline of life, the mysteries of the soul, and the truths of revelation. His latent religious sentiment was awakened. His heart, thrust back from the amenities of cultivated society and the delight of kindred, turned to God with a zeal and a singleness of purpose before unknown. He became devout, and experienced the solace and the elevation of Christian faith. There have been critics who pretend to see in this perfectly natural result only a proof of weakness, or an indication of despair. The candid utterance of pious feeling in his Prigioni was regarded, by the cynical, as evidence of a broken spirit and when he persevered in retirement and the offices of his faith, after emancipation, it was said that the wiles of Jesuitism had made him a victim and induced his political abdication. But no one can examine the writings of Pellico without feeling that he was evidently a man of sentiment. It was this quality, as contrasted with the severity of Alfieri, that first gained him popularity as a dramatic writer, that endeared him to family and friends, and that made him a patriot and a poet. Solitude, by the very laws of nature, where such a being is concerned, developed his religious sentiment; and to the predominance of this, united with physical disability, is to be ascribed his passive and hermit life. It should be a cause of praise, and not of reproach. He was true to himself; and in view alone of the sincerity and the consolation he obviously derived from religion, we are not disposed to quarrel with his Catholicism. The errors of that creed had no power over his generous and simple nature; it was hallowed to him by early association, and by. parental sanctions ; and there is no evidence that he accepted its ministrations with superstitious imbecility, but rather in a spirit above and beyond forms, and deeply cognizant of essential truth.

THE POPULAR POET.

THOMAS CAMPBELL.

When Burns was on his death-bed, he said to a fellow-member of his military corps, “ Don't let the awkward squad fire over me.” There is an awkward squad in the ranks of all professions, and most earnestly is their service to be deprecated on any occasions calling for solemnity or tenderness. Then we demand what is graceful, harmonious, and efficient. Yet it is the constant fate of genius to be tried by other arbiters than its peers, to be profaned by idle curiosity and malignant gossip. The “awkward squad” in literature not only fire over the graves of poets, but are wont to discharge annoying batteries of squibs at them while living. The penny-a-liners scent a celebrity afar off, and hunt it with the pertinacity of hounds; they flock in at the death like a brood of vultures; and often, without the ability either to sympathize with or to respect the real claims they pretend to honor, show up the foibles, mutilate the sayings, and fabricate the doings, of those whose unostentatious private lives, to say nothing of the dignity of their public fame, should protect them from microscopic observation and vulgar comment.

No modern English poet has suffered more from this kind of notoriety than Campbell. Unlike his brother bards, he neither sought rural seclusion nor foreign exile, but continued to haunt cities to the last; and it is refreshing to turn from the hackneyed sketches of him in the magazines to his own letters and the bistory of his early career, and revive our best impressions of his character. To do this we must discard what is irrelevant, and contemplate the essential. The only demand we have any moral right to make upon the bard who has enlisted our hearts by his song, is that there exist in his actions and tone of feeling a spirit consistent with the sentiments deliberately advocated in his verse. There is no reason whatever to expect in him immunity from error; we are irrational to look for a beauty of feature, a majesty of life, and an evenness of temper, corresponding with the ideal created by the finish and exaltation of his poetry; but if baseness deface the behavior and indifference chill the intercourse of him who has eloquently breathed into the ear of the world noble and glowing emotion, we are justified in feeling not only disappointment, but almost scepticism as to the reality of these divine sympathies. Such an anomaly we do not believe possible in the nature of things. In spite of what is so often asserted of the discrepancy between authorship and character, literary biography demonstrates that " as a man thinketh so is he."

Milton and Dante, Goldsmith and Petrarch, were essentially what their works proclaim them, although the former occasionally exhibited asceticism, which is the extreme of that genius whose characteristic is will, and the latter sometimes displayed the weakness which, in our human frailty, attaches to the genius whose main principle is love. A touch of pedantry and hardihood slightly deforms the images of those august spirits who explored the unseen world, as vanity and egotism mar the serene beauty of the gentler minstrels who sung of the tender passion and the charms of domestic life. Were it otherwise, they would eclipse instead of representing humanity. There is a process of metropolitan decadence to which literary celebrities are liable, especially in London, for which we, whose privilege it is to look upon them over the grand perspective of the sea, should make just allowance. The most absurd whim of modern society is that of making what are called lions of authors, and especially of poets. No class of men appear to less advantage in a conventional position; and no two principles can be more radically adverse than that of mutual agreeableness, conformity, and display, of which society technically considered is the arena, and the spirit of earnestness, nature, and freedom, characteristic of poets. Idolized as they usually are, and with good reason, in the domestic circle and among intimate friends, the very qualities which are there elicited general society keeps in abeyance. Tact is the desideratum in the latter as truth is in the former; and though sometimes the natural dignity and manliness of genius successfully asserts itself in the face of pretence fortified by etiquette, as in the case of Burns at Edinburgh, the exception is too memorable not to have been rare. The consequence of this want of relation between the spirit of society and the poetic character is that a formal homage is paid its representatives on their first appearance, which, at length, becomes wearisome to both parties; and, if the time-honored guest has not the wisdom to anticipate his social decay and withdraw into honorable retirement, those upon whose memories the prestige of his original reputation does not rest are apt to fail in that recognition which habit has made almost necessary to his self-respect.

The admirers of dramatic and musical genius keenly regret the reäppearance of the favorites of their youth in public, only to awaken the unfeeling curiosity of a new generation ; and somewhat of the same melancholy attaches to the prolonged social exhibition of a man whose verse has rendered his name sacred to our associations and remembrance. That familiarity which breeds contempt denies the original glory of his presence. The name freely bandied at the feast comes to be repeated with less reverence at the fireside. The voice, whose lowest accent was once caught with breathless interest, is suffered to lose itself in the hum of commonplace table-talk; and the brow to which every eye used to turn with sympathetic wonder seems no longer to wear the mysterious halo with which love and fancy crown the priests of nature. And usually the victim of this gradual disenchantment is quite unconscious of the change, until suddenly aroused to its reality. Aware of no blight upon his tree of promise, inspired by the same feelings which warmed his youth, wedded to the same tastes, and loyal to the same sentiments, with a kind of childlike trustfulness he reposes upon his own identity, and is slow to believe in the precarious tenure upon which merely social distinction is held.

To a reverent and generous spectator this is one of those scenes

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »