British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

Gian Mario Anselmi (Università di Bologna)


Shelley and the Italian Lyrical Tradition

This essay examines the roots of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetical formation in the light of his familiarity with the
Italian literary tradition. It is a well-known fact that he was deeply interested in Italian culture and letters, and was
a careful reader and interpreter of many Italian authors who contributed, through a multifaceted intertextual pat-
terning, to define some of the fundamental paths of his lyrical compositions and poetics. This is especially evident
if we focus on his relations with stil novo traditions, with the models of Guido Cavalcanti and, especially, Dante.
And yet, equally important, and perhaps deserving an entirely new approach, is Shelley’s link with Petrarch, and
not just the familiar poet of the Canzoniere, but also the meditative and anguished Petrarch of his Latin works, and
the visionary Petrarch of the Trionfi; as well as Shelley’s knowledge of the poetry of the Italian Humanists (in par-
ticular, their Latin poetry) and of their reinterpretations of some of the classics. The essay stresses the crucial link
between this secular Humanist tradition and some of the essential ideas of Romantic poetics, especially Shelley’s
important discussion of the poet’s central role within processes of the formation of knowledge and the imaginative
elaboration of reality.

If we approach literature as a pilgrimage towards wisdom, as the essential sign of a reflection caught in mid-stream between tradition and modernity, or as a mythopoeic quest after possible truth the quintessence, indeed, of Italian Humanist and Renaissance culture we will eventually, though not unexpectedly, come into contact with British literature and, in particular, the work of Percy Shelley. If we accept that the Humanist heritage spread rapidly to become a shared European tradition, then we need to focus on those authors and poetic itineraries, located at the climax of a decisive epochal shift, and whose themes and implications produced especially conspicuous and durable effects. This would certainly imply a study of such pivotal Romantic-period figures as Goethe, Chateaubriand or Stendhal. Here, however, we propose to concentrate on English literature, because it was possibly this tradition that, thanks to Edmund Spenser as early as the second half of the sixteenth century, had been most constantly attracted to the Italian classics and the great Humanist and Renaissance models, encompassing also such exponents of neo-Latin literature as Lorenzo Valla, Angelo Poliziano, Jacopo Sannazaro or Giovan Battista Spagnoli. This cultural interaction produced outstanding results, visible in Shelley’s works, which are not only a conscious reelaboration of these models, but almost a sort of emblematic end-product of this literary development. A similar role can be ascribed, in Italian literature, to Ugo Foscolo a genuine watershed in this tradition, a modern and ‘European’ author who, at the same time, subtly re-elaborated the myths of the Renaissance. It is more than a mere coincidence that, during his unhappy existence, Foscolo ended up in England, where he penned some extremely lu

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