Edmund Spenser: A Critical Study

By Herbert Ellsworth Cory; Charles M. Gayley et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I

THE SHEPHEARDS CALENDER

Newer historical perspective has taught us that we have sentimentalized too much about the renaissance, that it was infinitely more conservative and uncreative than the period which followed (the period of Descartes and Hobbes and Locke). But if we consider the renaissance from the restricted point of view of mere artistic achievement, there still remains much truth in Carducci's superb prose elegy on Italy, mother of the most impressive movements of that day.

A spectacle which others may call shameful but which to me seems to command sacred pity in full measure, the spectacle of a people of philosophers, of poets, of artists, who, in the midst of the foreign soldiers rushing in from every side, continue sadly and surely their work of civilization.

Under the artilleries of all the nations crash down the very walls which saw so many flights of barbarians; the flame quivers around the monuments of antiquity, and the paternal houses are given up to pillage; the solitude of the fields laid waste is full of corpses; and yet the canvasses and the walls never were radiant with more awe-inspiring imaginings and forms more pure, never did more joyous forests of columns arise to shelter hours of leisure and diversions and meditations which were now failing; and the song of the poets dominates the sad blast of the foreign trumpets, and the printing-presses of Venice, of Florence, of Rome creak in the work of illuminating the world. It is not cowardice, for where there was the stock of the common people there was still resistance and glorious fighting.

Nor is it careless preoccupation. Oh how much sadness in the sweet face of Raphael, what a wrathful frown in that of Buonarroti, and how much pain in the lineaments of Machiavelli and of Guicciardini! Ariosto smiles, but how sadly! Even Berni grows angry. Why insult those great intellects of the sixteenth century? Do we not all see the mysterious sorrow, the fatal anxiety which assaults them from every side ? Ever great is sacrifice; but if it be a nation that sacrifices herself it is a divine thing; and Italy sacrificed herself to the future of the other peoples. Dear and holy native land! She recreated the intellectual world of the ancients, she gave the form of art to the tumultuous and savage world of the Middle Ages, she opened to men's minds a superior world of freedom and of reason; and of all she made a gift to Europe: then, wrapt in her mantle, she endured the blows of Europe with the dignity of Iphigeneia. So ended Italy. 1

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1
From a translation made by Professor J. A. Child and the present writer for a volume of selections from Carducci and De Sanctis.

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