Gioia Angeletti (Università di Bologna)
After a preliminary reconstruction of the impact and diffusion of poetic improvisation in British Romantic-period
literature, this essay addresses the importance of the improvvisatore’s art in Byron’s poetical theory and practice.
Although he did not devote any work to this figure, his letters and satirical writings, especially Beppo and Don
Juan, present several references to it. His judgements on the Italian improvvisatori, especially the notorious Tom-
maso Sgricci, tend to be ambiguous, if not contradictory, as are the numerous remarks in his journals and corre-
spondence. If, on the one hand, like Shelley, Byron celebrates the expressive force and genius of the improvising
poet/actor, on the other, he criticizes the quality of the improvised texts. Many critics have employed the notion of
‘improvisation’ and its derivatives to illustrate Byron’s style, which the poet himself called his ‘desultory rhyme’
to describe his passion for digression, anti-climax, and quick tonal shifts. ‘Carelessly I sing’, Byron writes in Don
Juan. Although we must bear in mind his constant tendency to self-irony, it is undeniable that the conversational
quality of the comic poems he composed in Italy reveal Byron as a virtuoso of this seemingly improvised style
which, as with the Italian improvvisatori of the Romantic period, aimed at involving the reader in a complex dia-
logic pact with the author.
In the Elizabethan age the freedom to adapt a text or change it in the course of a performance was often regarded as indecorous and inelegant, as is evinced by the speech Hamlet addresses to one of the players in Act III. 2: ‘let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them’.1 Here, Hamlet is acting as a spokesman for Shakespeare’s critique of over-enthusiastic improvisation which risked elevating the actors’ histrionic and interpretive skills over the author’s creative genius. Yet Shakespeare’s criticism only makes sense in a context where such ‘actorly’ improvisation was a frequent occurrence. In Britain the querelle between these two lines of thought – total fidelity to the text on the one hand, and freedom to stray from it, adapt it, indeed invent it on the other – continued until the nineteenth century, when the ideological and cultural implications of the phenomenon became a preoccupation in contemporary accounts of Italian drama, poetry, and culture, as well as a major concern for the most authoritative representatives of European Romantic literature.
One of the peculiarities of the reception of Italian improvisatory art on the part of foreign writers and intellectuals is that a divided, even contradictory response, sometimes marked individual reactions to it. Thus, Lord Byron, as I will clarify later on, was both fascinated and alarmed by the practice of improvisation he personally witnessed during his Italian sojourn, with the result that his judgement oscillates between a liberal appreciation
1 III. 2. 38–39, Hamlet, ed. by Harold Jenkins, The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 289.