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- Lectures on Dramatic Art - 40/97 -


established for every kind alike, instead of ascertaining the spirit and peculiar laws of each distinct species.

Metastasio quickly threw Zeno into the shade, since, with the same object in view, he displayed greater flexibility in accommodating himself to the requisitions of the musician. The merits which have gained for him the reputation of a classic among the Italians of the present day, and which, in some degree, have made him with them what Racine is with the French, are generally the perfect purity, clearness, elegance, and sweetness of his language, and, in particular, the soft melody and the extreme loveliness of his songs. Perhaps no poet ever possessed in a greater degree the talent of briefly bringing together all the essential features of a pathetic situation; the songs with which the characters make their exit, are almost always the purest concentrated musical extract of their state of mind. But, at the same time, we must own that all his delineations of passion are general: his pathos is purified, not only from all characteristic, as well as from all contemplative matter; and, consequently, the poetic representation, unencumbered thereby, proceeds with a light and easy motion, leaving to the musician the care of a richer and fuller development. Metastasio is musical throughout; but, to follow up the simile, we may observe, that of poetical music, melody is the only part that he possesses, being deficient in harmonious compass, and in the mysterious effects of counterpoint. Or, to express myself in different terms, he is musical, but in no respect picturesque. His melodies are light and pleasant, but they are constantly repeated with little or no variation: when we have read a few of his pieces, we know them all; and the composition as a whole is always without significance. His heroes, like those of Corneille, are gallant; his heroines tender, like those of Racine; but this has been too severely censured by many, without a due consideration of the requirements of the Opera. To me he appears censurable only for the selection of subjects, whose very seriousness could not without great incongruity be united with such triflings. Had Metastasio not adopted great historical names--had he borrowed his subject-matter more frequently from mythology, or from still more fanciful fictions--had he made always the same happy choice as that in his _Achilles in Scyros_, where, from the nature of the story, the Heroic is interwoven with the Idyllic, we might then have pardoned him if he invariably depicts his personages as in love. Then should we, if only we ourselves understood what ought to be expected from an opera, willingly have permitted him to indulge in feats of fancy still more venturesome. By his tragical pretensions he has injured himself: his powers were inadequate to support them, and the seductive movingness at which he aimed was irreconcileable with overpowering energy. I have heard a celebrated Italian poet assert that his countrymen were moved to tears by Metastasio. We cannot get over such a national testimony as this, except by throwing it back on the nation itself as a symptom of its own moral temperament. It appears to me undeniable, that a certain melting softness in the sentiments, and the expression of them, rendered Metastasio the delight of his contemporaries. He has lines which, from their dignity and vigorous compression, are perfectly suited to Tragedy, and yet we perceive in them an indescribable something, which seems to show that they were designed for the flexible throat of a soprano singer.

The astonishing success of Metastasio throughout all Europe, and especially at courts, must also in a great measure be attributed to his being a court poet, not merely by profession, but also by the style in which he composed, and which was in every respect that of the tragedians of the era of Louis XIV. A brilliant surface without depth; prosaic sentiments and thoughts decked out with a choice poetical language; a courtly moderation throughout, whether in the display of passion, or in the exhibition of misfortune and crime; observance of the proprieties, and an apparent morality, for in these dramas voluptuousness is but breathed, never named, and the heart is always in every mouth; all these properties could not fail to recommend such tragical miniatures to the world of fashion. There is an unsparing pomp of noble sentiments, but withal most strangely associated with atrocious baseness. Not unfrequently does an injured fair one dispatch a despised lover to stab the faithless one from behind. In almost every piece there is a crafty knave who plays the traitor, for whom, however, there is ready prepared some royal magnanimity, to make all right at the last. The facility with which base treachery is thus taken into favour, as if it were nothing more than an amiable weakness, would have been extremely revolting, if there had been anything serious in this array of tragical incidents. But the poisoned cup is always seasonably dashed from the lips; the dagger either drops, or is forced from the murderous hand, before the deadly blow can be struck; or if injury is inflicted, it is never more than a slight scratch; and some subterranean exit is always at hand to furnish the means of flight from the dungeon or other imminent peril. The dread of ridicule, that conscience of all poets who write for the world of fashion, is very visible in the care with which he avoids all bolder flights as yet unsanctioned by precedent, and abstains from everything supernatural, because such a public carries not with it, even to the fantastic stage of the opera, a belief in wonders. Yet this fear has not always served as a sure guide to Metastasio: besides such an extravagant use of the "aside," as often to appear ludicrous, the subordinate love-stories frequently assume the appearance of being a parody on the others. Here the Abbé, thoroughly acquainted with the various gradations of Cicisbeism, its pains and its pleasures, at once betrays himself. To the favoured lover there is generally opposed an importunate one, who presses his suit without return, the _soffione_ among the _cicisbei_; the former loves in silence, and frequently finds no opportunity till the end of the piece, of offering his little word of declaration; we might call him the _patito_. This unintermitting love-chase is not confined to the male parts, but extended also to the female, that everywhere the most varied and brilliant contrasts may offer themselves.

A few only of the operas of Metastasio still keep possession of the stage, owing to the change of musical taste, which demands a different arrangement of the text. Metastasio seldom has choruses, and his airs are almost always for a single voice: with these the scenes uniformly close, and with them the singer never fails to make his exit. It appears as if, proud of having played off this highest triumph of feeling, he left the spectators to their astonishment at witnessing the chirping of the passions in the recitatives rising at last in the air, to the fuller nightingale tones. At present we require in an opera more frequent duos and trios, and a crashing finale. In fact, the most difficult problem for the opera poet is to reduce the mingled voices of conflicting passions in one pervading harmony, without destroying any one of them: a problem, however, which is generally solved by both poet and musician in a very arbitrary manner.

Alfieri, a hold and proud man, disdained to please by such meretricious means as those of which Metastasio had availed himself: he was highly indignant at the lax immorality of his countrymen, and the degeneracy of his contemporaries in general. This indignation stimulated him to the exhibition of a manly strength of mind, of stoical principles and free opinions, and on the other hand, led him to depict the horrors and enormities of despotism. This enthusiasm, however, was by far more political and moral than poetical, and we must praise his tragedies rather as the actions of the man than as the works of the poet. From his great disinclination to pursue the same path with Metastasio, he naturally fell into the opposite extreme: I might not unaptly call him a Metastasio reversed. If the muse of the latter he a love-sick nymph, Alfieri's muse is an Amazon. He gave her a Spartan education; he aimed at being the Cato of the theatre; but he forgot that, though the tragic poet may himself he a stoic, tragic poetry itself, if it would move and agitate us, must never be stoical. His language is so barren of imagery, that his characters seem altogether devoid of fancy; it is broken and harsh: he wished to steel it anew, and in the process it not only lost its splendour, but became brittle and inflexible. Not only is he not musical, but positively anti- musical; he tortures our feelings by the harshest dissonances, without any softening or solution. Tragedy is intended by its elevating sentiments in some degree to emancipate our minds from the sensual despotism of the body; but really to do this, it must not attempt to strip this dangerous gift of heaven of its charms: but rather it must point out to us the sublime majesty of our existence, though surrounded on all sides by dangerous abysses. When we read the tragedies of Alfieri, the world looms upon us dark and repulsive. A style of composition which exhibits the ordinary course of human affairs in a gloomy and troublous light, and whose extraordinary catastrophes are horrible, resembles a climate where the perpetual fogs of a northern winter should be joined with the fiery tempests of the torrid zone. Profound and delicate delineation of character is as little to be looked for in Alfieri as in Metastasio: he does but exhibit the opposite but equally partial view of human nature. His characters also are cast in the mould of naked general notions, and he frequently paints the extremes of black and white, side by side, and in unrelieved contrast. His villains for the most part betray all their deformity, in their outward conduct; this might, perhaps, be allowed to pass, although indeed such a picture will hardly enable us to recognise them in real life; but his virtuous persons are not amiable, and this is a defect open to much graver censure. Of all seductive graces, and even of all subordinate charms and ornaments, (as if the degree in which nature herself had denied them to this caustic genius had not been sufficient,) he studiously divested himself, because as he thought it would best advance his more earnest moral aim, forgetting, however, that the poet has no other means of swaying the minds of men than the fascinations of his art.

From the tragedy of the Greeks, with which he did not become acquainted until the end of his career, he was separated by a wide chasm; and I cannot consider his pieces as an improvement on the French tragedy. Their structure is more simple, the dialogue in some cases less conventional; he has also got rid of confidants, and this has been highly extolled as a difficulty overcome, and an improvement on the French system; he had the same aversion to chamberlains and court ladies in poetry as in real life. But in captivating and brilliant eloquence, his pieces bear no comparison with the better French tragedies; they also display much less skill in the plot, its gradual march, preparations, and transitions. Compare, for instance, the _Britannicus_ of Racine with the _Octavia_ of Alfieri. Both drew their materials from Tacitus: but which of them has shown the more perfect understanding 01 this profound master of the human heart? Racine appears here before us as a man who was thoroughly acquainted with all the corruptions of a court, and had beheld ancient Rome under the Emperors, reflected in this mirror of observation. On the other hand, if Alfieri did not expressly assure us that his Octavia was a daughter of Tacitus, we should be inclined to believe that it was modelled on that of the pretended Seneca. The colours with which he paints his tyrants are borrowed from the rhetorical exercises of the school. Who can recognise, in his blustering and raging Nero, the man who, as Tacitus says, seemed formed by nature "to veil hatred with caresses?"--the cowardly Sybarite, fantastically vain till the very last moment of his existence, cruel at first, from fear, and afterwards from inordinate lust.

If Alfieri has, in this case, been untrue to Tacitus, in the _Conspiracy of the Pazzi_ he has equally failed in his attempt to translate Macchiavel into the language of poetry. In this and other pieces from modern history, the _Filippo_ for instance, and the _Don Garcia_, he has by no means hit the spirit and tone of modern times, nor even of his own nation: his ideas of the tragic style were opposed to the observance of everything like a local and determinate costume. On the other hand it is astonishing to observe the subjects which he has borrowed from the tragic cycles of the Greeks, such as the _Orestiad_, for instance, losing under his hands all their heroic magnificence, and assuming a modern, not to say a vulgar air. He has succeeded best in painting the public life of the Roman republic; and it is a great merit in the _Virginia_ that the action takes place in the forum, and in part before the eyes of the people. In other pieces, while the Unity of Place is strictly observed, the scene chosen is for the most part so invisible and indeterminate, that one would fain imagine it is some out-of-the-way corner, where nobody comes but persons involved in painful and disagreeable transactions. Again, the stripping his kings and


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