There was, throughout feudal society, a sort of enervated languor, a morbid longing for something new, now that the old had ceased to be possible or had proved futile; after the great excitement of the Crusades it was impossible to be either sedately idle or quietly active, even as it is with all of us during the days of weariness and restlessness after some long journey. To such a society the strongly realistic Carolingian epic had ceased to appeal: the tales of the Welsh and Breton bards, repeated by trouvere and jongleur, troubadour and minnesinger, came as a revelation. The fatigued, disappointed, morbid, imaginative society of the later Crusades recognized in this fairyland epic of a long refined, long idle, nay, effete race, the realization of their own ideal: of activity unhampered by aim or organization, of sentiment and emotion and action quite useless and unnecessary, purely subservient to imaginative gratification. These Arthurs, Launcelots, Tristrams, Kays, and Gawains, fantastic phantoms, were also far more artistically malleable than the iron Rolands, Olivers, and Renauds of earlier days; that unknown kingdom of Britain could much more easily be made the impossible ideal, in longing for which squeamish and lazy minds might refuse all coarser reality. Moreover, those who listened to the tales of chivalry were different from those who had listened to the Carolingian stories; and, therefore, required something different. They were courtiers, and one half of them were women. Now the Carolingian tales, originally battle-songs, sung in camps and castles to mere soldiers, had at first possessed no female characters at all; and when gradually they were introduced, it was in the coarsest barrack or tap-room style. The Keltic tales, on the contrary, whether from national tradition, or rather from longer familiarity with Christian culture and greater idleness of life, naturally made women and women's love the goal of a great many adventures which an effete nation could no longer ascribe to patriotic movements. But this was not all. The religious feeling of the day was extremely inclined to mysticism, in which aesthetic, erotic, and all kinds of morbid and ill-defined tendencies were united, which was more than anything else tinged with a semi-Asiatic quietism, a longing for the passive ecstasy of Nirvana. This religious side of mediaeval life was also gratified by the Arthurian romances. Oddly enough, there existed an old Welsh or Breton tale about the boy Peredur, who from a complete simpleton became the prince of chivalry, and his many adventures connected with a certain mysterious blood-dripping lance, and a still more mysterious basin or grail (an allusion to which is said by M. de la Villemarque to be contained in the originally Keltic name of Percival), which possessed magic properties akin to those of the purse of Fortunatus, or the pipkin in the story of "Little pot, boil!" The story, whose original mythical meaning had been lost in the several centuries of Christianity, was very decayed and obscure; and the fact of the blood on the lance being that of a murdered kinsman of Peredur, and of the basin containing the head of the same person cut off by Gloucester witches, was evidently insufficient to account for all the mystery with which these objects were surrounded. The French poets of the Middle Ages, strongly imbued with Oriental legends brought back by the Crusaders, saw at a glance the meaning of the whole story: the lance was the lance with which Longinus had pierced the Saviour's side; the Grail was the cup which had received His blood, nay, it was the cup of the Last Supper. A tale about the preservation of these precious relics by Joseph of Arimathaea, was immediately connected therewith; a theory was set up (doubtless with the aid of quite unchristian, Oriental legends) of a kind of kingdom of the keepers of the Grail, of a vague half-material, half-spiritual state of bliss connected with the service of the Grail, which fed its knights (and here the Templars and their semi-oriental mysteries, for which they were later so frightfully misused, certainly come into play) with food which is at once of the body and of the soul. Thus the Keltic Peredur, bent upon massacring the Gloucester witches to avenge his uncle, was turned into a saintly knight, seeking throughout a more and more perfect life for the kingdom of the Grail: the Perceval of Chrestien de Troyes, the Parzifal of Wolfram von Eschenbach, whom later romance writers (wishing to connect everything more closely with Arthur's court) replaced by the Sir Galahad of the "Morte d'Arthur," while the guest of the Grail became a sort of general mission of several knights, a sort of spiritual crusade to whose successful champions Percival, Bors, and Galahad, the Middle Ages did not hesitate to add the arch-adulterer Launcelot.
Thus did the Arthurian tales answer the requirements of the languid, dreamy, courtly, lady-serving and religiously mystic sons and grandsons of those earlier Crusaders whose aspirations had been expressed by the rough and solemn heroes of Carolingian tales. The Carolingian tales were thrown aside, or were kept by the noble mediaeval poets only on condition of their original meaning being completely defaced by wholesale admixture of the manners and adventures belonging to the Arthurian cycles. The paladins were forced to disport themselves in the same fairyland as the Knights of the Round Table; and many mediaeval poems the heroes of which, like Ogier of Denmark and Huon of Bordeaux, already existed in the Carolingian tales, are in reality, with their romantic loves, their useless adventures, their Morgana's castles and Oberon's horns, offshoots of the Keltic stories, which were as rich in every kind of supernatural (being, in fact, pagan myths turned into fairy tales) as the genuine Carolingian subjects, whose origin was entirely historical, were completely devoid of such things. Arthur and his ladies and knights: Guenevere, Elaine, Enid, Yseult, Launcelot, Geraint, Kay, Gawain, Tristram, and Percival-Galahad, were the real heroes and heroines of the courtly nobles and the courtly poets of this second phase of mediaeval life. The Teuton Charlemagne, Roland and Oliver were as completely forgotten of the poets who met in that memorable combat of the Wartburg, as were the Teuton Sigurd and Dietrich. And if the Carolingian cycle survived, however much altered, I think it must have been thanks to the burghers and artizans of the Netherlands and of Provence, to whom the bluff, matter-of-fact heroism, the simple, gross, but not illegitimate amours of Carolingian heroes, were more satisfactory than any mystic quest of the Grail, any refined adultery of Guenevere or Yseult.
But the inevitable fate of all mediaeval epics awaited this triumphant Arthurian cycle: the fate of being obliterated by passing from one nation and civilization to another, long before the existence of any poetic art adequate to its treatment. Of this I will take as an example one of the mediaeval poems which has the greatest reputation the masterpiece (according to most critics, with whom I find it difficult, in the presence of a poet like Gottfried von Strassburg, to agree) of probably the most really poetical and earnest school of poetry which the pre-Dantesque Middle Ages possessed—the "Parzifal" of Wolfram von Eschenbach.
The paramount impression (I cannot say the strongest, for strong impressions are incompatible with such work as this) left by the masterpiece of Wolfram von Eschenbach, is that of the most astonishing vagueness, fluidity, haziness, vaporousness. In reading it one looks back to that rudely hewn and extremely obliterated Nibelungenlied, as to something quite astonishingly clear, detailed and strongly marked as to something distinctly artistic. Indeed by the side of "Parzifal" everything seems artistic; Hartmann von Aue reads like Chaucer, "Aucassin et Nicolette" is as living as "Cymbeline," "Chevy Chase" seems as good as the battles of Homer. It is not a narrative, but a vague mooning; a knight illiterate, not merely like his fellow minnesingers, in the way of reading and writing, but in the sense of complete absence of all habit of literary form; extremely noble and pure of mind, chaste, gentle, with a funny, puzzled sense of humour, reminding one distantly of Jean Paul in his drowsy moments; a hanger-on of courts, but perfectly simple-hearted and childlike; very poor and easily pleased: such is, for good and for bad, Herr Wolfram von Eschenbach, the only real personality in his poem. And he narrates, in a mooning, digressive, good-natured, drowsy tone, with only a rare awaking of interest, a story which he has heard from some one else, and that some one else from a series of other some one elses (Chrestien de Troyes, a legendary Provencal Chiot or Guyot, perhaps even the original Welsh bard); all muddled, monotonous, and droning; events and persons ill-defined, without any sense of the relative importance of anything, without clear perception of what it is all about, or at least without the power of keeping the matter straight before the reader. A story, in point of fact, which is no story at all, but a mere series of rambling adventures (adventures which are scarcely adventures, having no point or plot) of various people with not much connection and no individuality—Gachmuret, Parzifal, Gawain, Loherangrein, Anfortas, Feirefis—pale ghosts of beings, moving in a country of Kennaqwhere, Aquitaine, Anjou, Brittany, Wales, Spain, and heaven knows what wondrous Oriental places; a misty country with woods and towns and castles which are infinitely far apart and yet quite near each other; which seem to sail about like cloud castles round the only solid place in the book, Plimizoel, where Arthur's court, with round table constantly spread, is for ever established. A no place, nowhere; yet full of details; minute inventories of the splendid furniture of castles (castles where? how reached?); infinitely inferior in this matter even to the Nibelungenlied, where you are made to feel so vividly (one of the few modern and therefore clear things therein) the long, dreary road from Worms to Bechlarn, and thence to Etzelburg, though of none of them is there anything beyond a name. For the Nibelungen story had been localized in what to narrator and audience was a reality, the country in which themselves lived, where themselves might seek out the abbey in which Siegfried was buried, the well in the Odenwald near which he was stabbed; where they knew from merchant and pilgrim the road taken by the Nibelungs from Santen to Worms, by the Burgundians from Worms to Hungary. But here in "Parzifal" we are in a mere vague world of anywhere, the world of Keltic and Oriental romance become mere cloudland to the Thuringian knight. And similarly have the heroes of other nations, the Arthurs, Gawains, Gachmurets, of Wales and Anjou, become mere vague names; they have become liquified, lost all shape and local habitation. They are mere names, these ladies and knights of Herr Wolfram, names with fair pink and white faces, names magnificently draped in bejewelled Oriental stuffs and embossed armour; they have no home, no work, nothing to do. This is the most remarkable characteristic of "Parzifal," and what makes it so typical of the process of growing inane through overmuch alteration, which prevented the mediaeval epics ever turning into an Iliad or an Odyssey; this that it is essentially idle and all about nothing. The feudal relations strongly marked in the German Nibelungenlied have melted away like the distinctions of race: every knight is independent, not a vassal nor a captain, a Volker or Hagen, or Roland or Renaud followed by his men; but an isolated individual, without even a squire, wandering about alone through this hazy land of nowhere. Knight-errantry, in the time of the great Guelph and Ghibelline struggles, every bit as ideal as that of Spenser or Cervantes; and with the difference that Sir Calidore and Sir Artegal have an appointed task, some Blatant Beast or other nuisance to overcome; and that Don Quixote has the general rescuing of all the oppressed Princesse Micomiconas, and the destruction of all windmills, and the capturing of all helmets of Mambrino, and the establishing all over the world of the worship of Dulcinea. But these knights of Wolfram von Eschenbach have no more this mission than they have the politico-military missions, missions of a Ruedger or a Roland. They are all riding about at random, without any particular pagans, necromancers, or dragons to pursue. The very service of the Holy Grail, which is the main interest of the poem, consists in nothing apparently except living virtuously at the Castle of Montselvaesche, and virtuously eating and drinking the victuals provided miraculously. To be admitted to this service, no initiation, no mission, nothing preliminary seems required. Parzifal himself merely wanders about vaguely, without doing any specified thing. The fact is that in this poem all has become purely ideal; ideal to the point of utter vacuity: there is no connection with any human business. Of all the heroes and heroines we hear that they are perfectly chaste, truthful, upright; and they are never put into any situation to test these qualities: they are never placed in the way of temptation, never made to fight with evil, or to decide between it and good. The very religion of the Holy Grail consists in doing nothing: not a word about relieving the poor or oppressed, of tending the sick, of delivering the Holy Sepulchre, of defending that great injured One, Christ. To be Grail Knight or even Grail King means to be exactly the same as before. Where in this vague dreamland of passive purity and heroism, of untempted chastity and untried honour, where are the earthly trials of Tristram, of Guenevere, of Ruedger, of Renaud? Where the moral struggles of the Middle Ages? Where is Godfrey, or Francis, or Dominick? Nowhere. All has disappeared, melted away; Christianity and Paganism themselves have melted away or into each other, as in the easy meeting of the Pagan Feirefis and the Christian Parzifal, and in the double marriage of Gachmuret with the Indian Belakane and the Welsh Herzeloid; there remains only a kind of Buddhistic Nirvana of vague passive perfection, but without any renunciation; and in a world devoid of evil and full of excellent brocade and armour and eatables, and lovely maidens who dress and undress you, and chastely kiss you on the mouth; a world without desire, aspiration, or combat, vacantly happy and virtuous. A world purely ideal, divorced from all reality, unsubstantial like the kingdom of Gloriana, but, unlike Spenser's, quite unshadowed by any puritan sadness, by any sense of evil, untroubled by allegorical vices; cheerful, serene, filled with flowers and song of birds, but as unreal as the illuminated arabesques of a missal. In truth, perhaps more to be compared with an eighteenth century pastoral, an ideal created almost in opposition to reality; a dream of passiveness and liberty (as of light leaves blown about) as the ideal of the fiercely troubled, struggling, tightly fettered feudal world. The ideal, perhaps, of only one moment, scarcely of a whole civilization; or rather (how express my feeling?) an accidental combination of an instant, as of spectre vapour arisen from the mixture of Kelt and Teuton, of Frank and Moslem. Is it Christian, Pagan, Mohammedan? None of all these. A simple-looking vaporous chaos of incongruous, but not conflicting, elements: a poem of virtue without object, of knighthood without work, of religion without belief; in this like its central interest, the Grail: a mystery, a cup, a stone; a thing which heals, feeds, speaks; animate or inanimate? Stone of the Caaba or chalice of the Sacrament? Merely a mysterious holy of holies and good of goods, which does everything and nothings means nothing and requires nothing—is nothing.
Thus was obliterated, in all its national and traditional meaning, the heroic cycle of Arthur; and by the same process of slow adaptation to new intellectual requirements which had completely wiped out of men's memory the heroic tales of Siegfried, which had entirely altered the originally realistic character of the epic of Charlemagne. But unreal and ideal as had become the tales of the Round Table, and disconnected with any national tradition, the time came when even these were not sufficiently independent of reality to satisfy the capricious imagination of the later Middle Ages. At the end of the fourteenth century was written, most probably in Portuguese by Vasco de Lobeira, the tale of "Amadis de Gaula," which was followed by some forty or fifty similar books telling the adventures of all the brothers, nephews, sons, grandsons sons, and great-grandsons, an infinite succession, of the original Amadis; which, translated into all languages and presently multiplied by the press, seem to have usurped the place of the Arthurian stories in feudal countries until well-nigh the middle of the sixteenth century; and which were succeeded by no more stories of heroes, but by the realistic comic novels of the type of "Lazarillo de Tormes," and the buffoon philosophic extravaganzas of "Gargantua." Further indeed it was impossible to go than did mediaeval idealism in the Amadises. Compared with them the most fairy-tale-like Arthurian stories are perfect historical documents. There remains no longer any connection whatsoever with reality, historical or geographical: the whole world seems to have been expeditiously emptied of all its contents, to make room for kingdoms of Gaul, of Rome, of the Firm Island, of Sobradisa, etc., which are less like the Land West of the Moon and East of the Sun than they are like Sancho Panza's island. All real mankind, past, present, and future, has similarly been swept away and replaced by a miraculous race of Amadises, Lisvarts, Galaors, Gradasilias, Orianas, Pintiquinestras, Fradalons, and so forth, who flit across our vision, in company with the indispensable necromancers, fairies, dwarfs, giants, and duennas, like some huge ballet: things without character, passions, pathos; knights who are never wounded or killed, princesses who always end with marrying the right man, enchanters whose heads are always chopped off, foundlings who are always reinstated in their kingdom, inane paper puppets bespangled with impossible sentiment, tinsel and rags which are driven about like chaff by the wind-puffs of romance. The advent of the Amadises is the coming of the Kingdom of Nonsense, the sign that the last days of chivalric romance have come; a little more, and the Licentiate Alonzo Perez will take his seat in Don Quixote's library, and Nicholas the Barber light his faggots in the yard.
But, as if in compensation of the usurpation of which they had been the victims, the Carolingian tales, pushed out of the way by the Arthurian cycle, were not destined to perish. Thrown aside with contempt by the upper classes, engrossed with the Round Table and the Holy Grail, the tales of Charlemagne and his paladins, largely adulterated with Arthurian elements, were apparently cherished by a lower class of society: burgesses, artizans, and such-like, for whom that Arthurian world was far too etherial and too delicately immoral; and to this circumstance is due the fact that the humiliated Carolingian tales eventually received an artistic embodiment which was not given to the Arthurian stories. While troubadours and minnesingers were busy with the court of Arthur, and grave Latinists like Rusticiano of Pisa wrote of Launcelot and Guenevere; the Carolingian epics seem to have been mainly sung about by illiterate jongleurs, and to have busied the pens of prose hackwriters for the benefit of townsfolk. The free towns of the Netherlands and of Germany appear to have been full of this unfashionable literature: the Carolingian cycle had become democratic. And, inasmuch as it was literature no longer for knights and courtiers, but for artizans and shopkeepers, it went, of course, to the pre-eminently democratic country of the Middle Ages—Italy. This was at a time when Italian was not yet a recognized language, and when the men and women who talked in Tuscan, Lombard, or Venetian dialects, wrote in Latin and in French; and while Francesca and Paolo read the story of Launcelot most probably in good mediaeval langue d'oil, as befitted people of high birth; the jongleurs, who collected crowds so large as to bar the streets and require the interference of the Bolognese magistrates, sang of Roland and Oliver in a sort of lingua Franca of French Lombard. French jongleurs singing in impossible French-Italian; Italian jongleurs singing in impossible French; Paduan penny-a-liners writing Carolingian cyclical novels in French, not of Paris, assuredly, but of Padua—a comical and most hideous jabber of hybrid languages—this was how the Carolingian stories became popular in Italy. Meanwhile, the day came when the romantic Arthurian tales had to dislodge in Italy before the invasion of the classic epic. Troy, Rome, and Thebes had replaced Tintagil and Caerleon in the interest of the cultured classes long before the beginning of the fifteenth century; when Poggio, in the very midst of the classic revival, still told of the comically engrossed audience which surrounded the vagabonds singing of Orlando and Rinaldo. The effete Arthurian cycle, superseded in Spain and France by the Amadis romances, was speedily forgotten in Italy; but the Carolingian stories remained; and when Italian poetry arose once more after the long interregnum between Petrarch and Lorenzo dei Medici, and looked about for subjects, it laid its hand upon them. But when, in the second half of the fifteenth century, those old tales of Charlemagne received, after so many centuries of alterations and ephemeral embodiments, that artistic form which the Middle Ages had been unable to give them, the stories themselves, and the way in which they were regarded, were totally different from what they had been in the time of Theroulde, or of the anonymous author of "The Quatre Fils Aymon;" the Renaissance, with its keen artistic sense, made out of the Carolingian tales real works of art, but works of art which were playthings. To begin with, the Carolingian stories had been saturated with Arthurian colour: they had been furnished with all the knight-rrantry, all the gallantry, all the enchantments, the fairies, giants, and necromancers of the Keltic legends; and, moreover, they had lost, by infinite repetition, all the political realism and meaning so striking in "The Chanson de Roland" and "The Quatre Fils Aymon;" a confusion and unreality further increased by the fact that the Italians had no original connection with those tales, that to them real men and plans were no better than imaginary ones, and that the minstrels who sang in the market-place, and the laborious prose-writers who compiled such collections as that called of the "Reali di Francia," were equally free in their alterations and adaptations, creating unknown relationships, inventing new adventures, suppressing essential historical points, with no object save amusing their audience or readers with new stories about familiar heroes. Such was the condition of the stories themselves. The attitude of the public towards them was, by the middle of the fifteenth century, one of complete incredulity and frivolous amusement; the paladins were as unreal as the heroes of any granny's fairy tale. The people wanted to hear of wonderful battles and adventures, of enchantments and love-makings; but they wanted also to laugh; and, sceptical, practical, democratic, the artizans and shopkeepers of Florence—to whom, paying, as they did, expensive mercenaries who stole poultry and never got wounded on any account, all chivalry or real military honour was the veriest nursery rubbish—such people as crowded round the cantastoria of mercato vecchio, must indeed have found much to amuse them in these tales of so different an age.
And into such crowds there penetrated to listen and watch (even as the Magnificent Lorenzo had elbowed among the carnival ragamuffins of Florence, and had slid in among the holiday-making peasants of Poggio a Caiano) a learned man, a poet, an intimate of the Medicis, of Politian, Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola, Messer Luigi Pulci, the same who had written the semi-allegorical, semi-realistic poem about Lorenzo dei Medici's gala tournament. There was a taste in the house of the Medici, together with those for platonic philosophy, classical erudition, religious hymns, and Hebrew kabbala, for a certain kind of realism, for the language and mode of thinking of the lower classes, as a reaction from Petrarchesque conventionality. As the Magnificent Lorenzo had had the fancy to string together in more artistic shape the quaint and graceful love poems, hyperbolical, realistic, tender, and abusive, of the Tuscan peasantry; so also Messer Luigi Pulci appears to have been smitten with the notion of trying his hand at a chivalric poem like those to which he and his friends had listened among the butchers and pork-shops, the fishmongers and frying booths of the market, and giving an impression, in its ideas and language, of the people to whom such strains were sung. But Luigi Pulci was vastly less gifted as a poet than Lorenzo dei Medici; Florentine prentices are less aesthetically pleasing than Tuscan peasants, and the "Morgante Maggiore" is a piece of work of a sort utterly inferior to the "Nencia da Barberino." Still the "Morgante Maggiore" remains, and will remain, as a very remarkable production of grotesque art. Just as Lorenzo dei Medici was certainly not without a deliberate purpose of selecting the quaintness and gracefulness of peasant life; even so, and perhaps more, Luigi Pulci must have had a deliberate intention of producing a ludicrous effect; in both cases the deliberate attempt is very little perceptible, in the "Nencia da Barberino" from the genius of Lorenzo, in the "Morgante Maggiore" from the stolidity of Pulci. The "Morgante," of which parts were probably written as a mere sample to amuse a supper party, became interesting to Pulci, in the mere matter of inventing and stringing together new incidents; and despite its ludicrous passages, it must have been more seriously written by him, and more seriously listened to by his friends, than would a similar production now-a-days. For the men of the Renaissance, no matter how philosophized and cultured, retained the pleasure in mere incident, which we moderns seem to have given over to children and savages; and Lorenzo, Ficino, and Politian probably listened to the adventures of Luigi Pulci's paladins and giants with much the same interest, and only a little more conscious sense of grotesqueness, with which the crowd in the market listened to Cristofano dell' Altissimo and similar story-tellers. The "Morgante Maggiore," therefore, is neither really comic nor really serious. It is not a piece of realistic grotesqueness like "Gargantua" or "Pantagruel," any more than it is a serious ideal work like "Amadis de Gaula:" the proportion of deliberately sought effects is small; the great bulk, serious or comic, seems to have come quite at random. It is not a caricatured reproduction of the poems of chivalry sung in the market, for they were probably serious, stately, and bald, with at most an occasional joke; it is the reproduction of the joint impression received from the absurd, harum-scarum, unpractical world of chivalry of the poet, and the real world of prose, of good-humoured buffoonish coarseness with which the itinerant poet was surrounded. The paladins are no Don Quixotes, the princesses no Dulcineas, the battles are real battles; but the language is that of Florentine wool-workers, housewives, cheese-sellers, and ragamuffins, crammed with the slang of the market-place, its heavy jokes and perpetual sententious aphorism. Moreover the prominence given to food and eating is unrivalled except by Rabelais: the poet must have lounged with delight through the narrow mediaeval lanes, crowded with booths and barrows, sniffing with rapture the mingled scents of cheese, pork, fish, spices, and a hundred strange concomitant market smells. And the market, that classic mercato vecchio (alas, finally condemned and destroyed by modern sanitary prudishness, and which only those who have seen can conceive in its full barbarous, nay, barbaric Pantagruelian splendour of food, blood, and stenches) of Florence, is what we think of throughout the poem. And, when Messer Luigi comes to narrate, with real gravity and after the due invocation of the Virgin, the Trinity, and the saints, the tremendous disaster of Roncevaux, he uses such words and such similes, that above the neighing of horses and the clash of hurtling armour and the yells of the combatants we suddenly hear the nasal sing-song of Florentine tripe-vendors and pumpkin-pod-sellers, the chaffer and oaths and laughter of the gluttonous crowd pouring through the lanes of Calimala and Pellicceria; nay (horrible and grotesque miracle), there seems to rise out of the confused darkness of the battle-filled valley, there seems to disengage itself (as out of a mist) from the chaos of heaped bodies, and the flash of steel among the whirlwinds of dust, a vision, more and more distinct and familiar, of the crowded square with its black rough-hewn, smoke-stained houses, ornamented with Robbia-ware angels and lilies or painted madonnas; of its black butchers dens, outside which hang the ghastly disembowelled sheep with blood-stained fleeces, the huge red-veined hearts and livers; of the piles of cabbage and cauli-flowers, the rows of tin ware and copper saucepans, the heaps of maccaroni and pastes, of spices and drugs; the garlands of onions and red peppers and piles of apples; the fetid sliminess of the fish tressels; the rough pavement oozy and black, slippery with cabbage-stalks, puddled with bullock's blood, strewn with plucked feathers—all under the bright blue sky, with Giotto's dove-coloured belfry soaring high above; a vision, finally, of one of those deep dens, with walls, all covered with majolica plates and dishes and flashing brass-embossed trenchers, in the dark depths of which crackles perennially a ruddy fire, while a huge spit revolves, offering to the flames now one now the other side of scores of legs of mutton, rounds of beef, and larded chickens, trickling with the butter unceasingly ladled by the white-dressed cooks. Roncisvalle, Charlemagne, the paladins, paganism, Christendom—what of them? "I believe in capon, roast or boiled, and sometimes done in butter; in mead and in must; and I believe in the pasty and the pastykins, mother and children; but above all things I believe in good wine "—as Margutte snuffles out in his catechism; and as to Saracens and paladins, past, present, and future, a fig for them!
But meanwhile, for all that Florentine burgesses, artizans, and humorists may think, there is in this Italy of the Renaissance something besides Florence; there is a school of poetry, disconnected with the realisms of Lorenzo and Pulci, with the Ovidian Petrarchisms of Politian. There is Ferrara. Lying, as they do, between the Northern Apennine slopes of Modena and the Euganean hills, the dominions of the House of Este appear at first sight merely as part and parcel of Lombardy, and we should expect from them nothing very different from that which we expect from Milan or Bologna or Padua. But the truth is different; all round Ferrara, indeed, stretches the fertile flatness of Lombard cornfields, and they produce, as infallibly as they produce their sacks of grain and tuns of wine and heaps of silk cocoon, the intellectual and social equivalents of such things in Renaissance Italy: industry, wealth, comfort, scepticism, art. But on either side, into the defiles of the Euganean hills to the north, into the widening torrent valleys of the Modenese Apennines to the south, the Marquisate of Este stretches up into feudalism, into chivalry, into the imaginative kingdom of the Middle Ages. Mediaevalism, feudalism, chivalry, indeed, of a very modified sort; and as different from that of France and Germany as differ from the poverty-stricken plains and forests and and moors of the north these Italian mountain slopes, along which the vines crawl in long trellises, and the chestnuts rise in endlessly superposed tiers of terraces, cultivated by a peasant who is not the serf, but the equal sharer in profits with the master of the soil. And on one of those fertile hill-sides, looking down upon a narrow valley all a green-blue shimmer with corn and vine-bearing elms, was born, in the year 1434, Matteo Maria Boiardo, in the village which gave him the title, one of the highest in the Estensian dominions, of Count of Scandiano. Here, in the Apennines, Scandiano is a fortified village, also a castle, doubtless half turned into a Renaissance villa, but mediaeval and feudal nevertheless; but the name of Scandiano belongs also, I know not for what reason, to a certain little red-brick palace on the outskirts of Ferrara, beautifully painted with half-allegorical, half-realistic pageant frescoes by Cosimo Tura, and enclosing a sweet tangled orchard-garden; to all of which, being the place to which Duke Borso and Duke Ercole were wont to retire for amusement, the Ferrarese have given the further name of Schifanoia, which means, "fly from cares." This little coincidence of Scandiano the feudal castle in the Apennines, and Scandiano the little pleasure palace at Ferrara, seems to give, by accidental allegory, a fair idea of the double nature of Matteo Boiardo, of the Ferrarese court to which he belonged, and of the school of poetry (including the more notable but less original work of Ariosto) which the genius of the man and the character of the court succeeded together in producing.
To understand Boiardo we must compare him with Ariosto; and to understand Ariosto we must compare him with Boiardo; both belong to the same school, and are men of very similar genius, and where the one leaves off the other begins. But first, in order to understand the character of this poetry which, in the main, is identical in Boiardo and in his more successful but less fascinating pupil Ariosto, let us understand Ferrara. It was, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, a chivalric town of Ariostesque chivalry: feudalism turned courtly and elegant, and moreover, very liberal and comfortable by preponderance of democratic and industrial habits; a military court, of brave mercenary captains full of dash and adventure, not mere brigands and marauders having studied strategy, like the little Umbrian chieftains; a court orderly, elegant, and brilliant: a prince not risen from behind a counter like Medicis and Petruccis, nor out of blood like Baglionis and Sforzas, but of a noble old house whose beginnings are lost in the mist of real chivalry and real paladinism; a duke with a pretence of feudal honour and decorum, at whose court men were all brave and ladies all chaste—with the little licenses of baseness and gallantry admitted by Renaissance chivalry. A bright, brilliant court at the close of the fifteenth century; and more stable than the only one which might have rivalled it, the Feltrian court of Urbino, too small and lost among the Umbrian bandits. A bright, brilliant town, also, this Ferrara: not mercantile like Florence, not mere barracks like Perugia; a capital, essentially, in its rich green plain by the widened Po, with its broad handsome streets (so different from the mediaeval exchanges of Bologna, and the feudal alleys of Perugia), its well-built houses, so safe and modern, needing neither bravi nor iron window bars, protected (except against some stray murder by one of the Estensi themselves), by the duke's well-organized police; houses with well-trimmed gardens, like so many Paris hotels; and with the grand russet brick castle, military with its moat and towers, urban with its belvederes and balconies, in the middle, well placed to sweep away with its guns (the wonderful guns of the duke's own making) any riot, tidily, cleanly, without a nasty heap of bodies and slop of blood as in the narrow streets of other towns Imagine this bright capital, placed, moreover, in the richest centre of Lombardy, with glitter of chivalry from the Euganean hills and Apennines (castellated with Este, Monselice, Canossa, and Boiardo's own Scandiano); with gorgeous rarities of commerce from Venice and Milan—a central, unique spot. It is the natural home of the chivalrous poets of the Renaissance, Boiardo, Ariosto, Tasso; as Florence is of the Politians and Pulcis (Hellenism and back-shopery); and Venice of the literature of lust, jests, cynicism, and adventure, Aretine, Beolco, Calmo, and Poliphilo-Colonna. In that garden, where the white butterflies crowd among the fruit trees bowed down to the tall grass of the palace of Schifanoia—a garden neither grand nor classic, but elegiac and charming—we can imagine Boiardo or Ariosto reading their poems to just such a goodly company as Giraldi Cinthio (a Ferrarese, and fond of romance, too) describes in the prologue of his "Ecatomiti:" gentle and sprightful ladies, with the splendid brocaded robes, and the gold-filleted golden hair of Dosso Dossi's wonderful Alcina Circe; graceful youths like the princely St. John of Benvenuto Garofalo; jesters like Dosso's at Modena; brilliant captains like his St. George and St. Michael; and a little crowd of pages with doublets and sleeves laced with gold tags, of sedate magistrates in fur robes and scarlet caps, of white-dressed maids with instruments of music and embroidery frames and hand looms, like those which Cosimo Tura painted for Duke Borso on the walls of this same Schifanoia palace. Such is the audience; now for the poems.
The stuff of Boiardo and Ariosto is the same: that old mediaeval stuff of the Carolingian poems, coloured, scented with Arthurian chivalry and wonder. The knight-errantry of the Keltic tales is cleverly blended with the pseudo-historical military organization of the Carolingian cycle. Paladins and Saracens are ingeniously manoeuvred about, now scattered in little groups of twos and threes, to encounter adventures in the style of Sir Launcelot or Amadis; now gathered into a compact army to crash upon each other as at Roncevaux; or else wildly flung up by the poet to alight in fairyland, to find themselves in the caverns of Jamschid, in the isles where Oberon's mother kept Caesar, and Morgana kept Ogier, in the boats, entering subterranean channels, of Sindbad and Huon of Bordeaux; a constant alternation of individual adventure and wholesale organized campaigns, conceived and carried out with admirable ingenuity. So much for the deeds of arms. The deeds of love are also compounded of Carolingian and Arthurian, but flavoured with special Renaissance feeling. There is a great deal of rapid love-making between too gallant knights and too impressionable ladies; licentious amours which we moderns lay at the door of Boiardo and Ariosto, not knowing that the licentiousness of the Olivers and Ogiers and Guerins and Huons of mediaeval poetry, of the sentimental Amadises, Galaors, and Lisvarts of the fourteenth century, whom the Renaissance has toned down in Rogers and Rinaldos and Ricciardettos, is by many degrees worse. A moral improvement also (for all the immorality of the Renaissance) in the eschewing of the never-failing adultery of the Arthurian romances, and the appropriation to legitimately faithful love of the poetical devotion which Tristram and Launcelot bear to other men's wives. To this are added, and more by Ariosto than by Boiardo, two essentially Italian elements: something of the nobility of passion of the Platonic sonneteers; and a good dose of the ironical, scurrilous, moralizing immoral anecdote gossiping of Boccaccio and Sacchetti. Such is the stuff. The conception, though rarely comic, and sometimes bond fide serious, is never earnest. All this is a purely artistic world, a world of decorative arabesque incident, intended to please, scarcely ever to move, or to move, at most, like some Decameronian tale of Isabella and the Basil Plant, or Constance and Martuccio. On the other hand, there is none of the grotesque irreverence of Pulci. Boiardo and Ariosto are not in earnest; they are well aware that their heroes and heroines are mere modern men and women tricked out in pretty chivalric trappings, driven wildly about from Paris to Cathay, and from Spain to the Orkneys—on Tony Lumpkin's principle of driving his mother round and round the garden plot till she thought herself on a heath six miles off—without ever really changing place. But they do not, like Pulci, make fun of their characters. They write chivalry romances not for Florentine pork-butchers and wool-carders, but for gallant ladies and gentlemen, to whom, with duels, tournaments, serenades, and fine speeches, chivalry is an admired name, though no longer a respected reality.
The heroes of Boiardo and of Ariosto are always bold and gallant and glittering, the spirit of romance is in them; a giant Sancho Panza like Morgante, redolent of sausage and cheese, would never be admitted into the society of a Ferrarese Orlando. The art of Boiardo and of Ariosto is eminently pageant art, in which sentiment and heroism are but as one element among many; there is no pretence at reality (although there is a good deal of incidental realism), and no thought of the interest in subject and persons which goes with reality. It is a masquerade, and one whose men and women must, I think, be imagined in a kind of artistic fancy costume: a mixture of the Renaissance dress and of the antique, as we see it in the prints of contemporary pageants, and in Venetian and Ferrarese pictures; that Circe of Dosso's, in the Borghese gallery of Rome, seated in her stately wine-lees and gold half-heraldically and half-cabalistically patterned brocade, before the rose-bushes of the little mysterious wood, is the very ideal of the Falerinas and Alcinas, of the enchantresses of Boiardo and Ariosto. Pageant people, these of the Ferrarese poets; they only play at being in forests and deserts, as children play at being on volcanoes or in Green-land by the nursery fire. It is a kind of dressing up, a masquerading of the fancy; not disguising in order to deceive, but rather laying hold of any pretty or brilliant impressive garb that comes to hand, and putting that on in conjunction with many odds and ends, as an artist's guests might do with the silks and velvets and Oriental properties of a studio. These knights and ladies, for ever tearing about from Scotland to India, never, in point of fact, get any further than the Apennine slopes where Boiardo was born, where Ariosto governed the Garfagnana. They ride for ever (while supposed to be in the Ardennes or in Egypt) across the velvet moss turf, all patterned with minute starry clovers and the fallen white ropy chestnut blossom, amidst the bracken beneath the slender chestnut trees, the pale blue sky looking in between their spreading branches; at most they lose their way in the intricacies of some seaside pineta, where the feet slip on the fallen needles, and the sun slants along the vistas of serried, red, scaly trunks, among the juniper and gorse and dry grass and flowers growing in the sea sand. Into the vast mediaeval forests of Germany and France, Boiardo and Ariosto's fancy never penetrated.
Such is the school: a school represented in its typical character only by Boiardo and Ariosto, but to which belong, nevertheless, with whatever differences, Tasso, Spenser, Camoens, all the poets of Renaissance romance. Now of the two leaders thereof. Here I feel that I can speak only personally; tell only of my own personal impressions and preferences. Comparing together Boiardo and Ariosto, I am, of course, aware of the infinite advantages of the latter. Ariosto is a man of far more varied genius; he is an artist, while Boiardo is an amateur; he is learned in arranging and ornamenting; he knows how to alternate various styles, how to begin and how to end. Moreover, he is a scholarly person of a more scholarly time: he is familiar with the classics, and, what is more important, he is familiar with the language in which he is writing. He writes exquisitely harmonious, supple, and brilliant Tuscan verse, with an infinite richness of diction; while poor Boiardo jogs along in a language which is not the Lombard dialect in which he speaks, and which is very uncouth and awkward, as is every pure language for a provincial; indeed, so much so, that the pedantic Tuscans require Berni to make Tuscan, elegant, to ingentilire, with infinite loss to quaintness and charm, the "Orlando Innamorato" of poor Ferrarese Boiardo. Moreover, Ariosto has many qualities unknown to Boiardo; wit, malice, stateliness, decided eloquence and power of simile and apostrophe; he is a symphony for full orchestra, and Boiardo a mere melody played on a single fiddle, which good authorities (and no one dare contest with Italians when they condemn anything not Tuscan as jargon) pronounce to be no Cremona. All these advantages Ariosto certainly has; and I do not quarrel with those who prefer him for them. But many of them distinctly take away from my pleasure. I confess that I am bored by the beautifully written moral and allegorical preludes of Ariosto's cantos; I would willingly give all his aphorism and all his mythology to get quickly to the story. Also, I resent his admirable rhetorical flourishes about his patrons, his Ercoles, Ippolitos, and Isabellas they ring false, dreadfully false and studied; and Boiardo's quickly despatched friendly greeting of his friends, his courteous knights and gentle ladies, pleases me much better. Moreover, the all-pervading consciousness of the existence of Homer, Virgil, nay, Statius and Lucan, every trumpery antique epic-monger, annoys me, giving an uncomfortable doubt as to whether Ariosto did not try to make all this nonsense serious, and this romance into an epic; all this occasional Virgilian stateliness, alternated with a kind of polished Decameronian gossipy cynicism, diverts my attention, turns paladins and princesses too much into tutor-educated gentlemen, into Bandello and Cinthio-reading ladies of the sixteenth century. The picture painted by Ariosto is finer, but you see too much of the painter; he and his patrons take up nearly the whole foreground, and they have affected, idealized faces and would-be dignified and senatorial poses. For these and many other reasons, I personally prefer Boiardo; and perhaps the best reason for my preference is the irrational one that he gives me more pleasure. My preferences, my impressions, I have said, are in this matter, much less critical than personal. Hence I can speak of Boiardo only as he affects me.
When first I read Boiardo, I was conscious of a curious phenomenon in myself. I must confess to reading books usually in a very ardent or rather weary manner, either way in a hurry to finish them. As it happened, when I borrowed Boiardo, I had a great many other things on hand which required my time and attention; yet I could not make up my mind to return the book until I had finished it, though my intention had been merely to satisfy my curiosity by a dip into it. I went on, without that eager desire to know what follows which one has in a novel; drowsily with absolute reluctance to leave off, like the reluctance to rise from the grass beneath the trees with only butterflies and shadows to watch, or the reluctance to put aside some fairy book of Walter Crane's. It was like strolling in some quaint, ill-trimmed, old garden, finding fresh flowers, fresh bits of lichened walls, fresh fragments of broken earthenware ornaments; or, rather, more like a morning in the Cathedral Library at Siena, the place where the gorgeous choir books are kept, itself illuminated like missal pages by Pinturicchio: amused, delighted, not moved nor fascinated; finding every moment something new, some charming piece of gilding, some sweet plumed head, some quaint little tree or town; making a journey of lazy discovery in a sort of world of Prince Charmings, the real realm of the "Faery Queen," quite different in enchantment from the country of Spenser's Gloriana, with its pale allegoric ladies and knights, half-human, half-metaphysical, and its make-believe allegorical ogres and giants. This is the real Fairyland, this of Boiardo: no mere outskirts of Ferrara, with real, playfully cynical Ferrarese men and women tricked out as paladins and Amazons, and making fun of their disguise, as in Ariosto; no wonderland of Tasso, with enchanted gardens copied out of Bolognese pictures and miraculous forests learned from theatre mechanicians, wonders imitated by a great poet from the cardboard and firework wonders of Bianca Cappello's wedding feasts. This is the real fairyland, the wonderland of mediaeval romance and of Persian and Arabian tales, no longer solemn or awful, but brilliant, sunny, only half believed in; the fairyland of the Renaissance, superficially artistic, with its lightest, brightest fancies, and its charming realities; its cloistered and painted courts with plashing fountains, its tapestried and inlaid rooms, its towered and belvedered villas, its quaint clipped gardens full of strange Oriental plants and beasts; and all this transported into a country of wonders, where are the gardens of the Hesperides, the fountain of Merlin, the tomb of Narcissus, the castle of Morgan-le-Fay; every quaint and beautiful fancy, antique and mediaeval, mixed up together, as in some Renaissance picture of Botticelli or Rosselli or Filippino, where knights in armour descend from Pegasus before Roman temples, where swarthy white-turbaned Turks, with oddly bunched-up trousers and jewelled caftans, and half-naked, oak-crowned youths, like genii descended, pensive and wondering, from some antique sarcophagus, and dapper princelets and stalwart knights, and citizens and monks, all crowd round the altar of some wonder-working Macone or Apolline or Trevigante; some comic, dreadful, apish figure, mummed up in half-antique, half-oriental garb. Or else we are led into some dainty, pale-tinted panel of Botticelli, where the maidens dance in white clinging clothes, strewing flowers on to the flower-freaked turf; or into some of Poliphilo's vignettes, where the gentle ladies, seated with lute and viol under vine-trellises, welcome the young gallant, or poet, or knight.
Such is the world of Boiardo. Spenser has once or twice peeped in, painted it, and given us exquisite little pictures, as that of Malecasta's castle, all hung with mythological tapestries, that of the enchanted chamber of Britomart, and those of Sir Calidore meeting the Graces and of Hellenore dancing with the Satyrs; but Spenser has done it rarely, trembling to return to his dreary allegories. Equal to these single pictures by Spenser, Boiardo has only one or two, but he keeps us permanently in the world where such pictures are painted. Boiardo is not a great artist like Spenser: but he is a wizard, which is better. He leads us, unceasingly, through the little dreamy laurelwoods, where we meet crisp-haired damsels tied to pine-trees, or terrible dragons, or enchanted wells, through whose translucent green waters we see brocaded rooms full of fair ladies; he ferries us ever and anon across shallow streams, to the castles where gentil donzelle wave their kerchiefs from the pillared belvedere; he slips us unseen into the camps and council-rooms of the splendidly trapped Saracens, like so many figures out of Filippino's frescoes; he conducts us across the bridges where giants stand warders, to the mysterious carved tombs whence issue green and crested snakes, who, kissed by a paladin, turn into lovely enchantresses; he takes us beneath the beds of rivers and through the bowels of the earth where kings and knights turned into statues of gold, sit round tables covered with jewels, illumined by carbuncles more wonderful than that of Jamschid; or through the mazes of fairy gardens, where every ear of corn, cut off, turns into a wild beast, and every fallen leaf into a bird, where hydras watch in the waters and lamias rear themselves in the grass, where Orlando must fill his helmet with roses lest he hear the voice of the sirens; where all the wonders of Antiquity—the snake-women, the Circes, the sirens, the hydras and fauns live, strangely changed into something infinitely quaint and graceful, still half-antique, yet already half-Arabian or Keltic, in the midst of the fairyland of Merlin and of Oberon—live, move, transform themselves afresh; where the golden-haired damsels and the stripling knights, delicate like Pinturicchio's Prince Charmings, gallop for ever on their enchanted coursers, within enchanted armour, invincible, invulnerable, under a sky always blue, and through an unceasing spring, ever onwards to new adventures. Adventures which the noble, gentle Castellan of Scandiano, poet and knight and humorist, philanthropical philosopher almost from sheer goodness of heart, yet a little crazy, and capable of setting all the church bells ringing in honour of the invention of the name of Rodomonte relates not to some dully ungrateful Alfonso or Ippolito, but to his own guests, his own brilliant knights and ladies, with ever and anon an effort to make them feel, through his verse, some of those joyous spring-tide feelings which bubble up in himself; as when he remembers how, "Once did I wander on a May morning in a fair flower-adorned field on a hillside overlooking the sea, which was all tremulous with light; and there, among the roses of a green thorn-brake, a damsel was singing of love; singing so sweetly that the sweetness still touches my heart; touches my heart, and makes me think of the great delight it was to listen;" and how he would fain repeat that song, and indeed an echo of its sweetness runs through his verse. Meanwhile, stanza pours out after stanza, adventure grows out of adventure, each more wonderful, more gorgeous than its predecessor. To which listen the ladies, with their white, girdled dresses and crimped golden locks; the youths, with their soft beardless faces framed in combed-out hair, with their daggers on their hips and their plumed hats between their fingers; and the serious bearded men, in silken robes; drawing nearer the poet, letting go lute or violin or music-book as they listen on the villa terrace or in some darkened room, where the sunset sky turns green-blue behind the pillared window, and the roses hang over the trellise of the cloister. And as they did four hundred years ago, so do we now, rejoice. The great stalwart naked forms of Greece no longer leap and wrestle or carry their well-poised baskets of washed linen before us; the mailed and vizored knights of the Nibelungen no longer clash their armour to the sound of Volker's red fiddle-bow; the glorified souls of Dante no longer move in mystic mazes of light before the eyes of our fancy. All that is gone. But here is the fairyland of the Renaissance. And thus Matteo Boiardo, Count of Scandiano, goes on, adding adventure to adventure, stanza to stanza, in his castle villa, or his palace at Ferrara. But suddenly he stops and his bright fiddle and lute music jars and ends: "While I am singing, O Redeeming God, I see all Italy set on fire by these Gauls, coming to ravage I know not what fresh place."
And thus, with the earlier and more hopeful Renaissance of the fifteenth century, Matteo Boiardo broke off with his "Orlando Innamorato." The perfect light-heartedness, the delight in play of a gentle, serious, eminently kindly nature, which gives half the charm to Boiardo's work, seems to have become impossible after the ruin of Italian liberty and prosperity the frightful showing up of Italy's moral and social and political insignificance at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Lombardy especially became a permanent battle-field, and its towns mere garrison places of French, German, Spanish, and Swiss barbarians, whose presence meant slaughter and pillage and every foulest outrage; and then, between the horrors of the unresisted invasions and the unresisted exactions, came plague and famine, and industry and commerce gradually died out. A few princes, subsidised and guarded by French or Imperialists, kept up an appearance of cheerfulness, but the courts even grew more gloomy as the people grew more miserable. There is more joking, more resonant laughter in Ariosto than in Boiardo, but there is very much less serenity and cheerfulness; ever and anon a sort of bitterness, a dreary moralizing tendency, a still more dreary fit of prophesying future good in which he has no belief, comes over Ariosto. Berni, who rewrote the "Orlando Innamorato" in choice Tuscan, and who underlined every faintly marked jest of Boiardo's, with evident preoccupation of the ludicrous effects of the "Morgante Maggiore"—Berni even could not keep up his spirits; into the middle of Boiardo's serene fairyland adventures he inserted a description of the sack of Rome which is simply harrowing. All real cheerfulness departed from the people, to be replaced only by pleasure in the debaucheries of the buffoonish obscenity of Aretino, Bandello, and so forth, to which the men of the dying Italy of the Renaissance listened as the roysterers of the plague of Florence, with the mortal sickness almost upon them, may have listened to the filthy songs which they trolled out in their drunkenness. Or at best, the poor starved, bruised, battered, humiliated nation may have tried to be cheerful on the principle of its harlequin playwright Beolco, who, more honest than the Ariostos and Bibbienas, and Aretines, came forward on his stage of planks at Padua, and after describing the ruin and wretchedness of the country, the sense of dreariness and desolation, which made young folk careless of marriage, and the very nightingales (he thought) careless of song, recommended his audience, since they could not even cry thoroughly and to feel any the better for it, to laugh, if they still were able. Boiardo was forgotten; his spirit was unsuited to the depression, gloomy brutality, gloomy sentimentality, which grew every day as Italy settled down after its Renaissance-Shrovetide in the cinders and fasting of the long Lent of Spanish and Jesuit rule.
Still the style of Boiardo was not yet exhausted; the peculiar kind of fairy epic, the peculiar combination of chivalric and classic elements of which the "Orlando Innamorato" and the "Orlando Furioso," had been the great examples, still fascinated poets and public. The Renaissance, or what remained of it, was now no longer confined to Italy; it had spread, paler, more diluted, shallower, over the rest of Europe. To follow the filiation of schools, to understand the intellectual relationships of individuals, of the latter half of the sixteenth century, it becomes necessary to move from one country to another. And thus the two brother poets of the family of Boiardo, its two last and much saddened representatives, came to write in very different languages and under very different circumstances. These two are Tasso and our own Spenser. They are both poets of the school of the "Orlando Innamorato," both poets of a reaction, of a kind of purified Renaissance: the one of the late Italian Renaissance emasculated by the Council of Trent and by Spain; the other of the English Renaissance, in its youth truly, but, in the individual case of Spenser, timidly drawn aside from the excesses of buoyant life around. In the days of the semi-atheist dramatists, all flesh and blood and democracy, Spenser steeps himself in Christianity and chivalry, even as Tasso does, following on the fleshly levity and scepticism of Boiardo, Berni, and Ariosto. There is in both poets a paleness, a certain diaphanous weakness, an absence of strong tint or fibre or perfume; in Tasso the pallor of autumn, in Spenser the paleness of spring: autumn left sad and leafless by the too voluptuous heat and fruitfulness of summer; spring still pale and pinched by winter, with timid nipped grass and unripe stiff buds and catkins, which never suggest the tangle of bush, grasses, and magnificent flowers and fruits, sweet, splendid, or poisonous, which the sun will make out of them. The Renaissance, in the past for Tasso, in the proximate and very visible future for Spenser, has frightened both; the cynicism and bestiality of men like Machiavelli and Aretino; the godless, muscular lustiness of Marlowe, Greene, and Peele, seen in a glimpse by Tasso and Spenser, have given a shock to their sensitive nature, have made them turn away and hide themselves from a second sight of it. They both take refuge in a land of fiction, of romance, from the realities into which they dread to splash; a world unsubstantial, diaphanous, faint-hued, almost passionless, which they make out of beauty and heroism and purity, which they alembicize and refine, but into which there never enters any vital element, anything to give it flesh and bone and pulsing life: it is a mere soap bubble. And beautiful as is this world of their own making, it is too negative even for them; they move in it only in imagination, calm, serene, vacant, almost sad. There is in it, and in themselves, a something wanting; and the remembrance of that unholy-life of reality which jostled and splashed their delicate souls, comes back and haunts them with its evil thought. There is no laugh—what is worse, no smile —in these men. Incipient puritanism, not yet the terrible brawny reality of Bunyan, but a vague, grey spectre, haunts Spenser; and the puritanism of Don Quixote, the vague, melancholy, fantastic reverting from the evil world of to-day to an impossible world of chivalry, is troubling the sight of Tasso. He cannot go crazy like Don Quixote, and instead he grows melancholy; he cannot believe in his own ideals; he cannot give them life, any more than can Spenser give life to his allegoric knights and ladies, because the life would have to be fetched by Tasso out of the flesh of Ariosto, and by Spenser out of the blood of Marlowe; and both Tasso and Spenser shrink at the thought of what might with it be inoculated or transfused; and they rest satisfied with phantoms. The phantoms of Spenser are more shadowy much more utterly devoid of human character; they are almost metaphysical abstractions, and they do not therefore sadden us: they are too unlike living things to seem very lifeless. But the phantoms of Tasso, he would fain make realities; he works at every detail of character, history, or geography, which may make his people real; they are not, as with Spenser, elves and wizards flitting about in a nameless fairyland, characterless and passionless; they are historical creatures, captains and soldiers in a country mapped out by the geographer; but they are phantoms all the more melancholy, these beautiful and heroic Clorindas and Erminias and Tancreds and Godfreys—why? because the real world around Tasso is peopled with Brachianos and Corombonas, and Annabellas and Giovannis, creatures for Webster and Ford; and because this world of chivalry is, in his Italy, as false as the world of Amadis and Esplandian in Toboso and Barcelona for poor Don Quixote. Melancholy therefore, and dreamy, both Tasso and Spenser, with nothing they can fully love in reality, because they see it tainted with reality and evil; without the cheerful falling back upon everyday life of Ariosto and Shakespeare, and with a strange fancy for fairyland, for the distant, for the Happy Islands, the St. Brandan's Isles, the country of the fountain of youth, the country of which vague reports have come back with the ships of Raleigh and Ponce de Leon. Tasso and Spenser are happiest, in their calm, melancholy way, when they can let themselves go in day-dreams, and talk of things in which they do not believe, of diamond shields which stun monsters of ointments which cure all ills of body and of soul of enchanted groves whose trees sound with voices, and lutes, of boats in which, steered by fairies, we can glide across the scarcely rippled summer sea, and watching the ruins of the past, time and reality left behind, set sail for some strange land of bliss. And there is in the very sensuousness and love of beauty-of these men a vagueness and melancholy, a constant: sense of the fleeting and of the eternal, as in that passage, translated from the languidly sweet Italian perfection of Tasso into the timid, almost scentless, English of Spenser—"Cosi trapassa al trapassar d'un giorno."
So passeth, in the passing of a day,
Of mortall life the leafe, the bud, the flowre
No more doth florish after first decay, That earst was sought to deck both bed and bowre Of many a lady, and many a Paramowre. Gather therefore the Rose whilest yet is prime, For soone comes age that will her pride deflowre; Gather the Rose of love whitest yet is time, Whitest loving thou mayest loved be withe equall crime.
A sense of evanescence, of dreamlikeness, quite different from the thoughtless enjoyment of Boiardo, from the bold and manly facing of the future, the solemn, strong sense of life and death as of waking realities, of the Elizabethan dramatists, even of weaklings like Massinger and Beaumont. In Tasso and in Spenser there is no such joyousness, no such solemnity; only a dreamy watching, a regret which is scarcely a regret, at the evanescence of pale beauty and pale life, of joys feebly felt and evils meekly borne.
With Tasso and Spenser comes to a close the school of Boiardo, the small number of real artists who finally gave an enduring and beautiful shape to that strangely mixed and altered material of romantic epic left behind by the Middle Ages; comes to an end at least till our own day of appreciative and deliberate imitation and selection and rearrangement of the artistic forms of the past. Until the revival (after much study and criticism) by our own poets of Arthur and Gudrun and the Fortunate Isles, the world had had enough of mediaeval romance. Chivalry had avowedly ended in chamberlainry; the devotion to women in the official routine of the cicisbeo; the last romance to which the late Renaissance had clung, which made it sympathize with Huon, Ogier, Orlando, and Rinaldo, which had made it take delight still in the fairyland of Oberon, of Fallerina, of Alcina, of Armida, of Acrasia, the romance of the new world, had also turned into prose, prose of blood-stained filth. The humanistic and rationalistic men of the Renaissance had doubtless early begun to turn up their noses in dainty dilettantism or scientific contempt, at what were later to be called by Montaigne, "Ces Lancelots du Lac, ces Amadis, ces Huons et tels fatras di livres a quoy l'enfance s'amuse;" and by Ben Jonson:
Public nothings, Abortives of the fabulous dark cloister, Sent out to poison courts, and infect manners—
the public at large was more constant, and still retained a love for mediaeval romance. But more than humanities, more than scientific scepticism and religious puritanism, did the slow dispelling of the illusion of Eldorado and the Fortunate Isles. Mankind set sail for America in brilliant and knightly gear, believing in fountains of youth and St. Brandan's Isles, with Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser still in its pockets. It returns from America either as the tattered fever-stricken ruffian, or as the vulgar, fat upstart of Spanish comedy, returns without honour or shame, holding money (and next to money, negroes) of greater account than any insignia of paladinship or the Round Table; it is brutal, vulgar, cynical; at best very sad, and it gets written for its delectation the comic-tragic novels of rapscallions, panders, prostitutes, and card-sharpers, which from "Lazarillo de Tormes" to "Gil Blas," and from "Gil Blas" to "Tom Jones," finally replace the romances of the Launcelots, Galahads, Rinaldos, and Orlandos.
Thus did the mediaeval romantic-epic stuffs suffer alteration, adulteration, and loss of character, throughout the long period of the Middle Ages, without ever receiving an artistic shape, such as should make all men preserve and cherish them for the only thing which makes men preserve and cherish such things—that never to be wasted quality, beauty. The Middle Ages were powerless to endow therewith their own subjects; so the subjects had to wait, altering more and more with every passing day, till the coming of the Renaissance. And by that time these subjects had ceased to have any serious meaning whatever; the Roland of the song of Roncevaux had become the crazy Orlando of Ariosto; the Renaud of "The Quatre Fils Aymon," had become the Rinaldo, thrashed with sheaves of lilies by Cupid, of Matteo Boiardo. The Renaissance took up the old epic-romantic materials and made out of them works of art; but works of art which, as I said before, were playthings gets written for its delectation the comic-tragic novels of rapscallions, panders, prostitutes, and card-sharpers, which, from "Lazarillo de Tormes" to "Gil Bias," and from "Gil Bias" to "Tom Jones," finally replace the romances of the Launcelots, Galahads, Rinaldos, and Orlandos.
* * * * *
On laying down the "Vita Nuova" our soul is at first filled and resounding with the love of Beatrice. Whatever habits or capacities of noble loving may lurk within ourselves, have been awakened by the solemn music of this book, and have sung in unison with Dante's love till we have ceased to hear the voice of his passion and have heard only the voice of our own. When the excitement has diminished, when we have grown able to separate from our own feelings the feelings of the man dead these five centuries and a half, and to realize the strangeness, the obsoleteness of this love which for a moment had seemed our love; then a new phase of impressions has set in, and the "Vita Nuova" inspires us with mere passionate awe: awe before this passion which we feel to be no longer our own, but far above and distant from us, as in some rarer stratum of atmosphere; awe before this woman who creates it, or rather who is its creation. Even as Dante fancied that the people of Florence did when the bodily presence of this lady came across their path, so do we cast down our glance as the image of Beatrice passes across our mind. Nay, the glory of her, felt so really while reading the few, meagre words in the book, is stored away in our heart, and clothes with a faint aureole the lady—if ever in our life we chance to meet her—in whom, though Dante tells us nothing of stature, features, eyes or hair, we seem to recognize a likeness to her on whose passage "ogni lingua divien tremando muta, e gli occhi non ardiscon di guardare." Passion like this, to paraphrase a line of Rossetti's, is genius; and it arouses in such as look upon it the peculiar sense of wonder and love, of awe-stricken raising up of him who contemplates, which accompanies the contemplation of genius.
But it may be that one day we feel, instead of this, wonder indeed, but wonder mingled with doubt. This ideal love, which craves for no union with its object; which seeks merely to see, nay, which is satisfied with mere thinking on the beloved one, will strike us with the cold and barren glitter of the miraculous. This Beatrice, as we gaze on her, will prove to be no reality of flesh and blood like ourselves; she is a form modelled in the semblance of that real, living woman who died six centuries ago, but the substance of which is the white fire of Dante's love. And the thought will arise that this purely intellectual love of a scarce-noticed youth for a scarce-known woman is a thing which does not belong to life, neither sweetening nor ennobling any of its real relations; that it is, in its dazzling purity and whiteness, in fact a mere strange and sterile death light, such as could not and should not, in this world of ours, exist twice over. And, lest we should ever be tempted to think of this ideal love for Beatrice as of a wonderful and beautiful, but scarcely natural or useful phenomenon, I would wish to study the story of its origin and its influence. I would wish to show that had it not burned thus strangely concentrated and pure, the poets of succeeding ages could not have taken from that white flame of love which Dante set alight upon the grave of Beatrice, the spark of ideal passion which has, in the noblest of our literature, made the desire of man for woman and of woman for man burn clear towards heaven, leaving behind the noisome ashes and soul-enervating vapours of earthly lust.
The centuries have made us; forcing us into new practices, teaching us new habits, creating for us new capacities and wants; adding, ever and anon, to the soul organism of mankind features which at first were but accidental peculiarities, which became little by little qualities deliberately sought for and at lengths inborn and hereditary characteristics. And thus, in, what we call the Middle Ages, there was invented by the stress of circumstances, elaborated by half-conscious effort and bequeathed as an unalienable habit, a new manner of loving.
The women of classical Antiquity appear to us in poetry and imaginative literature as one of two things: the wife or the mistress. The wife, Penelope, Andromache, Alkestis, nay, even the charming young bride in Xenophon's "Oeconomics," is, while excluded from many concerns, distinctly reverenced and loved in her own household capacity; but the reverence is of the sort which the man feels for his parents and his household gods, and the affection is calm and gently rebuking like that for his children. The mistress, on the other hand, is the object of passion which is often very vehement, but which is always either simply fleshly or merely fancifully aesthetic or both, and which entirely precludes any save a degrading influence upon the sensual and suspicious lover. Even Tibullus, in love matters one of the most modern among the ancients, and capable of painting many charming and delicate little domestic idyls even in connection with a mere bought mistress, is perpetually accusing his Delia of selling herself to a higher bidder, and sighing at the high probability of her abandoning him for the Illyrian praetor or some other rich amateur of pretty women. The barbarous North—whose songs have come down to us either, like the Volsunga Saga translated by Mr. Morris, in an original pagan version, or else, as the Nibelungenlied, recast during the early Middle Ages—the North tells us nothing of the venal paramour, but knows nothing also beyond the wedded wife; more independent and mighty perhaps than her counterpart of classical Antiquity, but although often bought, like Brynhilt or Gudrun, at the expense of tremendous adventures, cherished scarcely more passionately than the wives of Odysseus and Hector. Thus, before the Middle Ages, there existed as a rule only a holy, but indifferent and utterly unlyrical, love for the women, the equals of their husbands, wooed usually of the family and solemnly given in marriage without much consultation of their wishes; and a highly passionate and singing, but completely profligate and debasing, desire for mercenary though cultivated creatures like the Delias and Cynthlas of Tibullus and Propertius, or highborn women, descended, like Catullus' Lesbia, in brazen dishonour to their level, women towards whom there could not possibly exist on the part of their lovers any sense of equality, much less of inferiority. To these two kinds of love, chaste but cold, and passionate but unchaste, the Middle Ages added, or rather opposed, a new manner of loving, which, although a mere passing phenomenon, has left the clearest traces throughout our whole mode of feeling and writing.
To describe mediaeval love is a difficult matter, and to describe it except in negations is next to impossibility. I conceive it to consist in a certain sentimental, romantic, idealistic attitude towards women, not by any means incompatible however with the grossest animalism; an attitude presupposing a complete moral, aesthetical, and social superiority on the part of the whole sex, inspiring the very highest respect and admiration independently of the individual's qualities; and reaching the point of actual worship, varying from the adoration of a queen by a courtier to the adoration of a shrine by a pilgrim, in the case of the one particular lady who happens to be the beloved; an attitude in the relations of the sexes which results in love becoming an indispensable part of a noble life, and the devoted attachment to one individual woman, a necessary requisite of a gentlemanly training.
Mediaeval love is not merely a passion, a desire, an affection, a habit; it is a perfect occupation. It absorbs, or is supposed to absorb, the Individual; it permeates his life like a religion. It is not one of the interests of life, or, rather, one of life's phases; it is the whole of life, all other interests and actions either sinking into an unsingable region below it, or merely embroidering a variegated pattern upon its golden background. Mediaeval love, therefore, never obtains its object, however much it may obtain the woman; for the object of mediaeval love, as of mediaeval religious mysticism, is not one particular act or series of acts, but is its own exercise, of which the various incidents of the drama between man and woman are merely so many results. It has not its definite stages, like the love of the men of classical Antiquity or the heroic time of the North: its stages of seeking, obtaining, cherishing, guarding; it is always at the same point, always in the same condition of half-religious, half-courtier-like adoration, whether it be triumphantly successful or sighingly despairing. The man and the woman—or rather, I should say, the knight and the lady, for mediaeval love is an aristocratic privilege, and the love of lower folk is not a theme for song—the knight and the lady, therefore, seem always, however knit together by habit, nay, by inextricable meshes of guilt, somehow at the same distance from one another. Once they have seen and loved each other, their passion burns on always evenly, burns on (at least theoretically) to all eternity. It seems almost as if the woman were a mere shrine, a mysterious receptacle of the ineffable, a grail cup, a consecrated wafer, but not the ineffable itself. For there is always in mediaeval love, however fleshly the incidents which it produces, a certain Platonic element; that is to say, a craving for, a pursuit of, something which is an abstraction; an abstraction impossible to define in its constant shifting and shimmering, and which seems at one moment a social standard, a religious ideal, or both, and which merges for ever in the dazzling, vague sheen of the Eternal Feminine. Hence, one of the most distinctive features of mediaeval love, an extraordinary sameness of intonation, making it difficult to distinguish between the bona fide passion for which a man risks life and honour, and the mere conventional gallantry of the knight who sticks a lady's glove on his helmet as a compliment to her rank; nay, between the impure adoration of an adulterous lamia like Yseult, and the mystical adoration of a glorified Mother of God; for both are women, both are ladies, and therefore the greatest poet of the early Middle Ages, Gottfried von Strassburg, sings them both with the same religious respect, and the same hysterical rapture. This mediaeval love is furthermore a deliberately expected, sought-for, and received necessity in a man's life; it is not an accident, much less an incidental occurrence to be lightly taken or possibly avoided: it is absolutely indispensable to man's social training, to his moral and aesthetical self-improvement; it is part and parcel of manhood and knighthood. Hence, where it does not arise of itself (and where a man is full of the notion of such love, it is rare that it does not come but too soon) it has to be sought for. Ulrich von Liechtenstein, in his curious autobiography written late in the twelfth century, relates how ever since his childhood he had been aware of the necessity of the loyal love service of a lady for the accomplishment of knightly duties; and how, as soon as he was old enough to love, he looked around him for a lady whom he might serve; a proceeding renewed in more prosaic days and with a curious pedantic smack, by Lorenzo dei Medici; and then again, perhaps for the last time, by the Knight of La Mancha, in that memorable discussion which ended in the enthronement as his heart's queen of the unrivalled Dulcinea of Toboso. Frowendienst, "lady's service," is the name given by Ulrich von Liechtenstein, a mediaeval Quixote, outshining by far the mad Provencals Rudel and Vidal, to the memoirs very delightfully done into modern German by Ludwig Tieck; and "lady's service" is the highest occupation of knightly leisure, the subject of the immense bulk of mediaeval poetry. "Lady's service" in deeds of arms and song, in constant praise and defence of the beloved, in heroic enterprise and madcap mummery, in submission and terror to the wondrous creature whom the humble servant, the lover, never calls by her sacred name, speaking of her in words unknown to Antiquity, dompna, dame, frowe, madonna—words of which the original sense has almost been forgotten, although there cleave to them even now ideas higher than those associated with the puella of the ancients, the wib of the heroic days—lady, mistress—the titles of the Mother of God, who is, after all, only the mystical Soul's Paramour of the mediaeval world. "Lady's service"—the almost technical word, expressing the position, half-serf-like, half-religious, the bonds of complete humility and never-ending faithfulness, the hopes of reward, the patience under displeasure, the pride in the livery of servitude, the utter absorption of the life of one individual in the life of another; which constitute in Provence, in France, in Germany, in England, in Italy, in the fabulous kingdoms of Arthur and Charlemagne, the strange new thing which I have named Mediaeval Love.
Has such a thing really existed? Are not these mediaeval poets leagued together in a huge conspiracy to deceive us? Is it possible that strong men have wept and fainted at a mere woman's name, like the Count of Nevers in "Flamenca," or that their mind has swooned away in months of reverie like that of Parzifal in Eschenbach's poem; that worldly wise and witty men have shipped off and died on sea for love of an unseen woman like Jaufre Rudel; or dressed in wolf's hide and lurked and fled before the huntsmen-like Peire Vidal; or mangled their face and cut off their finger, and, clothing themselves in rags more frightful than Nessus' robe, mixed in the untouchable band of lepers like Ulrich von Liechtenstein? Is it possible to believe that the insane enterprises of the Amadises, Lisvarts and Felixmartes of late mediaeval romance, that the behaviour of Don Quixote in the Sierra Morena, ever had any serious models in reality? Nay, more difficult still to believe—because the whole madness of individuals is more credible than the half-madness of the whole world—is it possible to believe that, as the poems of innumerable trouveres and troubadours, minnesingers and Italian poets, as the legion of mediaeval romances of the cycles of Charlemagne, Arthur, and Amadis would have it, that during so long a period of time society could have been enthralled by this hysterical, visionary, artificial, incredible religion of mediaeval love? It is at once too grotesque and too beautiful, too high and too low, to be credible; and our first impulse, on closing the catechisms and breviaries, the legendaries and hymn-books of this strange new creed, is to protest that the love poems must be allegories, the love romances solar myths, the Courts of Love historical bungles; that all this mediaeval world of love is a figment, a misinterpretation, a falsehood.