Library Of The World's Best Literature, Ancient And Modern, Vol. 5
Author: Various
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

The 'Theseide,' a purely classic theme, the war of Theseus with the Amazons, is in verse; and was followed by the 'Ameto,' or 'Florentine Nymphs,' a story of the loves of Ameto, a rustic swain, with one of the nymphs of the valley of the Affrico, a stream which flows into the Arno not far from where the poet was born, or where at least he passed his youth; and to which valley he seems always greatly attached, putting there the scene of most of his work, including the 'Decameron.' 'Ameto' is a mythological fiction, in which the characters mingle recitations of verse with the prose narration, and in which the gods of Greece and Rome masque in the familiar scenes. Following these came the 'Amorosa Visione,' and 'Filostrato,' in verse; 'Fiammetta' in prose, being the imaginary complaint of his beloved at their separation; 'Nimfale Fiesolano,' in verse, the scene also laid on the Affrico; and then the 'Decameron,' begun in 1348 and finished in 1353, after which he seems to have gradually acquired a disgust for the world he had lived in as he had known it, and turned to more serious studies. He wrote a life of Dante, 'II Corbaccio,' a piece of satirical savagery, the 'Genealogy of the Gods,' and various minor works; and spent much of his time in intercourse with Petrarch, whose conversation and influence were of a different character from that of his earlier life.

Boccaccio died at Certaldo in the Val d'Elsa, December 2d, 1375. Of the numerous works he left, that by which his fame as a writer is established is beyond any question the 'Decameron,' or Ten Days' Entertainment; in which a merry company of gentlemen and ladies, appalled by the plague raging in their Florence, take refuge in the villas near the city, and pass their time in story-telling and rambles in the beautiful country around, only returning when the plague has to a great extent abated. The superiority of the 'Decameron' is not only in the polish and grace of its style, the first complete departure from the stilted classicism of contemporary narrative, the happy naturalness of good story-telling,—but in the conception of the work as a whole, and the marvelous imagination of the filling-in between the framework of the story of the plague by the hundred tales from all lands and times, with the fine thread of the narrative of the day-by-day doings of the merry and gracious company, their wanderings, the exquisite painting of the Tuscan landscape (in which one recognizes the Val d'Arno even to-day), and the delicate drawing of their various characters. It is only when all these elements have been taken into consideration, and the unity wrought through such a maze of interest and mass of material without ever becoming dull or being driven to repetition, that we understand the power of Boccaccio as an artist.

We must take the ten days' holiday as it is painted: a gay and entrancing record of a fortunate and brilliant summer vacation, every one of its hundred pictures united with the rest by a delicate tracery of flowers and landscape, with bird-songs and laughter, bits of tender and chaste by-play—for there were recognized lovers in the company; and when this is conceived in its entirety, we must set it in the massive frame of terrible gloom of the great plague, through which Boccaccio makes us look at his picture. And then the frame itself becomes a picture; and its ghastly horror—the apparent fidelity of the descriptions, which makes one feel as if he had before him the evidence of an eye-witness—gives a measure of the power of the artist and the range of his imagination, from an earthly inferno to an earthly paradise, such as even the 'Commedia' does not give us. In this stupendous ensemble, the individual tales become mere details, filling in of the space or time; and, taken out of it, the whole falls into a mere story-book, in which the only charm is the polish of the parts, the shine of the fragments that made the mosaic. The tales came from all quarters, and only needed to be amusing or interesting enough to make one suppose that they had been listened to with pleasure: stories from the 'Gesta Romanorum,' the mediaeval chronicles, or any gossip of the past or present, just to make a whole; the criticism one might pass on them, I imagine, never gave Boccaccio a thought, only the way they were placed being important. The elaborate preparation for the story-telling; the grouping of them as a whole, in contrast with the greater story he put as their contrast and foil; the solemn gloom, the deep chiaroscuro of this framing, painted like a miniature; the artful way in which he prepares for his lieta brigata the way out of the charnel-house: these are the real 'Decameron.' The author presents it in a prelude which has for its scope only to give the air of reality to the whole, as if not only the plague, but the 'Decameron,' had been history; and the proof of his perfect success is in the fact that for centuries the world has been trying to identify the villas where the merry men and maidens met, as if they really had met.

"Whenever, most gracious ladies, I reflect how pitiful you all are by nature, I recognize that this work will in your opinion have a sad and repulsive beginning, as the painful memory of the pestilence gone by, fraught with loss to all who saw or knew of it, and which memory the work will bear on its front. But I would not that for this you read no further, through fear that your reading should be always through sighs and tears. This frightful beginning I prepare for you as for travelers a rough and steep mountain, beyond which lies a most beautiful and delightful plain, by so much the more pleasurable as the difficulty of the ascent and passage of the mountain had been great. And as the extreme of pleasure touches pain, so suffering is effaced by a joy succeeding. To this brief vexation (I call it brief, as contained in few words) follow closely the sweets and pleasures I have promised, and which would not be hoped for from such a beginning if it were not foretold. And to tell the truth, if I had been able frankly to bring you where I wished by other way than this rough one, I had willingly done so; but because I could not, without these recollections, show what was the occasion of the incidents of which you will read, I was obliged to write of them."

The elaborate description of the plague which follows, shows not only Boccaccio's inventive power,—as being, like that of Defoe of the plague of London (which is a curious parallel to this) altogether imaginary, since the writer was at Naples during the whole period of the pestilence,—but also that it was a part indispensable of the entire scheme, and described with all its ghastly minuteness simply to enhance the value of his sunshine and merriment. He was in Naples from 1345 until 1350, without any other indication of a visit to Florence than a chronological table of his life, in which occurs this item:—"1348, departs in the direction of Tuscany with Louis of Taranto:" as if either a prince on his travels would take the plague in the course of them, or a man so closely interested in the events of the time at Naples, and in the height of his passion for Fiammetta,—the separation from whom he had hardly endured when earlier (1345) he was separated from her by his duty to his aged father,—would have chosen the year of the pestilence, when every one who could, fled Florence, to return there; and we find him in May, 1349, in Naples, in the full sunshine of Fiammetta's favor, and remaining there until his father's death in 1350.

There is indeed in Boccaccio's description of the plague that which convicts it of pure invention, quickened by details gathered from eye-witnesses,—the very minuteness of the description in certain points not in accord with the character of the disease, as when he narrates that the hogs rooting in the garments of the dead thrown out into the streets "presently, as if they had taken poison, after a few dizzy turns, fell dead"; and this, which he says he saw with his own eyes, is the only incident of which he makes this declaration (the incident on which the unity of his work hinges, the meeting of the merry troupe in the church of S. Maria Novella, being recorded on the information of a person "worthy of belief"). Nor does he in his own person intrude anywhere in the story; so that this bit of intense realization thrown into the near foreground of his picture, as it were by chance, and without meaning, yet certified by his own signature, is the point at which he gets touch of his reader and convinces him of actuality throughout the romance.

And to my mind this opening chapter, with all its horrors and charnel-house realization, its slight and suggestive delineation of character, all grace and beauty springing out of the chaos and social dissolution, is not only the best part of the work, but the best of Boccaccio's. The well-spun golden cord on which the "Novelle" are strung is ornamented, as it were, at the divisions of the days by little cameos of crafty design; but the opening, the portico of this hundred-chambered palace of art, has its own proportions and design, and may be taken and studied alone. Nothing can, it seems to me, better convey the idea of the death-stricken city, "the surpassing city of Florence, beyond every other in Italy most beautiful,"—a touch to enhance the depth of his shade, than the way he brings out in broad traits the greatness of the doom: setting in the heavens that consuming sun; the paralysis of the panic; the avarice of men not daunted by death; the helplessness of all flesh before—

"the just wrath of God for our correction sent upon men; for healing of such maladies neither counsel of physician nor virtue of any medicine whatever seemed to avail or have any effect—even as if nature could not endure this suffering or the ignorance of the medical attendants (of whom, besides regular physicians, there was a very great number, both men and women, who had never had any medical education whatever), who could discover no cause for the malady and therefore no appropriate remedy, so that not only very few recovered, but almost every one attacked died by the third day-after the appearance of the above-noted signs, some sooner and some later, and mostly without any fever or violent symptoms. And this pestilence was of so much greater extent that by merely communicating with the sick the well were attacked, just as fire spreads to dry or oiled matter which approaches it.... Of the common people, and perhaps in great part of the middle classes, the situation was far more miserable, as they, either through hope of escaping the contagion or poverty, mostly kept to their houses and sickened by thousands a day, and not being aided or attended in any respect, almost without exception died. And many there were who ended their lives in the public streets by day or night, and many who, dying in their houses, were only discovered by the stench of their dead bodies; and of these and others that died everywhere the city was full. These were mainly disposed of in the same way by their neighbors, moved more by the fear that the corruption of the dead bodies should harm them than by any charity for the deceased. They by themselves or with the aid of bearers, when they could find any, dragged out of their houses the bodies of those who had died, and laid them before the doors, where, especially in the morning, whoever went about the streets could have seen them without number,—even to that point had matters come that no more was thought of men dying than we think of goats; more than a hundred thousand human beings are believed to have been taken from life within the walls of Florence, which before the mortal pestilence were not believed to have contained so many souls. Oh! how many great palaces, how many beautiful houses, how many noble dwellings, once full of domestics, of gentlemen and ladies, became empty even to the last servant! How many historical families, how many immense estates, what prodigious riches remained without heirs! How many brave men, how many beautiful women, how many gay youths whom not only we, but Galen, Hippocrates, or Esculapius would have pronounced in excellent health, in the morning dined with their relatives, companions and friends, and the coming night supped with those who had passed away."

The ten companions, meeting in the church of S. Maria Novella, seven ladies and three gentlemen, agree to escape this doom, and, repairing to one of the deserted villas in the neighborhood, to pass the time of affliction in merry doings and sayings; and with four maids and three men-servants, move eastward out of the gloomy city. Their first habitation is clearly indicated as what is known to-day as the Poggio Gherardi, under Maiano. After the second day they return towards the city a short distance and establish themselves in what seems a more commodious abode, and which I consider incontrovertibly identified as the Villa Pasolini, or Rasponi, and which was in their day the property of the Memmi family, the famous pupils of Giotto. The site of this villa overlooks the Valley of the Ladies, which figures in the framework of the "Novelle," and in which then there was a lake to which Boccaccio alludes, now filled up by the alluvium of the Affrico, the author's beloved river, and which runs through the valley and under the villa. The valley now forms part of the estate of Professor Willard Fiske. As the entire adventure is imaginary, and the "merry company" had no existence except in the dreams of Boccaccio, it is useless to seek any evidence of actual occupation; but the care he put in the description of the localities and surroundings, distances, etc., shows that he must have had in his mind, as the framework of the story, these two localities. The modern tradition ascribing to the Villa Palmieri the honor of the second habitation has no confirmation of any kind.

The house-flitting is thus told:—

"The dawn had already, under the near approach of the sun, from rosy become golden: when on Sunday, the Queen[3] arising and arousing all her company, and the chamberlain—having long before sent in advance to the locality where they were to go, enough of the articles required so that he might prepare what was necessary—seeing the Queen on the way, quickly loading all other things as if it were the moving of the camp, went off with the baggage, leaving the servants with the Ladies and the Gentlemen. The Queen, then, with slow steps, accompanied and followed by her Ladies and the three Gentlemen, with the escort of perhaps twenty nightingales and other birds, by a little path not too frequented, but full of green plants and flowers which by the rising sun began to open, took the road towards the west; and gossiping, laughing, and exchanging witticisms with her brigade, arrived before having gone two thousand steps at a most beautiful and rich palace, which, somewhat raised above the plain, was posted on a hill."

[Footnote 3: Each day a Queen or King was chosen to rule over the doings of the company and determine all questions.]

As the description of the surroundings of the villa into which the gay assembly now entered is one of the most vivid and one of the gayest pieces of description in the brilliant counterfoil which the author has contrived, to set off the gloom of the city, it is worth giving entire; being as well a noble example of the prose of the 'Decameron':—

"Near to which [the balcony on which they had reposed after their walk] having ordered to open a garden which was annexed to the palace, being all inclosed in a wall, they entered in; and as it appeared to them on entering to be of a marvelous beauty altogether, they set themselves to examine it in detail. It had within, and in many directions through it, broad paths, straight as arrows and covered with arbors of vine which gave indications of having that year an excellent vintage, and they all giving out such odors to the garden, that, mingled with those of many other things which perfumed it, they seemed to be in the midst of all the perfumeries that the Orient ever knew; the sides of the paths being closed in by red and white roses and jasmine, so that not only in the morning, but even when the sun was high, they could wander at pleasure under fragrant and odoriferous shade, without entanglement. How many, of what kind, and how planted were the plants in that place, it were long to tell; but there is nothing desirable which suits our climate which was not there in abundance. In the midst of which (which is not less delightful than other things that were there, but even more so) was a meadow of the most minute herbs, and so green that it seemed almost black, colored by a thousand varieties of flowers, and closed around by green and living orange and lemon trees, which, having the ripe and the young fruit and the flowers together, gave not only grateful shade for the eyes, but added the pleasures of their odors. In the midst of that meadow was a fountain of the whitest marble with marvelous sculptures. From within this, I know not whether by a natural vein or artificial, through a figure which stood on a column in the midst of it, sprang so much water, and so high, falling also into the fountain with delightful sound, that it would at least have driven a mill. This, then (I mean the water which ran over from the fountain), through hidden channels went out of the meadow, and by little canals beautiful and artfully made becoming visible outside of it, ran all around it; and then by similar canals into every part of the garden, gathering together finally in that part of it where from the beautiful garden it escaped, and thence descending limpid to the plain, and before reaching it, with great force and not a little advantage to the master, turned two mills. To see this garden, its beautiful orderliness, the plants and the fountain with the brooks running from it, was so pleasing to the ladies and the three youths that all commenced to declare that if Paradise could be found on earth, they could not conceive what other form than that of this garden could be given to it, nor what beauty could be added to it. Wandering happily about it, twining from the branches of various trees beautiful garlands, hearing everywhere the songs of maybe twenty kinds of birds as it were in contest with each other, they became aware of another charm of which, to the others being added, they had not taken note: they saw the garden full of a hundred varieties of beautiful animals, and pointing them out one to the other, on one side ran out rabbits, on another hares, here lying roe-deer and there feeding stags, and besides these many other kinds of harmless beasts, each one going for his pleasure as if domesticated, wandering at ease; all which, beyond the other pleasures, added a greater pleasure. And when, seeing this or that, they had gone about enough, the tables being set around the beautiful fountain, first singing six songs and dancing six dances, as it pleased the Queen, they went to eat, and being with great and well-ordered service attended, and with delicate and good dishes, becoming gayer they arose and renewed music and song and dance, until the Queen on account of the increasing heat judged that whoever liked should go to sleep. Of whom some went, but others, conquered by the beauty of the place, would not go, but remained, some to read romances, some to play at chess and at tables, while the others slept. But when passed the ninth hour, they arose, and refreshing their faces with the fresh water, they came to the fountain, and in their customary manner taking their seats, waited for the beginning of the story-telling on the subject proposed by the Queen."

Of the character of the Novelle I have need to say little: they were the shaping of the time, and made consonant with its tastes, and nobody was then disturbed by their tone. Some are indelicate to modern taste, and some have passed into the classics of all time. The story of 'Griselda'; that of 'The Stone of Invisibility,' put into shape by Irving; 'Frederick of the Alberighi and his Falcon'; 'The Pot of Basil'; and 'The Jew Abraham, Converted to Christianity by the Immorality of the Clergy,' are stories which belong to all subsequent times, as they may have belonged to the ages before. Those who know what Italian society was then, and in some places still is, will be not too censorious, judging lightness of tongue and love of a good story as necessarily involving impurity. And Boccaccio has anticipated his critics in this vein, putting his apology in the mouth of Filomena, who replies to Neifile, when the latter speaks of scandal growing out of their holiday, "This amounts to nothing where I live virtuously and my conscience in no wise reproaches me—let them who will, speak against me: I take God and the truth for my defense."

* * * * *


You must know that Coppo di Borghese Domenichi—who was in our city, and perhaps still is, a man of reverence and of great authority amongst us, both for his opinions and for his virtues, and much more for the nobility of his family, being distinguished and wealthy and of enduring reputation, being full of years and experience—was often delighted to talk with his neighbors and others of the things of the past, which he, better than anybody else, could do with excellent order and with unclouded memory. Amongst the pleasant stories which he used to tell was this:—

In Florence there was a young man called Frederick, son of Master Philip Alberighi, who for military ability and for courteous manners was reputed above all other gentlemen of Tuscany, He, as often happens with gentlemen, became enamored of a gentle lady called Madonna Giovanni, in her time considered the most beautiful and most graceful woman in Florence. In order that he might win her love he tilted and exercised in arms, made feasts and donations, and spent all his substance without restraint. But Madonna Giovanni, no less honest than beautiful, cared for none of these things which he did for her, nor for him. Frederick then spent more than his means admitted, and gaining nothing, as easily happens, his money disappeared, and he remained poor and without any other property than a poor little farm, by the income of which he was barely able to live; besides this, he had his falcon, one of the best in the world. On this account, and because unable to remain in the city as he desired, though more than ever devoted, he remained at Campi, where his little farm was; and there, as he might hunt, he endured his poverty patiently.

Now it happened one day when Frederick had come to extreme poverty, that the husband of Madonna Giovanni became ill, and seeing death at hand, made his will; and being very rich, in this will left as his heir his son, a well-grown boy; and next to him, as he had greatly loved Madonna Giovanni, he made her his heir if his son should die without legitimate heirs, and then died. Remaining then a widow, as the custom is amongst our women, Madonna Giovanni went that summer with her son into the country on an estate of hers near to that of Frederick, so that it happened that this boy, beginning to become friendly with Frederick and to cultivate a liking for books and birds, and having seen many times the falcon of Frederick fly, took an extreme pleasure in it and desired very greatly to have it, but did not dare to ask it, seeing that it was so dear to Frederick.

In this state of things it happened that the boy became ill, and on this account the mother sorrowing greatly, he being that which she loved most of everything which she had, tended him constantly and never ceased comforting him; and begged him that if there was anything that he wanted, to tell her, so that she certainly, if it were possible to get it, would obtain it for him. The young man, hearing many times this proposal, said: "Mother, if you can manage that I should have the falcon of Frederick, I believe that I should get well at once." The mother, hearing this, reflected with herself and began to study what she might do. She knew that Frederick had long loved her, and that he had never received from her even a look; on this account she said, How can I send to him or go to him, to ask for this falcon, which is, by what I hear, the thing that he most loves, and which besides keeps him in the world; and how can I be so ungrateful as to take from a gentleman what I desire, when it is the only thing that he has to give him pleasure? Embarrassed by such thoughts, and feeling that she was certain to have it if she asked it of him, and not knowing what to say, she did not reply to her son, but was silent. Finally, the love of her son overcoming her, she decided to satisfy him, whatever might happen, not sending but going herself for the falcon; and she replied, "My son, be comforted and try to get well, for I promise you that the first thing that I do to-morrow will be to go and bring to you the falcon;" on which account the son in his joy showed the same day an improvement. The lady the next day took as companion another lady, and as if for pleasure went to the house of Frederick and asked for him. It being early, he had not been hawking, and was in his garden attending to certain little operations; and hearing that Madonna Giovanni asked for him at the door, wondering greatly, joyfully went. She, seeing him coming, with a ladylike pleasure went to meet him, and Frederick having saluted her with reverence, she said, "I hope you are well, Frederick," and then went on, "I have come to recompense you for the losses which you have already had on my account, loving me more than you need; and the reparation is, then, that I intend with this my companion to dine with you familiarly to-day." To this Frederick humbly replied, "Madonna, I do not remember ever to have suffered any loss on your account, but so much good that if I ever was worth anything, it is due to your worth, and to the love which I have borne you; and certainly your frank visit is dearer to me than would have been the being able to spend as much more as I have already spent, for you have come to a very poor house." So saying, he received them into his house in humility and conducted them into his garden; and then, not having any person to keep her company he said, "Madonna, since there is no one else, this good woman, the wife of my gardener, will keep you company while I go to arrange the table."

He, although his poverty was so great, had not yet realized how he had, without method or pleasure, spent his fortune; but this morning, finding nothing with which he could do honor to the lady for whose love he had already entertained so many men, made him think and suffer extremely; he cursed his fortune, and as a man beside himself ran hither and thither, finding neither money nor anything to pawn. It being late, and his desire to honor the gentle lady in some manner, and not wishing to call on anybody else, but rather to do all himself, his eyes fell upon his beloved falcon, which was in his cage above the table. He therefore took it, and finding it fat, and not having any other resource, he considered it to be a proper food for such a woman; and without thinking any further, he wrung its neck and ordered his servant that, it being plucked and prepared, it should be put on the spit and roasted immediately. And setting the table with the whitest of linen, of which he had still a little left, with a delighted countenance he returned to the lady and told her that such dinner as he was able to prepare for her was ready. Thereupon, the lady with her companion, rising, went to dinner, and without knowing what she ate or what Frederick served, ate the good falcon.

Then leaving the table, and after pleasant conversation with him, it appeared to the lady that it was time to say what she had come for, and so she began amiably to say to Frederick:—"Frederick, recalling your past life and my honesty, which perhaps you considered cruelty and severity, I do not doubt in the least that you will be astonished at my presumption, hearing what I have come for; but if you had ever had children, through whom you might know how great is the love which one bears them, it seems to me certain that in part you would excuse me. But as you have not, I, who have one, cannot escape the law common to all mothers; obeying which, I am obliged, apart from my own pleasure and all other convention and duty, to ask of you a gift which I know is extremely dear, and reasonably so, because no other delight and no other amusement and no other consolation has your exhausted fortune left you; this gift is your falcon, which my boy has become so strongly enamored of, that if I do not take it to him I fear that his illness will become so much aggravated that I may lose him in consequence; therefore I pray you, not on account of the love which you bear me, but because of your nobility, which has shown greater courtesy than that of any other man, that you would be so kind, so good, as to give it to me, in order that by this gift the life of my son may be preserved, and I be forever under obligation to you."

Frederick, hearing what the lady demanded, and knowing that he could not serve her, because he had already given it to her to eat, commenced in her presence to weep so that he could not speak a word in reply; which weeping the lady first believed to be for sorrow at having to give up his good falcon more than anything else, and was about to tell him that she did not want it, but, hesitating, waited the reply of Frederick until the weeping ceased, when he spoke thus:—"Madonna, since it pleased God that I bestowed my love upon you, money, influence, and fortune have been contrary to me, and have given me great trouble; but all these things are trivial in respect to what fortune makes me at present suffer, from which I shall never have peace, thinking that you have come here to my poor house—to which while I was rich you never deigned to come—and asked of me a little gift, and that fortune has so decreed that I shall not be able to give it to you; and why I cannot do so I will tell you in a few words. When I heard that you in your kindness wished to dine with me, having regard for your excellence and your worth, I considered it worthy and proper to give you the dearest food in my power, and therefore the falcon for which you now ask me was this morning prepared for you, and you have had it roasted on your plate and I had prepared it with delight; but now, seeing that you desire it in another manner, the sorrow that I cannot so please you is so great that never again shall I have peace;" and saying this, the feathers and the feet and the beak were brought before them in evidence; which thing the lady seeing and hearing, first blamed him for having entertained a woman with such a falcon, and then praised the greatness of his mind, which his poverty had not been able to diminish. Then, there being no hope of having the falcon on account of which the health of her son was in question, in melancholy she departed and returned to her son; who either for grief at not being able to have the falcon, or for the illness which might have brought him to this state, did not survive for many days, and to the great sorrow of his mother passed from this life.

She, full of tears and of sorrow, and remaining rich and still young, was urged many times by her brothers to remarry, which thing she had never wished; but being continually urged, and remembering the worth of Frederick and his last munificence, and that he had killed his beloved falcon to honor her, said to her brothers:—"I would willingly, if it please you, remain as I am; but if it please you more that I should take a husband, certainly I will never take any other if I do not take Frederick degli Alberighi." At this her brothers, making fun of her, said, "Silly creature, what do you say? Why do you choose him? He has nothing in the world." To this she replied, "My brothers, I know well that it is as you say; but I prefer rather a man who has need of riches, than riches that have need of a man." The brothers, hearing her mind, and knowing Frederick for a worthy man,—although poor,—as she wished, gave her with all her wealth to him; who, seeing this excellent woman whom he had so much loved become his wife, and besides that, being most rich, becoming economical, lived in happiness with her to the end of his days.


As I, gracious ladies, have heard said, there was in Paris a great merchant, a very good man, who was called Gianotto di Chevigne, a man most loyal and just, who had a great business in stuffs, and who had a singular friendship with a rich Jew named Abraham, who also was a merchant and also an honest and loyal man. Gianotto, seeing his justice and loyalty, began to feel great sorrow that the soul of so worthy and good a man should go to perdition through want of religion, and on that account he began to beg in a friendly way that he would abandon the errors of the Jewish faith and become converted to Christian truth, in which he could see, being holy and good, that he would always prosper and enrich himself; while in his own faith, on the contrary, he might see that he would diminish and come to nothing, The Jew replied that he did not believe anything either holy or good outside of Judaism; that he in that was born and intended therein to live, and that nothing would ever move him out of it.

Gianotto did not cease on this account to repeat after a few days similar exhortations, showing him in a coarse manner, which merchants know how to employ, for what reasons our faith was better than the Jewish; and though the Jew was a great master in the Jewish law, nevertheless either the great friendship which he had with Gianotto moved him, or perhaps the words which the Holy Spirit put on the tongue of the foolish man accomplished it, and the Jew began finally to consider earnestly the arguments of Gianotto; but still, tenacious in his own faith, he was unwilling to change. As he remained obstinate, so Gianotto never ceased urging him, so that finally the Jew by this continual persistence was conquered, and said:—"Since, Gianotto, it would please you that I should become a Christian and I am disposed to do so, I will first go to Rome and there see him whom you call the vicar of God on earth, and consider his manners and his customs, and similarly those of his brother cardinals; and if they seem to me such that I can, between your words and them, understand that your religion is better than mine, as you have undertaken to prove to me, I will do what I have said; but if this should not be so, I will remain a Jew as I am." When Gianotto heard this he was very sorrowful, saying to himself: I have lost all my trouble which it seemed to me I had very well employed, believing that I had converted this man; because if he goes to the court at Rome and sees the wicked and dirty life of the priests, he not only, being a Jew, will not become a Christian, but if he had become a Christian he would infallibly return to Judaism.

Therefore Gianotto said to Abraham:—"Alas, my friend, why do you desire to take this great trouble and expense of going from here to Rome? By land and by sea, even to a rich man as you are, it is full of trouble. Do you not believe that here we can find one who will baptize you? and if perchance you have still some doubts as to the religion which I show you, where are there better teachers and wiser men in this faith than there are here, to immediately tell you what you want to know or may ask? On which account my opinion is that this voyage is superfluous: the prelates whom you would see there are such as you can see here, and besides they are much better, as they are near to the chief Shepherd; and therefore this fatigue you will, by my counsel, save for another time,—for some indulgence in which I may perhaps be your companion." To this the Jew replied:—"I believe, Gianotto, that it is as you say to me; but summing up the many words in one, I am altogether, if you wish that I should do what you have been constantly begging me to do, disposed to go there; otherwise I will do nothing." Gianotto seeing his determination said, "Go, and good luck go with you;" but he thought to himself that Abraham never would become a Christian if he had once seen the court of Rome, but as he would lose nothing he said no more.

The Jew mounted his horse, and as quickly as possible went to the court of Rome, where arriving, he was by his fellow Jews honorably received; and living there without saying to anybody why he came, began cautiously to study the manners of the Pope and the cardinals and the prelates and all the other courtesans; and he learned, being the honest man that he was, and being informed by other people, that from the greatest to the lowest they sinned most dishonestly, not only in natural but in unnatural ways, without any restraint or remorse to shame them; so much so that for the poor and the dissolute of both sexes to take part in any affair was no small thing. Besides this he saw that they were universally gluttons, wine-drinkers, and drunkards, and much devoted to their stomachs after the manner of brute animals; given up to luxury more than to anything else. And looking further, he saw that they were in the same manner all avaricious and desirous of money, so that human blood, even that of Christians, and sacred interests, whatever they might be, even pertaining to the ceremonies or to the benefices, were sold and bought with money; making a greater merchandise out of these things and having more shops for them than at Paris of stuffs or any other things, and to the most open simony giving the name and support of procuration, and to gluttony that of sustentation: as if God, apart from the signification of epithets, could not know the intentions of these wretched souls, but after the manner of men must permit himself to be deceived by the names of things. Which, together with many other things of which we will say nothing, so greatly displeased the Jew, that as he was a sober and modest man it appeared to him that he had seen enough, and proposed to return to Paris. Accordingly he did so; upon which Gianotto, seeing that he had returned, and hoping nothing less than that he should have become a Christian, came and rejoiced greatly at his return, and after some days of rest asked him what he thought of the Holy Father, the cardinals, and the other courtesans; to which the Jew promptly replied:—"It seems to me evil that God should have given anything to all those people, and I say to you that if I know how to draw conclusions, there was no holiness, no devotion, no good work or good example of life in any other way, in anybody who was a priest; but luxury, avarice, and gluttony,—such things and worse, if there could be worse things in anybody; and I saw rather liberty in devilish operations than in divine: on which account I conclude that with all possible study, with all their talent and with all their art, your Shepherd, and consequently all the rest, are working to reduce to nothing and to drive out of the world the Christian religion, there where they ought to be its foundation and support. But from what I see, what they are driving at does not happen, but your religion continually increases; and therefore it becomes clearer and more evident that the Holy Spirit must be its foundation and support, as a religion more true and holy than any other. On which account, where I was obstinate and immovable to your reasoning and did not care to become a Christian, now I say to you distinctly that on no account would I fail to become a Christian. Therefore let us go to church, and there according to the custom of your holy religion let me be baptized."

Gianotto, who had expected exactly the opposite conclusion to this, when he heard these things was more satisfied than ever a man was before, and with him he went to Notre Dame of Paris and requested the priest there to give Abraham baptism: who, hearing what he asked, immediately did so; and Gianotto was his sponsor and named him Giovanni, and immediately caused him by competent men to be completely instructed in our religion, which he at once learned and became a good and worthy man and of a holy life.


Saladin, whose valor was so great that he not only became from an insignificant man Sultan of Babylon, but also gained many victories over the Saracen and Christian kings, having in many wars and in his great magnificence spent all his treasure, and on account of some trouble having need of a great quantity of money, nor seeing where he should get it quickly as he had need to, was reminded of a rich Jew whose name was Melchisedech, who loaned at interest at Alexandria; and thinking to make use of him if he could, though he was so avaricious that of his own good-will he would do nothing, the Sultan, not wishing to compel him, but driven by necessity, set himself to devise means by which the Jew should satisfy him, and to find some manner of compelling him to do so with a good pretext. Thus thinking, he called him, and receiving him familiarly, said to him: "My good man, I hear from many here that you are the wisest and in divine affairs the most profound of men, and on that account I would like to know from you which of the three good religions you consider the true one: the Jewish, the Saracenic, or the Christian?" The Jew, who really was a wise man, saw too clearly that the Sultan desired to catch him in his words in order to raise against him some question, and decided not to praise any one of the religions more than the other, so that the Sultan should not accomplish his purpose; on account of which, as one who seemed to have need of a reply as to which there could not be any reasoning, and his wits being sharpened, there quickly came to him what he ought to say, and he said:—

"My lord, the question which you have put to me is important, and in order to explain to you what I think, it is necessary to tell you a fable which you will hear. If I do not mistake, I have heard tell many times of a great and rich man who lived once, and who amongst other jewels had a beautiful and valuable ring, the most precious in his treasury, which on account of its value and its beauty he desired to honor and to leave in perpetuity to his descendants; and he ordered that that one of his sons to whom this ring should be left, as it had been to him, should be considered his heir and be by all the others honored and reverenced. The one to whom this ring should be left should give a similar order to his descendants, and do as had done his predecessor. In short, this ring went from hand to hand to many successors, and finally came to the hands of one who had three sons, honest men, virtuous and all obedient to their father, on which account he loved all three equally; and the young men, who knew the custom of the ring, as each one desired to be the most honored amongst them, each one to the utmost of his power urged the father to leave the ring to him when death should take him. The worthy man, who loved them all alike, not knowing himself how to choose to whom he should leave it, decided, having promised each one, to satisfy all three: and secretly ordered from a good workman two others, which were so similar to the first that he himself who had made them could scarcely tell which was the true one; and death approaching, he secretly gave to each one of his sons his ring. After the death of the father, each one wishing to enjoy the heritage and denying it to the others, each produced a ring in evidence of his rights, and finding them so similar that no one could tell which was the true one, the question which was the real heir of the father remained undecided, and it is still undecided. And so I say to you, my lord, of the three religions given to the three people by God the Father, concerning which you put me this question, that each one believes that he has as his heritage the true law; but as it is with the three rings, the question is still quite undecided."

Saladin, recognizing how this man had most cleverly escaped from the trap which had been set before his feet, decided on that account to expose to him his necessities and see if he was willing to help him; and so he did, saying that which he had intended to say if the Jew had not replied so wisely as he had done. The Jew freely accorded to Saladin whatever he asked, and Saladin gave him entire security, and besides that he gave him great gifts and retained him always as his friend, and kept him in excellent and honorable condition always near to himself.


A long time ago, in the family of the Marquis Saluzzo, the head of the house was a young man called Walter, who, having neither wife nor children, spent his time entirely in hunting and hawking, and never troubled himself to marry or to have a family,—on account of which he was considered very wise. This thing not being pleasing to his retainers, they many times begged of him that he should take a wife, in order that he should not be without an heir and they without a master, offering to find him one descended from such a father and mother that he might hope to have successors and they be satisfied. To which Walter replied:—"My friends, you urge me to what I have never been disposed to do, considering how grave a matter it is to find a woman who adapts herself to one's ways, and on the contrary how great are the burdens and how hard the lives of those who happen on wives who do not suit them. And to say that you know daughters from the fathers and mothers, and from that argue that you can give me what will satisfy me, is a foolishness; since I do not know how you can learn the fathers or know the secrets of the mothers of these girls, since even knowing them oft-times we find the daughters very different from the fathers and mothers: but since you desire to entangle me in these chains, I wish to be satisfied; and in order that I should not have to suffer through others than myself if any mistake should be made, I wish myself to be the finder, assuring you that if I do not take this responsibility and the woman should not be honorable, you would find out to your very great loss how much opposed to my desire it was to have taken a wife at your supplication."

The good men were satisfied, so long as he would take a wife. For a long time the ways of a poor young woman who belonged to a little house near his own had attracted Walter, and as she was sufficiently beautiful, he considered that with her he might have a life peaceful enough; and on that account, without going any further, he proposed to marry this one, and calling upon her father, who was very poor, arranged with him to marry her. This being arranged, he convoked his friends and said to them: "My friends! it has pleased and pleases you that I should dispose myself to marry, and I am so disposed more to please you than for the desire that I should have a wife. You know what you promised me,—that is, to be satisfied with and to honor as your lady whoever I should select; and, for that the time has come that I should keep my promise to you, and I wish you to keep yours to me, I have found very near here a young woman according to my heart, whom I intend to take for my wife and to bring her in a few days to my house; and for this you must think how the entertainment of the day shall be attractive and how you will honorably receive her, in order that I may show myself satisfied with the fulfillment of your promise as you may consider yourselves with mine."

The good men, joyful, all replied that that gave them pleasure, and whoever it might be, they would accept her for lady and would honor her in everything as their lady. This being arranged, all set themselves to making a magnificent, joyful, and splendid festa, which also did Walter. He prepared for the wedding festivities very abundantly and magnificently, and invited many of his friends, great gentlemen, his relatives and others from all around. And beyond this he had dresses cut and made up by the figure of a young woman who, he thought, had the same figure as the woman he proposed to marry. And besides this, he arranged girdles and rings and a rich and beautiful coronet, and everything that a newly married bride should demand.

On the day settled for the wedding, Walter, about the third hour, mounted his horse, as did all those who had come to honor him, and having arranged everything conveniently, said, "Gentlemen, it is time to go to take the bride;" and starting with his company he arrived at the little villa, and going to the house of the father of the girl, and finding her returning in great haste with water from the spring, in order to go with the other women to see the bride of Walter, he called her by name,—that is, Griselda,—and asked her where her father was, to which she modestly replied, "My lord, he is in the house." Then Walter, dismounting and commanding his men that they should wait for them, went along into the little house, where he found her father, whose name was Giannucoli, and said to him, "I have come to marry Griselda, but I wish to learn certain things in your presence." He then asked her if, should he take her for his wife, she would do her best to please him, and at nothing that he should do or say would she trouble herself, and if she would be obedient, and many such-like questions, to all of which she replied "yes." Then Walter took her by the hand, and in the presence of all his company and all the other persons had her stripped naked, and calling for the dresses which he had had made, immediately had her dressed and shod, and on her hair, disheveled as it was, had the crown put; and all this being done while everybody marveled, Walter said:—"Gentlemen, this is she whom I intend shall be my wife if she wishes me for husband" and then, turning to her, who stood by herself abashed and confused, said to her, "Griselda, will you take me for your husband?" To which Griselda replied, "Yes, my lord;" and he said, "I desire her for my wife, and in the presence of the assembly to marry her;" and mounting her on a palfrey he led her, honorably accompanied, to his house. There the marriage ceremonies were fine and great, and the festivities were not less than if he had married the daughter of the king of France.


This is a collection of 100 tales written by Boccaccio, and published in 1353. Seven ladies and three gentlemen of Florence, during the plague of 1348, are supposed to be enjoying themselves in a garden telling stories—ten each day for ten days.

Photogravure from a Painting by Jacques Wagrez.

It seemed as if the young bride, in changing her vestments, changed her mind and her manners. She was, as we have said, in figure and face beautiful; and as she was beautiful she became so attractive, so delightful, and so accomplished, that she did not seem to be the daughter of Giannucoli the keeper of sheep, but of some noble lord, which made every man who had known her astonished; and besides this, she was so obedient to her husband and so ready in service that he was most contented and delighted; and similarly, toward the subjects of her husband she was so gracious and so kind that there was no one who did not love her more than himself; and gentlemen honored her with the best good-will, and all prayed for her welfare and her health and advancement. Whereupon they who had been accustomed to say that Walter had done a foolish thing in marrying her, now said that he was the wisest and the most far-seeing man in the world, because no other than he would have been able to see her great virtue hidden under the poor rags of a peasant's costume. In a short time, not only in his own dominions but everywhere, she knew so well how to comport herself that she made the people talk of his worth and of his good conduct, and to turn to the contrary anything that was said against her husband on account of his having married her.

She had not long dwelt with Walter when she bore a daughter, for which Walter made great festivities; but a little afterwards, a new idea coming into his mind, he wished with long experience and with intolerable proofs to try her patience. First he began to annoy her with words, pretending to be disturbed, and saying that his men were very discontented with her low condition, and especially when they saw that she had children; and of the daughter, that she was born most unfortunately; and he did nothing but grumble. But the lady, hearing these words, without changing countenance or her demeanor in any way, said, "My lord, do with me what you think your honor and your comfort demand, and I shall be satisfied with everything, as I know that I am less than they, and that I was not worthy of this honor to which you in your courtesy called me." This reply pleased Walter much, knowing that she was not in any arrogance raised on account of the honor which he or others had done her.

A little while afterwards, having often repeated to his wife that his subjects could not endure this daughter born of her, he instructed one of his servants and sent him to her, to whom with sorrowful face he said, "My lady, if I do not wish to die, I am obliged to do what my lord commands me; he has commanded that I should take your daughter and that I—" and here he stopped. The lady, seeing the face of the servant and hearing the words that he said, and the words said by her husband, bethinking herself, understood that this man had been ordered to kill the child; upon which, immediately taking her from the cradle, kissing her, and placing her as if in great sorrow to her heart, without changing countenance she placed her in the arms of the servant and said, "Take her and do exactly what your and my lord has imposed on you to do, but do not leave her so that the beasts and the birds shall devour her, unless he should have commanded you that." The servant having taken the child and having repeated to Walter what his wife had said, he, marveling at her constancy, sent him with her to Bologna to one of his relatives, beseeching him that without ever saying whose daughter she might be, he should carefully rear her and teach her good manners. It happened that the lady again in due time bore a son, who was very dear to Walter. But not being satisfied with what he had done, with greater wounds he pierced his wife, and with a countenance of feigned vexation one day he said to her, "My lady, since you have borne this male child I have in no way been able to live with my people, so bitterly do they regret that a grandchild of Giannucoli should after me remain their lord; and I make no question that if I do not wish to be deposed, it will be necessary to do what I did before, and in the end leave you and take another wife." The lady with patience heard him, and only replied, "My lord! think of your own content, and do your own pleasure, and have no thought of me; because nothing is so agreeable to me as to see you satisfied." A little after, Walter, in the same manner as he had sent for the daughter, sent for the son, and in the same way feigned to have ordered it to be killed, and sent him to nurse in Bologna as he had sent the daughter. On account of which thing the lady behaved no otherwise and said no other word than she had done for the daughter. At this Walter marveled greatly, and declared to himself that no other woman could have done what she did; and had it not been that he found her most affectionate to her children, as he saw her to be, he would have believed that she could only do so because she did not care for them, although he knew her to be very prudent. His subjects, believing that he had had the child killed, blamed him greatly and considered him a most cruel man, and had great compassion for the lady, who, with the women who came to condole with her on the death of her children, never said other thing than that that pleased her which pleased her lord who had begotten them.

But many years having passed since the birth of the daughter, it seemed time to Walter to make the last proof of her patience; and so he said to many of his people that in no way could he endure any longer to have Griselda for his wife, and that he recognized that he had done badly and like a boy when he took her for wife, and that on that account he intended to apply to the Pope for a dispensation that he might take another wife and leave Griselda. On which account he was much reproved by very good men, to which he replied in no other wise than that it was convenient that he should do so. The lady, hearing these things, and seeing that it was necessary for her to look forward to returning to her father's house, and perhaps to watch the sheep as she had in other times done, and to see that another should have him to whom she wished nothing but good, suffered greatly in her own mind; but also, as with the other injuries which she had endured from fortune, so with a firm countenance she disposed herself to support even this. Not long afterwards, Walter had caused to be sent to him counterfeit letters from Rome, which he showed to all his subjects to inform them that the Pope had given him the dispensation to take another wife and leave Griselda. After which, having called her to him, in the presence of many people he said:—"Lady, by the dispensation made to me by the Pope I may take another wife and leave you; and because my ancestors were great gentlemen and lords in this country, whereas yours have always been workmen, I mean that you shall not longer be my wife, but that you shall return to the house of your father with the dowry which you brought me, and that I shall take another wife whom I have found more fitting for me." The lady, hearing these words, not without great difficulty and contrary to the nature of women kept back her tears, and replied:—"I knew always my low condition not to suit in any way your nobility, and what I have done, by you and by God will be recognized: nor have I ever acted or held it as given to me, but simply always had it as a loan; it pleases you to take it back, and to me it ought to give pleasure to return it to you. Here is your ring with which you married me; take it. You command me to take back the dowry which I brought you; to do which neither of you to pay it nor of me to receive it will demand either a purse or a beast of burden, because it has escaped your mind that you took me naked: and if you consider it honest that this body by which I have borne the children begotten by you shall be seen by everybody, I will go away naked; but I pray you in consideration of my virginity, which I brought to you and which I cannot take away, that at least a single shirt more than my dowry it will please you that I shall take." Walter, who had more desire to weep than anything else, remained with a hard face and said, "You may take with you a shirt." He was prayed by all who were about him that one garment more he should give, that it should not be seen that she who had been his wife for thirteen years or more should leave his house so poorly and shamefully as to go away in her shirt; but in vain were the prayers made. On which account the lady in her shirt, and barefoot, and without anything on her head, went out of the house and returned to the house of her father with the tears and lamentations of all who saw her.

Giannucoli, who had never been able to consider it a reality that Walter should have taken his daughter for a wife, and expected every day this end, had kept the clothes which had been taken from her that morning that Walter married her; so that bringing them to her, she dressed herself in them and returned to the little service of her father's house as she had been accustomed, supporting with a strong mind these savage attacks of fortune. When Walter had done this, he gave his people to understand that he had taken the daughter of one of the Counts of Panago for a wife, and having great preparations made for the marriage, sent for Griselda that she should come; to whom, having come, he said:—"I bring this lady whom I have now taken, and intend on her arrival to honor her, and you know that I have not in the house women who know how to arrange the chambers and to do many things that pertain to such festivities; on which account you, who better than anybody else know the things in this house, shall put in order whatever there is to be done, and cause to be invited the ladies whom you see fit, as if you were mistress here; then, after the marriage ceremony, you can go back to your house." Although these words were like so many knives in the heart of Griselda, as she had not been able to divest herself of the love which she bore him as she had of her good fortune,—she replied, "My lord, I am ready and prepared;" and so entered with her coarse peasant's clothing in the house from which she had shortly before gone in her shirt, and began to sweep and put in order the rooms, the hangings and carpets for the halls, and to put the kitchen in order, and in every respect as if she had been a little servant in the house, did she put her hand. Nor did she pause until she had put everything in order and arranged it as it was most convenient. And having done this, and Walter at her indications having invited all the ladies of the country, she began to arrange the festivities; and when the day of the marriage came, with the apparel which she had on her back, but with the mind and manner of a lady, received with a cheerful countenance all the ladies who came. Walter, who had had his children educated carefully by a relative in Bologna who had married into the house of the Counts of Panago,—the girl being already of the age of twelve years and the most beautiful creature that ever was seen, and the boy being of six,—had written to his relative at Bologna, praying him that he would be kind enough to come with this his daughter to Saluzzo, and to arrange to bring with him a fine and honorable company, and to say to all that these things were brought for his wife, without telling anything to anybody that it was otherwise. Having done what the Marquis asked of him, the Count started on his way after several days with the girl and her brother and with a noble company, and arrived at Saluzzo at the hour of dinner, when all the peasants and many neighbors were present waiting for the new bride of Walter; who being received by the ladies and going into the hall where the tables were set, Griselda came forward joyfully to meet her, saying, "Welcome, my lady." The ladies (who had much, but in vain, prayed Walter that he would arrange that Griselda should remain in the chamber, or that he would give her some one of the dresses which had been hers, in order that she should not appear in this way before his strangers) were set at the table and had begun to be served. The girl was looked at by every man, and everybody said that Walter had made a good exchange: but amongst the others Griselda praised her most; both her and her little brother.

Walter, who seemed to have finally learned as much as he desired of the patience of his lady, and seeing that the enduring of these things produced no change in her, and being certain that this did not happen from hypocrisy, because he knew that she was very wise, considered it time to lighten her of the bitterness which he felt that she held hidden in her heart under her strong self-control. Therefore, calling her in presence of all the company, and smiling, he said, "What do you think of our bride?" "My lord," replied Griselda, "she seems to me very good, and if she is as wise as she is beautiful, as I believe, I do not doubt in the least that you will live with her the most comfortable gentleman in the world. But I pray you as much as I can that these cruelties which you bestowed on the other which was yours you will not give to this one, because I believe that she could not support them; partly because she is young, and again because she has been brought up delicately, while the other has been always accustomed to hardships from a child." Walter, seeing that she firmly believed that this one was his wife, nor on that account spoke otherwise than well, made her sit down at his side and said:—"Griselda, it is time now that you should feel the rewards of your long patience, and that those who have considered me a cruel, wicked, and brutal man should know that that which I have done was done for a purpose, wishing to teach you to be a wife, and them to know how to take and to keep one, and for myself for the establishment of unbroken quiet while I live with you. Because when I came to take a wife I had great fear that this could not be the case, and on that account, and to assure myself in all the ways which you know, I have tried to pain you. And yet I have never perceived that either in thought or deed have you ever contradicted my pleasure: convinced that I shall have from you that comfort which I desire, I now intend to return to you all at once what I took from you on several occasions; and with the greatest tenderness to heal the wounds which I have given you; and so with a happy soul know this one whom you believed to be my bride, and this one her brother, as your and my children; they are those whom you and many others have long believed that I had cruelly caused to be killed; and I am your husband who above all things loves you, believing that I may boast that there is no other man who may be as well satisfied with his wife as I am." And so saying he embraced her and kissed her, and with her, who wept for joy, rising, went where the daughter sat stupefied, hearing these things; and, embracing her tenderly and her brother as well, undeceived her and as many as were there. The ladies, joyfully rising, went with Griselda to her chamber, and with the most joyful wishes dressed her as a lady,—which even in her rags she had seemed,—and then brought her back to the hall; and there, making with the children a wonderful festivity, every person being most joyful over these things, the rejoicings and the festivities were kept up for many days, and they all considered Walter the wisest of men, as they had considered bitter and intolerable the proofs which he had imposed on his wife; and especially they considered Griselda most discreet.

The Count of Panago returned after a few days to Bologna, and Walter, having taken Giannucoli from his work, settled him in the condition of his father-in-law, so that he lived with great honor and with great comfort and so finished his old age. And Walter afterwards, having married his daughter excellently, long and happily lived with Griselda, honoring her always as much as he could. And here we may say that as in royal houses come those who are much more worthy to keep the hogs than to have government over men, so even into poor houses there sometimes come from Heaven divine spirits besides Griselda, who could have been able to suffer with a countenance not merely tearless but cheerful the severe, unheard-of proofs imposed on her by Walter; to whom it would perhaps not have been unjust that he should have happened on one who, when he turned her out of his house in her shirt, should have become unfaithful with another, as his actions would have made fitting.



Bodenstedt was born at Peine, Hanover, April 22d, 1819. From his earliest years his poetic nature broke through the barriers of his prosaic surroundings; but in spite of these significant manifestations, the young poet was educated to be a merchant. He was sent to a commercial school in Brunswick, and then put to serve an apprenticeship in business. His inclinations, however, were not to be repressed; and he devoted all of his holidays and many hours of the night to study and writing. At last he conquered his adverse fate, and at the age of twenty-one entered the University. He studied at Goettingen, Munich, and Berlin, and then through a fortunate chance went to Moscow as tutor in the family of Prince Galitzin. Here he remained three years, during which time he diligently studied the Slavonic languages and literature.

The first fruits of these studies were translations from the poems of Kaslow, Pushkin, and Lermontoff (1843); which were considered equal to the originals in poetic merit. In Stuttgart, two years later, appeared his 'Poetische Ukraine' (Poetical Ukraine). He went to Tiflis in 1842 as instructor in Latin and French in the Gymnasium. Here he studied the Tartar and Persian languages, under the direction of the "wise man" Mirza-Schaffy (Scribe Schaffy), and began to translate Persian poems. "It was inevitable," he afterwards said, "that with such occupations and influences many Persian strains crept into my own poetry." Here he wrote his first poems in praise of wine. Later he became an extensive traveler, and made long tours through the Caucasus and the East. The fruit of these journeys was the book 'Die Voelker des Caucasus und ihre Freiheitskaempfe gegen die Russen' (The People of the Caucasus and their Struggle for Freedom against the Russians), published in 1848. After his return to Germany he settled in Muenich to study political economy in the University.

Two years later, in 1850, appeared his delightful book in prose and poetry, 'Tausend und ein Tag im Orient' (Thousand and One Days in the East), a reminiscence of his Eastern wanderings and his sojourn at Tiflis, The central figure is his Oriental friend Mirza-Schaffy. "It occurred to me," he says, "to portray with poetic freedom the Caucasian philosopher as he lived in my memory, with all his idiosyncrasies, and at the same time have him stand as the type of an Eastern scholar and poet; in other words, to have him appear more important than he really was, for he never was a true poet, and of all the songs which he read to me as being his own, I could use only a single one, the little rollicking song, 'Mullah, pure is the wine, and it's sin to despise it.' For his other verse I substituted poems of my own, which were in keeping with his character and the situations in which he appeared." The poems by themselves, together with others written at different times and places, Bodenstedt published in 1856 under the title 'Lieder des Mirza-Schaffy' (Songs of Mirza-Schaffy). Quite unintentionally they have occasioned one of the most amusing of literary mystifications. For a long time they were supposed to be real translations; and even to-day, despite the poet's own words, the "Sage of Tiflis" is considered by some a very great poet. A Tartar by birth, who had absorbed Persian culture, he was a skillful versifier, and could with facility translate simple songs from the Persian into the Tartar language. Bodenstedt put into Mirza-Schaffy's mouth the songs which were written during his intercourse with the Eastern sage, to give vividness to the picture of an Eastern divan of wisdom.

They portray Oriental life on its more sensuous, alluring side. In most musical, caressing verse they sing of wine and love, of the charms of Zuleika and Hafisa, of earthly bliss and the delights of living. Yet with all their warm Eastern imagery and rich foreign dress they are essentially German in spirit, and their prevailing note of joyousness is now and again tempered by more serious strains.

The book was received with universal applause, and on it Bodenstedt's fame as poet rests. It has been translated into all the European languages, even into Hebrew and Tartar, and is now in its one hundred and forty-third German edition. Twenty-four years later Bodenstedt followed it with a similar collection, 'Aus dem Nachlass des Mirza-Schaffy' (From the Posthumous Works of Mirza-Schaffy: 1874), where he shows the more serious, philosophic aspect of Eastern life. Bodenstedt's poems and his translations of Persian poetry are the culmination of the movement, begun by the Romantic School, to bring Eastern thought and imagery home to the Western world. Other well-known examples are Goethe's 'West-Eastern Divan,' and the poems and paraphrases of Rueckert and others; but the 'Songs of Mirza-Schaffy' are the only poems produced under exotic influences which have been thoroughly acclimatized on German soil.

Bodenstedt was for a time director of the court theatre at Meiningen; and though he held this difficult position for only a short time, he did much to lay the foundation of the success which the Meininger, as the best German stock company of actors, achieved later on their starring tours through the country. He was ennobled in 1867, while in this position. He spent the last year of his life at Wiesbaden, where he died in 1892.

Bodenstedt was a voluminous writer; his work includes poems, romances, novels, and dramas. 'Vom Atlantischen zum Stillen Ocean' (From the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean: 1882) is a description of his lecturing tour to the United States the year before. His autobiography, 'Erinnerungen aus Meinem Leben' (Recollections of my Life), gives interesting glimpses into his eventful career. His mind was more receptive than creative, and this, combined with his great technical skill and his quick intuition, fitted him peculiarly to be a translator and adapter. His translation of Shakespeare's works, in conjunction with Paul Heyse, Kurz, and others (fifth edition, Leipzig, 1890), is especially noteworthy, as also his rendering of Shakespeare's sonnets. But he will live in German literature as the poet Mirza-Schaffy.

* * * * *


To one exalted aim we both are tending, I and thou! To one captivity we both are bending, I and thou! In my heart thee I close—thou me in thine; In twofold life, yet one, we both are blending, I and thou! Thee my wit draws—and me thine eye of beauty; Two fishes, from one bait we are depending, I and thou! Yet unlike fishes—through the air of Heaven, Like two brave eagles, we are both ascending, I and thou!


In THE goblet's magic measure, In the wine's all-powerful spirit, Lieth poison and delight: Lieth purest, basest pleasure, E'en according to the merit Of the drinker ye invite.

Lo, the fool in baseness sunken, Having drunk till he is tired, When he drinks, behold him drunken; When we drink, we are inspired.


Down on the vast deep ocean The sun his beams doth throw, Till every wavelet trembles Beneath their ruddy glow.

How like thou to those sunbeams Upon my song's wild sea; They tremble all and glitter, Reflecting only thee.


In early days methought that all must last; Then I beheld all changing, dying, fleeting; But though my soul now grieves for much that's past, And changeful fortunes set my heart oft beating, I yet believe in mind that all will last, Because the old in new I still am meeting.


From the 'Thousand and One Days in the East'

Abbas Kuli Khan was one of those gifted ambiguous natures who, without inspiring confidence, always know how to work an imposing effect, inasmuch as they hold to the principle of displeasing no one, as a first rule of prudence.

It so happened then that even Mirza-Schaffy, bribed by the flattery which the Khan of Baku, when he once surprised us in the Divan of Wisdom, lavished upon him, declared him to be a great Wise Man.

The mutual praise, so overflowing in its abundance, which they bestowed on one another put them both in a very happy humor. From the Koran, from Saadi, Hafiz, and Fizuli, each authenticated the other to be the moving embodiment of all the wisdom of earth.

A formal emulation in old and original songs took place between them; for every piece of flattery was overlaid with a tuneful quotation. Unfortunately, however, the entertainment flowed so swiftly that I was unable to note down any coherent account of it.

Nevertheless, being unwilling to let the long session go by without any gain on my part, I requested the Khan to write for me one of his artistic songs in remembrance. He nodded with an approving look, and promised to write the most beautiful song that ever the mouth of man had uttered; a song in praise of his Fatima, playing on her stringed instrument.

Whilst Mirza-Schaffy raised a questioning look on hearing the praise which the Khan expended on himself, the latter took the kalem (reed-pen) and wrote what follows:—


"O'er the strings thy fingers are straying, O'er my heart stray the tones; And it wanders obeying, Far away from the zones; Up tending, Round thee bending, Round thy heart to be growing And clinging, Round thee flinging, Its glad mirth overflowing— Oh! thou Spirit from me springing, Life on me bestowing! Dazzled, blinded, confounded, I see in thy glances The whole world and its rounded Unbounded expanses; And round us it dances In drunken confusion, Like floating illusion; Around thee I'm reeling, All round me is wheeling— And Heaven and Ocean, In flashing commotion, Round us both as thou singest, Roll reeling and rushing— Thou Joy to me that wingest, Thou Soul from me outgushing!"


Photogravure from a Painting by G.C. Saintpierre.

"O'er the strings thy fingers are straying, O'er my heart stray the tones."

"On the following evening," said Mirza-Schaffy, "I appeared at the appointed hour. During the day I had written a love song which none of womankind could resist. I had sung it over about twenty times to myself, in order to be sure of success. Then I had been into the bath, and had had my head shaved so perfectly that it might have vied in whiteness with the lilies of the vale of Senghi. The evening was calm and clear; from the garden-side where I stood, I could distinctly see my Zuleikha; she was alone with Fatima on the roof, and had her veil put a little back, as a sign of her favor. I took courage, and pushed my cap down behind to show my white head, just fresh shaved, to the maiden's eyes. Thou canst comprehend what an impression that would make on a woman's heart! Alas! my head was much whiter then than it is now. But that is more than ten years since!" he said sorrowfully, and would have continued in this digression if I had not interposed the words:—

"Thy head is quite white enough now to fascinate the most maidenly heart; but thou hast not yet told me how thou sangest thy love song, and what impression it made upon Zuleikha."

"I had folded the song," said the Mirza, "round a double almond kernel, and thrown it on the roof, as a keepsake for the Beauty, before I began to sing it; and then I began with clear voice:—

"What is the eye of wild gazelle, the slender pine's unfolding, Compared with thy delightful eyes, and thine ethereal molding? What is the scent from Shiraz' fields, wind-borne, that's hither straying, Compared with richer scented breath from thy sweet mouth out-playing?

What is Ghazel and Rubajat, as Hafiz ere was singing, Compared with one word's mellow tone, from thy sweet mouth outwinging?

What is the rosy-chaliced flower, where nightingales are quaffing, Compared with thy sweet rosy mouth, and thy lips' rosy laughing? What is the sun, and what the moon, and all heaven's constellations? Love-glancing far for thee they glow with trembling scintillations! And what am I myself, my heart, my songful celebration, But slaves of royal loveliness, bright beauty's inspiration!"

"Allah, how beautiful!" I cried. "Mirza-Schaffy, thy words sound as sweet as the songs of the Peris, in the world of spirits! What is Hafiz to thee? What is a drop to the ocean?"


From the 'Thousand and One Days in the East'

My first object in Georgia was to secure an instructor in Tartar, that I might learn as quickly as possible a language so indispensably necessary in the countries of the Caucasus. Accident favored my choice, for my learned teacher Mirza-Schaffy, the Wise Man of Gjaendsha, as he styles himself, is, according to his own opinion, the wisest of men.

With the modesty peculiar to his nation, he only calls himself the first wise man of the East; but as according to his estimation the children of the West are yet living in darkness and unbelief, it is a matter of course with him that he soars above us in wisdom and knowledge. Moreover, he indulges the hope that, thanks to his endeavors, the illumination and wisdom of the East will also, in the progress of years, actually spread amongst us. I am already the fifth scholar, he tells me, who has made a pilgrimage to him for the purpose of participating in his instructions. He argues from this that the need of traveling to Tiflis and listening to Mirza-Schaffy's sayings of wisdom is ever becoming more vividly felt by us. My four predecessors, he is further of opinion, have, since their return into the West, promoted to the best of their ability the extension of Oriental civilization amongst their races. But of me he formed quite peculiar hopes; very likely because I paid him a silver ruble for each lesson, which I understand is an unusually high premium for the Wise Man of Gjaendsha.

It was always most incomprehensible to him how we can call ourselves wise or learned, and travel over the world with these titles, before we even understand the sacred languages. Nevertheless he very readily excused these pretensions in me, inasmuch as I was at least ardently endeavoring to acquire these languages, but above all because I had made the lucky hit of choosing him for my teacher.

The advantages of this lucky hit he had his own peculiar way of making intelligible to me. "I, Mirza-Schaffy," said he, "am the first wise man of the East! consequently thou, as my disciple, art the second. But thou must not misunderstand me: I have a friend, Omar-Effendi, a very wise man, who is certainly not the third among the learned of the land. If I were not alive, and Omar-Effendi were thy teacher, then he would be the first, and thou, as his disciple, the second wise man!" After such an effusion, it was always the custom of Mirza-Schaffy to point with his forefinger to his forehead, at the same time giving me a sly look; whereupon, according to rule, I nodded knowingly to him in mute reciprocation.

That the Wise Man of Gjaendsha knew how to render his vast superiority in the highest degree palpable to any one who might have any misgiving on the point, he once showed me by a striking example.

Among the many learned rivals who envied the lessons of Mirza-Schaffy, the most conspicuous was Mirza-Jussuf, the Wise Man of Bagdad. He named himself after this city, because he had there pursued his studies in Arabic; from which he inferred that he must possess more profound accomplishments than Mirza-Schaffy, whom he told me he considered a "Fschekj," an ass among the bearers of wisdom. "The fellow cannot even write decently," Jussuf informed me of my reverend Mirza, "and he cannot sing at all! Now I ask thee: What is knowledge without writing? What is wisdom without song? What is Mirza-Schaffy in comparison with me?"

In this way he was continually plying me with perorations of confounding force, wherein he gave especial prominence to the beauty of his name Jussuf, which Moses of old had celebrated, and Hafiz sung of in lovely strains; he exerted all his acuteness to evince to me that a name is not an empty sound, but that the significance attached to a great or beautiful name is inherited in more or less distinction by the latest bearers of this name. He, Jussuf, for example, was a perfect model of the Jussuf of the land of Egypt, who walked in chastity before Potiphar, and in wisdom before the Lord.


From the 'Thousand and One Days in the East'

"Mirza-Schaffy!" I began, when we sat again assembled in the Divan of Wisdom, "what wilt thou say when I tell thee that the wise men of the West consider you as stupid as you do them?"

"What can I do but be amazed at their folly?" he replied. "What new thing can I learn from them, when they only repeat mine?"

He ordered a fresh chibouk, mused awhile meditatingly before him, bade us get ready the kalemdan (writing-stand), and then began to sing:—

"Shall I laughing, shall I weeping Go, because men are so brute, Always foreign sense repeating, And in self-expression mute?

"No, the Maker's praise shall rise For the foolish generation; Else the wisdom of the wise Would be lost from observation!"

"Mirza-Schaffy," said I, interrupting him again, "would it not be a prudent beginning to clothe thy sayings in a Western dress, to the end that they might be a mirror for the foolish, a rule of conduct for the erring, and a source of high enjoyment for our wives and maidens, whose charm is as great as their inclination to wisdom?"

"Women are everywhere wise," replied my reverend teacher, "and their power is greater than fools imagine. Their eyes are the original seat of all true devotion and wisdom, and he who inspires from them needs not wait for death to enter upon the joys of Paradise. The smallest finger of woman overthrows the mightiest edifice of faith, and the youngest maiden mars the oldest institutions of the Church!"

"But thou hast not yet given me an answer to my question, O Mirza!"

"Thou speakest wisely. The seed of my words has taken root in thy heart. Write; I will sing!"

And now he sang to me a number of wonderful songs, part of which here follow in an English dress.


A learned scribe once came to me from far: "Mirza!" said he, "what think'st thou of the Shah? Was wisdom really born in him with years? And are his eyes as spacious as his ears?"

"He's just as wise as all who round them bind Capuche and gown: he knows what an amount Of stupid fear keeps all his people blind, And how to turn it to his own account."


Looking at thy tender little feet Makes me always wonder, sweetest maiden, How they so much beauty can be bearing!

Looking at thy lovely little hands Makes me always wonder, sweetest maiden, How they so to wound me can be daring!

Looking at thy rosy luring lips Makes me always wonder, sweetest maiden, How they of a kiss e'er can be sparing!

Looking at thy meaningful bright eyes Makes me always wonder, sweetest maiden, How for greater love they can be caring

Than I feel. Oh, look at me, and love! Warmer than my heart, thou sweetest maiden, Heart in thy love never will be sharing.

Listen to this rapture-reaching song! Fairer than my mouth, thou sweetest maiden, Mouth thy praise will never be declaring!


From the 'Thousand and One Days in the East'

Now follow me into that blessed land wherein tradition places Paradise, and wherein I also placed it, until I found that it lay in thine eyes, thou, mine Edlitam!

Follow me to the banks of the Senghi and Araxes, rich in bloom, sacred in tradition; where I sought for rest after long wandering in the mazes of a strange land, until I knew that rest is nowhere to be found but in one's own bosom; follow me into the gardens where Noah once planted the vine for his own enjoyment and heart's delight, and for the gladness of all subsequent races of toiling men; follow me through the steep mountain-paths overhung with glaciers, to the arid table-lands of Ararat, where, clad in a garment red as blood, on his steed of nimble thigh, the wild Kurd springs along, with flashing glance and sunburnt face, in his broad girdle the sharp dagger and long pistols of Damascus, and in his practiced hand the slender, death-slinging lance of Bagdad—where the nomad pitches his black tent, and with wife and child cowers round the fire that scares away the beasts of the wilderness—where caravans of camels and dromedaries wend their way, laden with the treasures of the Orient, and guided by watchful leaders in wide many-colored apparel—where the Tartar, eager for spoil, houses in hidden rocks, or in half-subterranean, rudely excavated huts; follow me into the fruitful valleys, where the sons of Haighk, like the children of Israel, far from the corruption of cities, still live in primeval simplicity, plough their fields and tend their flocks, and practice hospitality in Biblical pureness; follow me to Ararat, which still bears the diluvian Ark upon his king-like, hoary head—follow me into the highlands of Armenia!

In Paradise we will be happy, and refresh our eyes with a glance at the fair daughters of the land; and at the grave of Noah we will sit down, the drinking-horn in our hand, a song on our lips, and joyous confidence in our hearts; for the God who once when the whole world deserved hanging favored mankind with a watery grave, and suffered only Noah to live because he cultivated the vine and rejoiced in love and drinking, will also to us, who cherish like desires, be as favorable as to the father of post-diluvian men.


See Mirza-Jussuf now, How critical a wight 'tis! The day displeases him, Because for him too bright 'tis.

He doesn't like the rose,— Her thorn a sad affront is; And doesn't like mankind, Because its nose in front is.

On ev'rything he spies His bitter bane he passes; For naught escapes his eyes, Except that he an ass is.

Thus, evermore at strife With Art and Nature too, By day and night he wanders Through wastes of misty blue,

Mirza-Schaffy bemocks him With sly and roguish eye, And makes of all his bitterness The sweetest melody.


Friend, wouldst know why as a rule Bookish learning marks the fool? 'Tis because, though once befriended, Learning's pact with wisdom's ended. No philosophy e'er throve In a nightcap by the stove. Who the world would understand In the world must bear a hand. If you're not to wisdom wed, Like the camel you're bested, Which has treasures rich, to bear Through the desert everywhere, But the use must ever lack Of the goods upon his back.



In the beginning of the eighteenth century, the political and intellectual life of Germany showed no signs of its imminent awakening. French supremacy was undisputed. French was spoken by polite society, and only the middle and lower classes consented to use their mother tongue. French literature was alone fashionable, and the few scientific works that appeared were published in Latin. Life was hard and sordid. Thought and imagination languished. Such writings as existed were empty, pompous, and pedantic. Yet from this dreary waste-land was to spring that rich harvest of literature which, in a brief half-century, made the German nation famous.

Klopstock, Wieland, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller—those were the great names that were soon to shine like stars in the literary firmament. But the lesser men who broke the ground and opened paths for their brilliant followers are almost forgotten.

Toward the middle of the century, there lived in Zuerich a modest professor of history, Johann Jakob Bodmer by name (born July 19th, 1698), who spoke the first word for a national literature, and who was the first writer to attempt a scientific criticism of contemporary authors. His efforts were rude beginnings of a style that culminated in the polished essays of Lessing. It was Bodmer whose independence of thought and feeling first revolted from the slavish imitation of French culture that enchained the German mind. In his youth he had been sent to Italy to study commerce. This visit aroused his poetic and artistic nature. He forgot his business in listening to street singers, in imitation of whom he wrote Italian lyrics. He read French works on art, and wrote artificial French verses according to French models. With equal versatility he composed German poetry, copying Opitz, whom he esteemed a great poet. Nor did he hesitate to try his skill at Latin hexameters.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10     Next Part
Home - Random Browse