The Siren Song of the South: The Romantics in Italy

Photo7Goethe

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stained mouth;

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

                                                                                           And with thee fade away into the forest dim.

So wrote English poet John Keats in 1819, his annus mirabilis, in “Ode to a Nightingale.” For the twenty-four year-old poet, suffering from tuberculosis, this wish was as much a literal one as figurative. And, indeed, on doctors orders in the fall of 1820 he was to depart England, leaving behind friends and fiancée, for Rome, where on February 23, 1821, he would die in a small room at the foot of the Spanish steps, to the insistent gurgling of the Bernini Fountain. Laid to rest in the Protestant Cemetery with the epitaph of his choosing – “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”- it would not be long before he was joined there by another English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned at Leghorn in 1822.

If John Keats’ stay in Italy was a forced one – (doctors had declared he would not survive another English winter) – Shelley and the third great poet of the second generation of English Romantics, Lord Byron, had come to the southern shores by choice, expatriates from the constraints of English society, in search of personal and artistic freedom, and they were to celebrate the southern Muse in much of their work. In doing so they were part of several generations of writers, painters, musicians, and poets from northern countries – Germany and England most predominantly– who came to Italian shores to find inspiration and a part of their soul.

From Antiquity and as a result of the Roman conquests, Italy naturally stood as a symbol of civilization and culture, but why were children of the Enlightenment, of the Age of Revolution and of the Romantic era so drawn to her culture? And what was it about the Italian spirit that infused so many works of art by northern artists?Among the English Romantic poets, the aristocratic but rebellious Shelley and Byron sought out Italy as an escape from scandals and conventions which had become intolerable for them at home. Shelley, having been expelled from Oxford for atheism, having eloped with Mary Godwin, leaving his wife and two children, and pursued by a chancery suit after the suicide of his wife, Harriet, took Mary to Switzerland twice in 1814-1816, returned briefly to an unsympathetic England and finally left permanently in 1818, spending the rest of his days in Venice, Florence, Naples, Lerici, and Leghorn. He completed many of his finest works in his years abroad, among them his great odes, The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, Epipsychidion, Adonais, and the unfinished Triumph of Life. Indeed, in this last unfinished poem, whose ending enigmatically eludes posterity, Shelley displayed his indebtedness to Dante’s Divine Comedy by employing the terza rima, perhaps a hint of the upward optimistic spiral he might have intended for the poem. Yet, while the longer works were heavily laden with classical mythology and allegorical symbolism, it is in some of the lyrical verse that we find clues to Shelley’s affinity with Italy.

His “Lines written among the Euganean Hills” (1818) surveys the beautiful natural landscape of Italy – Venice, Padua, the Appenines – a landscape, strewn with ruins in which sleeps the spirits of antique gods. In typical Romantic fashion, it is the very disappearance of the mighty Roman civilization, replaced by the eternal forces of Nature that makes Italy such an animated landscape. “The inspired soul supplies/With its own deep melodies,/And the love which heals all strife/Circling, like the breath of life. . . And the earth grow[s] young again.” It is precisely these ghosts of the past, these dormant memories which must be called forth by the poetic imagination, by the poet as conjurer. And thus, for Shelley, Italy becomes Prospero’s enchanted isle.

So, too, did Italy offer solace and shelter to George Gordon, Lord Byron, who escaped to Switzerland and ultimately Venice and Pisa in the wake of a disastrous marriage, scandalous reports of incest with his half-sister, and the death of his daughter. There, playing the bad boy, he lived in outlandish splendor, hosting dissolute bacchanals, keeping an exotic menagerie of animals, and a collection of concubines and mistresses –(until he settled with the Contessa Guccioli for the last years of his life). Quite amazingly none of these activities seemed to dim his inspiration, but rather liberated it to produce the great works of his maturity, among them his masterpiece, Don Juan.

But before that he had taken the customary grand tour in 1809-1811, which yielded the first two cantos of the work that was to catapult him to fame, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a wanderer’s tale of a journey through Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece. Childe Harold became the quintessential questing Byronic hero, sometimes cynical, always passionate young poet – part knight, part rebel – the incarnation of the author’s inner, flamboyant self. For it was Byron, who arguably gave most lasting expression to the Romantic “I” of literature. Later in Childe Harold at his first sight of Venice, he pens these memorable lines:

I stood upon the Bridge of Sighs;

A palace and a prison on each hand:

I saw from out the wave her structures rise

As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand;

And further on in the canto,

I loved her from my boyhood – she to me

Was as a fairy city of the heart,

Rising like water-columns from the sea. . .

Like Shelley, Italy’s fabled past is a rich and mysterious canvas on which to resurrect new life and art.

Art, the art of antiquity was given new currency in the romanticized ruins in the late eighteenth and early 19th centuries. The European tour was considered de rigeur in the education of gentlemen and ladies, and that tour inevitably led to Italy, where antiquity held particular fascination for visual artists. Among the notable English painters of the 19th century to be drawn to Italy as a source of Romantic inspiration was William Turner. Turner, who elevated English landscape (and seascape) painting to previously unrealized heights and whose unorthodox rendering of light and brushwork prefigured late 19th century Impressionism, found in Italy the same beautiful melancholy and stirring sense of man’s impotence before Nature of which Shelley and Byron had written. His Mount Vesuvius in Eruption (1817) is a case in point. The volcano occupies the center of the canvas which is swirling with turbulent brushwork and a tempest of color ranging from blues and earth tones to the reddish glare of the lava and the white haze of smoke. In the foreground a tiny figure is completely dwarfed by the tempest: man is impotent before the forces of Nature; his place in the universe small; his heroic stature secured only by the manner in which he confronts these challenges. A contrastingly peaceful painting is that of the Roman Forum with a Rainbow in which the idyllic ruins are rendered wondrous by the arcing bow of kaleidoscopic light. For Turner, as it had been for Shelley, Byron, even the dying Keats, Rome is the enchanted eternal city, a place of mystery and miracle.

The work of Turner and his Romantic colleagues, among them Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, Delacroix, and Corot, found resonance on the shores of America in the Hudson River School of Painters, such as Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Frederick Church and subsequent Luminists like Martin Johnson Heade. If the Americans eventually found a new mythology in the primeval wilderness of the New World, these painters all did, at some point, make the pilgrimage to Italy.

The Italian journey had been a fixture in social, cultural, and artistic life for centuries. For the northern Romantics it had perhaps been canonized as the ur-Romantic experience by non-other than the great “classicist” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). What subsequent artist or poet was not familiar with Goethe’s description of his own travels throughout the Italian peninsula in 1786-1788, Italian Journey? Though almost thirty years intervened between the trip itself and the publication of his account in 1816-1817 – a hiatus which gave Goethe time to revise and moderate some of his initial prose – the book became an influential document for the Romantic age. Not only was it a quintessential travel narrative which acquainted the reader with the geography, sights, civilization, and artistic treasures of a new and marvelous land, but it is a perceptive psychological account of a people and the effect of their culture on Goethe’s own soul.

“It was written, then, on my page in the Book of Fate that at five in the afternoon of the twenty-eighth day of September in the year 1786, I should see Venice for the first time, as I entered this beautiful island-city.” Goethe writes with the same awe that inspired Byron’s pen almost thirty years later about “the Queen of the Sea,” and he experiences similar thrills in becoming acquainted with Naples, Sicily, and, most of all, Rome. “Naples is a paradise; everyone lives in a state of intoxicated self-forgetfulness, myself included. I seem to be a completely different person whom I hardly recognize.” In Rome, where he drank in all the treasures of art and antiquity, where he probed the layers of pagan and Christian culture, he found himself come alive with new understanding. “ Wherever I walk, I come upon familiar objects in a unfamiliar world; everything is just as I imagined it, yet everything is new.” But it was not only the education he was receiving, which he knew would serve as a font for his future writings – his great tragedies, poems, and the completion of Faust – but Goethe realized he was being changed as a man.

Though he would likely turn over in his grave to read these words, Goethe was a closet Romantic, his life spanning the transformation of the Age of Reason into the Age of Revolution, his own youth spent creating Sturm und Drang literature. His 1774 Sorrows of Young Werther, the sensational best-seller novel that poured out of him in four weeks, which contained some of the most passionate and anarchic outbursts in all of Romantic literature, and which created a melancholy, psychologically troubled hero who was to become a prototype for generations to come, was a work from which Goethe increasingly tried to distance himself in his subsequent career. His discomfort with the protagonist he had created stemmed, no doubt, from the dialectic of his own nature: his upbringing as a well-educated son of stern, wealthy bourgeois, his compulsion to order and administrative skill which earned him a high place at the court of Weimar for over forty years, his fierce analytical and academic proclivities which led him to study natural sciences, anatomy, and law together with literature, art history, music, and theatre. But Goethe’s later embarrassment over Werther likely also stemmed from his own conflicted sensuality, a conflict which was to be resolved only in Italy.

As a young man Goethe was prone to a series of sentimental and platonic affairs with women, some unrequited as in the case of Charlotte Buff or the married Charlotte von Stein, others attractions from which he fled as his youthful infatuation with Fredericke Brion or his broken engagement to Lili Schönemann, and he did not marry until he was fifty-seven, to his then mistress of eighteen years, Christiane Vulpius, the mother of his son August, whom he took into his life immediately following his Italian journey.

What was it that happened in Italy which made Goethe take the leap to sexual and emotional commitment? His translator W.H. Auden suggests that though the passages have been excised from his Italian journals, the freer Italian attitudes about love, no doubt, had a liberating effect on Goethe, and he surely engaged in some sexual escapades far from home. The poet himself alludes to this shift in Italian Journey where he writes, “For me it is morally salutary to be living in the midst of a sensual people about whom it has been said as written, and whom every foreigner judges by the standard he brings with him.” Like Byron and Shelley, who left the prudery of England to live their amours openly, Goethe found Italy a place of sexual awakening and emotional liberation. Departing Rome he wrote, “Though I am still always myself, I have been changed to the very marrow of bones.”

That sensation of transformation – spiritual and sensual – is the theme of that great Post Romantic German novella, Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann. Perhaps no where else in literature is the conflict between Northern and Southern sensibilities and the siren call of the South explored so vividly and poetically. In the novella, which in typical Mann fashion is laden with mythological symbolism, Wagnerian leitmotif, modernist psycho-philosophy, and solid German ratiocination, Mann’s middle aged hero, Gustav von Aschenbach, a celebrated author and respectable citizen of Munich, takes a holiday in Venice to escape from the pressures of his life. At the Hôtel des Bains on the Lido, he encounters a Polish youth Tadzio, whose beauty ensnares Aschenbach’s heart, arouses forbidden passions of which he has never dreamt, and causes him to forsake reason, ignore the encroaching plague, and fall victim to his unspoken and fatefully idealized love.

In a brief seventy-five pages, Mann traces Aschenbach’s almost Faustian journey – does he not cross the lagoon ferried by the very image of Charybdis and is he not haunted throughout by diabolical apparitions? The novelist explores with incisive self-appraisal of which Aschenbach’s distinctly northern sensibility is capable the dichotomies of human nature. In Aschenbach’s headlong flight into death, he grapples with the classical and the Romantic, with form and feeling, with the reshaping perfection of art and impulsivity of passion, with the process of being and becoming, the Apollonian and the Dionysian – in short, with the German and Italian temperaments. And it is, in this supreme and lethal battle that the Dionysian triumphs. Aschenbach remains too long in Venice. His last perception is a vision, a seductive siren song, a consummate Romantic death wish, both erotic and idealized that, despite its dire consequences for Ascenbach, proves a liberation:

“Transfixed in his beach chair, watching the young Tadzio, half god, half faun, romp in the surf, Aschenbach enjoys one transcendent epiphany” It seemed to him the pale and lovely Summoner out there smiled at him and beckoned; as though, with the hand he lifted from his hip, he pointed outward as he hovered on before into an immensity of richest expectation.”

 

 

 

 

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