Friday, February 13, 2015

So I go on raving - Ugo Foscolo's great Werther ripoff

What seemed logical was to move from Dino Campana back a century to Giacomo Leopardi, the poet who was so good he ruined Italian poetry for a hundred years.  I have already forgotten where I read that.  Not to knock Leopardi, but I have some doubts.

Regardless, first I will go back a few years to a slightly earlier poet, the Romantic and revolutionary Ugo Foscolo.  His poems are hard to find in English.  Ten years ago, or more, I remember finding somewhere on the internet a fine translation of many of Foscolo’s sonnets (c. 1813).  No idea where.  I should have made a copy.

Instead I will start with Foscolo’s derivative yet conceptually ingenious little 1802 novel Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, an unashamed ripoff of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) that transplants Goethe’s masterpiece to Italy and turns Werther into a nationalist radical.  He is exiled for political activities from his native Venice to the nearby Euganean hills near Padua (an area that is now a national park – seems awfully nice) where he meets a young woman who becomes the new object of his passionate intensity and tendency to go too far.

Like Young Werther, Jacopo Ortis is an epistolary novel composed mostly of the title characters letters to his more level-headed friend.  Otherwise, let’s see:

1.  This time, the love is not unrequited.  The heroine falls for Ortis, but cannot marry him due to money and Italian fathers and so on.  The heroine is a bundle of clichés, nothing close to Goethe’s Lotte, a great character.  This is perhaps because:

2.  Goethe wrote his novel when he was 25, older than his characters; Foscolo wrote his when he was 19, younger than his hero.  More of Foscolo comes from other books, including his characters.

3.  It is amazing how many themes associated with Romanticism Goethe anticipates in Werther.  Foscolo is the genuine thing, which can be tiresome even in a short novel.  “So I go on raving!” writes Jacopo.  So you do, kid, so you do (p. 62).  What if Werther were Italian and had read Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761)?  That comes close.

At every step I greeted the family of flowers and plants as they gradually raised their heads which were bent beneath the hoar frost.  The trees, gently rustling, made the transparent drops of dew flicker against the light, while the dawn winds were washing the superfluous liquid from the plants.  You might have heard a solemn harmony spreading confusedly throughout the woods, the birds, the flocks, the rivers, and the labours of mankind, and meanwhile the breathing air was perfumed with the exhalations which the exulting earth sent up from the valleys and hills to the sun, Nature’s chief minister.  I pity the wretch who can awake in silence and coldly regard such blessings without feelings his eyes bathed in tears of thankfulness.  Then it was I saw Teresa in all the glorious trappings of her grace.  (14-5)

Now that is some good pathetic fallacy.  Some readers will sigh, others will guffaw.  I suppose I am somewhere in between.

I read the J. G. Nichols translation published by Hesperus.  Is it the only English translation?  I think I will write one more piece on what is most original about Foscolo’s novel.


  1. Foscolo's poetic masterpiece is Dei Sepolcri, written in protest of Napoleon's rather sensibly moving graveyards outside of cities for health reasons. The ending is really beautiful, it goes something like this:

    And you, Hector, will have the honor of tears,
    Wherever blood shed for the homeland is holy and wept over,
    And as long as the sun shines on human wretchedness

    That last word is hard to translate- my mother, who's Italian, goes with "wretchedness" but it's not exact. Here's the Italian:

    E tu, onore di pianti, Ettore, avrai,
    Ove fia santo e lagrimato il sangue
    Per la patria versato, e finchè il Sole
    Risplenderà su le sciagure umane.

    Anyway, how goes the Nievo? I'm reading it, too.

  2. Yes! If things go as planned, tomorrow Jacopo Ortis will segue directly into "Dei Sepolcri."

    Nievo is going very slowly. I now find that I approach big books quite cautiously, as if I fear it is going to trick me. So I am sure my pace will pick up. You will probably finish it first.

    I enjoyed your Scott review. I may write about Waverley soon.

  3. Thanks!
    I hope you do write about Waverely; it's is very interesting, and the description of Waverley's reading and the impact it has on his character is particularly so. Also I like Flora-- how often do you have a female political fanatic in early 19th c novels?
    And then there's Scott's avowed intention to write fully-developed, less stereotypical Scots characters, and the way he creates future stereotypes in the process.

  4. Those are all great topics, all true, none of which were on my mind.