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 The great feast-days of all, for the restless critic, are those much interspaced occasions of his really meeting a “case,” as he soon enough learns to call, for his convenience and assistance, any supremely contributive or determinant party to the critical question. These are recognitions that make up for many dull hours and dry contacts, many a thankless, a disconcerted gaze into faces that have proved expressionless. Always looking, always hoping for his happiest chance, the inquirer into the reasons of things—by which I mean especially into the reasons of books—so often misses it, so often wastes his steps and withdraws his confidence, that he inevitably works out for himself, sooner or later, some handy principle of recognition. It may be a rough thing, a mere home-made tool of his trade, but it serves his purpose if it keeps him from beginning with mistakes. He becomes able to note in its light the signs and marks of the possible precious identity, able to weigh with some exactitude the appearances that make for its reality. He ends, through much expenditure of patience, by seeing when, how, why, the “case” announces and presents itself, and he perhaps even feels that failure and felicity have worked together to produce in him a sense for it that may at last be trusted as an instinct. He thus arrives at a view of all the candidates, frequently interesting enough, who fall short of the effective title, because he has at need, perhaps even from afar, scented along the wind the strongest member of the herd. He may perhaps not always be able to give us the grounds of his certainty, but he is at least never without knowing it in presence of one of the full-blown products that are the joy of the analyst. He recognises as well how the state of being full-blown comes above all from the achievement of consistency, of that last consistency which springs from the unrestricted enjoyment of freedom.  
Many of us will doubtless not have forgotten how we were witnesses a certain number of years since to a season and a society that had found themselves of a sudden roused, as from some deep drugged sleep, to the conception of the “esthetic” law of life; in consequence of which this happy thought had begun to receive the honours of a lively appetite and an eager curiosity, but was at the same time surrounded and manipulated by as many different kinds of inexpertness as probably ever huddled together on a single pretext. The spectacle was strange and finally was wearisome, for the simple reason that the principle in question, once it was proclaimed—a principle not easily formulated, but which we may conveniently speak of as that of beauty at any price, beauty appealing alike to the senses and to the mind—was never felt to fall into its place as really adopted and efficient. It remained for us a queer high-flavoured fruit from overseas, grown under another sun than ours, passed round and solemnly partaken of at banquets organised to try it, but not found on the whole really to agree with us, not proving thoroughly digestible. It brought with it no repose, brought with it only agitation. We were not really, not fully convinced, for the state of conviction is quiet. This was to have been the state itself—that is the state of mind achieved and established—in which we were to know ugliness no more, to make the esthetic consciousness feel at home with us, or learn ourselves at any rate to feel at home with it. That would have been the reign of peace, the supreme beatitude; but stability continued to elude us. We had mustered a hundred good reasons for it, yet the reasons but lighted up our desert. They failed to flower into a single concrete esthetic “type.” One authentic, one masterful specimen would have done wonders for us, would at least have assuaged our curiosity. But we were to be left till lately with our curiosity on our hands.
This is a yearning, however, that Signor D’Annunzio may at last strike us as supremely formed to gratify; so promptly we find in him as a literary figure the highest expression of the reality that our own conditions were to fail of making possible. He has immediately the value of giving us by his mere logical unfolding the measure of our shortcomings in the same direction, that of our timidities and penuries and failures. He throws a straighter and more inevitable light on the esthetic consciousness than has, to my sense, in our time, reached it from any other quarter; and there is many a mystery that properly interrogated he may help to clear up for us, many an explanation of our misadventure that—as I have glanced at it—he may give. He starts with the immense advantage of enjoying the invoked boon by grace and not by effort, of claiming it under another title than the sweat of his brow and the aspiration of his culture. He testifies to the influence of things that have had time to get themselves taken for granted. Beauty at any price is an old story to him; art and form and style as the aim of the superior life are a matter of course; and it may be said of him, I think, that, thanks to these transmitted and implanted instincts and aptitudes, his individual development begins where the struggle of the mere earnest questioner ends. Signor D’Annunzio is earnest in his way, quite extraordinarily—which is a feature of his physiognomy that we shall presently come to and about which there will be something to say; but we feel him all the while in such secure possession of his heritage of favouring circumstance that his sense of intellectual responsibility is almost out of proportion. This is one of his interesting special marks, the manner in which the play of the esthetic instinct in him takes on, for positive extravagance and as a last refinement of freedom, the crown of solicitude and anxiety. Such things but make with him for ornament and parade; they are his tribute to civility; the essence of the matter is meanwhile in his blood and his bones. No mistake was possible from the first as to his being of the inner literary camp—a new form altogether of perceptive and expressive energy; the question was settled by the intensity and variety, to say nothing of the precocity, of his early poetic production.
Born at Pescara, in the Regno, the old kingdom of Naples, “toward” 1863, as I find noted by a cautious biographer, he had while scarce out of his teens allowed his lyric genius full opportunity of scandalising even the moderately austere. He defined himself betimes very much as he was to remain, a rare imagination, a poetic, an artistic intelligence of extraordinary range and fineness concentrated almost wholly on the life of the senses. For the critic who simplifies a little to state clearly, the only ideas he urges upon us are the erotic and the plastic, which have for him about an equal intensity, or of which it would be doubtless more correct to say that he makes them interchangeable faces of the same figure. He began his career by playing with them together in verse, to innumerable light tunes and with an extraordinary general effect of curiosity and brilliancy. He has continued still more strikingly to play with them in prose; they have remained the substance of his intellectual furniture. It is of his prose only, however, that, leaving aside the Intermezzo, L’Isottèo, La Chimera, Odi Navali and other such matters, I propose to speak, the subject being of itself ample for one occasion. His five novels and his four plays have extended his fame; they suggest by themselves as many observations as we shall have space for. The group of productions, as the literary industry proceeds among us to-day, is not large, but we may doubt if a talent and a temperament, if indeed a whole “view of life,” ever built themselves up as vividly for the reader out of so few blocks. The writer is even yet enviably young; but this solidity of his literary image, as of something already seated on time and accumulation, makes him a rare example. Precocity is somehow an inadequate name for it, as precocity seldom gets away from the element of promise, and it is not exactly promise that blooms in the hard maturity of such a performance as “The Triumph of Death.” There are certain expressions of experience, of the experience of the whole man, that are like final milestones, milestones for his possible fertility if not for his possible dexterity; a truth that has not indeed prevented “Il Fuoco,” with its doubtless still ampler finality, from following the work just mentioned. And we have had particularly before us, in verse, I must add, “Francesca da Rimini,” with the great impression a great actress has enabled this drama to make.
Only I must immediately in this connection also add that Signor D’Annunzio’s plays are, beside his novels, of decidedly minor weight; testifying abundantly to his style, his romantic sense and his command of images, but standing in spite of their eloquence only for half of his talent, largely as he yet appears in “Il Fuoco” to announce himself by implication as an intending, indeed as a pre-eminent dramatist. The example is interesting when we catch in the fact the opportunity for comparing with the last closeness the capacity of the two rival canvases, as they become for the occasion, on which the picture of life may be painted. The closeness is never so great, the comparison never so pertinent, as when the separate efforts are but different phases of the same talent. It is not at any rate under this juxtaposition that the infinitely greater amplitude of portrayal resident in the novel strikes us least. It in fact strikes us the more, in this quarter, for Signor D’Annunzio, that his plays have been with one exception successes. We must none the less take “Francesca” but for a success of curiosity; on the part of the author I mean even more than on the part of the public. It is primarily a pictorial and ingenious thing and, as a picture of passion, takes, in the total collection, despite its felicities of surface and arrangement, distinctly a “back seat.” Scarcely less than its companions it overflows with the writer’s plenitude of verbal expression, thanks to which, largely, the series will always prompt a curiosity and even a tenderness in any reader interested precisely in this momentous question of “style in a play”—interested in particular to learn by what esthetic chemistry a play would as a work of art propose to eschew it. It is in any such connection so inexpugnable that we have only to be cheated of it in one place to feel the subject cry aloud for it, like a sick man forsaken, in another.
I may mention at all events the slightly perverse fact that, thanks, on this side, to the highest watermark of translation, Signor D’Annunzio makes his best appeal to the English public as a dramatist. Of each of the three English versions of other examples of his work whose titles are inscribed at the beginning of these remarks it may be said that they are adequate and respectable considering the great difficulty encountered. The author’s highest good fortune has nevertheless been at the hands of his French interpreter, who has managed to keep constantly close to him—allowing for an occasional inconsequent failure of courage when the directness of the original brave l’honnêteté—and yet to achieve a tone not less idiomatic, and above all not less marked by “authority,” than his own. Mr. Arthur Symons, among ourselves, however, has rendered the somewhat insistent eloquence of “La Gioconda” and the intricate and difficult verse of “Francesca” with all due sympathy, and in the latter case especially—a highly arduous task—with remarkably patient skill. It is not his fault, doubtless, if the feet of his English text strike us as moving with less freedom than those of his original; such being the hard price paid always by the translator who tries for correspondence from step to step, tries for an identical order. Even less is he responsible for its coming still more home to us in a translation that the meagre anecdote here furnishing the subject, and on which the large superstructure rests, does not really lend itself to those developments that make a full or an interesting tragic complexity. Behind the glamour of its immense literary association the subject of “Francesca” is for purposes of essential, of enlarged exhibition delusive and “short.”
These, however, are for the moment side-issues; what is more relevant is the stride taken by our author’s early progress in his first novel and his second, “Il Piacere” and “L’Innocente”; a pair from the freshness, the direct young energy of which he was, for some of his admirers, too promptly and to markedly to decline. We may take it as characteristic of the intensity of the literary life in him that his brief career falls already thus into periods and supplies a quantity of history sufficient for those differences among students by which the dignity of history appears mainly to be preserved. The nature of his prime inspiration I have already glanced at; and we are helped to a characterisation if I say that the famous enthroned “beauty” which operates here, so straight, as the great obsession, is not in any perceptible degree moral beauty. It would be difficult perhaps to find elsewhere in the same compass so much expression of the personal life resting so little on any picture of the personal character and the personal will. It is not that Signor D’Annunzio has not more than once pushed his furrow in this latter direction; but nothing is exactly more interesting, as we shall see, than the seemingly inevitable way in which the attempt falls short.
“Il Piacere,” the first in date of the five tales, has, though with imperfections, the merit of giving us strongly at the outset the author’s scale and range of view, and of so constituting a sort of prophetic summary of his elements. All that is done in the later things is more or less done here, and nothing is absent here that we are not afterwards also to miss. I propose, however, that it shall not be prematurely a question with us of what we miss; no intelligible statement of which, for that matter, in such considerations as these, is ever possible till there has been some adequate statement of what we find. Count Andrea Sperelli is a young man who pays, pays heavily, as we take it that we are to understand, for an unbridled surrender to the life of the senses; whereby it is primarily a picture of that life that the story gives us. He is represented as inordinately, as quite monstrously, endowed for the career that from the first absorbs and that finally is to be held, we suppose, to engulf him; and it is a tribute to the truth with which his endowment is presented that we should scarce know where else to look for so complete and convincing an account of such adventures. Casanova de Seingalt is of course infinitely more copious, but his autobiography is cheap loose journalism compared with the directed, finely-condensed iridescent epic of Count Andrea.
This young man’s years have run but half their course from twenty to thirty when he meets and becomes entangled with a woman more infernally expert even than himself in the matters in which he is most expert—and he is given us as a miracle of social and intellectual accomplishment—the effect of whom is fatally to pervert and poison his imagination. As his imagination is applied exclusively to the employments of “love,” this means, for him, a frustration of all happiness, all comfortable consistency, in subsequent relations of the same order. The author’s view—this is fundamental—is all of a world in which relations of any other order whatever mainly fail to offer themselves in any attractive form. Andrea Sperelli, loving, accordingly—in the manner in which D’Annunzio’s young men love and to which we must specifically return—a woman of good faith, a woman as different as possible from the creature of evil communications, finds the vessel of his spirit itself so infected and disqualified that it falsifies and dries up everything that passes through it. The idea that has virtually determined the situation appears in fact to be that the hero would have loved in another manner, or would at least have wished to, but that he had too promptly put any such fortune, so far as his capacity is concerned, out of court. We have our reasons, presently manifest, for doubting the possibility itself; but the theory has nevertheless given its direction to the fable.
For the rest the author’s three sharpest signs are already unmistakable: first his rare notation of states of excited sensibility; second his splendid visual sense, the quick generosity of his response to the message, as we nowadays say, of aspects and appearances, to the beauty of places and things; third his ample and exquisite style, his curious, various, inquisitive, always active employment of language as a means of communication and representation. So close is the marriage between his power of “rendering,” in the light of the imagination, and whatever he sees and feels, that we should much mislead in speaking of his manner as a thing distinct from the matter submitted to it. The fusion is complete and admirable, so that, though his work is nothing if not “literary,” we see at no point of it where literature or where life begins or ends: we swallow our successive morsels with as little question as we swallow food that has by proper preparation been reduced to singleness of savour. It is brought home to us afresh that there is no complete creation without style any more than there is complete music without sound; also that when language becomes as closely applied and impressed a thing as for the most part in the volumes before us the fact of artistic creation is registered at a stroke. It is never more present than in the thick-sown illustrative images and figures that fairly bloom under D’Annunzio’s hand. I find examples in “Il Piacere,” as elsewhere, by simply turning the pages. “His will”—of the hero’s weakness—“useless as a sword of base temper hung at the side of a drunkard or a dullard.” Or of his own southern land in September: “I scarce know why, looking at the country in this season, I always think of some beautiful woman after childbirth, who lies back in her white bed, smiling with a pale astonished inextinguishable smile.” Or the incision of this: “Where for him now were those unclean short-lived loves that left in the mouth the strange acidity of fruit cut with a steel knife?” Or the felicity of the following, of a southern night seen and felt from the terrace of a villa. “Clear meteors at intervals streaked the motionless air, running over it as lightly and silently as drops of water on a crystal pane.” “The sails on the sea,” he says of the same look-out by day, “were as pious and numberless as the wings of cherubim on the gold grounds of old Giottesque panels.”
But it is above all here for two things that his faculty is admirable; one of them his making us feel through the windows of his situation, or the gaps, as it were, of his flowering wood, the golden presence of Rome, the charm that appeals to him as if he were one of the pilgrims from afar, save that he reproduces it with an authority in which, as we have seen, the pilgrims from afar have mainly been deficient. The other is the whole category of the phenomena of “passion,” as passion prevails between his men and his women—and scarcely anything else prevails; the states of feeling, of ecstasy and suffering engendered, the play of sensibility from end to end of the scale. In this direction he has left no dropped stitches for any worker of like tapestries to pick up. We shall here have made out that many of his “values” are much to be contested, but that where they are true they are as fresh as discoveries; witness the passage where Sperelli, driving back to Rome after a steeplechase in which he has been at the supreme moment worsted, meets nothing that does not play with significance into his vision and act with force on his nerves. He has before the race had “words,” almost blows, on the subject of one of the ladies present, with one of the other riders, of which the result is that they are to send each other their seconds; but the omens are not for his adversary, in spite of the latter’s success on the course.
From the mail-coach, on the return, he overtook the flight toward Rome of Giannetto Rutolo, seated in a small two-wheeled trap, behind the quick trot of a great roan, over whom he bent with tight reins, holding his head down and his cigar in his teeth, heedless of the attempts of policemen to keep him in line. Rome, in the distance, stood up dark against a zone of light as yellow as sulphur; and the statues crowning St. John Lateran looked huge, above the zone, in their violet sky. Then it was that Andrea fully knew the pain he was making another soul suffer.
Nothing could be more characteristic of the writer than the way what has preceded flowers into that last reality; and equally in his best manner, doubtless, is such a passage as the following from the same volume, which treats of the hero’s first visit to the sinister great lady whose influence on his soul and his senses is to become as the trail of a serpent. She receives him, after their first accidental meeting, with extraordinary promptitude and the last intimacy, receives him in the depths of a great Roman palace which the author, with a failure of taste that is, unfortunately for him, on ground of this sort, systematic, makes a point of naming. “Then they ceased to speak. Each felt the presence of the other flow and mingle with his own, with her own, very blood; till it was her blood at last that seemed to have become his life, and his that seemed to have become hers. The room grew larger in the deep silence; the crucifix of Guido Reni made the shade of the canopy and curtains religious; the rumour of the city came to them like the murmur of some far-away flood.” Or take for an instance of the writer’s way of showing the consciousness as a full, mixed cup, of touching us ourselves with the mystery at work in his characters, the description of the young man’s leaving the princely apartments in question after the initiation vouchsafed to him. He has found the great lady ill in bed, with remedies and medicine-bottles at her side, but not too ill, as we have seen, to make him welcome. “Farewell,” she has said. “Love me! Remember!”
It seemed to him, crossing the threshold again, that he heard behind him a burst of sobs. But he went on, a little uncertain, wavering like a man who sees imperfectly. The odour of the chloroform clung to his sense like some fume of intoxication; but at each step something intimate passed away from him, wasting itself in the air, so that, impulsively, instinctively, he would have kept himself as he was, have closed himself in, have wrapped himself up to prevent the dispersion. The rooms in front of him were deserted and dumb. At one of the doors “Mademoiselle” appeared, with no sound of steps, with no rustle of skirts, standing there like a ghost. “This way, signor conte. You won’t find it.” She had an ambiguous, irritating smile, and her curiosity made her grey eyes more piercing. Andrea said nothing. The woman’s presence again disconcerted and troubled him, affected him with a vague repugnance, stirred indeed his wrath.
Even the best things suffer by detachment from their context; but so it is that we are in possession of the young man’s exit, so it is that the act interests us. Fully announced from the first, among these things, was D’Annunzio’s signal gift of never approaching the thing particularly to be done, the thing that so presents itself to the painter, without consummately doing it. Each of his volumes offers thus its little gallery of episodes that stand out like the larger pearls occurring at intervals on a string of beads. The steeplechase in “Il Piacere,” the auction sale of precious trinkets in Via Sistina on the wet afternoon, the morning in the garden at Schifanoia, by the southern sea, when Donna Maria, the new revelation, first comes down to Andrea, who awaits her there in the languor of convalescence from the almost fatal wound received in the duel of which the altercation on the race-course has been the issue: the manner of such things as these has an extraordinary completeness of beauty. But they are, like similar pages in “Il Trionfo” and “Il Fuoco,” not things for adequate citation, not things that lend themselves as some of the briefer felicities. Donna Maria, on the September night at Schifanoia, has been playing for Andrea and their hostess certain old quaint gavottes and toccatas.
It lived again wondrously beneath her fingers, the eighteenth-century music, so melancholy in its dance-tunes—tunes that might have been composed to be danced, on languid afternoons of some St. Martin’s summer, in a deserted park, among hushed fountains and pedestals without their statues, over carpets of dead roses, by pairs of lovers soon to love no more.
Autobiographic in form, “L’Innocente” sticks closely to its theme, and though the form is on the whole a disadvantage to it the texture is admirably close. The question is of nothing less than a young husband’s relation to the illegitimate child of his wife, born confessedly as such, and so born, marvellous to say, in spite of the circumstance that the wife adores him, and of the fact that, though long grossly, brutally false to her, he also adores his wife. To state these data is sufficiently to express the demand truly made by them for superiority of treatment; they require certainly two or three almost impossible postulates. But we of course never play the fair critical game with an author, never get into relation with him at all, unless we grant him his postulates. His subject is what is given him—given him by influences, by a process, with which we have nothing to do; since what art, what revelation, can ever really make such a mystery, such a passage in the private life of the intellect, adequately traceable for us? His treatment of it, on the other hand, is what he actively gives; and it is with what he gives that we are critically concerned. If there is nothing in him that effectually induces us to make the postulate, he is then empty for us altogether, and the sooner we have done with him the better; little as the truly curious critic enjoys, as a general thing, having publicly to throw up the sponge.
Tullio Hermil, who finally compasses the death of the little “innocent,” the small intruder whose presence in the family life has become too intolerable, retraces with a master’s hand each step of the process by which he has arrived at this sole issue. Save that his wife dumbly divines and accepts it his perpetration of the deed is not suspected, and we take the secret confession of which the book consists as made for the relief and justification of his conscience. The action all goes forward in that sphere of exasperated sensibility which Signor D’Annunzio has made his own so triumphantly that other story-tellers strike us in comparison as remaining at the door of the inner precinct, as listening there but to catch an occasional faint sound, while he alone is well within and moving through the place as its master. The sensibility has again in itself to be qualified; the exasperation of feeling is ever the essence of the intercourse of some man with some woman who has reduced him, as in “L’Innocente” and in “Il Trionfo,” to homicidal madness, or of some woman with some man who, as in “Il Fuoco,” and also again by a strange duplication of its office in “L’Innocente,” causes her atrociously to suffer. The plane of the situation is thus visibly a singularly special plane; that, always, of the more or less insanely demoralised pair of lovers, for neither of whom is any other personal relation indicated either as actual or as conceivably possible. Here, it may be said on such a showing, is material rather alarmingly cut down as to range, as to interest and, not least, as to charm; but here precisely it is that, by a wonderful chance, the author’s magic comes effectively into play.
Little in fact as the relation of the erotically exasperated with the erotically exasperated, when pushed on either side to frenzy, would appear to lend itself to luminous developments, the difficulty is surmounted each time in a fashion that, for consistency no less than for brilliancy, is all the author’s own. Though surmounted triumphantly as to interest, that is, the trick is played without the least falsification of the luckless subjects of his study. They remain the abject victims of sensibility that his plan has originally made them; they remain exasperated, erotic, hysterical, either homicidally or suicidally determined, cut off from any personal source of life that does not poison them; notwithstanding all of which they neither starve dramatically nor suffer us to starve with them. How then is this seemingly inevitable catastrophe prevented? We ask it but to find on reflection that the answer opens the door to their historian’s whole secret. The unfortunates are deprived of any enlarging or saving personal relation, that is of any beneficent reciprocity; but they make up for it by their relation both to the idea in general and to the whole world of the senses, which is the completest that the author can conceive for them. He may be described as thus executing on their behalf an artistic volte-face of the most effective kind, with results wonderful to note. The world of the senses, with which he surrounds them—a world too of the idea, that is of a few ideas admirably expressed—yields them such a crop of impressions that the need of other occasions to vibrate and respond, to act or to aspire, is superseded by their immense factitious agitation. This agitation runs its course in strangely brief periods—a singular note, the brevity, of every situation; but the period is while it lasts, for all its human and social poverty, quite inordinately peopled and furnished. The innumerable different ways in which his concentrated couples are able to feel about each other and about their enclosing cage of golden wire, the nature and the art of Italy—these things crowd into the picture and pervade it, lighting it scarcely less, strange to say, because they are things of bitterness and woe.
It is one of the miracles of the imagination; the great shining element in which the characters flounder and suffer becomes rich and beautiful for them, as well as in so many ways for us, by the action of the writer’s mind. They not only live in his imagination, but they borrow it from him in quantities; indeed without this charitable advance they would be poor creatures enough, for they have in each case almost nothing of their own. On the aid thus received they start, they get into motion; it makes their common basis of “passion,” desire, enchantment, aversion. The essence of the situation is the same in “Il Trionfo” and “Il Fuoco” as in “L’Innocente”: the temporarily united pair devour each other, tear and rend each other, wear each other out through a series of erotic convulsions and nervous reactions that are made interesting—interesting to us—almost exclusively by the special wealth of their consciousness. The medium in which they move is admirably reflected in it; the autumn light of Venice, the afterglow of her past, in the drama of the elderly actress and the young rhetorician of “Il Fuoco”; the splendour of the summer by the edge of the lower Adriatic in that of the two isolated erotomaniacs of “Il Trionfo,” indissolubly linked at last in the fury of physical destruction into which the man drags the woman by way of retribution for the fury of physical surrender into which she has beguiled him.
As for “L’Innocente” again, briefly, there is perhaps nothing in it to match the Roman passages of “Il Piacere”; but the harmony of the general, the outer conditions pervades the picture; the sweetness of the villeggiatura life, the happiness of place and air, the lovability of the enclosing scene, all at variance with the sharpness of the inner tragedy. The inner tragedy of “L’Innocente” has a concentration that is like the carrying, through turns and twists, upstairs and down, of some cup filled to the brim, of which no drop is yet spilled; such cumulative truth rules the scene after we have once accepted the postulate. It is true that the situation as exhibited involves for Giuliana, the young wife, the vulgarest of adventures; yet she becomes, as it unfolds, the figure of the whole gallery in whom the pathetic has at once most of immediate truth and of investing poetry. I much prefer her for beauty and interest to Donna Maria in “Il Piacere,” the principal other image of faith and patience sacrificed. We see these virtues as still supreme in her even while she faces, in advance, her ordeal, in respect to which it has been her hope, in fact her calculation, that her husband will have been deceived about the paternity of her child; and she is so truthfully touching when this possibility breaks down that even though we rub our eyes at the kind of dignity claimed for her we participate without reserve in her predicament. The origin of the infant is frankly ignoble, whereas it is on the nobleness of Giuliana that the story essentially hinges; but the contradiction is wonderfully kept from disconcerting us altogether. What the author has needed for his strangest truth is that the mother shall feel exactly as the husband does, and that the husband shall after the first shock of his horror feel intimately and explicitly with the mother. They take in this way the same view of their woeful excrescence; and the drama of the child’s advent and of the first months of his existence, his insistent and hated survival, becomes for them in respect to the rest of the world a drama of silence and dissimulation, in every step of which we feel a terror.
The effect, I may add, gains more than one kind of intensity from that almost complete absence of other contacts to which D’Annunzio systematically condemns his creatures; introducing here, however, just the two or three that more completely mark the isolation. It may doubtless be conceded that our English-speaking failure of insistence, of inquiry and penetration, in certain directions, springs partly from our deep-rooted habit of dealing with man, dramatically, on his social and gregarious side, as a being the variety of whose intercourse with his fellows, whatever forms his fellows may take, is positively half his interesting motion. We fear to isolate him, for we remember that as we see and know him he scarce understands himself save in action, action which inevitably mixes him with his kind. To see and know him, like Signor D’Annunzio, almost only in passion is another matter, for passion spends itself quickly in the open and burns hot mainly in nooks and corners. Nothing, too, in the picture is more striking than the manner in which the merely sentimental abyss—that of the couple brought together by the thing that might utterly have severed them—is consistently and successfully avoided. We should have been certain to feel it in many other hands yawning but a few steps off. We see the dreadful facts in themselves, are brought close to them with no interposing vaguenesses or other beggings of the question, and are forcibly reminded how much more this “crudity” makes for the communication of tenderness—what is aimed at—than an attitude conventionally more reticent. We feel what the tenderness can be when it rests on all the items of a constituted misery, not one of which is illogically blinked.
For the pangs and pities of the flesh in especial D’Annunzio has in all his work the finest hand—those of the spirit exist with him indeed only as proceeding from these; so that Giuliana for instance affects us, beyond any figure in fiction we are likely to remember, as living and breathing under our touch and before our eyes, as a creature of organs, functions and processes, palpable, audible, pitiful physical conditions. These are facts, many of them, of an order in pursuit of which many a spectator of the “picture of life” will instinctively desire to stop short, however great in general his professed desire to enjoy the borrowed consciousness that the picture of life gives us; and nothing, it may well be said, is more certain than that we have a right in such matters to our preference, a right to choose the kind of adventure of the imagination we like best. No obligation whatever rests on us in respect to a given kind—much light as our choice may often throw for the critic on the nature of our own intelligence. There at any rate, we are disposed to say of such a piece of penetration as “L’Innocente,” there is a particular dreadful adventure, as large as life, for those who can bear it. The conditions are all present; it is only the reader himself who may break down. When in general, it may be added, we see readers do so, this is truly more often because they are shocked at really finding the last consistency than because they are shocked at missing it.
“Il Trionfo della Morte” and “Il Fuoco” stand together as the amplest and richest of our author’s histories, and the earlier, and more rounded and faultless thing of the two, is not unlikely to serve, I should judge, as an unsurpassable example of his talent. His accomplishment here reaches its maximum; all his powers fight for him; the wealth of his expression drapes the situation represented in a mantle of voluminous folds, stiff with elaborate embroidery. The “story” may be told in three words: how Giorgio Aurispa meets in Rome the young and extremely pretty wife of a vulgar man of business, her unhappiness with whom is complete, and, falling in love with her on the spot, eventually persuades her—after many troubled passages—to come and pass a series of weeks with him in a “hermitage” by the summer sea, where, in a delirium of free possession, he grows so to hate her, and to hate himself for his subjection to her, and for the prostration of all honour and decency proceeding from it, that his desire to destroy her even at the cost of perishing with her at last takes uncontrollable form and he drags her, under a pretext, to the edge of a sea-cliff and hurls her, interlocked with him in appalled resistance, into space. We get at an early stage the note of that aridity of agitation in which the narrator has expended treasures of art in trying to interest us. “Fits of indescribable fury made them try which could torture each other best, which most lacerate the other’s heart and keep it in martyrdom.” But they understand, at least the hero does; and he formulates for his companion the essence of their impasse. It is not her fault when she tears and rends.
Each human soul carries in it for love but a determinate quantity of sensitive force. It is inevitable that this quantity should use itself up with time, as everything else does; so that when it is used up no effort has power to prevent love from ceasing. Now it’s a long time that you have been loving me; nearly two years!
The young man’s intelligence is of the clearest; the woman’s here is inferior, though in “Il Fuoco” the two opposed faculties are almost equal; but the pair are alike far from living in their intelligence, which only serves to bestrew with lurid gleams the black darkness of their sensual life. So far as the intelligence is one with the will our author fundamentally treats it as cut off from all communication with any other quarter—that is with the senses arrayed and encamped. The most his unfortunates arrive at is to carry their extremely embellished minds with them through these dusky passages as a kind of gilded glimmering lantern, the effect of which is merely fantastic and ironic—a thing to make the play of their shadows over the walls of their catacomb more monstrous and sinister. Again in the first pages of “Il Trionfo” the glimmer is given.
He recognised the injustice of any resentment against her, because he recognised the fatal necessities that controlled them alike. No, his misery came from no other human creature; it came from the very essence of life. The lover had not the lover to complain of, but simply love itself. Love, toward which his whole being reached out, from within, with a rush not to be checked, love was of all the sad things of this earth the most lamentably sad. And to this supreme sadness he was perhaps condemned till death.
That, in a nutshell, is D’Annunzio’s subject-matter; not simply that his characters see in advance what love is worth for them, but that they nevertheless need to make it the totality of their consciousness. In “Il Trionfo” and “Il Fuoco” the law just expressed is put into play at the expense of the woman, with the difference, however, that in the latter tale the woman perceives and judges, suffers in mind, so to speak, as well as in nerves and in temper. But it would be hard to say in which of these two productions the inexhaustible magic of Italy most helps the effect, most hangs over the story in such a way as to be one with it and to make the ugliness and the beauty melt together. The ugliness, it is to be noted, is continually presumed absent; the pursuit and cultivation of beauty—that fruitful preoccupation which above all, I have said, gives the author his value as our “case”—being the very ground on which the whole thing rests. The ugliness is an accident, a treachery of fate, the intrusion of a foreign substance—having for the most part in the scheme itself no admitted inevitability. Against it every provision is made that the most developed taste in the world can suggest; for, ostensibly, transcendently, Signor D’Annunzio’s is the most developed taste in the world—his and that of the ferocious yet so contracted conoscenti his heroes, whose virtual identity with himself, affirmed with a strangely misplaced complacency by some of his critics, one would surely hesitate to take for granted. It is the wondrous physical and other endowments of the two heroines of “Il Piacere,” it is the joy and splendour of the hero’s intercourse with them, to say nothing of the lustre of his own person, descent, talents, possessions, and of the great general setting in which everything is offered us—it is all this that makes up the picture, with the constant suggestion that nothing of a baser quality for the esthetic sense, or at the worst for a pampered curiosity, might hope so much as to live in it. The case ............
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