« PreviousContinue »
is insensible to shame, but because, in the society in whirh he lives, timidity has ceased to be shameful. To do an injury openly is, in his estimation, as wicked as to do it secretly, and far less profitable. With him the most honourable means are—the surest, the speediest, and the darkest. He cannot comprehend how a man should scruple to deceive htm win in he does not scruple to destroy. He would think it madness to declare open hostilities against a rival whom he might stab in a friendly embrace, or poison in a consecrated wafer.
Yet this man, black with the vices which we consider as most loathsome—traitor, hypocrite, coward, assassin—was by no means destitute even of those virtues which we generally consider as indicating superior elevation of character. In civil courage, in perseverance, in presence of mind, those barbarous warriors u ho were foremost in the battle or the breach, were far his inferiors. Even the dangers which he avoided, with a caution almost pusillanimous, never confused his perceptions, never paralyzed his inventive faculties, never wrung out one secret from his ready tongue and his inscrutable brow. Though a dangerous enemy, and a still more dangerous accomplice, he was a just and beneficent ruler. With so much unfairness in his policy, there was an extraordinary degree of fairness in his intellect. Indifferent to truth in the transactions of life, he was honestly devoted to the pursuit of truth in the researches of speculation. Wanton cruelty was not in his nature. On the contrary, where no political object was at stake, his disposition was soft and humane. The susceptibility of his nerves, and the activity of his imagination, inclined him to sympathize with the feelings of others, and to delight in the charities and courtesies of social life. Perpetually descending to actions which might seem 10 mark a mind diseased through all its faculties, he had nevertheless an exquisite sensibility both for the natural and the moral sublime, for every graceful and every lofty conception. Habits of petty intrigue and dissimulation might have rendered him incapable of great general views; but that the expanding efleci of his philosophical studies counteracted the narrowing tendency. He had the keenest enjoyment of wit, eloquence, and poetry. The fine arts profited alike by the severity of his judgment, and the liberality of his patronage. The portraits of some of the remarkable Italians of those times are perfectly in harmony with this description. Ample and majestic foreheads; brows strong and dark, but nut frowning; eyes of which the calm full gaze, while it expresses nothing, seems to discern every thing; cheeks pale with thought and sedentary habits; lips formed with feminine delicacy, but compressed with more than masculine decision, mark out men at once enterprising and apprehensive; men equally skilled in detecting the purposes of others, and in concealing their own; men who must have been formidable enemies and unsafe allies; but men, at the same time, whose tempers were mild and equable, and who possessed an amplitude and subtlety of mind, which would have rendered
them eminent either in active or in contemplative life, and fitted them either to govern or to instruct mankind.
Every age and every nation has certain characteristic vices, which prevail almost universally, which scarcely any person scruples to avow, and which even rigid moralists but faintly censure. Succeeding generations change the fashion of their morals, with their hats and their coaches; take some other kind of wickedness under their patronage, and wonder at the depravity of their ancestors. Nor is this all. Posterity, that high court of appeal which is never tired of eulogizing its own justice and discernment, acts, on such occasions, like a Roman dictator after a general mutiny. Pindingthe delinquents too numerous to be all punished, it selects some of them at hazard to bear the whole penally of an offence in which they are not more deeply implicated than those who escape. Whether decimation be a convenient mode of military execution, we know not: bot we solemnly protest against the introduction of such a principle into the philosophy of history.
In the present instance, the lot has fallen on Machiavelli: a man whose public conduct was upright and honourable, whose views of morality, where they differed from those of the persons around him, seem to have differed for the better, and whose only fault was, that, having adopted some of the maxims then generally received, he arranged them more luminously, and expressed thern more forcibly than any other writer.
Having now, we hope, in some degree cleared the personal character of Machiavelli, ■we come to the consideration of his works. As a poet, he is not entitled to a very high 1-l.tcc. The Decennali are merely abstracts of the history of his own times in rhyme. The style and versification are sedulously modelled on those of Dante. But the manner of Dante, like that of every other great original poet, was suited only to his own genius, and to his own subject. The distorted and rugged diction which gives to his unearthly imagery a yet more unearthly character, and seems to proceed from a man labouring to express that which is inexpressible, is at once mean and extravagant when misemployed by an imitator. The moral poems are in every point superior. That on Fortune, in particular, and that on Opportunity exhibit both justness of thought and fertility of fancy. The Golden Ass has nothing but the name in common with the Romance nf Apuleius, a book which, in spite of it> irregular plan and its detestable style, is among the most fascinating in the Latin language, and in which the merits of Le Sage and RadcliflTe, Bunyan andCrcbillon, are singularly united. The Poem of Machiavelli, which is evidently unfinished, is carefully copied from the earlier Cantos of the Inferno. The writer loses himself in a wood. He is terrified by monsters, and relieved by a beautiful damsel. His protectress conducts him to a large menagerie of emblematical beasts, whose peculiarities are described at ength. The manner as well as the plan of the Divine Comedy is carefully imitated. Whole lines are transferred
from it. But they no longer produce their wonted effect. Virgil advises the husbandmen who removes a plant from one spot to another to mark its bearings on the cork, and to place it in the same position with regard to the different points of the heaven in which it formerly stood. A similar care is necessary in poetical transplantation. Where it is neglected, we perpetually see the flowers of language, which have bloomed on one soil, wither on another. Yet the Golden Ass is not altogethci destitute of merit. There is considerable ingenuity in the allegory, and some vivid colouring in the descriptions.
The Comedies deserve more attention. The Mandragola, in particular, is superior to the best of Goldoni, and inferior only to the best of Moliere. It is the work of a man who, if he had devoted himself to the drama, would probably have attained the highest eminence, and produced a permanent and salutary effect on the national taste. This we infer, not so much from the degree, as from the kind of its excellence. There are compositions which indicate still greater talent, and which are perused with still greater delight, from which we should have drawn very different mucin sions. Books quite worthless are quite harm less. The sure sign of the general decline of an art is the frequent occurrence, not of de formity, but of misplaced beauty. In general, tragedy is corrupted by eloquence, and comedy by wit.
The real object of the drama is the exhibition of the human character. This, we conceive, is no arbitrary canon, originating in local and temporary associations, like those which regulate the number of acts in a play, or syllables in a line. It is the very essence of a species of composition, in which every idea is coloured by passing through the medium of an imagined mind. To this fundamental law every other regulation is subordinate. The situations which most signally develope character form the best plot. The mother tongue of the passions is the best style
The principle, rightly understood, does not debar the poet from any grace of composition. There is no style in which some man may not, under some circumstances, express himself. There is therefore no style which the drama rejects, none which it does not occasionally require. It is in the discernment of place, of time, and of person, that the inferior artists fail. The brilliant rodomontade of Mercutio, the elaborate declamation of Antony, are, where Shakspcare has placed them, natural and pleasing. But Dryden would have made Mercutio challenge Tybalt, in hyperboles as fanciful as those in which he describes the chariot of Mali.—Corneille would have represented Antony as scolding and coaxing Cleopatra with ali the measured rhetoric of a fune ral oration.
No writers have injured the Comedy of Eng land so deeply as Congreve and Sheridan. Both were men of splendid wit and polished taste. Unhappily they made nil their characters in their own likeness. Their works bear the same relation to the legitimate drama which a transparency bears to a paining- m
delicate touches; no hues imperceptibly fad• tug into each other; the whole is lighted up with an universal glare. Outlines and tints •re forgotten, in the common blaze which illuminates all. The (lowers and fruits of the intellect abound; but it is the abundance of a jungle, not of" a garden—unwholesome, bewildering, unprofitable from its very plenty, rank from its very fragrance. Every fop, every boor, every ralet, is a man of wit. The very butts and dupes. Tat tie, Urkwould, Puff, Acres, outshine the whole Hotel de Rambouillet. To prove the whole system of this school absurd, it is only necessary to apply the test which dissolved the enchanted Florimel—to place the true by the false Thalia, to contrast the most celebrated characters which have been drawn by the writers of whom we speak, with the Dastard in King John, or the Nurse in Romeo ami Juliet. It was not surely from want of wit that Shakspcare adopted so different a manner. Benedick and Beatrice throw Mirabel and Millamant into the shade. All the good sayings of the facetious hours of Absolute and Surface might have bee,i clipped from the single character of Falstaff without being missed. It would have been easy for that fertile mind to have given Bardolph and Shallow as much wit as Prince Hal, and to have made Dogberry and Verges retort on each other in sparkling epigrams. But he knew, to use his own admirable language, that such indiscriminate prodigality was "from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was, and is, to hold, as it were, the mirror up to Nature."
This digression will enable our readers to understand what we mean when we say that, in the Mandragola, Machiavelli has proved that he completely understood the nature of the dramatic art, and possessed talents which would have enabled him to excel in it. By the correct and vigorous delineation of human nature, it produces interest without a pleasing or skilful plot, and laughter without the least ambition of wit. The lover, not a very delicate or generous lover, and his adviser the parasite, are drawn with spirit. The hypocritical confessor is an admirable portrait He is, if we mistake not, the original of Father Dominic, the best comic character of Dryden. But old Nicias isthe glory of the piece. We cannot call to mind any thing that resembles him. The follies which Moliere ridicules are those of affectation, not those of fatuity. Coxcombs and pedants, not simpletons, are his game. Shakspeare has indeed a vast assortment of "fools; but the' precise specie; of which we speak is not, if we remember right, to be found there. Shallow is a fool. But his animal spirits supply; to a certain degree, the place of cleverness. His talk is to that of Sir John what soda-water is to champagne. It has the effervescence, though not the body or the flavour. Slender and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are foo's, troubled with an unensy consciousness of their folly, which, in the latter, pronuc-'a most edifying meekness and docility, an.' in the former, awkwardness, obstinacy, and confusion. Clolcn is an arrogant fool, 'I .rx a foppish fool, Ajax a savage fool; but
Nicias is, as Thersites says of Patroclna, ■ fool positive. His mind is occupied by no strong feeling; it takes every character, and retains none; its aspect is diversified, not by passions, but by faint and transitory semblances of passion, a mock joy, a mock fear, a mock love, a mock pride, which chase each oihei like shadows over its surface, and vanish as soon as they appear. He is just idiot enough to be an object, not of pity or horror, but of ridicule. He bears some resemblance to poor Calandrino, whose mishaps, as recounted by Boccaccio, have made all Europe merry for more than four centuries. He perhaps resembles still more closely Simon de Villa, to whom Bruno and Buffulmacco promised the love of the Countess Civilian.* Nicias is, like Simon, of a learned profession; and the dignity with which he wears the doctoral fur renders his absurdities infinitely more grotesque. The old Tuscan is the very language for such a being. Its peculiar simplicity gives even to the most forcible reasoning and the most brilliant wit an infantine air, generally delightful, but to a foreign reader sometimes a little ludicrous. Heroes nnd statesmen seem to lisp when they use it. It becomes Nicias incomparably, and renders all his silliness infinitely more silly.
We may add, that the verses, with which the Mandragola is interspersed, appear to us to be the most spirited and correct of all that Machiavelli has written in metre. He seems to have entertained the same opinion; for he has introduced some of them in other places. The contemporaties of the author were not blind to the merits of this striking piece. It was acted at Florence with the greatest success. Leo the Tenth was among its admirers, and by his order fi was represented at Romei
The Clizia is an imitation of the Casina ot Plautus, which is itself an imitation of the lost kKiivuivu of Diphilus. Plautus was, unquestionably, one of the best Latin writers. His works are copies; but they have in an extraordinary degree the air of originals. We infinitely prefer the slovenly exuberance of his fancy, and the clumsy vigour of his diction, to the artfully disguised poverty and elegant languor of Terence. But the Casina is hy no means one of his best plays; nor is it one which cllers great facilities to an imitator. The story is as alien from modern habits of life, as the manner in which it is developed from the modern fashion of composition. The lover remains in the country, and the heroine is locked up in her chamber during the whole action, leaving their fate to be decided by a foolish father, a cunning mother, and two knavish servants. Machiavelli has executed his task with judgment and taste. He has accommodated the plot to a different state of society, and has very dexterously connected it with the history of his own times. The relation of the trick put on the doating old lover is ex quisilely humorous. It is far superior to the corresponding passage in the Latin comedy, and scarcely yields to the account which Falstaff gives of his ducking.
• llecamcron, Giorn. viii. Nov. fl.
t Nothing can he more evident than Ihnt !\-uilli» .fivirnt ilretunnlpN the Mandragola under the name of the Niriaa. Wh ahnuld not have nolired whal in •" |ictfectly obvious, wi-re il not that this natural ami nalrcihla niisnnui'T has led Hie sagacious and tuduilfiuuf Uayla Into a groai error.
Two other comedies without titles, the one in prose, the oiher in verse, appear among the ■works of Machiavclli. The former is very short, lively enough, but of no great value. The latter we can scarcely believe to be genuine. Neither its merits nor its defects remind us of the reputed author. It was lirst printed in 1796, from a manuscript discovered in the celebrated library of the Sirozzi. Its genuineness, if we have been rightly informed, is established solely by the comparison of hands. Our suspicions are strengthened by the circumstance, that the same manuscript contained a description of the plague of 1527, which has also, in consequence, been added to the works of Machiavelli. Of this last composition the strongest external evidence would scarcely induce us to believe him guilty. Nothing was ever written more detestable, in matter and manner. The narrations, the reflections, the jokes, the lamentations, are all the very worst of iheir respective kinds, at once trite and affected—threadbare tinsel from the Kagfairs and Monmouth-streets of literature. A foolish school-boy might perhaps write it, and, after he had written it, think it much finer than the incomparable introduction of the Decameron. But that a shrewd statesman, whose earliest works are characterized by manliness of thought and language, should at nearly sixty years of age, descend to such puerility, is utterly inconceivable.
The little Novel of Belphegor is pleasantly conceived and pleasantly told. But the extravagance of the satire in some measure injures ks effect. Machiavelli was unhappily married; and his wish to avenge his own cause and thai of his brethren in misfortune, carried him beyond even the license of fiction. Jonson seems to have combined some hints taking from this taie with others from Boccaccio, in the plot of The Devil it an du—a play which, though not the most highly finished of his compositions, is perhaps that which exhibits the strongest proofs of genius.
The political correspondence of Machiavelli, first published in 1767, is unquestionably genuine and highly valuable. The unhappy circumstances in which his country was placed, during the greater part of his public life, gave 'extraordinary encouragement to diplomatic talents. From the moment that Charles the Eighth descended from the Alps, the whole character of Italian politics was changed. The governments of the Peninsula cease to form an independent system. Drawn from their old •rbit by the attraction of the larger bodies which now approached them, they became men satellites of France and Spain. All their disputes, internal and external, were decided by foreign influence. The contests of opposite factions were carried on, not as formerly in the Senate-house, or in the market-place, but in the antechambers of Louis and Ferdi■and. Under these circumstances, the prosperity of the Italian Slates depended far more on the ability of their foreign aeents than on the
conduct of those who were intrusted with the domestic administration. The ambassador had to discharge functions far more delicate than transmitting orders of knighthood, introducing tourists, or presenting his brethren with the homage of his high consideration. He was an advocate, to whose management the dearest interests of his clients were intrusted; a spy,clothed with an inviolable character. Instead of consulting the dignity of lliuse whom he represented by a reserved manner and an ambiguous style, he was to plunge into all the intrigues of the court al which he resided, to discover and flatter every weakness of the prince who governed his employers, of the favourite who governed ihe prince, and of the lacquey who governed the favourite. He was to compliment the mistiess and bribe the confessor, to panegyrize or supplicate, to laugh or weep, to accommodate himself to every caprice, to lull every suspicion, to treasure every hint, to be every thing, to observe every thing, to endure every thing. High as the art of political intrigue had been carried in Italy, these were limes which required it all.
On these arduous errands Machiavelli was frequently employed. He was sent to treat with the King of the Romans and with the Duke of Valentinois. lie was twice ambassador al the court of Rome, and thrice at that of France. In these missions, and in several others of inferior importance, he acquitted himself with great dexterity. His despatches form one of the most amusing and instructive collections extant. We meet with none of the mysterious jargon so common in modern stale papers, the flash-language of political robbers and sharpers. The narratives are clear and agreeably written; the remarks on men and things clever and judicious. The conversa lions are reported in a spirited and characteristic manner. We find ourselves introduced into the presence of the men who, during twenty eventful years, swayed the destinies of Europe. Their wit and their folly, their fretfulness and their merriment are exposed to us. We are admitted to overhear their chat, and to walch their familiar gestures. Ii is interesting and curious to recognise, in circumstances which elude the notice of historians, the feeble violence and shallow cunning of Louis the Twelfth; the bustling insignificance of Maximilian, cursed with an impotent pruriency for renown, rash yet timid, obstinate yet fickle, always in a hurry, yet always too Lite;—the fierce and haughty energy which gave dignity to the eccentricities of Julius;—the soft and graceful manners which masked the insatiable ambition and the implacable hatred of Bortjia.
We have mentioned Borgia. It is impossible not to pause for a moment on the name of a man in whom the political morality of Italy was so strongly personified, partially blended with the sterner lineaments of the Spanish character. On two important occasions Machiavelli was admitted to his society; once, at the moment when his splendid villany achieved its most signal triumph, when he caught in one snare and crushed al one blow all his lniwl formidable rivals, and again when, exhausted by disease and overwhelmed bv mislbmiii's, which no human prudence could have averted, he was the prisoner of the deadliest enemy of his house. These interviews, between the greatest speculative and the greatest practical staiesmen of the ape, arc fully described in the correspondence, and form perhaps the most interesting part of it. From some passages in the Print*, and perhaps also from some indistinct traditions,several writers have supposed a connection between tlvose remarkable men much closer than ever existed. The Envoy has even been accused of promoting the crimes of the artful and merciless tyrant. But from the official documents it is clear that their intercourse, though ostensibly amicable, was in reality hostile. It cannot be doubled, however, that the imagination of Machiavelli was strongly impressed and his speculations on government coloured, by the observations which he made on the singular character, and equally singular fortunes, of a man who, under such disadvantages, had achieved such exploits: who, when sensuality, varied through innumerable forms, could no longer stimulate his sated mind, found a more powerful and durable excitement in the intense thirst of empire and revenge ;— who emerged from the sloth and luxury of the Human purple, the first prince and general of the age;—who,trained in an unwarlike profession, formed a gallant army out of the dregs of an unwarlike people:—who, after acquiring sovereignty by destroying his enemies, acquired popularity by destroying his tools;— who had begun to employ for the most salutary ends the power which he had attained by the most atrocious means; who tolerated within the sphere of his iron despotism no plunderer or oppressor but himself;—and who fell at last amidst the mingled curses and regrets of a people, of whom his genius had been the wonder, and might have been the salvation. Some of those crimes of Borgia, which to us appear the most odious, would not, from causes which we have already considered, have struck an Italian of the fifteenth century with equal horror. Patriotic feeling also might induce Machiavelli to look, with some indulgence and regret, on the memory of the only leader who could have defended the independence of Italy against the confederate spoilers of Cambray.
On this subject Machiavelli felt most strongly. Indeed the expulsion of the foreign tyrants, and the restoration of that golden age which had preceded the irruption of Charles the Eighth, were projects which, at that time, fascir.ated all the master-spirits of Italy. The magnificent vision delighted the great but illregulated mind of Julius. It divided with manuscripts and sauces, painters and falcons, the attention of the frivolous Leo. It prompted the generous treason of Morone. It imparted a transient energy to the feeble mind and body of the last Sl'orza. It excited for one moment an honest ambition in the false heart of Pescara. Ferocity and insolence were not among the vices of the national character. To the discriminating cruellies of politicians, commilled for great ends on select victims, the moral code of ihe Italians was too indulgent. But though they might have r-course to har'•aiuv as an exnedie.nt. they did not require it
as a stimulant. They turned with loathing from the atrocity of the strangers who seemed to love blood for its own sake, wrho, not content with subjugating, were impatient to destroy; who found a fiendish pleasure in razing magnificent cities, cutting the throats of enemies who cried for quarter, or suffocating an unarmed people by thousands in the caverns to which they had fled for safety. Such were the scenes which daily excited the terror and disgust of a people, amongst whom, till lately, the worst that a soldier had to fear in a pitched battle was the loss of his horse, and the expense of his ransom. The swinish intemperance of Switzerland, the wolfish avarice of Spain, the gross licentiousness of the French, indulged in violation of hospitality, of decency, of love itself, the wanton inhumanity which was common to all the invaders, had rendered them subjects of deadly hatred to the inhabitants of the Peninsula.* The wealth whichhad been accumulated during centuries of prosperity and repose was rapidly melting away. The intellectual superiority of the oppressed people only rendered them more keenly sensible of their political degradation. Literature and taste, indeed, still disguised, with a flush of hectic loveliness and brilliancy, the ravages of an incurable decay. The iron had not yet entered into the soul. The time was not yet come when eloquence was to be gagged and reason to be hoodwinked—when the harp of the poet was to be hung on the willows of Ant, and the right hand of the painter to forget its cunning. Yet a discerning eye might even then have seen that genius and learning would not long survive the state of things from which they had sprung;—that the great men whose talents gave lustre to that melancholy period had been formed under the influence of happier days, and would leave no successors behind them. The times which shine with the greatest splendour in literary history are not always those to which the human mind is most indebted. Of this we may be convinced, by comparing the generation which follows them with that which preceded them. The first fruits which are reaped under a bad system often spring from seed sown under a good one. Thus it was, in some measure, with the Augustan age. Thus it was with the age of Raphael and Ariosto, of Aldus and Vida.
Machiavelli deeply regretted the misfortunes of his country, and clearly discerned the cause and the remedy. It was the military system of the Italian people which had extinguished their valour and discipline, and rendered their wealih an easy prey to every foreign plunderer. The Secretary projected a scheme alike honourable to his heart and to his intellect, for abolishing the use of mercenary troops, and organizing a national militia.
The exertions which he made to eft'ect this great object ought alone to rescue his name from obloquy. Though his situation and his