1804 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas James Mathias

William Herbert, Review of Mathias, Componimenti Lirici de pia illustri Poeti d'Italia; Edinburgh Review 5 (April 1804); Herbert, Works (1842) 2:4-5.



The poets of Italy, numerous at all times, have continued to write in an unvarying tongue for upwards of five centuries; and, though they have left no branch of poetry unadorned, the sonnet and lyric muse have been chiefly cultivated. Their infinite increase has rendered selections so necessary, that many have been published, though none that can be reckoned satisfactory: and we lament, that the production of Mr. Mathias, though it has considerable merit, does not altogether supply the deficiency. The editor, with a certain degree of information concerning Italian poetry, has undertaken this work without rendering himself completely master of the field from which his resources were to be drawn. It is not sufficient to have chosen some striking poetry, or brought to light some latent beauties: what was wanted, was such a judicious selection from a very bulky stock, as might afford, within a moderate compass, an adequate specimen of the whole; and this we have not yet attained. In arranging such a work, different schemes might be adopted: a specimen might be given from every writer who had gained reputation amongst his contemporaries, with a brief account of his literary history; or a standard of merit might be assumed, and every production superior to it might be chosen, without regard to its author. A selection, that united both these plans, would be most valuable and entertaining; extracting more largely from the best writers, and giving a specimen, with a short account of their other works, from those whose fame might appear to exceed their real merit. We regret that Mr. Mathias adopted no regular system. He has omitted altogether several poets of considerable celebrity and excellence he has extracted largely from some of a heavy vein, little from others of brighter genius; he has given single sonnets from several, who are almost unknown in England, without any notice concerning them, except "their names, their years," imperfectly registered in a chronological index. The omission of such "notizie critiche" (without which these single sonnets have little interest) is the more singular, as the editor might have reprinted them from the Parnaso Italiano, where he would have found a concise account of most of the Italian poets. The work is also very deficient in explanatory notes, without which many allusions must be unintelligible to the best Italian scholars. It is entitled Componimenti Lirici, but the volumes contain only sonnets, canzoni, and a very few sestine and odes in quarta rima; nor is any reason assigned for the omission of the canzonette and other sorts of lyric poetry, which abound in Italy. All other selections, bearing that title, comprehend them; and they are certainly more truly lyric, than the sonnet. Mr. Mathias writes Italian with great accuracy; and some lines in his dedicatory ode are excellent. His translation from Gray, and the sonnet in the third volume, are not quite so unexceptionable; the last line, "Belta con senno sia possente Maga," reminds us of one in the Lucciola d' Avanzi, "Belta fascinatrice e d' amor Maga." With a distinguishing taste, and an accurate knowledge of the language, the editor might have made this work truly valuable, if he had bestowed more labour upon it, and acquired the extensive information, without which it could not be rendered perfect.