From Bocca di Magra to Bocca d’Arno, mile after mile, the sandy beaches smoothly, unbrokenly extend. Inland from the beach, behind a sheltering belt of pines, lies a strip of coastal plain—flat as a slice of Holland and dyked with slow streams. Corn grows here and the vine, with plantations of slim poplars interspersed, and fat water-meadows. Here and there the streams brim over into shallow lakes, whose shores are fringed with sodden fields of rice. And behind this strip of plain, four or five miles from the sea, the mountains rise, suddenly and steeply: the Apuan Alps. Their highest crests are of bare limestone, streaked here and there with the white marble which brings prosperity to the little towns that stand at their feet: Massa and Carrara, Serravezza, Pietrasanta. Half the world’s tombstones are scooped out of these noble crags. Their lower slopes are grey with olive trees, green with woods of chestnut. Over their summits repose the enormous sculptured masses of the clouds.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,—
The mountains its columns be.
The landscape fairly quotes Shelley at you. This sea with its luminous calms and sudden tempests, these dim blue islands hull down on the horizon, these mountains and their marvellous clouds, these rivers and woodlands are the very substance of his poetry. Live on this coast for a little and you will find yourself constantly thinking of that lovely, that strangely childish poetry, that beautiful and child-like man. Perhaps his spirit haunts the coast. It was in this sea that he sailed his flimsy boat, steering with one hand and holding in the other his little volume of Æschylus. You picture him so on the days of calm. And on the days of sudden violent storm you think of him, too. The lightnings cut across the sky, the thunders are like terrible explosions overhead, the squall comes down with a fury. What news of the flimsy boat? None, save only that a few days after the storm a young body is washed ashore, battered, unrecognizable; the little Æschylus in the coat pocket is all that tells us that this was Shelley.
I have been spending the summer on this haunted coast. That must be my excuse for mentioning in so self-absorbed a world as is ours the name of a poet who has been dead these hundred years. But be reassured. I have no intention of writing an article about the ineffectual angel beating in the void his something-or-other wings in vain. I do not mean to add my croak to the mellifluous chorus of centenary-celebrators. No; the ghost of Shelley, who walks in Versilia and the Lunigia, by the shores of the Gulf of Spezia and below Pisa where Arno disembogues, this ghost with whom I have shaken hands and talked, incites me, not to add a supererogatory and impertinent encomium, but rather to protest against the outpourings of the other encomiasts, of the honey-voiced centenary-chanters.
The cooing of these persons, ordinarily a specific against insomnia, is in this case an irritant; it rouses, it exacerbates. For annoying and disgusting it certainly is, this spectacle of a rebellious youth praised to fulsomeness, a hundred years after his death, by people who would hate him and be horrified by him, if he were alive, as much as the Scotch reviewers hated and were horrified by Shelley. How would these persons treat a young contemporary who, not content with being a literary innovator, should use his talent to assault religion and the established order, should blaspheme against plutocracy and patriotism, should proclaim himself a Bolshevik, an internationalist, a pacifist, a conscientious objector? They would say of him that he was a dangerous young man who ought to be put in his place; and they would either disparage and denigrate his talent, or else—if they were a little more subtly respectable—they would never allow his name to get into print in any of the periodicals which they controlled. But seeing that Shelley was safely burnt on the sands of Viareggio a hundred years ago, seeing that he is no longer a live dangerous man but only a dead classic, these respectable supporters of established literature and established society join in chorus to praise him, and explain his meaning, and preach sermons over him. The mellifluous cooing is accompanied by a snuffle, and there hangs over these centenary celebrations a genial miasma of hypocrisy and insincerity. The effect of these festal anniversaries in England is not to rekindle life in the great dead; a centenary is rather a second burial, a reaffirmation of deadness. A spirit that was once alive is fossilized and, in the midst of solemn and funereal ceremonies, the petrified classic is duly niched in the temple of respectability.
How much better they order these things in Italy! In that country—which one must ever admire more the more one sees of it—they duly celebrate their great men; but celebrate them not with a snuffle, not in black clothes, not with prayer-books in their hands, crape round their hats and a hatred, in their hearts, of all that has to do with life and vigour. No, no; they make their dead an excuse for quickening life among the living; they get fun out of their centenaries.
Last year the Italians were celebrating the six hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death. Now, imagine what this celebration would have been like in England. All the oldest critics and all the young men who aspire to be old would have written long articles in all the literary papers. That would have set the tone. After that some noble lord, or even a Prince of the Blood, would have unveiled a monument designed by Frampton or some other monumental mason of the Academy. Imbecile speeches in words of not more than two syllables would then have been pronounced over the ashes of the world’s most intelligent poet. To his intelligence no reference would, of course, be made; but his character, ah! his character would get a glowing press. The most fiery and bitter of men would be held up as an example to all Sunday-school children.
After this display of reverence, we should have had a lovely historical pageant in the rain. A young female dressed in white bunting would have represented Beatrice, and for the Poet himself some actor manager with a profile and a voice would have been found. Guelfs and Ghibellines in fancy dress of the period would go splashing about in the mud, and a great many verses by Louis Napoleon Parker would be declaimed. And at the end we should all go home with colds in our heads and suffering from septic ennui, but with, at the same time, a pleasant feeling of virtuousness, as though we had been at church.
See now what happens in Italy. The principal event in the Dante celebration is an enormous military review. Hundreds of thousands of wiry little brown men parade the streets of Florence. Young officers of a fabulous elegance clank along in superbly tailored riding breeches and glittering top-boots. The whole female population palpitates. It is an excellent beginning. Speeches are then made, as only in Italy they can be made—round, rumbling, sonorous speeches, all about Dante the Italianissimous poet, Dante the irredentist, Dante the prophet of Greater Italy, Dante the scourge of Jugo-Slavs and Serbs. Immense enthusiasm. Never having read a line of his works, we feel that Dante is our personal friend, a brother Fascist.
After that the real fun begins; we have the manifestazioni sportive of the centenary celebrations. Innumerable bicycle races are organized. Fierce young Fascisti with the faces of Roman heroes pay their homage to the Poet by doing a hundred and eighty kilometres to the hour round the Circuit of Milan. High speed Fiats and Ansaldos and Lancias race one another across the Apennines and round the bastions of the Alps. Pigeons are shot, horses gallop, football is played under the broiling sun. Long live Dante!
How infinitely preferable this is to the stuffiness and the snuffle of an English centenary! Poetry, after all, is life, not death. Bicycle races may not have very much to do with Dante—though I can fancy him, his thin face set like metal, whizzing down the spirals of Hell on a pair of twinkling wheels or climbing laboriously the one-in-three gradients of Purgatory Mountain on the back of his trusty Sunbeam. No, they may not have much to do with Dante; but pageants in Anglican cathedral closes, boring articles by old men who would hate and fear him if he were alive, speeches by noble lords over monuments made by Royal Academicians—these, surely, have even less to do with the author of the Inferno.
It is not merely their great dead whom the Italians celebrate in this gloriously living fashion. Even their religious festivals have the same jovial warm-blooded character. This summer, for example, a great feast took place at Loreto to celebrate the arrival of a new image of the Virgin to replace the old one which was burnt some little while ago. The excitement started in Rome, where the image, after being blessed by the Pope, was taken in a motor-car to the station amid cheering crowds who shouted, “Evviva Maria” as the Fiat and its sacred burden rolled past. The arrival of the Virgin in Loreto was the signal for a tremendous outburst of jollification. The usual bicycle races took place; there were football matches and pigeon-shooting competitions and Olympic games. The fun lasted for days. At the end of the festivities two cardinals went up in aeroplanes and blessed the assembled multitudes—an incident of which the Pope is said to have remarked that the blessing, in this case, did indeed come from heaven.
Rare people! If only we Anglo-Saxons could borrow from the Italians some of their realism, their love of life for its own sake, of palpable, solid, immediate things. In this dim land of ours we are accustomed to pay too much respect to fictitious values; we worship invisibilities and in our enjoyment of immediate life we are restrained by imaginary inhibitions. We think too much of the past, of metaphysics, of tradition, of the ideal future, of decorum and good form; too little of life and the glittering noisy moment. The Italians are born Futurists. It did not need Marinetti to persuade them to celebrate Dante with bicycle races; they would have done it naturally, spontaneously, if no Futurist propaganda had ever been issued. Marinetti is the product of modern Italy, not modern Italy of Marinetti. They are all Futurists in that burningly living Italy where we from the North seek only an escape into the past. Or rather, they are not Futurists: Marinetti’s label was badly chosen. They are Presentists. The early Christians preoccupied with nothing but the welfare of their souls in the life to come were Futurists, if you like.
We shall do well to learn something of their lively Presentism. Let us hope that our great-grandchildren will celebrate the next centenary of Shelley’s death by aerial regattas and hydroplane races. The living will be amused and the dead worthily commemorated. The spirit of the man who delighted, during life, in wind and clouds, in mountain-tops and waters, in the flight of birds and the gliding of ships, will be rejoiced when young men celebrate his memory by flying through the air or skimming, like alighting swans, over the surface of the sea.
The rocks are cloven, and through the purple night
I see cars drawn by rainbow-winged steeds
Which trample the dim winds; in each there stands
A wild-eyed charioteer urging their flight.
Some look behind, as fiends pursued them there,
And yet I see no shapes but the keen stars;
Others, with burning eyes, lean forth, and drink
With eager lips the wind of their own speed,
As if the thing they loved fled on before,
And now, even now, they clasped it.
The man who wrote this is surely more suitably celebrated by aeroplane or even bicycle races than by seven-column articles from the pens of Messrs.—well, perhaps we had better mention no names. Let us take a leaf out of the Italian book.