The sensational Tommaso Sgricci (1789-1836), the most famous improvvisatore of his day, was known for theatrical performances in which he extemporized lyric poems as well as entire Classical dramas. His fame spread throughout Europe through periodical articles and reviews, and through the first-hand reports of English travellers who witnessed his performances in Italy. The Shelleys’ intense engagement with Sgricci during the winter of 1820-21 leaves its mark on important texts written during those years, including Mary’s Valperga and Percy’s Defence of Poetry. Byron encountered Sgricci both personally and professionally between 1816 and 1820; resonances between Sgricci’s distinctive performance genre and Byron’s later poetry are less direct, but more profound. The embodied responses to history in Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage bear comparison with Sgricci’s spontaneous dramas on Classical and historical themes, as does the “mobility” exemplified by the performer Lady Adeline Amundeville in the later cantos of Don Juan. Byron’s ability to “revivify” the past in these works may be illuminated by setting them alongside the practice of the improvvisatore, a figure who stands for the real-time, responsive, public process of crafting poetry out of contingent subject-matter, habitual sound-patterns, fragments of memory, and lively imagination.
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Considering his pan-European fame in post-Napoleonic Europe, the flamboyant and controversial performer Tommaso Sgricci (1789-1836) merits greater attention in studies of the Romantic period. Sgricci, who trained as a lawyer but discovered a talent for poetic improvisation while in his teens, began performing in theatres throughout Italy after 1816. He became the most famous of the nineteenth-century Italian improvvisatori or stage improvisers, and was known from London to St. Petersburg for his ability to extemporize, not only poetry, but also entire dramas, on themes proposed by his audience. The sensation he caused by improvising Classical tragedies, playing all the male and female roles as well as a tragic chorus, was heightened by his controversial lifestyle: in addition to his unhidden homosexuality, there was the suspicion of political radicalism that caused soldiers to be posted at many of his performances. From the time of his debut in Rome, Sgricci’s performances were reported on in newspapers and journals throughout Europe. Even before he toured Paris and London in the 1820s, his name was well enough known abroad to be mentioned casually in popular literature in English, French, and German. Complex, volatile, and cosmopolitan, Sgricci was emblematic of the newly professionalized and media-conscious type of performer who was beginning to appear in the late Romantic world. For this reason, Byron’s response to him needs to be contextualized and considered. Their interaction, while limited in itself, provides a starting point for identifying features in Byron’s writing – here, the late cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan – that correspond to the practice of the improvvisatore, particularly with regard to performance, the body as a medium of communication, and the relation of history to the present moment.
Sgricci’s career corresponded to the generation that came to know Italy when large-scale Continental travel became possible again after the end of the Napoleonic Wars – a generation of “Anglo-Italians” that Mary Shelley (herself very much a part of it) parodied in her 1826 review article “The English in Italy.” Every member of the extended expatriate circle that included Byron, the Shelleys, Claire Clairmont, Thomas Medwin, John Polidori, John Cam Hobhouse, and the Countess of Blessington recorded a passionate response to poetic improvisers, and to Sgricci in particular. These travellers brought with them English notions of poetic sensibility and genius to which they tried to assimilate the Italian improvvisatore, a figure who seemed to offer a real-time, eye-witness, public display of poetic genius in action, and yet did not fit easily into familiar aesthetic categories.
The strangeness of stage improvisation, a performance genre that had no real parallel in England, is reflected in the first accounts of Tommaso Sgricci that appeared in London’s Literary Gazette. The foreign correspondent of the Gazette could barely contain himself after witnessing Sgricci’s first “improvisated Tragedy”, which took place in Rome on 19 June 1816. Although he counts himself among the many sceptics in the audience, by the end of the performance – in which Sgricci rose to the challenge of the difficult topic “The Death of Polyxena”, proposed by a party in the audience that was trying to thwart him – he confesses himself converted:
What do you say? I was one of the incredulous, but was forced to change my opinion. Schricci [sic] either is a sorcerer, or he takes an honorable place with the ancient and modern classics. His modesty and youth gain him general esteem, while the purity of his expression, the animated colouring of his images, and his delineations of the passions acquire him deserved admiration. In short, the novelty and difficulty of the undertaking excite astonishment.Literary Gazette 1.9 , 134
In the following issue, readers would find further praise for Sgricci’s performance of “Medea” in Turin in March 1817. The reporter recognizes improvisation as a long-standing and widespread practice in Italian culture, but presents Sgricci as a uniquely talented avatar of the tradition:
The celebrated Improvisatore Sgricci, who is come here from Rome, excites the admiration of all who hear him [...] Unbounded applause was bestowed on this extraordinary effort, which surpasses every thing that has hitherto been heard, even in Italy, where composition ex abrupto, aided by the genius of the language, is very common among young people, who have a little poetical talent, and a little learning to turn it to advantage.Literary Gazette 1.10 , 149
The Literary Gazette’s review of Sgricci’s second performance at Turin, which featured the tragedy “Atreus and Thyestes,” also records the tremendous popular and critical acclaim that Sgricci had already received in Italy:
The astonishing rapidity with which this poet chooses the place and time of action, creates the character, and plans the story; the energy of the thoughts, the splendor of the images, the harmony of the verse, the elevation of style in the choruses, and the gloomy and tragic character of the denouement, were a subject of unceasing admiration to the audience, which burst forth in the most rapturous acclamations. We embrace with pleasure this opportunity to announce that Signor Sgricci has obtained in all the great cities in Italy, splendid testimonies of the esteem due to his admirable talent. The Philharmonic Society of Milan, the Musical Society of Bologna, and the Academy of Pesaro, have, among others, given him magnificent gold medals, to perpetuate the memory of his brilliant successes.Literary Gazette 1.18 , 278
The wonderment expressed by these audiences and by English commentators was shared by Percy and Mary Shelley, who, while living in Pisa in 1820-21, became socially acquainted with Sgricci in addition to seeing him perform. He was first introduced to the Shelley household on 1 December 1820, and Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont reports that he gave a private performance on a topic guaranteed to interest them: “Sgricci improvisava upon the future independance [sic] of Italy” (Clairmont 190). Both Percy’s and Mary’s writings reflect an immediate engagement with his talent. Mary made concerted efforts to attend every possible performance or accademia of Sgricci’s during the next two months, and helped to arrange an additional accademia for him at Pisa. Percy witnessed two of Sgricci’s theatrical appearances, and, after the performance of 22 January 1821, drafted an Italian-language review intended for an Italian periodical, though it was never completed or published. The review is highly complimentary, ascribing Sgricci’s talent to divine inspiration, noting its electrifying effect on the audience, and claiming that it “surpassed perhaps all that Italy has ever known in this kind” (Dawson 27). Terms like “inspiration”, “divine”, “magical”, and “miracle” are frequently used by both Mary and Percy; “on the theatre he is as a god”, Mary enthuses (Letters 1: 177). Mary remarks on Sgricci’s fine Classical education; this, and his “wonderful” mode of performance, seem to set him apart from “the usual style of these exhibitions” (“English in Italy” 451). Both Percy and Mary underline the Italian heritage of poetic improvisation – “the most distinctive characteristic of Italy”, Percy calls it (Dawson 29) – while noting that Italian, improvised poetry is less profound than English, written poetry. Despite her obvious admiration, Mary finally critiques Sgricci and the art-form he practises for their orientation toward immediate gratification: “Unfortunately he, like some of the poets of our own country, finds more pleasure in the momentary applause of a theater and the fuss that the women make, rather than in studying for posterity” (Letters 1: 165).
Mary Shelley also feels the need to assure her correspondents repeatedly, “I believe [Sgricci] to be good” (Letters 1: 172, 177) – meaning not in aesthetic, but in ethical terms. For Sgricci had established a brilliant reputation as a performer, but a wretched one as a man. Despite – or, more likely, because of – his powerful effect on audiences, he was widely accused of dangerous political radicalism, arrogance, chicanery, avarice, and homosexuality. As Byron wrote bluntly from Ravenna, earlier in 1820, “Sgricci is here improvising away with great success – he is also a celebrated Sodomite” (BLJ 7: 51). Sgricci’s radical carbonarist leanings were calculated to make Percy Shelley, for one, admire rather than avoid him, and it has been speculated that this is the reason Shelley referred to Hellas, his own quickly-written, Classically-inspired, republican-minded drama, in terms that seem to allude to Sgricci’s art, by calling it “a mere improvise” (Wasserman 378-80). For many people, on the other hand, Sgricci’s controversial behaviour compounded a widespread scepticism, or even hostility, toward improvvisatori in general. Attitudes toward stage improvisation, by Italians and non-Italians alike, are filled with ambivalence, if not outright contradiction. The performances of improvisers are spectacular and fascinating, yet they are often condemned as a vulgar sort of entertainment that produces only superficial poetry, or even as a sort of party trick. These criticisms intensify in the early nineteenth century, once the improvvisatore evolves from his eighteenth-century incarnations of popular, marketplace performer and aristocratic amateur into a professional, admission-charging stage act.
Such a critique can be found, for instance, in another Anglo-Italian memoir of the early nineteenth century, the Letters from the North of Italy, published in 1819 by “W. S. R.” The initials mask a friend of Byron’s, the poet and translator William Stewart Rose, who gives a humorously critical account of a performance in Vicenza in October 1817 by an unnamed improvvisatore who, if not Sgricci himself, is certainly one of his imitators. Rose’s report forms an uncannily similar, but sceptical counterpart to the Shelleys’ enthusiastic accounts of Sgricci. According to Rose, the improvvisatore followed Sgricci’s usual pattern of warming up with shorter poetic improvisations before requesting a topic for an improvised tragedy. Possible topics for a first improvisation were drawn from a vase, but the improvvisatore rejected them all (thus showing a rather unspontaneous tendency to deliberate over the suitability of topics, for which Sgricci was frequently criticized), until the fictional subject “Alfieri at the tomb of Shakespeare” was drawn. The celebrated, recently deceased poet Vittorio Alfieri had also been proposed as a subject at the performance of Sgricci’s that Byron and John Cam Hobhouse attended a year earlier in Milan, but on that occasion the topic was disallowed by the Austrian police, who feared that celebration of the “national poet” Alfieri would be too inflammatory. The authorities in Vicenza being less concerned, the chosen subject could go ahead, and Rose reports laconically on the poet’s performance: “having made a few Pythian contorsions, but all apparently with a view to effect, he poured out a volley of verse without the slightest pause or hesitation” (198).
When it comes to the pièce de resistance, the improvised Classical tragedy, Rose records a curious episode of audience participation that seems to have been familiar to spectators, judging by other accounts. The tragic subject “Inez de Castro” is drawn, and the performer, claiming to be unacquainted with the story, asks the audience member who proposed the topic to supply some details. Asking for details may gain the improviser some valuable time; it may indicate a desire to please his audience by performing the version of the legend that is familiar to them; or the performer may simply be working the audience by interacting with them at greater length. Three years later, Mary Shelley would witness a performance of Sgricci’s in the theatre at Lucca, where the tragic subject “Ignez di Castro” is drawn once again, and the improvvisatore once again claims ignorance of the story and asks the audience for assistance (Letters 1: 176-7). On this occasion at least, the tactic of questioning the audience seems purely performative rather than informative, for Mary Shelley keenly observes that Sgricci avoids the erroneous details supplied by audience members and seems to become “inspired” with the correct story in the course of performing his improvisation (Letters 1: 176). Rose’s improvvisatore, on the other hand, earns only qualified praise from him: “I cannot say that the piece was good. This was in the usual ‘hence-on-thy-life’-style of home manufacture; but it was as good as tragedies usually are, and interspersed with some lights, indicative of genius” (199). Rose admits that he would have left part-way through the performance, had he not been unfortunately seated in the front row.
Available paradigms for representing the nineteenth-century improvvisatore, then, ranged from Romantic genius to manipulative professional, and responses varied from ridicule to rapture. Byron’s reaction fell somewhere between these extremes, as shown by the qualified interest he displayed toward a performance of Sgricci’s in Milan that he, John Cam Hobhouse, and John Polidori attended on 25 October 1816. All three of them found it memorable enough to record their impressions repeatedly. Byron wrote to his half-sister Augusta Leigh the next day, having heard the improvvisatore for the first time, “it is not an amusing though a curious effort of human powers” (BLJ 5: 119). To Thomas Moore, he reported two weeks later that “[Sgricci’s] fluency astonished me; but, although I understand Italian, and speak it [...] I could only carry off a few very common-place mythological images” (BLJ 5: 125). Polidori wrote a scornful account of Sgricci’s performance in his diary, describing the improvised tragedy “Eteocles and Polynices” as “olla podrida scenica of French ragouts, Italian minestras, and Greek black soup” (Polidori 184). Hobhouse, recalling the performance in a travel account published forty-five years after the event, was moderately sceptical, intimating that Sgricci’s methods involved not a little chicanery, and concluding that tragedy, in any case, is an inappropriate genre for improvisation:
The market-place is the proper stage, and the guitar the proper accompaniment, for such effusions, and even the drawing-room may be enlivened by extemporary trifles in verse; but the tragic muse, like the heroines of romance, requires a long and assiduous courtship, and the stage is degraded by exhibitions resembling the real masterpieces of dramatic poetry in nothing but their inferior properties, the metre and the rhyme.Broughton 1: 48-9
Hobhouse’s more immediate recollection of the evening is contained in one of the notes he provided to accompany Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This account does not particularly do Sgricci credit either, yet it provides further insight into the atmosphere and overtones of his performances. “In the autumn of 1816,” Hobhouse writes,
a celebrated improvisatore exhibited his talents at the Opera-house of Milan. The reading of the theses handed in for the subjects of his poetry was received by a very numerous audience, for the most part in silence, or with laughter; but when the assistant, unfolding one of the papers, exclaimed, ‘The apotheosis of Victor Alfieri,’ the whole theatre burst into a shout, and the applause was continued for some moments. The lot did not fall on Alfieri; and the Signor Sgricci had to pour forth his extemporary common-places on the bombardment of Algiers. The choice, indeed, is not left to accident quite so much as might be thought from a first view of the ceremony; and the police not only takes care to look at the papers beforehand, but, in case of any prudential after-thought, steps in to correct the blindness of chance. The proposal for deifying Alfieri was received with immediate enthusiasm, the rather because it was conjectured there would be no opportunity of carrying it into effect.Byron, CPW 2: 236-7
Acting on their assumption that the popular Alfieri, hailed as a champion of Italian liberty and therefore regarded with suspicion by the authorities, would never be permitted to pass as a subject for the performance, the audience pre-empts official censorship by erupting into an ovation at the very mention of Alfieri’s name. It is this spontaneous popular expression – a moment of improvisation on the part of the audience, as it were – for which Hobhouse remembers the occasion.
Like Hobhouse, Byron generally affects a sceptical attitude toward improvisational performance. “There is a great deal of knack in these gentry,” Thomas Medwin reports him as saying of the improvvisatori; “their poetry is more mechanical than you suppose” (Conversations 205). But Byron’s interaction with Sgricci, and the implications of an improvisational aesthetics for his poetry, is more complex than this frequently cited, flippant comment suggests. Byron met “Sgricci (the famous Improvisatore)” again in his social circle in Ravenna in 1820, and consulted him on subtleties of the Italian language (BLJ 7: 47). Moreover, in the same breath with his comment about “knack”, Byron displays a markedly experiential insight into the motivations of the improvvisatore, particularly the all-important rapport with an audience: “The inspiration of the improviser is quite a separate talent: – a consciousness of his own powers, his own elocution – the wondering and applauding audience, – all conspire to give him confidence” (Medwin, Conversations 206-7).
As their reactions to him vary, so the literary work produced in Italy by Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Byron stands in very different relation to Sgricci’s art. While direct lines of influence may be drawn to the work of the Shelleys, the implications for Byron’s work are best described in terms of a more general improvisational aesthetics that casts light on the performative features of his poetry. Mary Shelley, during the winter of 1820-21, was at work on her novel Valperga. Just as critics have recognized other figures from her Pisan circle in the characters of the novel, the characterization of the improvvisatore Guarino, who performs at the court of the heroine Euthanasia, may reflect her response to Sgricci, the improvvisatore she met with so often that winter. The improviser Guarino has notable talent: “He was sought in every court in Lombardy for his entertaining qualities: his tales displayed the fire of genius, and the delicate observations of a lover of nature” (Valperga 174). The description recalls both Mary’s and Percy’s descriptions of Sgricci’s performances, in which the terms “fire” and “genius” occur repeatedly. But, apart from his talent, Guarino is a hateful character. “Eaten up by vanity and envy” (174), he is deceitful, inconstant, vindictive, a political turncoat; yet he dissembles and flatters his friends so successfully that they believe him to be truly pious. He performs improvisations on the recent war with Florence, and on a scene from Dante, that at times “transported the hearers with admiration” (181), but then alienates most of his audience by appending an offensive satire against his enemies. Some elements of this negative portrayal certainly resemble Sgricci, whose vanity was well known, whose political principles were suspect, and who “reach[ed] his greatest heights in passages of invective” (White 2: 243). Does Mary Shelley’s negative picture of the improvvisatore suggest suspicions of Sgricci’s character that belie her reassuring reports of him, or is it a record of the prejudiced accusations made against Sgricci by other contemporaries? Did Mary come to change her opinion of Sgricci after he left their Pisan circle? Or does the feckless Guarino suggest, more generally, that the ability to extemporize poetry might be related to impetuous, opportunistic behaviour in political and personal affairs? This possibility, that the improviser might spontaneously re-invent not only his verses, but also himself, in every new context – that improvisation might therefore reveal uncomfortable truths about the discontinuity and contingency of human character – is only hinted at in Valperga, but will come to the fore in Byron’s Don Juan.
While Mary included an improvvisatore, possibly a caricature of Sgricci himself, in her novel of Italian history, Percy’s response seems to have manifested itself in occasional, experimental imitations of Sgricci’s genre of performance. Percy Shelley was known for his ability to improvise oral translations, and there are numerous accounts of him performing extempore translations and interpretations of non-English works for a group of his English friends.  There is, in addition, the curious fragment entitled “Orpheus,” 110 lines of blank-verse dialogue between a speaker and chorus describing the mythical Greek singer. Manuscript evidence suggests that this composition of Percy’s is related in some way to Sgricci’s improvisations. It exists only as a manuscript in Mary’s handwriting, having been taken down at dictation; later, Percy drafted his Italian review of Sgricci’s 1821 improvvisazione on the pages that surround the dictated “Orpheus” fragment. Percy Shelley’s nineteenth-century editors and commentators Richard Garnett and H. Buxton Forman conjectured that the poetic fragment is either his translation, from memory, of part of a poem that Sgricci improvised on the subject “Orpheus and Eurydice” – or, intriguingly, that it is Percy’s imitation of Sgricci, an improvisation he performed with only his wife as audience (Garnett 20; Forman 121-3).
During the winter of 1820-21, Shelley was also beginning to compose A Defence of Poetry. As has been noted,  the assertion that “Poetry is indeed something divine,” and the Defence’s pronouncements on inspiration, are close to the language of divine inspiration that both the Shelleys habitually used when describing Sgricci. Shelley’s famous image of the mind as a fading coal also seems to suggest that spontaneous poetry, which displays the immediate effect of inspiration rather than the results of labourious revision, is indeed the purest example of poetic genius. However, the concept of a public performance of inspiration is foreign to the Defence, which instead figures the poet as “a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds” (Poetry and Prose 486). The kind of performance Shelley’s Defence does value is the synaesthetic drama of the ancient Greeks, which combined poetry, music, dancing, painting, and religion. In contrast to Greek tragedy, Shelley laments the impoverished state of modern drama:
On the modern stage a few only of the elements capable of expressing the image of the poet’s conception are employed at once. We have tragedy without music and dancing [...] Our system of divesting the actor’s face of a mask [...] is fit for nothing but a monologue, where all the attention may be directed to some great master of ideal mimicry.489
It is unlikely that the performances of the improvvisatore are the only target here, but perhaps Shelley’s lament over the deficiency of modern drama was compounded by the fact that a currently popular mode of performing tragedy in Italy in 1820 was the one-man tragedy of Sgricci, certainly a “master of mimicry.”
Sgricci’s significance for the poetry of Byron is less direct, yet more pervasive, and takes the form of a diffused improvisational aesthetics. Byron’s actual habits of composition are not the issue here, despite the fact that his contemporaries and modern critics alike have often, rightly or wrongly, called his manner of writing “improvisational.” Rather, readings of both Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan stand to benefit, in different ways, from comparison with the principles of the stage improviser’s art. These principles include an animated, personal response to contingent subjects, a response that is performed in such a way as to call the spectator’s or reader’s attention to the mental processes and bodily reactions of the poet. The example of Sgricci, as an improvvisatore who brings Classical themes to life for a contemporary audience, may, moreover, open up a perspective on Byron’s treatment of memory and history.
Amidst the Italian setting of Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, stanza 54 triggers two subtle allusions to poetic improvisers. The stanza marks the beginning of a passage on the church of Santa Croce in Florence, which contains the tombs of Italy’s greatest poets and artists:
In Santa Croce’s holy precincts lie
Ashes which make it holier, dust which is
Even in itself an immortality,
Though there were nothing save the past, and this,
The particle of those sublimities
Which have relaps’d to chaos: – here repose
Angelo’s, Alfieri’s bones, and his,
The starry Galileo, with his woes;
Here Machiavelli’s earth, return’d to whence it rose.
Byron appends a lengthy annotation to the name “Santa Croce,” in which he commemorates “Corinna”:
This name will recal the memory, not only of those whose tombs have raised the Santa Croce into the centre of pilgrimage, the Mecca of Italy, but of her whose eloquence was poured over the illustrious ashes, and whose voice is now as mute as those she sung. CORINNA is no more [...]CPW 2: 235
“Corinna” is the recently-deceased Madame de Staël, who was frequently called by the name of her most famous heroine, the improvvisatrice Corinne. A few lines later, another long annotation to “Alfieri” contains Hobhouse’s recollection of Sgricci’s performance at Milan in 1816 (discussed above), where the apotheosis of Alfieri was proposed as a topic. To the question of why Byron’s mention of Santa Croce immediately calls forth recollections of Tommaso Sgricci and Staël’s Corinne – the greatest male and female, actual and fictional, improvisers of the age – one response has been to compare Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage with the travelogue descriptions of Staël’s Corinne. Another answer would be to liken Byron’s poetry to Sgricci’s improvisations on Classical themes. A subject – Santa Croce and its tombs – presents itself to Byron, and he draws significance from it through his living and speaking presence, through experiencing “this”, “here.” Stephen Cheeke identifies the notion of “being there” as “the most powerful and complex aspect of Byron’s work” (6), and discusses Childe Harold IV as
a meditation upon the very process of bringing creative thought to bear upon the ‘things’ of the world, how (or whether) the spirit of a poetic work may be rooted in the materiality of historical place, and how (or whether) certain material objects may also become ‘imaginary,’ or charged with an aura or halo.97
While Cheeke explores these ideas in the context of cultural geography and Byron’s unique historiography, the performative aspect of “being there” is also significant, and it is enhanced by rhetorical effects in Byron’s poetry that mimic the habits of oral improvisers. Fleeting thoughts are recorded, only to be dismissed (“But let that pass”; CH IV.133); there are deictic references to a scene of performance (“as I do here”, referring to the poet’s touching the ocean as he writes of it; CH IV.184); there are attempts to evoke an intense immediacy or presence, as when Byron notes that his poetic description of moonlight is “a literal and hardly sufficient delineation of an August evening (the eighteenth) as contemplated [...] during many a ride along the banks of the Brenta near La Mira” (CPW 2: 228). But the most important way in which the poem suggests an improvisational aesthetics is in Byron’s fleeting re-animation of historical scenes and monuments. This type of poetry is akin to the “revivifying ray” Byron evokes in the following stanza: “Italy! [...] thy decay / Is still impregnate with divinity, / Which gilds it with revivifying ray” (CH IV.55). The association of the “ray” not only with divinity, but also with (Byron’s) poetry, is supported by a larger metaphorical complex in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage that figures imagination as a ray of sunshine (CH IV.5.162), and the word as a ray of lightning (“And that one word were Lightning,” CH III.97). As in the performance of an improvvisatore, the revivifying ray of Byron’s poetry operates both self-consciously and publicly: the mental motions by which the narrator sees a monument, makes associations, calls up memories, and crafts rhymed stanzas are all put on display for the reader, thanks to the poem’s animated rhetoric, its numerous apostrophes, exclamations, and changes of direction.
Like a stage improvisation, instantiated for a particular audience and focussed on the voice and presence of the performer, Childe Harold’s re-animation of the past is always contextualized and embodied, registered in the narrator’s physical response to ancient monuments. Thus, in stanza 104, Byron touches and addresses – as Staël’s Corinne had also – the tomb of the unknown Roman matron Cecilia Metella:
I know not why – but standing thus by thee
It seems as if I had thine inmate known,
Thou tomb! [...]
Yet could I seat me by this ivied stone
Till I had bodied forth the heated mind
Forms from the floating wreck which Ruin leaves behind [...]
Unlike the ephemeral orality of improvisation, these moments of revivification are self-consciously preserved in writing: “in this page a record will I seek. / Not in the air shall these my words disperse” (CH IV.134). Yet it is a type of writing that mimics the real-time movement of improvisation, in which there is no going back to change or correct. As Byron affirms at the end of the poem, everything once thought gets recorded here, and “what is writ, is writ” (CH IV.185).
The art of the improvvisatore thus provides a useful analogy for the poet’s relation to time and his performance of history in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, particularly for the self-conscious mental and sensual acts of revivifying historical scenes in a flow of rhymed verse. In Don Juan, the improvvisatore is a still more explicit, albeit ironic, persona for the narrator, who describes his own manner of composition as unpremeditated and haphazard:
I ne’er decide what I shall say, and this I call
Much too poetical. Men should know why
They write, and for what end; but, note or text,
I never know the word which will come next.
Purposeful writing, apparently, is good – “men should know why / They write”; this narrator’s improvident writing is, by contrast, “too poetical.” Yet the performance of the passage belies its semantics, as the neat rhyme-word “next” completes the stanza perfectly, implying that the narrator did know all along what the “text” would generate “next.” Writing in ottava rima, the traditional stanzaic form of the Italian improvvisatori, Byron also makes use of their structuring techniques, letting the rhyme-words determine the phrasing and even the meaning of the poetry.
In the fifteenth Canto of Don Juan, Byron capitalizes on the term improvvisatore in such a way as to both identify and distinguish his poetic persona from it:
Of this I’m sure at least, there’s no servility
In mine irregularity of chime,
Which rings what’s uppermost of new or hoary,
Just as I feel the ‘Improvisatore’.
Byron’s quotation marks around “Improvisatore” emphasize the persistent foreignness of improvisation to English verse. The deliberately awkward rhyme of “hoary” with “Improvisatore” not only underlines the improviser’s juxtaposition of the hoary or historical with the modern or spontaneous, but also the tension between English and Italian. As an English imitator, an “improvisatoree,” the narrator of Don Juan knowingly appropriates and distorts the improvvisatore tradition.
Throughout the poem, as the narrator impersonates an improvvisatore, his hero Don Juan personifies an improviser in action. Juan is, above all, a survivor, who can think (to the extent that he ever does think) on his feet, adapt immediately to the most foreign and challenging of circumstances, carry off disguises and meet the expectations of those he encounters: “he had, like Alcibiades, / The art of living in all climes with ease” (DJ 15.11). In the so-called “English Cantos” at the end of this unfinished mock-epic, those qualities come to the fore as the narrative follows Juan to the country-house party of Lord Henry and Lady Adeline Amundeville in England. Here the improviser Juan, who appeals to women because his passivity allows him to meet their varied expectations (“with women he was what / They pleased to make or take him for,” DJ 15.16), meets his match in the versatile politician Lord Henry, who is “all things to all men” (DJ 16.71). His wife, the clever hostess Lady Adeline, also shares Juan’s qualities of spontaneity and adaptability, only with more active and deliberate engagement on her part. Byron’s Adeline deserves to be recognized, in fact, as an English improvvisatrice – a fitting counterpart to Letitia Elizabeth Landon, who adopted that role in London society during the 1820s, and whose poem, The Improvisatrice, appeared the same year as these Cantos of Don Juan. The inclusion of Adeline, as one who picks up and illustrates to perfection the improvisational aspects of both Juan’s character and the narrator’s own, also suggests that a gendered model of improvisation is in play here. Popular nineteenth-century models for the improvising performer included, after all, both the male Sgricci and the female Corinne.
Lady Adeline writes rhymed verse, but, like the oral improviser, composes more than she writes (DJ 16.43); as a performer, she conveys a naturalness which is in fact self-conscious, singing “as ‘twere without display, / Yet with display in fact” (DJ 16.42). The narrator famously sums up her reactions with the term “mobility”:
So well she acted, all and every part
By turns – with that vivacious versatility,
Which many people take for want of heart.
They err – ‘tis merely what is called mobility,
A thing of temperament and not of art,
Though seeming so, from its supposed facility;
And false – though true; for surely they’re sincerest,
Who are strongly acted on by what is nearest.
“Mobility,” the poet continues, belongs to artists of all types, as well as professions that involve speaking extempore: “This makes your actors, artists, and romancers [...] speakers, bards, diplomatists, and dancers” (DJ 16.98). Then he pursues the link between mobility and sincerity in Adeline’s character:
Some praised her beauty; others her great grace;
The warmth of her politeness, whose sincerity
Was obvious in each feature of her face,
Whose traits were radiant with the rays of verity.
If Adeline’s “sincerity” is achieved through her facial features, Juan conveys the same effect with the tone of his voice: “Sincere he was – at least you could not doubt it, / In listening merely to his voice’s tone” (DJ 15.13). Both of them exemplify a definition of sincerity as the subject’s immediate response to “what is nearest,” a response communicated to others by being read from the face, or heard in the voice. As an ironic version of improvisational aesthetics, this focus on performed, embodied responses in Don Juan echoes Byron’s representation of his nearness and his embodied responses to monuments of Italian history in Childe Harold IV.
In the world delineated by Byron, the performance of sincerity can be highly effective; Lady Adeline is universally regarded as beautiful, accomplished, noble, and sympathetic. Emotional mobility needs to be embodied in order to be socially meaningful, since internal states are not directly accessible to others except through the medium of the body. But Byron’s characterization also reveals discomfort at the idea that emotion might be merely skin deep. This unease is expressed in a fleeting observation of Juan’s, mediated by the narrator (both of whom, sharing Adeline’s improvisational qualities, are most apt to recognize them):
Juan, when he cast a glance
On Adeline while playing her grand role,
Which she went through as though it were a dance,
(Betraying only now and then her soul
By a look scarce perceptibly askance
Of weariness or scorn) began to feel
Some doubt how much of Adeline was real [...]
Part of the fascination of “mobility,” as McGann has pointed out (“Byron, Mobility” 71), is its complex functioning as both a psychological attribute and an aspect of the structure of social relations. More intriguing still, one might add, is the suspicion that the two registers may ultimately be incompatible. But the full contextualization of “mobility,” which Byron glosses in the following annotation, inserts it into a still more extensive network of relations between native and foreign, present and past:
In French ‘mobilité’. I am not sure that mobility is English, but it is expressive of a quality which rather belongs to other climates, though it is sometimes seen to a great extent in our own. It may be defined as an excessive susceptibility of immediate impressions – at the same time without losing the past [...]CPW 5: 769
Like “improvvisatore,” the word and the concept “mobilité” are marked as foreign. This serves to alienate its possessors – who include Lady Adeline, Don Juan, and certainly Byron himself – from English society. The specific indication of a French origin provides an implicit link with Staël, whose Corinne displays the same mobility of emotion. Most telling, though, is the qualifying phrase, “without losing the past.” The italics are Byron’s, and his rather surprising evocation of “the past” in this context suggests that the mobilité portrayed in Don Juan repeats the nexus of spontaneity, performance, and history that more obviously characterizes Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. In an apparently off-hand, conversational manner, the English Cantos of Don Juan perform the same “revivifying” function as the Italian travelogue of Childe Harold IV. Through embodied responses to moments and memories, they resist the inevitable loss of the past. The last stanza of Canto 15 of Don Juan, suspending for a moment the country-house party of the Amundevilles, indicates how deeply this poem is concerned with the flux of time:
Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
‘Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge:
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be! The eternal surge
Of time and tide rolls on, and bears afar
Our bubbles; as the old burst, new emerge,
Lash’d from the foam of ages; while the graves
Of Empires heave but like some passing waves.
Amidst this flux, moments of experience and history are held fast by the responsive bodies and mobile intellects of the characters and the narrator himself.
The particular mobility of Byron’s characters, and of his verse, may be illuminated by setting them alongside the practice of the improvvisatore, a figure who stands for the real-time, responsive, public process of crafting poetry out of contingent subject-matter, habitual sound-patterns, fragments of memory, and lively imagination. Tommaso Sgricci, the most sensational improvvisatore of his time, and the one with whom Byron was best acquainted, provides an especially significant correlative, thanks to his staged revivifications of Classical tragedy and recent history. Irrespective of Byron’s actual habits of composition, an improvisational aesthetics characterizes the sensibility and the style of Byronic epic, which therefore bears comparison with a Continental tradition of spontaneous, performed verse.
The Shelleys’ introduction to Sgricci in December 1820 was followed by a period of intense interaction. Mary’s letters and journal record that Sgricci paid evening visits to the Shelley household on December 5, 7, 12, 22, 25, and 26; then, once he had returned to Pisa after a performance tour to Lucca, he visited on January 13, 19, 20, 23, and again on January 24 to take leave before his departure for Florence. Once Sgricci had returned to the home of his mother, Madame Martini, in Florence, the Shelleys continued to receive news of him from Claire Clairmont, who resided in Florence and saw her friend Madame Martini almost every day.
Thomas Medwin echoes this comment in both his Life of Shelley and Conversations of Lord Byron, paraphrasing Shelley as saying that Sgricci is the greatest improvvisatore that ever existed (Life 266; Conversations 205). In the Conversations, Medwin mistakenly attributes the comment to Byron, who was not present at the performance in question.
According to Ugo Viviani’s biography and chronology of Sgricci’s performances (215), Sgricci was at least in the area, having performed in nearby Verona the month before.
Stendhal, for instance, noted that “M. Sgricci évite adroitement les sujets modernes où l’on ne peut pas mettre des choeurs grecs” (15). He was not the first to notice Sgricci’s preference for topics that allowed the inclusion of choruses and choral songs, which might contain more abstract, and therefore re-usable, subject-matter. Stendhal was notably unimpressed with Sgricci, calling the improvised tragedy he witnessed in 1817 “un centon des auteurs grecs qui ravit les pédants et m’a scié au fond.”
Two months later, in December 1817, John Cam Hobhouse watched Sgricci perform in Venice, and react similarly when given “the Earl of Essex” as a subject: “as he pretended he knew nothing of the story, it was told to him, somewhat incorrectly, aloud, by a person from one of the boxes of the theatre. The Queen Elizabeth of Sgricci made war upon France. The tragedy lasted two hours. When I went away half the audience had already fled” (Broughton 1: 49; cf. Viviani 216).
Polidori’s virulence caused the editor of his diary, William Michael Rossetti – who happened to be the son of an improvvisatore – to add a long annotation defending Sgricci, which appeals, among other things, to Percy Shelley’s high opinion of him (Polidori 185-6).
Notably, the uncouth Benedetto Pepi is based on Professor Francesco Pacchiani, who introduced Sgricci to the Shelleys, and whom they soon grew to dislike; cf. Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1: 166n.
Another, more frequently cited source for Mary’s knowledge of improvisation is Germaine de Staël’s novel Corinne, which Mary re-read in November 1820, while working on Valperga (Journals 1: 340).
A frank letter of Percy’s to Claire Clairmont suggests that latent resentment on his part, at least, emerged shortly after Sgricci’s departure from Pisa. Claire, who now saw Sgricci frequently at his mother’s house in Florence, reported some of his conversation to Shelley, who wrote back: “I hate the cowardly envy which prompts such base stories as Sgricci’s about the Neapolitans”; and again, in a postscript, “I am provoked at Sgricci’s assumption, & shall certainly never allow him to make the use [you allu]de to, of me” (Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley 2: 266, 268).
Trelawny describes an impromptu translation of this kind in his Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author (26).
See P. M. S. Dawson’s analysis of the relationship among Shelley’s review of Sgricci’s improvised tragedy “The Death of Hector,” his drafts and notes for the Defence, and the translation of Plato’s Ion that he also undertook around this time. Several key ideas in the Defence, according to Dawson, echo ideas from the review of Sgricci: the distinction between reason and imagination; the depiction of poetry as a force “beyond and above consciousness”; the metaphor of attraction (magnetic or electrical) between poet and audience, and the distinction between the inspired poet and the ordinary man (Dawson 23-4). Timothy Clark also considers Shelley’s reaction to Sgricci in his analysis of the “inspirational aesthetic” of Shelley’s Defence (145).
Byron’s talent, Medwin claims simply, “is that of an improvisatore”: “He seems to be able to resume the thread of his subject at all times, and to weave it of an equal texture[...] He hardly ever alters a word for whole pages, and never corrects a line in subsequent editions” (Conversations 418). Yet the opinions of Medwin and others about Byron’s habits of composition are contradicted by evidence of Byron’s concern about revisions in his correspondence with his publisher Murray. Among modern critics, see Waters, “The Desultory Rhyme of Don Juan,” and, much more briefly, Grierson (84). Robson, “Byron as Improviser,” notes that Byron “solved [...] the problem of the long poem” by taking on the persona of an improviser (92). Similarly, M. K. Joseph suggests that the “two-sided and spontaneous” relation with an audience that Byron identifies as the source of “the improviser’s inspiration” is what he gained from the encounter with Sgricci, and what he puts into action in Don Juan (189-90). Most recently, Gioia Angeletti provides a broad summary of critical sources on “the presumed or assumed ‘carelessness’ of Byron’s style” (172) as background to her own, perceptive reading of the impact of Italian improvisation on Byron's poetics.
Beginning with E. H. Coleridge, many editors and critics have pointed out the resemblance of this and other passages in Childe Harold IV to Corinne’s descriptions of monuments and landscapes, and her improvisations on Italian history, in Staël’s novel. Most expansively, Peter Vassallo proposes that Childe Harold sees the sights of Rome from the same perspective as Lord Nelvil; that Byron likely based the structure of Canto IV on Corinne’s first improvisation; and indeed that “Byron seems to have discovered Italy” through Corinne (15-20).
Wasserman derives a similar definition of improvisation from his consideration of Sgricci’s influence on Shelley’s Hellas: “In this sense improvisation is the imagination’s reconstitution and revitalization of the history, legends, and literature that well up in a state of enthusiasm from the memory’s reservoir of the past; and Shelley [...] must have seen in the extempore exhibitions of this champion of liberty [i.e., Sgricci] the actual spontaneous resurgence of Hellenic antiquity, an act confirming his belief in time’s necessary cycle, now verging on a new Hellas” (380).
Cf. Corinne book 5, chapter 1 (Staël 78-9).
Similarly, McGann notes, though without reference to improvvisatori, that Byron draws inspiration from the structuring features of ottava rima and the necessity of linking one verse or stanza to the next: “Transitions between styles, lines, stanzas, and tones not only do not present a problem for Byron, they are the focus of all his opportunities” (Don Juan in Context 95).
Some of the drafts and early editions intensify the word’s foreignness by using the Italian spelling, with two v’s; both Byron and Mary Shelley (who prepared the fair copy of these Cantos) spell improvvisatore inconsistently with one or two v’s in their letters and journals.
Cf. Ridenour 162-3, who makes this point convincingly, but believes it is only the model of Corinne that shaped Byron’s concepts of improvisation and mobility. McGann argues that Byron as improvvisatore resembles Corinne more than he does Sgricci because he consciously presents himself in his improvisations: “The form [of Beppo and Don Juan] is the art of the improvisatore, but with a difference: that Byron as a specific individual is part of its substance. He is not just a performer, like Sgricci, whose skill we admire” (Fiery Dust 280).
Cf. Ridenour 163-4, who relates “mobility” to Corinne’s rapid shift from solemn piety to vivacious sociability – a change that Lord Nelvil perceives as “instability of temperament” – in book 10, chapter 4 of Corinne (Staël 176).
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