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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 42

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 22 September 1767[42.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 It cannot be denied that a good portion of the errors that Voltaire seems to excuse in his predecessor as idiosyncrasies of Italian taste – only so that he can blame them on the Italian nation in general – I say that these, and many more and greater errors are in Maffei’s Merope.[42.2] In his youth Maffei had a great aptitude for poetry; he wrote verse with great ease in all the different styles of the most famous poets in his land; but this aptitude and ease are no indicators of the true genius required by tragedy. He then applied himself to history, criticism, and the study of the classics, and I am doubtful that these studies are the correct nourishment for the tragic genius. He was buried in the study of church fathers and ecclesiastical documents, writing against Pfaffe and Basnagen when, in response to social pressure, he took up his Merope and brought it off in less than two months.[42.3] If this man had written a masterpiece amidst such occupations and in so short a time, he either must have had the most extraordinary mind, or a tragedy in general is a thing of very little account. Yet he was able to achieve what a man of learning and good classical taste can achieve who looks upon such a thing more as recreation than as work that is worthy of him. His structure is more labored and overwrought than felicitous; his characters are taken from the dissections of moralists, or from famous examples in books, rather than taken from life; his expression conveys more imagination than feeling; and we sense the litterateur and versifier everywhere, but seldom the genius and poet.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 As a versifier he is too eager in his pursuit of descriptions and similes. He has several excellent, faithful pictures which, if he were to speak them himself, could not be admired enough but which, when spoken by his characters, are unbearable and degenerate into the most ludicrous nonsense. For example, it is certainly fitting that Aegisthus describe his fight with the robber whom he killed in elaborate detail, since his defense rests on these circumstances; but after he confesses to having thrown the corpse into the river, for him to go on describing everything, every miniscule phenomena associated with the fall of a heavy body into the water – how it shoots in; the kind of noise with which it parts the water that then shoots high in the air; and how the river closes back over it [*] – we would never allow this from a cold, garrulous lawyer who spoke on his behalf, let alone from Aegisthus himself.[42.4] A person who stands before his judge and must defend his life has more important things in mind, such that he couldn’t be so childishly exact in his story.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As litterateur he has shown too much deference for the simplicity with which ancient Greek customs and behaviors are depicted in Homer and Euripides, which definitely need to be – I will not say, ennobled, but rather – brought closer to our own if they are not to be more damaging than conducive to the tragedy’s pathos. In addition, he has too deliberately tried to imitate beautiful passages from the ancients, without making a distinction between the kind of work from which he has taken them and the kind of work into which he has brought them. In the epic, Nestor is a talkative, friendly old man; but the Polydorus modeled after him becomes, in the tragedy, a loathsome and sententious old windbag. If Maffei had really wanted to follow Euripides’ supposed plan, the litterateur would have written something we would find completely laughable. He would have regarded it as his duty to use all of the little fragments left us from Cresphontes and to weave them faithfully into his play. [†][42.5] Then, wherever he thought they fit best, he would have set them up as posts to guide and direct the path of his dialogue. What a pedantic constraint! And for what purpose? If it isn’t these moral maxims that fill one’s gaps, it will be others.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Nevertheless, there are in turn passages where we could wish that the littérateur had forgotten himself less. For example, after the recognition has occurred and Merope has realized that she has twice been in danger of murdering her own son, he has Ismene cry out in astonishment: “What marvelous events, more marvelous than have ever been invented for the stage!”[42.6]

Con così strani avvenimenti uom forse

Non vide mai favoleggiar le scene.[42.7]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Maffei did not remember that the story of his play took place in a time when theater had not yet been imagined, in the time before Homer, whose poems scattered the first seeds of drama. I would not hold this carelessness against anyone other than a person who thought it was necessary to excuse himself in the prologue for having used the name Messene during a time when we know there was no city with this name, because Homer doesn’t mention one. A poet may deal with such trivialities as he likes; we only ask that he remain consistent and not scruple over something in one place and brazenly dodge it in another, unless we are to believe that he offends more out of ignorance than out of willful disregard. Anyway I would not like the cited lines even if they were not anachronistic. The tragic playwright should avoid anything that can remind the spectators of their illusion, for as soon as they are reminded of it, it is gone. Here it certainly seems as if Maffei would like to reinforce the illusion, insofar as he explicitly plants an image of “the theater” outside the theater, but the mere words “stage” and “invented” are already problematic and lead us precisely in the direction from which they were supposed to divert us. The comic playwright, by contrast, is allowed to compare his theatrics with other theatrics in this manner, because it does not demand the same degree of illusion to arouse our laughter as our compassion.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 I have already mentioned what a hard time de la Lindelle gives Maffei.[42.8] According to his reckoning, Maffei made do with what his material had to offer on its own, without applying the least art to it: his dialogue has no verisimilitude, grace, or dignity; it is full of trivial and low matters that would hardly be tolerated in a farce, on Harlequin’s turf; the whole thing abounds with inconsistencies and schoolboy mistakes. “In a word,” he concludes, “Maffei’s work has a very beautiful subject, but it is a very bad play. Everyone in Paris agrees that they could not have withstood its performance, and even in Italy sensible people think very little of it. During his travels the author has vainly engaged the worst writers to translate his tragedy; he could more easily pay a translator than improve his play.”[42.9]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Just as there are rarely compliments without any lies, so are there also rarely insults without any truth. In many of his points against Maffei, Lindelle is correct, and he may be as polite or rude as he pleases if he is content merely to criticize him. But he wants to trample him underfoot, destroy him, and he sets about it blindly and deceitfully. He is not ashamed to tell outright lies and commit blatant fraud just so he can provoke malicious laughter. Out of three blows he strikes, one misses the mark, and of the other two that graze or hit his opponent, one also unfailingly strikes the person for whom this tilting match is supposed to clear the way: Voltaire himself. Voltaire seems partly to have felt this and is consequently not remiss in defending Maffei, in his answer to Lindelle, on all those points where he believes he must also defend himself. All this correspondence with himself, it seems to me, is missing its most important bit: Maffei’s answer. If only M. de Voltaire had shared this with us as well.[42.10] Or was it not quite what he hoped to coax out through his flattery? Did Maffei in fact presume to clarify instead for him the peculiarities of French taste? To show him why the French Merope would be as little liked in Italy as the Italian one in France? –


11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 [*] Atto I. Sc. III.
[. . .] In core
Però mi venne di lanciar nel fiume
Il morto o semivivo; e con fatica
(Ch’ inutil era per riuscire, e vana)
L’alzai da terra, e in terra rimaneva
Una pozza di sangue: a mezzo il ponte
Portailo in fretta, di vermiglia striscia
Sempre rigando il suol; quinci cadere
Col capo in giù il lasciai: piombò, e gran tonfo
S’udì nel profondarsi: in alto salse
Lo spruzzo, e l’onda sopra lui si chiuse.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [†] Non essendo dunque stato mio pensiero di seguir la Tragedia d’Euripide, non ho cercato per conseguenza di porre nella mia que’ sentimenti di essa, che son rimasti qua, e là; avendone tradotti cinque versi Cicerone, e recati tre passi Plutarco, e due versi Gellio, ed alcuni trovandosene ancora, se la memoria non m’inganna, presso Stobeo.

  • 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
  • [42.1] Actually published 22 December 1767.
  • [42.2] Lessing continues his discussion, which extends from [36] to [50], of Voltaire’s tragedy Mérope and its relationship to Maffei’s original. For the plot of Mérope, see Robertson 86–7. Here Lessing analyzes Maffei’s Merope in response to Voltaire’s criticism of the play; see [41].
  • [42.3] Christoph Matthäus Pfaff (1686–1760) and Jacques Basnage de Beauval (1653–1723): Protestant theologians.
  • [42.4] See Maffei, Merope in Teatro del Sig. marchese Scipione Maffei 10–11; for a (loose) English rendering see page 9 of Ayre’s translation.
  • [42.5] See Maffei, Merope in Teatro del Sig. marchese Scipione Maffei xxxix; for the English see the fourth page of Maffei’s preface in Ayre’s translation.
  • [42.6] Ismene: Merope’s confidant.
  • [42.7] See Maffei, Merope in Teatro del Sig. marchese Scipione Maffei 62; for a (loose) English rendering see page 50 of Ayre’s translation.
  • [42.8] Reference to the “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle à M. de Voltaire” [“A Letter from M. de La Lindelle to M. de Voltaire”] (1748), which was in fact written by Voltaire himself. See [41.7] and [41.8].
  • [42.9] Lessing’s citation here is loose. [In the English version of Lindelle’s letter this is on Dramatic Works III: 273]
  • [42.10] Unbeknownst to Lessing, Maffei had, in fact, responded to Voltaire by publishing the “Risposta alla Lettera del Signor di Voltaire” [“Answer to the Letter of M. de Voltaire”] in the 1745 Veronese edition of Merope; Maffei replies to every point Voltaire makes in the “Letter to Maffei” – and then scrupulously examines Voltaire’s Mérope. See Vrooman and Godden 354–5.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-42/