The Romantic Revival of Boccaccio, Part 1

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Boccaccio's Decameron experienced a significant increase in popularity among the English literary community. Aside from the late seventeenth-century publication of John Dryden's Fables, which included three tales from Boccaccio's text, there are comparatively few notable instances of the Decameron as a literary source or inspiration in the two centuries prior to the start of the Romantic movement. The beginnings of the nineteenth century, however, experienced a resurgence in interest in Boccaccio, marked by two new publications of the Italian text in 1802 and 1825. Moreover, during this period the ten-day frame of the Decameron was employed by a number of authors to tell their own stories, often with the word "decameron" in their titles.

A number of the major figures of the various schools of Romantic poetry refer in their letters and texts to Boccaccio and his work. William Wordsworth, the poet often viewed as the father of romanticism, said that "Boccaccio figured in his library at Racedown in 1797" (Wright 356). Both Percy Shelley and Lord Byron also enjoyed Boccaccio, praising and referring to his genius in their work. In his Childe Harold, Byron decried the violation of Boccaccio's tomb by religious bigots in 1783, eulogizing him and ranking him as high as Dante and Petrarch in the Italian literary tradition.

Of the Romantic poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was perhaps the most familiar with Boccaccio's work; having delved into such little-known works as the De genealogia deorum, Coleridge was well acquainted with most if not all of Boccaccio's works, though perhaps somewhat less familiar with the Decameron. He is known even to have "condemned 'the gross and disgusting licentiousness'" (ibid. 339) of this latter text, yet there is evidence that he did concede his debt to Boccaccio for "the happy art of narration" and "a depth and fineness in the workings of the passions" (1811 Lectures, no. 3). His poem "The Garden of Boccaccio" praises the spirit and vitality of the Decameron without reference to specific passages.

Several renowned critics and essayists of the period also admired Boccaccio's work, among them William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt. Hazlitt often referred to him in personal essays, admiring especially the character of lovers. He was known to praise Boccaccio's poetics, an aspect of his writing which was often ignored in criticism for the sake of the story and its form. His friend Leigh Hunt, also an important critic of the age, expressed his agreement with Boccaccio's "serious theories of love." Hunt lived in Italy for a time, probably inspired by having read the story of Boccaccio's own life.

Numerous poets of the Romantic period, among them John Keats, William Wilmot, and John Hamilton Reynolds, retold tales of the Decameron in verse poems, altering the stories to suit their own often interestingly varied interpretations. Others, such as Thomas Moore, James Payn, and John Cam Hobhouse, compiled collections of retellings of tales from the Decameron. Thus, Boccaccio's work experienced a resurgence not only in its inspirational quality but in its role as source material, as a "treasury of good tales" (Wright 481).

(S. K.) Herbert G. Wright, Boccaccio in England from Chaucer to Tennyson, Fair Lawn, NJ: Essential Books, 1957.

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