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illeopardi text integral passage complete quotation of the sources comedies works historical literary works in prose and in verses

Translated by Charles Edwardes

      AMELIO, a lonely philosopher, was seated, reading, one spring morning in the shade of his country house. Being distracted by the songs of the birds in the fields, he gradually resigned himself to listening and thinking. At length he threw his book aside, and taking up a pen wrote as follows:-

      Birds are naturally the most joyful creatures in the world. I do not say this because of the cheerful influence they always exercise over us; I mean that they themselves are more light-hearted and joyful than any other animal. For we see other animals ordinarily stolid and grave, and many even seem melancholy. They rarely give signs of joy, and when they do, these are but slight and of brief duration. In most of their enjoyments and pleasures they do not express any gratification. The green fields, extensive and charming landscapes, noble planets, pure and sweet atmosphere, if even a cause of pleasure to them, do not excite in them any joyful demonstrations; save that on the authority of Zenophon, hares are said to skip and frolic with delight when the moon's radiance is at its brightest.

      Birds, on the other hand, show extreme joy, both in motion and appearance; and it is the sight of this evident disposition for enjoyment on their part that gladdens us as we watch them. And this appearance must not be regarded as unreal and deceptive. They sing to express the happiness they feel, and the happier they are, the more vigorously do they sing. And if, as it is said, they sing louder and more sweetly when in love than at other times, it is equally certain that other pleasures besides love incite them to sing. For we may nojbice they warble more on a quiet and peaceful day, than when the day is dark and uncertain. And in stormy weather, or when frightened, they are silent; but the storm passed, they reappear, singing and frolicking with one another. Again, they sing in the morning when they awake; being partly incited to this by a feeling of joy for the new day, and partly by the pleasure generally felt by every animal when refreshed and restored by sleep. They also delight in gay foliage, rich valleys, pure and sparkling water, and beautiful country. . . .

      It is said that birds' voices are softer and sweeter, and their songs more refined, with us than among wild and uncivilised people. This being so, it would seem that birds are subject to the influence of the civilisation with which they associate. Whether or not this be true, it is a remarkable instance of the providence of nature that they should have capacity for flight, as well as the gift of song, so that their voices might from a lofty situation reach a greater number of auditors. It is also providential that the air, which is the natural element of sound, should be inhabited by vocal and musical creatures.

      Truly the singing of birds is a great solace and pleasure to us, and all other animals. This fact is not, I believe, so much due to the sweetness of the sounds, nor to their variety and harmony, as to the joyful signification of songs generally, and those of birds in particular. Birds laugh, as it were, to show their contentment and happiness. It may therefore be said that they partake in a degree of man's privilege of laughter, unpossessed by other animals. Now some people think that man may as well be termed a laughing animal, as an animal possessed of mind and reason; for laughter seems to them quite as much peculiar to man as reason. And it is certainly wonderful that man, the most wretched and miserable of all creatures, should have the faculty of laughter, which is wanting in other animals. Marvellous also is the u^e we make of this faculty! We see people suffering from some terrible calamity or mental distress, others who have lost all love of life, and regard every human thing as full of vanity, who are almost incapable of joy, and deprived of hope, laugh nevertheless. Indeed, the more such men realise the vanity of hope, and the misery of life, the fewer their expectations and pleasures, so much the more do they feel inclined to laugh. Now it is scarcely possible to explain or analyse the nature of laughter in general, and its connection with the human mind. Perhaps it may aptly be termed a species of momentary folly or delirium. For men can have no reasonable and just cause for laughter, because nothing really satisfies nor truly pleases them. It would be curious to discover and trace out the history of this faculty. There is no doubt that in man's primitive and wild state, it was expressed by a peculiar gravity of countenance, as in other animals, who show it even to the extent of melancholy. Tor this reason I imagine that laughter not only came into the world after tears, which cannot be questioned, but that a long time passed before it appeared. During that time, neither the mother greeted her child with a smile, nor did the child smilingly recognise her, as Virgil says. And the reason why, in the present day, among civilised people, children smile as soon as they are born, is explainable by virtue of example: they see others smile, therefore they also smile.

      It is probable that laughter originated in drunkenness (1), another peculiarity of the human race. This vice is far from being confined to civilised nations, for we know that scarcely any people can be found that do not possess an intoxicating liquor of some kind, which they indulge in to excess. And this cannot be wondered at, when we remember that men, the most unhappy of all animals, are above all pleased with anything that easily alienates their minds, such as self-forgetfulness, or a suspension of their usual life; from which interruption and temporary diminution of the sense and knowledge of their peculiar evils they receive no slight benefit. And whereas savages have ordinarily a sad and grave countenance, yet, when in a state of drunkenness, they laugh immoderately, and talk and sing incessantly, contrary to their custom. But I will discuss this matter more in detail in a history of laughter which I think of composing. Having discovered its origin, I will trace its history and fortune to the present day, when it is more valued than at any previous time. It occupies among civilised nations a place, and fills an office somewhat similar to the parts formerly played by virtue, justice, honour, and the like, often indeed frightening and deterring men from the committal of evil.

      But to return to the birds. From the effect their singing produces in me, I conclude that the sight and recognition of joy in others, of which we are not envious, gratifies and rejoices us. We may therefore be grateful to Nature for having ordained that the songs of birds, which are a demonstration of joy and a species of laughter, should be in public, differing from the private nature of the singing and laughter of men, who represent the rest of the world. And it is wisely decreed that the earth and air should be enlivened by creatures that seem to applaud universal life with the joyful harmony of their sweet voices, and thus incite other living beings to joy, by their continual, though false, testimony to the happiness of things.

      It is reasonable that birds should be, and show themselves, more joyful than other creatures. For, as I have said, they are naturally better adapted for joy and happiness. In the first place, apparently, they are not subject to ennui. They change their position momentarily, and pass from country to country, however distant, and from the lowest regions of the air to the highest, quickly and with wonderful ease. Life to them is made up of an infinite variety of sights and experiences. Their bodies are in a continuous state of activity, and they themselves are full of vital power. All other animals, their wants being satisfied, love quietude and laziness; none, except fishes and certain flying insects, keep long in motion simply for amusement. The savage, for instance, except to supply his daily wants, which demand little and brief exertion, or when unable to hunt, scarcely stirs a step. He loves idleness and tranquillity above everything, and passes nearly the whole day sitting in silence and indolence within his rude cabin, or at its opening, or in some rocky cave or place of shelter. Birds, on the contrary, very rarely stay long in one place. They fly backwards and forwards without any necessity, simply as a pastime, and often having gone several hundred miles away from the country they usually frequent, they return thither the same evening. And even for the short time they are in one place, their bodies are never still. Ever turning here and there, they are always either flocking together, pecking, or shaking themselves, or hopping about in their extraordinarily vivacious and active manner. In short, from the time a bird bursts its shell until it dies, save intervals of sleep, it is never still for a moment. From these considerations it may reasonably be affirmed that whereas the normal state of animals, including even man, is quietude, that of birds is motion.

      We find also that birds are so endowed that their natural qualities harmonise with the exterior qualities and conditions of their life; this again makes them better adapted for happiness than other animals. They have remarkably acute powers of hearing, and a faculty of vision almost inconceivably perfect. Owing to this last they can discern simultaneously a vast extent of country, and are daily charmed by spectacles the most immense and varied. From these things it may be inferred that birds ought to possess an imagination, vivid and powerful in the highest degree. Not the ardent and stormy imagination of Dante or Tasso; for this is a disastrous endowment, and the cause of endless anxieties and sufferings. But a fertile, light, and childish fancy, such as is productive of joyful thoughts, sweet unrealities, and manifold pleasures. This is the noblest gift of Nature to living creatures. And birds have this faculty in a great measure for their own delight and benefit, without experiencing any of its hurtful and painful consequences. For their prolific imagination, as with children, combines, with their bodily vigour, to render them happy and contented, instead of being injurious, and productive of misery, as with most men. Thus, birds may be said to resemble children equally in their vivacity and restlessness, and the other attributes of their nature. If the advantages of childhood were common to other ages, and its evils not exceeded later in life, man might perhaps be better able to bear patiently the burden of existence.

      To me it seems that the nature of birds, considered aright, is manifestly more perfect than that of other animals. For, in the first place, birds are superior to other animals in sight and hearing, which are the principal senses of life. In the second place, birds naturally prefer motion to rest, whereas other creatures have the contrary preference. And since activity is a more living thing than repose, birds may be said to have more life than other animals. It follows therefore that birds are physically, and in the exercise of their faculties, superior to other creatures.

      Now, if life be better than its contrary, the fuller and more perfect the life, as with birds, the greater is the superiority of creatures possessing it, over less endowed animals.

      We must not forget also that birds are adapted to bear great atmospheric changes. Often they rise instantaneously from the ground far up into the air, where the cold is extreme; and others in their travels fly through many different climates.

      In short, just as Anacreon wished to be changed into a mirror that he might be continually regarded by the mistress of his heart, or into a robe that he might cover her, or balm to anoint her, or water to wash her, or bands that she might draw him to her bosom, or a pearl to be worn on her neck, or shoes that she might at least press him with her feet; so I should like temporarily to be transformed into a bird, in order to experience their contentment and joyfulness of life.


(1) Compare Shakespeare's Henry IV., Part 2, Act 4, sc. 3. Falstaff: ". . . nor a man cannot make him laugh; but that's no marvel, he drinks no wine."

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