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The Italian romances of the fourteenth century were spread abroad in great numbers. They formed the polite literature of the day. But if it is not permitted to authors freely to express their ideas, and give full play to the imagination, these works must never be placed in the study of the rigid moralist. They, indeed, pushed their indelicacy to the verge of grossness, and seemed rather to seek than to avoid scenes, which a modern would blush to describe. They, to employ the expression of one of their authors, were not ashamed to name what God had created. Cinthio, Bandello, and others, but chiefly Boccaccio, rendered libertinism agreeable by the fascinating charms of a polished style and a luxuriant imagination.

This, however, must not be admitted as an apology for immoral works; for poison is not the less poison, even when delicious. Such works were, and still continue to be, the favourites of a nation stigmatized for being prone to impure amours. They are still curious in their editions, and are not parsimonious in their price for what they call an uncastrated copy. There are many Italians, not literary men, who are in possession of an ample library of these old novelists.

If we pass over the moral irregularities of these romances, we may discover a rich vein of invention, which only requires to be released from that rubbish which disfigures it, to become of an invaluable price. The Decamerones, the Hecatommiti, and the Novellas of these writers, translated into English, made no inconsiderable figure in the little library of our Shakspeare.[119] Chaucer had been a notorious imitator and lover of them. His “Knight’s Tale” is little more than a paraphrase of “Boccaccio’s Teseoide.” Fontaine has caught all their charms with all their licentiousness. From such works these great poets, and many of their contemporaries, frequently borrowed their plots; not uncommonly kindled at their flame the ardour of their genius; but bending too submissively to the taste of their age, in extracting the ore they have not purified it of the alloy. The origin of these tales must be traced to the inventions of the Troveurs, who doubtless often adopted them from various nations. Of these tales, Le Grand has printed a curious collection; and of the writers Mr. Ellis observes, in his preface to “Way’s Fabliaux,” that the authors of the “Cento Novelle Antiche,” Boccaccio, Bandello, Chaucer, Gower,–in short, the writers of all Europe have probably made use of the inventions of the elder fablers. They have borrowed their general outlines, which they have filled up with colours of their own, and have exercised their ingenuity in varying the drapery, in combining the groups, and in forming them into more regular and animated pictures.

We now turn to the French romances of the last century, called heroic, from the circumstance of their authors adopting the name of some hero. The manners are the modern antique; and the characters are a sort of beings made out of the old epical, the Arcadian pastoral, and the Parisian sentimentality and affectation of the days of Voiture.[120] The Astrea of D’Urfe greatly contributed to their perfection. As this work is founded on several curious circumstances, it shall be the subject of the following article; for it may be considered as a literary curiosity. The Astrea was followed by the illustrious Bassa, Artamene, or the Great Cyrus, Clelia, etc., which, though not adapted to the present age, once gave celebrity to their authors; and the Great Cyrus, in ten volumes, passed through five or six editions. Their style, as well as that of the Astrea, is diffuse and languid; yet Zaide, and the Princess of Cleves, are masterpieces of the kind. Such works formed the first studies of Rousseau, who, with his father, would sit up all night, till warned by the chirping of the swallows how foolishly they had spent it! Some incidents in his Nouvelle Heloise have been retraced to these sources; and they certainly entered greatly into the formation of his character.