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The two plays of Metastasio which are most dear to me are his “Regulus” and his “ Titus.” Both these deal with the ancient Roman world. Both show us the old Roman spirit, not perhaps as it was, but, at least, as we are most pleased to fancy it. In both there is a stately dignity and grandeur which is worthy of the heroic themes chosen by the poet. In the “Regulus” we find Attilia, the daughter of the captive Regulus, waiting before the doors of the Consul Manlius to urge him to renewed efforts to save her father. Manlius appears and asks the reason of her presence. I quote from Hoole's translation, which, with all its faults, is a fine piece of work, and the only rendering of Metastasio in English.
Wherefore am I come?
Ungrateful citizens ! ungrateful Rome ! Manlius, uncertain whether it consorts with the dignity of Rome to make any effort to exchange or ransom Regulus, leaves Attilia in despair, from which she is suddenly roused by Barce, a captive Carthaginian lady, who informs her that an ambassador has arrived from Carthage bringing with him Regulus himself. But the joy which Attilia and her brother Publius feel in returning to their father is suddenly shattered when Regulus, in full presence of the Conscript Fathers, advises them to reject the Carthaginian terms, and to send him back to certain death. Manlius argues against this counsel, urges how ungrateful it would appear in Rome to suffer so good a citizen to die in such a way. Regulus replies :
Would Rome be grateful to me, Regulus
In vain does Manlius argue with the high-spirited Roman; in vain do his children, Attilia and Publius, urge him with all the arguments that filial love can inspire ; in vain does Licinius, Tribune of the people and lover of Attilia, employ all his eloquence; in vain does Amilcar himself, the Carthaginian envoy, advise him to remain. To each and all Regulus makes the same stately reply, dwelling on the duties of a Roman citizen and the glory of the Roman name :
Our country is a whole
'Tis true must have their claims, and who rejects them
The very people rise in the streets to prevent Regulus returning to the Carthaginian ships, but the unbending Roman refuses to accept his freedom, compels them to allow him to accompany Amilcar. His farewell speech to the Romans is one of the finest in the play :
Romans, farewell! And let our parting now
The play of “Titus” is scarcely less impressive. The whole purpose of the play is to exhibit the nobility of the nature of Titus Vespasian as it is described by one of the characters :
Take from ourselves a friend from Rome, a father !
This is the key note of the play, as unbending Roman virtue was the key-note of“Regulus.” To love, to danger, the Titus of Metastasio shows the same calm immobility, the same unyielding determination to do what is right regardless of himself, which might well be the philosopher's ideal, and which certainly history cannot claim for the true Titus. His speeches all breathe the most exalted sentiments :
Oh, if Justice should exert
At a time when a terrible plot against his life has been discovered, his impulse is turned, not to revenge but to regret the ingratitude of Rome :
Who more could sacrifice to others' good
Titus hated ; Mighty gods !
When friend after friend seems to be faithless and treacherous, he muses upon the misfortunes of the great :
How wretched is the lot of him who reigns !
Or distant hills alone accompanied
The unvarying goodness of Titus may, perhaps, sometimes seem a little aggravating, and the unalterable and inflexible heroism of Regulus at times wears an air of pomposity. But there is something so noble about the two plays that we can well forgive any slight overaccentuation of the characteristics of the principal figures. As we read, we are in the old Roman world again, that old Roman world as seen by an Eighteenth-century poet, no doubt, but still with no little of that antique grandeur and simplicity which we have been led to associate with the Roman name. Metastasio's Rome is certainly not the old Rome of Pietro Cossa. There is little or no attempt on the dramatist's part to recreate history. The figures of his plays are types of particular virtues rather than studies of varied human character. The Adrian of his “Adrian in Syria” is little more than an amorous Titus. In "Aetius” the character of the Roman Emperor Valentinian is scarcely more varied. The same monotony of treatment runs through all these Roman plays, which invariably present groups of persons engaged in complicated love affairs, and revolving round some central figure of supreme nobility. The heroes bear Roman names, and fine speeches about Rome flow readily from their lips, but the dramatist is at no pains to attempt anything like historical treatment. In the plays of Pietro Cossa the Roman emperors stand out vivid and terrible as if they had stepped from a page of Tacitus or Suetonius. In the plays of Metastasio they are courtly gentlemen possessed of the virtues which are invariably attributed to princes, and always ready to act in the noblest manner. But if his Romans are not very Roman, how yet more unGrecian are his Greeks! The Jason of his “Hypsipyle" is much more unlike the Grecian leader of the Argonauts than is Mr. William Morris's “ Jason." The Dido is essentially a fine lady of the last century, and his Themistocles is only one degree more Greek than the courtly periwigged heroes of Racine.
In the "Achilles in Scyros," however, we have a Grecian scene that is not all uninformed by a Grecian spirit. The eighteenth-century dramatist has introduced the fair Deidamia to hold Achilles at Scyros in the chains of love ; for this there are Hellenists enough ready to