The Poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, That Other Great Florentine Poet

My primary reading goal for 2019, if I can find time to read at all, is to greatly deepen my knowledge of Dante Alighieri. I’ve written briefly of La Vita Nuova and extensively of Monarchia, and have previously read the Divine Comedy, but this constitutes the mere highlight reel of his career. Though not terribly prolific, Dante did write more than many people realise and besides, the Comedy itself has such depths that it deserves careful study even on its own. That said, I’d like to begin with by setting the stage with a friend of Dante’s, fellow Florentine and poet Guido Cavalcanti.

It’s a testament to Dante’s excellence that a poet of Cavalcanti’s calibre is only the second-greatest poet of his era. Though obscure to Americans, he is an important figure in Italian poetry and well-respected among those who study Italian and Medieval literature. Some readers may be aware that among his admirers were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ezra Pound, who each translated a volume of Cavalcanti’s poems. Let’s take a look at one of them, numbered 45 in Marc Cirigliano’s edition, “Se non ti caggia la tua santalena.”

may you not drop your little jewel
between the plowed clumps
so it is picked up by a farmer
who fondles and keeps it

tell me if the earth’s fruit
is born from dryness, heat, or moisture
and which wind blows it
and what fog fills the storm

and if you like the morning
that hears the workman’s voice
and family cacophany

i certainly know that if Bettina’s
heart has a sweet spirit
you’ll get rid of your young acquisition

Obviously, Cirigliano translated this in a decidedly modern style, which some readers may find off-putting. However, he does have a defensible reason for doing so, which is that Cavalcanti and other proponents of what they called the “sweet new style” were themselves looking for new forms of poetic expression, and this is how the translator attempts to capture that in English. It’s somewhat well-known that Dante is largely responsible for making it standard for poets to write in the vernacular rather than Latin, but Cavalcanti was one of his allies in this endeavour. While it’s true that earlier writers in the emerging tradition of courtly love had written in the vernacular previously, Cirigliano notes that they had done so in notably heightened language, whereas Dante and Cavalcanti wrote in a more natural style.

There are a couple other things worth noting in the above poem that are typical of Cavalcanti and others in his circle. One is the use of allegory, here using the image of a “little jewel” as a metaphor for the addressee’s lover. He essentially spells this out in the final stanza, so as a whole the poem is somewhat abstract but not obscure, which I think is ideal for allegorical literature. Also, though here the allegory is of earthly love, in other poems earthly love and beautiful women are themselves used as allegories for other things, such as philosophy.

The final general point, less obvious in the above poem, is that Cavalcanti tends to be rather pessimistic in his work. See, for example, poem #36, or “Certe mie rime a te mandar vogliendo.”

wanting i send you certain poems
about my heart’s grave state
Love appeared as a dead figure
saying - I warn you not to send them

because if the friend is who I imagine
his mind won’t be ready
to hear of the injustice
i make you burn with

he won’t take such a large loss
as if his heart would leave him
as if he heard your ponderousness

and you well know I’m Love
for this reason I leave you my semblance
and carry away your thoughts

The addressee in this poem is likely Dante. We’ll see more examples of this when we get to Dante’s Rime, but one thing that struck me when reading about Cavalcanti and Dante’s early career is that it was fairly common for men, or at least the literary-minded, to address each other in verse when writing to one another. Not in everyday correspondance, obviously, but on certain occasions, or in response to other poems distributed by their peers. It’s a very civilised, high-class way to communicate, and I’m genuinely curious how widespread this was outside of Florence, or if it was common in other times or places. The only other example I’m aware of is Japan, where the upper classes would occasionally have poetry contests or send each other notes in verse.

Now, I think Marc Cirigliano’s decision to go with a modern style is fine, and I think his version of Cavalcanti’s verse is very good, though the lack of punctuation and capitalisation is distracting. His endnotes are also concise and helpful. Those wanting a more traditional, formal style may want to look for Rossetti’s versions, which he translated for a collection of early Italian poets. However, I’m unaware of an in-print edition of this work. As one other alternative, there is an in-print edition of Cavalcanti’s complete poems translated by Anthony Mortimer, but I haven’t read that one.

Finally, Cavalcanti’s poems were also translated by Ezra Pound, which I have in the anthology of Pound’s work collected by publisher The Library of America. As is typically the case, I’m afraid I can’t judge Pound’s translation on accuracy, though based on his work in translating the Confucian canon and Cirigliano’s criticisms I feel safe assuming that he took some liberties. That said, like all of his translations these stand as fine poems in their own right, and Pound was well-placed to translate Cavalcanti as a great poet with both a modern style and a deep knowledge of literary tradition.

I’ll end this overview (and alas, overviews are all I have time for now!) with Cavalcanti’s most famous poem, “Donna mi prega,” since I would be remiss not to share it, and particularly Pound’s version. First, just as a point of comparison, here are the first couple stanzas of Cirigliano’s rendering:

Woman asks me
for which I want to speak
of something extraneous
so proud
called love:
whoever denies it
can hear the truth!

About this
as I don’t expect
men with vile hearts
to know:
because without
natural demonstration
I haven’t the desire
the will to prove
where it rests, and who makes it act
what are its virtues, its power
in essence
each movement
its predilection
making one call it love-ing
demonstrably seen…

The strange contemporary love of unnecessary line breaks and odd spacing makes the sense of the poem difficult to follow; not a major problem in the shorter poems, but a significant obstacle here. Now, Pound:

Because a lady asks me, I would tell
Of an affect that comes often and is fell
And is so overweening; Love by name.
E’en its deniers can now hear the truth,
I for the nonce to them that know it call,
Having no hope at all that man who is base in heart
Can bear his part of wit into the light of it,
And save they know’t aright from nature’s source
I have no will to prove Love’s course or say
Where he takes rest; who maketh him to be;
Or what his active virtu is, or what his force;
Nay, nor his very essence or his mode;
What his placation; why he is in verb,
Or if a man have might
To show him visible to men’s sight.

In memory’s locus taketh he his state Place
Formed there in manner as a mist of light
Upon a dusk that is come from Mars and stays.
Love is created, hath a sensate name,
His modus takes from soul, from heart his will;
From form seen doth he start, that, understood,
Taketh in latent intellect
As in a subject ready place and abode,
Yet in that place it ever is unstill,
Spreading its rays, it tendeth never down
By quality, but is its own effect unendingly
Not to delight, but in an ardour of thought
That the base likeness of it kindleth not.

It is not virtu, but perfection’s source
Lying within perfection postulate
Not by the reason, but ‘tis felt, I say.
Beyond salvation, holdeth its judging force,
Maintains intention reason’s peer and mate;
Poor in discernment, being thus weakness’ friend,
Often his power meeteth with death in the end
Be he withstayed or from true course bewrayed
E’en though he meet not with hate or villeiny
Save that perfection fails, be it but a little;
Nor can man say he hath his life by chance
Or that he hath not stablished seigniory
Or loseth power, e’en lost to memory.

He comes to be and is when will’s so great
It twists itself from out all natural measure;
Leisure’s adornment puts he then never on,
Never thereafter, but moves changing state,
Moves changing colour, or to laugh or weep
Or wries the face with fear and little stays,
Yea, resteth little yet is found the most
Where folk of worth be host.
And his strange property sets sighs to move
And wills man look into unformed space
Rousing there thirst that breaketh into flame.
None can imagine love that knows not love;
Love doth not move, but draweth all to him;
Nor doth he turn for a whim to find delight
Nor to seek out, surely, great knowledge or slight.

Look drawn from like, delight maketh certain in seeming
Nor can in covert cower, beauty so near,
Not yet wild-cruel as darts,
So hath man craft from fear in such his desire
To follow a noble spirit, edge, that is, and point to the dart,
Though from her face indiscernible;
He, caught, falleth plumb the spike of the targe.
Who well proceedeth, form not seeth, following his own emanation.
There, beyond colour, essence set apart,
In midst of darkness light light giveth forth
Beyond all falsity, worthy of faith, alone
That in him solely is compassion born.

Safe may’st thou go my canzon whither thee pleaseth
Thou art so fair attired that every man and each
Shall praise thy speech So we have sense or glow with reason’s fire,
To stand with other hast thou no desire.