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Introduction to Italian Poetry
A Dual-Language Book
By Luciano Rebay
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
SAN FRANCESCO D'ASSISI
TO people the world over Saint Francis is known as the founder of a famous religious order and a symbol of humility and brotherly love. Less known is the fact that this man, who in his early twenties severed all ties with his family and renounced wealth and social position to lead a life of poverty and meditation, is also the author of one of the first works of artistic value in Italian literature, the "Cantico delle creature."
"Cantico delle creature," Saint Francis' only work in verse form and in the vernacular (all his other writings are in Latin prose), is a sort of psalm in praise of God and His creation and vividly captures the essence of the Saint's elemental philosophy. Apart from its message, however, this poem offers a striking example of pure lyric achievement. The impact of its freshness and serene solemnity, particularly in the last stanza, where death is evoked, has not lost any of its force through the centuries. Nor are archaic and Umbrian dialect forms a serious hindrance to a modern reader for full enjoyment of the poem. It will be sufficient to remember that "so" stands for "sono," "omne" and "onne" for "ogni," "ene" for "è," "ellu" for "egli," "sostengo" for "sostengono," "ca" for "perche," "sirano" for "saranno."
According to the oldest Franciscan sources, the "Cantico" was composed in the church of San Damiano near Assisi in 1224, the year in which Saint Francis received the stigmata. The first seven stanzas were written after a vision of eternal bliss; the eighth stanza was added some time later; and the poem was completed shortly before the Saint's death.
Cantico delle creature
Altissimu, omnipotente, bon Signore
Tue so le laude la gloria e l'honore
Et omne benedictione.
Ad te solo, Altissimo, se confano
Et nullu homo ene dignu te mentovare.
Laudato sie, mi Signore, cun tutte le tue creature
Spetialmente messor lo frate sole
Lo qual jorna et allumini noi per loi.
Et ellu è bellu e radiante cun grande splendore:
De te, Altissimo, porta significatione.
Laudato si', mi Signore, per sora luna e le stelle;
In cielo l'hai formate clarite et pretiose et belle.
Laudato si', mi Signore, per frate vento
E per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,
Per lo quale a le tue creature dai sustentamento.
Laudato si', mi Signore, per sor'acqua,
La quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.
Laudato si', mi Signore, per frate focu
Per lo quale ennallumini la nocte;
Et ello è bello et jocundo et robustoso et forte.
Laudato si', mi Signore, per sora nostra matre terra,
La quale ne sustenta et governa,
Et produce diversi fructi con coloriti fiori et herba.
Laudato si', mi Signore, per quelli che perdonano per lo tuo amore
Et sostengo infirmitate et tribulatione:
Beati quelli che sosterranno in pace,
Ca da te, Altissimo, sirano incoronati.
Canticle of Living Creatures
Highest, omnipotent, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honor
And every blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong
And no man is worthy to speak Your name.
Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
Especially our brother, Master Sun,
Who makes day and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor:
He brings meaning of You, O Most High.
Praised be You, my Lord, for sister moon and the stars;
In heaven You have made them bright and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, for brother wind
And for the air, and for cloudy and clear and for all weather,
Through which You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, for sister water,
Who is most useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my Lord, for brother fire
Through whom you illumine the night;
And he is beautiful and gay and vigorous and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, for our sister, mother earth,
Who sustains and governs us,
And produces various fruits with colored flowers and grass.
Praised be You, my Lord, for those who forgive out of love for You
And bear infirmity and tribulation:
Blessed are those who suffer in peace,
For by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.
Laudato si', mi Signore, per sora nostra morte corporale,
Da la quale nullu homo vivente po scappare:
Guai a quelli che morranno ne le peccata mortali,
Beati quelli che trovarà ne le tue sanctissime voluntati,
Ca la morte secunda nol farrà male.
Laudate et benedicete mi Signore et rengratiate
Et serviteli cun grande humilitate.
Praised be You, my Lord, for our sister, bodily death,
From whom no living man can escape:
Woe to those who die in mortal sin,
Blessed are those whom she will find in Your most holy will,
For the second death will do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord and thank Him
And serve Him with great humility.
LA COMPIUTA DONZELLA
(second half of the thirteenth century)
VERY little is known of La Compiuta Donzella, except that she was a delicate, intense poet who was born and lived in Florence—the first woman poet of marked talent to write in a modern European language. It is not even certain that Compiuta Donzella was her real name; it may have been a pseudonym meaning the Accomplished Maid. She was also referred to as the Divine Sibyl.
Only three sonnets attributed to La Compiuta Donzella are extant. They suggest that her life was torn between her desire to become a nun, perhaps the aftermath of an unhappy love affair, and her father's insistence that she marry the man of his choice. This theme is treated with moving simplicity and consummate poetic skill in "A la stagion che il mondo foglia e fiora," a sonnet that can at first be mistaken for a song in praise of spring and love. Not until the eighth line does one realize that sorrow, not joy has inspired this poem.
The limpid style of this poet and the melodiousness of her lines reveal the high degree of refinement and precision that the language of lyric poetry had attained in Tuscany in the thirteenth century. At the same time the sonnet, devised only a few decades earlier by the Sicilian Jacopo da Lentini, appears to have developed already into the perfect poetic form that before long would be imitated throughout Europe.
"A la stagion che il mondo foglia e fiora"
A la stagion che il mondo foglia e flora,
Accresce gioia a tutti i fini amanti,
Vanno insieme a li giardini allora
Che gli augelletti fanno dolci canti,
La franca gente tutta s'innamora,
Ed in servir ciascun traggesi innanti,
Ed ogni damigella in gioi' dimora.
A me n'abbondan marrimenti e pianti.
Chè lo mio padre m'ha messa in errore,
E tienemi sovente in forte doglia:
Donar mi vuole, a mia forza, segnore.
Ed io di ciò non ho disio nè voglia,
E in gran tormento vivo a tutte l'ore:
Però non mi rallegra fior nè foglia.
"In the season when the world leafs and flowers"
In the season when the world leafs and flowers,
Joy grows in all gentle lovers,
They go together to the gardens, while
Little birds make sweet song,
All free-hearted people fall in love,
And every man steps forth to serve,
And every maiden lives in joy.
As for me, miseries and tears abound.
For my father has put me in a quandary,
And keeps me often in terrible pain:
He wants to give me—forcing me—a husband.
And I have neither wish nor will for this,
And in great torment I live every hour:
So that neither flower nor leaf rejoices me.
GUIDO CAVALCANTI, one of Dante's closest friends, was the Florentine leader of the dolce stil nuovo, the school of poetry founded in Bologna by the other famous Guido of the thirteenth century, the jurist Guido Guinizelli. The poets of the dolce stil nuovo—the expression comes from Dante's Purgatorio and means literally the "sweet new style"—dedicated themselves to the exaltation and glorification of woman. This was by no means an original approach, having been central to Provençal poetry, but Guinizelli and his followers renovated it with a strictly philosophical emphasis based on the belief that love can be born only in "gentle hearts"—hearts noble and virtuous by nature—and that woman is an angel placed on earth for man's salvation. Love for a woman is therefore, in a sense, love for God himself. This theological doctrine of love, codified by Guinizelli in his canzone "Al cor gentil ripara sempre amore," influenced many poets, including Dante. All too often, however, the dolce stil nuovo writers were more concerned with philosophy than poetry and, as a result, many of their poems seem to us artificial and rhetorical, mere patterns of abstract convictions.
Cavalcanti too placed philosophy above poetry, to the extent that some of his poems, such as "Donna mi prega per ch'io voglio dire," on the nature of love, were quoted by contemporaries as philosophical treatises. Today these poems are all but forgotten. That part of Cavalcanti's work which has endured and established him as the first great Italian lyric poet consists of a few songs, ballads, and sonnets in which he set aside fixed patterns and complex abstractions and gave free rein to purely personal feelings. Such is the exquisite ballad "In un boschetto trova' pasturella," about a shepherdess encountered in the woods. The fact that Cavalcanti celebrates not a lady of high station but a country girl is in itself atypical of the dolce stil nuovo. Candor and directness of feeling make this little shepherdess unforgettable.
In un boschetto trova' pasturella
In un boschetto trova' pasturella
Più che la stella—bella al mi' parere.
Cavelli avea biondetti e ricciutelli
E gli occhi pien d'amor, cera rosata;
Con sua verghetta pasturav' agnelli,
E, scalza, di rugiada era bagnata;
Cantava come fosse 'nnamorata;
Er'adornata—di tutto piacere.
D'amor la salutai immantenente
E domandai s'avesse compagnia,
Ed ella mi rispuose dolcemente
Che sola sola per lo bosco gia,
E disse: "Sacci, quando l'augel pia,
Allor disia—'I me' cor drudo avere."
Poi che mi disse di sua condizione,
E per lo bosco augelli audio cantare,
Fra me stesso diss'io: "Or' è stagione
Di questa pasturella gioi' pigliare."
Merzè le chiesi sol che di baciare
E d'abbracciare—le fosse 'n volere.
Per man mi prese, d'amorosa voglia,
E disse che donato m'avea 'l core:
Menommi sott'una freschetta foglia
Là dov' i' vidi fior d'ogni colore,
E tanto vi sentio gioia e dolzore
Che dio d'amore—parvemi vedere.
During the last part of his life, Cavalcanti, a White Guelf, played a very active—even militant—role in the political life of Florence. In June 1300, after a bloody riot fomented by the rival factions of the Whites and the Blacks, he was banished with other leaders by order of the city's board of governors, among whom was Dante himself. Cavalcanti's exile lasted only a few weeks, however. Having contracted malaria, he was allowed to return to Florence, where he died in August of the same year.
In a small grove I met a little shepherdess
In a small grove I met a little shepherdess
More beautiful than the stars—she seemed to me.
She had light-blond, curly hair
And eyes full of love, rosy complexion;
With her little staff she tended lambs,
And, barefoot, she was wet with dew;
She was singing as though in love;
And she was adorned—with every delight.
I greeted her at once with love
And asked if she had any companions,
And she answered me sweetly
That she was going through the wood quite alone,
And said: "You know, when a bird calls,
Then my heart–yearns to have a lover."
After she had told me of her state,
And I had heard birds singing in the wood,
I said to myself: "Now is the time
To take pleasure in this little shepherdess."
I asked of her only permission to kiss
And to embrace—should she so wish.
She took me by the hand, with amorous desire,
And said she had given me her heart:
She led me beneath branches of cool leaves
Where I saw flowers of every color,
And there I felt such joy and sweetness
That the god of love—I seemed to see.
IRREVERENT, sensual, deliberately vulgar and blasphemous, Cecco Angiolieri is the enfant terrible of the thirteenth century. The fact that his sonnets (some 150 of which are extant) could find an audience when the dolce stil nuovo was at its height is a measure of the sophistication of the period in which he lived.
Cecco Angiolieri was born in Siena and lived for some time in Rome. Aside from what he tells of himself in his writings, in which he draws the portrait of a dissolute man, not much is known about him. Throughout his life, he cynically proclaimed in one poem, only three things interested him: women, the tavern, and dice. But to obtain all three, he needed money—which he never possessed in sufficient amounts. Money and the impossible character of Becchina, a leather worker's daughter with whom he was in love, seem to have been the chief problems of his existence. He was a person who apparently had no fear or respect for any one: God, the Pope, his parents, his contemporaries. For example, in a sarcastic sonnet he referred to Dante as an "ox."
All the irascibility and fury of this angry man of the Middle Ages would of course be of no importance if he had not also been a powerful and original artist. Indeed, Angiolieri's singular gifts as an epigrammatic, satiric poet, his verbal boldness, his irony, his sense of the comic and the grotesque make him a master of this genre. In his most famous poem, "S'i' fosse foco, arderei 'I mondo," he superbly conveys within the fourteen lines of a sonnet his hatred for the world together with his lust for living.
"S'i' fosse foco, arderei 'l mondo"
S'i' fosse foco, arderei 'l mondo;
S'i' fosse vento, lo tempesterei;
S'i' fosse acqua, i' l'annegherei;
S'i' fosse Dio, mandereil' in profondo.
S'i' fosse papa, sare' allor giocondo,
Che tutt'i cristiani imbrigherei;
S'i' fosse 'mperator, sa' che farei?
A tutti mozzarei lo capo a tondo.
S'i' fosse morte, andarei da mio padre;
S'i' fosse vita, fuggirei da lui;
Similmente faria da mi' madre.
S'i' fosse Cecco, com'i' sono e fui,
Torrei le donne giovani e leggiadre,
E vecchie e laide lasserei altrui.
"If I were fire, I would set the world aflame"
If I were fire, I would set the world aflame;
If I were wind, I would storm it;
If I were water, I would drown it;
If I were God, I would send it to the abyss.
If I were Pope, then I would be happy,
For I would swindle all the Christians;
If I were Emperor, do you know what I would do?
I would chop off heads all around.
If I were death, I would go to my father;
If I were life, I would flee from him;
The same I would do with my mother.
If I were Cecco, as I am and I was,
I would take the women who are young and lovely,
And leave the old and ugly for others.
Excerpted from Introduction to Italian Poetry by Luciano Rebay. Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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