Dante’s Lyric Poetry: Poems of Youth and of the Vita Nuova

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Dante’s Lyric Poetry –Poems of Youth and the Vita Nuova contains introductory essays for each poem by Teodolina Barolini, a professor at Columbia University.  The new verse translations are  by Richard Lansing, an Emeritus professor at Brandeis University.  It is no wonder that this volume won the MLA Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Publication Award for a Manuscript in Italian Literary Studies.   Though most of the prose translations read like standard, flat academic tomes,   the terrain is generous . We are talking about Dante, after all.

   Every single poem in this collection is examined with a microscope,  leading to English sentences  such as:  “The world of ladies and love is therefore represented as opposing the world of men and male pastimes, by means of a programmatically dichotomized rhetoric,”   and many thoughts even less gracefully expressed.     This is from the introduction to a piece called Sonor brachetti e cacciatori aizzare,  a vivid, fast-paced composition that initially seems to be about hunting game,  but  is really a metaphor for a love-chase.     Sonor brachetti means  beagles’ belling, and  Dante, as always,  packs a lot into a sonnet :

The beagles’ belling and the hunters’ cries,

the hares flushed out, the cheering of the crowd,

the greyhounds loosed from leashes, dashing by,

careening through the fields in search of prey,

must surely be a source of great delight

to any heart not bound by love’s demands.

But in my thoughts of love I find myself

put down and mocked by one of them;

and as it’s done before, it jokes and says  :

‘’Now here’s refinement in a gentleman,

deserting ladies and their gaiety

for such a rough- and- tumble sport as this.’’

And fearing then that Love will overhear,

I feel ashamed and have a heavy heart.

Sonnar brachetti e cacciatore aizzare.

lepri levare ed isgrider le genti

     The poem, like most here, is printed with the entire Italian next to it, on the same page, and space prevents me from doing the same.   This is a method I always applaud because it gives  a richer experience whether or not the reader is fluent in the original language.   The ideal ear is an omnivorous orifice, and  poetry translators are usually especially appreciative of this.   When they are, the result  can be a joy as they explore sound.

   A large part of what makes this particular sonnet such intriguing fun is the fact that Dante himself seems to enjoy  discussing animal instinct, motion and noise.     By the end, with elegance in the middle  (‘’careening through the fields in search of prey/must surely be a source of great delight/to any heart not bound by love’s demands’’)   we can share Dante’s embarrassment and preference for the gentler pursuits of ladies and their pastimes.    This is also one of many reminders of how precocious Dante was, and how colorful were his surroundings.

   Barolini’s main premise is that these poems and her thoughts about them can enrich our understanding of Dante’s Divine Comedy in very specific ways.   She provides dozens of citations that reinforce her position without ever growing dull.  With Dante, and with scholars passionately committed to studying him,   there is almost always a radical, one could even say prescient mix of intellect and emotion at work at the same time, in poet and in exegete.   In pondering  “Donne ch’avete intelleto d’amore’’,  Barolini points out references that suggest what she calls  the “mystical fusion of the faculties at the end of Paradiso,”   which she credibly believes are anticipated right away :

Ladies who have the intellect of love,

I wish to speak to you about my lady,

not that I think I can exhaust her praise, 

but rather to alleviate my mind.

I know that when I think about her worth

I feel love sweetness so entirely

that if this did not render me less bold,   

by speaking I’d make people fall in love.

But I don’t plan to speak too loftily,

for fear that I could never measure up;   

instead I’ll speak of her nobility

in language less exalted than she is, 

with you, dear ladies, maidens who know love,

for this is something others should not hear.

   Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore  is the original first line, and Barolini’,   notes that “The mystical fusion of the faculties at the of Paradiso is anticipated by the preposition di in those first words that Dante chose here.’’   The poem is seventy lines long, and the accompanying  essay is almost nine pages.    Both are exercises in admirable obsession with Dante anticipating many great interior monologues, if one placed Shakespeare in the middle on a literary timeline.    Though Barolini never says so directly,  what is  at work here is something that most poets are aware of and the best poets are deeply ambivalent about.   The act of composing, recomposing and composing again is a kind of therapy.     The last lines plead for the work of art, and for its audience.    I will end with the last fourteen of them, to easily make my point.   Before I do, I need to say that the poems in this collection are so emotionally rich and well crafted that even a novice Dante-reader might comfortably encounter them first and then, with an equally slow pace and detailed attention, read what Barolini has to say about them.

My song, I know that you will go and speak

to many ladies when I send you forth. 

Because I raised you as a child of Love,

obedient and meek, I bid you now

to ask this favor everywhere you go :

“Show me the way  to go, since I must reach

the lady with whose praises I’m adorned.”

And if you do not wish to go in vain,

avoid the kind of people who are base :

do all you can to introduce yourself

to ladies and men of worth alone,

who’ll guide you to her by the quickest path.

You’ll find Love in the company of her;

speak well of me to him, as well you must.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →