Thursday 22 January 2009

“L’essilio che m’è dato, onor mi tegno.” (Dante)

Exile becomes an honour that I prize.

After an agonizing wait, we have finally received advance copies of Dante’s Rime, which is to be published later this month in the Oneworld Classics series. You will remember I had instant DTs when misbound copies were delivered to us a couple of weeks ago. Well, today’s joy amply compensates for the heartbreak we experienced then.

This compact 220-page volume is a book lover’s delight: printed on cream Arctic paper, with sewn binding, plates, matt-laminated cover with flaps, Botticelli’s portrait of Dante on the front… you’ll turn it over in your hands and riffle through it a hundred times for the sheer pleasure of it.

Dante spent most of his adult life away from Florence as an exile. These days, we would call him a “political refugee”. He lived at the court of several noblemen in northern Italy, and it is during these years of wandering that he wrote most of his Divine Comedy. Few people know Dante’s other works, and how he came to write one of the greatest poetical works of all time. The Vita nuova offers only a limited glimpse into Dante’s early life and poetical career – his love for Beatrice, his Troubadour influences, his passion for courtly-love poetry. The Rime (or “Lyrics”), on the other hand, provide all the missing links in Dante’s poetical apprenticeship, from formulaic early pieces to experimental poems and the great canzoni of his later years. The importance of this volume can be compared, in many ways, to that of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Still, there is no other mainstream edition available in the English market. Calling this a disgrace is an understatement.

These poems have been rarely seen in English, although I’m sure you’ll be able to find some awful translation on the net. The translators of this edition are J.G. Nichols and Anthony Mortimer, two of the finest translators of Italian poetry, and the recipients of several prizes and much critical acclaim.

As a taster, I am going to include a couple of poems – an entertaining sonnet and one of Dante’s most famous petrose.

Dante to Forese

To hear how Bicci’s luckless wife keeps coughing
(Though now he’s called Forese, so I’m told),
You’d think that she had spent the winter off in
Some land where things turn crystal from the cold.
To see her freeze in August is quite shocking,
In other months just guess the cold she caught;
It doesn’t help to go to bed in stockings
If then what covers her is much too short.
This coughing and cold humours and the rest
Don’t come from age, but the poor girl at night
Feels something lacking in her little nest.
Her mother, sad on more than one account,
Weeps: “For a dowry of dried figs I might
Have set her up with Guido who’s a count.”

[Translated by Anthony Mortimer]


Now I have reached the point on heaven’s wheel
When the horizon, as the sun goes down,
Gives birth to those clear twins that light the sky,
And when love’s star is far from us and pale
Because the sidelong beam cast by the sun
Bestrides it so and veils it from the eye;
And the cold planet stands revealed on high
Fully to us in that great arching way
Where each of seven casts a shorter shade:
And yet I have not laid
Aside one single thought of love: it weighs
Upon my mind, that’s harder than a stone
In holding fast the image of a stone.

A vagrant wind from Ethiopian sands,
Darkening all the air, arises now,
Moved by the heat that comes from the sun’s sphere;
And drives across the sea so dense a band
Of cloud that, if no adverse wind should blow,
It closes in and seals our hemisphere;
And then dissolves, descending on us here
In cold white flakes of snow and dismal rain,
So that the very air must weep and mourn:
Yet Love, whose webs are drawn
Aloft whenever the wind mounts again,
Still leaves me not, so fair she is, this lady,
The cruel one, assigned as my liege-lady.

Each bird that follows warmth has flown away,
Leaving the lands of Europe, whose bleak sky
Can never lose the seven freezing stars;
And others have made truce with tongue to stay
Silent until the time of green comes by,
Unless the sound be to lament their woes;
And all the animals whose nature shows
In lustiness are now from love untied,
So dampened is their spirit by the cold;
And yet my spirit holds
Ever more love; sweet thoughts are not denied
Or given to me by any change of season,
But by a lady in her youthful season.

The leaves that once the power of the Ram
Drew forth in beauty to adorn the world
Are now long past their term, the grass is dead;
Hidden from us the green of branch or stem,
Except in bay or pine or fir which hold
A foliage evergreen that does not fade;
And so harsh is the season and so hard
It kills the tender flowers the meadows wear
With a sharp frost too piercing to be borne:
And yet Love has not drawn
Out of my heart the thorn he planted there;
So I resolve to bear it with me ever,
All my life long, though I should live for ever.

From hidden veins the various springs give vent
To waters that the earth draws up in steam
And vapours from its bowels underground;
So that the path that pleased me when I went
Along it one fine day is now a stream
And will be so till winter’s siege is done;
The face of earth resembles polished stone,
And the dead waters harden into glass,
Held in a vice by the contracting cold:
Yet in this war I hold
My ground and do not yield a single pace,
Nor will I yield; for if this pain be sweet,
Death must surpass whatever else is sweet.

My song, what will become of me in that
Sweet other season, new and freshly fair,
When love rains from the heavens on earth below,
If here, in frost and snow,
Love is in me alone, and not elsewhere?
I shall be like a man that’s made of marble,
If this young girl still keeps a heart of marble.

[Translated by Anthony Mortimer]

If you would like to meet the translators and listen to some of Dante’s lesser-known poems, please do come to our launch event at the Calder Bookshop on 5th February.


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