The Alchemy of Love – Guido Cavalcanti; Then and Now

Complete Poems – Guido Cavalcanti translated by Anthony Mortimer, OneWorld Classics, 2010. Cavalcanti Poems (1912) in Translations of Ezra Pound, Faber, 1953, 1984.

Guido Cavalcanti should be a household name in the canon of world poetry. He was Dante’s ‘first friend’  in La Vita Nuova and one of the leading members of the dolce stil novo (‘sweet new style’) group of poets. His importance to Dante alone should make him, if not one of the ‘masters’, then one of the ‘inventors’ of a literary style (to use Pound’s terminology in ABC of Reading). In one of his sonnets Dante compares Guido’s Lady Vanna to ‘John the Baptist’ in relation to Beatrice, suggesting that he felt that Cavalcanti was a ‘forerunner’ to his own messianic-poetic incarnation. Guido is mentioned twice in the Commedia showing the pre-eminence that Dante felt was owing to him.

Guido Cavalcanti

It is chiefly through the translations of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ezra Pound that the English-speaking world has been made aware of Cavalcanti. I can still remember the shockwave of Pound’s translations when I first read them as a fresh-faced student back in 1994. Pound’s heady mix of archaic medieval idioms welded to his ultra-modernity made reading this short book much like ‘having a small ball of fire in my hand’ (to use Pound’s phrase). The fact that this version has been the undisputed and chief ‘Cavalcanti’ point-of-entry for the past century is testament to Pound’s uncanny ability to don the persona of any literary figure in history he wanted to and then to breathe his own essence into them. How much ventriloquy there had been was not a question I wanted, or needed, to ask at that point. As Hugh Kenner states Pound always ‘invents a new form in English’ when he translates a foreign poet in order to show the ‘otherness’ of that strange culture. Added to this was the luminous mysticism of Guido’s courtly love, his stylistic use of personification and dark infusion of natural philosophy; all serving to conjour-up a veritable, Rimbaudian ‘alchemy of the word’. And all this, compounded by Pound’s alchemical act of translation, made Cavalcanti not only one of the most intense of poets I’d read but also one of the most unputdownable.

Almost a hundred years on from Pound’s ‘rosetta stone version’ (to quote one reviewer) it certainly is time that another translator took Cavalcanti on. Anthony Mortimer’s new translation published by independent publisher OneWorld is certainly to be welcomed. The real problem, for any aspiring translator, is that when you have had such a trailblazing and touchstone version available for so many years there is a lot to live up to. Mortimer has previously translated Dante, Petrarch and Michelangelo and is therefore no stranger to Italian literature. In this new translation he has chosen to follow the Italian edition which appears to print Cavalcanti’s poems chronologically.  In contrast Pound’s version starts with the sonnets, followed by the ballads and finally climaxes with the philosophical canzone (Donna mi prega) which is arguably Cavalcanti’s masterwork. Mortimer’s alternate approach actually allows us to see the development of Cavalcanti’s technique. However, the downside is that he ends up with some of the minor sonnets and exchanges with other poets such as Dante and Guido Orlandi (Mortimer chooses to translate their sonnets as well). This makes the climax of his book both bitty and slightly bathetic. Nevertheless it is certainly valuable to finally have a bilingual edition of all of Cavalcanti’s corpus (in effect, 52 poems).

OneWorld Press have published, and are proposing to publish, lesser-known classics in the world canon and their choice of Cavalcanti is a notable one as his literary importance is certainly overdue for re-evaluation. Rossetti wrote that Guido ‘has more individual life of his own than belongs to any of his predecessors’. Just as Giotto and Duccio were starting to bring in a more humanistic and naturalistic style in painting so Guido Cavalcanti, building on the poetry of the Provencal Troubadours and the early Italian Guido Guinicelli, was doing something very similar in poetry. With Cavalcanti we hear the seed-stirrings of Renaissance, for we read lines that echo Dante’s later use of them in the Commedia which marks the inception of the Renaissance:

Then sighs and sorrows seized on me apace,
Seeing how fear already held my heart.
Without respite, they promptly haled me off
To where I found a host of grieving men,
Each loud lamenting the strong pains of love.
(from V. Tr. Mortimer)

This imagery brings to mind the Lovers’ circle in Canto V of Inferno. We can also see here Cavalcanti’s trademark use of personification. In his poetry ‘heart’, ‘soul’, ‘mind’, ‘eyes’, ‘sighs’, ‘Love’, ‘Death’ and ‘the spirits’ have become personalities in their own right. This keys in with Cavalcanti’s natural philosophy and the Scholastic thinking of the 13th Century. ‘The spirits’ denote the scientific, or physiological reality, of certain ‘vapours’ that rose from the body’s organs when intellectually aroused. As Pound was right in asserting there is ‘not only proof by reason, but also proof by experiment’. Cavalcanti achieves fantastic literary mileage from this use of personification and it is one of his main claims to literary inventiveness. Pound wrote of Guido that ‘no psychologist of the emotions is more keen in his understanding, more precise in his expression.’ ‘The spirits’ are often depicted being routed or fleeing when the beauty of the poet’s lady is intellectually perceived. In some of the stronger poems the poet’s body is seen often as a claustrophobic battle-field where he suffers acute agony:

Let all those to whom great sufferings come
Look on this man, and they will see his heart
Borne in Death’s hand and carved into a cross.
(From XII tr. Mortimer)

In Pound’s version we have:

Whoever knoweth
Pain’s depth, let him look on this man whose heart
Death beareth in his hand cut cruciform.
(From Sonetto VIII tr, Pound)


Although more archaic than Mortimer’s translation there is no extra padding here. The lines slice with no unnecessary words. Mortimer may be more ‘faithful’ or literal to the original text, but he loses vitality and ends up with a flatter rendering than Pound’s. Pound’s archaisms are an intentional ploy to re-imagine the English equivalent of the Duecento Cavalcanti. So we have echoes of Chaucer and D’Orleans’s syntax (‘vertu’ for instance). What makes Pound’s versions so much more lively, apart from their unexpected medievalisms, is their exquisite melopoeia allied with their innate modernist language and sensibility. However, Mortimer does capture some of Cavalcanti’s ‘lightness’ of touch which Italo Calvino recognised when he wrote of Guido: ‘with all his gravity, he has the secret of lightness’. In one of Guido’s most famous ballads (Perch’io non spero) we have:

Since there’s no hope I ever shall return
To Tuscany, my little song,
Go for me, light and swift, along
To where my lady dwells, and she,
Of her great courtesy,
Will greet you with all honour.
(from ‘XXXV’ tr. Mortimer)

Mortimer captures the fresh and light ‘swiftness’ of the early Italian in a way which Pound, with his firmly-defined ‘medieval line’, doesn’t:

Because no hope is left me, Ballatetta,
Of return to Tuscany,
Light-foot go thou some fleet way
Unto my Lady straightway,
And out of her courtesy
Great honour will she do thee.
(from ‘Ballata XI’ tr. Pound)

This ‘lightness’ (or should we say ‘magic realism’ after Calvino?) is perhaps Mortimer’s only advance on Pound and Rossetti.

For Ezra Pound Cavalcanti and his Tuscan contemporaries emerged in an epoch and locality which Pound names ‘the Mediterranean sanity’ which also included the Provencal troubadours. Intelligence was given its proper place in a ‘radiant world where one thought cuts through another with clean edge, a world of moving energies’. This was opposed to asceticism and the idea that the body and its intelligences are evil. For instance, Cavalcanti leaned towards Averroist philosophy as well as the Aristotelian. This makes him a fascinating foil to Dante who was more rigidly orthodox and, certainly, more ‘hell-obsessed’ than Guido was. The falling out between the two poets later in their lives may have been philosophical/theological more than anything else. Although both were White Guelfs Dante was partially responsible for Guido’s final exile where the latter was infected by a fatal malarial disease which would eventually kill him. The difference between them can be seen in the direct contrast of Guido’s masterwork ‘Donna mi prega’ with Dante’s Commedia.  Guido’s philosophical canzone, the only time he attempted this particular form, is, at first reading, impenetrable. Mortimer admits in his notes that, with its internal rhyme schemes, it ‘cannot be satisfactorily reproduced in English’. I am not sure whether this concession would have entirely washed with Pound. Having said that Pound did re-translate the canzone in the 1930s. This new version would eventually be embedded, or rather enshrined, within The Cantos as Canto 36. Anyway, back to Guido’s ‘Donna mi prega’. After a few close readings it starts to become clearer. So much so that, despite its complexity, it dazzles the reader with luminous shards of philosophical insight. In Mortimer’s version of it, concerning the dwelling place and creation of love, we have:

In that part where the memory resides
Love comes, and as the diaphane is brought
To form by light so love is given form
By dark from Mars; with memory it abides.
(from XXVII tr. Mortimer)

Here Guido opines that Love is defined by darkness (mental blindness) even as an opaque body is defined by light. The mention of a malign ‘Mars’ is also in contradistinction to a Dantescan or Christian reading of Love’s origin. For Guido ‘the light’ comes after. Later in the canzone we have:

Love is not something to be known by seeing,
Nor by perceiving whiteness in what’s white;
Since (listen well) form is not seen, the same
Is true of love proceeding from the form.
(from XXVII tr. Mortimer)

If the form is invisible (an abstraction in the intellect) then the resultant love will also be invisible. The poet’s beloved lady has become an ‘ideal form’ in the poet’s intellect, universalized into an Averroist nominalism. This is a far cry from Dante’s ascetic journey from The Inferno to a Christian Paradise where Beatrice certainly retains her ‘form’ even if she doesn’t keep it substantially. One could think of Donne’s The Extacie for a nearer equivalent to Donna mi prega, although a ‘metaphysical’ reading of Guido does him a disservice I believe.

Guido Cavalcanti’s claim to literary greatness is built on the foundation of Donna mi prega. Philosophy, theology, science, psychology, art and logic are all brought together in this stupendous canzone with no verbal rhetoric or ‘decoration’. The definite superiority of Guido and Dante to the florid Petrarch in the latter Renaissance is precisely because of this ‘clear line’ (Pound’s phrase). OneWorld are to be commended for this brave publication of an underrated Italian great. Nevertheless, I will give Pound’s respiratory-miraculous revival in 1912 of Cavalcanti’s immaculate, medieval voice the last word (Sonetto VII):

Who is she that comes, makyng turn every man’s eye
And makyng the air to tremble with a bright clearnesse
That leadeth with her Love, in such nearnesse
No man may proffer of speech more than a sigh?

Ah God, what she is like when her owne eye turneth, is
Fit for Amor to speake, for I cannot at all;
Such is her modesty, I would call
Every woman else but an useless uneasiness.

No one could tell all of her pleasauntness
In that every high noble vertu leaneth to herward,
So Beauty sheweth her forth as her Godhede;

Never before was our mind so high led,
Nor have we so much of heal as will afford
That our thought may take her immediate in its embrace.

Mark Wilson, November 2010.


Mark Wilson works as a Teaching Assistant in Peterborough, a city located somewhere in the lost kingdom of Middle England. He completed a B.A. English Literature degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, during the 90s where his dissertation was on the poetry of Ezra Pound. Mark’s poems have been published in magazines.


About thefiendjournal

I was born in Blackpool, England and am currently based in Lancashire. Poems have been published in magazines in the U.K, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Canada, U.S.A and South Korea. A pamphlet; "MMV", was published in 2008. Hundreds of poems have been written in draft form, and multiple books are being planned and edited for future release. As well as editing 'The Fiend' I translate, paint and dabble in photography (images of which have occasionally been used here).
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