Poetry from the European Languages
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved
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Dante Alighieri was born in Florence of a noble but impoverished family. At twenty he married Gemma Donati and by her had five children. He met Bice Portinari, his Beatrice, as a child in 1274. She died in 1290. Exiled with the White Guelfs in 1302 he travelled to Verona, and Paris, and finally settled in Ravenna. There he completed the Divine Comedy begun in 1308, immortalising Beatrice, and expressing his vision of the spiritual life and afterlife.
I have come, alas, to the great circle of shadow,
to the short day and to the whitening hills,
when the colour is all lost from the grass,
though my desire will not lose its green,
so rooted is it in this hardest stone,
that speaks and feels as though it were a woman.
And likewise this heaven-born woman
stays frozen, like the snow in shadow,
and is unmoved, or moved like a stone,
by the sweet season that warms all the hills,
and makes them alter from pure white to green,
so as to clothe them with the flowers and grass.
When her head wears a crown of grass
she draws the mind from any other woman,
because she blends her gold hair with the green
so well that Amor lingers in their shadow,
he who fastens me in these low hills,
more certainly than lime fastens stone.
Her beauty has more virtue than rare stone.
The wound she gives cannot be healed with grass,
since I have travelled, through the plains and hills,
to find my release from such a woman,
yet from her light had never a shadow
thrown on me, by hill, wall, or leaves’ green.
I have seen her walk all dressed in green,
so formed she would have sparked love in a stone,
that love I bear for her very shadow,
so that I wished her, in those fields of grass,
as much in love as ever yet was woman,
closed around by all the highest hills.
The rivers will flow upwards to the hills
before this wood, that is so soft and green,
takes fire, as might ever lovely woman,
for me, who would choose to sleep on stone,
all my life, and go eating grass,
only to gaze at where her clothes cast shadow.
Whenever the hills cast blackest shadow,
with her sweet green, the lovely woman
hides it, as a man hides stone in grass.
(The sestina is a ‘closed’ verse form where the six words ending the lines of each verse cycle in a pre-determined order. The line-end words 1,2,3,4,5,6 of each verse become the line endings of the next verse, in the order 6,1,5,2,4,3, and so on through the six main verses. The final seventh, three-line verse contains all six words, in the order 1,6,2,3,4,5 relative to the preceding sixth verse.)
Two Sonnets from the Vita Nuova
I: Love and the Gentle Heart
Love and the gentle heart are one thing,
just as the poet says in his verse,
each from the other one as well divorced
as reason from the mind’s reasoning.
Nature craves love, and then creates love king,
and makes the heart a palace where he’ll stay,
perhaps a shorter or a longer day,
breathing quietly, gently slumbering.
Then beauty in a virtuous woman’s face
makes the eyes yearn, and strikes the heart,
so that the eyes’ desire’s reborn again,
and often, rooting there with longing, stays,
Till love, at last, out of its dreaming starts.
Woman’s moved likewise by a virtuous man.
(The poet: Dante refers to Guido Guinicelli’s poem ‘Of the Gentle Heart’ - ‘No love, in Nature, before the gentle heart, nor the gentle heart before Love’)
II: There is a Gentle Thought
There is a gentle thought that often springs
to life in me, because it speaks of you.
Its reasoning about love’s so sweet and true,
the heart is conquered, and accepts these things.
‘Who is this’ the mind enquires of the heart,
‘who comes here to seduce our intellect?
Is his power so great we must reject
every other intellectual art?
The heart replies ‘O, meditative mind
this is love’s messenger and newly sent
to bring me all Love’s words and desires.
His life, and all the strength that he can find,
from her sweet eyes are mercifully lent,
who feels compassion for our inner fires.’