His memories in a trunk

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Archive for the category “Italian”

Italian with the poets II

Here’s an easy passage from Petrarch, 232, lines 12-14. Before these lines, Petrarch has given exemplars of damage and destruction wrought in individuals too heedless in their anger: Alexander, Tydeus, Sulla, Valentinianus, and Ajax.

Ira è breve furore; et chi nol frena,

è furor lungo che ‘l suo possessore

spesso a vergogna et talor mena a morte.


  • ira anger
  • furor(e) madness
  • nol = non la [ira]
  • frenare to restrain
  • spesso often
  • vergogna shame
  • talor(a) sometimes
  • menare to lead
  • morte death

Orlando Furioso and the Hulk

I recently had the opportunity to look through a 1584 Venetian edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s (1474-1533) Orlando Furioso, a classic of Italian and European literature, and a really long poem: it is written in ottava rima, an eight-line rhyming stanza with the pattern abababcc and goes for 38,736 lines, noticeably longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Continuing Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato of 1495, the poem is set among the Frankish-Saracen wars with Charlemagne, with elements of the Arthurian and Carolingian cycles (“the Matter of Britain” and “the Matter of France”) fused together. This edition by Francesco Franceschi that I examined has decorative engravings (from metal) at the beginning of each of the poem’s forty-six cantos, and very brief annotationi end each one. The book is almost entirely in italic. In the copy I saw, a commentary is bound with the text of the poem itself: Alberto Lavezvola’s Osservationi sopra il Furioso, also from Venice in the same year. The annotations to the edition of the poem, Lavezvola’s Osservationi, and another book I also perused, the almost 800-page La spositione sopra l’Orlando Furioso di M. Ludovico Ariosto (Florence, 1549/50; 1549 is on the title page, June 1550 in the colophon) of Simon Fornari da Rheggio, bear witness to the close attention readers devoted to Ariosto’s work. The first English translation of the poem (also in verse), the work of John Harrington, was published in 1591; there have been a number of subsequent translations, including John Hoole’s in rhyming couplets, an excerpt of which appears below.

Orlando’s madness, which gives the poem its name — remember, too, how Achilles’ wrath, a kind of madness, is the very first thing we meet in the Iliad — is born in the wake of his learning that the beautiful Angelica, whom he’s been chasing, has run off in marriage to the Saracen knight Medoro, whom she’s healed (see the end of Canto 23). Upon seeing their joined names inscribed in trees, mountains, etc. (“Infelice quell’antro, ed ogni stelo // In cui Medoro e Angelica si legge!”), he goes mad. While it does not include, I think, many other elements of the Hulk mythology, the scene of Orlando’s entering his raging madness makes a close parallel of the Bruce Banner-Hulk metamorphosis, and when I read Ariosto’s account of Orlando’s unhinged response to Angelica’s marriage with Medoro, the Hulk is just what I thought of. Here are some lines from the event in Hoole’s rendering:

The fourth dire morn, with frantic rage possest,
He rends the armour from his back and breast:
Here lies the helmet, there the bossy shield,
Cuishes and cuirass further spread the field;
And all his other arms, at random strow’d,
In divers parts he scatters through the wood;
Then from his body strips the covering vest,
And bares his sinewy limbs and hairy chest;
And now begins such feats of boundless rage,
As far and near th’ astonished world engage.

His sword he left, else had his dreadful hand
With blood and horror fill’d each wasted land:
But little pole-axe, sword, or mace he needs
T’ assist his strength, that every strength exceeds.
First his huge grasp a lofty pine up-tears
Sheer by the roots; the like another fares
Of equal growth; as easy round him strow’d,
As lowly weeds, or shrubs, or dwarfish wood.
Vast oaks and elms before his fury fall;
The stately fir, tough ash, and cedar tall.
As when a fowler for the field prepares
His sylvan warfare; ere he spreads his snares,
From stubble, reeds, and furze, th’ obstructed land
Around he clears: no less Orlando’s hand
Levels the trees that long had tower’d above,
For rolling years the glory of the grove!
The rustic swains that ‘mid the woodland shade
Heard the loud crash, forsook their flocks that stray’d
Without a shepherd, while their masters flew
To learn the tumult and the wonder view.

Ariosto’s fantastical poem — it includes hippogriffs, for example, and a trip, not only to Ethiopia (surely fantastic at the time), but even to the moon (this was not the first trip to the moon in European literature, though: the 2nd-cent. CE author Lucian had already described such a voyage in his Greek True Story) — seems, while certainly known to and cherished by some littérateurs, generally to be on the further end of literary ken, a position undeserved. Maybe this little highlight will go some small way toward rectifying that state.

In my next “Italian with the Poets” post I’ll go through this passage with a little commentary. Till then, happy metamorphoses, into and out of madness.

An Italian and a German poem on quiet nature

I recently read for the first time Tasso’s (1544-1595) poem the first line of which is “Tacciono i boschi e i fiumi”, and it reminded me immediately of Goethe’s (1749-1832) famous 1780 poem known as “Wandrers Nachtlied II” (also Schubertized), which I and hosts of other students memorized in school (however much we may remember it still!). Here I want to put the two poems side-by-side.

Tasso’s words are as follows:

Tacciono i boschi e i fiumi,
E ‘l mar senza onda giace,
Ne le spelonche i venti han tregua e pace,
E ne la notte bruna
Alto silenzio fa la bianca luna;
E noi tegnamo ascose
Le dolcezze amorose:
Amor non parli o spiri,
Sien muti i baci e muti i miei sospiri.

Here’s a rough attempt at Englishing:

The woods and rivers are silent,
And the sea, waveless, lies still;
In the caves the winds hold their peace, tranquil;
In the darkish night
Deep quiet doth make the moon while white;
And we, we keep unseen
Lovely sweetnesses:
Let love neither speak nor emanate,
Let kisses be quiet, my sighs faint to hear.

Before discussing anything in either poem, I’m happily compelled to give, too, Goethe’s little poem

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

The rhyme scheme (ABABCDDC) is mirrored exactly in Longfellow’s translation, than which I can do no better, so I give it here:

O’er all the hill-tops
Is quiet now,
In all the tree-tops
Hearest thou
Hardly a breath;
The birds are asleep in the trees:
Wait, soon like these
Thou, too, shalt rest.

The poems both conceive places of silence, and both with nature as evidence of this silence — note that what Longfellow translates as “trees” is really “forests” in German, something that serves as a verbal similarity between Goethe and Tasso, who in the first line has “boschi”, i.e. “woods” — but the most striking point of difference between the poems is that Tasso has in mind more than one person in this silence, Goethe a lone individual. Tasso not only includes among his cast elements of nature and someone(s) to experience them, as does Goethe some centuries thereafter, but lovers, albeit quiet lovers. There’s sweetness, love, and kisses, but they lie fallow at just this point, at least visibly and audibly: while these things are still there — somebody who has kissing in mind still kisses, just imperfectly compared to the real thing — no one else has any knowledge of them. These amorous matters are hidden still more with Goethe, if they exist with him at all, who in his poem shows us only nature, and nature with an addressed observer of it, who is anachronously in tune with it: the stillness of those natural representatives (hill-tops, tree-tops, birds) will soon, but not yet, reach Goethe’s observer. We know nothing of why that observer and participant is missing quiet stillness, but that doesn’t matter: as there are enough times in nature absent of tranquility, so, too, any human being who thinks about his or her life beyond the slightest film of superficiality knows those intranquil seasons and events. But as nature goes on, so does life, especially as considered beyond the individual.

As for the characters, Tasso himself, or some nonspecific narrator, at least, takes part in a role. He says “we” (noi), that is, the speaker and the lover; he speaks of “my” (miei) sighs, and the kisses, though missing any possessive pronoun, are, of course, those shared between him and his lover. There is, however, no first person, whether singular are plural, in Goethe’s lines: it’s only the singular addressee (du). Goethe (or, again, a nonspecific narrator) takes part as speaker, but he takes no otherwise scripted part in the poem.

Both of these memorable poetic bits highlight the possibility of a consonance between humanity and the rest of nature, whether that representative of humanity be lone or companioned. Whichever of the two you are now, I hope you’ll read the poems aloud, as always!

Italian with the poets I

In this inaugural post, I begin with the first sonnet from Petrarch’s Canzoniere. This is in fact what I hope will become a series on snippets of Italian poetry (Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso, and others) with some philological notes especially suitable for those studying Italian. I trust that neither the linguistic detail nor, for more advanced readers, the banality will greatly ward off enjoyment and appreciation of the post by others!

Before beginning, I can’t help but cite this verse from “Tangled Up in Blue” (4th verse in the New York version, 5th on the album):

She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type.”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you,
Tangled up in blue.

(In the live versions from the Gospel period, it’s no longer Italian poetry, but the book of Jeremiah, with different verses referenced at different shows, that she gives him! In some earlier and later live versions, such as those from the Rolling Thunder Revue and a decade later on Real Live, he passes over this verse completely.) This “Italian poet from the thirteenth century” cannot be the fourteenth-century Petrarch (1304-1374), whose lines are discussed below, and while Dante (c. 1265-1321) is not an impossible choice, perhaps even more fitting is Guido Cavalcanti, born in the mid-thirteenth century and who died in 1300. Of course, the line may refer to no real poet. In any case, who’s gonna complain about a stove-lit pipe, a womanly conversation partner, and Italian poetry (from whatever century)?

Now to our poetic lines. The poem was first printed, as far as I know, in an edition of 1501 from the famous Venetian house of Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio), printed on vellum in Aldine italics; it was edited by Pietro Bembo from Petrarch’s own manuscript. (See an actual-size reproduction of the page with this poem in pl. 23 of Martin Davies, Aldus Manutius: Printer and Publisher of Renaissance Venice [London and Malibu, 1995].)

In this and future posts on the same theme, I’ll give the text in stanzas followed by a few philological remarks that I hope will be of use and interest to Italian students. There is probably nothing necessarily original in these pedagogical bits, but if they make this poetry more accessible, a good end will have been achieved. There are and will be numerous references to Latin and French vocabulary and, less so, morphology, which are merely to highlight some similarities and differences across these languages. (I refer to Spanish, Portuguese, and other romance languages less frequently only because I have less familiarity with them.) While the commentary breaks up the text, this is only for convenience; whenever possible, the poems should, of course, be read without interruption. Texts for Italian poetry, along with translations into various languages, are easily discoverable online. For Dante, for example, see here, and for Petrarch, both the Canzoniere and the Trionfi, see here, not to mention older published volumes on Google Books or Archive.org. The just mentioned sites also include Italian recitations of certain poems. Poetry (and some prose), in whatever language, is for tasting and ruminating orally and aurally, and these proffered recitations are one way to do that.

And now, thus saith Petrarch:

Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ’l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand’era in parte altr’uom da quel ch’i’ sono,

Voi ch[e] you (pl.) who | ascoltate 2pl pres. indic.; L. auscultare | in rime sparse The “scattered rhymes”, a name by which all the canzoniere are known. | il suono L. sonus | quei = quelli (pl. of quello) | sospiri (sg. sospiro) “sigh” | ond’io nudriva onde here not “in order to; so that” as usually in modern Italian, but like L. unde “whence” | nudriva = nutrivo; nutrire “to foster, nurture”. As with era below, the impf. 1sg may end in -a, rather than the expected -o. That it is 1sg, however, is clear from the preceding io. | ’l core now cuore; L. cor, which is neuter, but masculine in I. | in sul mio primo giovenile errore sul = su+il. Note how Italian uses the article and the possessive pronoun together. | quand’era era here = ero (i.e. 1sg, not 3sg) | altr’uom da “another person [uomo, L. homo] than” | quel ch’i’ sono “that which I am”.

del vario stile in ch’io piango et ragiono
fra le vane speranze e ’l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.

del vario stile “in (the) various way[s]”; while sg. in I., best as pl. in E. | piango piangere “to weep” (L. plangere) | ragiono ragionare “to think, discuss” | fra le vane speranze e ’l van dolore “between vain hopes [sg. speranza] and vain sadness”; here van is short for vano. | ove “where” | spero trovar As in E. and many other languages, “to hope” is generally followed by an infinitive (trovar = trovare; cf. F. trouver). pietà Words such as this (libertà, qualità, università) go back to L. words, all feminine, ending in -as, -atis (pietas, libertas, qualitas, universitas); in French they end in (pieté, liberté, qualité, université), in German -ät (Pietät, Qualität, Universität; no *Libertät, though, for which the Germanic Freiheit is used), and in English -y (note that English has both Latinate liberty and Germanic freedom). | nonché “as well (as)” | perdono “forgiveness” (E., F. pardon).

Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;

Ma “but” (F. mais) | ben = bene (I. and L., “well”) | veggio alt. form of vedo | or sí come al popol tutto Note elision in or(a) and popol(o). | favola L. fabula, like tabula / tavola | fui 1sg past of essere (cf. L.) | gran tempo I. gran but F. grande | sovente “often, frequently” (L. subinde) | meco = con me (L. mecum; cf the famous passage from Cicero’s Orator 45.154, in which he says that they said nobiscum, not cum nobis, “quia si ita diceretur, obscenius concurrent litterae”, i.e. sounding like cunnus!) | mi vergogno vergognarsi “to be ashamed, embarrassed”.

et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è ’l frutto,
e ’l pentersi, e ’l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

del mio vaneggiar vaneggiar(e) “to rave, wander”; here again, note the article (in del) used with the possessive pronoun. | vergogna (L. verecundia) is the noun of the verb we saw just above | frutto (L. fructus) one of very many examples of ct > tt | ’l pentersi now pentirsi “to repent” | ’l conoscer conoscer(e), “to know” (L. cognoscere) | chiaramente -mente is the almost ubiquitous adverbial ending, derived from L. mens in the ablative case. Here, too, we see the change chi from older cl (L. clarus; “clearly” in L. is simply clare). | che quanto “[that] how much” | piace al mondo “it pleases [piacere, L. placere] the world” > “the world likes” | sogno “dream” (L. somnium).

So much for these few humble remarks on Petrarch’s words: I hope they’ve been good for someone. Now to go back to read and reread the poem viva voce and without interruption.

Comments on the poem and the rest of the post are welcome!

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