By David B. Gosselin

The nature of the subject matter discussed in Dante Alighieri’s lyric poetry, his canzoni, has been debated time after time, generation after generation. While the Dantisti as they are called, the Dante scholars, will often take up the habit of prating on individual details and individual poems, sometimes going on ad nauseum about who Dante was discussing in each of the canzoni, how much is literal, how much is autobiographical, who are the different ladies or maidens he’s speaking of, how much is just imagination and how much is literary license—the reality is that all his canzoni need to be approached as a totality: they are each individual frames out of the long process of his personal development. Rather than disputing, as many of the scholars do, who these different women were, these different subjects in his canzoni, the reality is the subject never changes; Dante is the one who changes, in regards to this unchanging idea, the higher hypothesis of his existence—Lady Philosophy.


Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona

Within my mind Love now sweetly discourses
And sings of the reasons why the lady I desire
Moves every thought and feeling I have to some higher
Land, where my weak intellect now wanders.
Her every word seems to issue from heavenly sources
Such that whoever would her words receive, like fire
Would feel themselves consumed and say “None have power
To tell what sights, what thoughts, what great wonders
Are found in this soul, who every earthly thought sunders
And leaves us wandering, longing to tell
Even the smallest part of what they’ve heard –
Which yet our human speech has not a word;
And which transfixes us in one fell
Sweep. Thus whatever shortcoming or defect
My verses may succumb to as they tell the tale
Of my sweet lady, it is not her virtue derelict,
Nor any shortcomings of her above,
But of those who wish mere words would capture Love.

The sun in all its worldly revolutions
Neve does shine upon something so virtuous
As when its golden rays fall upon her, impervious
To mortal stains. As she casts love’s shadow
All gaze upon her above who seek salvation
For all those who fall in Love and meet those numinous
Eyes, can’t help but find her aspect so beauteous.
A place which each of Love’s servants hallows.
Whoever walks within her shadow follows
The trail of virtue and delight unknown,
Exceeding what our mortal nature could conceive.
Her soul which does receive
This saving immutable grace from heaven flown,
Displays its power in each smallest gesture
For such things are felt with each sweet tone
That all who see or hear find early rapture.
Their hearts are flooded with the strongest desire
Which takes flight like sighs that burn with heavens fire.

On her descends the same virtue divine
As it so graces angels who fly to earth;
And to any woman who questions her worth
Follow each of her gentle arts and learn
For wherever she speaks with speech so fine
She so inspires in each who tread the earthly turf
To shun all the pestilence and all the dearth
Of this world, proving how she can spurn
All baseness, as she did from heaven learn.
So effortless her acts that each which sees
Her move must then believe in grace divine;
Her every gesture a heavenly sign.
So it’s said, her eyes are deeper than the seas,
Virtuous all that which women with her share
And fair all that resembles her true beauty,
Thus no mortal can doubt her true duty
For in this our faith is ever raised
From its low place, and now eternally praised.

Appearing in her aspect is Paradise
Which makes itself and all its joys directly known;
That is within those eyes I’ve seen it shone,
Left by Love, who chose his rightful dwelling.
She seizes every thought like streams that turn to ice,
Or as the blinding sky where Helios keeps his throne
Passed earthly sights, over the horizon flown.
And thus, since every sight is met with blinding
Light, I content myself to give a humble telling.
Forever burning like the sun or stars
Orbiting our minds like celestial cars
And shattering each vile thought with thunderous quelling,
Yet let them who by her beauty feels ashamed
Let them find in such radiance compelling
Proof of the humbleness that can be gained,
Whose ways have the power to tame each perverse
Thought, as he who wrought the universe.

My song, you seem to contradict a sister
Of yours, who speaks in such a different way,
For while one says she speaks disdainfully you say
She is humble, with an angels grace.
Despite our fate, which the stars oft temper
You know the sky is clear as day,
Which never turns its back on us though sights betray
Our confidence, as mortal eyes can oft deface
And seem to blur the heaven’s hidden  trace.
Refrain from thinking thus some steadfast truth
Believing such things are as they seem,
For in this way you need not helpless deem
Or let the fear which swims within your soul be proof
Of some bad star possessing you
Rather go speak with her and stay aloof
So that you may without hesitation be true
Telling her: “My lady, only this I pray,
I’d like to sing of you through all life’s way.”

See here for notes on the poem and to compare with other translations.


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3 Responses

  1. Buceli da Werse

    Because of his high standards for the fluidity of poetry, Mr. Gosselin’s translations of Dante’s canzoni will perhaps refine his own poetry and maybe even the English language. It will at the least apprise Mr. Gosselin of the larger structure, which is a step to a grander vusion of reality. His opening nine lines made me wonder, if indeed he might not be able to capture a trace of the Italian jounce, a reminiscence of the ancient Roman and Greek poets. Certainly his artistic handling of rhyme and cadence is impressive.

    It is exciting to see both his translations and Mr. Harris’ translation of “Divina Commedia” here @ SCP; for one of the things I looked for early in my own poetry was that clarity and purity in Dante’s language. Both of these writers have some of that great power of transference, which the best of translators has.

    • David Gosselin

      Thanks for the kind words.
      The idea was to transfer the Italian hendacasylable mode into the appropriate English mode, which would be iambic pentameter. Wasn’t sure what you meant by Italian or Greek jounce? In Italian the hendacasylable line tends to be stressed on the 6th and 10th syllable.

      The goal is to translate all of Dante’s canzoni. I learned Italian so that I could read Dante in the original, in order to be able to hear Dante sing in his rightful voice and thus, like you said, open new insights into developing my own poetry. I would always look to find Dante canzone translations that would capture the idea content and at least a glimmer of musicality, but rarely found that, especially not in anyof the later work. So I said I should just translate them all, and exactly as you said, this might be the greatest service I could offer, since it seems like Dante Canzoni have never truly been heard in English. The power of Dante is such that that alone can turn a lot of people who might not have been able to really access Dante, to now opening up a world which can change them. Contrived verses delenda est.

  2. James Sale

    Beautiful – I like this very much – some wonderful turns of phrase, and of course being Dante, it penetrates to the heart of a deep truth: we have come throughout the C20th and now C21st to mock the idea of men idealising women, but what is the alternative if men are to be improved? The alternative is what we have: the so-called ‘equality’ of women has led to men treating women as if they were men, and women treating themselves the same way absurdly, and this has meant a total brutalisation in the relationships – and a breakdown on a colossal scale. Only beauty – spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical – can induct men into their true selves. Dante reminds us of this.


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