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I Met a Shepherdess 

by Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1250-1300)
translated by Joseph S. Salemi

I met a shepherdess in a small copse.
More beautiful than starlight, the girl seemed.

Her hair was blonde-ish, with a swirl of curls.
Eyes full of love, and face-blush like a rose,
She guided flocks of sheep with her small crook.
Her skin fresh-bathed in dew, her feet unshod,
She sang as if she were possessed by love
And caught up in the savor of all pleasure.

In tones of love I greeted her at once,
Inquiring if she had companions near.
She replied to me, in those same tones,
That she was all alone in that small grove
And added, “You know, when I hear birds cry,
Then desire has my heart in thrall.”

After she spoke, describing how it was,
I heard the song of birds up in the trees,
And thought to myself “Well, now the time is ripe
To take this winsome little shepherdess.”
I asked her only for the chance to kiss
And hold her in my arms (if she were willing).

She took my hand with amorous intent
And said her heart was given up to me.
She led me underneath a leafy bough
Where I saw flowers of every shade and scent,
And felt so much of joy and torment sweet
It seemed to me I saw the god of love.

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Original Italian

In un boschetto trova’ pasturella

In un boschetto trova’ pasturella
più che la stella bella, al mi’ parere.

Cavelli avea biondetti e ricciutelli,
e gli occhi pien’ d’amor, cera rosata;
con sua verghetta pasturav’ agnelli;
discalza, de rugiada era bagnata;
cantava come fosse ’namorata:
er’ adornata di tutto piacere.

D’amor la saluta’ imantenente
e domandai s’avesse compagnia;
ed ella mi rispose dolzemente
che sola sola per lo bosco gia,
e disse: “Sacci, quando l’augel pia,
allor disïa ’l me’cor drudo avere.”

Po’ che mi disse di sua condizione
e per lo bosco augelli audìo cantare,
fra me stesso diss’ i’: “Or è stagione
di questa pasturella gio’ pigliare.”
Merzé le chiesi sol che di basciare
ed abracciar, se le fosse ’n volere.

Per man mi prese, d’amorosa voglia,
e disse che donato m’avea ’l core;
menòmmi sott’ una freschetta foglia,
là dov’i’ vidi fior’ d’ogni colore;
e tanto vi sentìo gioia e dolzore,
che ’l dio d’amore mi parea vedere.

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A Brief Note

Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1250-1300) was, along with Dante, one of the exponents of the dolce stil nuovo poetic renaissance in thirteenth-century Italy. This “sweet new style” simply took the older poetry of the Provençal troubadours and the courtly Sicilian school of King Frederick II and updated it with a slightly more philosophical and allegorical approach. It also focused more on the intense emotional and psychological reactions of a smitten lover. The main thematic concern is still the love relationship, but with the exaltation of the beloved lady into a kind of terrestrial divinity who leads the male lover to a higher level of perception and feeling. He is tormented by her, but also elevated by her.

I chose this particular poem to translate because it remains closer to the older sources of the dolce stil nuovo tradition. It is an example of the medieval genre known as the pastourelle, or poem of seduction involving a shepherd girl and a young knight. The previous pastourelle that I posted here (September 15, 2017) by Marcabru was a highly moralistic one, where the girl sarcastically rejects the advances of the knight who attempts to lure her away from virtue. In this one, however, the speaker has no trouble at all in seducing the girl, who is more than willing to give in—so willing, in fact, that he barely needs to speak to her at all.

Cavalcanti’s poem follows the traditional genre closely: The speaker finds the shepherdess with her flock, notices her beauty, confirms that she is alone, and then goes about seducing her. But there is no Ideal Lady here, showing disdain and driving the would-be lover to despair and self-reproach. Instead we are given a picture of a shepherdess just as amorous as the speaker, and who takes the lead in drawing him to a secluded place for lovemaking. The only softening of the straightforward sexuality is the careful indication that no rape is involved—the speaker has politely requested nothing but a kiss and an embrace, and only if the girl is totally agreeable to his advances.

The ending of the poem is slightly ambiguous. The speaker concludes by mentioning his experience of many “flowers” (fior’ di ogni colore), which can be understood as a common metaphor for sexual activity with the shepherdess. But then he adds that this encounter gave him a great deal of joy (gioia), and dolzore. This last word can mean either sweetness or pain, which is why I have translated it as “torment sweet.” This final description is where Cavalcanti touches upon a major issue of the love theme in the dolce stil nuovo manner. Love is deeply satisfying and ecstatic, but also a kind of excruciating torture. And the last line, where the speaker imagines seeing the god of love, lifts the poem from a simple narrative of a sexual encounter to an otherworldly experience.

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Some Vocabulary Items

boschetto – diminutive of bosco (forest), referring to a small grove near a meadow where sheep are grazing.
imantenente – quickly, right away; from Latin in manu tenente (“in a holding hand”). This is also the source of the French maintenant (“now”). To understand the etymology, consider the British idiom “that’s now in hand,” which means “that’s now being prepared.”
l’augel – a bird (from Vulgar Latin aucellus).
drudo – a faithful person, a lover, or a vassal (from Teutonic dreu, a friend or dear one).
freschetta foglia – a green leaf, foliage.
dolzore – sweetness or pain (probably a conflation of the derivatives from Latin dulcor and dolor, via the accusatives dulcorem and dolorem).

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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20 Responses

  1. Jeremiah Johnson

    An attractive, buxom maid taking a total stranger by the hand in the middle of nowhere just because he offered to kiss and cuddle and leading him to her bower of bliss? Wish-fulfillment, anyone?

    The theme immediately brings to mind Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love,” with “His Love’s” more likely response in Raleigh’s poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.”

    Reply
  2. Paul Buchheit

    It’s like a pleasant dream! Thanks for the superb translation, Joseph.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      To Jeremiah and Paul —

      Yes, the pastourelle is really an exercise in male fantasy. We’d all like to meet some hot chick in a lonely place and get it on with her.

      Reply
  3. Sally Cook

    Joe – A lovely poem. Beautiful, totally positive.

    We had a “grove” at home. It was always referred to as “The Grove”, as opposed to The Woods, which were dark, thick and almost impenetrable.

    The grove was filled with light and soft flat grass. That was where the gypsies camped. I can easily see a silken seducrion taking place in such a spot.
    Definitely not in the woods, which were full of traps, tangles, and unrealized fears.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Sally, you are right on target. A grove is a lovely place — small enough to be comfortable, but not wild enough to be dangerous. I used the word “copse” in this translation’s first line because I love older English words, and because I was already using “grove” in the third section of the poem.

      Reply
  4. Yael

    Sweet! Thank you very much for the pleasant translation and the lesson in tongues.

    Reply
  5. Shaun C. Duncan

    This is wonderful, Joseph, extremely evocative of the dream-like nature of the genre without recourse to the archaisms lesser translators inevitably lean on. I’ll have to track down your Marcabru translation.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Shaun. It’s in the SCP archives at September 15, 2017.

      Reply
  6. Brian Yapko

    This is as charming a poem as I can recall reading — and it’s over 700 years old! Thank you for this translation, Joseph, and for introducing us to Cavalcanti. His poem/your translation manages to capture that initial sensual attraction which may actually be a harbinger of something deeper. Neither of the characters come off as tawdry or bawdy but as simply young and caught up in each other. There is timelessness here.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I’m glad you like the piece. Cavalcanti doesn’t have many surviving poems — only about fifty. This one is still close to the earlier troubadour poetry that he reanimated in the more ethereal dolce stil nuovo manner. As you point out, it is sexy without being crude.

      Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    The poem, translation, and note give a delicate introduction to the dolce stil novo by showing how the Cavalcanti piece correspond to ideals of the style. It contributes to the “quarrel about women” (that is, whether woman–in the youthful state of nature at least–is a seductress). And the desirable musicality of the style is here enhanced by the role of the birds. The shepherdess herself sings, but says that birdsong makes her feel desire. Only then, it seems, the male speaker too hears the birds, and speaks within himself of his seductive purpose. Still, as you say, Joseph, he speaks to the shepherdess with courtesy, and the poem proceeds into his fantasy of the senses under her leadership. Nothing graphic, but so much that is suggestive!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      To Brian and Margaret —

      Thank you both for your kind words and perceptive commentary. I chose this poem to translate because it seems more natural and flowing than so much else of Cavalcanti’s work, which often belabors (beyond all reason) the beloved but unattainable lady, the danger of eyes and glances, , the hypostasized “Love,” and the sheer anguish of the despairing speaker.

      Reply
  8. Satyananda Sarangi

    Greetings, Joseph Sir!

    As is the case with all your works, this poem is unique. I associate two words with you – mastery and versatility.

    I was reminded of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats.

    Best wishes

    Reply
  9. Joseph S. Salemi

    Thank you, Satyananda, for your kind words. As for “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” I find the lady in that poem to be very scary! I wouldn’t like to have anything to do with her.

    Reply
  10. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Ah, the fantasies of youth that still enthrall us as we age. Tenderly and wistfully treated!

    Reply
  11. Jeff Eardley

    Joseph, this has made me want to strap on a long, blonde wig, pick up my mandolin, and serenade the wife under the nearest tree. A lovely expression of innocence from another world and thank you for the effort to translate and bring this to our attention.

    Reply
  12. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe, what a beautiful translation. I love the voluptuous seduction of the sweet and sensuous scene with a timeless allure that makes me smile. The brief notes were most interesting. A most pleasurable read. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      To Jeff and Susan — many thanks for the kind words. The lovely rural picture that Cavalcanti paints was what drew me to the poem immediately.

      Reply

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