Friday, September 7, 2018

The poetry of Giacomo da Lentini

Giacomo da Lentini, The Complete Poetry translation and notes by Richard Lansing, publish by the University of Toronto Press in 2018

I wasn’t impressed with the poetry as translated by Lansing (Professor emeritus from Brandeis).  He has the scholarly qualifications, but his poetry seems pedestrian.  Of course, the original by Giacomo may be to blame, I don’t know.

An introduction was written by Akash Kumar (Assistant professor from University of California at Santa Cruz).

I was well into The Canzoni and Discordo when I learned that the latest scholarship indicates that this is actually a translation made by Giacomo of the Occitan canso ‘A vos, midontc, voill retrair’ en cantan” by Folquet de Marselha.  The translator Lansing implies this is an original poem of Giacomo’s and merely based upon the poem by the Occitan poet Folquet, but Akash Kumar in his introduction writes “We are confronted with an even more explicit moment of translation in the canzone Madonna, dir vo voglio, in which Giacomo translates the entire first two stanzas of Occitan poet Folquet de Marselha’s canzone . . .  But Giacomo does not merely turn one form of vernacular poetry into another; he works to create greater logical coherence in his canzone, transforms Folquet’s recourse to a philosophical principle into a zoological example from the natural world, and moves beyond the bounds of Folquet’s poem by adding three additional stanzas.”  So, I suppose, we are to take this as a case similar to Edward Fitzgerald’s in which he translated the poetry of Omar Khayam, but so improved upon the original that one loses sight of whatever it was that Omar wrote and admires what became of it in the hands of Fitzgerald.  But in the case of Folquet’s canzone, the Giacomo improvement isn’t clear to me and I can only judge by the poetry in English; which isn’t impressive (IMHO).

Why should we care about Giacomo of Lentini?  Because, according to Akash Kumar, he is the putative originator of the Sonnet.  Kumar finds a reference in Dante’s Purgatorio in which he credits the notaro [Giacomo was a notary in the court of Frederick II] , Dante himself, and one other with the creation of the new school of Italian poetry.
In the section Tenzoni I thought at first that Giacomo had written both sides of these debates, but not so.  The Abbot of Tivoli really did write the three sonnets that Giacomo responded to with sonnets of his own.  The same is true of sonnets written by Iacopo Mostacci and Pier de la Vigna (who achieved posthumous fame by being placed in the seventh circle of Hell by Dante for having committed suicide).  

I was finally appreciative of a few of the 38 sonnets written by Giacomo.  In sonnet 24, I was surprised to discover Giacomo exasperated:

My lady, your expression raised in me
The hope of gaining love and your good will,
. . .
But now you seem annoyed, so it is strange
That I, not having sinned, should make amends,
While you have seldom put your sail to use,
Just like a skipper who’s incompetent,
I really think it’s ignorance,
A knowledge lacking steadiness
That varies with each new caprice;
So you aren’t master of yourself
Nor of one in whom virtue’s firm,
And you won’t find true happiness.

In poem 30, Giacomo writes,
A love so noble seized my heart
That I despair of its success:
To choose to love a bird of prey . . .

And in poem 32, Giacomo writes
. . . But, Love in you I find the opposite,
Like someone who is full of perfidy,
Since at the start you don’t at all seem rank,
Then down the road you bare your evil hand:
You’re least endeared to those who serve you best,
So I declare you lord of treachery.

Most of the poems are properly admiring, and in accordance with the standards of Courtly Love, but in 36 I wonder if Giacomo doesn’t put himself at risk when he writes,
She has no fault of any kind
Nor any peer, nor ever had,
Nor will, such is her flawlessness;
I think if God had it to do,
He could not so engage his thought
As to create one just like her.

The Abigensian Crusades decimated Occitania between 1209 and 1226 and Giacomo would probably have been alive during at least the latter part of that crusade.  Other Crusades were to follow ending with one against Aragon in 1285.  So I wonder if an inquisitional priest wouldn’t have found fault with Giacomo for saying that creating a woman just like his love was something impossible for God to do.

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