Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Dolce stil novo Poets

This essay was originally published on Pol Culture.

The last and the greatest of the Dolce stil novo poets is Dante. It seems only fitting that he defined the school and provided its name. In Song XXIV of the Purgatorio, the Dante figure encounters the spirit of Bonagiunta da Lucca (c.1220-1290), a Tuscan poet who worked in the traditions of the Sicilian School. Through him, Dante defines his own work as a break and an advance on the work of Bonagiunta, Guittone d'Arezzo (a contemporary of Bonagiunta's), and the earlier Sicilian School poet Giacomo da Lentini. The Bonagiunta character describes Dante's work as "dal dolce stil novo ch'i'odo / that sweet new style that I hear" (Purg. 24.57). In Song XXVI, the spirit of poet Guido Guinizelli (c.1230-1276) is encountered. Dante describes Guinizelli as the father of him and those poets between them who wrote the "rime d'amore usar dolci e leggiadre / rhymes of love using sweetness and grace" (Purg. 26.99). He thus identifies Guinizelli and himself as the beginning and ending (although culmination is probably the more appropriate word) of the school. In his language treatise De vulgari eloquentia / On the Eloquence of the Common Language, Dante explicitly identifies Guido Cavalcanti (c.1255-1300), Lapo Gianni (c.1250-1328), and Cino da Pistoia (c.1270-1337) as his poetic peers (1.13.4). The Dolce stil novo poets wrote in the Tuscan vernacular, and their work (especially Dante's) so popularized that dialect that it is credited with making Tuscan the national language of Italy. In other words, Dante and the others gave us the Italian language as we know it today. They are inarguably the first school of European poetry to be of more than historical interest since the height of the Roman Empire.

After Dante, the two most famous Dolce stil novo poets are Guido Guinizelli and Guido Cavalcanti. Guinizelli's most famous work, the canzone "Within the gentle heart Love shelters him," is probably best known to English readers from the first four lines (translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti) that George Eliot used as the epigraph for chapter 61 of Daniel Deronda:

Within the gentle heart love shelters him,
As birds within the green shade of the grove.
Before the gentle heart, in Nature's scheme,
Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love.

These lines are remarkable; one can hear them echoing through the most famous passages in Dante, specifically in Francesca da Rimini's lament in Inferno, Song V ("Love, which the gentle heart quickly finds within" [Inf. 5.100]).

Those interested in Rossetti's complete translation of the poem can find it here; it's the second poem down. One sees all the key features of Dolce stil novo poetry. Dante may have used some of them for tragic effect in the Inferno, but he and the others used the language and thinking in this poem as conventions in their lyric work. Among those conventions are the trope of the "gentle heart." There is also the personification of Love and the resultant emphasis on allegory. Additionally, one has the portrayal of the woman who is the object of the poet's longing as an angelic or divine figure. Guinizelli even recognizes the potential blasphemy of viewing a woman in this manner, a problem that became perhaps the defining aspect of Dante's greatest works.

"Within the gentle heart" also sets the stage for the richer use of figurative language among Guinizelli's followers. The poem is especially rich in simile. The temporal analogy between Love and the gentle heart is expanded upon in a second simile that compares their simultaneity with that of light and the sun. In the second stanza, Love's passion in the gentle heart is likened to the virtues of a precious stone. These are further likened to the woman whom the heart falls in love with. The woman is also identified with a star, with the sun overtly used as a trope for God. Guinizelli, as can be seen here, is not content to leave a figuration alone after introducing it. He works it through several stages of conversion. In the third stanza, he compares Love to a lamp's flame, and branches out to an ironic analogy of fire and water to discuss the effect on Love from evil. From there he shifts to a comparison of Love to diamond veins in iron ore. It's a remarkably complex poem, and of much greater sophistication than anything seen from the troubadours or the Sicilians.

Guinizelli may have been Dante's poetic father, but Guido Cavalcanti (at right) was most definitely his mentor. In chapter III of La vita nuova, Dante calls Cavalcanti his best friend. He relates that Cavalcanti saw the promise in his earliest poems and provided the guidance that set him on the poetic road he travelled. Cavalcanti's own poetry established him as the greatest of Dante's predecessors. He apparently saw himself in opposition to Guinizelli, as his pieces interrogate--often pessimistically--the ideas present in Guinizelli's work. On a technical level, he avoids the trippy twists and turns of perpetual simile conversion one finds in Guinizelli. Poetically, Cavalcanti keeps his feet on the ground: he begins with a single controlling concept, and everything that follows refers back to it.

Cavalcanti's predilection for a strong conceptual foundation can be most easily seen in the sonnet "A woman's charms, her perceptive heart." (Click here for a translation.) The central idea of a woman's charms and heart is present from the first line. The remainder of the sonnet's octet takes this idea and creates one simile after another, with vehicles as disparate as "Men-at-arms filled with courtesy" to "A flowing river, meadows all of flowers." In the sestet, he presents a superb rhetorical reversal: as wonderful as a woman's charms are in general, they pale before those of the writer's lady, who compares to them as the heavens compare to the earth. Cavalcanti presents one vividly realized idea, and then uses it to develop a second, opposed idea. Elegantly hyperbolic and ironic, it's and extraordinarily concise piece of work, with an exceptional sense of how to engineer effects.

Cavalcanti's skill is also on fine display in the dark, pessimistic "You who reach my heart through the eyes." (Click here.) He begins with the title line, and every subsequent line in the octet refers back to it, shading it with sadness. Cavalcanti has a strong sense of drama. In the octet, he establishes a premise and a developing conflict: the woman's gaze is presented as the catalyst for the injury Love inflicts on the writer's morale. In the sestet, he gives the reader crisis: the woman is no longer seen as the catalyst; she is Love's accomplice in this assault. The resolution comes with the soul's realization that the heart is dead, and the terror that it is next. This critique of the notion of the edifying nature of Love could not be more effectively presented.

His most famous work is probably "Donna me prega / A lady asks me" (click here), which combines the dark, pessimistic view of Love found in "You who reach my heart through the eyes" with, to a certain extent, the rhetorical--rather than dramatic--exploration of subject matter found in "A woman's charms, her perceptive heart." Love is treated as dark and elusive figure, though ultimately a contradictory one. Cavalcanti sees Love as a destructive force ("Poor in discernment--so vice is his friend. / Oft from his power then death will follow," [34-35]), but he also recognizes Love's virtues ("Yet far from all deceit--I say, worthy of trust, / So that compassion is born from him alone." [69-70]). The style doesn't quite match that of "A woman's charms"--Cavalcanti catalogues contrasting ideas rather than structuring reversals between them--but his juxtapositional approach here creates its own sort of dialogue. The style anticipates modernist techniques, and it's not hard to see the appeal the poem had for Ezra Pound. He reworked and expanded a translation of it into Canto XXXVI of The Cantos.

But in spite of the accomplishments of "Donna me prega," Cavalcanti's rigorously logical style of poetry failed him completely in his treatment of Love's nature. It was perhaps so reductive that he felt compelled to abandon it altogether. The task fell to Dante to meet the challenge of developing a coherent, rigorous theory of Love through poetry, and his La vita nuova was both the result and culmination of the Dolce stil novo's concerns.

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