Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Sicilian School

This essay originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Historically, the Sicilian School was the most significant of the early successors to the troubadour movement. It was a group of poets based in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and after his death, his illegitimate son and successor Manfred. It was at its peak between 1230 and 1266.

The Sicilians differed from the troubadours in a number of respects. They could not play music, so a greater emphasis was put on the sound of the poetry when read. The women in the poetry tend to be far more idealized, and due to the poets being notaries and other officials, the poems tend to be structured like arguments. Arbitrary structural forms, such as sestina, were done away with.

The most famous of the Sicilian poets is probably Pier delle Vigne (c.1190-1249) (at left), although his fame is not primarily because of his work. Most know him from Dante's portrayal of him in Song XII of the Inferno. He is the affectatious, self-pitying courtier condemned to the wood of suicides. His work, however, is different from what one would expect. Most commentaries on the Divine Comedy identify Pier's pretentious manner of speaking--he often sounds like Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet--as typical of the manner of Sicilian School poetry. However, the belabored wordplay Dante depicts doesn't seem to be a conspicuous feature of Pier's poetry. Consider "Love in whom I hope and desire." (Click here.) The only place where the constant word repetitions Dante mocked appear is in the first stanza, and the use of "hope" is hardly as stilted as Dante would seem to have it.

A striking aspect of the poem relative to the troubadour pieces is the reduced emphasis on hyperbole. Arnaut Daniel's use of the sestina seemed to have led the way the use of tropes, particularly similes, and Pier relies on them for the poem's key expressive moments. His likening his preferred manner of coming to his lady to that of "a secret thief" (9-10) is a throwaway, but the imagery of the sailor and the ship at sea is more developed. In the first stanza, Pier analogizes his hope to win his lady's love to a man at sea endeavoring to return home (4-8). In the fourth, he creates a metaphor from that simile, implicitly likening a harbor to the comfort of his lady's love (29-32). It may seem quite a modest poetic achievement, but this harkening back to Odysseus's quest to return to Penelope in the Odyssey is a key moment in the development of Western poetry. Pier's imagery finds its own echoes in some of the best and most influential work of Petrarch. Figures such as Thomas Wyatt were entranced with Petrarch's handling of these and similar tropes, and brought his work to England, thus setting the stage for the likes of Shakespeare, Donne, and almost everyone else who followed.

The other major figure of the Sicilian School is Giacomo da Lentini (c.1200-1250). His main contribution to the development of poetry is formal; his imagery is nothing particularly significant. His most famous work is "I have placed my heart in God's service." (Click here to read.) In terms of expressive language, there's not much beyond the implicit hyperbole of the poem's view that true salvation comes from finding one's lady love in Heaven. There are no tropes in the poem. But one can see the argumentative structure identified with the Sicilians. The first eight lines state the poet's proposition of wishing to be with his lady in Heaven, and the final six implicitly answer a criticism of that proposition, namely that in Heaven, earthly desires have no place.

Giacomo's achievement in "I have placed my heart in God's service" was to create the first sonnet, a poetic form employed by such later poets as Guido Cavalcanti and Dante, perfected by Petrarch, and epitomized by the lyric poetry of William Shakespeare. It is a fourteen-line poem, and the traditional Italian structure follows Giacomo's example. The first eight lines, called an octave, either present a narrative, state a proposition, or raise a question. The final six lines, referred to as the sestet, enhances the content of the octave by providing commentary on the narrative, applying the proposition, or answering the question.

Pier delle Vigne and Giacomo da Lentini's achievements were aesthetically modest but historically momentous. Building on the foundation provided by the troubadours, they set the stage further for Western poetry. One thing that is important to remember about them and the other Sicilians is that poetry was a secondary concern to them, a form of recreation. Like the troubadours, they were primarily entertainers. But entertainers who practice an art almost inevitably give way to the self-conscious aesthetes, and the first group of those, known as the Dolce stil novo school, were the next major step in Western poetry's development.

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