Guido Cavalcanti

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Article abstract: Through his unique treatment of the theme of love, Cavalcanti became one of the major poets of the so-called dolce stil nuovo school. He exerted a major influence on Dante and the love poets of the early Renaissance.

Early Life

Guido Cavalcanti’s importance as one of the early masters of European love poetry becomes all the more remarkable in view of the paucity of information about his life. He was born in the middle of the thirteenth century, the period in which the vernacular Italian literature first arose. His family was aristocratic, proud of its status as one of the most powerful families of the Guelphs, a political faction which allied itself, generally, with the pope, as opposed to the so-called Ghibellines, who favored the cause of the emperor. Throughout the thirteenth century, factious rivalries between Guelph and Ghibelline parties often resulted in bloody feuding as well as in political chaos.

Cavalcanti himself seems to have been a proud, contentious man who was disdainful of the lower classes and often upheld his honor with his fists. Yet by contemporary accounts, he was also highly educated, introspective, scholarly, and philosophical. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), in his famous Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620), related a popular story about Cavalcanti, illustrative of his character and wit. A group of idle young gentlemen are riding one morning and spot Cavalcanti in a pensive mood, walking among the tombs in a graveyard. They begin teasing him about his reputation as an unbeliever, as a man of little faith who sought to prove that God did not exist. Cavalcanti looks up at them and calmly answers that they can say of him anything they wish, because men should be allowed to speak freely in their own houses. The cryptic nature of Guido’s retort, by which the taunters were themselves impugned as being among the dead, their intellects entombed, as it were, by their own ignorance, is indicative of the subtlety of his thought and, ultimately, of his poetry. Cavalcanti did not deny his atheism, but by turning the tables on the young gentlemen he did not confirm it either.

Certainly the image of entombment was associated with the Cavalcanti family in a scene in Dante’s Inferno, part of La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy). In this circle of Hell, the heretics are encased in their sepulchers. Among these heretics and Epicureans—those philosophers who believed, among other things, that the soul perished with the body—is Cavalcanti’s father. The father cries out, looking for his son, who, he implies, will also be damned for his philosophical pride.

Life’s Work

Yet if Dante condemned Cavalcanti for his heretical views, part of which formed the basis of Cavalcanti’s theory of love as mortality, he also respected the man as a poet. The two, in fact, were close friends. Dedicating his La vita nuova (c. 1292; The New Life) to Cavalcanti, whom he called his “first friend,” Dante relates that he once wrote a sonnet expressing in symbolic terms his vision of love and that Guido Cavalcanti admired the poem and replied to it with a sonnet of his own. Thus from about the early 1280’s, Cavalcanti and Dante were admirers of each other’s work, and Dante’s early poetry shows the unmistakable influence of the older man.

Yet the factiousness of Florentine politics, together with Cavalcanti’s own disputatious personality, resulted in a split between the two friends. As a leader of the White Guelphs, rivals of the powerful Blacks, Cavalcanti was involved in the bloody feuds near the close of the...

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century, and there were rumors that several attempts had been made on his life. Early in 1300, Dante, then a magistrate of Florence, found himself forced to banish Cavalcanti in the interest of peace. Guido went to Saranza, but while there he contracted malaria. He was allowed to return to his native city, and it was there that he died in August, 1300, the same year in which the narrative ofThe Divine Comedy begins.

Cavalcanti’s reputation rests on a handful of poems, his total output numbering about fifty sonnets, ballades, and canzone. Though his most characteristic poems are fraught with delicate complexity and rigorous analysis—as if he were, in effect, a philosopher or scientist parsing a rational solution to a central enigma in man’s experience—his most appealing works are those sonnets which he addressed to his love, whom he named Primavera (springtime). These are marked by a humanity, a simple honesty that enhances their lyric beauty:

Who is she who comes, on whom all gaze,
Who starts the air to tremble, flooded with light?

Such poems as these placed Cavalcanti at the head of a school of poets whose work Dante later characterized as the dolce stil nuovo, the sweet new style. The subject matter of these poems might not have been new. (Indeed, the Provençal poets and troubadours of an earlier time had sung of love and its joys.) Yet the treatment of love was new. Love, to these new poets, was an ennobling experience, sanctified, as it were, by the object of that love, a woman. She was not necessarily beautiful of face; it was her gentle heart, a sort of spiritual incandescence, that was crucial in the lover’s apprehension of his love. The woman’s gentle heart as both the source and repository of love was an idea that took on an almost mystical significance. The loved one became an ideal of Beauty, a representation of the Divine, and, therefore, a means of salvation.

One of the earliest Italian poets to treat love in this idealized manner was Guido Guinizelli, who died about 1275. Guinizelli first identified the noble heart, cor gentil, as the residence of love, and Cavalcanti seems to have adopted from this older poet the idea of love as ennobling. Greater than those of Guinizelli, Cavalcanti’s poems are individualistic, personal responses to the experience of love. Like the generation of English Metaphysical poets of the early seventeenth century, Cavalcanti projects a voice, a personality of lyric subtlety and power. There is an intensity in the voice, an earnestness that evokes brilliantly the force and strength of love, as in the sonnet “Glimiei folli occhi,” translated as “My Foolish, Reckless Eyes.” Here the poet compares his state to that of a prisoner being hauled to court, sentenced, and punished with no hope of appeal.

A characteristic of Cavalcanti’s work—that quality which sets it apart from the work of his contemporaries—is this intensity by which the best of his poems maintain a tension between the experience of love as ultimate joy and as physical torture relieved only by death. His poem “Della forza d’amore” (“On the Power of Love”) clearly allies joy with despair, life with death, and concludes with the poet’s cursing the hour when he first fell in love.

Cavalcanti’s poems treat love not so much as an emotional but as a psychological experience, a tangle of contrary forces which, tragically, kill the very subject it seeks to redeem. In many of the poems, death and grief are central to the lover’s condition; love, in Ezra Pound’s phrase from one of Cavalcanti’s sonnets, keeps “death-watch upon the heart.” For Cavalcanti, death is a metaphor emblematic not so much of the physical destruction of the body as of the psychological disintegration of the mind. A later age would use the image of the lovesick courtier, pale and wan and pining away for his beloved, but Cavalcanti’s lover is not of this kind. He is not the subject of parody, but of tragedy—a personality to whom love is not spiritually invigorating but psychically ruinous. Love alienates the soul from the rational principles upon which it functions.

A rational explanation of love, in fact, is found in what is often regarded as Cavalcanti’s most famous poem. Obscure, scientifically analytic, the canzone “Donna me prega” (“A Lady Asks Me”) was the subject of many commentaries for more than two centuries. In it, Cavalcanti dissects the subject of love: He tells where it resides, who begets it, and what its nature, power, essence, and action are. This method of analysis is more characteristic of a Scholastic philosopher, well versed in Aristotle, than of a poet. Because of its abstruseness, the poem is not among his most popular, but it is important for an understanding of Cavalcanti’s theory of love.

In declaring love to have its seat in the memory, that part of the soul which was then considered material, Cavalcanti suggests that love is purely physical and thus subject to death; merely material, love is an illusion of the mind, a distraction, a madness. The poem thus uses reason to indict the irrational quality of love and is a good example of Cavalcanti’s contradictory aspect—a poet who sings sweetly of love though conscious of love’s destructive force.

Summary

Guido Cavalcanti’s contribution to the dolce stil nuovo was his treatment of love as a conflict between pleasure and pain, a salvific force that should redeem and purify but which in reality more often destroys. Behind the images which have become commonplace in love poetry—the beauty of the lady’s eyes, her loveliness of form, her angelic face—lies a darker meaning. Love is akin to tragedy, a contradiction that men must endure to become better creatures, though it brings but bitter consolation and an agony of spirit. There is, however, little cynicism even in the darkest of Cavalcanti’s poems, for love is a sweetness, a genuine ecstasy that defies explanation. As he writes in his famous canzone: “No one can imagine love who has never been in love.”

Bibliography

Lind, L. R., ed. Lyric Poetry of the Italian Renaissance. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954. An anthology containing several of Cavalcanti’s poems, including the famous translation by Ezra Pound of the canzone “Donna me prega.” Presents a synthesis of Cavalcanti’s theory of love.

Pound, Ezra. Make It New. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1935. One of the earliest modern studies of Cavalcanti is found in an appreciative essay in this book, together with Pound’s translation of the canzone.

Rebay, Luciano, ed. Italian Poetry: A Selection from St. Francis of Assisi to Salvatore Quasimodo. New York: Dover Books, 1969. Besides containing several fresh translations of the poems, the book is a good brief source of background material, particularly on the dolce stil nuovo.

Vossler, Karl. Mediaeval Culture: An Introduction to Dante and His Times. Translated by William Lamton. 2 vols. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1929, reprint 1958. Volume 2 presents a brief account of Cavalcanti’s life and work, emphasizing the combination of “reflection” and “feeling” that characterizes the poet’s work.

Wilkins, Ernest H. A History of Italian Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954. Eminently readable, easily accessible, this work is a standard assessment of Cavalcanti’s achievement, discussing his poetic voice and his emphasis on the psychology of love.