Guido Cavalcanti

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Achievements

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The extant poems of Guido Cavalcanti number fewer than threescore; when taken together, however, they are compelling evidence that he was one of the finest Italian poets of his age. Ezra Pound, Cavalcanti’s translator into English, even exalted him above Dante, noting in 1929 that “Dante is less in advance of his time than Guido Cavalcanti.” While Pound’s enthusiasm for Cavalcanti was perhaps excessive, there is little doubt that, except for Dante, Cavalcanti was the most outstanding member of the famous “school” of il dolce stil nuovo (the sweet new style). Although some critics question the existence of such a school in late thirteenth century Italy, it is generally conceded that a number of poets of the period constituted an informal group defined by common linguistic and thematic concerns. In addition to Dante and Cavalcanti, this group included Guido Guinizzelli, the founder of the school, and several writers of love lyrics: Lapo Gianni, Gianni degli Alfani, Dino Frescobaldi, and Cino da Pistoia.

The major themes of il dolce stil nuovo are outlined in Guinizzelli’s seminal canzone “Al cor gentil ripara sempre amore” (“To the Noble Heart Love Always Returns”). Foremost is a new concept of nobility, which is no longer tied to birth or social rank but rather to spiritual perfection or moral worth. Second is the identification of love with the noble heart, meaning that love is reserved for the heart of a truly noble soul (as defined above) and that the noble heart is likewise reserved for love. Last is the theme of the spiritualization of woman. Since women inspire love, and love in turn is the cause and product of a noble heart, women may prove to be instruments of moral perfection. Every lady is a potential angelicata crïatura (angelic creature), to use Cavalcanti’s phrase and to employ terminology characteristic of the stilnovisti.

The phrase “the sweet new style” derives from Purgatorio (Purgatory) in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy). It is Bonagiunta Orbicciani da Lucca’s term for the poetics espoused by Dante, Cavalcanti, and several of their contemporaries. The “sweetness” of the new style refers primarily to the gentleness of the subject matter (love), the purity of the language (vernacular Italian), and the graciousness of the chosen poetic rhythms (implying an avoidance, for example, of harsh rhymes). The “newness” derives from the originality of the poets’ inspiration—that is, an inner, emotional need to write verse as opposed to a purely intellectual decision to compose—and from the abundance of new expressions, rather than stereotypical phrases, designed to communicate the psychological state of the poet. Cavalcanti’s careful depiction of the various states of his emotions, such as self-pity and bewilderment, is noteworthy for its innovative departure from timeworn clichés. An even more important achievement, however, was the remarkable influence Cavalcanti exerted on his onetime friend Dante, who early in his career referred to Cavalcanti as his primo amico, or “first friend,” and to whom he dedicated La vita nuova (c. 1292). It was Cavalcanti who encouraged Dante to write his poetry in the vernacular instead of in Latin; Dante’s decision to follow his friend’s advice changed forever the course of Italian poetry.

Sonnets

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Cavalcanti’s known works include thirty-six sonnets, eleven ballads, two canzones, two isolated stanzas, and one motet. In addition, two ballads of questionable authenticity are occasionally attributed to him. The sonnets, because of their large number, seem to represent the poet’s preferred form. The major theme of most of the sonnets relates, not unexpectedly, to the pain and weakness that love inflicts on the...

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lover. Love, however, is not the only argument in the compositions. The sonnets of correspondence, for example, are the most important in the collection from a historical perspective, and they show the range of topics covered. These sonnets were dedicated or written to other men, including the poets Dante, Alfani, Guittone d’Arezzo, Guido Orlandi, and a certain Bernardo da Bologna (about whom very little is known).

The five sonnets addressed to Dante are either responses to rhymes on love by Dante or words of friendly encouragement. “Vedeste, al mio parere, onne valore” (“You Saw, in My Opinion, Every Valor”) is a reply to Dante’s famous call to love’s faithful, “A ciascun’ alma presa e gentil core” (“To Every Captured Soul and Noble Heart”). On the other hand, one sonnet to Orlandi, “Di vil matera mi conven parlare” (“Of a Vile Matter I Must Speak”), constitutes a rather caustic personal attack. Another sonnet, addressed to Guittone and entitled “Da più a uno face un sollegismo” (“From Many to One Makes a Syllogism”), falls in the tradition of the harsh literary criticism of Guittone also found in Dante’s writings. A sonnet to Nerone Cavalcanti, “Novelle ti so dire, odi, Nerone” (“News I Know to Tell You, So Hear, Nerone”), testifies to the fierce fight between the Cavalcanti and Buondelmonti families.

Ballads

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In the ballads, one finds themes such as that of exile in “Perch’io non spero di tornar giammai” (“Because I Hope Not Ever to Return”) and of country delights in “In un boschetto trova’ pasturella” (“In a Woods I Found a Shepherdess”). As noted earlier, the theme of death often accompanies or weaves through the prevailing theme of love. This is seen in the ballad “Quando di morte mi conven trar vita” (“When I Must Take Life from Death”). On the poet’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, he stops in Toulouse. There, in the Church of the Daurade, he imagines an encounter with Mandetta, a beautiful woman recalled in the ballad “Era in penser d’amor quand’io trovai” (“I Was Thinking of Love When I Found”). The beauty of Mandetta is also described in the sonnet “Una giovane donna di Tolosa” (“A Young Woman of Toulouse”). The young woman reminds him of his faraway lady, whom Cavalcanti never mentions by name in his poetry. Dante, however, refers to her as Vanna, short for Giovanna, and states in La vita nuova that she was also known, because of her beauty, as Primavera, or Springtime.

“My Lady Asks Me”

The poet’s most famous poem, which is also his most difficult, is neither a sonnet nor a ballad. Perhaps the most-discussed canzone in all of Italian literature, “Donna me prega” (“My Lady Asks Me”), a poem of seventy-five lines, has been described by John Colaneri as “an intellectual, philosophical, and somewhat obscure exposition of the essence of love.” Most scholars would agree with this description, especially the reference to the poem’s obscurity. Interpretations of the work differ widely, drawing variously on Arab mysticism, Averroist thought, Arab-Christian Platonism, Thomist philosophy, and neo-Aristotelianism.

From a technical viewpoint, “My Lady Asks Me” is a virtuoso performance, offering unequivocal proof of the poet’s exceptional rhyming ability. The poem is meant to be a treatise on the philosophy of love as well as a highly lyrical composition, however, and in the canzone’s opening stanza, Cavalcanti raises the following questions: Where does love exist? Who creates it? What is its virtue, its power, and its essence? The answers to these queries are contained in the remainder of the poem but in a rather complicated philosophical knot.

In most of his poetry, Cavalcanti has a great desire to render visible that within man which is invisible, such as the movements of the human soul. The poet transforms these actions into images of real beings. Thus, “spirits” (as the term was used in Scholastic philosophy, to designate the vital faculties of man) were introduced into love poetry. All of the stilnovisti made use of them for the purpose of artistic representation, but it was principally with Cavalcanti that the systematization of the spirits took place. Indeed, it was primarily because of Cavalcanti that spirits became an integral part of the literary expression of the amorous theme and that they remained there for centuries.

Bibliography

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Dronke, Peter. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love Lyric. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. In the chapter on Cavalcanti, Dronke depicts the poet as a master of stilnovisti poets. He briefly examines Canzone in light of contemporary lyric poetry and Scholastic philosophy.

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.

Nelson, Lowry. “Cavalcanti’s Centrality in Early Vernacular Poetry.” In Poetic Configurations. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992. This short overview places Cavalcanti’s work in his own cultural and intellectual contexts and discusses his influence on poets from Dante to Ezra Pound.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. London: Faber and Faber, 1954. Pound’s classic essay “Cavalcanti” offers his view of the poet who influenced him deeply early in his career. He has a scholar’s eye as well, for his analysis of “Donna mi prega” is thorough in both senses.

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.

Shaw, J. E. Guido Cavalcanti’s Theory of Love: The “Canzone d’Amore” and Other Related Problems. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1949. Shaw’s close commentary precedes his own translation of the work. His appendix is a discussion of critical commentaries from 1327 to 1940.

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.

Wilhelm, James J. Dante and Pound: The Epic of Judgment. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1974. On Cavalcanti, who influenced both great poets, see chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 details Cavalcanti’s influence on Dante and Dante’s reaction to Cavalacanti, especially as registered in Inferno. Chapter 5 explores Pound’s critical attitude toward Cavalcanti and how this differed from his poetic use of him.

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.

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