Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Poetry and Second Thoughts

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Poetry and Second Thoughts

Article excerpt

In the twenty-fourth chapter of La Vita Nuova the Christian poet Dante wakes to an apparition of the pagan god, Amor:

Io mi senti svegliar dentro a lo core un spirito amoroso che dormia: et poi vidi venir da lungi Amore allegro si, che appena il conoscia.

I felt awakening within my heart a loving spirit that was sleeping, and then I saw Love coming from afar so happy that I scarcely knew him.(1)

Like nearly all the lyrics collected in La Vita Nuova, the sonnet these verses begin is a love poem, but like many of them, it also offers an account of poetic creation, poesis, and it portrays this process as double, as involving both dreaming and waking realities. Like almost all translations of poetry, however, this one leaves most of the poem behind, still entwined where Dante found and plaited it into the sounds of his language--in the weave, for instance, of assonance and consonance informing a sense of inwardness in dentro, core, spirito, and amoroso. Almost as vexingly, translation obscures the series of syntactic duplicities Dante's sentence unfolds in our attentions and memories as we enter his sonnet, reading toward dormia, where the web of his syntax draws taut and we grasp its "correct" sense--or it grasps us. There, we apprehend that syntax not in sudden isolation but situated within and presiding among those "mistaken" understandings, drawing resonance from their suggestion. Much as the first verse of Frost's poem--"Back out of all this now too much for us"--invites us to hear "back out" as an imperative addressed by the poet simultaneously to us as readers and to himself as soliloquist, and then to modify this understanding as we progress further into the poem, so Dante devises the order in which he ushers each phrase onto the stage of his poem to create our misconstructions, and he uses the form of his verse to enforce them, employing caesurae and verse turns to cut the grammatical constituents of his sentence momentarily free from its still inchoate syntactic constraints: "Io mi senti' svegliar/" ("I felt myself awake") ... "un spirito amoroso/" ("|I~, a loving spirit"). Only when we arrive at "che dormia" and construe Dante's syntax whole do we "set aside" these alternative readings in favor of a construction that "makes sense."

And yet curiously, these "misreadings" speak more plainly to our daylight sense of truth: it is "of course" Dante who awakens to the power of love, Dante who is himself "un spirito amoroso," Dante who (as the play "amoroso...Amore" suggests) projects and envisions part of himself in the figure of Amore. Here syntax, which tends usually to serve the interests of logic and good order, compels us contrariwise to dismiss the reasonable good sense of waking truth and accept instead the higher truth of the dream of the poem.(2) There, in the meshes of grammar and rhyme, we encounter the apparition of the god, manifest on the page where, as the opening lines of La Vita Nuova tell us, Dante found Him:

In quella parte del libro de la mia memoria dinanzi a la quale poco si potrebbe leggere, si trova una rubrica la quale dice: Incipit vita nova. Sotto la quale rubrica io trovo scritte le parole le quali e mio intendimento d'assemplare in questo libello; e se non tutte, almeno la loro sentenzia.

In that part of the book of my memory before which little could be read is found a rubric which says: Here beginneth the New Life. Beneath this rubric I find written the words which it is my intention to copy in this little book, and if not all of them, at least their substance.

In this account of poetic creation, the poet doesn't make his poem: he transcribes words he discovers already written. Here the poet, too, is a spectator.

Later, Dante will take pains in his commentary on this sonnet to absolve himself of the heathenish superstition implicit in its testimony to an apparition of the pagan god, Amor, by pleading poetic license in answer "to the prescriptions of a philosophy" that could have, as Robert Duncan reminds us, "consequences in theological courts. …

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