Ezra Pound Translates Guido Cavalcanti

By D. R. Gayton
Guido Cavalcanti (ca. 1255- 1300) is mostly remembered now a days, when remembered at all, as the poet to whom Date dedicated his Vita Nuova. Along with Dante, however, Guido Cavalcanti is by modern critics considered as one of the most important members of the Florentine School of poetry (Lind 1958). The Florentine school of poetry, otherwise known as the “Dolce Stil Nuovo” (sweet new style) derived it’s influences from both the Bolognese poets and the Sicilian School, which in turned derived their particular style from the Romances and Chansons of the Provence poets and troubadours. As such, the poetry of the Dolce Stil Nuovo focuses on the “spiritual, idealized view of love and womanhood in a way that is sincere, delicate and musical” (Britannica 2003).

Ezra_PoundIt is difficult to trace the line of influence the Dolce Stil Nuovo had on both English and Continental poetry through out the centuries, however, gauging by the popularity of Date’s Divine Comedy to date, one can accurately affirm that its influence has been broad and deep to the point of being internalized by all European literary traditions. For most modern English readers however, the poetry of Cavalcanti remained obscured by time and language until Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1861 publication of “The Early Italian Poets.” It was this publication that reached the young Ezra Pound as early, perhaps, as 1908 (West 1953). At any rate, by 1912, Pound published his own edition of Italian translations titled “Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti.” The value of Pound’s translations (specially his Chinese translations) have always been deemed questionable; as noted by critic Michael Alexander who writes that in some American literary circles, Pound was more widely reviled for his translations than his Federal charge of treason (Alexander 1979).  Irrespective of the critic’s views, however, Pound’s Italian translations have remained a staple of American academia and are therefore worthy of our attention.

To assess the value of Ezra Pound’s translations in relation to the original Italian sonnets, I have personally made a literal translation of one of Cavalcanti’s sonnets and compared it to Pound’s translation. The sonnet I have chosen is “Voi, che per gli occhi mi passaste al core” or sonnet no. 1.  The first thing to note about the versification of the original Italian sonnet is that it is written, like most classical Latin verse in hendecasyllable and iambic senarri, with an end rhyme pattern of a,b,b,a,a,b,b,a,c,d,c,c,d,c. Ezra Pound’s translation however, follows more closely the structure of a Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnet; that is, Pound’s translation is written in strict iambic pentameter with an end rhyme pattern of a,b,a,c,c,c,d,d,e,f,e,e,g,h. Perhaps Pound chose the iambic pentameter because it seems to flow better for English speakers, but I suspect that he was simply mimicking or imitating Rossetti who also chose to translate Cavalcanti’s sonnets into English using iambic pentameter.  It is important to note here (for the sake of critical direction) that in translating the works of Cavalcanti, Pound wrote in the introduction of the 1912 edition, “…I have in my translating tried to bring over the qualities of Guido’s rhythm, not line for line, but to embody in the whole of my English some trace of the power which implies the man“. Pound goes on to say a whole lotta of pretty things in a very convoluted sort of way, which if read literally make very little sense. In evaluating his translations, however, I felt I had to keep his statement in mind, but first I had to know what Pound meant by “the power which the man implies.” That is, what sort of power is he referring to? To do this I performed a line by line analysis of the original Italian sonnet.


Voi, Che Per Gli Occhi Mi Passaste Al Core

Petrarch,_Laura,_and_CupidSonnet no 1. begins by addressing the “love object” with a resounding “You” (Voi), “who through the eyes passed into the heart”, that is, through sheer appearance, looks, outwardly mold, the “love object” entered an inner part of himself. Then, rapidly, almost despairingly, the speaker commands the “love object” that has just entered him through the eyes to look upon his “anguish filled life”; a command that is followed by a declaration of being destroyed by this same love that “comes hewing with great might.” In other words, this Love is a violent and abusive love that batter’s and ultimately sends a debilitated soul fleeing. The speaker then addresses both “love object” and reader and tells of the aftermath of Love’s destruction and the soul’s departure:


There, remains the figure alone in gentleman-Stature

And a long/spent voice that speaks of suffering;

It is this fortitude/strength of Love that has undone me [as]

From your Noble eyes it swiftly moves:

An Arrow…


Riman figura sol en segnoria

E voce alquanta, che parla dolore;

Questa Vertu d’amor che m’ ha disfatto

Da vostr’occhi gentil’ presta si mosse: 

Un dardo…”

In these lines the speaker exhibits himself almost as shell and echo in love’s aftermath. Again, this is a violent and injurous love that has undone and destroyed him from it’s sheer fortitude/strength, “Vertu.” The theme of violence is repeated again as the Arrow (Love) pierces flesh and heart causing the soul to tremble and recoil “seeing the heart mortally-stricken on the left side” as though it was beholding the scene of a crime.


“Che l’anima tremando si riscosse

Veggendo morto ’l cor nel lato manco”.


1024px-Cupidon_et_PsychéThe poetic power of this sonnet lies in the poet’s ability to create a vision of love as as an entity which causes violence and pain from its own intensity. Love is a storm. Love is a white flame. Love is an arrow in the heart, and an entity separate from the Soul (spiriti/anima), which is life, spiritual life, personality and joy.

In his translation of the sonnet, Ezra Pound diverges on various points. In Pound’s sonnet, the love object does not enter by ‘passing’ through but rather ‘breaches’ through. In Pound’s translation, the speaker who commands the “love object” to look upon his anguish becomes:


“Might pluck my life and agony apart,
Saw you how love assaileth her with sighs,
And lays about him with so brute a might”

The subtle changes in “might” and “saw you”, although insignificant at first sight, have a tricky way of shifting meaning through connotation.  That ‘look upon my anguish” should have become “Saw you how,” gives the “love object” and love itself a more individualized character.  The love object of Cavalcanti is an idealized woman, that is, she is love itself made flesh as Helen or Venus.  The love object of Pound’s translation is more approachable; she has walked amongst us and seen his ruin.  Unlike the haughty Helen, there’s no need to implore or command Pound’s love object to look “below” her. Further “individualization” of Pound’s ‘love object’ can be found on line thirteen where “See how my affrighted soul recoileth” reads almost as a plea, a request for commiseration, even empathy that is lacking in the original Italian.

Similarly, where Cavalcanti writes:

There, remains the figure alone in gentleman-Stature

And a long-spent voice that speaks of suffering;


Pound translates this as:


“There’s a new face upon the seigniory,

And new is the voice that maketh loud my grief”


Again the subtleties of language alter the meaning. “There, remains” invokes the sense of the devastation left behind after Love’s onslaught. On the other hand, the “new face” and the “new voice” of Pound’s version informs us that there has been a new beginning, diluting thereby the overall sense of devastation carried by the original Italian sonnet.

All things considered, however, Pound’s translation is right on mark. Where he gains is in transmitting the sweetness of language found on the original that would almost be impossible to translate into English under a literal form. Where he fails is in expressing Cavalcanti’s vision of an ideal, all consuming love. In unconsciously, (or consciously) personalizing the “love object”, however, Pound not only gave Cavalcanti’s sonnet a subtle shift, but it brought forth into a greater approximation to our modern image of love.





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