a translation for spring

Dante sought his last refuge in Ravenna at the invitation of Count Guido Novello da Polenta (?-1320). According to Boccaccio, Guido was a person “well tutored in liberal studies” who honored “worthy men and especially those who exceeded others in knowledge.” Dante served Guido in various important capacities, including possibly as professor of rhetoric. He died as a member of the count’s household, having just completed a crucial diplomatic mission to Venice on Ravenna’s behalf. Guido organized a solemn funeral for Dante and had the poet buried in a classical sarcophagus in the local monastery of San Francesco.

Dante chose Guido’s own aunt, Francesca da Rimini, as a major character in the Inferno. Romantic-era critics saw Francesca as a doomed heroine, suffering because her love had violated arbitrary conventions and oppressive rules. I argue (along with several modern critics) that she is supposed to be a real sinner. Dante has placed her in hell because she deserves her punishment for adultery, and besides, she doesn’t really love Paolo, whom she describes with a pastiche of slight misquotations taken from love poetry. She is a 14th-century Madame Bovary, in love with the literary concept of love, not with the individual man.

But back to Guido: Intriguingly, he wrote a minor poem that contains a striking phrase that Francesca also utters (almost verbatim) in her last lines to Dante in hell. Either Guido borrowed the phrase that was spoken by his own dead-and-damned aunt in Dante’s already-famous poem, or else Dante read Guido’s poem before he wrote the Inferno and had Francesca quote it. Since almost everything else Francesca says in the Divine Comedy is a slight misquotation, I am inclined to think the latter is true: Dante took a line from his friend’s naive ingenuous sonnet and assigned it to a sinner in hell.

I make no great claims for Guido’s poem, and less for my translation, but I offer it today because the Boston weather reminded me of it. It’s in my Dante book, pp. 17-18:

The air was serene and the sky was clear
And the birds by the river sang.
That day was the first that felt like spring
When I saw you, my joy, so fair.
Your face wore an unaccustomed blush
That never leaves my thoughts today
And whenever I travel far away
Your pleasing smile seems to rush,
Gently launched toward my heart
By the look that comes to your pretty eyes,
And the smile that so sweetly flies
To blend with mine and never part.
Now she can never be torn away;
Joy shall spare me from misery.

Era l’aer sereno e lo bel tempo
et cantavan gli augei per la rivera
et in quel giorno apparve primavera
qand’io te vidi prima, bella gioia.
Ben fosti gioia, chè tal m’apparisti
e col novo color nel tuo bel viso
che già da la mia mente non se parte.
E quando sono in più lontana parte
più mi sovvien del tuo piacente riso.
Sì dolcemente nel mio cor venisti
per un soave sguardo che facesti
dal tuoi begli occhi, che mi mirar fiso
sì che già mai da te non fia diviso,
tanta allegrezza mi dà fuor di noia.

(cf. “che non mai da me no fia diviso”: Inferno v, 133-5).