The son of Gabriele Rossetti, specialist of the Divine Comedy and professor at King’College, and of Frances Polidori, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was brought up in the worship of Dante, who had a decisive influence both on his poetry and his painting. Started in 1845, at the same time as his translation of Dante’s Vita Nuova, his renditions of the early Italian poets represent the work of a lifetime. Published together for the first time in 1861 (then in a revised edition, Dante and his Circle, in 1874), the translations were well-received by reviewers. Bringing together for the first time the poets of the dolce stil nuovo around Dante’s canonical figure, this collection introduced the early Italian poets to the British public, leaving a durable mark on Victorian aesthetics and, later, on the modernist poets gathered around Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Advocating fidelity over literality, his translations place particular importance on the primary expression of the poem, specifically through the medium of metre. Looking for equivalences in the Italian text, D.G. Rossetti reproduces the syllabic nature of Italian in English, thus offering translations that can be read as poems in their own right.
THE EARLY ITALIAN POETS
FROM CIULLO D’ALCAMO TO DANTE ALIGHIERI (1100-1200-1300) IN THE ORIGINAL METRES TOGETHER WITH DANTE’S VITA NUOVA
TRANSLATED BY D. G. ROSSETTI
I need not dilate here on the characteristics of the first epoch of Italian Poetry; since the extent of my translated selections is sufficient to afford a complete view of it. Its great beauties may often remain unapproached in the versions here attempted; but, at the same time, its imperfections are not all to be charged to the translator. Among these I may refer to its limited range of subject and continual obscurity, as well as to its monotony in the use of rhymes or frequent substitution of assonances. But to compensate for much that is incomplete and inexperienced, these poems possess, in their degree, beauties of a kind which can never again exist in art; and offer, besides, a treasure of grace and variety in the formation of their metres. Nothing but a strong impression, first of their poetic value, and next of the biographical interest of some of them (chiefly of those in my second division), would have inclined me to bestow the time and trouble which have resulted in this collection. Much has been said, and in many respects justly, against the value of metrical translation. But I think it would be admitted that the tributary art might find a not illegitimate use in the case of poems which come down to us in such a form as do these early Italian ones. Struggling originally with corrupt dialect and imperfect expression, and hardly kept alive through centuries of neglect, they have reached that last and worst state in which the coup-de-grace has almost been dealt them by clumsy transcription and pedantic superstructure. At this stage the task of talking much more about them in any language is hardly to be entered upon; and a translation (involving, as it does, the necessity of settling many points without discussion,) remains perhaps the most direct form of commentary.
The life-blood of rhymed translation is this,—that a good poem shall not be turned into a bad one. The only true motive for putting poetry into a fresh language must be to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty. Poetry not being an exact science, literality of rendering is altogether secondary to this chief aim. I say literality, —not fidelity, which is by no means the same thing. When literality can be combined with what is thus the primary condition of success, the translator is fortunate, and must strive his utmost to unite them; when such object can only be attained by paraphrase, that is his only path.
Any merit possessed by these translations is derived from an effort to follow this principle; and, in some degree, from the fact that such painstaking in arrangement and descriptive heading as is often indispensable to old and especially to “occasional” poetry, has here been bestowed on these poets for the first time. That there are many defects in these translations, or that the above merit is their defect, or that they have no merits but only defects, are discoveries so sure to be made if necessary (or perhaps here and there in any case), that I may safely leave them in other hands. The collection has probably a wider scope than some readers might look for, and includes now and then (though I believe in rare instances) matter which may not meet with universal approval; and whose introduction, needed as it is by the literary aim of my work, is I know inconsistent with the principles of pretty bookmaking. My wish has been to give a full and truthful view of early Italian poetry; not to make it appear to consist only of certain elements to the exclusion of others equally belonging to it.
Of the difficulties I have had to encounter,—the causes of imperfections for which I have no other excuse,—it is the reader’s best privilege to remain ignorant; but I may perhaps be pardoned for briefly referring to such among these as concern the exigencies of translation. The task of the translator (and with all humility be it spoken) is one of some self-denial. Often would he avail himself of any special grace of his own idiom and epoch, if only his
will belonged to him: often would some cadence serve him but for his author’s structure—some structure but for his author’s cadence: often the beautiful turn of a stanza must be weakened to adopt some rhyme which will tally, and he sees the poet revelling in abundance of language where himself is scantily supplied. Now he would slight the matter for the music, and now the music for the matter; but no, he must deal to each alike. Sometimes too a flaw in the work galls him, and he would fain remove it, doing for the poet that which his age denied him; but no,—it is not in the bond. His path is like that of Aladdin through the enchanted vaults: many are the precious fruits and flowers which he must pass by unheeded in search for the lamp alone; happy if at last, when brought to light, it does not prove that his old lamp has been exchanged for a new one,— glittering indeed to the eye, but scarcely of the same virtue nor with the same genius at its summons.
In relinquishing this work (which, small as it is, is the only contribution I expect to make to our English knowledge of old Italy), I feel, as it were, divided from my youth. The first associations I have are connected with my father’s devoted studies, which, from his own point of view, have done so much towards the general investigation of Dante’s writings. Thus, in those early days, all around me partook of the influence of the great Florentine; till, from viewing it as a natural element, I also, growing older, was drawn within the circle. I trust that from this the reader may place more confidence in a work not carelessly undertaken, though produced in the spare-time of other pursuits more closely followed. He should perhaps be told that it has occupied the leisure moments of not a few years; thus affording, often at long intervals, every opportunity for consideration and revision; and that on the score of care, at least, he has no need to mistrust it. Nevertheless, I know there is no great stir to be made by launching afresh, on high-seas busy with new traffic, the ships which have been long outstripped and the ensigns which are grown strange. The feeling of self-doubt inseparable from such an attempt has been admirably expressed by a great living poet, in words which may be applied exactly to my humbler position, though relating in his case to a work all his own.
“Still, what if I approach the august sphere
Named now with only one name,—disentwine
That under current soft and argentine
From its fierce mate in the majestic mass
Leaven’d as the sea whose fire was mix’d with glass
In John’s transcendent vision,—launch once more
That lustre? Dante, pacer of the shore
Where glutted Hell disgorges filthiest gloom,
Unbitten by its whirring sulphur-spume—
Or whence the grieved and obscure waters slope
Into a darkness quieted by hope—
Plucker of amaranths grown beneath God’s eye
In gracious twilights where His chosen lie,—
I would do this! If I should falter now!….”
(Sordello, by Robert Browning, B. i.)