De vulgari eloquentia

I’ve been reading Peter Hughes’s Cavalcanty on a slow continuous loop since April, sometimes in longer binges but more often in snatched bursts on trains or station platforms. It’s an exceptional book and becomes more so with each re-reading, both a development of and a departure from his tussle with Petrarch in 2015’s Quite Frankly.

Although I hadn’t met Peter when I wrote about one of his Petrarch sonnets a couple of years ago, I’ve since got to know him well enough to meet up for drinks when we’re in the same city, and in his capacity as editor of Oystercatcher Press he published my pamphlet Erinys last year. All of which means that I can’t pretend to write an objective review. That said, I’ve become distinctly ambivalent about the idea of “reviews” at all — partly because I don’t like the presumption of pronouncing on someone else’s work in public, but also because, increasingly, I struggle with the way it reinforces our prevailing delusion of publication and approval as a self-sustaining tournament (“emerging”, “published”, “prize-winning”, etc.), as opposed to what poetry is and always has been: a conversation.

This idea of poetry as conversation — of publication as process rather than validating event, of a vibrant ecosystem of comment, exchange, disagreement, exploration — would have been familiar to the historical Guido Cavalcanti, for whom the seething backdrop of thirteenth-century Florence provided not only a creative fault-line between Latin and the vernacular, but a danse macabre of vibrantly-incompatible arguments about why poetry existed and how it should be made.

From the fleeting perspective of the early twenty-first century, Cavalcanti is mostly known either as the innovator who cleared the way for his friend Dante, or as Pound’s link between the Provencal runway-taxying of Bertran de Born (he of the Inferno‘s severed lantern-head and the later reputation-reboot “Near Perigord”) and the vernacular lyric’s first cruising altitude in the proto-humanism of Avignon-moping cleric Francesco Petrarch. But neither of these reductions tells us much about Cavalcanti or his work — a problem that’s further compounded for English-language readers by the longstanding lack of good intermediaries. Whereas Dante was granted stylish permanent residence in English modernism by Beckett and Eliot, Pound’s translations of Cavalcanti have all the energy of a post-prandial fart in a drawing room (granted, Pound conjured Cavalcanti more memorably in the Cantos — and revisited the passage below more successfully in Canto XXXVI — but the principal incarnation of his Cavalcanti/troubadour thesis nonetheless fails the “show, don’t tell” test).

Here are the opening lines of Cavalcanti’s signature dish “Donna mi prega” in Pound’s 1912 rendition:

Because a lady asks me, I would tell
Of an affect that comes often and is fell
And is so overweening; Love by name.
E’en its deniers can now hear the truth,
I for the nonce to them that know it call,
Having no hope at all
That man who is base in heart
Can bear his part of wit
Into the light of it[.]

Here, by contrast, is what Peter Hughes makes of the same raw ingredients:

now the lady makes me think about love’s
pit-bull attacks on the soul’s soft tissues
& those fatal core-reactor meltdowns
& deep immunity to metaphor
it’s tricky thinking through these things in ink
as love demands we loosen up our grip
on pre-existing modes of consciousness
affiliation and self-confidence
otherwise we stand no chance of melting
flowing into fresh configurations
in response to love’s accommodations
of feral power rerouted through refined
reformulations of specific lips
in actual laps tomorrow evening

Peter’s poem isn’t a literal translation. Neither is it a “Version”, in the contemporary sense of working from someone else’s translation without the inconvenience of learning the original language. In fact, it’s as close as I can imagine to the opposite of this: an engagement with the original that’s so alert to the nuances of Cavalcanti’s language that it sidesteps prosaic meaning and goes straight for the stuff that’s usually lost in translation.

And that’s the problem with Pound’s Cavalcanti, which also happens to be the problem with most other Cavalcantis, and Petrarchs, and Baudelaires, &c &c &c. What makes the original worth reading and shoring against time’s ruins isn’t the what but the how. After seven centuries of repolishing by Petrarch and Sidney and Yeats and R.E.M., the wrong-turns of Victorian love-sonnets and the worse turns of contemporary anecditties, Cavalcanti’s views on love are indistinguishable from the wider riverrun from fin’amour via Ficino to Foucault. His wrenching of poetry from the court to the city-state (from fealty to commerce) was as much a function of contemporaneous Italian politics as a poetic project, and even without the benefit of Plato the brawling street-crooners of the dolce stil novo had enough extant Latin lyric to realise that the content of the nascent Sicilian/troubadour tradition wasn’t radically new.

But the form of it was an earthquake wrapped up in a meteor strike inside a star implosion. There are still people alive today for whom Latin was once the living language of religious ritual. Four centuries ago it was the language of international diplomacy, and more than three hundred years after Cavalcanti’s death a civil servant called John Milton had nagging doubts whether a poem in a language other than Latin could credibly claim a place in serious literature. Cavalcanti’s poetry, like Dante’s, was struggling to assert its own right to exist. Like all fault lines, the tectonic collision of Latin and the Tuscan vernacular was both fertile and dangerous. It produced one of those rare, fleeting periods when language has the right mix of confidence and instability to go into poetic overdrive, its tension transmuted into thrilling, untamed energy — like Rome in the decades following the end of the Republic, or England at the turn of the seventeenth century.

This is the energy that Peter’s Cavalcanty reawakens — and it vocalises not only the spirit of Guido Cavalcanti but the challenge of English-language poetry today. Our language is being warped, energised, challenged and weaponised by a combination of technology, geopolitics and the death-spasms of late capitalism. Monoracial Y-chromosome canonicity still hangs in menacing orbit over the academy, but just beneath its outer carapace we can already make out the red glow of a fatal chain reaction, and each year more of the defences break away to fall burning to the planet below. Faced with this, do we take refuge in a tired, safe poetry of personal experience and the unexamined lyric “I” of the past fifty years, or do we head for the fault lines? Rattling through the pre-dawn commuter dark with Cavalcanty in my bag — and Vahni Capildeo, and Andrea Brady, and Bhanu Kapil, and Emily Critchley, and Marianne Morris, & & & — I know that for me there can only be one answer.

As I said at the outset, this isn’t a review. So I won’t end it by saying: buy this book. It’s brilliant.

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