Giacomo da Lentini: The Complete Poetry
trans. and notes by Richard Lansing.
University of Toronto Press, 2018. 189 pages. 
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid

You probably know this bit from Bob Dylan’s song “Tangled Up in Blue”:

She lit a burner on the stove

   and offered me a pipe

“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said

   “you look like the silent type”

Then she opened up a book of poems

   and handed it to me

written by an Italian poet

   from the 13th century

And every one of them words rang true

   and glowed like burnin’ coal

pourin’ off of every page

   like it was written in my soul

from me to you,—

Tangled up in blue

The poet he meant was Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), who, as you can see from those dates, never set foot in the 13th century. Dylan, like most people, would have had to assume the posture of Rodin’s “Thinker” for at least forty minutes to perceive the distinction between the 1300s and the 13th century. Also, it’s not like Petrarch actually meant anything to him. Asked in an interview whom he was referring to in the song, he famously said something like: “Plutarch—is that his name?”

I bring all this up because Giacomo da Lentini actually is an Italian poet of the 13th century. He invented the sonnet. Let me clarify: He invented the sonnet. Nobody considers him one of the ten greatest Italian poets of all time or anything like that. But he invented the sonnet. Dante mentions him. His status in Italy is something like the Earl of Surrey’s status among Anglophone poetry-readers. In other words, you can get away without reading him at all, if you like. But he’s a big forerunner. And a talented guy.

We’re only talking about forty poems, if that. The ones I like are the canzoni (not the sonetti). In the originals (which are printed en face in this edition), the lines are all short and limpid, and there’s this attractive, bouncy effect. We don’t have much of a tradition of this in English, actually—not for serious stuff. The two things that jump into my mind, to illustrate what Lentini’s canzoni sound like, are both mock ballads: Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes,” and Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” So, to get at Lentini, you have to picture something that sounds like those poems, but is not “light” in content. The content is all this familiar, slavey love 

stuff . . . 

Almost any stanza will do as a representative specimen. Here:

Though pity isn’t sought,

You still know my desire,

For better you see me

Than I can see myself.

So if it seems to you

That all should stay the same

For me to win your love,

Don’t waste your joy on that,

For so my love insists,

Or else I’d rather die.

That’s the last stanza in Canzone #4 in this edition. Granted, that’s nothingness in English, and it would be nothingness in Italian too, except for the sound effects. Look at it in the original. I’ll highlight the rhymes . . . 

Senza merzede potete

saver, bella, ’l meo disio,

ch’assai meglio mi vedete

ch’io medesmo non mi veo;

e però s’a voi paresse

altro ch’esser non dovesse

per lo vostro amore avere,

unque gioia non ci perdiate,

cusì vol e te·’mistate,

inanzi voria morire.

For those of you who don’t know enough Italian to read that off smoothly, here is some arbitrary gibberish that will at least give you some sense of the sound palette: 

Without looking for pity,

you still know my desire,

yet no one in this city

can know my heart entire:

and so with all this seeming

and ever-after dreaming,

I search your inclination,

losing time in wondering

whether sunlight or thundering

is any indication.

Now just pretend that makes sense. My only point is that the rhymes come right on each other’s heels a lot. In English, we associate that effect with mock ballads and limericks, so in reading Lentini aloud in Italian I constantly have the sense he’s being slightly facetious.

Wait!! I just thought of the other thing that Lentini’s canzoni are like. This:

If thou find'st one, let me know,

    Such a pilgrimage were sweet;

Yet do not, I would not go,

    Though at next door we might meet;

Though she were true, when you met her,

And last, till you write your letter,

            Yet she

            Will be

False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Problem being that that really is facetious. Lentini I’m not sure about. Moreover, Lentini would never write a stanza like this:

Go and catch a falling star,

     Get with child a mandrake root,

Tell me where all past years are,

    Or who cleft the devil's foot,

Teach me to hear mermaids singing,

Or to keep off envy's stinging,

             And find

        What wind

Serves to advance an honest mind.

That thing at the end, starting with keeping off envy’s stinging—he could write that. The star, the root, the Devil, the mermaids—no. Lentini’s no Donne. But by now you can see why people always say those Elizabethan lyricists had Italian poetry on the brain. And it’s books like Giacomo da Lentini: The Complete Poetry that allow one to see for oneself what that was all about.


ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). www.anthonymadrid.net