A Canzone From Dante's La Vita Nuova translated by David R. Slavitt



Ladies, you who can understand love, let me

speak to you of my lady.  I cannot praise

her highly enough, but poems can be ways

of bringing relief to a sorely distracted mind. 

When I consider her worth and quality,

Love lulls me into such a pleasant daze

that I am dumbfounded. Could I but blurt one phrase,
anyone who heard my words would find

himself also in love.  (Love may be blind

but isn’t deaf.  I must, therefore, take good care

to show some circumspection in what I dare

say.  Sweet ladies, I rely on your kind

indulgence, upon which I must here depend

as if I spoke to a dear and intimate friend.


An angel speaks to the Mind of God to report

that there is a marvel on earth both strange and rare

whose actions arise from a radiant soul down there,

the glow of which illuminates the sky

even to paradise’s heights.  In short,

our only lack in heaven is her fair

and splendid presence.  All the saints declare

that the Lord must take some action to rectify

this defect promptly.   Fortunately, I

can announce that Pity speaks to God as well:

His judgment is that the lady ought to dwell

on earth for a while longer:  “It is my 

will that he say to the souls in hell that this

was the vision he had of hope of heaven’s bliss.”


If they call out for my lady in heaven, then you

who wish to appear as gentlewomen should learn

from her example and each of you in your turn

should follow in her footsteps as well as you can

and attend upon her as I have tried to do,

despite the difficulties, for one may discern

how Love casts a chill into base hearts that can burn

as ice does.  In an ordinary man

the mind goes blank and all his vital élan

vanishes.  He is either ennobled by

the encounter or else he is likely to sicken and die,

humbled and shamed—although it is God’s plan

than none whom she has engaged in conversation

by virtue of her virtue can suffer damnation.


Love asks himself, how can a mortal be

at once so beautiful and so pure.  I know

of none like her.  It is almost as though

the Lord had decided that he would create in her

an ornament for the world, a novelty

whose outward features would dazzle and serve to show

her inner perfection. Nature alone can’t go

to any such heights—as if her appearance were

the touchstone of a beauty that can stir

and refine the hearts of any who may pass  

her by in the street.  This singular lady has

the power to be the innocent ravisher

of all men’s hearts, a quality that defies

us all so that we’re forced to avert our eyes.


Canzone, I know that you will journey far,

speaking to women when I send you on

your way and into the world.  When you have gone,

because you are my offspring, let me to say

what your duties and my purposes are:

to ask of any, hither, thither, or yon,

to help you find the lady, that paragon

whose praises are in you on proud display.

Avoid all crude and vulgar people, for they

are a waste of your time.  Gentle ladies and men

will tell you where Love is, and he again

will direct your feet to find her the fastest way.

Speak well of me to Love.  Hold your head high

and convey to him my respects.  I pray you, try.





© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

Back to Archives

David R. Slavitt