Back to Poetry - David R. Slavitt


Canzone of Guido Cavalcanti translated by David R. Slavitt



I had not supposed that my heart could sustain

such pangs, such pains and tears torn from within

my soul so that my face, a death’s-head grin

would alarm even the casual passer-by.

Thus I languished under Love’s discipline

once I had found my lady, and he made plain

that I could not survive, my body and brain

not strong enough to resist her or even to try.


            I lost whatever I had of vital force

and with it my heart was gone,

beseiged as it had been without remorse,

while with her eyes she struck with deadly aim

at my guards who, one by one,

fell or fled, routed beyond all shame.


She is far beyond description, being

ethereally adorned.  With intellect

rather than the senses one might inspect

the beauty she brings us from another sphere.

Noble and full of grace, she can project

beyond the eyes’ capacities for seeing

a splendor as captivating as it is freeing

wherever it is that she may deign to appear.


            Still it was through my human eyes that I

was stricken, and now whoever

sees me turns to her and asks her why

she does not show me pity’s tenderness

although my lady never

seems to have taken note of my distress.

The thought crosses my mind that I should try

to speak to her, expressing my fervent praise

for her nobility, but as I gaze

at her I am dumbstruck and cannot say

a single word let alone blurt out a phrase.

For this Love mocks me, amused to see that I

am able when she approaches only to sigh,

and enjoys my hopelessness and my dismay.


            “The arrow from her smile,” he said, “has hit

into your heart’s core,

and neither by your courage, strength, or wit

            can you contrive any defense or cure.

You’ve seen her and therefore

your painful death is imminent and sure.”


O song, you know that when I beheld her face

I copied you out from Love’s great folios

where poetry that I have admired shows

how to speak to a lady and by what art

one may with some persuasiveness disclose

his feelings and argue his hopeless case.

You may appeal with dignity and grace

for pity for the deep wound in my heart.


            My scattered spirits quailed at this great task

and neither could tell her how

she had transformed my life nor venture to ask

for pity as I languish and decay.


            Therefore go to her now

on behalf of one who is about to pass away.