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VII CONCERNING POETRY
Now you must know that after that whimsical encounter of wit between Dante and Simone, which I have already narrated, Messer Dante seemed to change his mood again, as he had changed his mood oft-time before. Messer Brunetto Latini saw much less of his promising pupil, and a certain old soldier that was great at sword-play much more, and there was less in Dante's life of the ancient philosophies and more of the modern chivalries. I presently found out that Messer Dante, having taken much to heart that gibing defiance of Simone of the Bardi, had set himself, with that stubborn resolution which characterized all his purposes, to making himself a master of the sword. Of this, indeed, he said nothing to me or other man, but Florence, for all that it is so great and famous a city, is none so large that a man can easily hide his business there from the eyes of those that have a mind to find out that business. So I learned that Dante, who had been, as I told you before, no more than a passable master of the [Pg 93]weapon, now set himself to gain supremacy over it. Day after day, through long hours, Dante labored at his appointed task, bracing his sinews, strengthening his muscles, steadying his eye, doing, in a word, all that a spare and studious youth must do who would turn himself into a strong and skilful soldier. And because whatever Dante set head and heart and hand to he was like to accomplish, I learned later what I guessed from the beginning—that his patience had its reward.

By reason of his white-hot zeal and tireless determination, Dante gained his desired end sooner than many a one whom nature had better moulded for the purpose. And being of a generous eagerness to learn, he did not content himself with mastering alone the more skilled usage of the sword, but made his earnest study of the carriage and command of other weapons, and he applied himself, besides, to the investigation of the theory and practice of war as it is waged between great cities and great states, and to the history of military affairs as they are set forth and expounded in the lives of famous captains, such as Alexander, and C?sar, and their like. Had he been in expectation of sudden elevation to the headship of the Republic, he could not have toiled more furiously, nor more wisely devoured a week's lesson in a day, a month's lesson in a week, a year's lesson in a month, with all the splendid madness of desireful youth.

[Pg 94]

But the marvel of it all was that he did not suffer these studies, arduous as they were, to eat up his time and his mind, but he kept store of both to spare for yet another kind of enterprise no less exacting and momentous, albeit to my mind infinitely more interesting. I will freely admit that I was never other than an indifferent soldier. I did my part when the time came, as I am glad to remember, not without sufficient courage if wholly without distinction, but there was ever more pleasure for me in the balancing of a rhyme than in the handling of a pike, and I would liefer have been Catullus than C?sar any day of the week. So the work that Dante did in his little leisure from application to arms is the work that wonders me and delights me, and that fills my memory, as I think of it, with exquisite melodies.

It was about this time that sundry poets of the city, of whom let us say that Messer Guido Cavalcanti was the greatest and your poor servant the least, began to receive certain gifts of verses very clearly writ on fair skins of parchment, which gave them a great pleasure and threw them into a great amazement. For it was very plain that the writer of these verses was one in whose ear the god Apollo whispered, was one that knew, as it seemed, better than the best of us, how to wed the warmest thoughts of the heart to the most exquisite music of flowing words. These verses, that were for the most part [Pg 95]sonnets and longer songs, were all dedicated to the service of love and the praise of a nameless lady, and they were all written in that common speech which such as I talked to the men and women about me, so that there was no man nor woman in the streets but could understand their meaning if once they heard them spoken—a fact which I understand gave great grief to Messer Brunetto Latini when some of these honey-sweet verses of the unknown were laid before him.

To Messer Brunetto's eyes and to Messer Brunetto's ears and to Messer Brunetto's understanding there was but one language in the world that was fit for the utterances and the delectation of scholars, and that language, of course, was the language which he wrote so well—the Latin of old-time Rome. If a man must take the love-sickness, so Messer Brunetto argued, and must needs express the perfidious folly in words, what better vehicle could he have for his salacious fancy than the forms and modes and moods which contented the amorous Ovidius, and the sprightly Tibullus, and the hot-headed, hot-hearted Catullus, and the tuneful Petronius, and so on, to much the same purpose, through a string of ancient amorists? But we that were younger than Messer Brunetto, and simpler, and certainly more ignorant, we found a great pleasure in these verses that were so easy to understand as to their language, if their [Pg 96]meaning was sometimes a thought mystical and cryptic.

The fame of these verses spread widely, because no man of us that received a copy kept the donation to himself, but made haste to place abroad the message that had been sent to him. So that in a little while all Florence that had any care for the Graces was murmuring these verses, and wondering who it was that wrote them, and why it was that he wrote. It seems to me strange now, looking back on all these matters through the lapse of years, and through a mist of sad and happy memories, that I was not wise enough to guess at once who the man must be that made these miraculous stanzas. I can only plead in my own excuse that I did not live a generation later than my day, and that I had no means of divining that a work-a-day friend possessed immortal qualities. Everybody now in this late evening knows who that poet was, and loves him. I knew and loved him then, when I had no thought that he was a poet. Even if it had been given me to make a wild guess at the authorship of these poems, and my guess had chanced all unwitting to be right, as would have been thereafter proved, I should have dismissed it from my fancy. For I conceived that my friend was so busy upon that new red-hot business of his of fitting himself to be a soldier and use arms, and answer the taunt of Simone dei Bardi, that he could have no time, [Pg 97]even if he had the desire, of which, as far as I was aware till then, he had shown no sign, to try his skill on the strings of the muses. You may be pleased here to remind me of the discourse between Messer Brunetto Latini and Dante, which I strove to overhear on that May morning in the Piazza Santa Felicita, to which I will make bold to answer that I did not truly overhear much at the time, and that the substance of what I set down was garnered later, both from Dante and from Messer Brunetto. But even if I had caught sound of those poetical aspirations of Dante's, I doubt if they would have stuck in my memory.

I suppose it was not for such an idle fellow as I, to whom to do nothing was ever better than to do—I speak, of course, of any measure of painful labor, and not of such pleasing pastime as eating or drinking or loving—to guess how much a great brain and a great heart and a great purpose could crowd into the narrow compass of a little life. In the mean time, as I say, these songs and sonnets were blown abroad all over Florence, and men whispered them to maids, and the men wondered who wrote the rhymes and the maids wondered for whom they were written.

They would come to us, these rhymes, curiously enough. One or other of us would find some evening, on his return to his lodging, a scroll of parchment lying on his table, and on this scroll of parchment [Pg 98]some new verses, and in the corner of the parchment the words in the Latin tongue, "Take up, read, bear on." And he of us that found himself so favored, having eagerly taken up and no less eagerly read, would hurry to the nearest of his comrades and read the new gift to him, delighted, who would busy himself at once to make a fair copy before speeding the verses to another. So their fame spread, and so the copies multiplied, till there was never a musical youth in Florence that did not know the better part of them by heart; and still, for all this publicity, there was no man could say who wrote the rhymes, nor who was the lady they honored. I think and believe, indeed, there were many in Florence who would gladly have declared themselves the author, but dared not for fear of detection, and who contented themselves by slight hints and suggestions and innuendoes, which earned them, for a time, a brief measure of interest, soon to be dissipated by the manifest certainty of their incapacity.

And the first of all these sonnets was that which is now as familiar as honey on the lips of every lover of suave songs—I mean that sonnet which begins with the words:
"To every prisoned soul and gentle heart—"

To this sonnet it pleased many of our poets of the city to write their replies, though they knew [Pg 99]not then to whom they were replying, and Messer Guido Cavalcanti wrote his famous sonnet, the one that begins:
"Unto my thinking thou beheldst all worth—"

Now I, being fired by the same spirit of rhyming that was abroad, but being of a different temper from the most of my fellows, took it upon me to pretend a resentment of all this beautiful talk of Love and My Lady. So I wrote a sonnet, and here it is, urging the advantages of a plurality in love-affairs:
"Give me a jolly girl, or two, or three— The more the merrier for my weathercock whim; And one shall be like Juno, large of limb And large of heart; and Venus one shall be, Golden, with eyes like the capricious sea; And my third sweetheart, Dian, shall be slim With a boy's slimness, flanks and bosom trim, The green, sharp apple of the ancient tree. With such a trinity to please each mood I should not find a summer day too long, With blood of purple grapes to fire my blood, And for my soul some thicket-haunting song Of Pan and naughty nymphs, and all the throng Of light o' loves and wantons since the Flood."

I showed this sonnet to Messer Guido, who laughed a little, and said that I might be the laureate [Pg 100]of the tavern and the brothel, but that this new and nameless singer was a man of another metal, whom I could never understand. Whereat I laughed, too; but being none the less a little piqued, as I think, I made it a point thereafter, whenever Guido had one of these new poems come to him, to answer it with some poem of my own, cast in a similar form to that chosen by the unknown. But my verses were always written in praise of the simple and straightforward pleasures of sensible men, to whom all this talk about the God of Love and about some single exalted lady seems strangely away from the mark of wise living. For assuredly if it be a pleasant thing to love one woman, it is twenty times as pleasant to love twenty. But I will not give you all of these poems, nor perhaps any more, for you can read them for yourselves, if you wish to, in my writings.

Now in a little while this same unknown poet was pleased to put abroad a certain ballad of his that was ostensibly given over to the praise of certain lovely ladies of our city. Florence was always a very paradise of fair women. An inflammable fellow like myself could not walk the length of a single street without running the risk of half a dozen heartaches, and never was traveller that came and went but was loud in his laudations of the loveliness of Florence feminine. A poet, therefore, could scarcely have a more alluring theme or a livelier [Pg 101]or more likable, and the fact that the mysterious singer had taken such a subject for his inspiration was rightly regarded as another instance of his exceeding good sense. It was a very beautiful ballad, fully worthy of its honorable subject, and it paid many compliments of an exquisite felicity to many ladies that were indicated plainly enough by some play upon a name or some praise of an attribute. But it was, or might have been, plain enough to all that read it that this poem was written for no other purpose than to bring in by a side wind, as it were, the praise of a lady that was left nameless, but that he who wrote declared to be the loveliest lady in that noble city of lovely ladies. This ballad seemed to be unfinished, for in its last stanza the writer promised to utter yet more words on this so favorable theme. Now when I had heard of this poem and before I had read it—for Guido, to whom the first copy was given, loved it so much and lingered so long upon its lines that he kept it an unconscionable time from his fellows—I bethought me that I, too, would write me a set of verses on the brave and fair ladies of Florence, and that in doing so I could bring in the name of the girl of my heart.

It was easy enough for me to write a passable ring of rhymes that should introduce with all due form and honor the names of those ladies that all in that time agreed to be most eminent for their [Pg 102]beauty and gentleness in the beautiful and gentle city. And so I got a good way upon my work with very little trouble indeed, for, as I have said, rhymes always came easy to me and I loved to juggle with colored words. My difficulty came with the moment when I had to decide upon the introduction of my own heart's desire.

Now about this time of the year when I began my ballad, I was myself very plenteously and merrily in love with a certain lady whose name I will here set down as Ippolita, for that was what I called her, seeing in her a kind of amazonian carriage, though that was not the name she was known by among the men and the women, her neighbors. She had dark eyes whose brightness seemed to widen and deepen as you kissed her lips—and, indeed, the child loved to be kissed exceedingly, for all her quaint air of woman-warrior—and she had dark hair that when you, being permitted to play her lover, uncoiled it, rolled down like a great mane to her haunches, and her face, both by its paleness and by the perfection of its featuring, seemed to vie with those images of Greece by which the wise set such store. To judge by the serenity of her expression, the suavity of her glances, you would have sworn by all the saints that here if ever was an angel, one that would carry the calm of Diana into every action of life, and challenge passion with a chastity that was never to be gainsaid. But he that [Pg 103]ever held her in his arms found that the so-seeming ice was fire, under those snows lava bubbled, and she that might have passed for a priestess of Astarte quivered with frenzy under the dominion of Eros. To speak only for myself, I found her a very ph?nix of sweethearts.

She was married to a tedious old Mumpsiman that kept himself and her in little ease by plying the trade of a horse-leech, which trade, for the girl's felicity, held him much abroad, and gave her occasion, seldom by her neglected, to prove to her intimate of the hour that there can be fire without smoke. Now I, being somewhat top-heavy at this season with the wine of so fair a lady's favors, thought that I might, with no small advantage to myself and no small satisfaction to my mistress, set me to doing her honor with some such tuneful words as the unknown singer was blowing with such sweet breath about Florence in praise of his lady. For it is cheaper to please a woman with a sonnet than with a jewel, and as my Ippolita was not avaricious, I was blithe to oblige her in golden numbers in lieu of golden pieces.

Wherefore I set my wits to work one morning after an evening of delight, and found the muse complaisant. My fancy spouted like a fountain, the rhymes swam in the water like gilded or silver fishes, so tame you had but to dip in your fingers and take your pick, while allusion and simile [Pg 104]crowded so thickly about me that I should have needed an epic rather than my legal fourteen lines to make use of the half of them. I tell you I was in the very ecstasy of composition that lasted me for the better part of a fortnight. But by the time that I had come to this point the pretty Ippolita, whose name I had intended to place there, was no longer the moment's idol of my soul, and between the two dainty girls that had succeeded her I sat for a long while embarrassed, like the schoolman's ass between the two bundles of hay, not knowing, as it were, at which to bite.

At last I bethought me that the best way out of my trouble was to set down the names of all the sweet women whom I loved or had loved, and to let those others and more famous, of whom I knew nothing save by sight or renown, stand to one side. So it came to pass that this poem of mine proved, at the last, more like an amorous calendar of my own life than a hymn in praise of the famous beauties of Florence. For with famous beauties I have never at any time had much to do. It has always been my desire to find my beauties for myself, and I have ever found that there is a greater reward in the discovery of some pretty maid and assuring her that she is lovelier than Helen of Troy or Semiramis or Cleopatra, than in the paying of one's addresses to some publicly acclaimed loveliness.

[Pg 105]

By the time my tale of verses was complete, it was as different as it might be from that which it set itself, I will not say to rival, but to parody, for it contained few names of great ladies that were upon the lips of every Florentine, but sang the praises of unknown witches and minxes that were at the time of writing, or had been, very dear to me. If my song was not so fine a piece of work as that of Messer Dante, though Messer Dante was at that time only in the earlier flights of his efforts, and his pinions were, as yet, unfamiliar to the poet's ether, it was perhaps as true a picture, after its fashion, of a lover's heart. After all, it must be remembered that there are many kinds of lovers' hearts, and that those who can understand the "New Life" of Messer Dante's are very few, and fewer still those that can live that life. But I here protest very solemnly that it was with no thought of scoff or mockery that I made my ballad, but just for the sake of saying, in my way, the things I thought about the pretty women that pleased me and teased me, and made life so gay and fragrant and variegated in those far-away, dearly remembered, and no doubt much-to-be-deplored days.

It was the dreaming of this ballad of mine that led me to think of Monna Vittoria, whom you will remember if you bear in mind the beginning of this, my history, the lady that Messer Simone of the Bardi was whimsically pledged to wed if he [Pg 106]failed to win a certain wager that I trust you have not forgotten. And thinking of Monna Vittoria led, in due time, to a meeting with Monna Vittoria that was not without consequences.

It is not incurious, when you come to reflect upon it, how potent the influence of such a woman as Vittoria may be upon the lives of those that would seem never destined by Heaven to come in her way. My Dante was never in those days a wooer of such ladies. As to certain things that are said of him later, in the hours of his despair, when the world seemed no better than an empty shell, I shall have somewhat to say, perhaps, by-and-by, for there is a matter that has led to not a little misunderstanding of the character of my friend. As for Madonna Beatrice, she that was such a flower in a guarded garden, why, you would have said it was little less than incredible that the clear course of her simple life could be crossed by the summer lightning of Madonna Vittoria's brilliant, fitful existence. Yet, nevertheless, from first to last, Madonna Vittoria was of the utmost moment in the lives of this golden lass and lad, and this much must be admitted in all honesty: that she never did, or at least never sought to do, other than good to either of them. I should not like to say that she would have troubled at all about them or their welfare if it had not served her turn to do so. But whatever the reasons for her deeds, let us be grateful that their results [Pg 107]were not malefic to those whose interests concern us most. If Messer Simone had never made his brutal boast, Madonna Vittoria would never have made her wild wager. But having made it, she was eager to win it at all costs, and it was her determination that Simone of the Bardi should never wed with Beatrice of the Portinari, that led, logically enough if you do but consider it aright, to the many strange events which it is my business to narrate.



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