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Thread: Sonnets of Michelangelo

  1. #1
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    Sonnets of Michelangelo

    While paging through an old book of The Complete Works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I found some of his translations from the Italian, which include some sonnets by artist, Michelangelo. Seeing that not many know of his poetry, I thought to share Longfellow's translations.

    Seven Sonnets and a Canzone by Michelangelo
    Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

    The Artist

    Nothing the greatest can conceive
    That every marble block doth not confine
    Within itself: and only its design
    The hand that follows intellect can achieve.
    The ill I flee, the good that I believe,
    In thee, fair lady, lofty and divine,
    Thus hidden lie; and so that death be mine,
    Art, of desired success, doth me bereave.
    Love is not guilty, then, nor thy fair face,
    Nor fortune, cruelty, nor great disdain,
    Of my disgrace, nor chance nor destiny,
    If in they heart both death and love find place
    At the same time, and if my humble brain,
    Burning, can nothing draw but death from thee.


    Not without fire can any workman mould
    The iron to his preconceived design,
    Nor can the artist without fire refine
    And purify from all its dross the gold;
    Nor can revive the phoenix, we are told,
    Except by fire. Hence, if such death be mine,
    I hope to rise again with the divine,
    Whom death augments, and time cannot make old.
    O sweet, sweet death! O fortunate fire that burns
    Within me still to renovate my days,
    Though I am almost numbered with the dead!
    If by its nature unto heaven returns
    This element, me, kindled in its blaze,
    Will it bear upward when my life is fled.

    Youth and Age

    O give me back the days when loose and free
    To my blind passion were the curb and rein,
    O give me back the angelic face again,
    With which all virtue buried seems to be!
    O give my panting footsteps back to me,
    That are in age so slow and fraught with pain,
    And fire and moisture in the heart and brain.
    If thou wouldst have be burn and weep for thee!
    If it be true thou livest alone, Amor,
    On the sweet-bitter tears of human hearts,
    In an old man thou canst not wake desire;
    Souls that have almost reached the other shore
    Of a diviner love should feel the darts,
    And be as tinder to a holier fire.

    Old Age

    The course of my long life hath reached at last,
    In fragile bark o'er a tempestuous sea,
    The common harbor, where must rendered be
    Account of all the actions of the past.
    The impassioned phantasy, that, vague and vast,
    Made art an idol and a king to me,
    Was an illusion, and but vanity
    Were the desires that lured me and harassed.
    The dreams of love, that were so sweet of yore,
    What are they now, when two deaths may be mine, -
    One sure, and one forecasting its alarms?
    Painting and sculpture satisfy no more
    The soul now turning to the Love Divine,
    That oped, to embrace us, on the cross its arms.

    To Vittoria Colonna

    Lady, how can it chance - yet this we see
    In long experience - that will longer last
    A living image carved from quarries vast
    than its own maker, who dies presently?
    Cause yieldeth to effect if this so be,
    And even Nature is by Art surpassed;
    This know I, who to Art have given the past,
    But see that Time is breaking faith with me.
    Perhaps on both of us long life can I
    Either in color or in stone bestow,
    By now portraying each in look and mien;
    So that a thousand years after we die,
    How fair thou wast, and I how full of woe,
    And wherefore I so loved thee, may be seen.

    To Vittoria Colonna

    When the prime mover of my many sighs
    Heaven took through death from out her earthly place,
    Nature, that never made so fair a face,
    Remained ashamed, and tears were in all eyes.
    O fate, unheeding my impassioned cries!
    O hopes fallacious! O thou spirit of grace,
    Where art thou now? Earth holds in its embrace
    Thy lovely limbs, thy holy thoughts the skies.
    Vainly did cruel death attempt to stay
    The rumor of thy virtuous renown,
    That Lethe's waters could not wash away!
    A thousand leaves, since he hath stricken thee down,
    Speak of thee, nor to thee could Heaven convey,
    Except through death, a refuge and a crown.


    What should be said of him cannot be said;
    By too great splendor is his name attended;
    To blame is easier those who him offended,
    Than reach the faintest glory round him shed.
    This man descended to the doomed and dead
    For our instruction; then to God ascended;
    Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid,
    Who from his country's, closed against him, fled.
    Ungrateful land! To its own prejudice
    Nurse of his fortunes; and this showeth well
    That the most perfect most of grief shall see.
    Among a thousand proofs let one suffice,
    That as his exile hath no parallel,
    Ne'er walked the earth a greater man than he.


    Ah me! ah me! when thinking of the years,
    The vanished years, alas, I do not find
    Among them all one day that was my own!
    Fallacious hopes, desires of the unknown,
    Lamenting, loving, burning, and in tears,
    (For human passions all have stirred my mind,)
    Have held me, now I feel and know, confined
    Both from the true and good still far away.
    I perish day by day;
    The sunshine fails, the shadows grow more dreary,
    And I am near to fall, infirm and weary.

  2. #2
    dreamer genoveva's Avatar
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    Here are a couple more from a book I stumbled upon at the library.
    (Translation by Elizabeth Jennings)

    by Michelangelo

    The marble not yet carved can hold the form
    Of every thought the greatest artist has,
    And no conception can yet come to pass
    Unless the hand obeys the intellect.

    The evil that I fly from, all the harm,
    The good also, are buried and intact
    In you, proud Lady. To my life’s sad loss
    My art’s opposed to the desired effect.

    Thus love, and your own beauty and the weight
    Of things, are not to blame for my own plight.
    Fate, scorn or chance can never be accused

    Because both death and pity are enclosed
    Within your heart, and I have only breath
    And power to draw from you not life but death.

    by Michelangelo

    I cannot shape an image or acquire,
    Either from shadow or from earthly skin,
    A counterpart to lessen my desire:
    Such armour is your beauty shut within.

    Obsessed and moved by you, I seem to get
    Weaker. My passion takes my strength away.
    By trying to diminish grief I but
    Double it. Like death, it comes to stay.

    And it is useless now for me to try
    To win the race against such loveliness,
    Which far outstrips the fastest runner here.

    Love with its hands so tenderly will dry
    My tears and make all labour seem most dear.
    He is no coward who discovers this!
    "I have so often dreamed of you that you become unreal." ~ Robert Desnos

  3. #3
    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    Michelangelo... beyond all of his notable achievements in the visual arts... was a great poet as well. I have read claims from literary scholars/historians proclaiming him as THE greatest Italian lyrical poet of the 16th century... a fact generally known only to specialists in cinquecento literature. Not being such an expert... I shall reserve judgement. I might relate, however, an anecdote read in one of my books on Michelangelo's writings. The poet Franceso Berni spoke out against the overtly decorative poets who were but pale echos of Petrarch: "Be silent! Enough of pallid violets and liquid crystals and sleek beasts. He speaks things and you speak words." What I do know... from my reading experience... is that Michelangelo is indeed a very strong poet... hewing his harsh "things" as if hammered out in rough Dantesque marble (I immediately think Dante... and the sonnets of Milton... and perhaps even Geoffrey Hill) Perhaps Mark Twain was more correct than is generally acknowledged. Whatever God did not create in Italy WAS created by Michelangelo. . This may be the heart of the problem with Michelangelo's literary reputation. In my opinion... and in the opinion of many other artists/art critics/historians/lovers... Michelangelo was quite simply THE greatest artist who ever lived... bar none. His achievements in the visual arts are so staggering as to virtually overshadow every other aspect of his life. One wonders whether William Blake's art would have taken even longer to have gained acceptance and recognition had he been an even greater poet... had he been William Shakespeare. Beyond Longfellow's translations (which are indeed admirable) I might recommend John Addington Symonds translations of the complete (?) sonnets, and a more recent Sidney Alexander translation of Michelangelo's complete poetry.

    Here are a few of my favorites from the Symonds translations:


    From heaven his spirit came, and robed in clay
    The realms of justice and of mercy trod,
    Then rose a living man to gaze on God,
    That he might make the truth as clear as day.
    For that pure star that brightened with his ray
    The undeserving nest where I was born,
    The whole wide world would be a prize to scorn;
    None but his Maker can due guerdon pay.
    I speak of Dante, whose high work remains
    Unknown, unhonoured by that thankless brood,
    Who only to just men deny their wage.
    Were I but he! Born for like lingering pains,
    Against his exile coupled with his good
    I'd gladly change the world's best heritage!


    No tongue can tell of him what should be told,
    For on blind eyes his splendour shines too strong;
    'Twere easier to blame those who wrought him wrong,
    Than sound his least praise with a mouth of gold.
    He to explore the place of pain was bold,
    Then soared to God, to teach our souls by song;
    The gates heaven oped to bear his feet along,
    Against his just desire his country rolled.
    Thankless I call her, and to her own pain
    The nurse of fell mischance; for sign take this,
    That ever to the best she deals more scorn:
    Among a thousand proofs let one remain;
    Though ne'er was fortune more unjust than his,
    His equal or his better ne'er was born.


    _Signor, se vero e._

    My Lord! if ever ancient saw spake sooth,
    Hear this which saith: Who can, doth never will.
    Lo! thou hast lent thine ear to fables still,
    Rewarding those who hate the name of truth.
    I am thy drudge and have been from my youth--
    Thine, like the rays which the sun's circle fill;
    Yet of my dear time's waste thou think'st no ill:
    The more I toil, the less I move thy ruth.
    Once 'twas my hope to raise me by thy height;
    But 'tis the balance and the powerful sword
    Of Justice, not false Echo, that we need.
    Heaven, as it seems, plants virtue in despite
    Here on the earth, if this be our reward--
    To seek for fruit on trees too dry to breed.
    Beware of the man with just one book. -Ovid
    The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.- Mark Twain
    My Blog: Of Delicious Recoil

  4. #4
    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    And a few more...


    _A pena prima._

    Scarce had I seen for the first time his eyes
    Which to your living eyes were life and light,
    When closed at last in death's injurious night
    He opened them on God in Paradise.
    I know it and I weep, too late made wise:
    Yet was the fault not mine; for death's fell spite
    Robbed my desire of that supreme delight,
    Which in your better memory never dies.
    Therefore, Luigi, if the task be mine
    To make unique Cecchino smile in stone
    For ever, now that earth hath made him dim,
    If the beloved within the lover shine,
    Since art without him cannot work alone,
    You must I carve to tell the world of him.



    _La nuova alta belta._

    That new transcendent fair who seems to be
    Peerless in heaven as in this world of woe,
    (The common folk, too blind her worth to know
    And worship, called her Left Arm wantonly),
    Was made, full well I know, for only thee:
    Nor could I carve or paint the glorious show
    Of that fair face: to life thou needs must go,
    To gain the favour thou dost crave of me.
    If like the sun each star of heaven outshining,
    She conquers and outsoars our soaring thought,
    This bids thee rate her worth at its real price.
    Therefore to satisfy thy ceaseless pining,
    Once more in heaven hath God her beauty wrought:
    God and not I can people Paradise.



    _Se con lo stile._

    With pencil and with palette hitherto
    You made your art high Nature's paragon;
    Nay more, from Nature her own prize you won,
    Making what she made fair more fair to view.
    Now that your learned hand with labour new
    Of pen and ink a worthier work hath done,
    What erst you lacked, what still remained her own,
    The power of giving life, is gained for you.
    If men in any age with Nature vied
    In beauteous workmanship, they had to yield
    When to the fated end years brought their name.
    You, reilluming memories that died,
    In spite of Time and Nature have revealed
    For them and for yourself eternal fame.



    _Felice spirto._

    Blest spirit, who with loving tenderness
    Quickenest my heart so old and near to die,
    Who mid thy joys on me dost bend an eye
    Though many nobler men around thee press!
    As thou wert erewhile wont my sight to bless,
    So to console my mind thou now dost fly;
    Hope therefore stills the pangs of memory,
    Which coupled with desire my soul distress.
    So finding in thee grace to plead for me--
    Thy thoughts for me sunk in so sad a case--
    He who now writes, returns thee thanks for these.
    Lo, it were foul and monstrous usury
    To send thee ugliest paintings in the place
    Of thy fair spirit's living phantasies.




    _Per esser manco almen._

    Seeking at least to be not all unfit
    For thy sublime and boundless courtesy,
    My lowly thoughts at first were fain to try
    What they could yield for grace so infinite.
    But now I know my unassisted wit
    Is all too weak to make me soar so high;
    For pardon, lady, for this fault I cry,
    And wiser still I grow remembering it.
    Yea, well I see what folly 'twere to think
    That largess dropped from thee like dews from heaven
    Could e'er be paid by work so frail as mine!
    To nothingness my art and talent sink;
    He fails who from his mortal stores hath given
    A thousandfold to match one gift divine.



    _Al cor di zolfo._

    A heart of flaming sulphur, flesh of tow,
    Bones of dry wood, a soul without a guide
    To curb the fiery will, the ruffling pride
    Of fierce desires that from the passions flow;
    A sightless mind that weak and lame doth go
    Mid snares and pitfalls scattered far and wide;--
    What wonder if the first chance brand applied
    To fuel massed like this should make it glow?
    Add beauteous art, which, brought with us from heaven,
    Will conquer nature;--so divine a power
    Belongs to him who strives with every nerve.
    If I was made for art, from childhood given
    A prey for burning beauty to devour,
    I blame the mistress I was born to serve.



    _Quanta si gode, lieta._

    What joy hath yon glad wreath of flowers that is
    Around her golden hair so deftly twined,
    Each blossom pressing forward from behind,
    As though to be the first her brows to kiss!
    The livelong day her dress hath perfect bliss,
    That now reveals her breast, now seems to bind:
    And that fair woven net of gold refined
    Rests on her cheek and throat in happiness!
    Yet still more blissful seems to me the band
    Gilt at the tips, so sweetly doth it ring
    And clasp the bosom that it serves to lace:
    Yea, and the belt to such as understand,
    Bound round her waist, saith: here I'd ever cling.--
    What would my arms do in that girdle's place?



    _D' altrui pietoso._

    Kind to the world, but to itself unkind,
    A worm is born, that dying noiselessly
    Despoils itself to clothe fair limbs, and be
    In its true worth by death alone divined.
    Oh, would that I might die, for her to find
    Raiment in my outworn mortality!
    That, changing like the snake, I might be free
    To cast the slough wherein I dwell confined!
    Nay, were it mine, that shaggy fleece that stays,
    Woven and wrought into a vestment fair,
    Around her beauteous bosom in such bliss!
    All through the day she'd clasp me! Would I were
    The shoes that bear her burden! When the ways
    Were wet with rain, her feet I then should kiss!



    _Se nel volto per gli occhi_

    If through the eyes the heart speaks clear and true,
    I have no stronger sureties than these eyes
    For my pure love. Prithee let them suffice,
    Lord of my soul, pity to gain from you.
    More tenderly perchance than is my due,
    Your spirit sees into my heart, where rise
    The flames of holy worship, nor denies
    The grace reserved for those who humbly sue.
    Oh, blessed day when you at last are mine!
    Let time stand still, and let noon's chariot stay;
    Fixed be that moment on the dial of heaven!
    That I may clasp and keep, by grace divine,
    Clasp in these yearning arms and keep for aye
    My heart's loved lord to me desertless given!



    _Ben posson gli occhi._

    Well may these eyes of mine both near and far
    Behold the beams that from thy beauty flow;
    But, lady, feet must halt where sight may go:
    We see, but cannot climb to clasp a star.
    The pure ethereal soul surmounts that bar
    Of flesh, and soars to where thy splendours glow,
    Free through the eyes; while prisoned here below,
    Though fired with fervent love, our bodies are.
    Clogged with mortality and wingless, we
    Cannot pursue an angel in her flight:
    Only to gaze exhausts our utmost might.
    Yet, if but heaven like earth incline to thee,
    Let my whole body be one eye to see,
    That not one part of me may miss thy sight!



    _Spirto ben nato._

    Choice soul, in whom, as in a glass, we see,
    Mirrored in thy pure form and delicate,
    What beauties heaven and nature can create,
    The paragon of all their works to be!
    Fair soul, in whom love, pity, piety,
    Have found a home, as from thy outward state
    We clearly read, and are so rare and great
    That they adorn none other like to thee!
    Love takes me captive; beauty binds my soul;
    Pity and mercy with their gentle eyes
    Wake in my heart a hope that cannot cheat.
    What law, what destiny, what fell control,
    What cruelty, or late or soon, denies
    That death should spare perfection so complete?
    Beware of the man with just one book. -Ovid
    The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.- Mark Twain
    My Blog: Of Delicious Recoil

  5. #5
    Our wee Olympic swimmer Janine's Avatar
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    Mono, I am so thrilled you have started this thread. I love Michelangelo's poetry! His writings are some of my very favorites. I have a book of his poetry somewhere in my house, but have not been able to locate it of late. I have read nearly all the poetry in it and it is a pretty thick book. I am so happy that some of the poetry is listed here, and I will copy for my own files. Once again thank you and those who contributed so far. I must hunt for my precious book.
    "It's so mysterious, the land of tears."

    Chapter 7, The Little Prince ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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