restricted access Lecture III: Donne and the Trecento
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648 ] Lecture III Donne and the Trecento The channels through which the Italian poetry of the trecento derives from the Provençal is too well known for me to have any need to review it. I am no Provençal scholar, and anything that I could say would be obtained from translations or from credible authorities. The only point of which I have any need to remind you is the alteration of point of view which takes place, between the Provençal school and the group of Dante, in the matter of love.1 The distinction is briefly put by Remy de Gourmont in an interesting if not wholly satisfactory little book entitled Dante, Béatrice et la poésie amoureuse.2 Speaking of Provençal society, he says: Pour aimer, il fallait être marié et aimer en dehors du mariage. Pas plus qu’entre époux, entre jeunes gens libres l’amour n’était admis. Afin d’avoir droit aux hommages des chevaliers, il faut que la jeune fille se marie. Ce que nous laissent constamment entrevoir les poètes provençaux, c’est une dame noble, belle, puissante, entourée d’une cour de jeunes chevaliers, parmi lesquels il lui était permis, sinon dûment ordonné, d’en distinguer un et de se l’attacher. Le lien formé, ils se devaient mutuellement amour sous peine de déchéance; rien ne pouvait les séparer que, momentanément , la mort. C’était la fidélité dans l’adultère. La dame provençale n’est nullement “angélisée.” On ne la craint pas, on la désire. La nouvelle école florentine . . . devait modifier profondément la conception de l’amour, et par conséquent les mœurs. L’amour des poètes devient pur, presque impersonnel; son objet n’est plus une femme, mais la beauté, la féminité personnifiée dans une créature idéale. Aucune idée de mariage ni de possession ne les hante. . . . L’amour a tous les caractères d’un culte, dont le sonnet et la canzone sont les hymnes. C’est une date dans l’histoire de l’évolution des sentiments humains; c’est un pas vers la vérité et un progrès social immense.3 I quote this admirable summary to emphasise the vast difference. The Dantesque attitude toward women should not be qualified as “chivalrous ,” or buried under the common obscuration of the term “mediaeval.” [ 649 Clark Lecture III: Donne and the Trecento The Provençal attitude is perhaps the more “chivalrous”; it pertains to a society aristocratic and worldly rather than scholarly, devoted to the art of music, a beautiful little enclave of paganism – though an enclave which comprehended a large part of modern France. Aesthetes of love and war, they had the satisfaction, denied to most aesthetes, of living out their aestheticism in a social existence. Between this society and that of Dante I do not wish to insinuate any judgment; though of course the latter produced the greater poetry. Indeed, the three attitudes towards love – of the Provençal, of the Italian, of the English seventeenth century – represent differences in the human spirit too wide for judgment; they belong to those differences which are reincarnated in different human beings every day, placing insuperable barriers between some of every handful of us. I judge them only, as a literary critic, by their literary fruits. There are, as I tried to say in the first lecture, essentially two ways in which poetry can add to human experience. One is by perceiving and recording accurately the world – of both sense and feeling – as given at any moment; the other by extending the frontiers of this world. The first is the first in the order of generation – you find it in Homer; and I do not say that it is necessarily second in the order of value. A new and wider and loftier world, such as that into which Dante will introduce you, must be built upon a solid foundation of the old tangible world; it will not descend like Jacob’s ladder. Among the poets who have thus extended reality – and I will admit that they are those who interest me the most – I place Dante first absolutely, and Baudelaire first in recent times. Among those who have defined reality as it is, for various reasons I find it impossible to assign rank: I should certainly include Homer – yes, the Homer of the Odyssey also – Catullus, Chaucer...


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