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  • Wordsworth’s and Southey’s Translations of Michelangelo, 1805–6
  • Thomas Owens

On Christmas Day, 1804, William Wordsworth wrote to Sir George Beaumont detailing his current and projected work on two poems: one, nearly complete in thirteen-book form, “on my earlier life or the growth of my own mind” (known to us as The Prelude); the other, never finished, and “to be called … ‘The Recluse’ … concerning Man, Nature, and society.”1 The letter is the earliest mention of Wordsworth’s plans to translate some of Michelangelo’s poetry for Richard Duppa, a project he undertook jointly with Robert Southey: “Duppa is publishing a life of Michael Angelo and I received from him a few days ago two proof sheets of an Appendix which contains the poems of M. A – which I shall read, and translate one or two of them. If I can do it with decent success. I have peeped into the sonnets, and they do not appear at all unworthy of their great Author.”2 Duppa’s Life and [End Page 68] Literary Works of Michel Angelo Buonarroti was first published in 1806; Southey contributed translations of three sonnets and a madrigal and Wordsworth one sonnet: “Ben può talor col mio ardente desio.”3 A fair copy of the latter was transcribed for Beaumont by Dorothy Wordsworth in October 1805 in a letter which referred back to Wordsworth’s discussion of Michelangelo “some time ago” at Christmas 1804. Ten months later, by October 1805, Wordsworth had “attempted at least fifteen of the sonnets but could not anywhere succeed,” considering them to be “the most difficult to construe I ever met with,” and sending Beaumont “the only one I was able to finish.”4 Before the publication of Poems, in Two Volumes in 1807, however, Wordsworth met with a little more reward for his efforts and three translations of Michelangelo, counting the one which featured in Duppa’s volume, made it into the “Miscellaneous Sonnets” of that collection.5

Jared Curtis’ editorial notes to these poems in the Cornell Wordsworth edition state that Wordsworth translated sonnets 60 (“Ben può talor col mio ardente desio”), 52 (“Non vider gli occhi miei cosa mortale”), and 89 (“Ben sarien dolce le preghiere mie”) respectively.6 This statement is liable to cause some confusion. Curtis’ numbering, though not stated explicitly, follows that of the seminal 1863 edition of Michelangelo’s Rime, in which Cesare Guasti returned to the poet’s manuscripts in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and the Buonarroti Archive to re-construct the original base texts for the sonnets. This numerical scheme does not accord with that given in Duppa’s “Appendix,” proof sheets of which Wordsworth received and worked from in December 1804, which numbers the sonnets as follows: “X,” “II,” “CXVI.” This has a significant bearing on Wordsworth’s and Southey’s translations of Michelangelo in 1805–6. Duppa’s edition produced Michelangelo’s sonnets in the same order and as they were initially printed in the severely bowdlerized and defective first edition [End Page 69] of 1623 produced by Michelangelo’s grand-nephew.7 The Renaissance poet whom Wordsworth and Southey encountered in Duppa had been heavily censored and amended: the pronouns changed, the convoluted syntax somewhat evened out, fragments finished, and the human passions refined into more anodyne and conventional expressions of neo-Platonic feeling.8 Wordsworth’s judgement that Michelangelo’s sonnets “do not appear at all unworthy of their great Author” must be seen in the context of these expurgations. The “little room” into which Michelangelo packed his meaning was in fact even smaller than Wordsworth thought.9

Guasti’s edition of 1863, which paved the way for Enzo Noè Girardi’s scholarly edition of the Rime in 1960 (which once again derived a new order for the poems), gathered together and reproduced all of the authorial variants (varianti d’autore) extant in the manuscripts, making Guasti the first editor to comprehend the unfinished nature of Michelangelo’s compositions and to endeavour to account for their provisional status philologically. Guasti also printed the sonnets with their 1623 counterparts at the foot of the page in miniature, from which it is possible to compare what Michelangelo...


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