Mostly with older poets I ought to stick with some kind of Selected Poems. That is what I used to do. I began to feel, though, like I was missing something important about the context, about the books as such, so I have been reading more poetry books in their original form, or something like it. All of the poems in order, at least, although I have come to appreciate the scanned copies of the original books, stray thumbs and all. Most of what I read recently were original texts. In only one case was this a mistake, a waste of time. That case was not Dante Gabriel Rossetti, even if his final 1881 book was second-rate by his own standards.
Rossetti is a funny case, though, because a Selected Poems is almost moot for him. He wrote two perfect books, if you have any taste for his verse, the 1870 Poems and the books of translated Italian verse that I think of as Dante and His Circle (1874 – there is an 1861 version titles The Early Italian Poets). I assume any Selected edition is mostly just going to choose from these two books, perhaps just from Poems, the home of “The Blessed Damozel” and “The Woodspurge” and the best “House of Life” sonnets.
And the Villon translations. I do not have much of a taste for Rossetti’s painting, so I selfishly wish that he had sacrificed a few to create more translations.
Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where are they gone, nor yet this year,
Except with this for an overword,-
But where are the snows of yester-year? (from “The Ballad of Dead Ladies”)
The Dante book, which includes the strange prose-poetry hybrid The New Life (1295) along with numerous poems written by Dante and others – many written to Dante by others – now seems to me like one of the greatest Victorian translations, alongside Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat and perhaps Longfellow’s Manrique. Rossetti had a knack for capturing the voice of the pre-Raphaelite poet:
And I wrote this sonnet:-
I felt a spirit of love begin to stir
Within my heart, long time unfelt till then;
And saw Love coming towards me, fair and fain
(That I scarce knew him for his joyful cheer),
Saying, “Be now indeed my worshipper!”
And in his speech he laugh’d and laugh’d again
Then, while it was his pleasure to remain,
I chanced to look the way he had drawn near…
And then there is some stuff about Beatrice, of course, but what I like here is the naturalness with which Rossetti understands the allegorical figure. Rossetti has the properly archaic imagination to envision Dante and Love wander around Florence, looking at girls, looking for one in particular.
I think one of Rossetti’s tricks is that he has studied and absorbed poets like Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the ones who brought the Italian sonnet into English in the early 16th century, so even if it is a two hundred year anachronism they feel right, not as fancied up as Shakespeare, but not antique, either.
I don’t know how he did it.