Guittone d’Arezzo, Dante and the power of assonance

Re-reading Dante’s Commedia, I am reminded of the power of assonance, alliteration and other figures of phonetic repetition in early Italian poetry. Take these verses from Guittone d’Arezzo’s poem Ora parrà s’eo saverò cantare (Now we shall see whether I can still sing):

En vita more e sempre in morte vive
omo fellon, ch’è di ragion nemico:
credendo venir ricco, ven mendico;
[…]
Non manti acquistan l’oro,
ma l’oro loro.

In life he dies and always lives in death
The evil person who is an enemy of reason
Convinced that he will become rich, he becomes a beggar
[…]
Not many acquire gold
But gold dominates them. (translation by Frede Jensen, lines 46-53)

For such early vernacular poetry (the poem was composed in the 1260s), to see this level of stylistic sophistication is really impressive. Guittone almost achieves a gentle paromoion through something similar to an antanaclasis.

Dante no doubt threw his hat in the ring when he captured the tension between love and death, eros and thanatos, in a single line in the Francesca-Paolo canto in the Comedy, playing on the phonetics and morphology of the words amor and morte:

Amor condusse noi ad una morte.

(Love led the two of us unto one death, Inferno 5:106)

The literal encapsulation of love in death and death in love (amor, una morte) seems to point to Dante’s metaphysical statement that, on the one hand, passionate, disorganized and, most importantly, illicit love contains in it the seeds of its own dissolution, while on the other hand, that, as Francesca tells the story, there is a kind of love even in death, a circumscription and distillation of conjoined love, amor..noi in a single death, una morte. The difference between love and death is a two-letter word, the accusative ‘te’ (you).

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