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The Sonnets of Michael Angelo (the 1600s-ish?): In the Room the Women Come and Go

Michael Angelo Buonarroti, The Sonnets of Michael Angelo (Gramercy Publishing, 1948)

photo credit: yours truly

Let us go then, you and I.

It is (or it should be) a truism that one cannot review a translated book of poetry as a book of poetry; one must review it as a translation. So I’m not really reviewing The Sonnets of Michael Angelo, I’m reviewing John Addington Symonds’ translation of said sonnets. After all—especially in a book that is not presented bilingually, with the originals on one page and the translations facing—it’s difficult to know how faithful the translations are, whether for example the occasional awkwardness of phrasing lies with Buonarroti (yes, by the way, in case you were wondering—the painter/sculptor/inspiration for the term “Renaissance man”, and no, I had no idea he was a poet either before stumbling upon this at a used book sale) or with Symonds. (Of course, while reading it, I had a perfect example of this and was too stupid to jot a note down so I could quote the couplet that struck me.) For the most part, if you’re used to the sixteenth-century sonnet, there’s not a great deal here that’s going to surprise you vis-a-vis the construction, for example:

“As one who will re-seek her home of light,
They form immortal to this prison-house
Descended, like an angel piteous,
To heal all hearts and make the whole world bright.”
(–from “Heaven-Born Beauty (First Reading)”)

(And actually, “an angel piteous” is an example, however weak, of the awkwardness I was talking about above.)

It’s not awful stuff, but Buonarroti was definitely more involved in other arts, and honed them to a much finer point than he did his poetry; Symonds notes in his afterword that Buonarroti “seems to have entertained no thought of printing his poems in his lifetime” (58), and goes on to say both that “Nearly all Michael Angelo’s sonnets express personal feelings, and by far the greater number of them were composed after his sixtieth year” (59), which comes a couple of paragraphs after “All were ungrammatical, rude in versification, crabbed and obscure in thought—the rough-hewn blockings—out of poems rather than finished works of art.” (59), which he tells us while explaining why his descendant and biographer Ascanio Condivi revised them before publication (Symonds’ translation, he tells us, is from the originals first published in 1863, and “adheres to the original orthography of Michael Angelo, and omits no fragment of his indubitable compositions.”[58]). Now perhaps I’m wrong in this, but I put those things together and the conclusion I arrives at is “poetry was a hobby for Buonarroti, not a profession.” And that’s all well and good; there is absolutely no reason why Buonarroti, or anyone else for that matter, shouldn’t dabble in the odd bit of doggerel now and then. But if you go into this book expecting the Sistine Chapel of verse, you may find yourself disappointed. **

[and while researching this, for those of you reading this where I can add outside links, I find that a bilingual version of the Symonds translation has in fact not only been published, but is freely available at Google Books in both PDF and EPUB formats.  If you’re interested, you can’t really do any better than “free”!]

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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