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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Open, commended

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Adam Elgar

Poem 32

By your arrows, God of Love, I swear
and by your sacred and almighty flame:
though love’s fire burns me, though its arrows maim
my heart and leave it ravaged, I don’t care.
What’s more, women in love from anywhere
in history or in the future (name
whoever comes to mind) feel just the same;
if they are stabbed or burned, they’re unaware.

For from this suffering a strength may grow,
which overcomes the pain and so allays
it that there’s none, or we imagine so.
But what will surely end my earthly days,
as my tormented soul and body know,
is fear that only straw sustains my blaze.

Alternative second quatrain (see accompanying commentary for the rival interpretations):

women in love could never (anywhere
in history) nor will in future (name
whoever comes to mind) suffer the same
as I do: pierced or burned, they’re unaware

Translated from the Italian by Adam Elgar

XXXII Non teme la pena amorosa, ma la fine di essa

    Per le saette tue, Amor, ti giuro,
e per la tua possente e sacra face,
che, se ben questa m'arde e 'l cor mi sface,
e quelle mi feriscon, non mi curo;
    quantunque nel passato e nel futuro
qual l'une acute, e qual l'altra vivace,
donne amorose, e prendi qual ti piace,
che sentisser giamai né fian, né fûro;
    perché nasce virtú da questa pena,
che 'l senso del dolor vince ed abbaglia,
sí che o non duole, o non si sente appena.
    Quel, che l'anima e 'l corpo mi travaglia,
è la temenza ch'a morir mi mena,
che 'l foco mio non sia foco di paglia.

Gaspara Stampa

Translation commentary

This is Stampa at her most challengingly Baroque, especially in the second quatrain, which has been beautifully described by Andrew Frisardi (translator of Loi, Ungaretti and Dante), as ‘like a Bernini sculpture on a bad-hair day’. The crazily elliptical syntax of lines 5–8 allows two contradictory interpretations, as if there were a second poem trying to struggle out from behind the surface meaning. The very complexity suggests a writer at odds with her own intentions.

The lectio facilior (used by Jane Tylus in her version for Chicago University) depends on ‘quantunque’ meaning ‘as much as I do’.

This is a stretch, and the consequent logic of the reading is dubious – ie

I ignore the pains of love;
no woman could ever feel them [as much as I do];
being in love, one does not feel the pain.

Note also the third person in line 11. Stampa could have made the line refer explicitly to herself alone (‘duolo’ and ‘mi sento’) but did not.

I raised the question in an Italian studies forum at which the academics ranged themselves on both sides of the debate: eg. Maria Predelli of McGill against my reading, and Elisabetta Tarantino of Warwick and Erminia Passannanti of Brunel supporting it. So I’m having it both ways, by including an alternative second quatrain.

Ironically, the Tylus-Predelli reading accords with mine: other women share Stampa’s immunity from pain, but only because of inferior passion. They’d feel less than the poet even if love didn’t have a built-in analgesic.

I found a paradoxical freedom in the tortuous syntax since I could echo it by running lines on (as Stampa tends not to). On the other hand, although I managed to build my octave on a single pair of rhymes (which I rarely achieve), I’d have liked a greater range of rhyme sounds in my version.

Adam Elgar