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The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Introduction.

Christopher Ryan. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998. xiii + 345 pp. $47.50. ISBN: 0-8386-3802-3.

It is a truism among translators and literary critics that each generation must produce its own versions of classic texts, updating them to incorporate both changes in the host language and new understandings of the original. The last wave of work on Michelangelo's considerable poetic output crested in the 1960s with two renditions of the poetry, by Creighton Gilbert and Joseph Tusiani, and a thematic study by Robert Clements. So the field was overdue for the recent spate of publications, including the critical introduction by Ryan as well as translations by Sidney Alexander and this writer (both 1991), by Ryan himself (1996), and the Nims edition under review. No doubt this mini-epidemic is an index of the postmodern predilection for examining the visual arts through a filter of literary discourse, and of an ongoing fascination with the biographical outpourings of the first modern art "celebrity"; but it is also a testimony to the verses themselves, which are genuinely, if erratically, moving. While newer authors agree on the broad outlines of Michelangelo's themes and content, they diverge widely about the tone and register of his language; the artist, who wryly acknowledged his own limitations, still suffers from the irresistible tendency to fix his work that first surfaced in the heavily expurgated rewrites published by his grandnephew, Michelangelo the Younger.

Ryan's earnest and workmanlike critical-biographical introduction must compete with the magisterial reputation, and length, of Clements's The Poetry of Michelangelo (1965). Managing to survey the ground thoroughly and succinctly in far fewer pages, Ryan's synthesis offers a more user-friendly entry point for students and scholars alike. His text improves upon its predecessor in two fundamental respects. First, he jettisons Clements's largely thematic treatment of the 300-plus poems, organizing them instead in chronological order - thus allowing him to embed the poetry in the flow of the artist's biography, to give us a "life through the work." (Both Ryan and Nims accept the canonical ordering of the poems by their Italian editor, Enzo Girardi [1960].) Second, where Clements cited individual poems in a potpourri of translations, from Longfellow to the Victorians, Ryan builds his commentary upon his own previous prose translation of the complete corpus, citing poems throughout in the original Italian followed by his consistent and idiomatic renderings. His notes often refer the reader to more detailed discussions of textual problems at the relevant poem in his translation volume; while keeping the book to a manageable length, this practice may require a researcher to keep both tomes open on the desk.

If Ryan makes few surprising or felicitous observations, that is in part because he most often shares in the broad consensus that has emerged about many major issues in Michelangelo's verses; he summarizes more than he innovates or questions. He follows established opinion in outlining the poetry's main themes and subject matter, which alternate and compete like a series of Petrarchan triumphs: love and its many moods, the omnipresent shadow thrown across earthly beauty and desire by impending death, the role of art in countering gnawing time, and the insignificance of worldly satisfactions before the imperatives of divine judgment. Likewise for form and style: Ryan offers a balanced assessment of Michelangelo's skill as a versifier, concurring with the majority view that, while his writing sometimes rises to an eloquence close to the power of his many visual masterpieces, it is often merely conventional and at times "impenetrably obscure" (53). Though appropriately qualified in his praise, Ryan makes a sound case for serious attention to the poetry, both for its revealing parallels to the artist's painting and sculpture and for its revelation of an appealing personality marked by a "second innocence" (254) - the ardor and intensity with which he addressed his major loves, Tommaso de' Cavalieri and the noble poet Vittoria Colonna, despite meeting them in the autumn of life.

The scores of poems for Cavalieri, a young Roman nobleman to whom the infatuated artist also gave confessional drawings saturated with erotic longing and guilt, are a litmus test for modern commentators' openness to new interpretations grounded in issues of sex and gender. In the 1960s, scholars were still anxious to purify the great artist from any taint of sodomitical desire, let alone behavior; even Clements, who frankly discussed Michelangelo's several male infatuations, dismissed them in Freudian terms as infantile, since "he never matured emotionally to the point of having a sustained love affair with a woman" (185). Three decades of gay and lesbian studies since then have established the importance of Michelangelo's rhymes for Cavalieri as the first large body of male-male love poetry in a modern vernacular. Ryan flatly states the "consensus today that Michelangelo was homosexual in orientation" (260), though probably celibate in his later years.

The translation by the late John Nims, the last from his prolific pen, provides versions of Girardi's texts with minimal but apt notes. Unlike most other Michelangelo translators, Nims was a poet in his own right, whose English renderings are generally fluid and clear despite the discipline of elaborate rhyme schemes. However, in numerous decisions about register of language, clarity of thought, and power of metaphor, he succumbs to the age-old temptation to "improve" on the original in ways that obscure its distinctive tone. Often the additions make Michelangelo more explicit and erudite than he was, silently fleshing out metaphors or incomplete thoughts and inventively gilding them: Nims renders the artist's catchy but generic description of his paint-splattered beard as a "rich pavement" (no. 5) with the more specific "mosaic," and adds the gratuitous modifier "Byzantine." Such embellishments may help the reader grasp a poem's import, but are better confined to the notes.

In matters of poetic diction, Nims leans the other way, eschewing formality to nudge, and sometimes shove, Michelangelo's vocabulary toward the slangy, abrupt, and colorful: "howdy-do" for addio is oddly American (no. 85), while "kibosh" (for ammorza, damping a flame) is absurdly anachronistic (no. 251). Similarly, for grammar, Nims invents sentence fragments where there were none, adding a false note of punchy self-assurance. Michelangelo did have his gruffly comic and whimsical moments - and Nims is in his element with these poems, like the well-known no. 5, grousing about the discomforts of painting the Sistine ceiling, or no. 20, a parody of a lovesick Petrarchan country bumpkin. But they are infrequent, and shooting the same linguistic arrows at the bulk of the verses, which are full of the sincerity of a lover and the self-doubt of a reform-minded Christian, falls wide of the mark.

These poems are good, but they're not recognizable as Michelangelo. Nims makes clear his credo, quoting approvingly Mallarme's rebuke to a later artist-author, "Poetry, my dear Degas, is not made out of ideas; it is made out of words" (161). But Michelangelo's fellow poet Francesco Berni praised him for just the opposite, taunting orthodox Petrarchists, "You say words, but he says things." Michelangelo was concerned above all with things - with tangible ideas about grave issues. When he did attempt verbal play and complexity, they tended to run way with him, stranding him in the opaque or the unfinished. Where Michelangelo was prosaic and blunt to the point of flatfooted literalism, Nims's speaker is too clever by half, too distanced by incessantly breezy wit, to let us take his passionate yearnings and ambivalence quite as seriously as he did.

City University of New York, Queens College and the Graduate School
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Saslow, James M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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