Preface to The Early Italian Poets

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

General Description

Date: 1861
Genre: preface


See the editorial commentary for the 1861 edition as a whole.


Editorial glosses and textual notes are available in a pop-up window. Line numbering reflects the structure of the The Early Italian Poets text..

Scholarly Commentary


This Preface lays down a theory and method of translation that would exert a massive influence on the subsequent practise of translation—and not least of all translation in the twentieth-century. Of DGR's key Modernist inheritors, only Pound acknowledged his debt; and in this case the avowal was scarcely registered by Pound's commentators, who regularly praise his ideas about translation, and depreciate DGR's, when the truth is that Pound's work is an execution of DGR's ideas in a later, and of course rather different, poetic style.

DGR's informing ideas about translating poetry are interesting. First of all is the rule that “a good poem shall not be turned into a bad one” by the translator ( The Early Italian Poets, viii ). This thought follows from the more general cultural/aesthetic prescription that “the only true motive for putting poetry into a fresh language must be to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty” (viii). From that premise DGR draws his distinction between “literal” and “faithful” translation (viii), and his erasure of another (more common) distinction between “original” poetry and verse “translation”. In one remarkable act of aesthetic thought (and practice), DGR leaps back across his Romantic inheritance to recover certain key ideas all but abandoned after the death of Pope. DGR's translations will be verse forms aspiring to match the aesthetic resources that were their initial source and inspiration. DGR added a further interesting requirement to the pursuit of that aspiration. Though the verse translations were freed from an obligation to strict semantic “literality”, they were bound to an obligation of close metrical equivalence. This obligation was in many ways a far more demanding one. In the particular case of the poetry DGR was choosing to translate, it meant (a) finding accentual equivalences for syllabic Italian measures, and (b) adhering closely to rhyme schemes that would be difficult in English.

For further commentary see the editor's general critical Introduction to the 1861 volume in which this Preface first appeared.

Textual History: Composition

Probably written sometime in early 1861.

Printing History

First published in 1861 in The Early Italian Poets; it was reprinted with some changes in 1874 in Dante and his Circle.

Electronic Archive Edition: 1
Source File: 2p-1861.raw.xml