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It was four years ago, at the age of fifteen, that I became acquainted for the first time with some of your writings. Since then I have read more and more of them; and having read once, I have read again. I possess all the old editions of your poems and both the more modern ones, together with several of your prose works. You have delighted me,—strengthened me,— instructed me: you do so still. How then could I consider you otherwise than as a personal friend, or address you otherwise?
Wherefor, should you regard the step which I have had the confidence to take as an ill-considered intrusion, you will but have added another lesson (and not the least valuable one) to the many I have learned from you. And as for punishment,—I assure you silence will suffice.
The study to which I have devoted myself is that of painting; It has been my choice since childhood. Lately, however, my mind has been directed also toward another object whose attainment, I confess, has sometimes interfered with my steadier purpose; this object is the power of expressing my thoughts in poetry. At the same time I have often desired, while reading some poetical work in a foreign language, to be able, by translation, to communicate to others at least some part of the pleasure I had myself experienced. It was this last feeling which induced me to attempt the series of translations whose commencement I venture, not without much misgiving, to submit to the first of Italian translators—to him who has already carried off the chief prize from the lists wherein my warmest hopes can give me no higher encouragement than that of being permitted to make one among the mélée.
Touching the original (or, at any rate unintentionally imitative) bouts-rimes which accompany those attempts,—I have sent them because I recollect you say somewhere that a translator, to be successful, must have in himself something at least of the imaginative faculty. With this I shall leave them to their fate: only hoping that, should you read so far as one of them in which your name is casually mentioned, you will do me the justice to credit that it was written more than a month before I was so bold as to conceive the idea that it could ever meet your eye.
The edition of the Poets before Dante which I have followed is the Florentine of 1816—the only one in fact with which I am acquainted, except two very ancient, incongruous, and unpunctuated ones, and a Sicilian reprint of this. I have not sent you the book for two reasons: firstly, that I thought you probably possessed it; and secondly, that I was afraid of the size of the packet becoming too formidable.
I confess that the extreme obscurity of some among these poems would effectually have baffled my attempts, had I not the advantage of being assisted in this interpretation by my father; to whose critical labours on the writings left us from the first epoch of Italian literature, very few persons will, I think, deny at least the merit of much ingenuity and research; whatever may be the opinion entertained by many, of the validity of that system which they set forth and uphold.
I think that these poems are as yet scarcely at all known in England: indeed, I have met with several instances of their being unfamiliar even to well informed Italians. But it seems to me that, once known, though it were but through a tolerable translation, they could not fail of being warmly admired. The tender, noble and passionate feeling of some,—the simple wisdom of others,—and the delicate humour which a few of them display,—these are things of which any translator who perceived their presence would find it difficult to obliterate all traces. Surely no man ever wrote a more deeply touching and pathetic poem than the Canzone of Pugliesi on the death of his lady. When I reflect that Angels might fear to tread there, it makes me, who have rushed in, to tremble for the deduction.
There are, of course, many among the firstfruits of a new literature, which would reward the trouble neither of reader nor translator; there are, of course, others whose diction is inextricably involved,—principally, I suppose, by the accumulated blunders of successive copyists. But more than a hundred of them being purified from occasional obscurity and inelegance, will be found to be real gold. Upon these, if not utterly discouraged by you, I shall set to work in the intervasls of study; and shall add to them as many of the lyrical poems of Dante (of which there has hitherto been no rhymed translation) as will form a complete history of his love for Beatrice.
Having promised so much, I must now abide the consequences of this somewhat obtrusive advance, which I should certainly not have hazarded towards anyone saving yourself. But he whose “heart is faint” should at least endeavor to preserve the outward semblance of boldness, or the “fair lady” will be doubly unattainable. And what lady is fairer than the Muse?
Leigh Hunt Esq r