Ladies, who of my lord would fain be told,
Picture a gentle knight, full sweet to see,
Though young in years, in wisdom passing old,
Model of glory and of valiancy;
Fair-haired, bright colour glowing in his face,
Tall and well-set, broad-shouldered, finally,
In all his parts a paragon of grace
Except in loving wantonly, ah me!
Who'd know myself, picture a woman wrought
In passions and in presence after pain's
And death's own bitter images, a port
Of safety where untroubled rest remains;
One who with neither tears, no sighs, nor zest
Wakes pity in her cruel lover's breast.
translated by Lorna de Lucchi
Gaspara Stampa was an Italian poet of the Renaissance, and is considered one of the finest female writers of the time. She only lived to be 31, but wrote over three hundred poems. I am glad she did, because here, we have a perfect, lovely example of a romantic sonnet, one of the most popular forms of the day.
Despite being over 450 years old, there isn't much foreign about the sentiments of this poem. At its heart is unrequited love, possibly one of the only subjects that will never go out of style. Through the first eight lines, Stampa describes her lord, of whom ladies would "fain be told." Fain is an archaic word, meaning pleased, or gladdened. Paraphrased, we can think of the first two lines like this, "Ladies, you will be glad to hear about my lord, picture a gentle knight, easy on the eyes."
Stampa goes on to describe his virtues, both physical and of character. He is broad-shouldered, fair-haired, tall, well-set. And though he is a "model of glory and valiancy" he is also wise beyond his years, and "in all parts a paragon of grace." Except, for one part. He loves wantonly. Put simply, he's a playboy. He isn't faithful to any one woman, maybe he has dalliances and infidelities. He's a rakish heartbreaker, I take it.
Next comes the volta, or turn, in the sonnet. This is the feature of a sonnet in which there is a distinct change. Stampa moves on from describing her love to describing herself. She says, "picture a woman wrought in passion after pain's and death's own bitter images." Yikes! She is shaped by her despair at the wanton ways of her love. She is "a port of safety" in that she is alone. She finds herself unable to sway her love at all. Her "tears" "sighs" and "zest" all fail to "wake[s] pity in her cruel lover's breast." She cannot tear him from his wanton ways, alas.
It's a classic poetic notion and setting, but unique in its perspective for its day. While there are many notable female poets of the day, poetry in the Renaissance was, as were most artistic fields, dominated by men. To have such a candid female perspective on romance from that era is really remarkable. Stampa often draws comparisons to the ancient Greek poet, Sappho, a great lyric poet whose work is unfortunately lost. It's an apt comparison, as Stampa's language is beautiful, and she is openly romantic. I must also commend the wonderful translation by Lorna de Lucchi, which beautifully maintains the iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme typical of the sonnet.