Canto 36 functions as a kind of still point amidst the political and historical material imbuing Eleven New Cantos: the Continental Congress of 1774-89 and Siena under the rule of Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany and Holy Roman Emperor. The greater part of the poem comprises Pound’s final authoritative translation of Guido Cavalcanti’s canzone ‘Donna mi prega,’ followed by two verse paragraphs dealing with the intellectual and poetic provenance of Guido’s ideas. The nature of these ideas is broadly well known: for Pound, Guido’s philosophical vocabulary transmits certain aspects of Neoplatonism as well as the psychology implied in Aristotle’s De anima. As Pound explains in his essay ‘Cavalcanti’ in Make It New (1934), Guido received these ideas directly or otherwise from a variety of sources, notably John Scottus Eriugena and Robert Grosseteste on one hand, and the great medieval Islamic tradition of Avicenna and Averroes on the other. This essay explores this terrain in more detail, providing greater context for Pound’s claims of intellectual provenance in a close reading of the poem. The Islamic inheritance in particular is far more complex than has been acknowledged, and certainly well beyond Pound’s explicit understanding of the matter. However he was right to place great emphasis on Cavalcanti’s vocabulary: attention to the ways in which Avicenna and Averroes understood the concepts of the diafan, the agent and possible intellects, and the mechanism by which the individual soul makes contact with divine intelligence, all clarify the argument as set out in Cavalcanti’s poem and represented in Pound’s translation. This clarification also makes more explicit the links with the lines following Pound’s translation concerning Eriugena and the Italian Troubadour Sordello da Goito.
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