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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Italy: Vols. XI–XIII. 1876–79.


Dante at Verona

By Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882)

FAME tells us that Verona’s court

Was a fair place. The feet might still

Wander forever at their will

In many ways of sweet resort;

And still in many a heart around

The poet’s name due honor found.

Watch we his steps. He comes upon

The women at their palm-playing.

The conduits round the gardens sing

And meet in scoops of milk-white stone,

Where wearied damsels rest and hold

Their hands in the wet spurt of gold.

One of whom, knowing well that he,

By some found stern, was mild with them,

Would run and pluck his garment’s hem,

Saying, “Messer Dante, pardon me,”—

Praying that they might hear the song

Which first of all he made, when young.

“Donne che avete!”… Thereunto

Thus would he murmur, having first

Drawn near the fountain, while she nursed

His hand against her side: a few

Sweet words, and scarcely those, half said;

Then turned, and changed, and bowed his head.


So you may read and marvel not

That such a man as Dante—one

Who, while Can Grande’s deeds were done,

Had drawn his robe round him and thought—

Now at the same guest-table fared

Where keen Uguccio wiped his beard.

Through leaves and trellis-work the sun

Left the wine cool within the glass.

They feasting where no sun could pass;

And when the women, all as one,

Rose up with brightened cheeks to go,

It was a comely thing, we know.

But Dante recked not of the wine;

Whether the women stayed or went,

His visage held one stern intent:

And when the music had its sign

To breathe upon them for more ease,

Sometimes he turned and bade it cease.

And as he spared not to rebuke

The mirth, so oft in council he

To bitter truth bore testimony:

And when the crafty balance shook

Well poised to make the wrong prevail,

Then Dante’s hand would turn the scale.

And if some envoy from afar

Sailed to Verona’s sovereign port

For aid or peace, and all the court

Fawned on its lord, “the Mars of war,

Sole arbiter of life and death,”—

Be sure that Dante saved his breath.

And Can La Scala marked askance

These things, accepting them for shame

And scorn, till Dante’s guestship came

To be a peevish sufferance:

His host sought ways to make his days

Hateful; and such have many ways.

There was a Jester, a foul lout

Whom the court loved for graceless arts;

Sworn scholiast of the bestial parts

Of speech; a ribald mouth to shout

In folly’s horny tympanum

Such things as make the wise man dumb.

Much loved, him Dante loathed. And so,

One day when Dante felt perplexed

If any day that could come next

Were worth the waiting for or no,

And mute he sat amid their din,

Can Grande called the Jester in.

Rank words, with such, are wit’s best wealth.

Lords mouthed approval; ladies kept

Twittering with clustered heads, except

Some few that took their trains by stealth

And went. Can Grande shook his hair

And smote his thighs and laughed i’ the air.

Then, facing on his guest, he cried,—

“Say, Messer Dante, how it is

I get out of a clown like this

More than your wisdom can provide.”

And Dante: “’T is man’s ancient whim

That still his like seems good to him.”

Also a tale is told, how once,

At clearing tables after meat,

Piled for a jest at Dante’s feet

Were found the dinner’s well-picked bones;

So laid, to please the banquet’s lord,

By one who crouched beneath the board.

Then smiled Can Grande to the rest:—

“Our Dante’s tuneful mouth indeed

Lacks not the gift on flesh to feed!”

“Fair host of mine,” replied the guest,

“So many bones you ’d not descry

If so it chanced the dog were I.”