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Lesson 8


Faith Incarnate

The Western Way of Transcendent Passion


To a great measure, the power of the Paternal Lie consists in convincing us that love between human beings cannot provide the higher assurances that come through faith in God—or faith in God's love, if you will. The assurance that we are loved by a divine parent who grants eternal life after we die, and in that life reunites us with those we loved during our brief mortal term, is a proposition hard to resist. Such is the "after-life insurance policy" offered by salvationist religion. To qualify for the benefits included in the policy, you have to believe in the higher power that offers them, the father god. Belief in the father god involves adopting a story about the creation of the world, the fall of humanity, the coming of the messiah, and the retribution to be exacted at the end of the world. In short, the policy comes in a package deal. For the ultimate payoff, i.e., reunion with your loved ones in eternal life after you die, you have to buy the whole deal.

But what if there is another way to have the assurance of eternal life offered by religion, without adherence to any religion? Another way to be united in eternal love? That would be the way of transcendent passion in the Western path of Romance.

Sacramental Love

We read their life, we read their death,
And to us it is sweet as bread.
Their life, their death, this is our bread.
So lives their life, so lives their death.
So live they still and yet are dead,
And their death is the bread of the living.

Prologue, Tristan by Gottfried von Strassbourg

When Gottfried wrote these lines, around 1220 AD, he caught the attention of the Roman Church. The Pope dispatched an ideological SWAT team to Strassbourg to question the poet about his literary trope, comparing carnal passion to the Holy Sacrament. One thing may be noted about the Church in all its forms, Roman Catholic and otherwise, is how little tolerance it has for alternative views on the ultimate issues. For the agents of the One True Faith, there is no such thing as peaceful coexistence. Gottfried and the culture of courtly lovers he represented could not be allowed to exist side by side with the faithful. Live and let live is not, and has never been, a policy of perpetrator religion.

In the 11th and 12th centuries something stirred in the soul-life of the West that presented a huge threat to pontifical and ecclesiastical authority. The danger rose from the most intimate dimension of human experience, the realm of love and sexuality. Commenting on Tristan, Joseph Campbell said that "the mode of feeling, the erotic, was the first to awaken Gothic man from his childhood slumber in authority." A grand statement, there, but the Gothic man of medieval Europe was not sleeping. The Pagan erotic spirit of indigenous Europa had been brutally repressed by the enforcers of Christianity. But the 12th and 13th centuries saw a resurgence of the Pagan ethos, transmuted into a new social form: amour courtois.

In the love-death (liebestod) of Tristan and Isolde, romantic love attained its full transcendental potency. And as it did, it posed a grave threat to religious pretensions and promises, especially the after-life insurance policy. The spiritual fire of eros rose like a glorious phoenix from the smoldering ruins of Pagan antiquity. Campbell says it explicitly in Creative Mythology (p. 42):

Gottfried's language tells that there were those, whom he calls noble, whose lives received from this spiritual fire the same nourishment as the lover of God received from the bread and wine of the sacrament.

These noble people were inheritors of the erotic spirit of the Mysteries. As explained in Lessons 1 and 2, the Nobility of medieval Europe was infused with the transpersonal idealism of Gnosis, which in turn became the germ of Renaissance humanism. Service, education, and illumination were the terms of consecration among the telestai, but there was also an erotic, orgiastic element in the Mystery experience. Romance sprang from the fertilization of medieval soul-life by a transpersonal erotic mystique, the lingering spell of Pagan spirituality in which carnal love and mystical passion were co-emergent elements. In the Mystery experience, illumination was always balanced and complemented by erotic sensation. Beholding the Organic Light is the apotheosis of sensuality, yet it does not impel any desire for sexual enactment. That comes later, for erotic and amatory feelings thrive in the luscious afterglow of the supreme revelation.

What the Arthurian knights were protecting was not merely individual members or perhaps hidden cells formed by those who guarded the Sophianic revelation and its supreme secret, the method of instruction by the Light. They were also protecting the indefinable ambience generated by such people—the deep erotic charm of the Mysteries, if you will. All knightly adventures transpired in an atmosphere super-charged with eroticism and larger-than-life passions. When the Arthurian mystique was revived in the 19th century by Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Burne-Jones, Waterhouse and others, it carried the same heavy erotic charge. In fact, the Victorian Era of repression and hypocrisy in sexual mores presents close parallels to the Middle Ages... but this anticipates some issues to be discussed ahead, in Lesson 12, "The Trouble With Love."

Hylas and the Water Nymphs (1896) by J. W. Waterhouse. Typical of Victorian eroticism inspired by the revival of Arthurian legend and the mystique of Pagan antiquity. The 1890s marked the highwater moment of the European Occult Revival, an era when almost no artist or writer was uninfluenced by theosophy, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and other esoteric movements which are currently, and erroneously, identified with the sinister agenda of the "New World Order."

The mystic-erotic ambiance of the Mysteries came to expression in scholastic arguments expounded by the likes of Ibn 'Arabi, and assumed dramatic and poetic expression in the art of the troubadours, but the knights and ladies of the Grail Quest lived it out experimentally, in vivid and outrageous terms. Many factors came into play to foster that sublime convergence: Wisdom - Warrior -Woman.

This formula was, and ever is, the sacred trinity of Romantic love.

A Mighty Daemon

But mere human love cannot insure its own continuity after death—so protest the bearded patriarchs who speak for the father god. Of course, they do not come out and say this openly. They persuade and, if possible, "convert" by suggestion and innuendo, for intimidation and open threats would make them look bad, these days. (Fire and brimstone conversions are still effectuated in Africa, at gunpoint.) The paternal masters say many things to imply that human love is inadequate for facing the ultimate challenges of life. They claim that faith in an off-planet deity brings special assurances not to be had in any other way. This categorical preclusion is calculated to defeat any nascent faith we might have in the power of mortal love and passion confined to our brief term of mortality on earth. On top of this, the patriarchs insist that even mortal love must be directed beyond human limits. The amatory impulse we all feel by nature—our primal instinct for love, if you will—must be directed toward the creator god and coupled with acceptance of the creator´s love for us. God loves you. This, we are made to believe, is the most wonderful message on earth, and it carries that assurance of continued love in a life beyond this world.

Many people fervently believe that God loves them, and so whatever happens to them in life, for good or ill, they attribute to God's love as if it were directed to them personally. I would say that it is not a potent, life-shaping belief, although it certainly appears so to those who hold it. What is actually potent in this belief is the denial it conceals. Denial in religious thinking often confers a pretence of transcendence, a false sense of mastering things that are unacceptable or intolerable, such as injustice and loss. The deeper the denial, the greater the transcendence it seems to confer. By transcendence in this context I mean overcoming something in the hard realities of life that defeats, or appears to defeat, the human spirit. Overcoming death, loss, and injustice, for instance.

That we can love others deeply and be separated from them by death is a matter of profound anguish for most of us. Other kinds of loss are equally unbearable and call for succor, or compensation of some kind. The evident injustice of this world is particularly intolerable. These three categories encompass all that most deeply threatens to defeat and crush the human spirit. But we can live with these experiences, and even have the sense of transcending them, through the assurances given by faith in the paternal deity. So we are told to believe.

In short, the religious ideology of transcendence points to the limits of human mortality in its case for a caretaking agent that lies beyond those limits, and insists that this agent alone can give us the strength to face our earthly fate. To make this argument, religious ideologues must discount the depth and intensity of all we can feel and know within mortal limits. In other words, they have to reduce humanity to powerlessness for the appeal of the higher power to be effective. Reich keenly noted this strategy:

In reality, the religious man has become completely helpless... The more helpless he becomes, the more he is forced to believe in supernatural forces that support and shelter him. Thus, it is not difficult to understand that in some situations he is also capable of developing an incredible power of conviction, indeed, a passive indifference toward death. He draws this power from his love of his own religious conviction... borne by highly pleasurable physical sensations. Naturally, he believes that this power stems from "God." In reality, this intense longing for God is the longing that derives from his excitation of sexual forepleasure and clamors for release. Deliverance is and can be nothing other than the deliverance from the unbearable physical tensions which can be pleasurable only as long as they are lost in a fantasized unification with God, i.e., with gratification and release. (The Mass Psychology of Fascism, p. 147-8. Italics added.)

This is a good summary of Reich's argument that mystical and religious emotion in the mainstream faiths is a displacement of repressed sexual energy, which readily deviates socially toward fascism, and personally, toward sado--masochism. Faith, he says, is the passion people feel in loving their own convictions. What a definition! Fiath has little to do with loving God or being loved by God, and a lot to do with narcissism, the root pathology of the Piscean Age. In the religious experience of the masses, disconnection from body and senses charges the believers with zeal, because Eros repressed manifests in the form of disembodied fantasy, but loses none of its original force by this conversion.

"Eros is a mighty daemon," Diotima taught Socrates. She told him that it is the intermediary between the divine and human realms. Eros is like an electric current that can charge our bodies, but it can also charge whatever we may imagine in a disembodied way, and it does so indifferently. In other words, Eros remains the intermediary power whether it connects us corporeally to the Divine, or merely to a fantasy about the Divine. This is why displaced and disembodied expressions of Eros in religion and fascism (the "mystico-military complex," as Reich called it) are so difficult to defeat.

Amor and Armor

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by J. W. Waterhouse, 1893.

The term amour courtois ("courtly love") was invented by French scholar Gaston Paris (1839 - 1903), and never existed in medieval times. In the 12th Century, a woman was said to be courtoise if she was lively, vivacious, irrepressible; the term had little to do with politeness and formality. Courtois applied to a man meant decent, honorable. In its own time and setting the phenomenon of courtly love was called (in Occitanian or Old Provencal) fins amor, "sophisticated love," and amor enansa, "exalted love," i.e., transcendent love. The Provencal verb anantir meant "to advance, excel, rise above." Clearly, courtly love was understood by those who lived it first-hand as a path of transcendence. As such, it posed a serious threat to the faith-based transcendence promised by the Roman Church.

In medieval times, Romance was the religion of choice, the path of transcendent love. To those who practiced it, religious transcendence held no appeal whatsoever. No wonder the Church needed to exterminate the Cathars and the troubadours. Romantic love was as much a threat to the Church's promise of divine reward as Gnostic heresy had been, centuries before. The genocidal campaign against the heresy of love culminated in 1244 with the burning en mass of the last holdouts at the Cathar fortress, Monsegur (left, as seen in winter, looking northeast). Along with the heretics, the mercenaries of Pope Innocent III murdered the local populace by the thousands—30,000 in one day in Beziers, so the story goes. When one sword-slashing knight asked his superior how to tell the heretics from the faithful, the response came, "Kill them all. God will know His own."

At a distance in time of 800 years, it is difficult to see how the brutal warrior class of the Middle Ages could have harbored the heresy of love. How do the armoured knights of the Round Table compare to the armored mercenaries of the Albigensian Crusade? By chance, the modern French word amour is the British spelling of armor, the metallic protection worn by knights. The lure of amor drew the medieval man out of his armour—or, as Reich would have said, out of his "character armoring." The essence of the lure was tenderness. Sometimes the force of tenderness was so profound and exquisite that it could overpower the brutal force of maleness. La Belle Dame Sans Merci, she who embodies the temptation of tenderness, is a mere wisp of a girl who can unarm and disarm the most potent, armed and armored man.

Surprizingly, there is a great deal of naked emotion in the Arthurian matter. There are striking displays of vulnerability by the macho chevaliers. In many adventures the knights sob in grief or gratitude, right out in the open where everyone sees them. They are nakedly vulnerable to the invitations to tenderness coming from young damsels of the type in the above painting by J. W. Waterhouse. Here the temptress is a nymphet on the grass, but equally tempting were the more mature, zaftig dames who pack a heavy load of hormonal charm—such as the Baroness Orguleuse, to be encountered in the Gawain adventures, coming up in Lesson 9. A third type of woman, the maternal type exemplified by Arnive, the mother of King Arthur, and various elder dames of Camelot, also played strongly on the tender side of the medieval warriors.

The position of the medieval knight who undertook the adventures of Romance was quite precarious, because such men were obliged to be exemplars of masculine prowess, but not agents of patriarchal power. In my book, The Hero, which contains a long section on Romantic love, I proposed the distinction between hero and champion. The former is a man whose power is dedicated to the Divine Feminine (or the Goddess), while the latter is a man who draws power from opposing and eliminating the Divine Feminine and all it represents. This distinction has not been made elsewhere, as far as I know. It is useful in showing that masculinity and male power are not essentially or categorically opposed to femininity and woman power.

The rule of patriarchy demands that men armor themselves, not only to impose force upon the world, but to resist the Feminine externally, and deny or conceal its presence internally, in themselves. On the path of the hero the man explores his relation to the Goddess, and to a particular woman, and thus comes into his true power as a human being. According to the interpretation developed in my book, the genuine hero is a man who develops his power against patriarchy, rather than in support of it. He overcomes armour in the cause of amor.

After the destruction of the Mysteries, Europa was dominated by a patriarchal religion of off-planet redemption. Roman Christianity enforced hatred of women, considered to be instruments of the Devil, and disgust for the sensual world. With the enforcement of the new faith, believers entered a delusional system, or mass psychosis, as Reich calls it. There is plenty of evidence of this delusion in the religious fanaticism of the Middle Ages. Through many centuries, the Roman Church offered transcendence of this world and yet maintained entire armies of ideologues and mercenaries to rule the world it rejected. Many of the armored men of the time were in the service of the Church. These hard-bitten horse soldiers (chevaliers) were commanded by white bearded partriarchs who defined the doctrines of the One True Faith. The executive power of the Church consisted in the men who commanded its military might, i.e., popes and bishops. These paternal tyrants were the weapons of mass destruction of their time: WMDs, white male demagogues. Armored knights in the ranks of the crusaders and in the feudal militias were the front-line soldiers in the campaigns launched by the demagogues.

According to conventional accounts of history, Europe was shaped by the great events achieved by the Roman Church, that is, by wars and acts of domination, including the massacre of the Cathars and Albigensians in southern France, which brought a sudden end to the rich oral and literary tradition that flourished there in the age of chivalric love and the troubadours.


Ark of Heresy: The ruins of the Cathar fortress at Monsegur
in the Ariege region of southern France, viewed from above.

But in parallel history, another story comes to light. Some armored men did not serve the dominator culture. They did not participate in conversion and conquest, but instead sought adventures of a romantic, mystical, and supernatural kind. Their experience depended upon the complicity of woman who inspired and guided them, conferred power on them, and so enabled them to realize a spiritual calling within the framework of the warrior path. The ethic of power-sharing was essential to amour courtois: the knight empowered by the woman was able to exert his manhood in a heroic and noble manner, not by brutal, boastful deeds in service to the patriarchal dominators. The men who did so knew exactly what they were up against. AMOR versus ROMA was a graffito of the time. ROMA meant not only the Church with its off-planet program of redemption, but the "mystico-military complex" (Reich's term) of Roman Christianity. As lovers of Woman and seekers of the Grail, the Arthurian knights resisted both religious doctrines and the armored military machine used to impose them.

Western Tantra

The actual point in question, throughout the centuries of Christian persecution, has never been faith in God, but faith in the Bible as the word of God, and in the Church (this Church or that) as the interpreter of that word. - Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology


Those who followed the code of romantic love (and those who still do today) were free to believe in God, but not in the version of God imposed by the WMDs, the white male demagogues. It is more than likely that romantic passion in the West supported convictions about superhuman Divinity, even as they provided an option to salvationist faith. ROMA prohibited AMOR, but AMOR did not exclude religious convictions about the Divine. They were just not the convictions that the Roman authorities wanted people to embrace.

Central to the medieval religion of love was the conviction that carnal passion could insure the deathless bonding of the lovers. This belief is exemplified in the liebestod, the love-death theme of Tristan and Isolde. These lovers do not believe in a God who saves them from death, nor do they propogate children in an attempt to acquire a kind of biological immortality through their offspring. For them, carnal passion is the very instrument of deathlessness. Sexual attraction, and, indeed, sexual chemistry per se (the "love potion" in Tristan), are merely the catalysts to such passion. But what potent catalysts they are.

Years ago, presenting Tristan at the Institute for Creative Mythology in Santa Fe, I proposed that Arthurian Romance and troubadour ethics be considered as a path of sexual enlightenment. A kind of Western Tantra, if you will. (In a key episode in Tristan, the hero imporbably assumes a false name so that he is not recognized even by Isolde! He calls himself Tantris.) This was and still is a genuine spiritual path, but one that both men and women come into spontaneously, through the free-form play of their passions and attractions, rather than through any formal course of training or ritual initiation. Sexual enlightenment requires a certain latitude for experimentation, but it does not equate to blind promiscuity, casual sex, and "sport-fucking." On the contrary, this path demands high discrimination in the choice of sexual partners. Most Arthurian knights, including Parzival, had more than one consort.

The notion that enlightened sexual mores could have come out of an era of suppression as intense as the European Middle Ages looks extremely bizarre at first sight, I admit, but inalternative history this is a paramount insight. The essential thing to bear in mind here is that unrequited love was a specific psychocultural phenomenon of a particular time and setting. It was invented experimentally by men and woman who responded to a particular calling. Scholars frequently say that "the troubadours invented romantic love," but the astounding truth doesn't really register, due to the didactic, deadpan way they say it. Romance will mean nothing for us today, and there remains nothing to be salvaged or learned from it, unless we realize that Sacred Love is possible for us because someone before us made it so. It did not just emerge automatically in human experience, and it is not inherent to the human heart. Great love existed in Pagan antiquity, but not unrequited love. It was deliberately worked out in a particular time and place. The setting was determined by the ambiance of the Mysteries. The exemplars of Arthurian romance, men and women alike, were initiates of the Sacred Light as well as initiators of Sacred Love.

Romance is not just a sentimental game we play today, it is a profound cultural and spiritual inheritence that needs to be handled with skill and intelligence. An extremely problematic inheritance, as we shall see....

Primary Conviction

Without love no one has presence in the world.
- Frederick Goldin, Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouveres

There can, of course, be no question of reviving Athurian romance in our time. I do not mean to suggest by the close attention I have given to that literary genre, that anything remotely relevant to modern love can be found in the code and conventions of amour courtois. Readers who want a serious dose of chivalry need to read Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings by Amy Kelly. This is surely one of the richest, most entertaining, and deeply felt history books ever written. It is cinematically vivid, almost as good as being there, with Kelly evoking sights and sounds as if she writes directly from reincarnational memory, rather than bookish research. Chapter 15, "The Court of Poitiers," is a mini-course in the culture of the troubadours and the social ethics of medieval romance, easily worth the price of the entire book.

Eleanor was born in 1122, one year off the nodal date of 1123 marking the moment in the late Middle Ages when Christian morality began to dissolve, displaced by the new criteria of individuality that informed and inspired Renaissance Humanism. Her grandfather was William the 9th of Aquitaine, of whom Kelly writes:

    Eleanor's grandfather, Guillaume IX, composed and gave vogue to the new vernacular poetry of the troubadours, and his verse itself gives evidence of his roving mind and foot and the widest liberality of view. Through it shine glints of Ovidian sophistry and the rich romantic colors of Moorish Spain. It is a poetry highly organized in form, intellectually subtle, lusty, piquant, cynical, the pastime of a worldling, who lived each day with gusto, dined well, slept heartily, and recked little of the awful day of judgement. (p. 5)

Of Eleanor herself, Kelly says: "She was prepared of her own unguided wisdom to reject the imperfect destinies to which she had been, as it were, assigned... She was the pawn of neither prince nor prelate, the victim of no dynastic scheme" (p. 158). With her daughter, Marie of Champagne, Eleanor established at Poitiers in southwest France the famous "Courts of Love" where children of noble families were educated, and many troubadours flourished, including Bernart de Ventadorn, Eleanor's personal poet. Bernard's credo was:

Per bona fe e ses enjan
am la plus bel' e la melhor.

In good faith, without deceit,
I love the best and most beautiful.

This is like a paraphrase of the telestic commitment in the Mysteries: to love what is best and most beautiful in human nature, to believe in it and cultivate it in good faith, without deceit.

Acting on "the freedom to devise their own milieu," these two extraordinary women, Eleanor and Marie, set about shaping the experience of romantic love into a set of conventions. Granted, they were just conventions. In fact, the rules of the court at Poitiers were contrived by an unremarkable clerk enlisted by Marie, who came to be known as "the Chaplain" because he presided in a pseudo-religious role over the ideology of romance. At that moment the experience of romantic love was peaking, after some five centuries in development. The rules had little to do with the raw experience, but they could not have been invented had that experience not been lived out in depth, over many generations.


[From The World of the Troubadours by Linda M. Patterson]

Obviously, nothing in the medieval code of chivalry and nothing in the courtly conventions of Aquitaine, has any relevance to love today. What does have relevance, however, is the primary conviction of the lovers who underwent the great experiment of medieval romance that came to be codified in Eleanor's social ethics of chivalry. That conviction is what lives on as their legacy, and the germ of present and future experience. Before the middle ages, that conviction did not exist. Later, during the Renaissance, it tended to get lost in the cult of personality which was, ironically, the very outgrowth of the courtly love ethic. In other words, the recognition of the intrinsic value of the person in Renaissance humanism was a direct result of fins amor, but the accentuation on personality as art for art's sake drove human sensibility away from unrequited love. Where personality came to the fore, personal gratification came strongly into demand. This narcissistic trend was entirely contrary to the non-reciprocal dynamic of romantic love. It utterly contradicted the self-abandonment of the liebestod.

So, what exactly was that conviction? There are two ways to answer this question, first by a paraphrase, and second by a poem.

The paraphrase: the primary conviction of romantic love was that faith in a superhuman, off-planet deity is not superior to the passion that unites lovers, for human love is faith incarnate. Whoever has it needs no higher assurances about the Beyond. The guarantee that lovers will be reunited after death comes through the strength of their mortal love, not through any contract with a trans-human agency. The authentic, self-sufficient and self-surpassing quality of love is the proof of its own deathless endurance. Each lover enshrines the life of the beloved in his or her own life, so that one cannot leave this world without the other (as dramatized in the liebestod), nor can they ever be less separate than they are in the most intimate, consuming moment of carnal surrender.

"Without love, no one has presence in the world." This is one half of the formula of conviction. "With love, we reach the presence of all that transcends this world." That would be the other half.

Such is the conviction that pervades a great deal of troubadour poetry. I will not attempt to explore this marvelous genre, because it would take far too much time and space even to introduce it properly, and I would again risk subjecting readers to the unbelievable tedium of my perceived medievalism. Most people who have delved into the genre of Provencal poetry say, like the men lounging in the Bud commercial, that it doesn't get any better than this. This is not to say that better poems have never been written, before or later. Rather, it is an assertion of the total experience one reaches through immersion in troubadour lyrics and ethics. It is like sipping the most exquisite nectar of language, image, and allusion, and turning into the rare liquor you are tasting.

Where to go to decant this old brew, if you are so inclined: Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouveres, translated by Frederick Goldin (Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass.). His introduction and translations are exceptionally good. With Provencal on facing pages, you can see how close it was to Spanish. In fact, Guillaume IX composed his poems to be sung using the same metrical forms as his Moorish counterparts in Andalucia. In the Cantos (VIII), Ezra Pound says of the troubadour lyric: "And Poictiers, you know, Guillaume Poictiers / had brought the song up out of Spain / With the singers and viels."

Also see the modern idiomatic rendering by Beat poet Paul Blackburn in Proensa (Paragon House publishers, New York) and The Women Troubadours by Meg Bogen (Norton & Co, New York). There were 23 known woman troubadours, and about 200 men. Ezra Pound's The Spirit of Romance is essential reading for orientation. The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner is a lucid and suspenseful study of medieval poetics and the ethical, esthetic, and mystical dimensions comprised therein.

As for the poem....

Tangled Up in Blue

A personal note: During my brief stint at the University of Maine, before I was expelled for cutting classes, I had the good luck to be taken under the wing of a tenured professor in the English department, Carroll F. Terrell. Terry, as he was known to his friends, was a world-class scholar who specialized in Modernism and the work of Ezra Pound. He launched the National Poetry Foundation and almost single-handedly put out two scholarly journals, Paideuma and Sagetrieb, dedicated to keeping alive the best elements of the Modernist tradition that originated with Pound, Yeats, Joyce, T. S. Eliot, H. D., William Carlos Williams, and others.

I lost track of Terry after leaving college and the US in 1964, but twenty years later we found each other again. It happened when he was passing through Boulder, Colorado, to lecture on Pound's Cantos at the Naropa Institute. Busing up to see him, I got the chance to meet Anne Waldman and Ed Dorn. Later, Terry came to visit me in Santa Fe. He kick-started me writing poetry by showing me a craft secret, "the shape of the line." He also gave me models to work with, the whole Modernist crew plus the classical and medieval sources on which they drew. Most of all, he ignited my interest in troubadour poetry, leading to my first opportunity to be published. This opportunity involved the Italian rather than the French side of the genre.

As Hugh Kenner explains in The Pound Era, a good rate on British sterling in the year 1919 allowed the impecunious poet, Ezra Pound, and his wife, Dorothy Shakespear, to go on a tour of the sacred literary sites of Southern France. They visited Poitiers and stood in the room where light casts no shadow, and they climbed the sacred Cathar shrine, Monsegur. Pound translated the French troubadours, but he also had a deep interest in their Italian counterparts, the fideli d'amore. "When Provence was terminated the tradition of light moved east into northern Italy," Kenner explains. By "terminated" he means the massacre of the Cathars at Monsegur in 1244. Curiously, "tradition of light" is Kenner's scholarly gloss on troubadour poetics—an expression that invokes the Organic Light of the Mysteries, even though Kenner presumably has no notion of this connection.

The most famous of the Italian troubadours was, of course, Dante Alghieri (1265-1321), author of The Divine Comedy. But behind Dante stood a less-known figure, Guido Cavalcanti (d. 1300), his elder friend and teacher. For me, Terry's introduction to Pound led straight to Cavalcanti, and this was a revelation. As much as I loved the troubadours, I could not read Provencal. I could hardly remember my high-school French. But Cavalcanti wrote in a dialect of Tuscan Italian not far removed from Latin, and that I could handle. I devoured The Spirit of Romance and fell deeply into the Cavalcanti mystique. At the heart of that mystique stands a single work, widely considered to be the greatest love poem ever written: Donna Mi Priegha. "A Lady Asks Me."

In truth, the DMP (so insiders call it, Terry informed me) is not so much a love poem as a poem about love. In other words, it is not composed as a statement of love to a woman, but it is the response to a question about love from a woman. Consistent with the troubadour love ethic, the poet acquires from the woman who poses the question the inspiration to answer it. So, the DMP is after all a great love poem, as well as being an explanation of love—actually, of how love works.

And what an explanation it is! Pound says that within a generation of the poem being written, it's meaning was a matter of heated discussion in many salons across Italy. It was known simply as "the song." Top of the charts in the 13th century, you could say. And for a long time thereafter. As quickly as the fame of the poem spread to other countries, so did it become ever more elusive and enigmatic. The Tuscan dialect in which Cavalcanti composed was a matter of some bafflement even in his own day. And no wonder. Here is what the lines look like:

Inmaginar nol puo hom che nol prova
E non si mova perch' a llui si tirj
E non si aggirj per trovarvi giocho
E certamente gran savor ne pocho

Cavalcanti composed the DMP in hendecasyllabics, lines of 11 syllables. It is a canzone, meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a lute. But what a song it is! Amy Kelly noted in the lyrics of the first French troubadour, Guillaume IX, "a poetry highly organized in form, intellectually subtle." Well, Cavalcanti, writing in another country and a century later, attained the apex of this subtle intellectual form. The internal complexity of ideas in Donna Mi Priegha is staggering. It is impossible to render the poem as a song and capture its sense, because the disarming simplicity of the Tuscan dialect harbors meanings and implications of meanings that will not translate into anything like a sing-song recitation. It is said that there have been some 50 attempts to translate the DMP into English. I have scrutinized five of them. I believe Terry had seen a dozen or so. Pound worked on the poem for years and published two translations. There is a version in The Spirit of Romance and another in the Cantos (XXXVI) where he renders the above lines in this way:

Unskilled cannot form his image,
He himself moveth not, drawing all to his stillness,
Neither turneth about to seek his delight
Nor yet to seek out proving,
Be it so great or so small.

The "he" in question is the subject of the poem, love. The DMP unfolds in a sequence of dazzling, internested qualifications to describe how love operates in peripheral and accidental ways, without ever revealing itself as such, yet clandestinely conferring its essence on everything that crosses its way. Pound does not try to reproduce the canzone as a song, and neither did I in my "translation in sense" which Terry published in Paideuma, Spring 1986, along with an explanatory essay of mine. It was the first piece of my writing to be published. Terry said that my translation of the DMP was the best he had ever seen.

The hendacsyllabics used in the DMP are extremely engaging. In this troubadour device we glimpse something ineffable and timeless in the poet's craft. The DMP pulses with an intimation of the way profound emotion assumes a cadence fitted to its intrinsic force, and then communicates that force via the cadence of language and lyric.... Oh well, Bob Dylan certainly thought so. In the first song of Blood on the Tracks, released in 1974, he describes the impact of his discovery of Cavalcanti (or so I would have it):

She lit a burner on the stove, and offered me a crepe.
"I thought you'd never say hello," she said.
"Yuh look like the silent type."
And she opened up a book of poems, and handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet of the 13th century.
And every one of them words rang true
and glowed like burning coals, pouring off of every line
like it was written in my soul, from me to you,
tangled up in blue.

In Desire, released a year later, Dylan used the hendasyllabic to wonderful effect, often alternating with ten-syllable lines: "I married Isis on the fifth day of May / But I could not hold on to her very long." Sometimes, vocal modulation of a phoneme produces the 11 count: "But I could not hold uh-on to her very long." (In the album notes Allen Ginsberg points this out, citing the line "Hot chili peppers in the noonday suh-un.") In short, the preeminent American troubadour of our time both admired and applied Cavalcanti's poetics. In Desire, Dylan paraphrased the primary conviction of romantic love:

    Oh sister, am I not a brother to you
    And one deserving of all affection?
    And is our purpose not the same on this Earth
    to love and follow his direction?
This expression closely echoes a line in the DMP, which may have inspired it:
    Ch a tal volete per temere sperto
    Hom seghue merto spirito che punto


    It makes the way, even through hesitation,
    for who deserve to follow its direction.

Don't ask me how, but in my humble attempt at the DMP I managed to render a good number of Cavalcanti's Tuscan hendacasyllabics into 11 syllables in English (demonstrated here, if you're counting). Well over half of the lines in my translation fit the count. Regardless of how they would have sounded when sung, some lines are astonishingly beautiful in that unique cadence that both captures and releases their innermost sense:

Vien de veduta forma che s'intende
It comes from what is seen as it so intends,
Che 'l prende nel possible intelletto
which is then taken unto the waking mind
Chome in subgetto locho e dimoranza
as a pure subject, fixed and yet abiding,
E in quelle parte mai non a possanza
and even in this, not to be possessed.

Bear in mind, this is someone singing about love. The DMP has been called a "scholastic demonstration" of romantic love. In my essay I said: "Yet the 'scholastic' exposition of how Love works manages all the while to keep the enigma intact, so that the poem comes off as a sequence of exquisite qualifications, each one piling into the next like a string of falling dominos, of something that is never itself made explicit. In form, the poem is a perfect demonstration of indirection." The power of love, according to one troubadour, at least, consists in its using everything else to get itself across. (This recalls Stephen Levine's incomparable one-liner: "Love is the emptiness of everything that is not love.") In Cavalcanti's lyrical physics of love, everything that is not love are accidenti, the events and incidents through which love misdirects us from its own nature in order to capture us in its power, a power often compared to light:

    E non si puo chonoschiere per lo viso
    And not by knowing how its sheer appearance
    Chompriso biancho in tale obbietto chade
    Comprises light of such contrasting moods
    E chi ben aude forma non si vede
    And vivifies without becoming obvious—
    Perche lo mena chi dallui procede
    But by being led by what flows from it.

In one of his translations, Pound resorts to "white light" to translate this stanza: "But taken in the white light (biancho) that is allness / toucheth his aim / Who heareth, seeth not form / But is led by its emanation." Here is an explicit correlation between erotic love and the Mystery Light, the marshmallow-white luminosity that casts on shadow. In his account of his Provencal pilgrimage, Pound says he visited the famous room in Poitiers said to be designed that light casts no shadow within it.

I can well understand how Dylan alternated 10- and 11-syllable lines in some of his songs. I couldn't always get the full count to come out right in sense, as in the second and fourth lines of the above stanza, although in the first and third, I did. The fourth line could be rendered, "But in our being led by what flows from it," bringing the syllable tally to a neat eleven.

Donna Mi Priegha is a poem perpetually caught in the act of translation.

You have to say and feel the hendasyllabic form to register the extraordinary internal quality of its cadence: Vien de veduta forma che s'intende - It comes from what is seen as it so intends. Feel that cadence and then consider the sense, what the poet is telling us about love: it reveals itself, not as itself, but through what it makes us see, in the way it intends us to see it. This single line, to me, is a perfect refutation of the Jungian theory of projection that is often evoked to deconstruct and discount romantic love (e.g., Robert Johnson, We - Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love). In authentic romance, there is no projection, no specious process of self-elevating fantasy enacted through another. Instead—if we are faithful to love, to faith incarnate, "that from this source alone is born compassion"—there is indirection that comes around to the essence of who we are and what we are, which only love reveals, and does so precisely by not revealing itself.

There is more to be learned about love from the DMP than from countless volumes of theology and psychology.

My translation of Donna Mi Priegha.

* * * * *

Whatever we may make of it today, fins amor in the Middle Ages attained a form of transcendent passion that may not have been recaptured since that time, except in sporadic and isolated instances. Paradoxically, the exaltation of carnal love to a religious level happened in a world dominated by a religion that condemned sex as sin. AMOR vs ROMA The erotic was not feared by the medieval Church because it was sinful, but because it is the primary catalyst to deathless love imbued with those very assurances that religion claims it alone can provide. Sexual pleasure must be condemned as sinful, so that it is not perceived in its authentic role as accessory to immortal, transcendent love.

"Eros is a mighty daemon."

jll: July 15, 2006 Flanders Revised December 2010 Andalucia

 

 

 

 

 


Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.