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What is a Canzone? Famous Poem Example

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

CANZONE, a form of verse which has reached us from Italian literature, where from the earliest times it has been assiduously cultivated. The word is derived from the Provençal cansò, a song, but it was in Italian first that the form became a literary one, and was dedicated to the highest uses of poetry. The canzone-strophe consists of two parts, the opening one being distinguished by Dante as the fronte, the closing one as the sirma. These parts are connected by rhyme, it being usual to make the rhyme of the last line of the fronte identical with that of the first line of the sirma. In other respects the canzone has great liberty, as regards number and length of lines, arrangement of rhymes and conduct of structure. An examination of the best Italian models, however, shows that the tendency of the canzone-strophe is to possess 9, 10, 11, 13, 14 or 16 verses, and that of these the strophe of 14 verses is so far the most frequent that it may almost be taken as the type. In this form it resembles an irregular sonnet. The Vita Nuova contains many examples of the canzone, and these are accompanied by so many explanations of their form as to lead us to believe that the canzone was originally invented or adopted by Dante. The following is the proemio or fronte of one of the most celebrated canzoni in the Vita Nuova (which may be studied in English in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation):—

“Donna pietosa e di novella etate,

Adorna assai di gentilezza umane,

Era là ov’ io chiamava spesso Morte.

Veggendo gli occhi miei pien di pietate,

Ed ascoltando le parole vane,

Si mosse con paura a pianger forte;

Ed altro donne, che si furo accorte

Di me per quella che meco piangia,

Fecer lei partir via

Ed apprissârsi per farmi sentire.

Quel dicea: ‘Non dormire’;

E qual dicea: ‘Perchè sì te sconforte?’

Allor lasciai la nuova fantasia,

Chiamando il nome della donna mia.”

The Canzoniere of Petrarch is of great authority as to the form of this species of verse. In England the canzone was introduced at the end of the sixteenth century by William Drummond of Hawthornden, who has left some very beautiful examples. In German poetry it was cultivated by A.W. von Schlegel and other poets of the Romantic period. It is doubtful, however, whether it is in agreement with the genius of any language but Italian, and whether the genuine “Canzone toscana” is a form which can be reproduced elsewhere than in Italy.