A Medieval-style rap battle and a stone woman

Between about 1283–1308, according to the estimations of scholars, Dante wrote about 102 poems, called the Rime (rhymes). While there are 109 transcribed at the Princeton Dante Project, some of the ones included were written to Dante as part of a poetic correspondence. Among these are three poems by his childhood buddy Forese Donati, seen above behind the rock.

Numbering LXXIII–LXXVIII (73–78) and written between about 1293–96, these are a really fun portion of the Supreme Poet’s literary canon. So many people can only think of him as someone who was very serious all the time, with no lighthearted concerns. Yet in these playfully insulting canzone, the Medieval version of a rap battle, Dante emerges as a fun young man with a great sense of humour.

Translation: Forese sucks in bed, and doesn’t even sleep with his wife that often either.

Tana (Gaetana) and Francesco were Dante’s much-younger halfsiblings.

I love how this fun exchange of jestingly insulting one another’s shortcomings ends with Forese essentially saying, “Let’s call the whole thing off and go down to the pub for a drink.”

These are the kinds of poems which should be used to introduce young people to Dante. So many teachers immediately throw students into the deep end with the densest, most sophisticated and advanced masterworks instead of gradually easing them in with poems and stories that are more lightweight and easier to understand.

A lot of negative first impressions stay with people for years, sometimes forever, and they have no interest in trying to read a book or author again with more mature eyes, nor to check out less intense works. The damage is already done, and you get clowns who leave simplistic, childish 1-star reviews bashing a book because they were forced to read it in school and decided they hated it.

Then we have a whole other cycle of poems painting Dante in a much different light than his popular image—the Rime Petrose (Stone Rhymes), written around 1296. Scholars haven’t figured out if Petra, the woman they’re dedicated to, were an actual woman, a fictional creation, or mere symbolism.

Whomever this Petra may be, Dante’s feelings for her are the cardinal opposite of his feelings for Beatrice. This is no courtly love or tender longing for an immaculate dream denied to him by Fate. There are images and desires in these poems that are quite erotic, sadomasochistic even.

Petra is called the Stone Woman for good reason—her heart is as hard and unrelenting as stone. Indeed, the word petra is used over and over again in these poems, even when describing other things.

Rhyme CIII (103), which closes the cycle, has the most unrelenting language of all. It opens with the line “I want to be as harsh in my speech as this fair stone is in her behaviour,” and only gets stronger from there.

Check out the closing stanzas:

“Once I’d taken in my hand the fair locks
which have become my whip and lash, seizing them
before terce I’d pass through vespers with them
and the evening bell: and I’d not show pity
or courtesy, Oh no, I’d be like a bear at play.
And though Love whips me with them now, I would
take my revenge more than a thousandfold.
Still more, I’d gaze into those eyes
whence come the sparks that inflame my heart,
which is dead within me; I’d gaze into them
close and fixedly, to revenge myself on her
for fleeing from me as she does: and then
with love I would make our peace.

“Song, go straight to that
woman who has wounded my heart and robs me
of what I most hunger for, and drive an arrow
through her heart: for great honour
is gained through taking revenge.”

Obviously, this is in no way representative of Dante’s normal oeuvre or way of expressing himself, but it does show he wasn’t all high-minded philosopher, serious writer, and romantic lover. He’s essentially telling Petra, to quote the chorus of the Nine Inch Nails song “Closer,” “I want to fuck you like an animal.” Those have got to be the most violently, explicitly erotic lines he ever wrote!

You can peruse all the Rime at the Princeton Dante Project, under the Minor Works linked to on the far left. They’re all worth reading, and help to paint a fuller picture of the Supreme Poet.

Terza rima

Terza rima (third rhyme), also known as terzina Dantesca, is a style of poetry Dante created to write The Divine Comedy. No earlier examples are known. It’s believed he was influenced by the Provençal troubadours he so admired. They used a form of lyric poetry called sirventes or serventes (service song).

These songs were written from the POV of a sirvent (serviceman), and were usually parodies. They borrowed the metrical structure, melody, and many times even the actual rhymes of famous songs to take on controversial subjects (often current events). A sirventes more often than not was quite vitriolic.

Terza rima, then, is a three-line stanza with the rhyming pattern of ABA BCB CDC DED; i.e., the first and third lines rhyme, and the second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next triplet. Each section of the poem concludes with a couplet or single line repeating the final tercet’s middle line’s rhyme. E.g., DED E, DED EE.

It’s known as chained rhyme because the second verse hooks each triplet onto the next like a chain. This style makes it easier to memorise than poems and songs with only two rhyming lines. (Though nowadays, many singers and rappers can’t even be bothered to rhyme anything, rhyme words with themselves, or just repeat lines.)

Dante’s one exception is Christ only rhyming with itself in Paradiso. He felt it would be unholy and blasphemous to associate any other words with that name.

This style of rhyming also makes it more difficult for copyists to steal the work, delete some lines, and embellish it with their own lines. The rhyme sequence would be interrupted if anything were taken away or added, and coming up with new rhymes to fit with the overall story and not look like piracy would be a really difficult task,

Terza rima employs the hendecasyllable (endecasillabo) structure, a verse of eleven syllables where the last accent falls on the tenth syllable. This too was influenced by the Provençal troubadours, corresponding to their décasyllabe.

Because of Dante’s acclaim, other Italian poets began using terza rima too. To this day, it remains the most popular metric structure of Italian poetry and song.

Terza rima is very difficult to naturally achieve in English due to the language’s more complex phonology and relative dearth of words to easily rhyme with one another. Even a lot of singers, poets, and rappers just using standard rhyming often employ forced rhyme schemes because the words at the end of those two consecutive lines sound nothing alike, and there were no other words they could think of.

English writers brave enough to use terza rima include Geoffrey Chaucer, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Milton, Thomas Hardy, Lord Byron, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams. Several translators of The Divine Comedy have also used this metric, among them Laurence Binyon, who did the version I first read. (And yes, it does often employ forced rhyme schemes.)

Translators using terza rima necessarily also take some liberties with the source text. To ensure the English lines all follow that style, there are frequent insertions of words and phrases that appear nowhere in the actual Italian. As pretty as they make it sound, it’s linguistically misleading.

…Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale…

…You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first.  You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
ascending and descending others’ stairs…

(Paradiso, Canto XVII, 55–60)


Copyright Lucasaw at WikiCommons

Publius Ovidius Naso was born in the town of Sulmo (now Sulmona) on 20 March BCE, into an important equestrian family. His father sent him to Rome to study rhetoric, which he hoped Ovid would translate into a law career. However, Ovid always tended towards the emotional side of law, not the argumentative, and abandoned this career when his 20-year-old brother died.

Ovid travelled to Sicily, Athens, and Asia Minor, where he held various minor public posts. This career too came to a premature end, and he resigned his current office to devote himself full-time to poetry around 29–25 BCE. His father quite disapproved of this.

Ovid’s first public recitation came when he was eighteen, about 25 BCE. He joined the circle whom Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus served as patron to. Ovid also befriended poets under the patronage of Gaius Maecenas. Probably the best-known of these poets to the average modern person was Horace.

For the first 25 years of his literary career, Ovid mostly wrote erotic poems in elegiac meter. Most modern scholars believe his earliest extant work is The Heroides, consisting of letters from mythological heroines to their lovers.

Ovid’s next work was The Amores (The Loves), a three-book collection of love poems. Then came Medicamina Faciei Femineae (Women’s Facial Cosmetics), a poem about women’s beauty treatments which parodies serious didactic poems. One hundred lines survive.

Page from The Heroides

Then came Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a three-book poetry collection about the arts of love and seduction. The first two books purport to teach men how to seduce and keep women, and the third book tells women about their own seduction techniques.

Ovid’s next publication was Remedia Amoris (The Cure for Love), primarily intended for men. Some scholars feel this marks the end of his erotic poetry cycle.

Then came his masterwork, The Metamorphoses (first page pictured above). Over 250 Greek and Roman myths are contained within the fifteen books. (“Book” tends to mean “part” in classical literature, not an entire full-length manuscript.) Much of our modern knowledge of Greco–Roman mythology and mythohistory comes from Ovid’s preservation of these stories when they were relatively fresh in human memory.

Countless authors over the centuries have been inspired by The Metamorphoses, and many works of art and music depict scenes and characters. Though Ovid’s readership and massive influence on Western culture began waning after the Renaissance, a revival started in the late 20th century.

Copyright Sailko; Courtesy Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana

The Metamorphoses was Dante’s major source of knowledge about these myths too, along with The Aeneid. Many of the characters who appear in Inferno, and their stories, were drawn straight from the pages of Ovid.

Ovid appears in Canto IV of Inferno, among the great non-Christian poets stuck in Limbo, and is mentioned again in Canto XXV. Two of his stories from Metamorphoses are alluded to in Canto XXIX of Inferno and Canto XXII of Purgatorio.

Despite Ovid’s popularity, Augustus Caesar exiled him to the remote province of Tomis (modern-day Constanța, Romania) by the Black Sea in 8 CE. Perhaps Dante felt a special bond with him because he was a fellow exile.

The reasons for Ovid’s exile have always been unclear. There have been many theories over the centuries (obscene verses, disrespect to Caesar, knowing too much about Caesar’s alleged incestuous relationships, catching Caesar’s daughter and granddaughter committing adultery or sleeping with them himself, opposing authoritarianism), but no concrete proof has ever been established.

In the early 20th century, another theory was introduced, claiming Ovid never was exiled at all, and that his writings about it are meant as satire and fiction. Mainstream scholars oppose this idea.

Ovid Banished from Rome, J.M.W. Turner, 1838

Other works of Ovid’s include Ibis, Tristia, Epistulae ex Ponto, Fasti, and Medea (the lattermost of which, Ovid’s only play, is now sadly lost). A number of other poems are spuriously attributed to him.

WeWriWa—A poem for the birthday boy


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. I thought last week would be my last excerpt from my alternative history, And Aleksey Lived, for awhile, but I remembered today, 12 August, would’ve been my protagonist’s 114th birthday.

These are the concluding lines of the 530-word freeverse poem which opens the book. When I wrote it in November 2014, there were tears streaming down my face. That poem is quite possibly the most emotional thing I’ve ever written.

No one will ever know now what might’ve been.
No one ever does.
That’s what’s so haunting and heartbreaking about the death of anyone in the prime of life.
But in my beautiful dream,
he earned his place in history as Tsar Aleksey the Savior.
The forces of good and light defeated the forces of evil and darkness.
And in real life,
before Alyosha died,
Alyosha lived.
To the dead we owe honesty, respect, love, dignity,
for kindness to the dead can never be repaid
and could never have an ulterior motive.
Most of all,
we must remember the dead as they were in life,
for the fact that they lived,
not that they died.
And Aleksey lived.

A poem for Alyosha

I’m really close to winning my very first NaNoWriMo, but I decided to go back to the beginning and start with one of my freeverse poems. It’s been awhile since I’ve seriously written any freeverse poetry. This wasn’t about padding out my word count so close to the finish line, but feeling this really works to set the mood and give meaning to the entire story. I was emotionally gutted as I was writing it; you don’t have to tell me I’m far too sensitive for my own good.

FYI: Tsesarevich is the correct word for the firstborn son of a Tsar, in spite of the more general Tsarevich being more widely known in the English-speaking world. I’m pretentious like that, the same reason I use accent marks on Russian words and names in my ultra-purist transliteration style.


Alekséy Nikoláyevich Románov,

the last tsesarevich of Russia,

the boy who never became Tsar,

the sickly child who slowly became stronger,

with fewer injuries as he got older,


thirteen years,

eleven months,




That’s not a full life.

Not even half a life.

A beautiful, innocent child just starting to become a young man,

frozen in time,

forever thirteen,

robbed of his life for the crime of having been born royalty

to the wrong parents

at the wrong time

in the wrong place.

The soulless murderer

saw only someone from the ruling class

who deserved to be shot down like a wild animal

unworthy of life

not a beautiful boy who had barely lived.

How do you pack an entire lifetime of experiences and memories into only thirteen years,

eleven months,

six days?

So many lessons yet to learn,

experiences yet to have,

books yet to read,

music yet to hear,

films yet to see,

a first love never to have,

children never to be born,

the experience of a grown-up lover denied,

so much love, compassion, intelligence, strength yet to give and develop.

He could’ve beaten the odds and lived into adulthood,

found the love of a compassionate Tsarítsa who loved and accepted him just as he was,

fathered healthy heirs,

become Russia’s most modern, enlightened, belovèd Tsar,

his whole reason for ruling shaped by love and compassion,

his memories of suffering,

the eternal outsider looking in,

forced into a quiet, interior life of the mind

to preserve his precarious life as long as possible.

But instead,

the forces of evil decided he must die

in the most horrific way possible

even denied dignity in Death

dumped in the woods


hacked up

doused with gasoline and sulphur

the location of his remains known only to God for ninety years

still denied a funeral.

How can someone who only lived thirteen years,

eleven months,

six days

have ever done anything so abominable he deserved that?

But I decided he must live.

So many decades later,

this beautiful, innocent boy,

from the other world,

lodged himself in my heart and soul,

haunting me,

whispering to me,

compelling me to give him the happy ending he was denied in this lifetime,

entrusting me with the belief that he would’ve become a wonderful Tsar,

an exceptional adult man,

someone full of strength, compassion, love,

who would’ve beaten so many other people’s dire what-if predictions and lived well into adulthood.

No one will ever know now what might’ve been.

No one ever does.

That’s what’s so haunting and heartbreaking about the death of anyone in the prime of life.

But in my beautiful dream,

he earned his place in history as Tsar Alekséy the Savior.

The forces of good and light defeated the forces of evil and darkness.

And in real life,

before Alyosha died,

Alyosha lived.

To the dead we owe honesty, respect, love, dignity,

for kindness to the dead can never be repaid

and could never have an ulterior motive.

Most of all,

we must remember the dead as they were in life,

for the fact that they lived

and not that they died.

And Alekséy lived.

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