From The Sonnets of Michelangelo, 1878, a translation by J.A. Symonds of Cesare Guasti’s text of 1863, Le Rime di Michelangelo Buonarrote…. The only earlier edition was not published until 1623, 59 years after Michelangelo’s death; the poems were edited, smoothed, regularized, and bowdlerized by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, the artist’s grand-nephew, who was distressed by their religious and political unorthodoxy as well as what he described as expressions of “amor platonico verile.” Symonds believes that a woman is generally intended under the titles “amico” and “Signore.”
Most of Michelangelo’s sonnets were composed after the age of 60; he met Vittoria Colonna at the age of 63. Symonds adds Rossetti-like titles to Michelangelo’s poems, “Love and Death,” “Love’s Justification,” “Love in Youth and Age.”
On the Painting of the Sistine Chapel
To Giovanni Da Pistoja
I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den –
as cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
or in what other land they hap to be –
which drives the belly close beneath the chin,
my beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind;
my buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
my feet unguided wander to and fro;
in front my skin grows loose and long; behind
by bending it becomes more taut and strait;
crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow;
whence false and quaint, I know,
must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
for ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
to succour my dead pictures and my fame;
since foul I fare and painting is my shame.
To Vittoria Colonna
A Matchless Courtesy
Blest spirit, who with loving tenderness
quickenest my heart so old and near to die,
who mid thy joys on me dost bend an eye
though many nobler men around thee press!
As thou wert erewhile wont my sight to bless,
so to console my mind thou now dost fly;
hope therefore stills the pangs of memory,
which coupled with desire my soul distress.
So finding in thee grace to plead for me –
thy thoughts for me sunk in so sad a case –
he who now writes, returns thee thanks for these.
Lo, it were foul and monstrous usury
to send thee ugliest paintings in the place
of thy fair spirit’s living phantasies.
Waiting in Faith
If through the eyes the heart speaks clear and true,
I have no stronger sureties than these eyes
for my pure love. Prithee let them suffice,
lord of my soul, pity to gain from you.
More tenderly perchance than is my due,
your spirit sees into my heart, where rise
the flames of holy worship, nor denies
the grace reserved for those who humbly sue.
Oh, blessed day when you are at last mine!
Let time stand still, and let noon’s chariot stay;
fixed be that moment on the dial of heaven!
That I may clasp and keep, by grace divine,
clasp in these yearning arms and keep for aye
my heart’s loved lord to me desertless given!
Light and Darkness
He who ordained, when first the world began,
time, that was not before creation’s hour,
divided it, and gave the sun’s high power
to rule the one, the moon the other span;
thence fate and changeful chance and fortune’s ban
did in one moment down on mortals shower;
to me they portioned darkness for a dower;
dark hath my lot been since I was a man.
Myself am ever mine own counterfeit;
and as deep night grows still more dim and dun,
so still of more misdoing must I rue;
meanwhile this solace to my soul is sweet,
that my black night doth make more clear the sun
which at your birth was given to wait on you.
Celestial and Earthly Love
Love is not always harsh and deadly sin;
if it be love of loveliness divine,
it leaves the heart all soft and infantine
for rays of God’s own grace to enter in.
Love fits the soul with wings, and bids her win
her flight aloft nor e’er to earth decline;
‘tis the first step that leads her to the shrine
of Him who shakes the thirst that burns within.
The love of that whereof I speak, ascends;
woman is different far; the love of her
but ill befits a heart all manly wise.
The one love soars, the other downward tends;
the soul lights this, while that the senses stir,
and still his arrow at base quarry flies.
To Giorgio Vasari
On the Brink of Death
Now hath my life across a stormy sea
like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
are hidden, ere the final reckoning fall
of good and evil for eternity.
Now know I well now that fond phantasy
which made my soul the worshipper and thrall
of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
is that which all men seek unwillingly.
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
what are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
my soul that turns to His great love on high,
whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.
To Monsignor Lodovico Beccadelli Urbino
God’s grace, the cross, our troubles multiplied,
will make us meet in heaven, full well I know;
yet ere we yield our breath, on earth below
why need a little solace be denied?
Though seas and mountains and rough ways divide
our feet asunder, neither frost nor snow
can make the soul her ancient love forgo;
nor chains nor bonds the wings of thought have tied.
Borne by these wings with thee I dwell for aye,
and weep, and of my dead Urbino talk,
who, were he living, now perchance would be:
for so ‘twas planned, thy guest as well as I;
warned by his death another way I walk
to meet him where he waits to live with me.
From The Complete Poems of Michelangelo, Joseph Tusiani, New York, 1960:
You know, my Lord, that I know that you know
I’m coming back to you to please my eye,
And you know that I know you know it’s I:
Why don’t you welcome me as long ago?
If I must trust this hope you give and show,
And if, in truth, no more have I to sigh,
Oh let us break the wall between us! Why
A hidden sorrow is a double woe.
Love me no less, O my dear Lord, if I
Can love of you what you yourself love best:
Only the soul can make a spirit yearn.
Beauty that on your face I see and learn
Cannot be understood, or even guessed:
Who wants to know, to earth he first must die.