“Here everything rhymes”

Osip Mandelstam wrote in 1933 in Conversation about Dante:

Would you like to become acquainted with the lexicon of Italian rhymes? Take the entire Italian dictionary and leaf through as you please. Here everything rhymes. Every word cries out to enter into concordanza.

There is a marvelous abundance of endings than are wed to each other. The Italian verb gains force as it approaches its end and only in the ending does it live. Every word hastens to burst forth, to fly from the lips, go away, and clear a place for the others.

In Envies and Identifications (1985), Seamus Heaney quoted profusely from Mandelstam’s Conversation about Dante, including this passage:

When I began to study Italian and had barely familiarized myself with its phonetics and prosody, I suddenly understood that the centre of gravity of my speech efforts had been moved closer to my lips, to the outer parts of my mouth. The tip of the tongue suddenly turned out to have the seat of honour. The sound rushed towards the locking of the teeth…

A peculiar labial music: “abbo” — “gabbo” — “babbo” — “Tebe” — “plebe” — “zebba” – “converebbe”. It’s as if a nurse had participated in the creation of phonetics. Now the lips protrude in a childish manner, now they extend into a proboscis.

(The nurse above is a nanny, not a medical nurse.) Heaney argues that Mandelstam’s idiosyncratic sensitivity to Dante’s sound world

has much to do with the fact that he came to Dante not as an undergraduate but as an exile in his thirties.

In his late thirties or early forties, I would think, around Dante’s age at the time of his non-return to Florence. Heaney’s essay is a gem; I should have discovered it years earlier.

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