On “What I cannot recover...”
Samantha Pious

Filipa de Almada’s single surviving poem appears in the Cancioneiro Geral (a songbook compiled by Garcia de Resende and printed in Lisbon in 1516), which contains thirty poems attributed to twenty-seven women writers (out of nearly one thousand poems attributed to 286 poets). Filipa’s poem is followed by several responses, also in verse, from some of her male contemporaries.

My translation aims to re-capture something of the wryness with which the poet-speaker addresses the “world” of the royal court. Although “order so unequal” is a closely literal rendering of ordem desigual, our twenty-first-century ideal of “equality,” so profoundly influenced by Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, hardly corresponds to its cognate in fifteenth-century Portuguese. For Filipa de Almada, as for her contemporaries, the word desigual would have signified a disruption of social equilibrium. It would not necessarily have referred to the socioeconomic injustices that are held by modern-day thinkers to be the forerunners of revolution. In translating favores as “ambition,” I seek to convey the sense of favors as advancement or preferment by a prince—specifically, by the allegorical figure of Lady Fortune, who was believed to control the outcomes of all human endeavors. The rhyme-word cativa can mean captive or wretched or both.

Filipa’s repetition of simple, everyday words and phrases (posso = “I can,” praz = “pleases,” mal = “evil”) belies the complexity of the argument she is making. Something she has lost and cannot regain inspires her to view the world with indifference, wishing it neither good nor ill. She compares this state of nonchalance to that of the souls in Limbo, which, according to the Inferno of Dante Alighieri, was the circle of Hell reserved for infants who died before they could be baptized and for those who lived virtuous lives “despite” being pagans, Jews, or Muslims—in other words, non-Christians. I suspect Filipa is conflating Limbo with the vestibule of Hell, where the “tepid” souls of those who were neither good nor evil are condemned to reside. In any case, she prefers an indifferent life to a sorrowful one. Such is the position articulated by the sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy and by his medieval successors, theologians who believed that it was necessary for the human soul to detach itself from the things of this world and devote itself to the world to come. But Filipa’s poem seems to be less about theology or philosophy than the realities of living at a royal court.

For today’s readers, living in a world of war, plague, wildfires, and famines, the idea of not caring about current events may seem a trifle out of touch. But I would like to take this poem as a salutory reminder of the dangers of burn-out. In other words, it may be healthier for human beings as individuals (though not necessarily for society as a whole) to care too little rather than too much.
Samantha Pious’s translations from the modern French of Renée Vivien are available as A Crown of Violets (Headmistress Press, 2017); her translations from the medieval French of Christine de Pizan are forthcoming. Individual translations have appeared in Ancient Exchanges, The Berkeley Poetry Review, Doublespeak, Lunch Ticket, and other journals.

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