Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Gaspara Stampa: Selected Poems


“Certain is the parting.”

I picked up this collection because I wanted to (finally) understand the famous line in Rilke’s first elegy:

“Have you imagined Gaspara Stampa intensely enough
so that any girl deserted by her beloved might be inspired by that fierce example of soaring,
objectless love and might say to herself, "Perhaps I can be like her?"

Rilke is one of my favorite poets, or, more accurately, his Duino Elegies are some of my favorite poems, so I wondered who could inspire him so. Turns out, it’s another poet.

Gaspard Stampa (1523 - 1554) is considered one of Italy’s greatest poets.

She was classically trained in the arts, highly creative and she had the misfortune of falling for a handsome douchebag who — it seems — strung her along for awhile, then ghosted and married someone else. Her misfortune in love is our good luck, because she chronicled in verse every stage of the romance, from early joyous obsession to self-flagellating grief in especially modern and empowered (if only through heartache) terms.

Reading a translation — especially from 16th century Italian — requires a good deal of trust in the translator, and they are not all created equal (just read Mitchell’s soaring translation of Rilke, compared to all others) but I’m a trusting person. And regardless of her native language, it’s clear Stampa was a passionate and talented writer, and that she was burdened by an exquisitely painful form of unrequited love.

Rilke, in his first elegy, mirrors one of her own lines:

“I dare to hope some woman will exclaim:
Happy is she, she who has undergone
For such a noble cause, sorrow so noble.”

Later Stampa writes:

“If you should care to know me, you might see
A lady in her manner and appearance
Like Death herself and every kind of sorrow.”

This is now one of my favorite opening lines for a poem of all time:

“Let all the minds and tongues on earth come forth
With every style of prose as well as verse …”

Here’s a little something that gets to the heart of her work:

“You who are chosen by the grace of Love,
Do not repine, therefore, if you must suffer,
Since torments caused by love are always blest.”

And a rare happy moment:

“While I am suffering such a painful good,
I fear my heart will break with too much joy:
Only she who has felt it understands.”

And, finally, this powerful reminder:

“I bid you die to joy and live in grief,”
Love answers me his hard final sentence.
“Let this suffice you, that it makes you write.”

And so, even she somehow knew that her suffering would be the impetus for some of the greatest poetry ever written, poetry that would shape the work of Rilke and countless others. Was it worth it? She died at 31 in 1554, probably of a broken heart and whatever other horrible diseases were creeping around Italy at the time. But her gorgeous and unflinching poetry, inspired by anguish, lives on.

The douchebag, happily, has been all but forgotten by the sands of time.