De vulgari eloquentia (II, i, 1-10)

(1) Solicitantes iterum celeritatem ingenii nostri ad calamum frugi operis redeuntes, ante omnia confitemur latinum vulgare illustre tam prosaice quam metrice decere proferri. Sed quia ipsum prosaicantes ab inventoribus magis accipiunt, et quia quod inventum est prosaicantibus permanere videtur exemplar et non e converso, que quendam videntur prebere primatum, primo secundum quod metricum est ipsum carminemus, ordine pertractantes illo, quem in fine primi libri polluximus. (1) Once more I call upon the resources of my swift-moving intellect, take up once more the pen used in my fruitful labours, and first of all declare that the illustrious Italian vernacular may as fittingly be used for writing prose as for writing poetry. But, because writers of prose most often learn the vernacular from poets, and because what is set out in poetry serves as a model for those who write prose, and not the other way about - which would seem to confer a certain primacy - I shall first expound the principles according to which the illustrious vernacular is used for writing poetry, following the order of treatment laid down at the end of the first book.
(2) Queramus igitur prius utrum omnes versificantes vulgariter debeant illud uti; et superficietenus videtur quod sic; quia omnis qui versificatur suos versus exornare debet in quantum potest; quare, cum nullum sit tam grandis exornationis quam vulgare illustre, videtur quod quisque versificator debeat ipsum uti. (2) Let us first ask, then, whether all who write poetry in the vernacular should use it in its illustrious form. To a superficial enquirer it might seem that they should, because anyone who writes poetry should embellish his lines as much as possible; and therefore, since nothing provides as splendid an ornament as does the illustrious vernacular, it seems that any writer of poetry should use it.
(3) Preterea, quod optimum est in genere suo, si suis inferioribus misceatur, non solum nil derogare videtur eis, sed ea meliorare videtur. Quare, si quis versificator, quanquam rude versificetur, ipsum sue ruditati admisceat, non solum bene facere, sed ipsum sic facere oportere videtur. Multo magis opus est adiutorio illis qui pauca, quam qui multa possunt! Et sic apparet quod omnibus versificantibus liceat ipsum uti. (3) Moreover, anything that is the best of its kind, if it be mixed with what is inferior to it, not only takes nothing away from the lesser material, but actually improves it; and therefore if poets, however crude the verses they write, mix the illustrious vernacular with their own crudities, they not only do the right thing but, it seems, are obliged to do so: those of limited ability stand much more in need of help than those with greater skill. And so it seems obvious that all poets have the right to use the illustrious vernacular.
(4) Sed hoc falsissimum est; quia nec semper excellentissime poetantes debent illud induere, sicut per inferius pertractata perpendi poterit. (4) Yet this is completely untrue, because not even the best of poets should use it on every occasion, as will be made clear by the thorough discussion below.
(5) Exigit ergo istud sibi consimiles viros, quemadmodum alii nostri mores et habitus. Exigit enim magnificentia magna potentes, purpura viros nobiles: sic et hoc excellentes ingenio et scientia querit et alios aspernatur, ut per inferiora patebit. (5) The illustrious vernacular requires, in fact, that those who use it have true affinity with it, as is the case with our other customs and symbols of authority: so magnificence requires those capable of great deeds, and purple calls for noble men; and, in the same way, the illustrious vernacular demands writers of outstanding intelligence and knowledge, and spurns all others, as will become clear below.
(6) Nam, quicquid nobis convenit, vel gratia generis, vel speciei, vel individui convenit; ut sentire, ridere, militare. Sed nobis non convenit hoc gratia generis, quia etiam brutis conveniret; nec gratia speciei, quia cunctis hominibus esset conveniens, de quo nulla questio est: nemo enim montaninis rusticana tractantibus hoc dicet esse conveniens; convenit ergo individui gratia. (6) For whatever is suited to us is so because we belong to a genus, or a species, or because we are who we are: this is true, for instance, of our having sense-perceptions, or laughing, or riding a horse. But the illustrious vernacular is not suited to us because we belong to a genus - otherwise it would also be suited to brute beasts; nor because we belong to a species - otherwise it would be suited to every human being, which is unthinkable (for no one would suggest that it is appropriate for mountain-dwellers discussing country matters); so it must be suited to us as individuals.
(7) Sed nichil individuo convenit nisi per proprias dignitates; puta mercari, militare, ac regere; quare, si convenientia respiciunt dignitates, hoc est dignos, et quidam digni, quidam digniores, quidam dignissimi esse possunt, manifestum est quod bona dignis, meliora dignioribus, optima dignissimis convenient. (7) But nothing suits an individual except in respect of the particular qualities that he possesses, as in the cases of carrying on a trade, or riding a horse, or governing. Therefore, if the various degrees of suitability reflect qualities, as they do in worthy individuals, so that some are worthy, some worthier, and some most worthy, it is clear that good things are suited to the worthy, better to the more worthy, and the best to the most worthy.
(8) Et cum loquela non aliter sit necessarium instrumentum nostre conceptionis quam equus militis, et optimis militibus optimi conveniant equi, ut dictum est, optimis conceptionibus optima loquela conveniet. Sed optime conceptiones non possunt esse nisi ubi scientia et ingenium est: ergo optima loquela non convenit nisi illis in quibus ingenium et scientia est. Et sic non omnibus versificantibus optima loquela convenit, cum plerique sine scientia et ingenio versificentur; et per consequens nec optimum vulgare. (8) And since language is nothing other than the vehicle indispensable to our thinking, as a horse is to a knight, and since the best horses are suited to the best knights, as I said, the best language is suited to the best thinking. But the best thinking is not to be found except where knowledge and intelligence are also present; therefore the best language is suited only to those who possess intelligence and knowledge. And so the best language is not suitable for all versifiers, since most of them write their verses without knowledge or intelligence; and, as a consequence, the best type of vernacular is not suitable for them either.
(9) Quapropter, si non omnibus convenit, nec omnes ipsum debent uti; quia inconvenienter agere nullus debet. Et ubi dicitur quod quilibet suos versus exornare debet in quantum potest, verum esse testamur; sed nec bovem epiphyatum, nec balteatum suem dicemus ornatum, ymo potius deturpatum ridemus illum; est enim exornatio alicuius convenientis additio. (9) On this account, if the illustrious vernacular is not appropriate for all, then not everyone should use it, since no one should do anything that is inappropriate. And as for my remark that anyone should embellish his lines as much as he can, I declare that this is true; but we would not call an ox well-adorned if it were dressed up to look like a horse, or a sow if it wore a sword-belt - rather, we would laugh at their disfiguring get-up, for true adornment consists in the addition of something appropriate.
(10) Ad illud ubi dicitur quod superiora inferioribus admixta profectum adducunt, dicimus verum esse quando cesset discretio: puta si aurum cum argento conflemus; sed si discretio remanet, inferiora vilescunt: puta cum formose mulieres deformibus admiscentur. Unde, cum sententia versificantium semper verbis discretive mixta remaneat, si non fuerit optima, optimo sociata vulgari, non melior, sed deterior apparebit, quemadmodum turpis mulier si auro vel serico vestiatur. (10) As for the point that superior material mixed with inferior enhances the inferior, I say that this is true when the distinction between the two is lost, as when gold is blended with silver; but if the distinction survives, then the inferior material actually loses value, as when beautiful women are seen in the company of ugly ones. So, since poets' thought is mixed with their words but can always be distinguished from them, when that thought is not of the best it will not seem better for being mixed with the best type of vernacular, but worse - as would an ugly woman swathed in gold or silk.