A Gift: The Life of da Ponte: A Poem

A Gift: The Life of da Ponte: A Poem

by David R. Slavitt


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Epic poem, biography, literary criticism, historical romance—in A Gift, David Slavitt presents the fascinating life of Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, one of history’s great unknowns, a man blessed and cursed by his conviction that within him lay the capacity for literary greatness.

Educated in the church, the young da Ponte carouses in Venice, flees Italy, and finds himself in Austria, trying to establish a career in the theater. Under the tepid patronage of Joseph II of Austria, he turns out libretti for Salieri and learns the “whorey tricks” of writing on demand: “Adaptation, translation, theft.” In lines that ring harrowingly true, Slavitt reflects the young man’s self-doubts:

The mad hope
             grows like a mold on bread that it’s not so bad,
                is better than you think—
but what that means is only that your judgment is going too,
you can’t tell good from bad, are a fraud, impostor

Then, on the brink of despair, he encounters Mozart—boorish, preferring crude farce to literary grace. Still, the partnership thrives with The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte. But good luck is not to be trusted, and “misfortune is not reliable either.”

Despite his brilliant gift, success eludes da Ponte. Ever gullible, ever generous, he is destined to accumulate others’ debts, to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, to be forgotten. Da Ponte lives out his life in the fledgling United States, plagued by sickness, debt, and the implacably looming specter of failure.

Slavitt has created a lovely, heartening book, one that reminds us that untested faith is no faith at all. Alight with muted passion, A Gift chronicles a man’s refusal to despair despite the growing awareness that nothing awaits but poverty and ignominy—“that this ill-fitting garment is what the wardrobe holds.” Through Slavitt’s lively imagination, we feel reverence rather than pity for the dogged nobility of da Ponte’s struggle. Ultimately, Lorenzo da Ponte is a hero, his life a victory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807120484
Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
Publication date: 02/01/1996
Pages: 64
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

David R. Slavitt is the author of dozens of volumes of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Among his other books are the novels The Cliff and Turkish Delights and the poetry collections Crossroads, Eight Longer Poems, and Equinox. Slavitt is also a noted translator of the works of Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, and Avianus. He lives in Philadelphia.

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