Sister Dea and Her Pet Jay

— Are the members of the Club acquainted with the gentle personality of Sister Dea, a Tuscan poetess of the cinquecento, who loved, lost, and bewailed in elegiac song her pet jay ? It would be a pleasure if some friendly voice among the Club should encourage me, as did the courteous interlocutor in Bronzini’s ancient dialogue Of the Dignity and Nobility of Women. One, speaking of Sister Dea, calls her “ that virtuous young woman who, for the lightening of her grief, composed a particular song, , . . judged elegant as possible, and not unpleasing to hear.” Another responds (and I mean to imagine this kind person a spokesman of the Club), “Favor us with it for our enjoyment and disport. . . . for we shall remain greatly beholden to you.”

Although Sister Dea, a woman of one song, and little acquainted with the world, cannot be classed with her predecessors of that century, the noble matrons Vittoria Colonna and Vittoria Gambara, or Gaspara Stampa, a Renaissance Sappho, consumed by passion, neither was she of the throng of nymphs of an artificial Arcadia, whose songs were a mere echo of Petrarca. Very little is recorded of the life of Dea. She was born about the year 1550, of the family De’ Bardi, the great bankers who, more than two centuries before, had, to their lasting hurt, negotiated with Edward III. of England a national loan of many golden florins. In the cinquecento classicism was a mania, and sponsors in baptism neglected the saints’ calendar for the Greek and Roman mythology. So the baby De’ Bardi was named Dea, and no doubt her fond kinsfolk declared that in her earliest attempts to toddle was manifest the true goddess. She was educated at the convent of Castel Fiorentino, where, as we shall note, her studies included the classic “ humanities.” Later, she returned to that cloister to take the veil. The reason is not recorded, but her poem seems to bear internal evidence that she had not been driven to shelter by storms of life, but was, rather, attracted by the tranquil sisterhood, and by the opportunities for culture of the intellect and of the soul.

Her elegy on the pet jay is one of the few examples of vital and sincere poetry among the verse of that period. It shows an inspiration, affectionate and spontaneous, and the polished expression of a virginal heart of rich potentialities. The poem has been twice printed: in the dialogue already cited, and again (according to Signor E. Magliani’s valuable Storia Letteraria delle Donne Italiane) by an eighteenthcentury compiler of Berni’s burlesques, who, by some freak of coarse stupidity, placed it there, — a lily among nettles. It is preserved entire in a manuscript of the Strozzi Library at Florence, from which, by courtesy of friends, it has been copied for me. Sister Dea begins, full-voiced, the song of her sorrow (and the Club will be lenient with my translation, remembering that the English vocabulary imitates but harshly the nightingale notes of Tuscany) : —

The exceeding sorrow which laid hold on me
When death in one brief moment made to cease
Mine every joy, so greatly doth increase
That my sad soul would disembodied flee,
And threateneth to go
In fond pursuit after its cause of woe.
Hence, lest this thing take place,
Muses who serve the fair-haired deity,
A woman and a maiden as are ye,
I pray you of your grace
This boon, that envious time may not efface
My grievous misery;
Now and henceforth, with my most bitter pain
Let the great worth made plain to all appear
Of her who is dead, alas, my Jay most dear !

It was in the Tuscan springtime, radiant with flower and leaf, that Sister Dea, walking in the convent garden, chose a callow fledgeling from “ the little brethren of the brood.” With pretty cares she tried to replace “ the mother bird that mourned on the laurel bough,” feeding the young jay from her own lips. In parenthesis it may be confessed that Sister Dea’s ornithology was not an exact science, for she calls her pet ghiandaia and gazza impartially. But not Lesbia and her sparrow had formed a sweeter picture than the nun with her jay pecking at her mouth, “ shaking its ruffled wings for gratitude,” and giving thanks “with its gentle croak.” One believes Sister Dea when she asserts that the convent talked of nothing but the jay. “ To beauty matchless upon earth she added virtue of far greater worth,” moralizes the demure little nun. The death of her pet is her first experience of grief, it would seem : —

O evil world, the sorry fruit I have known,
Sprung from thy seeding !

and so is she admitted to the great company of the mournful. It is true that her inspiration sometimes fails. The verses are not especially poetic which narrate how the jay was drowned,—

O loathly, dreadful case ! within a well;

and verity is the principal grace, also, of the stanza which celebrates the domestic virtues of the bird, — guardian of the hens and their brood, visitor to the convent kitchen, friend of the cat and the dog, and not without an eye to the pots and pans. But from these humbler scenes the lament of Sister Dea rises suddenly to Olympus itself; and, with an invocation which, considering the extreme classicism of her times, does not misbecome her as a nun or seem unnatural to her as a poetess, we hear her claim at the hands of Jupiter the apotheosis of her dead jay : —

Jove, now that cruel death iniquitous
Has quenched the lovely sparkling eyes, beyond
All light of sapphire or of diamond,
And the sweet speech that was so marvelous
To them who heard it, and the song is still
That tears to joyfulness could turn at will,
For virtues known to thee
And worthy deeds, since thou hast set together
In heaven so many birds of earthly feather,
This comfort give to me :
That, far above all weather,
Midway between the beauteous stars benign,
The swan’s and raven’s sign, there may appear,
Resplendent in the sky, my Jay most dear.

Yet sidereal honors are too remote to appease her tender, forlorn yearnings. Life, restored in this world, is the reward that she craves for her jay’s perfections, and she takes heart again of fable : —

My song, if it be true there is a bird,
Forever sole on earth,
Which dies in flame, and presently flies forth
More beauteous than before, —
This only bird of all the universe,
By some new miracle divine, diverse,
I hope may have once more
Life from the water where she died, restore
The world her loss left worse,
And give again to me my heart’s delight;
For this indeed were right, — that should appear
Beside the phœnix risen my Jay most dear !

My light task will have been done amiss if it shall not have revealed under the monastic veil of Sister Dea the real woman, the maiden divining maternal love in care for her pet jay.