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By J. G. Nichols
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2012 J.G. Nichols
All rights reserved.
Poems witten in the lifetime of modanna Laura
Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
You who can hear in scattered rhymes the sound
of all that sighing which once fed my heart
in my first youthful error, when in part
I was a person of a different kind –
my changing manner as I weep and reason,
between vain aspiration and vain grief,
leads everyone who has known love himself
to sympathise, I hope, not merely pardon.
And yet I was, I do now realise,
for long a common laughing-stock, so that
often inside myself I feel deep shame –
the bitter fruit of wild and wandering cries,
repentance, and the knowledge out of doubt
that all this world loves is a fleeting dream.
Per fare una leggiadra sua vendetta
To wreak what sweet revenge is his to wreak,
and punish all offences at one blow,
Love unobtrusively took up his bow,
and seized his opportunity to strike.
My forces had withdrawn into my heart
to make both there and in my eyes their stand;
and then I felt the fatal blow descend,
when arrows all before had fallen short.
Caught in confusion at the first attack,
my heart had not the energy or time
to take up arms now there was every need,
and did not have the wit to pull me back
onto a safer height from certain doom;
and cannot, now he wants to, lend me aid.
2 all offences: against the power of Love by resisting him.
Era il giorno ch'al sol si scoloraro
It was the day Apollo's rays turned pale
in sympathy with their Creator's plight,
when I, who wandered unaware, was caught,
and came, my lady, under your control.
That did not seem a time to be on guard
against the blows of Love; so I went by,
careless, suspicionless: my misery
began beside the woe of all the world.
Love came upon me quite unarmed, the heart
by neither of my eyes defensible
(now merely conduits for my tears to flow).
I think it did not honour him at all
to hit me with an arrow in that state:
to you well armed not even flaunt his bow.
1 Apollo's rays turned pale: the eclipse at the time of the Crucifixion.
Que' ch'infinita providentia et arte
He Who reveals His providence and art
as infinite in all His wonders here,
creating this and the other hemisphere,
and Jupiter more mild than ever Mars,
Who, down to earth in order to shed light
on pages which for aeons hid the truth,
saw John and Peter fishing, took them both,
and in His heavenly kingdom gave them part;
when He was born did not do Rome the grace,
Judea rather, such was His delight,
as ever, to exalt humility;
now from a village sends a shining light,
whence we thank nature and the little place
where such a lovely lady came to be.
4 Jupiter ... Mars: as planets, in their influence.
6 pages: the Old Testament prophecies.
12 a village: Laura's birthplace is unknown.
Quando io movo i sospiri a chiamar voi
When I begin to send out sighs and call
the name that Love has written in my heart,
once the LAUdation's coming out we start
to hear the sound of its first syllable.
Your REgal state, the next thing that occurs,
adds to the boldness of the enterprise;
but the end is, 'Do not TAlk in her praise –
a burden for a broader back than yours.'
So LAUd and REverence are taught to us
by your mere name, when called by anyone,
O lady worthy of such eminence:
unless Apollo takes it all amiss
since, if it speaks about his evergreen,
a morTAL tongue becomes presumptuous.
3, 5, 7, 9, 14: A Latin form of Laura's name is used. 13 his evergreen: the laurel (lauro in Italian, and often identified by Petrarch with Laura), sacred to Apollo and a symbol of poetry.
Sí travïato è 'l folle mi' desio
My mad desire has strayed so far, and strays,
pursuing her whose back is turned in flight,
who, unconstrained by ties of love, flies light
and easily ahead of my slow pace,
that when I call it back and try to guide
it by safe ways, it simply pays less heed;
I try to use the spur, or turn its head,
but Love has made its nature far too wild.
And now it has the bit between its teeth
desire is left to lord it over me,
bearing me off to death against my will:
only to reach at last the laurel-wreath
whose bitter fruit and taste are misery
to victims they do little to console.
La gola e 'l somno et l'otïose piume
Gluttony, sleep, swans-down of idleness
send virtue into exile far away;
human nature goes more or less astray,
driven distracted by such banal vice;
and all those beneficial lights have gone
out in the sky, which governed every change,
till he is pointed out as something strange
who hopes to draw a stream from Helicon.
What longing for the bays? the myrtle bough?
Philosophy, you're poor and bare indeed,'
is what folk say, thinking of how it pays.
Few friends you'll find along this other road.
So all the more, friend, I implore you now
not to abandon your great enterprise.
9 myrtle bough: love poetry.
A pie' de' colli ove la bella vesta
Under the very hills where at the first
she donned that lovely dress, her earthly form
(that lady who so often rouses him
who sends us to you, weeping from his rest)
we went in peace and liberty through this
our mortal life, where people wish to stay,
without a thought of coming in the way
of something fashioned to entangle us.
For all this wretched state where we now find
ourselves, whose former life was so serene,
some comfort (and for death) is still at hand:
that is, vengeance on him who brought us down,
who, also in extremis, now lies bound
like all of us, but with a heavier chain.
This poem is spoken by some game which Petrarch had caught and sent as a gift.
Quando 'l pianeta che distingue l'ore
When that planet which divides the hours
comes back to stay with Taurus for a while,
then from the Bull's bright horns see virtue fall
and clothe our world in colourful fresh flowers.
Not just the world apparent from outside,
the river-banks and hills, receives the sun,
but there within where day is never born
earth's moisture is made pregnant with the light,
the very reason for such fruits as these.
So she, the sunlight of all womanhood,
turning the brightness of her eyes my way,
ensures that thoughts, acts, words of love are bred;
and yet, however she may turn her eyes,
spring is a season I shall never see.
1 that planet: the sun.
2 The sun is in Taurus between April and May.
9 such fruits as these: presumably truffles, sent as a gift.
Glorïosa columna in cui s'appoggia
Column of glory, strong stay and support
of all our hope and of the Latin name,
whom Jove's loud wrath, expressed in wind and rain,
has never driven from the right way yet,
no theatre here, loggia, or palaces,
but in their stead a fir, a pine, a beech,
green grass, a mountain within easy reach
to wander up and down as we compose,
suffice to elevate the intellect;
while the sweet nightingale that in the shade
spends all the dark deploring her distress
keeps every loving heart preoccupied.
Yet all this good you spoil with one defect,
keeping yourself, my lord, so far from us.
1 Column of glory: Stefano Colonna, head of a powerful Roman family. One of his sons, Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, was Petrarch's patron.
3 Jove's loud wrath: the enmity of Pope Boniface VIII.
5 here: probably Lombez in the Pyrenees where another of Stefano Colonna's sons, Giacomo, was Bishop.
Lassare il velo o per sole o per ombra
I have not seen you lay your veil apart
in sunlight or in shade
from when you first saw what desire I had
driving all other wishes from my heart.
While I still kept such thoughts well locked away,
which have destroyed my mind in its desire,
I saw your face adorned with sympathy;
but from the moment Love made you aware
you've kept your lovely blond hair veiled from me,
and kept your love-arousing eyes cast down.
Now what I most desire has been withdrawn,
and in both heat and cold,
and fatally for me, you still keep veiled
those eyes that once delighted with their light.
Se la mia vita da l'aspro tormento
Now should my life endure to this extent
against the bitter torment and the tears,
that, as a consequence of your last years,
I saw your eyes with all their brightness spent,
your hair shade into silver from pure gold,
your garlands laid aside, your verdant dress,
and all the colour fade out of that face
which makes me slow to murmur, terror-filled:
then Love would so embolden me I'd come
and put in front of you the years, the days,
the hours, the minutes of my martyrdom;
and, though desire is something time destroys,
I might receive, to mitigate my gloom,
what sympathy there is in tardy sighs.
Quando fra l'altre donne ad ora ad ora
When out of all the ladies in her sphere
Love comes and makes his dwelling in her face,
their beauty grows spectacularly less
and my desire for her grows more and more.
I bless the place, the season, and the hour
I raised my eyes to such an altitude;
I tell my soul: 'Show God some gratitude
for being honoured as you so much are!
'From her derives that loving tendency
which, while you go with it, makes you aspire,
little desiring what most men desire;
'from her derives that influential air
leading you up to heaven the straightest way;
in hope of which I follow happily.'
Occhi miei lassi, mentre ch'io vi giro
While I still keep you turned, though tired, my eyes,
upon the face of her who strikes you dead,
enjoy the time allowed,
for Love throws down a challenge; hence my sighs.
Nothing but death can close against my thoughts
the loving road they always move along
towards their longed-for haven of salvation;
and yet, my eyes, the light for which you long
may hide itself from you for much less reason,
since by your nature you are not so strong.
And so, though sad, before the time has come
to part, which is already on its way,
take comfort while you may
against a lengthy future martyrdom.
8 the light: Laura.
Io mi rivolgo indietro a ciascun passo
At every step, I find I must look back;
my weariness is hardly to be borne;
you breathe some distant comfort; I go on;
with only this complaint: 'Alas, alack!'
At last, recalling all the good I'm leaving,
the road so long, and so few years to go,
I halt (my footsteps were already slow)
and drop my eyes to earth in open grieving.
Sometimes above my loud complaints there hovers
one serious doubt: how can these limbs of mine
be living, and their spirit far away?
Then Love replies: 'Do you not call to mind
this is the privilege reserved for lovers,
not tied to earthly things, at liberty?'
Movesi il vecchierel canuto et biancho
The little white-haired man moves off from where
he has so happily lived out his days,
and from his family whom it dismays
to see their dear old father disappear;
and dragging thence his ancient back and side,
with only good will left, he takes himself
over the final stages of his life,
bent by the years, and weary of the road,
and reaches Rome, to follow out his wish
to gaze upon the image of that One
Whom he will see in heaven, such is his hope:
just so, alas, from time to time I search,
trying, so far as anybody can,
to see in others your true longed-for shape.
10 the image of that One: the likeness of Christ's face, believed to have been left upon the cloth with which Saint Veronica wiped it when
He was on His way to Calvary; it is a relic in Saint Peter's, Rome.
Piovonmi amare lagrime dal viso
I feel the bitter rain of tears distilled,
the rushing wind made up of anxious sighs,
each time it happens that I turn my eyes
to you who sever me from all the world.
That gentle smile of yours, admittedly,
can tame my most intransigent desires,
and draw me safely out of martyrs' fires,
so long as I observe you steadily;
but then my spirits fail, being chilled right through,
whenever I observe those fatal stars
turn all their countenance away from me.
Once set at large, like all freed prisoners
my soul runs from me; but it follows you;
and then slows to a walk, more thoughtfully.
10 fatal stars: Laura's eyes.
Quand'io son tutto vòlto in quella parte
When I have stared for some time fixedly
there where madonna's face throws out a light,
until my mind is so absorbed by light
I seem to burn and slowly melt away,
then, fearful for the breaking of my heart,
and fearful for the fading of my light,
I go like one who's blind or has no light,
who is directionless, yet must depart.
Under the battery of such deadly blows
I run away, but not so fast desire
does not go with me, as his custom is;
I go in silence, for one fatal phrase
from me would make men weep, while I desire
simply to shed some solitary tears.
Son animali al mondo de sí altera
There are some creatures in the world with eyes
so very strong they fly into the sun;
others which are so troubled by the sun
they never issue till the daylight dies;
and others still, so crazy that they hope
for happiness in fire, because it shines,
and find its other property – it burns.
Alas, I fall into this final group.
I'm neither able to withstand the light
that issues from this lady, nor to take
refuge in shady places, or late hours.
And, though my eyes are weeping and are weak,
destiny always leads me to her sight;
and leads me like a martyr to the fires.
Vergognando talor ch'ancor si taccia
Sometimes I am ashamed that I have never
managed to fix your beauty in my verse;
I think of when I saw that beauty first,
such that nobody else would please me ever,
and find a weight too great for me to shoulder,
a work not to be finished by my skill;
the more I try, the more I'm sceptical,
and feel my first warm confidence grow colder.
My mouth has opened very many times,
only to find articulation blocked.
Could anybody scale perfection's peak?
I have begun so very many rhymes;
but then my pen, my hand, my intellect
defeated in their first assault fell back.
Excerpted from Canzoniere by J. G. Nichols. Copyright © 2012 J.G. Nichols. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
PART 1 Poems written in the lifetime of madonna Laura,
PART 2 Poems written after the death of madonna Laura,