Ineffable sweetness, bold, uncanny sweetness
that came to my eyes from her lovely face;
from that day on I'd willingly have closed them,
never to gaze again at lesser beauties.
from Sonnet 116
Petrarch was born in Tuscany and grew up in the south of France. He lived his life in the service of the church, traveled widely, and during his lifetime was a revered, model man of letters.
Petrarch's greatest gift to posterity was his Rime in vita e morta di Madonna Laura, the cycle of poems popularly known as his songbook. By turns full of wit, languor, and fawning, endlessly inventive, in a tightly composed yet ornate form they record their speaker's unrequited obsession with the woman named Laura. In the centuries after it was designed, the "Petrarchan sonnet," as it would be known, inspired the greatest love poets of the English language-from the times of Spenser and Shakespeare to our own.
David Young's fresh, idiomatic version of Petrarch's poetry is the most readable and approachable that we have. In his skillful hands, Petrarch almost sounds like a poet out of our own tradition bringing the wheel of influence full circle.
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The Poetry of Petrarch
By David Young
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 David Young
All rights reserved.
Petrarch: An Introduction
Time is our delight and our prison. It binds all human beings together, since we all share the pleasures and burdens of memory, and we all know the anticipation of cherished goals and the dark prospect of personal mortality. While the problem of living in time is a long-standing preoccupation among philosophers, theologians, and storytellers, in some respects the exploration of temporality might be seen as the special province of lyric poetry, which records moments of heightened awareness in the temporal process and can accumulate a rich and moving record of an individual's lifelong engagement with time. Lyric poetry both submits to temporality and resists it. Individual poems draw themselves away from the temporal flow, and collections of lyric poems, while they may reflect experience and composition over time, also tend to resist the demands of story, history, and biography.
Francesco Petrarca, known simply as Petrarch, who lived from 1304 to 1374, stands out as a powerful and original lyric poet, particularly for his ability to portray the individual consciousness, examining its subjection to time and inventing strategies to overcome that subjection. Petrarch's rime sparse, "scattered rhymes," as he calls them in the opening sonnet of his great collection, revived a practice from the classical world (for instance, the odes of Horace) and fashioned an important paradigm for the modern world. The body of his work, written in the vernacular language of his native Italy and carefully arranged to reflect the chronology and psychology of his own life, became a powerful example of the way that incomplete and even contradictory particles of experience — his own nickname for his collection was Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, "fragments of matters in common speech" — could accumulate to sketch out a powerful story without following the conventions of narrative.
He made this the work of a lifetime, adding to the manuscript and revising its contents over some forty-seven years. The earliest poems date from around the time he fell in love with Laura, in 1327, and the latest were composed in the last year of his life, 1374. Many readers may have a passing acquaintance with the poet, based on a few anthology pieces or the famous versions of Wyatt and Surrey, while being quite unaware of the scope and intricacy of the finished sequence. It is a formidable work for a reader, given its length and its emotional and moral complexity, but it ranks with other literary masterpieces in terms of the concomitant rewards it offers, rewards that have been obscured by its spectacular success, both in its own time and place and as a model to poets of the centuries that followed.
While long interested in the literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, I ignored Petrarch for many years for two reasons that I suspect are widely shared: the difficulty of the medieval Italian, which is just different enough to isolate Petrarch even from modern readers of his own language; and the impression that what was attractive in the sonnet sequences of subsequent practitioners was their introduction of non-Petrarchan and even anti-Petrarchan elements. That last opinion has been especially harmful, so it is worth stating here, boldly and emphatically, that what we love in the sonnets of Shakespeare and Sidney and Spenser, among others, is in large part a reflection of their having absorbed and continued Petrarch's powerful example. They may occasionally repudiate some aspects of stale Petrarchan rhetoric ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"), but their subjects and structures, their thoughtful portrayals of the self, immersed in love and time, all owe their considerable power to the master's originating example. As that recognition dawned for me, I knew I had no choice but to try to produce a modern version of this neglected masterpiece.
I feel as though I am recovering a lost treasure, partly because Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who had such a hand in shaping twentieth-century tastes in poetry, embraced Dante and repudiated Petrarch, when in fact a better acquaintance with the latter would probably have benefited the work of both. Trying to produce a clone of the Divine Comedy in our world makes very little sense, really. Understanding the structural and stylistic lessons of the rime sparse, by contrast, is still very much worth a poet's while. If the high modernists did not quite know how to value Petrarch, their heirs, the postmodernists, ought to be quick to recognize his relevance. Like them, he is distracted, playful, eclectic, and many-minded.
The body of poetry he organized is essentially a love story, one marked by failure and frustration in life and an expectation of something better after death. It reflects the originating example of St. Augustine, in his Confessions, documenting the moral and spiritual growth of an individual through the painful lessons of experience, a process of maturing and aging by means of frustration, error, and loss. But Petrarch was not simply reiterating the Augustinian experience, nor was he tied to Dante's example, in the Vita Nuova, of conversion, through love of a woman, to a knowledge of and union with God. Dante's account is securely didactic and spiritual, partly because he arranged his sonnets in a useful order and then connected them with prose commentary that both narrates their circumstances and expounds their meanings. By dropping the prose passages between poems, Petrarch, as several commentators have pointed out, opened his sequence to more meanings and less interpretive constraint.
Furthermore, while his story shapes itself to a Christian conclusion, its world is far more secular, more richly ambivalent, than that of any predecessor. It both celebrates and condemns eroticism, making the beauty of this earthly life an enticing alternative to the heavenly realm. Eventually, of course, as old age ripens and death approaches, that worldly alternative is rejected. While Petrarch never achieves a union with Laura in the course of the sequence, he does find, after her death, that he is learning to master his desire and take in the importance of focusing on the afterlife. There is a crescendo of wonder, confidence, and reconciliation in the last third of the sequence, culminating in the final tribute to another woman, the Virgin Mary.
Petrarch succeeded, we might say, in portraying what theologians call the double motion of the soul, its simultaneous attraction to the earthly and to the heavenly. In doing so, he complicated the schematics of medieval Christianity and confirmed what we all know from our own experience: to live in time is to experience continually contradictory impulses and responses, gusts and vagaries of emotion and thought. He demonstrated that a lifetime of such experience, accurately recorded, can perform what looks like a graceful arc from a distance and reveals a turmoil of conflicting possibilities up close. It can, in other words, constitute a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
For that reason, as well as for its size, power, and eloquence, Petrarch's documentation of his emotional growth, the shape of his life and love, proved so persuasive that it spawned an excess of imitators and imitations. The adulation eventually obscured the remarkable freshness and originality of his achievement. What looked easy to imitate is in fact inimitable. Its balance is too delicate and exact, its stylistic mix too carefully calculated. Thus, Petrarch needs to be rescued from Petrarchism in the same way that original thinkers such as Aristotle, Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche may need to be rescued from their own subsequent disciples and adulterators. The disreputable formulas of Petrarchan style that held European poets in thrall for two centuries have little to do with this poet or his work. Petrarch's imitators mistook the surface rhetoric of contrary emotions — the cold heat, the bitter sweetness, the healing wounding, and so forth — for the experience that underlies them. They tended to ape the rhetoric without really sustaining the vision of existence that tells us how complicated our emotional lives can be. Our emotions seldom exist unalloyed, without their opposites, and the texture of our life is a rich compound of loss and gain, pleasure and pain, interesting at every moment for its mixed and contrary features.
As soon as the rhetoric loses its emotional underpinning, it sounds silly. But in Petrarch's hands it is the instrument of a vision that implicitly questions the account of our life proposed by the Christian theology he espoused and embraced.
* * *
Probably the best way for English-speaking readers to approach the meaning and nature of Petrarch's achievement is through comparison with his most adept reader in English, William Shakespeare. The fact that our own culture has a lively and extensive appreciation of Shakespeare's sonnet sequence gives us an excellent gateway to an appreciation of Petrarch. In Shakespeare's sequence we find a shorter but remarkably comparable example of the cumulative power a sonnet cycle can develop. Centered on the problem of Eros, and documenting the blisses and frustrations of trying to realize and sustain human love through time, both sequences show us a development not only in the remarkable mastery of a highly expressive form through repeated experiment but also, as I suggested earlier, a development in the poet's moral and spiritual understanding. A thoughtful poet can make excellent use of the repeated engagement with a compact poetic instrument, the sonnet, that is partly a formal and musical challenge and partly an opportunity for introspection, address to the beloved, and even a sort of journal keeping. Over time (the traditional enemy here being gradually turned to the prisoner's advantage) the sonnet becomes an instrument of meditation and a measure of accumulating insight.
Pleasure grows out of pain in such circumstances, partly for the artist and more surely for the reader, who can sample powerful erotic currents and witness the obsessions that develop around deprivation and disappointment from a vantage of relative safety. It is as though the sonnet sequences give us gloves for the safe handling of hot or radioactive materials. The gloves lift messy emotions up and reconfigure them in bright formal patterns, musical and elegant. As we read, enjoying the pleasures of form, the graceful dance of language, we also grow in self-knowledge and understanding.
"All right," my reader may say at this point. "I see the value of the analogy between Shakespeare's sonnets and those of Petrarch. But the difficulties I may have with the former — the sonnet form, the love conventions, the way in which the moral and spiritual growth is interlaced with clever comparisons and extravagant wordplay — are greatly compounded in the latter. For one thing, there is the matter of sheer size. Petrarch's poetic sequence contains three hundred and sixty-six lyrics! How am I to find my way around in this gigantic collection?"
The point is well taken. This is a life's work, and it does not present us with a simple, engrossing story. Dante, for one comparison, and the Beowulf poet, for another, belong to equally foreign worlds and distant cultures, but they hold us as readers or listeners by the power of their tales, the desire to learn what happens next. What will guide us through the labyrinth that Petrarch constructed? What will help us both to appreciate individual poems and to remain oriented to the work's larger concerns?
There is no simple answer to these questions other than my confident assertion that Petrarch grows on you and that the freedom of movement he gives us to explore his labyrinth is an interesting alternative to the seductions and constraints of narrative. If he took forty-seven years to assemble it, we certainly may — and should — take our time in getting fully acquainted with it. For the purposes of this introduction I have selected three groups of poems from different phases of the sequence. I will use these samplings to demonstrate how the sequence moves steadily forward while always both anticipating and looking back. I can also show how the poems carry on a kind of conversation among themselves, maintaining their discreteness and completeness while contributing, always, to the growth of the whole.
* * *
Take, for the first cross section, poems 11 through 18. They illustrate, as a group, the reigning aesthetic of the sequence, which delights in variation and elaboration while using a single point of reference to tether so much variety. All eight of these poems concern Laura, but in quite different ways. Poem 11 (which, by the way, is a ballata, a variation on the sonnet form) is addressed directly to her, pointing out that she was kinder and more generous with her presence before the speaker revealed his love for her. Now, he reminds her, she tends to veil herself when he is present, adding to his torment because he can't gaze at her. In Number 12, still addressing her, he speculates on whether her aging may eventually diminish her beauty and thereby lessen his pain. He wonders if such a modification would make him bolder:
then Love may also grant me timely courage
to speak at last of my great suffering,
to tell you of its years, its days, its hours ...
In a sense, of course, that anticipated moment, "at last," is realized by the present circumstance of the poem, since the lyric itself is speaking about his suffering in the way he hopes he will be able to speak to her, directly and frankly, someday in the distant future. This is a good example of the strategies lyric poems employ to defeat time; two different times cohabit in the poem, anticipating aging, growth, and an improvement in the Laura–Petrarch relationship.
In Number 13 the speaker says that when Laura appears among other women, his desire of her increases by as much as the others fall short of her perfect beauty:
When now and then among the other ladies,
Love makes his home within her charming face,
the ways in which each one can't match her beauty
renew desire, and my passion thrives.
This time, however, the insight about her superior beauty leads not to the complaint we've come to expect but to celebration:
I bless the place, the time, I bless the hour
that raised my eyes so high; and thus I say:
"Soul, you must give both deep and hearty thanks
that for that honor you were first picked out."
While poems 11 and 12 were addressed to Laura, 13 is self-divided and turns to self-address ("Soul") as well as to a renewed enthusiasm and energy. But Number 14 recognizes that self-division can be quite painful, and it relapses emotionally, with the speaker now addressing his own eyes. He warns them about the effect of seeing Laura and encourages them to cry and anticipate their eventual "martyrdom."
The next poem, 15, continues the note of despair, using the fact of physical separation from the beloved. Laura is now being directly addressed again. Amor, the love god who figures as an active third party and enemy throughout the sequence, intervenes, reminding the poet of the body-spirit separation all lovers experience. According to Amor, this is a privilege, a rarefaction.
In Number 16 we have an apparent change of scene and subject, as the poet launches into a touching anecdote about an old man setting off on a pilgrimage to see the Veronica relic in Rome. That, of course, turns out to be analogous to the speaker's search for Laura's face, echoing the situation described in poem 11. What has seemed like a shift of attention is eventually a reiteration of the reigning obsession.
In Number 17, still separated by some distance from the lady, the speaker contemplates the combination of suffering and redemption she seems to inspire in him. His dependence on her creates upheavals in his nature and further spirit-body disruptions. In Number 18, still looking back toward her, he takes stock of the damage his passion is doing him and anticipates his own blindness and death. Again, his speaking of these things involves him in paradox, since his claims that "I go in silence" and "what I really want/is solitude in which to shed my tears" are contradicted by the very fact of the poem itself.
This group of poems, chosen from early in the sequence, helps illustrate the variety of approaches — shifts of address, changes of mood, use of anecdote, exploration of the divided self — that Petrarch employs to keep the sequence moving forward without becoming too repetitive. Some readers will find it repetitive anyway, but they will at least want to acknowledge that each poem takes a new tack, not necessarily predictable from the poem preceding it, and that there are surprising changes of tone and direction within the poems as well. We are in the presence, as I've said, of an aesthetic that delights in extravagance, both of representation and of repetition. It values elaboration, imitation, and variation, unlike our own tendency to prefer economy and originality. We need to let that aesthetic carry us where it will, having faith in Petrarch's own standard of excellence. And for all the variations we will encounter, there is of course one constant: always the subject, implied or explicit, is Laura, and always there is the duality that his hopeless love for her visits upon him: a sense of deprivation and sorrow combined with an exhilaration at his spiritual enhancement and artistic growth.
Excerpted from The Poetry of Petrarch by David Young. Copyright © 2015 David Young. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Petrarch: An Introduction,
The Canzoniere, 1–366,
Index of First Lines,
Praise for The Poetry of Petrarch,
About the Authors,