Because of Covid, my wife and I were not able to travel anywhere exotic for our 20th anniversary. But we did take a little trip up to Sonoma County that involved delicious food and artisan hard cider, a walk on the beach, and a visit to Jack London’s estate. And also, visits to a couple of amazing used bookstores in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.
One of my finds in Sebastopol was this Folio Society edition of Petrarch’s sonnets, in both Italian and English translation. At nearly 400 pages, it is far too much to read in one sitting, so I decided (on the principle that the universe uses a base-10 counting system and loves big round numbers) to read the first fifty sonnets, and work my way through the book over time that way. I also am taking the advice of the editor.
One final presumptuous word - of well-meant advice. Do not, dear reader, try to devour the sonnets at one go… Take them one or two or at most a half a dozen at a time. Savor them, roll them on your tongue, assimilate them. Otherwise, you will do neither Petrarch nor yourself justice. After all, they were thirty-odd years in the writing. Approach them as the poet approached his love - and as love should be approached - with respect, tenderness, and a willingness to learn, and without haste, impatience, or gluttony. Then, even as he did, you will return to them often.
First, a bit about Petrarch. Francesco Petrarca, commonly known as Petrarch, was an Italian Renaissance poet who greatly influenced subsequent poets from his day to the present. If one were to list the writers of the Italian Renaissance, two poets stand out: Dante, and Petrarch. And it would be difficult to determine which had the greater impact.
Petrarch’s preferred form was the sonnet. He didn’t invent it - that honor probably goes to Giacomo da Lentini a couple centuries prior - but he did write the earliest ones that remain popular around the world today. That is why the particular form of sonnet he wrote in is called the Petrarchan Sonnet (not to be confused with the Shakespearean Sonnet.)
The form for a Petrarchan Sonnet is fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, with the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA for the first eight lines, and one of the following variants for the last six: CDE CDE, CDCCDC, or CDCDCD. There are a few others used by modern poets for the final six lines, but Petrarch stayed traditional. The poem is divided into two quatrains, often each expressing a thought, followed by the final six lines forming a response, or a shift, from the ideas of the first part of the poem.
The form, as you can see, is both rigid and a challenge to write. I was drawn to the sonnet from my high school days, and even wrote a few, although they were lost when I moved away from home. Probably just as well, because they were technically perfect, but rubbish. I am not a poet despite my love for poetry. It was fun to write them, though - I like a challenge. For what it is worth, I preferred to write in the Petrarchan form.
Petrarch’s sonnets are all part of a big cycle, and are about his unrequited love for “Laura.” In real life, Petrarch was smitten by a married woman, and she was probably his model for Laura, although there is no solid agreement on her identity. Her husband was an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade, although there is no evidence he shared his descendent’s proclivities. Sadly, she died in her late 30s, leaving Petrarch to his grief, which he poured out in further sonnets. And also in a long narrative religious allegory poem in terza rima, the same form as Divine Comedy, in which Laura is memorialized as a character.
In this particular edition, the original Italian is presented alongside an English translation of the same sonnet. This makes for fun reading. Although I am far from fluent, I can pick up at least some of the meaning (like I can for Spanish), so it is interesting to see what choices the translators made.
And speaking of translators, there are many in this book, starting with Chaucer, and continuing to the 20th Century. In all, there are 27 different translators, including the editor who selected the versions he preferred for each poem. This does mean that the poems vary in their feel, from practically medieval to modern traditional. One could argue whether this is good or bad, I suppose, but it was probably necessary for this edition, unless Folio wished to commission a complete new translation. In any case, I am certainly not going to quibble about the choice, since just having a beautiful hardback edition on my shelf makes me happy. The translations I read are good, too. It isn’t as if hacks were chosen - these are legitimate poets and translators.
The introduction was also very helpful, providing the background information to understand the poems and the history behind them.
Petrarch, like a surprising number of writers, was originally intended for the law. He did not enjoy his legal studies, however, and eventually gave them up. As he himself put it:
I then set out for Montpellier to study law, and spent four years there, then three at Bologna. I heard the whole body of the civil law, and would, as many thought, have distinguished myself later, had I but continued my studies. I gave up the study altogether, however, as soon as it was no longer necessary to consult the wishes of my parents [after his father’s death…] My reason was that, although the dignity of the law, which is doubtlessly very great, and especially the numerous references it contains to Roman antiquity, did not fail to delight me, I felt it to be habitually degraded by those who practice it. It went against me painfully to acquire an art which I would not practice dishonestly, and could hardly hope to exercise otherwise. Had I made the later attempt, my scrupulousness would doubtless have been ascribed to simplicity.
Man, that’s a sick burn. As a lawyer, that smarts. But on to the poems.
From the first fifty, here are the ones that stood out to me.
The first is entitled “Love Madness,” and is number VI in the collection. The translator is Robert MacGregor. (1805-1869) I believe the titles were added later, not in the original, but they help identify the poems.
So wayward now my will, and so unwise,
To follow her who turns from me in flight,
And, from Love’s fetters free herself and light,
Before my slow and shackled motion flies,
That less it lists, the more my sighs and cries
Would point where passes the safe path and right,
Nor aught avails to check or to excite,
For Love’s own nature curb and spur defies.
Thus, when perforce the bridle he has won,
And helpless at his mercy I remain,
Against my will he speeds me to mine end
‘Neath you cold laurel, whose false boughs upon
Hangs the harsh fruit, which, tasted, spreads the pain
I sought to stay, and mars where it should mend.
The next one is translated by John Nott (1751-1825), and is one of several wherein the poet speaks to others. It is also not obviously a Laura poem, but it fits in the sequence.
“Encouragement to a high-minded friend”
Intemperance, slumber, and the slothful down
Have chased each virtue from this world away;
Hence is our nature nearly led astray
From its due course, by habitude o’erthrown:
Those kindly lights of heaven so dim are grown,
Which shed o’er human life instruction’s ray;
That him with scornful wonder they survey,
Who would draw forth the stream of Helicon.
Whom doth the laurel please, or myrtle now?
“Naked and poor, Philosophy art thou!”
The worthless crowd, intent on lucre, cries.
Few on they chosen road will thee attend;
Yet let it more incite thee, gentle friend,
To prosecute thy high-conceived emprise.
More typical of the Laura them is this one, translated by Capel Lofft. (1751-1824)
“Laura, source of tears and joy”
Down my cheeks bitter tears incessant rain,
And my heart struggles with convulsive sighs,
When, Laura, upon you I turn my eyes,
For whom the world’s allurements I disdain.
But when I see that gentle smile again,
That modest, sweet, and tender smile, arise,
It pours on every sense a blest surprise;
Lost in delight is all my torturing pain.
Too soon this heavenly transport sinks and dies:
When all thy soothing charms my fate removes
At thy departure from my ravished view.
To that sole refuge is firm faith approves
My spirit from my ravished bosom flies,
And winged with fond remembrance follows you.
I am not that familiar with Lofft, but his skill is apparent. I looked him up, and, lo and behold, he was a lawyer by day. And a controversial one - he appealed the death sentence of a servant girl convicted of stealing 40 shillings from her master. (Back in the day when theft got capital punishment…) When the appeal failed, he accompanied his client to the scaffold. Apparently, unlike the American tradition where defense attorneys are expected to take on unpopular cases, in England of the time, he was looked down on for defending a low-class thief, and showing compassion before her execution. So that was a cool rabbit hole to go down.
Anyway, here is another Lofft translation, in which he duplicates not just the rhymes, but the ending words of the original.
When I reflect and turn me to that part
Whence my sweet lady beam'd in purest light,
And in my inmost thought remains that light
Which burns me and consumes in every part,
I, who yet dread lest from my heart it part
And see at hand the end of this my light,
Go lonely, like a man deprived of light,
Ignorant where to go; whence to depart.
Thus flee I from the stroke which lays me dead,
Yet flee not with such speed but that desire
Follows, companion of my flight alone.
Silent I go:--but these my words, though dead,
Others would cause to weep--this I desire,
That I may weep and waste myself alone.
Here is the original:
Quand’io son tutto vòlto in quella parte
ove ‘l bel viso di madonna luce,
et m’è rimasa nel pensier la luce
che m’arde et strugge dentro a parte a parte,
i’ che temo del cor che mi si parte,
et veggio presso il fin de la mia luce,
vommene in guisa d’orbo, senza luce,
che non sa ove si vada et pur si parte.
Cosí davanti ai colpi de la morte
fuggo: ma non sí ratto che ‘l desio
meco non venga come venir sòle.
Tacito vo, ché le parole morte
farian pianger la gente; et i’ desio
che le lagrime mie si spargan sole.
Take time to admire the craft in each. I re-read this one several times just because of the craftsmanship.
[Note: the lowercase at the beginning of lines is in the original. It is different than the usual English convention.]
This next one, titled “As the moth to the flame,” was translated in the 16th Century by Thomas Wyatt. The translation is a classic in its own right, one of the best known of Petrarch’s poems.
Some fowles there be that haue so perfit sight
Against the sunne their eies for to defend;
And some because the light doth them offend,
Do neuer appeare, but in the darke or night.
Other reioyce that see the fire bryght,
And wene to play in it, as they do pretend:
But find the contrary of it that they intend.
Alas, of that sort I may be by right,
For to withstand her loke I am not able:
Yet can I not hide me in no dark place:
So foloweth me remembrance of that face:
That with my teary eyn, swolne and unstable,
My desteny to beholde her doth me lead:
And yet do I knowe, I run into the glead.
The next sonnet was translated in the 20th Century, by Morris Bishop, and is entitled “Meditation on Death.”
Near and yet nearer looms the final day,
Setting the finis to my misery,
Time swift and yet more swiftly seems to flee,
Bearing as swiftly all my hopes away.
I say to my thoughts: “We shall not long delay
Talking of love together; as we see
The snow, fresh-fallen, vanish suddenly,
So, soon, shall pass the burden of our clay.
And we’ll have peace; for with the body dies
Hope, the mad agent of our desolation;
And fear dies too, and laughter, wrath, and pain.
Perhaps, from uttermost annihilation,
We’ll see some new, strange, marvellous thing arise,
And all our suffering, we shall know, was vain.”
Here is another by MacGregor. He translated many, and I like his style. I also love this particular poem.
“Wordless in her presence”
If fire was never yet by fire subdued,
If never flood fell dry by frequent rain,
But, like to like, if each by other gain,
And contraries are often mutual food;
Love, who our thoughts controllest in each mood,
Through whom two bodies thus one soul sustain,
How, why in her, with such unusual strain
Make the want less by wishes long renewed?
Perchance, as falleth the broad Nile from high,
Deafening with his great voice all nature round,
And as the sun still dazzles the fix'd eye,
So with itself desire in discord found
Loses in its impetuous object force,
As the too frequent spur oft checks the course.
I’ll end with another by Nott, which pretty much sums up unrequited love.
O how unwary was I on that day,
When at the first Love smote me with his dart,
Till by degrees he triumphed o’er my heart,
And governed it with arbitrary sway!
I little thought its firmness would give way,
Its strength decrease by his insidious art:
So doth it fare with all who will depart
From safety’s path, and amid dangers stray.
‘Twere folly since resistance to pretend,
We now can only try if aught of prayer
Preferred by morals Love will deign attend.
I ask not, for ‘tis vain and claims no care,
That my fond passion should abate or end;
I ask that Laura may such passion share.
I have so far enjoyed my experience of Petrarch, and look forward to browsing further in the future.