Happy the poet who has his own library, and can look into those sweet books of the past, old familiar books which act like dreams and add perspective to sorrow, just as the sweet cypress tree in the vista marks the misty mile.
I plucked my old paperback Petrarch Selections (Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Mark Musa) from the shelf yesterday and buried myself in a world of black and white, shadows, hopes, and dreams.
Musa reminds us sternly in his introduction:
It was one of Petrarch’s main concerns in his Latin writings to teach his fellow Italians to regard the great writer-statesmen of ancient Rome not as distinguished dead figures of the past but rather as living models of the present and future and worthy of imitation.
How many themes relate to Petrarch! He was famous in his day—and crowned laureate in Rome—for a forgotten Latin epic, and not for his Italian love sonnets to Laura, known as the Canzionere. Musa, again from the introduction:
In a letter written two years before his death on 18 July 1374 he refers to his poems written in Italian as nothing more than ‘trifles’ and expresses the hope that they will remain unknown to the world. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he spent a lifetime preparing for the publication of the poems, revising and polishing his ‘trifles’ from at least the second half of the 1330s until his death—this we know from the many corrections and notes in his own copy of the poems, preserved today in the Vatican Library.
Laura, the real person, is unknown, like the figures of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and reading both Sequences, it is obvious the Englishman is responding to the Italian, if in a more overtly secular manner.
W.H. Auden was sure Shakespeare was horrified when his Sonnets were made public, but that’s nonsense; Shakespeare’s Sonnets are addressed to mankind; they reveal no private secrets; and likewise Petrarch speaks to us as he wrestles with his soul in the Canzoniere. Surely Petrarch was being coy when he called his poems “trifles.”
Petrarch and Shakespeare both stay true to their great theme: What is worldly beauty; what is personhood; in what ways do both illuminate me and deceive me?
I was embroiled in youthful love of poetry and learning when I read Francisco Petrarcha’s opening sonnet in his Rime for the first time, and I was deeply impressed:
You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes
of those sighs on which I fed my heart
in my first vagrant youthfulness
when I was partly other than I am,
I hope to find pity, and forgiveness
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.
Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;
and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world’s delight is a brief dream.
translated A.S. Kline, 2002
Anyone reading Petrarch today has to be wary of falling under a religious spell. Modern poetry distinguishes itself from ancient poetry, if anything, by its secular nature. I’ve never been religious, but I’ve still had to be careful about falling in love with Petrarch. Shakespeare, 250 years closer to our day, makes it alright to indulge in a certain religious feeling, and perhaps this is part of Shakespeare’s genius, and yet Petrarch and his burning love for Laura, makes it easy to have one’s cake and eat it, too—we can all revel in Petrarchan aspirations without feeling estranged from contemporary poetry.
We find in the Canzoniere this little gem:
Diana never pleased her lover more
when just by chance all of her naked body
he saw bathing within the chilly waters,
than did the simple mountain shepherdess
please me, the while she bathed the pretty veil
that holds her lovely blonde hair in the breeze,
so that even now in hot sunlight she makes me
tremble all over with the chill of love.
# 52, trans. Musa
I can’t imagine a contemporary poem like this, and not because of any special genius the Petrarch poem exhibits, but because of the innocent connection to simple life and the extraordinary combination of chastity and passion. Yet it strikes me as being a great Imagiste poem, too.
Petrarch is more of an influence than he is given credit in our time. The Modernists ignored him. But look at this poem:
That nightingale so tenderly lamenting
perhaps his children or his cherished mate,
in sweetness fills the sky and countryside
with many notes of grief skillfully played,
and all night long he stays with me it seems,
reminding me of my harsh destiny;
I have no one to blame except myself
for thinking that Death could not take a goddess.
How easy to deceive one who is sure!
Those two lights, lovely, brighter than the sun,
whoever thought would turn the earth so dark?
And now I know what this fierce fate of mine
would have me learn as I live on tears:
that nothing here can please and also last.
#311, trans. Musa
Here is the basis for Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale’ and Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ two of the best known poems of our era.
And this sounds like Whitman, not perhaps by the matter, but in the forthright, optimistic style of the speech:
Go now, my grieving verse, to the hard stone
that hides my precious treasure in the earth;
and there call her, who will respond from Heaven
although her mortal part be darkly buried,
and tell her I am weary now of living,
of sailing through the horrors of this sea,
but that, by gathering up her scattered leaves,
I follow her this way, step after step,
speaking of her alone, alive and dead
(rather, alive, and now immortalized),
so that the world may know and love her more.
Let her watch for the day I pass away
(it is not far from now), let her meet me,
call me, draw me to what she is in Heaven.
Petrarch is a major poet and a major influence, and deserves more attention today. He is the template for all great lyric poetry.