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The Poetry of Petrarch by Petrarch
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The Poetry of Petrarch

by Petrarch

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I'm sure much nuance is missing because, despite the competence of the translator, we do not get the same impression. Despite this, I can see Petrarch's brilliance as a poet. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
David Young’s translates all 366 poems of the Canzoniere. 366 poems written in the 14th century by a man lamenting his unrequited love for the woman of his dreams are an awful lot of poems to read unless you care about the development of poetry, or the subject of love of the most unrequited kind resonates with you. I read them all; I cared, I was enchanted and was able to share some of the emotions, and with the help of David Young’s introduction understand the points of view from a medieval perspective..

Petrarch was born in 1304 and on 6 April 1327 he saw Laura in the church of S. Claire, Avignon and immediately fell in love with her. His love was not returned. Laura was a respectable married Lady who would have nothing to do with the poet, she gave him no encouragement and when she saw him treated him mostly with disdain. Petrarch immediately started to write his poems about his love for Laura publishing them (this was before the availability of the printing press) as and when they were to hand. They were well received and he became the best known poet of his times. Laura died in 1348 probably of the Black Death, but Petrarch continued to love Laura and continued to write poems about her until he died in 1374.

The poems written in the first person document a one sided love affair and written over a period of 47 years, we are able to see how this developed in the thoughts and ruminations of Petrarch whose mind was in turmoil. The first batch of poems are all about the beauty of Laura, his love for her and his passionate desire. It is clear that she has not returned his love but the poet can look ahead to a time when she will, if he continues with his suit. Some of these early poems also show the poet’s suffering; his despair about not being able to see her and a possibility that his overriding passion will lead to his early death. The poems continue along in this vein with Petrarch inventing new ways of praising the beautiful Laura and of describing his feelings and despair at his set backs. There are anecdotes, there are letters to friends there are poems about his house in the country and of course there are poems about writing his poems, but they all connect or lead back to his love for Laura. A smile from Laura or a kind word to him when they meet at a function or in the street will lead him to fire off a new batch of poems about renewed hope, but then he is plunged into despair when next he sees her and she is purposely wearing a veil. The time period and the number of poems written have resulted in some of the poems sounding quite similar; the poet is often reduced to tears as the same thoughts re-occur, but this is also part of the joy of reading them through because we can chart the poets moods, we can see his rising hopes, his downward turns into despair and always we can feel how he suffers in myriads of different ways.

Laura’s early death does not stop the flow of poems and after the initial grief the moods subtly starts to change. We gradually feel a relief from his more acute suffering and the poet starts to look backwards at his passion and desire and to look forward to his own death when he fervently believes he will be reunited with Laura in heaven. He sees her as sitting at one with the saints and that she will lead him up to sit by her side. He starts to realise that her chastity and virtue have saved him from himself and the final longer poem in praise of the Virgin Mary whom he equates with Laura is moving indeed. His path however is not a smooth arc and this again is part of the pleasure of reading them through, some poems will express his doubts and fears and others will make the reader believe that the poet enjoys his suffering perhaps a little too much.

Petrarch was aware that he was writing these poems for an audience, who would be well aware of the conventions of courtly (adulterous) love; the idea that a noble woman worthy of love was regarded as an ideal being, to be approached with worship bordering on adoration. The lover derived personal force, virtue elevation and energy from his enthusiastic passion and his sole purpose was to do the wishes of his lady. He should be made to suffer for his love and his suffering and untainted love would also raise him in the eyes of God so that his path to salvation would be easier. All this is in the Canzoniere, but it leaves the conventions of courtly love well behind in its wake as the poems look forward to a much more modern approach, with its concentration on the feelings of the poet. It is also a collection of poems without any prose or connecting thread and so it is the reader who puts the story together. This is not a difficult proposition because the language and thoughts shy away from a mystical or allegorical approach. We are firmly in the idiom of real time and real events.

Petrarch was a devout Christian who firmly believed that he would get to heaven and there he would be united with Laura. His faith causes some of his inner turmoil; he finds it difficult to control his passion when Laura is alive and to control his self pity when Laura leaves him behind to suffer alone on earth, but towards the end of his life it gives him the comfort and the hope that he needs. Despite this being a Christian poem there are also pagan influences. Cupid the god of love or Amore is part of the triangle that enmeshes the poet and Laura and is an ambivalent force throughout.

Modern readers may feel that Petrarch over emphasises the suffering, it is either part of or alluded to in most of the poems. Yes, we have sympathy for him, but more often than not begin to lose patience with yet more bouts of self-pity. The suffering though was a significant part of medieval courtly love and his audience would have expected it to be foremost in the poetry, Petrarch is a figure that seems to me to be at the crossroads of medieval thought and the new humanism that was such an essential part of the Renaissance. Sonnet no. 134 is a good example of the points I have been making and demonstrates the quality of David Young’s translations:

“I find no peace, and yet I am not warlike;
I fear and hope, I burn and turn to ice;
I fly beyond the sky, stretch out on earth;
my hands are empty, yet I hold the world.

One holds me prisoner, not locked up, not free;
won’t keep me for her own but won’t release me;
Love does not kill me, does not loose my chains,
He’d like me dead, he’d like me still ensnared,

I see without my eyes, cry with no tongue,
I want to die yet I call for help,
Hating myself but loving someone else,

I feed on pain, I laugh while shedding tears,
Both death and life displease me equally;
And this state, Lady, is because of you.”

David Young’s translations have not attempted to keep Petrarch’s rhyming schemes, he explains that there are far more rhymes in the Italian vernacular than there are in modern English and attempts to force rhymes would be at the cost of the meaning of the poems. I think he has made the right choice here, he has given himself a far wider vocabulary to get to the heart of these lovely poems and has used internal rhymes and paid close attention to metre to give a feel for the original text. Petrarch was famous for his sonnets and there are over 300 here along with ballatas sestinas, madrigals and other longer forms. It is a wonderful experience to read them all and I heartily recommend that you do, but not all at once perhaps. A five star read

. ( )
7 vote baswood | Apr 9, 2012 |
With you, dear Internet, I can be brutally honest: I was not in the market for a volume of Petrarch's poetry. Beyond the few sonnets I had read in classes scattered throughout my liberal arts education, this master of the early Italian Renaissance did not make the short list, or even the long list, of poets I intended to investigate further. No, I must admit that I was entirely seduced by Dean Nicastro's lovely cover art, which graces the new David Young translation of Petrarch's Canzoniere, put out by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Despite the Harold Bloom blurb marring the back of this beauty, the grace and simplicity of laurel leaves on marbled cream conquered my heart—much like Petrarch's own was conquered upon spying Laura that fateful day in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon. Luckily, unlike Petrarch, I didn't have to pine and moan in solitude; I could buy this pretty prize, bring it home, and ravish it at my leisure.

Which has turned out to be an extremely slow leisure indeed. I've been making my way through these poems since February, my friends, and am only spurred on to finish off the last twenty pages and write it up because people I told about it back then are starting to look at me funny when I meet them in the virtual street. It's not that I haven't been enjoying them, but it's an odd kind of enjoyment, and it's made me realize that I do not read poetry at the same pace, or in the same way, as prose, nor should I try to force myself into doing so. Poetry, after all, is so condensed—a professor of mine once defined it as "language under pressure"—maybe it shouldn't be consumed at the same rate a novel would be, at least not by me.

That said, there is a certain novelistic quality about reading all 366 of the Canzoniere in order. Although each sonnet, sestina, or ballata seems to dwell in exactly the same emotional space as the one before it, a slow progression does take place as the years gradually unfold and the speaker's relationship to his own unrequited love evolves. The early poems give us a man struck by the full force of new infatuation; as it becomes clear that he will never successfully woo his lady (Laura was, unfortunately, already married), he struggles with anger and resentment, which alternate with attempts at acceptance and religious feeling. Every year that passes is marked with an "anniversary" sonnet, so the reader knows when the speaker has loved Laura for six, ten, eighteen years. The speaker's emotional landscape dips and crests; it is marked by such momentous events as a few words exchanged with Laura in public square, or a moment when she allows him to touch her hand. At times he rues the day he ever saw her, and at others affirms she alone gives his life meaning. He is beginning to face the prospect of growing old together (yet apart), when he begins to experience ominous forebodings, and indeed, Laura's sudden death soon strikes him a tremendous blow. The "ominous foreboding" sonnets were some of the poems I found the most interesting, full of atmospheric feeling:


My lady used to visit me in sleep,

though far away, and her sight would console me,

but now she frightens and depresses me

and I've no shield against my gloom and fear;



for now I seem to see in her sweet face

true pity mixing in with heavy pain,

and I hear things that tell my heart it must

divest itself of any joy or hope.



"Don't you recall that evening we met last,

when I ran out of time," she says, "and left

you standing there, your eyes filled up with tears?



"I couldn't and I didn't tell you then

what I must now admit is proved and true:

you must not hope to see me on this earth."

The image of a ghostly Laura delivering the line "Don't you recall that evening we met last, / when I ran out of time...?" strikes me as deliciously Gothic, an impression that only grows when, thirty poems further on, he perceives her spirit returning to the mortal world to haunt and console him. As the narrator continues to struggle with grief and draw toward his own death, one realizes what a dynamic and really quite modern character study the Canzoniere, as a whole, make up.

That said, there are also difficult things about reading Petrarch, and at the top of that list for me was the simply overwhelming influence that the man has had on every lyric poet who followed him. Like all game-defining works, the original sometimes comes to seem as tiredly clichéd as all its successors. At times I could imagine myself into a world before Shakespeare, before Milton, before Dickinson and Eliot, and begin to grasp the hugeness of Petrarch's accomplishment and influence, as in the poems against which Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets were likely reacting ("A lady much more splendid than the sun"; "her golden hair was loosened to the breeze"), or #190, the likely inspiration for Sir Thomas Wyatt's great "Whoso list to hunt" sonnet. But at other times I failed to make the imaginative leap back to the fourteenth century, and Petrarch's verses came off somewhat stale as a result. True, there were many, many gorgeous lines and passages, ones that reached out and grabbed my language-loving heart:


Below the foothills where she first put on

the lovely garment of her earthly limbs ... (#8)





I walked along beloved riverbanks

from that time on ... (#23)





diamond perhaps, or maybe lovely marble

all white with fear, ... (#51)





that god you follow leaves you pale and wan ... (#58)





she leads a mob of armored sighs around,

this lovely enemy of Love and me. (#169)




that same evergreen I love so well,

despite the ways its shadows make me sad. (#181)




I live in fear, in a perpetual war,

I am no longer what I was ... (#252)




My soul, caught up between opposing glories,

experienced things I still don't understand:

celestial joy along with some sweet strangeness. (#257)




the snares and nets and birdlimes set by Love ... (#263)

But there was no one poem that sustained this kind of arresting, tactile energy that is the heart of poetry to me. Having read the Canzoniere is, I find, intellectually rewarding but not emotionally exhilarating.

And to be honest, I think part of the reason for that is simply my lack of sympathy for the massive project of amorous angst and sentimentality that Petrarch, probably never suspecting what a can of worms he was opening, nevertheless touched off in Western culture. To put it bluntly, it takes a lot for me to love a work about self-loathing and unrequited love. I don't believe in true love at first sight, or in some kind of courtly ideal of valuing one's life at nothing in exchange for a glance or a handkerchief. I have a high capacity for making allowances for a writer's time and place; I do well with Chaucer and Homer and the author of Beowulf. But in Petrarch I felt I was meeting the well-spring of a set of ideas against which I actively rail on an almost daily basis, and I couldn't quite get past that. Love as self-destruction is just not an idea I can tolerate, especially when paired with the veneration of the beloved as an object. These ideas may remain insanely popular in our culture, but they're not romantic; they're tremendously harmful. They are (and yes, Mom, I do believe this is the appropriate language for this situation) jacked. the fuck. up.


The way a simple butterfly, in summer,

will sometimes fly, while looking for the light,

right into someone's eyes, in its desire,

whereby it kills itself and causes pain;



so I run always toward my fated sun,

her eyes, from which such sweetness comes to me,

since Love cares nothing for the curb of reason

and judgment is quite vanquished by desire.



And I can see quite well how they avoid me,

and I well know that I will die from this,

because my strength cannot withstand the pain;



but oh, how sweetly Love does dazzle me

so that I wail some other's pain, not mine,

and my blind soul consents to her own death.

I mean, it's a lovely and well-crafted poem from a technical point of view, but speaking as a pragmatist, just...no. No! No blind souls consenting to their own deaths! No casting yourself as a helpless moth drawn to the flame! No, good sir! I'll restrain myself from an analysis of the sonnets in which Petrarch deconstructs Laura into her component body parts, venerating at one moment her hand, at another her eyes, as if they were disconnected entities. Suffice to say, my appreciation of the cycle suffered due to my dislike of the now-persistent tropes Petrarch pioneered all those centuries ago.

Nevertheless, I certainly did enjoy these poems to an extent, and I'm glad I read them all, since one of my favorite things about the volume was witnessing the slow progression and growth of the speaker's character. I'll just be sure to read some, I don't know, Seamus Heaney or something next, to cleanse my poetic palate.
1 vote emily_morine | Aug 6, 2010 |
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Longing for Laura,
The poet writes of his love,
Never requited.
(hillaryrose7)

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374529612, Paperback)

“David Young’s version of Petrarch will refresh our images of the West’s crucial lyric poet. We are given a Petrarch in our own vernacular, with echoes of Wyatt, Shakespeare, and many who come after.” --Harold Bloom

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:35 -0400)

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