Saturday, November 15, 2008

Week 09, Petrarch

Notes on Francis Petrarch’s “Letter to Dionisio de Borgo San Sepolcro” and “Sonnets”

2480-85. Petrarch lived from 1304-1374, during a time when there was a struggle for the seat of the papacy between France and Italy. Petrarch’s father, a lawyer, was exiled from Florence around the same time Dante was exiled, and he settled in Arezzo. Petrarch himself subsequently moved to Avignon. He chose not to practice law and did not go into the church, but devoted his life to literature and humanistic inquiry—he was a Renaissance man just before the Renaissance. Much of his work was done in Latin rather than Italian, so he partially rejected Dante’s bold venture into vernacular literature. The “Letter to Dionisio” chronicles not simply his attempt to scale Mount Ventoux, France in 1336 but instead (at least in its finished, literary form) a turning from material pursuits towards contemplation of heavenly things and the state of his own spiritual health. The letter takes on an Augustinian cast when Petrarch reads in the Confessions the sentence, “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea . . . but themselves they consider not” (2484). As in so many religious narratives (Augustine’s Confessions themselves being perhaps the most illustrious example), this textual moment has a profound influence on the speaker since the words seem to be aimed directly at him, here and now. He has not paid sufficient attention to what is going on in his own soul, and now realizes that the one thing necessary is to “trample beneath us those appetites which spring from earthy impulses” (2485). The thought is conventional, but as any Renaissance intellectual would add, that isn’t necessarily a problem: what makes the letter worthwhile is the fineness of the allegory and the personal application Petrarch makes of the biblical and Augustinian imperative to “look within” rather than seeking answers and comforts from the material realm around us. In sum, Petrarch offers a spiritualized reading of a secular event. His thoughts turn towards a key parallel text, namely Augustine’s Confessions. Our editors say that Petrarch’s path heavenwards is full of introspection, confusion, and self-doubt. Augustine’s self-overcoming is a model Petrarch would like to follow with respect to his own responsiveness to inward events, but he finds it hard going since clarity and self-transcendence are the goal, and the letter ends with a prayer for assistance in his quest.

2485-90. Who was Laura? It is not certain, but most scholars identify Laura as Laurette de Noves, who was already married two years when Petrarch met her on April 6, 1327 (Good Friday), in the church of St. Clare in Avignon. Thomas Bergin says that Petrarch describes four Lauras. The first one stands for Petrarch’s pursuit of the poet’s Laurel crown. The second one is like Dante’s Beatrice, a guide to heaven. The third is beauty itself, a potential distraction from the poet’s Christian hopes for salvation. The fourth Laura is simply the young woman herself, without all the metaphoric and allusive baggage. But most important in Petrarch’s poems is his own attitudes: he is “nostalgic, melancholy, passionate and yet always curiously removed from life, an observer rather than a participant.” Introspection is the hallmark of these poems at their best, and although “Petrarchanism” (I mean the poetry written after the fashion of Petrarch, not so much Petrarch’s own work) may seem ridiculous in its extremes, it captures something true about the experience of love—that is, people tend to stylize their deepest emotions, as if we need a certain distance from them. Similarly, Robert Frost the American poet tends to make his ordinary characters speak in a very conventional, almost stilted way when they are undergoing the strain of difficult experiences or agonizing emotions, and the “burning and freezing” tenor of some Petrarchan sonnets captures the highs and lows of romantic love. Petrarch is a man of extremes, and that is the way he casts Laura: her inapproachability only makes him desire her more intensely. While Beatrice was a remote angel of light for Petrarch’s predecessor Dante and as such too distant for him to entertain hopes of reunion, Laura’s inapproachability endows her with a lasting erotic charge that spurs on Petrarch in his literary and spiritual quest.

Here is one of Francis Petrarch’s more typical sonnets, “Number 134,” as translated by Anthony Mortimer (keep in mind that Petrarch was a sophisticated poet—-not all of his sonnets are so programmatically oxymoronic):
I find no peace, and have no arms for war,
and fear and hope, and burn and yet I freeze,
and fly to heaven, lying on earth’s floor,
and nothing hold, and all the world I seize.

My jailer opens not, nor locks the door,
nor binds me to hear, nor will loose my ties;
Love kills me not, nor breaks the chains I wear,
nor wants me living, nor will grant me ease.

I have no tongue, and shout; eyeless, I see;
I long to perish, and I beg for aid;
I love another, and myself I hate.

Weeping I laugh, I feed on misery,
by death and life so equally dismayed:
for you, my lady, am I in this state.
The sonnet below is a memorial poem to “Laura,” the woman Petrarch (or “Francesco Petrarca”) loved “hopelessly and from afar” (Wilkie 1586) until her death in 1348. Though some of the 366 poems in the Canzoniere are not concerned with Laura, many of them deal with her in life or in memory. Central to Petrarch’s sequence is “the range of moods of the speaker, a range that includes every emotion from spiritual ecstasy to agonized self-laceration and melancholy resignation, every mood associated with love, perhaps, except the joy of physical consummation” (Wilkie 1586). “Laura” means many things in Petrarch’s poetry—she is the “laurel” of the poet’s ambitions, but she is also his spiritual guide, much like Dante’s beloved, Beatrice, and simply a beautiful young female of whom Petrarch was enamored. But most important, Wilkie points out, is the fact that all of Petrarch’s sonnets are concerned not so much with Laura herself as with the poet and his task; they are “metapoetic.” Here is “Sonnet 292” from the Canzoniere, as translated by Anthony Mortimer:
The eyes I spoke of once in words that burn,
the arms and hands and feet and lovely face
that took me from myself for such a space
of time and marked me out from other men;

the waving hair of unmixed gold that shone,
the smile that flashed with the angelic rays
that used to make this earth a paradise,
are now a little dust, all feeling gone;

and yet I live, grief and disdain to me,
left where the light I cherished never shows,
in fragile bark on the tempestuous sea.

Here let my loving song come to a close;
the vein of my accustomed art is dry,
and this, my lyre, turned at last to tears.
Sonnets and background information were taken from Literature of the Western World, Volume One. Eds. Brian Wilkie and James Hurt. New York: Macmillan, 1984. 1586-87, 1593-94.

The Petrarchan sonnet, at least in its Italian-language form, generally follows a set rhyme scheme, which runs as follows: abba abba cdc dcd. The first eight lines, or “octave,” do not often deviate from the “abba abba” pattern, but the last six lines, or “sestet,” frequently follow a different pattern, such as “cde cde,” “cde ced,” or “cdc dee.” See Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, by Paul Fussell. New York: Random, 1979. Chapter 7. In addition, it’s good to know that in 2008, as I write this addition to an old guide, you can easily find information on most rhyme schemes simply by typing them in your Google or other search bar: Google “abba abba cdc dcd” and you’ll be surprised how many good guides to poetic form are available on the net.