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 (excuse the expression) 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.
(The Poetry of Petrarch is my first book toward the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge.)