Petrarch’s Remorse for his Obsessive Passion

Petrarch. Drawing by Aldo Salvadori in The Sonnets of Petrarch edited by Thomas G. Bergin (NY: The Heritage Preess: c1966).

Petrarch. Drawing by Aldo Salvadori in The Sonnets of Petrarch edited by Thomas G. Bergin (NY: The Heritage Preess: c1966).

Those of us who rarely read much Renaissance literature know Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch in English) mainly for his contributions to cultural heritage rather than his actual literary output. He is called the “Father of Humanism” because he was one of the first to revive the “conversational” Cicero (from his letters), wrote poetry of intense subjectivity and used the common language, Italian, in his poetry rather than the elite Latin universally used by the educated or what passed for the literate in those days. (Petrarch himself was a priest and an essayist (although he generally used the form of the letter to anonymous friend or long-dead correspondent like Virgil or Cicero). He also “invented” the sonnet, a poetic form that became popular in many languages.

His poetry is not widely known today, however, because, so I remembered, it involved that High Renaissance commonplace, the ardor and anguish of the obsessed lover unable to consummate his desire. Needless to say, that concept has little resonance in our day of instantly gratified impulses. The object of his chaste but intense passion was “Laura,” possibly the wife of a nobleman. His exclamatory poetry was collected later into a book of 300+ sonnets called Il Canzonieri (“The Songbook”). I looked at the collection recently to get an idea why the early modernists of the 20th Century paid so little attention to Petrarch, although they avowed much admiration for Petrarch’s models, the Troubadours, and his contemporary (and follower in the use of Italian for poetry), Dante.

On first glance the love poetry itself seemed very mannered. But one poem stuck out for me: the very first one “Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono.” It can serve as an introduction to the rest, and as such is easily overlooked but a close reading shows that Petrarch is deeply distressed, not for his unrequited love, nor for having loved and lost, but rather for the shame his obsessive love brought on him. He has now well passed grief and acceptance and can examine the entire 20-year “affair” with the objectivity of one who no longer can be disturbed by the ephemeral; in fact, he has transcended not only his actual love but his belief in it. Instead he has come to the realization that all is simply transitory.

The poem is not something one could expect from the Middle Ages. It is at least “Romantic” in outlook. Of course, it could simply be a pose. (And of course so could the passion for Laura itself.) But it breathes the nihilism of one who has made a personal breakthrough, as much as any of the “revolutionaries” of early modernism. It is enough for me to warrant a closer look at his poetry. In the meantime, here is Sonnet I:

Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono

Part I:1
(? 1348-1359)

by Francisco Petrarca

Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ‘l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand’era in parte altr’uom da quel ch’i’ sono:

del vario stile in ch’io piango et ragiono,
fra le vane speranze e ‘l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.

Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;

e del mio vaneggiar vergogna è ‘l frutto
e ‘l pentersi, e ‘l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

To the Reader

[translated by DK Fennell]

From those who hear in my disordered verse
The sound of sighs on which I fed my breast
With juvenile delusions much obsessed
When I was more than half as much the worse,

Of that disjointed way I think and grieve
Between vain hope and ineffective grief,
From those who’ve loved and still retain belief,
I hope for pity, even for reprieve.

But I now plainly see my common fame
Is as an ancient fable, so much so
That often in my heart I feel disgrace;

And that the fruit of my conceit is shame,
And self-reproach, and fully come to know
Just how the world is but a fleeting trace.

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  1. My gosh, your translation is even a rhymed one! Do you know Italian so well as that? Would that I could read both the original and your own verse. I don’t know that I can say I feel deeply with Petrarch here — in his shame and reproach for himself — but I’m glad to know a little bit of his poesy, even so.

    • The problem with rhyming translations is not in the foreign language it’s in the English. English has some basic words that simply don’t rhyme with anything they are likely to go with: love, heart, wish, etc. And those words really don’t have any good synonyms. The Saxons must have not had much subtlety when it came to love, since they didn’t have any other word for it or any gradations in it. By contrast Romance languages are easy to rhyme: in fact amore rhymes with core (heart). Even German, which English is related to, rhymes much easier than English. That’s because they have such regular endings to words. On top of that, there are few English words that can end a line with an accented, then unaccented syllable. That’s why in translating you almost always have to use iambs, even when the foreign verse doesn’t. Petrarch’s lines always eend in an unaccented syllable, because it’s easier in Italian. Mine don’t. It would require much more messing with the meaning and syntax to try to accomplish that in English. In fact, those translators who try generally end up making the sense of the lines almost indecipherable, or at least a sense that is completely different from what the poet wrote.

      • Hey, thanks. A treacherous business to be sure — translating verse, of all things.

    • By the way, Martha, how does a William Faulkner fan object to narrators filled with shame and self-loathing?

      • Self-loathing in Absalom, Sound and the Fury? (Jason, should loathe himself probably but doesn’t seem to.) Joe Xmas in Light in August? Maybe. Self-loathers don’t come to mind actually.

        • I was actually thinking of Quentin in Sound and the Fury, although probably self-loathing is not a precise explanation of his particular pathology, but it has to be part of it. As for the rest, I guess you are right that they should have self-loathing but don’t. Only the guy who came north of the Mason-Dixon line, that is.

  2. And yes, could be said of him in Sound and the Fury, perhaps. The first and last segments of that book are the moving ones — and I almost forget the others.

  3. This is a wonderful insight into Petrarch – thank you so much! As you say, it may all be a pose, but its a lovely one at that!

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