Canzoniere 23

For the Italian text, please click here.

For an English translation by A.S Kline, please click here.

Presentation by David Bowe

(Report by Jennifer Rushworth):

The poem enacts a destabilisation of identity and self-image, foregrounding the endless mutability of the lyric subject and thus deconstructing the textual ‘io’. The poet attempts to answer the question ‘che son? che fui?’, v.30.

Rewriting Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Petrarch’s lyric self is transformed in turn from laurel to swan to stone to fountain to flint to voice to deer. The specific myths he draws on are Daphne; Cygnus; Battus; Byblis; Echo; Actaeon. In all these, the lyric subject is in a passive position. The importance of Echo will be remembered from the previous week’s session, on RVF 45. The first metamorphosis is particularly interesting because here the ‘io’ takes the usual place of Laura, perhaps in an act of identification with the loved object, or perhaps with its association with enduring poetic fame in mind (‘un lauro verde / che per fredda stagion foglia non perde’, vv.39-40). It is this first metamorphosis which is privileged as the most significant and lasting one at the end of the poem: ‘né per nova figura il primo alloro / seppi lassar’ (vv.167-168). Laura is figured as Medusa in this poem (‘Questa che col mirar gli animi fura’, v.72) as she is RVF 366 (vv.111-12), although her identity is also called into question (‘“I’ non son forse chi tu credi”’) and is ultimately as unstable and changeable as that of the lyric ‘I’.

The poem presents several important points of resonance with Dante, with the Dante both of the rime petrose (particularly, ‘Al poco giorno’ and ‘Io son venuto’) and of the Commedia. The reader is reminded of the wood of the suicides (Inf.13), given the setting of the ‘selva’ here and the transformation into a tree; of Medusa (Inf.9); and of the language of Dante narrator justifying his selection of poetic material (Purg.24, ‘onde più cose ne la mente scritte / vo trapassando’; Inf.15, ‘’l tempo saria corto a tanto suono’). Petrarch also briefly engages with the stilnovist debate about the ‘cor gentil’ (vv.121-26). Lines 141-43 recall much infernal language (e.g. the ‘spiriti dolenti’ of Inf.1), although in contrast to Dante’s journey of ascent, Petrarch goes to Hell and then returns back to Earth, missing out the progressive healing experience of Purgatorio and Paradiso, and lamenting that in fact his life on earth is worse than any infernal, punitive, metamorphic situation: ‘et ritornai ne le terrene membra, / credo per più dolore ivi sentire’, vv.145-146).

The only metamorphosis in which the poet takes on an active role is that of the congedo, and the transformation into Jove the eagle. The connexion between birds and writing is surely important, given the homonymy of ‘penna’ (feather) and ‘penna’ (stylus). In this the poem harks back to the opening stanza, which spoke of ‘mille penne’ (v.11), and also the myth of Cygnus (whose white ‘piume’ were foregrounded, v.50). In this respect, is writing an act of self-mutilation? Or is the symbolism of the eagle as regards the evangelist John – he who honoured Christ as Logos/Word – more significant?


The congedo to the poem is an odd addition to the main body of the poem, and it was on the possible interpretation of these lines that much of the discussion focused. It was agreed that the lyric subject is here active not passive; successful not mournful; rising not falling. It was noted that while much of the poem features falling (the myth of Phaeton; ‘gittaimi’, v.111; ‘cadere’, v.114, etc.), in the congedo the poet is specifically not the falling golden rain, but is rather the soaring eagle, Jove. In these respects the congedo overturns and reverses the tenor of the earlier metamorphoses.

It was thought that much of this poem can be read in terms of sexual metaphor, unusually perhaps for Petrarch. The bird (‘fui l’uccel’) as sexual metaphor has a long history, and is supported here by the references to ‘alzando’, which has phallic connotations in this context. Right at the end of the poem, a potent, assertive self is discovered in the Jove who successfully abducts Ganymede. This is distinct from the previous myths which all portray poetry (the weeping voice) as compensation for and sublimation of frustrated sexual desire, so that Petrarch’s poetic voice is, until the congedo, inspired by loss and mournful in its self-expression.

Yet the possible allegorical readings of the final myth were not discarded outright. Ganymede was also interpreted as the ascent of the soul to Heaven, in a Christianisation of the myth. This use of the myth in order to figure spiritual elevation is found in Dante for instance, in Purg.9 where St Lucy carries Dante up to the gateway to Purgatory proper. There, St Lucy is the eagle while Dante is Ganymede being carried.

It was deemed important to draw some conclusions about the role of mythology in Petrarch’s thought, particularly in contrast to Dante’s use of myth. In this poem it is evident that Petrarch rewrites myths, transforming them into part of his own personal story. Rather than merely repeating or alluding to Ovid, the myths become personally true. Thus in line 46 the myth is explicitly altered (‘non di Peneo’) to suit his own personally significant geography (the Sorgue or the Rhône, perhaps). Myth for Petrarch is the reenactment of eternal truths; in this he seems almost to anticipate Freud’s psychoanalytic vision of myth as conveying the essence of experience, as a mental model for experience, and as both archetypal and personally true and relevant. Whereas in Dante, mythology is an imperfect narrative which needs to be brought to full completion by Christianity and by a Christian reinterpretation or rewriting, for Petrarch myth is repeated and actualised and is already complete and true in itself. The temporality itself of this poem of Petrarch supports the reading of the canzone as concerned with mythical essences that are out of time, since it lacks temporal or historical coherence; the poet ages very suddenly, and undergoes a series of reincarnations that are poetically and imaginatively meaningful rather than historically so.

The line about the hounds (v.160) is strange as ‘can’’ and ‘stormo’ are each respectively a hapax in the Canzoniere. It is suggested that ‘stormo’ be read as assault rather than pack/flock/herd. The presenter would like the hounds to be interpreted as words (both belong to Petrarch, and cause him endless pain). This is a tempting solution which might call for more evidence in support of it.

Given the length of the poem, the session felt especially short of time in dealing with the poem’s complexities, and it was decided that it was better to focus on a few particularly provocative moments than attempt a holistic and fully reasoned reading as has been possible in other weeks, particularly when the poem under discussion is a sonnet. Returning to lines 11-12 of the poem, we might say that for the sake of writing an adequate commentary on this crucial canzone of the Canzoniere, ‘mille penne / ne son già stanche’.

Canzoniere 45


- English translation from Petrarch’s Lyric Poems, ed. and trans. by Robert M. Durling

Presentation by Nicola Gardini

(Report by Jennifer Rushworth):

In this sonnet the lyric subject complains that Laura has banished him from her heart because there is room only therein for her own image. Laura’s vanity, self-love and physical beauty are central themes.

The poem is structured around two myths, one Christian and one Classical. The second is explicit, with ‘Narcisso’, Narcissus, being named in line 12, although most of this story (which Petrarch takes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) is left implicit and unmentioned. Most notably, the poem leaves unsaid the consequences that identifying Laura with Narcissus has on the lyric subject’s position in the myth. That is, he comes to take the place of Echo, the rejected lover of Narcissus who is transformed into mere voice as a result of her unrequited love and repeats ad infinitum the name of the beloved (as Petrarch does Laura’s name throughout the Canzoniere).

The first myth, that based on a Christian worldview, is even more allusive and elusive, drawing on the association of ‘adversario’ with the devil (although here it is literally revealed as a mirror, ‘specchio’, line 10). The second quatrain on one level seems to repeat the story of the Fall as related in Genesis. Emphasis is placed on the ‘donna’, echoing the strong focus on ‘mulier’ in the Vulgate Bible. Line 6, in particular, can easily be read as a rendition of the Fall, the act of being chased (‘scacciato’) from the ‘dolce albergo’, the garden of Eden, with the resulting state of mankind as that of ‘misero exilio’ (v.7). However, there are surprising differences in the rewriting of this story, the most obvious difference being that while the lyric subject is, like Adam, banished from the garden, Laura remains there, ‘ove voi sola siete’ (v.8). Laura is a stable, fixed point, in contrast to the lyric subject’s movement further and further away. The poem’s concluding mention of ‘l’erba’, grass, returns to the opening diabolic reference (the snake in the garden of Eden crawls through the grass, as the restaging of this event in Purgatorio 8 for instance reminds us). In this respect the poem circles back on itself.

The poem is interesting for its central gap, that of the actual naming of Laura’s heart, which is only alluded to in line 6 (‘dolce albergo’) or obliquely in ‘cor-so’ (v.13). This gap is mirrored in the metrics of line 8, which, while the rest of the poem consists of regular hendecasyllables with the main stress on the sixth syllable, has instead the main stress on the fourth (degno), passing over the reference to Laura’s heart (‘degno-ove voi’). Just as the lyric subject is exiled from Laura’s heart, so the poet seems to take his revenge by condemning the most important signifier (the heart) to linguistic exile.

Much of poem is structured out of negatives (‘non sue’, v.3; ‘non fôra’, v.7; ‘non devea’, v.10). The final line is a last, surprising reversal. Having said that Laura deserves to be transformed into a flower (or perhaps a laurel tree?) for her self-absorption, as happens to Narcissus, Petrarch adds an unexpected twist, ‘benché di sì bel fior sia indegna l’erba’ (v.14). Laura’s worth and beauty is suddenly, as the poem closes, reaffirmed, despite the drive to criticise her for her vainness throughout the rest of the poem.

Laura is present in fragmented sounds throughout the poem, as is often the case in the Canzoniere. Her name appears in ‘Amore’, ‘honora’, ‘innamora’, ‘mortal’, ‘fora’. Yet the most striking sound pattern of this poem is the ‘v’ sound, which is introduced in the first noun of the poem (‘adversario’) and repeated frequently (‘veder’, ‘vostri’, ‘v’innamora’, ‘soavi’, ‘m’avete’, ‘avegna’, ‘ove voi’, ‘v’era’, ‘chiovi’, ‘farvi’, ‘voi’, ‘se vi rimembra’).

The equivocal rhyme ‘fora’ and ‘fôra’ contains two key Laurean senhals, ‘ora’ and ‘aura’, and was highlighted as being a particularly odd juxtaposition of words, suggesting as the pair does that being (‘fôra’) is a matter of alterity, strangeness and alienation (‘fora’, outside). The use of the technique of equivocal rhyme is particularly apt in a poem centred on the Narcissus myth, and thus the repeated sounds voiced by Echo.


It was noted that the use of pronouns makes this poem at first sight complicated; the mirror belongs to Laura and reflects her image, but is Petrarch’s ‘adversario’ (even though, etymologically, it is also Laura’s ‘adversario’ in the sense of ‘ad-versus’, facing her). Several members of the group were tempted to consider Petrarch’s poetry as a further mirror in which Laura can see her image reflected most beautifully. In this respect, Petrarch is partly to blame for his exile as it would be his own poetry in praise of Laura’s beauty which had put ever greater distance between him and the object of his affections.

The ‘donna’ that breaks line 5 is repeated anagrammatically in ‘danno’, v.10, which supports the reference to the story of Genesis where it is woman (Eve’s weakness) that causes Adam’s exile and suffering. The medieval Latin wordplay of Eva (Eve) as responsible for the Fall that is the source of mankind’s ‘vae’, woe, and is redeemed by the birth of Christ and Mary’s ‘ave’ was suggested as one source or consequence of the ‘ve sounds (for instance in ‘donna, m’avete / scacciato’). That Laura is a ‘donna’ who remains in the garden of Eden was thought perhaps to suggest her identification as a ‘donna-angelo’, since in the Biblical story it is an angel that chases Adam and Eve from the Garden, whereas here it is Laura (both ‘donna’ and ‘angelo’, then) banishing Petrarch. The omnipresence of the ‘vi’ sound aids the association of Laura (‘voi’) and place (‘ove voi sola’, Laura’s heart).

The phrase ‘con saldi chiovi fisso’ was considered a Christological reference, although in malo, as while Christ’s affixing to the Cross with firm nails redeems the world, the lyric subject is here not fixed firmly enough, and so is both Adam and a failed second Adam whose exile and ‘danno’ are unending and unconverted. The word ‘chiovi’ was noted to be a hapax in the Canzoniere, and the choice of ‘chiovi’ rather than ‘chiodi’ attributed to a desire to continue the ‘v’ sound repetition.

In the phrase ‘vi rimembra’ both ‘rime’ and ‘membra’ were isolated, the first suggesting how this poem (these ‘rime’) are in aid of reminding Laura of the dangers of her self-love, and the second anticipating the dismemberment of Narcissus and his transformation into a flower.

The final word, ‘l’erba’, was traced through some of Petrarch’s other poems, and counted to appear 52 times in the whole collection (counting ‘erba’, ‘erbe’, ‘herba’, ‘herbe’ altogether). It often appears in reference to Petrarch’s love of the countryside and in contrast to urban life, but it also has negative connotations after Laura’s death (grass grows over her body). While Petrarch remains attached to earthly and solitary sights (woods, grassy meadows, and so forth), Laura inhabits (‘abitar’, v.8) her heart, the Edenic Garden, and will eventually be figured as a heavenly inhabitant.

Few Dantean references were raised regarding this poem, although the reference to the snake in the grass harks back to the Valley of the Princes at the bottom of the mountain of Purgatory. It is also notable that ‘bel fior’ is Dante’s way of referring to the Virgin Mary in Paradiso, thereby setting Laura up as usurping her place and name.

Canzoniere 355

Presentation by Teresa Franco (summary):

(Report by Jennifer Rushworth)

This sonnet appears for the first time in the so-called ‘pre-Malatesta’ copy, and therefore is datable to a time span of between the years 1369 and 1372. It belongs to the older age of the poet and, as such, partakes of the new moralised mode typical of the second section of the Canzoniere. The poem shows Petrarch’s increasing obsession with time, which in this case even becomes the addressee of the triple opening invocation: “O tempo, o ciel volubil…/ o dì veloci…” all of them are responsible for having deceived the poet and distracted him from the truth. The second stanza sets a comparison between the different natures of the fast winged-time and the slow pensive poet, and here the contrast almost reproduces and replaces the uneven relationship the laboriously slow Petrarch had with the fleeing Laura. Indeed, while Petrarch is resorting to quite a traditional depiction of time, which is also wide-spread in the Trionfi, we cannot forget that the image of flight and wings within the Canzoniere pertains to the poet’s self-description too, symbolising his frustrated aspiration and desire. It is by overlapping the two metaphors – the flight of time and that of love – that the poet manages to enhance the sense of self-censorship and self-reproach implied in the entire poem. Moving from the quatrains to the tercets, the contrast between time and the poet is turned into analogy, as the incessant flow of time mirrors the poet’s struggle towards resolution, and the running hours equal his indecisiveness.

This sort of suspension is definitely overcome in the last stanza, where the tenses shift from conditional and infinitive forms to the present tense, supporting a rather assertive tone and the final pronouncement that the poet is ready to abandon his previous commitments. Petrarch’s moving away from his “mal” (second occurrence in the poem, but significantly in the single and not plural form as in line 7) while carrying on devoting himself to art, sounds like a defence of poetry. Therefore, the flowing of time involves, as always, a double dimension: it is perceived both by personal experience (“ab experto”, line 4), and by the actual writing, the “studio” and “bell’arte” Petrarch mentions at the end, quoting one of his favourite ancient poets, Seneca.

Sonnet 355 was originally meant to end a series of poems on repentance, immediately before song 366, which is the prayer to the Virgin Mary and the actual end of the Canzoniere, but as the collection moved towards its final form, the sonnet was removed and placed in its final, present position. The original position may account for the philosophic and religious content, as well as for fact that Laura is never mentioned, not even indirectly (the only exception being the ambiguous “nei miei mali” line 7) and the poem looks very much egotistic in a way. If viewed in the light of the narrative story of the Canzoniere, the most accredited interpretation for the change is that Petrarch wanted to deconstruct the moralised parabola he had himself built on, presenting a finally converted self, by then freed from his “juvenile error” “(il mio primo giovanile errore” of RVF 1) and reconciled with himself and God.

The poem in fact maintains several echoes of RVF 1, for instance themes of shame: where the latter includes the line “di me medesmo meco mi vergogno”, sonnet 355 reads “onde vergogna e dolor prendo”. In each case shame is accompanied by knowledge (“conoscer pienamente”). However, in both sonnets the act of seeing corresponds to two different degrees of self-awareness: “ora ben veggio” of sonnet 1 is still pointing outward, alluding to what others thinks of the poet, while the eyes Petrarch speaks of in 355 are pointing inward, focusing on the soul and God. Lines 7 and 8 together with the following tercet can be considered a beautiful synthesis of Augustine’s thought and teaching, the necessity of a withdrawal that Petrarch explores in the Secretum, and briefly recalls in his famous letter about the ascent on Monte Ventoux, where he  uses precisely the expression: “in me ipsos interiores oculos reflexi”.

In RVF 355 the Latin formula “ab experto” really stands out, breaking the flow of the language. In relation to RVF 1, it is evidently a piece of self-translation, a Latin rendering of the Italian “per prova”. But why would Petrarch choose to use Latin here, it being the only intrusion of Latin into the Canzoniere except for the classical and biblical “miserere” of RVF 366?

Main points of discussion:


There are important points of resonance with Inferno in RVF 355: “infiniti guai” (line 11) repeats the phrase found in Inf. IV, v.9, and also the “traendo guai” of Inf. V, v.48. Echoes can also be heard of the Ulysses canto, for instance his desire to “divenir del mondo esperto” (heard in “ab experto”), and the context of his sin of providing “consiglio fraudolente”.

It is further surprising to find the term “ab experto” in this sonnet, since the Latin phrase belongs to Scholastic theology, a tradition towards which Petrarch often expressed his dislike. Should this temper our understanding of his attitude towards Scholasticism? In terms of the linguistic intrusion, it was recalled that given that for Petrarch Latin was the nobler language and the cultural norm, we might perhaps more properly speak of the Canzoniere as a vernacular intrusion into Petrarch’s Latin output. Given that we find this Latin term towards the end of the vernacular collection, this might suggest a return to Latin as Petrarch’s preferred language of communication and self-expression.

There may be more implicit references to Laura in this poem, despite her seeming absence: in “ora” in a line which then could read as referring to her demise (“Laura […] è passata”, line 9); and also in “dolor” (v.8). While Laura is usually associated with “vertute”, here it seems more to refer to power or ability (valour).

Line 11 evinces a meta-poetic concern with endings: “poner fine” (line 11), which will be echoed later in RVF 366 (“por’ fine al mio dolore”, v.103). Petrarch’s worry about how to end the Canzoniere is reflected explicitly in the text itself. If the poet’s suffering is endless and his conversion is never quite reached, the end of the collection comes to seem arbitrary and unsatisfying, rather than marking any significant turning point, endpoint or change. In this sonnet, formally, the rushing of time is mimicked in the asyndeton of the first quatrain, as by the occurrence of enjambment (lines 1-2, 7-8). While time is in constant motion and continually changing, Petrarch is unable to achieve any sense of progress or change.

It was concluded that the difficulties of this sonnet lie in the ambiguities surrounding the key terms of the poem’s final two lines. What do “studio”, “vertute”, and “bell’arte” mean? What is their relationship to one another? Much of this ambiguity derives from the word “frodi” in line 4, which introduces the worry about deceit and deception into this poem and therefore complicates the interpretation of the sonnet’s finale lines. Elsewhere in the Canzoniere we find the word “frode” in RVF 253 (v.7).

In previous sessions it has been discussed that “studio” is both passion or commitment and literary endeavour, and thus an ambiguous term. Nicola Gardini noted that Petrarch’s use of the word “arte” contrasts with Tasso’s employment of the term, which is always negative, manipulative, lying. In contrast, for Petrarch “arte” tends to be positive, drawing on the pride of the artificer, although in this poem we cannot be sure. Is “arte” duplicitous and fraudulent (but beautiful) or good (and beautiful)? The sonnet’s final phrase is, moreover, potentially self-referential, suggesting that after all the suffering, disillusionment, and painful repetitions experienced by the lyric subject, the end result is “bell’arte”, the sublimation of experience into poetry.

Canzoniere 264


Presentation by Mike Hodder; Report by Jennifer Rushworth:


This canzone, Rvf 264, is called “the great canzone of inner debate” by Durling. It acts as a pillar of the Canzoniere, opening the In morte section. The fact that Laura is still alive at this point raises some interesting questions as to the criteria which govern the structure of the collection. The idea is that Petrarch’s penitential impulse is triggered not by an external event but is the result of an organic internal process which is never fully explained. The sense of a gradual build-up of momentum pervades the poem, particularly through the use of gerunds and temporal indicators signifying repetition.


The poem is thought to be a product of the late 1340s or early 1350s, composed around the same time as Petrarch was working on the Secretum.  As such, it is no surprise that both works share similar concerns: the consequences for the poet’s soul of his desire for Laura on the one hand, and for literary immortality on the other.


It is an anniversary poem – the twenty first canzone in the Rvf, corresponding to the twenty first year of the poet’s love for Laura.  Within the narrative of the collection, this places us in the year 1348 – the year of Laura’s death.  If Rvf 3, that is the poem in which Petrarch first sees Laura on Good Friday, corresponds to 6 April, then Rvf 264 takes place on Christmas Day, the beginning of the new liturgical year.  The symbolism is clear – if the Good Friday sonnet represents the start of the poet’s torments, the Christmas canzone is supposed to symbolise a re-birth, the beginning of a new consciousness and a new orientation away from the earthly passion for Laura and fame, towards God and the path to true immortality.


However, this forward (or upward) drive is continually undermined as the poet finds himself unable to detach himself from what Augustinus refers to as the two gilded fetters in Book III of the Secretum.


The first stanza recalls Rvf 1 almost immediately: “spero trovar pietà non che perdono”.  The poet’s tears are of a different kind: he does not weep because of his amorous misfortunes, but rather in desperation of his salvation and his inability to find consolation no matter what he does (ll. 9-10)


The first person pronoun which opens the poem gives way to the characteristic Petrarchan psychomachia which we have observed in previous sessions.  The poet’s thoughts converse with (or should that be lecture to) his mind and his heart.  He becomes a passive observer.  When the “io” returns midway through the fourth stanza, it is in the context of being ignored.  This psychological rupture foreshadows the ultimate rupture: the separation of the soul from the body in l. 66.


The “io” is forcefully re-established from the fifth stanza until the end, appearing in the opening line of each stanza and the congedo: “Ma quell’altro voler di ch’i’ son pieno” (l. 73); “Quel ch’i’ fo veggio, et non m’inganna il vero” (l. 91); “Né so che spatio mi si desse il cielo” (l. 109); “Canzon, qui sono, ed ò ’l cor via più freddo” (l. 127).


Casting itself as a watershed poem, certain words and phrases at various points recall previous poems and anticipate others: the poem is littered with allusions to Rvf 1; Rvf 3 makes an appearance (l. 90), along with Rvf 90 (l. 45).  The opening line anticipates l. 1 of 365 “I’ vo piangendo”; wings which carry the poet towards heaven appear in 339 and 362; ll. 71-2 recall the final tercet of 269.  His forward drive is continually undermined as he is pulled backwards by the chains binding him to earthly pleasures: vergogna e duol che ’ndietro mi rivolve (l. 123). Petrarch finds himself stuck in a sort of limbo, experiencing his ultimate psychological nightmare – the loss of control.  He is presented as passive: waiting for help.  He is terrified by his insignificance: mirando ’l ciel che ti si volve intorno / immortal et addorno (l. 49-50).


There is an oscillation between centrality of the “io” and its insignificance throughout the poem. There is also an opposition between movement and stasis. This movement is, however, illusory, as although it appears to be going forward it amounts to running on the spot. This is movement without progression or evolution, a movement that is self-perpetuating and based on habit.


One important intertext is St. Augustine, Confessions (Book VIII), for the appearance of the theme of ‘consuetudo’, habit: “The enemy held my will, and out of it he made a chain and bound me. Because my will was perverse it changed to lust, and lust yielded to habit, and habit not resisted became necessity.” Likewise, in book VIII: “the law of sin is the fierce force of habit, by which the mind is drawn and held even against its will, and yet deservedly because it had fallen wilfully into the habit.”


The themes of stanza one are self-pity, the desire of the poet to raise his intellect towards God, and his fear and anticipation of his own death. In stanza two, a ‘penser’ (thought) addresses the poet’s mind, scolding him for his lethargy and encouraging him to take control of himself before it is too late. In stanza three, the memory of Laura dominates, as signified by the proliferation of ‘or’ senhals (13 occurrences over the course of 18 lines). In stanza four, the poet asserts the vanity of literary ambition. In stanza five, the poet recognises his inability to escape his love for Laura, which he counters by appealing to God for help as he acknowledging his own helplessness. Stanza six acknowledges the idolatrous nature of his desire for Laura but recognises that emotions are stronger than reason. Stanza seven asserts the uncertainty of human existence and, on a personal level, visible signs of his advancing age. The incipit is repeated in ‘vo ripensando’ (v.120). In the congedo, the poet expresses once more his fear of death, and reaffirms his desire for change. Yet the final line with its stark antithesis is painfully resigned and the poet’s inner conflict is left unresolved.




This poem reminds us that the in morte section refers not only to Laura’s death, but to the poet’s anticipation of his own death. It is probably to be read in conjunction with sonnet 150, which is again an inner dialogue (between the poet and his soul – ‘Che fai,alma? che pensi?’).


The canzone is highly symmetrical, structured around sets of dichotomies and conflicting thoughts. A further contrast is that between self and Other: this is a song of alterity, of alienation, of not being oneself, almost a manifesto of a lack of self-identification, hence the omnipresence of ‘altro’, ‘altra’, ‘altrui’ in this poem. It is telling that ‘altra’ and ‘alma’ are linked by assonance, and also are possible senhals of Laura (a, l, a).


Reading the poem in the context of Christmas Day is productive, as it highlights the presence of many references to birth. Laura ends up being an anti-Christ, in fact, if we read line 107 in opposition to the Christological model (Laura is ‘quella che sol per farmi morir nacque’, whereas Christ is born to bring new life). Instead, the poet seems almost Christ-like, given lines 110-111 (‘novellamente io venni in terra / a soffrir l’aspra guerra’). Moreover, ‘la man destra’ (121) is a further Christological allusion (Christ sits on God’s right hand), while ‘l’un lato punge’ (the left-hand side) is perhaps an oblique reference to Christ being pierced on the Cross on his left side.


In terms of Petrarch’s relation to Dante, this poem presents further contrasts. While Dante’s model of poetry was under the dictation of love (‘I’vo significando’), Petrarch’s model is Cavalcantian, destructive, circular, repetitive and self-fragmenting: ‘I’vo pensando’. Petrarch sees death as an escape (perhaps because he is too worried about hell on Earth, in this life, to be worried about the Afterlife), whereas Dante has already shown that Hell is a repetition of sinful, wrong obsession, i.e., not an escape. Petrarch’s desire for death, and possibly even suicidal tendencies, were raised in relation to line 126 (‘a patteggiar n’ardisce co la morte’). Dante has a successful, productive relationship with the Other (Beatrice and God, ‘com’altrui piacque’), whereas Petrarch is stuck in self-absorption and in love with an individual whose own suggested narcissism is worrying (v.108, ‘a me troppo, et a se stessa, piacque’ – compare RVF 126 for Laura’s narcissism).


There are consistent references to Purgatorio in this poem (for instance, the ‘barchetta’ which recalls Purg. II, or the ‘nodi’ that recall Purg. XXIV). Lines 68-69 (‘ma se ’l latino e ’l greco / parlan di me dopo la morte, è un vento’) recall Purg. IX, lines 100-101: ‘Non è il mondan romore altro che un fiato / di vento’. It was noted that the ‘ma’ at the start of line 68 is illogical, seeming to oppose itself to an implied but unexpressed and telling thought or desire. It was also discussed that ‘vento’ is always negative in Petrarch (it does not have overtones of inspiration or the Holy Spirit here).


The poem calls into question the usefulness of language, in a similar way to RVF I: lines 9-10 (‘Ma infin a qui nïente mi releva / prego o sospiro o lagrimar ch’io faccia’) implicitly render part one of the Canzoniere useless (in salvific terms, although of course not in aesthetic terms). The final line of the poem was discussed in terms of its Ovidian and Pauline undertones (Ovid, Metamorphoses, VII, 20-21; Paul’s letter to the Romans 7:19). However, it was agreed that whereas in Dante you have to know the subtext in order to understand the new text, in Petrarch this is often not the case. Rather, Petrarch tends to hide or obliterate his sources in his writing process.




Canzoniere 8

A pie’ de’ colli ove la bella vesta                 Under the very hills where at first

prese de le terrene membra pria               she donned that lovely dress, her earthly form

la donna che colui ch’a te ne ’nvia             (that lady who so often rouses him

spesso dal somno lagrimando desta,      who sends us to you, weeping from his rest)


libere in pace passavam per questa         we went in peace and liberty through this

vita mortal, ch’ogni animal desia,               our mortal life, where people wish to stay,

senza sospetto di trovar fra via                    without a thought of coming in the way

cosa ch’al nostr’andar fosse molesta.      of something fashioned to entangle us.


Ma del misero stato ove noi semo              For all this wretched state where we now find

condotte da la vita altra serena                    ourselves, whose former life was so serene,

un sol conforto, et de la morte, avemo:      some comfort (and for death) is still at hand:


che vendetta è di lui ch’a ciò ne mena,        that is, vengeance on him who brought us down,

lo qual in forza altrui presso a l’extremo      who, also in extremis, now lies bound

riman legato con maggior catena.                like all of us, but with heavier chain.


(trans. by J. G. Nichols)

Presentation on RVF 8 by Caterina Paoli; Report by Jennifer Rushworth:

Sonnet 8 opens a series of three intertwined sonnets linked to the previous poems by sonnet 7, and probably are addressed to two ‘historical characters’ who could be identified with the brothers Giacomo and Giovanni Colonna, Petrarch’s protectors during his ‘periodo avignonese’. This group of sonnets were meant to celebrate this family who was supportive with Petrarch; for this reason sonnets 8 and 9 are thought to be accompanied by material gifts, a truffle has been hypothesized for sonnet 9, and two doves for sonnet 8, whereas sonnet 10 is Petrarch’s official invitation to the bishop Giovanni Colonna to come and visit him in Valchiusa.

In sonnet 8 speaking animals describe their state of captivity, thus stressing the comparison with the poet who happens to be ‘incatenato più forte che augello tolto alla sua libertà’, to say it with Leopardi. The eclogue VIII in Petrarch’s Bucolicum Carmen may offer more information about the identification of the two birds with doves; the text stages the separation of Petrarch from the cardinal Giovanni Colonna at the end of 1347 in Provence, and the pleasure of hunting doves is mentioned as an activity they used to enjoy together (ll. 61-3). So the niveas columbas that they used to hunt in the past, could in this sonnet re-enact memories of the time spent together; the re-enactment happens on two levels: on the one hand the doves are the speaking subject of the entire sonnet, on the other hand real doves are offered as a gift to accompany the sonnet itself. The presence of doves also leads to the very strong echo of Dante’s Inferno V within this sonnet.

The Dantesque echo works on a microscopic level and it is displayed and conveyed by employing specific words: ‘la bella vesta prese’ (l.1) recalls ‘amore prese costui della bella persona’ (ll. 100-102), l. 7 ‘senza sospetto di trovar fra via cosa ch’al nostr’andar fosse molesta’ recalls ‘soli eravam e senza alcun sospetto’ (l. 129), l. 9 ‘ma del misero stato ove noi semo’ recalls ‘nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice ne la miseria’(ll. 121-123), ‘spesso dal sonno lagrimando desta’ l. 4 recalls ‘Francesca, i tuoi martìri a lagrimar mi fanno tristo e pio. (ll. 115-117) and many others.

This mosaic of Dantesque memory is however significantly varied and used by Petrarch to actually divert from the essence of Dante’s canto. Firstly because Petrarch’s doves do not symbolise the lovers, as it is in Dante, and for this reason they are not sinners; thanks to this, the birds in our sonnet actually experience a feeling of solace despite their captivity (l.11 un sol conforto avemo). It is rather the poet, whose condition is now described by the doves (whereas in Inferno V was the poet to describe the condition of the doves), who ends up being in the most miserable condition and more similar to the Dantesque doves. Although the persona loquens does not coincide with the author in this sonnet, the focus is well established on the poet’s feelings; at l. 3 of the first quatrain (che colui ch’a te ne ‘nvia) – through the image of the poet offering gifts – Petrarch has the possibility of anticipating his painful condition and his harsh slavery in respect of Laura, a condition which will be spelled out in the last two lines of the sonnet (lo qual in forza altrui presso a l’extremo riman legato con maggior catena).

The idyllic incipit (a piè de colli ove la bella veste) of the sonnet is therefore dismantled by the fact that this beautiful landscape, where the two doves used to spend time (l. 5 libere in pace), turns out to be the theatre of a painful event, id est the incarnation of Laura. The poet, explicitly mentioned as the offerer of the gift, then stands in the background with his insomnia amorosa (l. 4 spesso dal somno lagrimando desta). The second quatrain also conveys an initial atmosphere of joy and stresses the beautiful feeling of living sine cura.

The doves are the symbol of a type of life which does not involve preoccupation. It is especially underlined that in this kind of life which ‘ogni animal desia’ (l. 6) the possibility of a future pain is unconceivable. At line 6 ‘animal’ should be interpreted as human being (again Inf V, ll. 88-90 ‘O animal grazïoso e benigno che visitando vai per l’aere perso noi che tignemmo il mondo di sanguigno’), but it does sound like the poet is playing a bit with the signifiers since the doves (animals) talk about all human beings as if they were animals too. The possibility of an interpretation of animal as animal is however kept by the ambiguous word. In the two last tercets doves somehow take revenge of their state of captivity: death and slavery are the two issues in the backdrop of this last part of the text.

The doves, just like the poet, are in a cage. And now we arrive to the solace I have mentioned beforehand regarding the birds: rather than death, the major consolation for the doves (un sol conforto avemo, l. 11) is the fact that the poet, who is responsible for their miserable condition (che vendetta è di lui ch’a ciò ne mena, l. 12), is himself in a worse condition (lo qual in forza altrui riman legato con maggior catena ll. 13-14). Close to the end of his life (presso a l’extremo l. 13) the poet is completely imprisoned into Laura’s chains. Through the personification of the doves, Petrarch in fact attracts the attention even more than if he had himself spoken about his own condition. The ultimate stereotype of denied freedom (uccello in gabbia) is here destroyed by Petrarch who offers paradigmatically, and at the very beginning of the Canzoniere, an alternative example of denied freedom to that of the birds in captivity. The symbol of this condition is the poet himself and his personal story which sees him enchained until the very end of his life.

By deciding to put this sonnet at the beginning of the Canzoniere as an homage to his benefactors Colonna, Petrarch declares another central element to the poem alongside Laura. This element is a piece of his personal story which recalls a meaningful past, and should maybe be understood as an act of faith towards his story as a person and as a poet.



The poem may seem at first sight too occasional, or trite, but it does employ vocabulary that will become more and more central to the Canzoniere. Thus we can read ‘le terrene membra pria’ (v.2) as an anticipation of the obsession with Laura’s mortal, dead body later in the collection, and we can likewise anticipate the shift in the collection from the ‘bella vesta’ here to the ‘vesta negra’ (RVF 268) after Laura’s death. Similarly, the very dramatic line 4 (‘spesso dal somno lagrimando desta’) seems to anticipate the later sonnets when the poet is visited by Laura after her death in his sleep, and he wakes up when she leaves. It was noted that the gerund in line 4 (lagrimando) agrees with the object and not the subject of the sentence, which would be ungrammatically correct in modern Italian but is frequent in Italian. The strong enjambment over lines 5 and 6 conveys the sense of movement, which of course contrasts with the doves loss of free movement once caught and caged. This is the only poem in the collection in which the speaking voice is not the poet.

Some discussion centred on the ultimate fate of the doves: are they going to be eaten? Since there was no evidence in the poem, the question was discarded.

A meta-linguistic reading of the poem was also suggested, if we read ‘pie’’ as metrical feet, and ‘bella vesta’ as poetry. Similarly, ‘riman’ can be read as ‘rimano’, and ‘legato’ and ‘catena’ also frequently refer to poetry in Petrarch. In this sense, the poet seems to be as trapped and imprisoned in his poetry as the doves are in a cage. While line three was criticised for its clumsy structure (‘ch’a te ne’), this was noted to sound ‘catene’, and therefore to be highly appropriate (given the last word of the sonnet, ‘catena’). The ‘catene’ should also be read in the context of book 3 of the Secretum, and the two chains (Laura and poetic fame) that bind the poet, and which the poet enjoys. In this respect, it is possible that the poet does win eventually, for the doves’ vendetta is not without its positive side for Petrarch (he enjoys his chains).

Laura’s name was heard in particular words as usual: ‘mortal’, ‘conforto’, ‘forza’, ‘maggior’.

The word ‘vendetta’ seemed surprisingly strong in Petrarch, and consulting the concordance revealed that it appears mainly in early poems, and always in vita. Perhaps it is too courtly for later poems: it mainly refers to love’s vendetta. In general, RVF 8 was felt to be an old-fashioned poem, given its context (the medieval, courtly gift of birds), and thus somewhat frustrating, especially considering its prominent position in the collection. In general, it seems that Petrarch moves from the historical (poems written for a particular occasion or reason) to the more purely poetic through the Canzoniere.

The Inferno V resonances were accepted as irrefutable, but the question was asked: why? It was suggested that the end result, and perhaps Petrarch’s motive, was parodistic, since by literalising the metaphors of Dante’s canto, it belittles and treats reductively the intertext. Such an early parody in the history of the reception of Inferno V seems surprisingly modern, given how seriously it has tended to be taken since (Tchaikovsky, etc.).

Canzoniere 128

Italia mia, benché ‘l parlar sia indarno                                           My Italy, though words cannot heal

a le piaghe mortali                                                                              the mortal wounds

che nel bel corpo tuo sí spesse veggio,                                        so dense, I see on your lovely flesh,

piacemi almen che ‘ miei sospir’ sian quali                                 at least I pray that my sighs might bring

spera ‘l Tevero et l’Arno,                                                                    some hope to the Tiber and the Arno,

e ‘lPo, dove doglioso et grave or seggio.                                       and the Po, that sees me now sad and grave.

Rettor del cielo, io cheggio                                                               Ruler of Heaven, I hope

che la pietà che Ti condusse in terra                                              that the pity that brought You to earth,

Ti volga al Tuo dilecto almo paese.                                                 will turn you towards your soul-delighting land.

Vedi, Segnor cortese,                                                                         Lord of courtesy, see

di che lievi cagion’ che crudel guerra;                                            such cruel wars for such slight causes;

e i cor’, che ‘ndura et serra                                                               and hearts, hardened and closed

Marte superbo et fero,                                                                        by proud, fierce Mars,

apri Tu, Padre, e ‘ntenerisci et snoda;                                           and open them, Father, soften them, set them free:

ivi fa che ‘l Tuo vero,                                                                           and, whatever I may be, let your Truth

qual io mi sia, per la mia lingua s’oda.                                          be heard in my speech.

Voi cui Fortuna à posto in mano il freno                                         You lords to whose hands Fortune entrusts the reins

de le belle contrade,                                                                           of the beautiful region

di che nulla pietà par che vi stringa,                                                 for which you seem to show no pity,

che fan qui tante pellegrine spade?                                                what is the purpose of these foreign swords?

perché ‘l verde terreno                                                                        Why is our green land

delbarbarico sangue si depinga?                                                    so stained with barbarous blood?

Vano error vi lusinga:                                                                          Vain error flatters you:

poco vedete, et parvi veder molto,                                                    you see little, and think you see much,

ché ‘n cor venale amor cercate o fede.                                           if you look for love or loyalty in venal hearts.

Qual piú gente possede,                                                                   He who has more troops,

colui è piú da’ suoi nemici avolto.                                                    has more enemies under his command.

O diluvio raccolto                                                                                 O waters gathered

di che deserti strani                                                                            from desert lands

per inondar i nostri dolci campi!                                                       to inundate our sweet fields!

Se da le proprie mani                                                                         If our own hands

questo n’avene, or chi fia che ne scampi?                                    have done it, who can rescue us now?

Ben provide Natura al nostro stato,                                                Nature provided well for our defence,

quando de l’Alpi schermo                                                                setting the Alps as a shield

pose fra noi et la tedesca rabbia;                                                   between us and the German madness:

ma ‘l desir cieco, e ‘ncontr’al suo ben fermo,                              but blind desire, contrary to its own good,

s’è poi tanto ingegnato,                                                                    is so ingenious,

ch’al corpo sano à procurato scabbia.                                          that it brings plague to a healthy body.

Or dentro ad una gabbia                                                                  Now wild beasts

fiere selvagge et mansüete gregge                                              and gentle flocks sleep in one pen

s’annidan sí che sempre il miglior geme:                                   so the gentler always groan:

et è questodelseme,                                                                         and this, to add to our grief,

per piú dolor,delpopol senza legge,                                              from that race, that lawless people,

al qual, come si legge,                                                                     of whom, as we read,

Mario aperse sí ‘l fianco,                                                                  Marius so pierced their flank,

che memoria de l’opra ancho non langue,                                  that the memory of the deed can never fade,

quando assetato et stanco                                                              how thirsty and weary

non piú bevvedelfiume acqua che sangue.                                  he no longer drank river water but blood!

Cesare taccio che per ogni piaggia                                                I’ll say nothing of Caesar

fece l’erbe sanguigne                                                                        who painted the grass crimson

di lor vene, ove ‘l nostro ferro mise.                                                with their blood, where he raised the sword.

Or par, non so per che stelle maligne,                                           Now it seems, no one knows by what evil star,

che ‘l cielo in odio n’aggia:                                                               heaven hates us:

vostra mercé, cui tanto si commise.                                               mercy, oh you who so beset us.

Vostre voglie divise                                                                             Your warring wills

guastandelmondo la piú bella parte.                                              waste the better part of the world.

Qual colpa, qual giudicio o qual destino                                        For what fault, by what justice, through what fate,

fastidire il vicino                                                                                   do you trouble your poor

povero, et le fortune afflicte et sparte                                               neighbours, and persecute those afflicted

perseguire, e ‘n disparte by fortune,                                                and scattered, and search

cercar gente et gradire,                                                                      out foreign people and accept them,

che sparga ‘l sangue etvendal’alma a prezzo?                             they who spill blood and sell their souls for money?

Io parlo per ver dire,                                                                             I speak to tell the truth,

non per odio d’altrui, né per disprezzo.                                           not in hatred of anyone, nor scorn.

Né v’accorgete anchor per tante prove                                            Are you still ignorant of German deceit,

delbavarico inganno                                                                            with so many clear examples,

ch’alzando il dito colla morte scherza?                                            they who lift their fingers in mock surrender?

Peggio è lo strazio, al mio parer, che ‘l danno;                              Their scorn is worse, it seem to me, than their harm:

ma ‘l vostro sangue piove                                                                   while your blood flows

piú largamente, ch’altr’ira vi sferza.                                                  more freely, as other’s anger flails you.

Da la matina a terza                                                                             From matins to tierce

di voi pensate, et vederete come                                                       think to yourself, consider how

tien caro altrui che tien sé cosí vile.                                                  any can care for others who behave so vilely.

Latin sangue gentile,                                                                            People of Latin blood,

sgombra da te queste dannose some;                                            free yourself from this harmful burden:

non far idolo un nome                                                                          don’t make an idol of a name

vano senza soggetto:                                                                            empty, and without substance:

ché ‘l furor de lassú, gente ritrosa,                                                     that the berserkers from there, that backward race,

vincerne d’intellecto,                                                                              defeat our intelligence

peccato è nostro, et non natural cosa.                                               is our sin, and not nature’s.

Non è questo ‘l terren ch’i’ toccai pria?                                              Is this not the earth that I first touched?

Non è questo il mio nido                                                                       Is this not my nest

ove nudrito fui sí dolcemente?                                                             where I was so sweetly nourished?

Non è questa la patria in ch’io mi fido,                                               Is this not the land I trust,

madre benigna et pia,                                                                            benign and gentle mother,

che copre l’un et l’altro mio parente?                                                  that covers both my parents?

Perdio, questo la mente                                                                         By God, let this move you

talor vi mova, et con pietà guardate                                                      a little, and gaze with pity

le lagrimedelpopol doloroso,                                                                at the tears of your sad people,

che sol da voi riposo                                                                               who place their hopes in you

dopo Dio spera; et pur che voi mostriate                                            next to God: if only you show

segno alcun di pietate,                                                                           signs at least of pity,

vertú contra furore                                                                                    virtue will take up arms

prenderà l’arme, et fia ‘l combatter corto:                                            against madness, and cut short the warring:

ché l’antiquo valore                                                                                  if ancient courage

ne gli italici cor’ non è anchor morto.                                                    is not yet dead in Italian hearts.

Signor’, mirate come ‘l tempo vola,                                                       Lords, see how time flies,

et sí come la vita                                                                                        and how life

fugge, et la morte n’è sovra le spalle.                                                    flies too, and death is at our shoulder.

Voi siete or qui; pensate a la partita:                                                      You are here now: but think of the parting:

ché l’alma ignuda et sola                                                                         how the naked lonely soul

conven ch’arrive a quel dubbioso calle.                                                must arrive at the dangerous pass.

Al passar questa valle                                                                               As you go through this valley

piacciavi porre giú l’odio et lo sdegno,                                                  of tears, lay aside hatred and anger,

vènti contrari a la vita serena;                                                                  running counter to a peaceful life:

et quel che ‘n altrui pena                                                                          and all the time you spend

tempo si spende, in qualche acto piú degno                                       causing others pain, is more worthy

o di mano o d’ingegno,                                                                              of actions or thought

in qualche bella lode,                                                                                 in which there is sweet praise,

in qualche honesto studio si converta:                                                   in which honest study is involved:

cosí qua giú si gode,                                                                                  so there is joy down here,

et la stradadelciel si trova aperta.                                                            and the way to heaven will be open.

Canzone, io t’ammonisco                                                                         Song, I advise you

che tua ragion cortesemente dica,                                                          to speak with courteous words,

perché fra gente altera ir ti convene,                                                       since you must go among proud people,

et le voglie son piene                                                                                  whose will is already

già de l’usanza pessima et antica,                                                           formed by ancient, adverse custom,

delver sempre nemica.                                                                              always inimical to truth.

Proverai tuaventura                                                                                     Seek your fortune

fra’ magnanimi pochi a chi ‘l ben piace.                                                 among those favourable to true peace.

Di’ lor: – Chi m’assicura?                                                                           Say to them: ‘Who will defend me?

I’ vo gridando: Pace, pace, pace. –                                                           I go calling out: Peace, peace, peace.’

(Translated by A. S. Kline)

Presentation by Maria Pavlova

Report by Jennifer Rushworth

This canzone is the most famous political canzone of the Canzoniere. Formally, each stanza is composed of an interesting and dramatic mix of settenari and endecasillabi. Linguistically, it is much more concrete than much of Petrarch’s poetry, and challenges the view of Petrarchan language as abstract, rarefied and ethereal. It also makes use of rime aspre (e.g. rabbia, gabbia, abbia, which also appear in Inferno 29). This poem speaks of wounds, blood, weaponry, not as metaphors of the action of the god of Love, but as political reality. In fact, it is arguable that the poet comes across as more passionate in this poem than in much of his love poetry. Here, Petrarch uses the erotic code as a language for politics, while he has elsewhere used political and bellicose codes as love language.

The poem is most obviously comparable within the Canzoniere to canzoni 28 (expressing enthusiasm for a crusade) and 53 (lamenting the present state of Italy). Beyond the Canzoniere, it recalls the political invective frequent in Dante’s Commedia. The immediate historical context for the writing of canzone 128 is probably during the siege of Parma in the winter of 1344-45, as indicated in line 6 (‘’l Po, dove doglioso et grave or seggio’). Francesco Filelfo was the first to suggest that the poem is a specific condemnation of the violence of German mercenaries who helped Italian lords in their struggle to control Parma. In the Familiares 5.10 there is a description of Petrarch’s dramatic flight fromParma. Petrarch seems to be recommending acceptance of Milanese rule, in an expression of support for the Visconti.

The canzone also resonates with the penitential poems of the Canzoniere. Indeed, it seems like a microcosm of the collection as a whole if we consider that the first line defines words as useless (‘’benché ’l parlar sia indarno’) even as the poet goes on, paradoxically, to speak (compare with the proeminal sonnet, RVF 1, which undermines the collection right from the start with the admission that poetry is vanitas – ‘vaneggiar’, and also the appearance of the word ‘sospiri’ in both), while canzone 128 ends on the word ‘pace’ (repeated, in this case) which closes the collection (the last word of canzone 366). The opening stanza of RVF 128 is particularly rich in religious tones, calling on Christ as ‘Rettor del cielo’ and ‘Segnor cortese’. By the end of the poem, however, the ‘pace’ invoked seems secular not spiritual; religious concerns are overshadowed by civic matters from the moment ‘Fortuna’ is introduced in the second stanza. Similarly, Petrarch shifts from declaring his concern for divine truth (‘Tuo vero’, stanza one) to historical truth (‘Io parlo per ver dire’, stanza four).

The poem is not without its self-reflexive aspects. Much of the criticism which Petrarch directs outwards could also, on another level, be read as self-referential. For instance, Petrarch’s condemnation of civil war as a result of ‘voglie divise’ is also a good definition of the poetic condition of Petrarch’s lyric ‘I’, divided between Laura and God. Similarly, his imperative ‘non far idolo un nome / vano senza soggetto’, while it acts as a condemnation of desire for fame here, also recalls a passage from the Secretum where Augustinus condemns Franciscus for just this same offence, in relation to his poetic idolatry of Laura’s name. Petrarch also, in stanza seven, laments the fleetingness of time in language that he frequently uses (compare sonnet 272).

In contrast, Petrarch would seem to recommend his way of life as virtuous in stanza seven where he also extols the benefits of time spent wisely ‘in qualche bella lode, / in qualche honesto studio’.

By modern standards, the poem is shockingly racist. Petrarch celebrates the fact that Italians are descended from ancient Romans, and are therefore superior to all other nations, and in particular to the Germans, who are described as having ‘barbarico sangue’ (v.22) and as ‘fiere selvagge’ (v.40), in contrast to the ‘Latin sangue gentile’ of the Italians who live in ‘del mondo la più bella parte’ (v.56).

Petrarch’s politics contrast with Dante’s, since while Dante hoped and believed that the Roman Empire would be re-established with imperial forces coming from German bloodlines, Petrarch is aware of a great rift between past (‘l’antiquo valore’) and present, and does not consider continuity possible or desirable.

The question was raised as to what Petrarch meant by the proper noun ‘Italia’; it was assumed that, as with Dante (and before that, Virgil), Petrarch was thinking of the peninsula as an ideal geographical unit.

Further research was also carried out as the presence of ‘sangue’ in Petrarch more generally. It was concluded that the word particularly appears in political poems (and five times in this one canzone), although it also appears in reference to Laura’s affect on the poet’s blood, to Laura’s nobility, and to Christ’s blood. Besides, it was noted that ‘magnanimo’ only appears elsewhere in the Canzoniere in sonnet 7, again in relation to scarcity (‘Pochi compagni’).

It is worth remarking that this canzone has an interesting Nachleben. The optimistic lines:

Virtù contro a furore

Prenderà l’arme, e fia el combatter corto;

Ché l’antico valore

Nell’italici cor non è ancor morto

are cited at the close of Machiavelli’s Principe. We should not forget what an important role Petrarch’s writings had in the development of Renaissance political theory. It also interesting that Mario Luzi’s poem on the murder of Aldo Moro likewise references this canzone, ending on ‘pace pace pace’ similarly.

In conclusion, this poem should not be ignored or viewed as extraneous or strange in the context of the Canzoniere. Here we see an interesting and important side of Petrarch’s personality: Petrarch the historian, Petrarch the political commentator, for whom love and politics are not so very far apart.

Canzoniere 310

Zephiro torna, e ’l bel tempo rimena               Hail, Zephyrus! bringing back in sight

e i fiori et l’erbe, sua dolce famiglia,                sweet flowers, grass and fine weather again,

et garrir Progne et pianger Philomena,           and, once more, Spring! blood-red and pearly white,

et primavera candida et vermiglia.                   with Procne and Philomela in pain.

Ridono i prati, e ’l ciel si rasserena;                The meadows are laughing, the sky is bright;

Giove s’allegra di mirar sua figlia;                   Jove smiles at seeing his daughter again;

l’aria et l’acqua et la terra è d’amor piena;     And Love doth all that lives to love incite;

ogni animal d’amar si riconsiglia.                   With Love are laden earth and air and rain.

Ma per me, lasso, tornano i più gravi               But for me, alas, the heaviest tears

sospiri, che del cor profondo tragge                are drawn from the depths of my wounded heart

quella ch’al ciel se ne portò le chiavi;              by She who lives in the heavenly spheres;

et cantar augelletti et fiorir piagge,                    and though birds sing and fields make a fresh start,

e ’n belle donne honeste atti soavi                   and ladies be beautiful, chaste and mild

sono un deserto, et fere aspre et selvagge.   all is, for me, a wasteland, monstrous, wild.

(translation by Jennifer Rushworth)

Philomela the Nightingale

Thomas Hardy, Proud Songster

The thrushes sing as the sun is going,

And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,

And as it gets dark loud nightingales

In bushes

Pipe, as they can when April wears,

As if all Time were theirs.

These are brand new birds of twelvemonths’ growing,

Which a year ago, or less than twain,

No finches were, nor nightingales,

Nor thrushes,

But only particles of grain,

And earth, and air, and rain.

The following presentation was given by Jennifer Rushworth:

At first glance it seems that the poem is setting up a straightforward contrast between the joy and colour and new life of Spring, and the darkness and despair and loneliness of the poet. Such a contrast would be quite common in Petrarch: we need only think back to sonnet 9 which we looked at last week, and whose last line read ‘primavera per me pur non è mai’. It is a form of pathetic fallacy in reverse: the poet identifies with the landscape, but only through what he lacks. As in sonnet 9, in sonnet 310 the contrast is between nature (the beautiful, verdant outside world with Spring in its step) and the self (dark, isolated and self-absorbed).

Today’s poem is characterised stylistically by an alternation of polysyndeton and asyndeton. The excess and abundance of Spring is suggested by the long list of nouns linked by the simple conjunction ‘e[t]’, which appears fourteen times in this sonnet. In contrast, when the lyric subject’s plight is described in the first tercet, the poem completely changes rhythm and texture. It becomes slow and laboured, particularly line 9 with the heavy monosyllables (‘Ma per me’), the commas breaking up the line and highlighting the main caesura, the mention precisely of heaviness (the ‘gravi / sospiri’), and the laborious and painful sounding nature of dragging sighs ‘delcor profondo’. The enjambment of ‘i più gravi / sospiri’ is striking, placing great emphasis on the delayed ‘sospiri’ in prime position in the line and somehow conveying a sense of heaviness as the line is similarly dragged over into the next one.

In an ironic way, while Zephyrus (the west wind) is associated with fertile multiplicity, the verb ‘torna’ is only transformed into the plural for the poet in the sestet, where however ‘tornano’ refers to the same thing repeated (endless ‘sospiri’), rather than the joyous plethora of grass and flowers and birds which assailed our eyes and ears in the first quatrain. The poem is marked by a respect for symmetry, going so far as the common structuring device of starting the sestet with ‘Ma’, but present also in the choice of verbs (‘torna’/‘tornano’).

When we first learn about the sonnet form, we are often told that it has a structure of thesis (in the octet), antithesis (at the start of the sestet) and synthesis (in the final line, or final few lines). Here as often in Petrarch we are denied any solution or respite to the stark antitheses. The poet is enmeshed in the past, in sameness, in endlessness, in repetition, in inescapable grief. He has no hope for change or a new future, in contrast to nature’s cyclical rebirth (we note the frequency of verbs beginning with ‘ri’: ‘rimena’, ‘riconsiglia’, even ‘ridono’, and ‘rasserena’). The last line of this poem is shocking in its abruptness: ‘sono un deserto, et fere aspre et selvagge’. The Dantean ring of these words (compare Inferno I, 5: ‘esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte’, or Inferno XIII, 7-8 ‘Non han sì aspri sterpi né sì folti / quelle fiere selvagge’) marks the situation as infernal in its loneliness and barrenness. The rhyme gravi/chiavi/soavi is a further echo of Inferno XIII (58-59).

The contrast between nature and the self is complicated by the mention of Procne and Philomela in the third line, as intimated by the choice of verbs: ‘garrir’ and ‘pianger’. (Note the plosive alliteration in this line which inscribes weeping within the very names of the two sisters, while also harking back to ‘Zephiro’ and anticipating ‘primavera’.) While Procne stands for a swallow, and Philomela for a nightingale (according to Petrarch at least), the mythological story behind these identifications is far from the pastoral idyll this poem appears to evoke. Mythological characters remain central to the depiction of nature in this poem: we find, immediately, Zephyrus, setting the elevated, literary tone for the rest of the poem, and later Jove and his daughter (Venus). In all this a possible model is Virgil’s Georgics, a pastoral text which similarly invokes Zephyrus and Venus in order to describe Spring (II, 328-31). Virgil’s Eclogues are also referenced.

As regards Procne and Philomela, however, the main source is Ovid, from which it is worth briefly recounting the bloody story (see Metamorphoses VI, 422-674). Tereus is married to Procne but falls in love with her sister Philomela, whom he abducts and seduces. When Philomela threatens to tell the world of Tereus’s crime, Tereus cuts off her tongue to silence her. But Philomela manages to weave a web telling her story and send this to her sister Procne. On reading her sister’s story, Procne in revenge kills their son and cooks him and feeds him to her treacherous husband and unsuspecting father. Tereus, on learning of what food he has partaken, pursues the two sisters, only be turned into a hoopoe, and the two sisters are likewise turned into birds. The ‘dolce famiglia’ of line one is undermined by this knowledge of the broken, violent family relationships implicit in line three. The poet’s piteous plight is thus anticipated with line 3 which stands out particularly oddly in the context of a celebration of nature. Instead, the implicit mythological story creates an uneasy undercurrent to the poem’s radiant opening lines. I also therefore would like to read the white and red colours of Spring as equally ominous (and we might recall that Springtime is also the time of Christ’s Passion).

As Nicola suggested last week, we can hear in the repeated ‘ve’ sound (‘primavera’, ‘vermiglia’, ‘Giove’) a hint of Venus, entirely appropriate given the reference to her in line 6 of the poem. Similarly, Laura is only indicated indirectly in this poem, both by ‘quella’ (like the ‘costei’ from last week’s sonnet delayed until the start of line 11 of the poem), and by, again, the scattering of the syllables of her name in ‘l’aria’, which is close semantically and lexically to the more usual senhal ‘l’aura’, ‘the breeze’, and perhaps in ‘l’acqua’ also.

The Laura of this poem is as isolated and remote as the poet feels from the joys of Spring. She is not counted amongst the anonymous, earthly ‘belle donne’, and ‘fere’ for once does not refer to her. (In sestina 22, with which this poem shares a similar vocabulary, e.g. ‘animal’, Petrarch had, for instance, paralleled Laura to an ‘aspra fera’, vv.20-21.) Laura having the keys to his heart is a recurrent topos in Petrarch (see, for instance, poem 155, vv.12-14, or ballad 63). I find the image of the keys in this pastoral poem somewhat too sentimental or urban or clichéd and feel that it jars with the tenor of the rest of the poem.

We can imagine that the ‘sospiri’ in this poem represent poetry itself (the proeminal sonnet after all prepared the reader to expect to hear ‘il suono / di quei sospiri’). In this sense the poet’s complaint to Laura seems somewhat ungrateful; he is representing the inspiration she provides him with as unwanted and painful. On the other hand, perhaps this is a better or truer image of what bringing a poem to life is all about; tearing something slowly away from the obscure depths of one’s self. Importantly, the nightingale’s song was thought to be dangerous and painful to the singing bird (as noted by Isidore), an interesting parallel for Petrarch’s own poesis. As Francesca noticed last week, there is a certain irony to the poet’s claim that the world is dark and barren (a ‘deserto’) when a poem is normally seen as a creative act and a sign of newness.

If I can be forgiven for quoting Freud, the last line resonates for me as a definition of the melancholic state. Freud famously wrote in his essay on ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ that ‘In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself’. Both readings are possible in Petrarch’s last line, depending on ‘sono’ as a third person plural verb (which is ultimately more likely – all the birds, ladies and flowers), or ‘sono’ as first person singular. Since Laura’s death, both the world and the self are empty wildernesses for the poet. This perhaps explains the lack of interest in the ‘belle donne’ who are characterised in classic stilnovist terms (‘soavi’, ‘honeste’) in line thirteen.

To conclude, then, sonnet 310 is a particularly elegant sonnet in a notably noble style and characterised by a structuring contrast between natural time (Spring and rebirth) and time as experienced by the lyric subject (and which is endless, repetitive, and unchanging). The praise of the natural world is dampened by the reference to the violent world of Ovidian mythology, so that the apparently innocent ‘augelletti’ do, on reflection, appear more like ‘fere aspre’, even before the lyric subject has cast his melancholic perception on them. I have included a poem by Thomas Hardy which I think provides an interesting comparison to Petrarch’s poem, and which in part informed my translation of the sonnet.

The ensuing discussion raised the following points:

  • Laura’s name is present in ‘or’ sounds (‘amor’, ‘torna’, ‘fiorir’, etc.), not only in ‘l’aria et l’acqua’.
  • The poem presents important similarities with a poem by Catullus on the traditional topic of the return of spring (Gardini notes that such intertextuality provides further food for thought concerning Petrarch’s reading of Catullus). It also seems to belong to the genre of the ‘poesia giocosa’, which celebrates nature and man’s place in nature (see, for instance, Dante’s ‘Sonar bracchetti’). This perhaps explains the ‘belle donne’ who appear in the last tercet, oddly in the context of this poem, but wholly predictably on the model of Folgore da San Gimignano’s ‘corone’ of sonnets. (Who are these ‘donne’? Where do they come from?)
  • ‘sono un deserto’ is a particularly interesting phrase, given its ambiguity (‘io sono’ vs. ‘loro sono’). Gardini adds that ‘sono’ can also be a contraction of ‘suono’ (defining Petrarch’s poetics as a sonorous desert), and reminds us that ‘sono’ and ‘suono’ rhyme in the proeminal sonnet of the collection.
  • As always, Petrarch evades absolute symmetry: ‘fere aspre’ includes both ‘augelletti’ and ‘belle donne’, we must presume.
  • The poem also contains unusual stresses and rhythms, such as line 6 (the stress on ‘di’).
  • The infinitives (‘garrir’, ‘pianger’, v.3; ‘cantar’, ‘fiorir’, v.12) follow a Latinate model.
  • The poem can be seen to set up a contrast between two different types of wind in the octet and sestet, that is, between Zephyrus as a wind of inspiration associated with fertility and blossoming creativity, and the ‘sospiri’ which are a wind of grief.
  • The adjectives ‘gravi’ and ‘soavi’ provide further fuel for a meta-poetic reading of this sonnet, since they can refer to stylistic ideals (gravi-tas). The adjective ‘aspre’ in the final line also recalls Dante’s ‘rime aspre’, as well as poem 35 of the Canzoniere.
  • There was much discussion about the phrase ‘candida et vermiglia’. Why does Petrarch choose these two colours? What might they signify? One possible reading is in relation to spring/April as the time of Easter and Christ’s Passion. The word ‘candida’ may be simply synonymous with beautiful, but why ‘vermiglia’? Fair complexion and rosy cheeks? Or something more specific? More investigation into Petrarch’s colour references would be required to clarify this question.
  • Line 7 makes reference to all four elements, air, water, earth and fire (‘amor’).

In conclusion, this Classical sonnet goes beyond the medieval tradition of the poem on the return of spring to complicate our interpretation of the beauty of nature (hiding dark family secrets), whilst confirming the image of the lyric ‘I’ which sonnet 9 first presents to the reader.

Canzoniere 9

Petrarch Reading Group week 1 Hilary 2012 (Wednesday 18th January)
Presentation by Nicola Gardini on RVF 9.  Report by Jennifer Rushworth

Quando ’l pianeta che distingue l’ore      When the planet that marks off the hours

ad albergar col Tauro si ritorna,                 returns to dwell with the Bull

cade vertù da l’infiammate corna               from his flaming horns falls virtue

che veste il mondo di novel colore;           which clothes the world in fresh color.

et non pur quel che s’apre a noi di fore,    And not only that which opens to us without,

le rive e i colli, di fioretti adorna,                  the riverbanks and the hills, he adorns with flowers,

ma dentro dove già mai non s’aggiorna   but within, where day never dawns,

gravido fa di sé il terrestro humore,            he makes the earthly moisture pregnant of himself,

onde tal fructo et simile si colga:                 that it may yield such fruit as this and others like it.

così costei, ch’è tra le donne un sole,        Thus she who among ladies is a sun,

in me movendo de’ begli occhi i rai             moving the rays of her lovely eyes, in me

crïa d’amor penseri, atti et parole;               creates thoughts, acts, words of love;

ma come ch’ella gli governi o volga,           but however she governs or turns them,

primavera per me pur non è mai.                 spring for me still never comes.

(translation by Robert Durling from his Petrarch’s Lyric Poems, Harvard University Press 1976)

RVF 9 is the second sonnet of a triptych of cards/letters accompanying gifts to friends (perhaps the Colonna brothers). It is a particularly fascinating sonnet because it is supposed to complement an object which, for the reader, is no longer there and is unidentifiable. The sonnet is therefore both not a self-standing sonnet (because it refers to a gift) and yet necessarily self-standing (since it is part of the Canzoniere). This creates an interesting interplay between referentiality/dependency and the independence of poetic language. By the end of the poem, autonomy wins the day: the poem remains meaningful and beautiful for its readers regardless of its original, intended message. After all, were this not the case, it would not earn its place in the Canzoniere.

It is not obvious what the gift the sonnet accompanied was. Tradition has it that the gift was truffles. This makes sense in the context of the poem because truffles come from deep in the earth and have no direct contact with the sunlight, although they are nourished by the sun (such connotations are important aspects of the simile around which the poem is constructed). But the phrase ‘tal fructo et simile’ is deliberately non-specific, and ‘fructo’ becomes an empty signifier deprived of the signified.

The comparison is between the fertilizing powers of the sun and of Laura. Laura fertilizes the mind of the poet in the same way as the sun penetrates into the hidden, deep soil. Yet Gardini believes that this ingenious simile is demolished at the end by Petrarch, since while Spring comes for nature and the fruits of the earth, the poet declares in the final line that for him it is never Spring. This is a self-denying twist at the end which undercuts the simile. This interpretation, on the other hand, was challenged by Francesca Magnabosco, who thinks that the poem itself is evidence of fruitfulness/Spring, if not for the poet, at least in the text.

The beginning of the sonnet is pompous, epic almost, with its long periphrasis uncommon in the Canzoniere but redolent of the Dantesque, lofty diction of Paradiso. (Note that the sonnet is a juvenile one.) The ‘pianeta’ is of course the sun, which indicates the passing of time. The bull (Taurus) indicates that it is Spring, April in fact. The month is laden with significance in Petrarch, as he first sees Laura on 6 April (Good Friday), and she dies on the same date years later. It is suggested that the last line may mean on one level that Petrarch is stuck in Good Friday (darkness, eclipse, the moment of first sight of Laura) and never reaches Easter Sunday (the day of Christ’s resurrection, new life and ‘novel colore’).

Spring enlivens (‘adorna’) both external reality (the ‘rive’ and ‘colli’ emblematic of Petrarch’s geography) and that which is ‘dentro’, hidden inside (v.7). Here a contrast is established between outside and inside. That which is harvested (‘tal fructo et simile’) is brought out from under the surface; in a similar manner, the poem is composed of words which like truffles are carefully and eagerly sought out and dug up. Hence while the gift may be a form of fruit, the poem itself is also the ‘fructo’ of a similar process.

The poem combines long words (‘infiammate’, ‘primavera’, which can hardly be contained in the hendecasyllable) with strings of emphatic monosyllables which are rare in Italian (e.g. v.5 ‘et non pur quel che…’, v.14 ‘per me pur non è mai’). This, Gardini notes, may suggest the contrast between the scattering of the poet/poem (in monosyllables) and the plenitude and self-regeneration of the external world from which the poet is excluded. There is a protracted chiasmus from ‘non pur’ (v.5) to ‘pur non’ (v.14). Often the accent in the line falls on monosyllables whose importance does not match the rhythmic weight placed on them (e.g. on relatively meaningless syntactical elements).

Martin McLaughlin comments that the simile is somewhat asymmetrical in structure; it spills over into line 10, rather than stopping on the more obvious eight line. The poem’s imagery moves from sun to colour in the first quatrain, then from colour to darkness in the second quatrain, back to the sun in the first tercet, ending with darkness and a lack of colour again in the second tercet. The alliteration of ‘c’ is also striking (vv.9-10, 12), and this aids the prominence of the verb ‘crïa’. McLaughlin also feels that the poem bears notable points of consonance with RVF 310 (to be discussed in the next meeting), as well as with the first book of the Georgics.

The line ‘penseri, atti et parole’ is noted to have liturgical echoes of the Confiteor: does this suggest an element of guilt/confession under the surface of this celebration of the creativity Laura inspires?

Although Laura does not appear until line 10 (‘costei’), her presence runs throughout the poem in its usual manner as a scattered senhal. She is in many of the rhymes (‘l’ore’, ‘or’, ‘ol’) and also in key words (‘Tauro’, ‘fioretti’). We can consider ‘albergar’ as a hypogram Laura’s name (it contains most of the letters of her name, but is not quite a full anagram). A distinct recurring sound is that of ‘ve’, which appears nine times in the poem (‘vertù’, ‘veste’, ‘primavera’, etc.). Gardini suggests that this may stand for ‘Venere’/‘Venus’, the goddess of love, in a manner typical of ancient poetry (Virgil or Ennius, for instance) and in which the name of a particular divinity is scattered through the lines. It could also be the initial of the dedicatee.

Elsewhere in the Canzoniere Laura is identified with the laurel/Daphne. In this poem, however, she takes on the masculine role of Apollo (the sun). Gender reversals remain key to this poem, as it is Laura who penetrates and impregnates the poet, for whom the creative act mirrors gestation in the womb and subsequent parturition. We see this in lines 8 (the dark, moist, earthly ‘terrestro humore’ is womb-like, while ‘gravido’ can literally refer to pregnancy) and the very sexual line 11, in which ‘i rai’ (like ‘corna’ earlier) have a phallic, penetrative function (‘in me movendo’). The understanding of male creativity as a form of childbirth is, of course, a common trope in later poetry, and particularly prevalent in sixteenth-century sonnets. The notion of writing poetry as an excavation of words from the dark is also strikingly modern.

There was much discussion about the phrase ‘terrestro humore’, although dictionary consultation confirmed Gardini’s identification of ‘humore’ with moisture, and not with humus (earth).

In the end, it was agreed that worrying about what the gift was (was it really truffles?) should not be allowed to detract from the supplementary meanings of the poem.

Canzoniere 173

Mirando ‘l sol de’ begli occhi sereno,                    Avising the bright beams of these fair eyes

ove è che spesso i miei depinge et bagna,         Where he is that mine oft moisteth and washeth,

dal cor l’ anima stanca si scompagna                  The wearied mind straight from the heart departeth

per gir nel paradiso suo terreno.                             For to rest in his worldly paradise

Poi trovandol di dolce et d’ amar pieno,                 And find the sweet bitter under this guise.

quant’ al mondo si tesse, opra d’ aragna             What webs he hath wrought well he perceiveth

vede: onde seco et con Amor si lagna,                  Whereby with himself on love he plaineth

ch’ à sí caldi gli spron’, sí duro ‘l freno.                 That spurreth with fire and bridleth with ice.

Per questi extremi duo contrari et misti,                Thus is it in such extremity brought,

or con voglie gelate, or con accese                         In frozen thought, now and now it standeth in flame.

stassi cosí fra misera et felice;                                Twixt misery and wealth, twixt earnest and game,

ma pochi lieti, et molti penser’ tristi,                       But few glad, and many diverse thought

e ‘l piú si pente de l’ ardite imprese:                      With sore repentance of his hardiness.

tal frutto nasce di cotal radice.                                 Of such a root cometh fruit fruitless.

[trans. by Sir Thomas Wyatt]


A sonnet from the In vita section of the Canzoniere consisting of a seemingly conventional display of familiar themes and motifs which recur with great frequency throughout the collection, most notably the opposition between desire and repentance and the spiritual implications arising out of the poet’s relationship with Laura.  Positive emblems usually associated with Laura, such as the sun and the earthly paradise, are charged with negative connotations through the ambiguity of Petrarch’s language and the intertextual connections which we are invited to make between this poem and the relevant sections of the Bible, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Dante’s Commedia.  The sonnet represents a synthesis of the themes explored by Petrarch in the Secretum and the letter describing his ascent of Mount Ventoux (Familiares IV, 1): the consequences of his overzealous pursuit of both Laura and literary fame, and the privileging of knowledge of the external, secular world over his own spiritual well-being.

Misguided Journeys: Petrarch’s and Ulysses’

The poet’s soul acts as the protagonist, another instance of the characteristic representation of Petrarch’s psychomachia obvserved in previous poems.  In fact, the lyric “I” is completely absent from the poem, and the only hint of the poet’s physical or emotional presence is contained in the personal pronoun of l. 2.  The tone if the poem is confessional, yet the poet distances himself from it by adopting the third person.  Indeed, the object of desire is entirely absent after the first line as well.  The opening of the poem leads the reader to expect another sonnet about Laura, but it is as if the poet has become distracted, so consumed is he with the desperate state his soul finds itself in.  Having divided itself from the heart at the sight of Laura’s eyes, the soul flies to an earthly paradise.  The ambiguity of the Italian third person possessive pronoun means it is impossible to say whether this suo refers to the soul or to Laura.  It is quite possible, however, that such a distinction is irrelevant: both Laura’s and the soul’s paradiso terreno may be taken to refer to Vaucluse, where Petrarch first saw and fell in love with her.  It should be noted, however, that the addition of suo makes this paradise a personal one, quite different from the universal earthly paradise described by Dante at the summit of Mount Purgatory.  Where Dante finally reconciles with his beloved Beatrice and prepares for the happy event of his ascent to heaven, Petrarch’s soul feels itself deceived and remains unhappy in this earthly paradise.  Petrarch attempts to undertake a spiritual and emotional journey, but because he is pursuing the wrong kind of knowledge, he remains in a state of emotional and spiritual paralysis.  Like Ulysses in Inferno XXVI, Petrarch has deviated from his proper course.  They are both victims of a misdirected ardore.  Ulysses’ thirst for new experiences and knowledge of the world led him to neglect his human ties and brought him to destruction.  Petrarch’s ardite imprese (it is not specified whether these are amorous or literary, most likely both are intended), have led to his ruin, and his repentance along with the mention of frutto calls to mind the first sonnet of the collection (l. 12): e del mio vannegiar vergogna è ’l frutto, / e ’l pentersi.

Mirare, Vedere and the Act of Sight

Though Wyatt’s translation is quite a faithful one, some of his deviations highlight interpretive problems with Petrarch’s poem.  The translation of depinge as moisteth in particular suggests that Wyatt may have interpreted it as a synonymic counterpart to bagna, choosing to highlight the quality of wetness suggested by Petrarch’s verb.  It has been suggested that depinge refers not to Petrarch’s eyes but to his face, which reddens either with desire or shame as a response to the sight of the beloved.  Alternatively, it could be that the poet’s eyes have reddened as a result of his constant weeping.  This gives rise to the possibility of a counterintuitive reading of the first two lines of this sonnet, which suggests not clarity due to Laura’s radiance, as one might expect, but rather a blindness similar to that experienced by the poet in Canz. 339.  The rapturous tone of the first quatrain is quickly tempered by the realisation that the beauty which inspired the soul’s flight to its paradiso terreno is fickle and dangerous, like the spider’s web.  The soul has been deceived by what it has seen in l. 1, and rather than the anticipated happiness, it becomes locked in a confusion of desires which engenders a state spiritual and emotional stasis.  The soul’s defective sight in l. 1 appears to question the reliability of the eyes as instruments through which the true nature of things may be understood, yet by l. 7 it can see (vede), and, more importantly, understand its mistake.  Are we in fact dealing with two different kinds of sight in this sonnet?  A superficial mirare (l. 1) which is defective and liable to be deceived by worldly beauty, and a more profound vedere (l. 7) which is capable of penetrating the surface and discerning the true, fallen nature of the material world?

A Tangled Web: Ovid, Job, Dante and Petrarch

The spider’s web symbolises a deceptive beauty and its literary precedents invite the reader to associate it with an unrighteous hubris combined with a lack of spiritual understanding.  In Ovid’s Metamorphoses VI [Eng. trans. by A. S. Kline], Arachne’s refusal to acknowledge her debt to the gods as the ultimate source of her artistic ability establishes a debate about the true nature of art.  As Augustinus reminds Franciscus in the Secretum, all that is beautiful on earth should be loved not because of its beauty per se, but because it has come from the Creator.  The act of weaving as a metaphor for literary imitation is invoked by the verb si tesse, which reminds one of the root of the word testo.

The Book of Job also affords a certain prominence both to the image of the spider’s web and to that of the sterile root as a symbol of a lack of spiritual direction.  The following lines appear in Job 8:11-17:

8 11 Can the rush be green without moisture? or sedge bush grow without water? numquid vivere potest scirpus absque humore aut crescet carectum sine aqua
8 12 When it is yet in flower, and is not plucked with the hand, it withereth before all herbs. cum adhuc sit in flore nec carpatur manu ante omnes herbas arescit
8 13 Even so are the ways of all that forget God, and the hope of the hypocrite shall perish: sic viae omnium qui obliviscuntur Deum et spes hypocritae peribit
8 14 His folly shall not please him, and his trust shall be like the spider’s web. non ei placebit vecordia sua et sicut tela aranearum fiducia eius
8 15 He shall lean upon his house, and it shall not stand: he shall prop it up, and it shall not rise: innitetur super domum suam et non stabit fulciet eam et non consurget
8 16 He seemeth to have moisture before the sun cometh; and at his rising, his blossom shall shoot forth. humectus videtur antequam veniat sol et in horto suo germen eius egreditur
8 17 His roots shall be thick upon a heap of stones; and among the stones he shall abide. super acervum petrarum radices eius densabuntur et inter lapides commorabitur

Verses 14 and 17 in particular are echoed verbally by Petrarch, and indeed verse 17 seems to be inscribed with the poet’s very name.  The presence of sol and in horto (v. 16, perhaps suggesting the paradiso terreno of Petrarch’s fourth line) in the same passage would appear to confirm that Petrarch had these lines in mind when composing Canz. 173.  The opposition here between sterility and fertility is similarly adapted by Petrarch for use in the present sonnet, and the Biblical subtext helps to explain the repentant, confessional tone of the poem.  It is to be noted that, while the poet appears to be in a remorseful frame of mind, no specific sin is confessed.  The plural ardite imprese implies that we are dealing with more than just erotic desire for Laura.  The Dantean subtext establishes a link between Petrarch and Ulysses’ thirst for worldly knowledge, while the Ovidian allusion to the myth of Arachne suggests a hubristic perception of his own art.  Combined with the Biblical subtext, it would appear that Petrarch is repenting the lack of attention he has paid to his own spiritual well-being (see the Ascent of Mount Ventoux), brought about by the intensity of his love for Laura on the one hand, and love for secular art and literature (and by extension his personal desire for literary fame) on the other.

If this hypothesis is correct, Virgil’s explanation to Dante of lento amore in Purg. XVII, 125-137 must also be relevant here.  Describing the various kinds of defective love of which the souls Dante is about to see are being purged, Virgil tells him:

or vo’ che tu de l’altro [amore] intende,
che corre al ben con ordine corrotto.

Ciascun confusamente un bene apprende
nel qual si queti l’animo, e disira;
per che di giugner lui ciascun contende.

Se lento amore a lui veder vi tira
o a lui acquistar, questa cornice,
dopo giusto penter, ve ne martira.

Altro ben è che non fa l’uom felice;
non è felicità, non è la buona
essenza, d’ogne ben frutto e radice.

L’amor ch’ad esso troppo s’abbandona,
di sovr’a noi si piange per tre cerchi;

The rhyme words felice and radice are echoed in Petrarch’s sestet, establishing a clear link with this passage of the Commedia.  The implication is that Petrarch has not directed his attention towards that buona essenza, and thus has become living proof of Virgil’s words.  On the one hand, he has been deceived by the beauty of Laura and of the world, which he has loved too zealously, with the result that his soul can find no rest in its paradiso terreno.  On the other, he is guilty of the lento amore which has led to the neglect of his spiritual obligation as a Christian to know and to praise God above all else.  In short, like Adam and Eve in their paradiso terreno, Petrarch has pursued the wrong kind of knowledge and his unquiet and despairing state of mind is the result.

- Summary by Mike Hodder

Canzoniere 211

Version 1

Voglia mi sprona, Amor mi guida et scorge,                      Desire spurs me on, Love is my guide and escort,
Piacer mi spinge, Usanza mi trasporta,                              Pleasure pushes me, Habit carries me,
Speranza mi lusinga et riconforta                                         Hope flatters and reconsoles me,
et la man destra al core stanco porge;                                and puts her right hand to my weary heart;

e ‘l misero la prende, et non s’ accorge            5                and my suffering heart takes it, and does not notice
di nostra cieca et disleale scorta:                                         our blind and unreliable escort;
regnano i sensi, et la ragion è morta;                                  the senses reign, and reason lies dead;
de l’ un vago desio l’ altro risorge.                                       one longing desire leads to another.

Vertute, Honor, Bellezza, atto gentile,                                  Virtue, Honour, Beauty, graceful gestures,
soave honesto ragionar m’invesca                   10              and her pleasant, honest talk have hooked me,
et l’angelica voce dolce humile.                                           along with her angelic, sweet humble voice.

Nel laberinto intrai, né veggio ond’ esca.                           I entered the labyrinth, and can see no way out,
su l’ ora prima, il dí sesto d’ aprile,                                     at the first hour, on the sixth day of April,
lasso me, inseme presi l’amo et l’esca.                             Alas, I took the hook and bait together.

Version 2

Voglia mi sprona, Amor mi guida et scorge,                      Desire spurs me on, Love is my guide and escort,
Piacer mi tira, Usanza mi trasporta,                                     Pleasure pulls me, Habit carries me,
Speranza mi lusinga et riconforta                                         Hope flatters and reconsoles me,
et la man destra al cor già stanco porge;                           and puts her right hand to my already weary heart;

e ‘l misero la prende, et non s’ accorge              5              and my suffering heart takes it, and does not notice
di nostra cieca et disleale scorta:                                         our blind and unreliable escort;
regnano i sensi, et la ragion è morta;                                  the senses reign, and reason lies dead;
de l’ un vago desio l’ altro risorge.                                       one longing desire leads to another.

Vertute, Honor, Bellezza, atto gentile,                                  Virtue, Honour, Beauty, graceful gestures,
dolci parole ai be’ rami m’ àn giunto                  10            her sweet words have tied me to her beautiful
ove soavemente il cor s’ invesca.                                        branches, where my heart is snared.

Mille trecento ventisette, a punto                                          Thirteen hundred and twenty-seven, precisely
su l’ ora prima, il dí sesto d’ aprile,                                     at the first hour, on the sixth day of April,
nel laberinto intrai, né veggio ond’ esca.                            I entered the labyrinth, and can see no way out.


A poem from the In vita section of the Canzoniere, the sestet of which was heavily reworked by Petrarch.  Again, like Canz. 124, poetry is presented as an emotional response to a set of external stimuli, represented once more by abstracts.  The text in italics above indicates the points at which Petrarch has made changes from the original version to the definitive version which appears in the Canzoniere.  A marginal note in Petrarch’s autograph manuscript, which has the air of an epigraph (though it does not appear in the Canzoniere itself), provides a fascinating glimpse into the construction of the poem and its relationship to the sequence as a whole:

Marginal note above ‘Voglia mi sprona’ (‘Desire spurs me on’)

Mirum:  hoc cancellatum et damnatum post multos annos, casu relegens, absolvi, et transcripsi in ordine statim, non obstante [...].  1369 iunii 22, hora 23, veneris.  Pauca postea, die 27, in vesperis, mutavi fine[m], [et de] hoc f[inis erit].

(Amazing:  this is a poem which I had left unfinished and forgotten about many years ago, but I happened by chance to reread it, and I finished it and immediately transcribed it into its proper place, Friday 22 June 1369, 11 pm.  Shortly afterwards, on the 27 June, in the evening, I changed the ending and from now on the conclusion will be different.)

Although we do not know precisely when the poem was begun by Petrarch, its date of completion tells us that it was completed shortly before the poet’s sixty fifth birthday, marking it out as one of the more mature works in the Canzoniere, completed many years after the Laura’s death, notwithstanding its position in the In vita section of the collection.  The poem centres around a series of personified abstractions, whose effects on the poet are recounted, before moving towards a recollection of the day upon which he fell in love with Laura.  The precision of the reference to the hour, day, date and year in the marginal note is mirrored in the final tercet, in which Petrarch’s fascination with time surfaces in response to his recollection of Laura’s words (version 2, l. 10).  In addition to the so-called “anniversary” poems sprinkled throughout the Canzoniere, Petrarch’s obsession with time sometimes manifests itself in a fondness for making poetry out of dates, as seen both here and in poem 336.

At first, it is unclear whether the abstracts themselves should be interpreted as exerting a positive or a negative influence on the poet.  Usanza is quite an unusual word for Petrarch, occurring only eight other times in the Canzoniere (poems 33, 40, 81, 116, 128, 258, 264 and 301; all but the last two in the In vita section), but a significant concept for St. Augustine in his De doctrina Christiana, where he identifies habit (consuetudo, mos) as one of the key actors in the human propensity for sin.

Mapping the Changes: The Search for an Implicit Petrarchan Poetics

The substitution of tira for spinge in l. 2 may seem of little consequence. However, when viewed in tandem with the other verbs in the opening quatrain, tira can be seen to constitute a better fit within the overall context of the poet’s relationship with the abstracts he describes.  Sprona implies that Voglia is positioned either on or behind the poet; guida e scorge places Amor by his side; trasporta (perhaps re-instigating the equine metaphor introduced by sprona) signifies that Usanza is carrying the poet from below.  Spinge would place Piacer behind the poet, and thus could be interpreted as serving much the same function as Voglia, driving the poet on or encouraging him, whereas tira places Piacer in front of the poet, dragging him, perhaps against his will or better judgement, towards that which he hopes will be salvation, but knows will be his ruin.  Thus, the addition of tira makes it clear that the poet is beset upon all sides by these potentially fatal abstracts, which we are soon encouraged to read in a negative manner by his extended treatment of Speranza and subsequent inimical characterisation of the remaining abstracts in the second stanza.  Of course, aesthetic reasons may have played their part too, as the imbalance of three verbs beginning with the letter “s” to one beginning with “t” is corrected by the change.

Speranza is portrayed as an opportunistic predator preying on the weak heart, which it deceives by flattery and consolation.  The heart itself is presented as innocent and naïve, unable to discern the true nature of Amor: cieca e disleale.  This false hope enables the victory of emotion over reason and sets off a chain reaction of one dangerous desire after another.  Again, the addition of già in l. 4 of Version 2 appears insignificant.  Aesthetic concerns may have also influenced Petrarch’s decision here, the combination of sounds produced by cor già having a harmonious effect by establishing a half-rhyme with scorge (l. 1) and porge (l.4).  In addition, however, the substitution affects a subtle change in the dynamic of the stanza by emphasising the descent into emotional weariness suffered by the poet.  The quick succession of the abstracts in the opening three lines endows the poem with a dynamism not usually associated with Petrarch, but just as the poem appears to be building towards a crescendo, the impetus begins to fall away as the poet begins to realise the falseness of his hope and the devastating consequences of his misplaced faith.  The addition of già implies that the heart is already in a weakened state prior to this disappointment, and it is quite possible that Petrarch wishes to suggest that this is not the first time he has been deceived in such a manner.  Moreover, the weakness implied by già may be precisely why the heart is willing to embrace this false hope.  Thus, the octave as a whole, particularly in Version 2, seems to form an emotional arc of sorts, while the initial promise of a positive crescendo is replaced by the negative one of one longing desire leading to another.  In this sense a parallel pendular movement can be detected within the octave, with the cor as its point of maximum displacement.  The first quatrain builds up to the mention of the cor, which is the object of l. 4. In l. 5, this sequence is reversed as the poem begins to double back on itself.  Cor now becomes the subject, followed by a reference to Amor, and then to desio, which can be taken as a synonym for Voglia.  The poet is now back where he started, but in an even worse position spiritually and psychologically.

Mi appears five times in the first four lines of the poem, but disappears with in the second quatrain, when cor becomes the subject of the verbs prende and s’accorge.  In Version 2, this movement is reversed over the course of the sestet.  The presentation of the poet as passive and the heart as active recalls the self-fragmentation noted in the last entry (Canz. 124).  The mi sound does re-enter, but it is swallowed up by other words and loses its prominence as the poem progresses.

There are a number of possible reasons for the reworking of the sestet in Version 2.  The tenth line in Version 1 contains a possible contradiction: the soave honesto ragionar and the angelica voce of l. 11 are unmistakably positive attributes to which he should respond well.  There is no reason for honest speech to beguile him.  Out of the nine words in ll. 10-11, five are adjectives.  It is possible that this proliferation of descriptive words was unsatisfactory aesthetically.  Similarly, l. 11, when read in accordance with conventional metrical rules, requires the reader to stress the third syllable of angelica rather than the second, making it quite an awkward line in terms of scansion.  The rewritten tenth and eleventh lines of Version 2 characterise Laura as a tree (presumably the laurel), which allows for the possibility of interpreting the dolci parole as a reference not only to Laura’s words, but to Petrarch’s poetry as well.  His dedication to poetry and his literary ambition are thus represented as a snare similar to his physical desire for the beloved, one potentially as damaging as the other in the context of his final salvation.  This meta-literary reading strengthens the possibility of interpreting the laberinto of l. 14 as a reference to the Canzoniere itself, which constantly resists closure and struggles to offer a way out of the spiritual conflict in which the poet is embroiled.  One final association occurs via the image of being tied to branches, that is the crucifixion of Christ.  The subsequent reference to the date of Petrarch’s inamoramento reminds the reader that it took place on Good Friday, the day, as Petrarch states in Canz. 3, onde i miei guai / nel commune dolor s’incominciaro.

The Purging of Dante

It is interesting that the only clear reference to Dante, ragionar m’invesca (V1, l. 10), is omitted in the final version.  The words in question echo those of Pier Delle Vigne in Inf. XIII, 55-57:

E ‘l tronco: ‘Sì col dolce dir m’adeschi,

ch’ i’ non posso tacere; e voi non gravi

perch’ io un poco a ragionar m’inveschi

The conversation takes place in the Wood of the Suicides, in the second cornice of the seventh circle, containing those who committed violence against themselves.  This is certainly an intriguing subtext, perhaps constituting an acknowledgement of Pertrarch’s own role in his present suffering.  With this in mind, the rewriting of these lines seems to indicate a desire in Petrarch to bury the Dantean reference deep beneath the surface of his own text.  The dolci parole of the new line echo the dolce dir of Dante’s l. 55, while the introduction of the rami seems to have been suggested by the form taken by Pier delle Vigne’s infernal punishment.  Is this apparent purging of Dante’s presence in the first version of the text an illustration of Harold Bloom’s theory of anxiety of influence?  Or, as in Canz. 100, is Petrarch putting into practive his theory of literary imitation, as outlined in the famous letter to Boccaccio, Familiares XXIII, 19?

The influence of the competing abstracts results in a sensory overload for Petrarch, clouding his reason so that eventually his rational faculties cease to function.  The inevitable result is the prevalence of the emotions and the senses, placing the poet in the realm of the bestial.  The laberinto of l. 14 seems to confirm this, calling to mind the Minotaur, a creature who shares characteristics of both human and animal, but whose bestial side prevails.  It is perhaps significant in relation to the Dantean subtext that the Minotaur appears at the entrance to the seventh circle of Hell in Inf. XII, ll. 12-27, the canto preceding Dante’s meeting with Pier delle Vigne.

- Summary by Mike Hodder


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