Canzoniere 291

Quand’io veggio dal ciel scender l’Aurora                    When I see Aurora descending from the sky
co la fronte di rose et co’ crin’ d’oro,                                with her rosy forehead and golden tresses,
Amor m’assale, ond’io mi discoloro,                              Love assails me, at which I grow pale,
et dico sospirando: Ivi è Laura ora.                                  and say, sighing:  There is Laura now.

O felice Titon, tu sai ben l’ora                                            O happy Tithonus, well you know the hour
da ricovrare il tuo caro tesoro:                                          when you will recover your dear treasure:
ma io che debbo far del dolce alloro?                             but what must I do about the sweet laurel?
che se ’l vo’ riveder, conven ch’io mora.                         It behoves me to die if I wish to see it again.

I vostri dipartir’ non son sí duri,                                         Your partings are not so hard,
ch’almen di notte suol tornar colei                                   for at least by night she is accustomed to return,
che non â schifo le tue bianche chiome:                        she who does not scorn your white locks:

le mie notti fa triste, e i giorni oscuri,                                she makes my nights sad, and my days dark,
quella che n’à portato i penser’ miei,                               she who has carried off my thoughts,
né di sè m’à lasciato altro che ’l nome.                           nor has she left anything of herself to me
………………………………………………………………………………………………………….save her name.


A sonnet from the In morte section of the Canzoniere, which takes as its central conceit the contrast between the separation of Tithonus from Aurora on the one hand, and that of Petrarch from Laura on the other.  Of crucial importance is the name of Laura itself, which emerges finally as a mere flatus vocis, devoid of any real significance following the loss of her whom it physically signified.  The question in l. 8 “che debbo far del dolce alloro?” recalls the opening line of Canzoniere 268, but while it was once rhetorical, the poet now provides an immediate answer – if he wishes to see Laura again, he must die.  The clarity of the opening matutinal image gradually gives way to a darker atmosphere as the poem progresses, culminating in the “giorni oscuri” of l. 12.  This process of dawn heralding not light, but darkness, serves as an overarching structural framework within which Petrarch stages a number of similar reversals which eventually lead us to question the extent to which language can replace actual experience.

Literary Precedents

In classical literature, Aurora (Gr: Eos) was typically represented as “rosy-fingered” (rhododactylos; cf Homer, Iliad i, 477 [English trans.]; xxiv, 776 [English trans.]) with a saffron coloured robe (Iliad xix, 1 [English trans.]).  Ovid also associated her with crimson and roses (Metamorphoses ii, 113), and gave her chariot saffron coloured wheels (Metamorphoses iii, 150).  Dante mentions Aurora at the beginning of Purgatorio IX (l. 1), signalling his waking from a dream in which a golden-feathered eagle has snatched him up and carried him heavenwards.  Upon talking to Virgil, he soon discovers that Lucia had descended from heaven to carry him further up the mountain of Purgatory as he slept.  The actual descent of this Heavenly Lady, a prefiguration of the poet’s eventual reunification with Beatrice, contrasts with the initially perceived but never fully realised descent of Petrarch’s Laura in this sonnet.  In this sense, Dante’s loss is not a true loss as he enjoys multiple reunions with Beatrice.  Petrarch, however, because of his reluctance to die, is deprived of the only possibility of being reunited with Laura.  Following Petrarch, Aurora resurfaces most notably in Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and, more recently, in the work of Foscolo.

Reversals and Oppositions

It is significant that Petrarch chooses to describe Aurora’s progression as a descent rather than an ascent, as this signals the beginning of a series of reversals and oppositions which cluster around the first quatrain and continue to reoccur in a more diffuse manner throughout the remainder of the poem.  Standing in opposition to the descent of Aurora is the assault of Amor (l. 3) (the Italian verb “assalire” having its root in the verb “salire” (to rise)) which seems to grow stronger in inverse proportion to the descent of the dawn.  The “fronte di rose” and “crin’ d’oro” (l. 2) of the goddess are contrasted with the sudden pallour of the poet – “mi discoloro” (l. 3).  The rhyming of “Laura ora” (l. 4) with “l’Aurora” (l. 3) reminds the reader of the nominal senhals which serve as a substitute for the physically absent beloved.  The density of this antithetical language in the opening quatrain suggests a moment of confused awakening, eventually culminating in the declamation of l. 4 (“Ivi è Laura ora”), which constitutes one of the few instances where the beloved’s proper name appears in the Canzoniere.

The second quatrain establishes the opposition between the supposedly positive situation of Tithonus, whose reunion with Aurora is certain, and the poet’s unhappy fate, which requires that he die before being reunited with his beloved, here referred to by another familiar senhal (“alloro”, l. 7).

The first tercet develops this theme, highlighting the contrast through the diametrical opposition between “dipartir’” (l. 9) and “tornar” (l. 10).  The poet’s “notti triste” in the first line of the second tercet contrast with the carefree “notte” enjoyed by Tithonus in l. 10, while the antonymous verbal pattern is maintained by the opposition between “portato” in l. 13 and “lasciato” in l. 14.

The final line constitutes the most ingenius of Canz. 291’s reversals, providing an anticlimactic climax, which will be discussed in greater detail towards the end of this post.

Treatment of the Myth of Aurora and Tithonus

Petrarch’s treatment of the myth of Aurora and Tithonus is fascinating and complex.  In many ways, the myth appears more concrete to the reader than Petrarch’s own story.  Tithonus and Aurora are more physically present in the text than Laura and Petrarch.   Aurora’s physical attributes are described in l. 2, while the poet describes Tithonus’ “bianche chiome” in l. 11.  Petrarch and Laura, meanwhile, are represented in a less concrete fashion, the poet’s face is drained of colour, he is stripped even of his thoughts, his voice is airy and insubstantial, and Laura herself is no more than a name.

Although Petrarch equates Aurora with Laura, he cannot comfortably identify himself with Tithonus.  As Petrarch reminds us, in order for him to see his beloved again, “conven’ ch’io mora” – Tithonus, however, cannot die, and is certain of seeing Aurora every night (in this sense, there is a certain Orphic quality to Petrarch’s situation, in that his desire to see his beloved can only be fulfilled through death).  It could even be said that Petrarch has more in common with Aurora, as both are engaged in a process of immortalisation of the beloved – Aurora in a literal sense, Petrarch in a literary sense.  Of course, Petrarch does not want to be indentified completely with Tithonus, as the conceit rests upon convincing the reader that the poet’s situation is worse than that of Tithonus.  On the other hand, certain elements of the poem appear to establish a link between them.  The “bianche chiome” constitute a temporal indicator, reminding us that, like Petrarch, Tithonus is aging, while his beloved, like Laura, remains eternally young and beautiful.  Yet even the very words which establish this connection between Petrarch and Tithonus contain a suggestion of a more subtle identification of Laura with Tithonus, the Trojan rhapsode having appropriated another of Laura’s senhals – the “chiome”.

The use of the myth, then, is double-edged – it can be seen in both a positive and a negative light, and as such undermines and destabilises the personal mythology which Petrarch endeavours to create.  Although Tithonus only gets to see his beloved once a day, his loss is only partial, as she will return to him that night.  However, just as their separation is only temporary, so, too, is their reunion, and while the pain of absence is mollified by the certainty of their reunion, their nocturnal joy is tempered by the knowledge that they must part again at dawn.  Indeed, the sempiternal coming and going of Aurora mirrors the circularity of the Canzoniere as a whole.  Though it is true that the gulf which separates Petrarch from Laura is greater, their reunion will be permanent.  Therefore, it is by no means certain that Tithonus is worthy of Petrarch’s envy.

Rewriting the Myth

This sonnet is, in a way, a celebration of poetry and of the creative literary act itself.  The recollection of the classical myth calls to mind a name (Aurora) which in turn recalls the name of Laura, thus creating a new myth of the poet and Laura.  However, as we have seen, this new myth is constructed on unstable foundations, and when the original supporting myth threatens to collapse the entire conceit, it must undergo the necessary repairs.

A reading of l. 11 will demonstrate that it was Petrarch’s intention to rewrite rather than to reproduce the Classical myth.  In Ovid’s version, Aurora is eventually repulsed by the aging Tithonus and turns him into a grasshopper, yet Petrarch explicitly states that the goddess “non à schifo le [sue] bianche chiome”.  It seems that l. 10 betrays Petrarch’s awareness of this manipulation, as the use of the qualificatory “almen’” implies a positive element in the midst of a generally negative situation, even though Petrarch has taken pains to cast Tithonus’ circumstances in a singularly favourable light.  This may serve as a commentary on the power of the author, who is able to manipulate his literary sources to serve his own ends.

Petrarch’s Linguistic Hallucination 

The repeated assonance of the penultimate syllable of each line in the octave draws the reader’s attention to Petrarch’s staging of the event of rhyming.  The rhymimg of “l’Aurora” (l. 1) with “Laura ora” (l.4) reinforces what is implied by the narrative:  that Petrarch has mistaken the dawn for Laura in what may be termed a linguistic hallucination (for another example of this see Canz. 67).  The various “nomi” in the poem stand as physical presences, but their referents are constantly shifting, leaving the reader with the sense that Petrarch’s language is affecting his vision.  Language stands for reality – Petrarch makes poetry perform life and allows it to be mistaken for life.  In the most arresting of the poem’s reversals, however, the final line changes all this.  This magnificent line is the culmination of Petrarch’s strategy throughout the poem – he builds on the beloved’s name, but ultimately finds that the edifice is doomed to collapse, founded, as it is, on a void.  There is no way of transcending death, whether it be Laura’s or his own future demise.  The name alone is not enough.  Nor is the “nome” – in the sense of the poet’s literary fame – enough to fulfil Petrarch as a human being.  The poem ends with a negative – “né” – and ends with “nome”, juxtaposing identity and negation.

In l. 13, the spiriting away of the poet’s “pensier’” to be replaced by the beloved’s “nome” represents the separation of signified from signifier that is enacted over the course of this sonnet.  The conceptual content of the beloved’s name is no longer present in the flatus vocis which has been left to the poet.

However, with this in mind, could it now be said that the “né” of the final line takes on a more positive connotation?  Is Petrarch inviting us to admire his poetic skill in having constructed such a glittering artifice based upon nothing but an empty name and a non-existent myth?

– Summary by Mike Hodder


One Response to Canzoniere 291

  1. Clementina Piazza says:

    Thank you Mike! And thank’s everybody for the always challenging discussions.

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