May 17, 2011 1 Comment
Quella fenestra ove l’un sol si vede, That window from which one sun can be seen,
quando a lui piace, et l’altro in su la nona; when it so pleases her, and the other around noon;
et quella dove l’aere freddo suona and that window where the cold air resounds
ne’ brevi giorni, quando borrea ‘l fiede; during the short days, when Boreas strikes it;
e ‘l sasso, ove a’ gran dì pensosa siede ……….and the stone, where during the long days, thoughtful,
madonna, et sola seco si ragiona, ………………my lady sits, and, alone, reasons with herself,
con quanti luoghi sua bella persona …………… with however many places her fair person
coprì mai d’ombra, o disegnò col piede; ……… ever covered with shade, or marked with her foot;
e ‘l fiero passo ove m’agiunse Amore; ………… and the wild pass where Love assailed me;
e .lla nova stagion che d’anno in anno ………….and the new season that year on year
mi rinfresca in quel dì l’antiche piaghe; ………. refreshes the old wounds on that same day;
e ‘l volto, et le parole che mi stanno …………… and the face, and the words that are
altamente confitte in mezzo ‘l core, …………… . fixed deep in the centre of my heart,
fanno le luci mie di pianger vaghe. …………… make my lights desirous of weeping.
A sonnet from the “In vita” section of the Canzoniere which is set in the Provençal countryside where Petrarch first fell in love with Laura on 6 April, 1327. The location and the return of springtime remind the poet of his inamoramento, which provokes a desire to weep in the final line. When we scratch the surface of Petrarch’s language, we discover a rich tapestry of intertextual allusions and echoes, with particular reference to the Commedia, the Vita nova and the Aeneid, which seem to constitute the poet’s literary memory.
Memory in Motion
The repetition of the demonstrative quella in the opening quatrain emphasises the concreteness of the images Petrarch employs and their actual physical existence of their referents. Quella and quando are repeated, highlighting the centrality of place and time to this sonnet. Both these elements come together in the ambiguous nona (l. 2). It is unclear whether this refers to midday, at which time the sun can be seen from the window, or is intended to establish the geographical orientation of the window towards the south, as in the “mezzogiorno”. The literally polar opposites of the north and south facing windows could not make the contrast between the warm sun(s) and the cold winter air more explicit. The syntactic structure of the quatrain holds the images in elegantly balanced opposition – the first and third lines are parallel:
|Quella fenestra | ove | l’un sol | si vede,
|et quella | dove | l’aere freddo | suona
while the second and fourth lines mirror one another semantically, using temporal indicators to expand on the preceding line, and structurally, containing strong caesuras at their respective midpoints:
quando a lui piace, | et l’altro in su la nona;
ne’ brevi giorni, | quando borrea ‘l fiede;
This concreteness contrasts with the insubstantiality of Laura, who appears to be always on the point of leaving, or having just left. She departs almost immediately in the first quatrain, following the brief glimpse of her in the opening line, while the second quatrain sees her in the process of departing, leaving traces of herself behind in the form of shadows or footprints.
The volta establishes an opposition between the fixity of the poet’s memories and the fluidity of Laura, the object of those memories. Petrarch’s memory of his inamoramento is seemingly registered on a physical level (l’ antiche piaghe), while the image and the words of the beloved are fixed indelibly in his very heart (altamente confitte in mezzo ‘l core). There is an interesting parallel but almost chiastic movement throughout the course of the poem – on the one hand, the images in the octave move from the concreteness of real, physical objects to abstract images and vestiges of Laura, while, on the other, the insubstantiality of Laura gives way to the fixity of the poet’s memory, which is expressed with particular reference to the physical.
The entire poem consists of one long sentence (cf. 213, 224) which builds up to the final line – both finestre, the sasso, the fiero passo, the nova stagion, Laura’s volta and parole are all the subjects of fanno, which does not appear until the beginning of the climactic fourteenth line. This endows the poet’s anticipated weeping with a certain cathartic quality. The luci, his eyes, establish a pleasing symmetry with the two lights (l’un sol…et l’altro) at the beginning of the poem, as well as with the two windows, recalling perhaps Dante’s image of the eyes as the window to the soul in Convivio 3.8. This symmetry between the beginning and end of the sonnet, so common in Petrarch, cannot but remind the reader of the circularity of the Canzoniere as a whole, and indeed the cyclical quality of the passing of the seasons which is evoked here and in the other anniversary poems scattered throughout the collection.
The poem begins and ends in the present tense, which is interrupted only briefly by the passato remoto of ll. 8-9. This reflects a transition from the description of that which the poet sees to past images which the seen objects call to mind. The nova stagion, which renews the poets pain, signals a shift back to continuous time, emphasising the abovementioned circularity even on a grammatical level.
Intertextuality – Internal and External Systems
The sonnet revolves around a series of intertextual references which serve to position the text, on the one hand, within the context of the Canzoniere as a whole, and on the other, in relation to Petrarch’s literary forebears, in particular Virgil and Dante. The first level of intertextuality may be called internal, the second, external. On the internal level, this poem forms part of a sequence which deals with the poet’s memory of the beloved and its temporal and geographical triggers. Most of the sonnets in this sequence cluster around the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second quarter of the collection, and include poems 85, 86, 90, 94, and 116. The image of Laura sola and pensosa in the second quatrain, seem to mirror the image of the poet in poem 35 (Solo et pensoso i più deserti campi), while the reflexive and alliterative sola seco si ragiona in l. 5 recalls the eleventh line of the opening poem of the Canzoniere – di me medesmo meco mi vergongno. The sasso in l. 5 reminds the reader of the cuore di smalto of poem 70, establishing a connection between the stone and the poet’s petrified heart. As is made clear in the final tercet, Laura leaves her imprint there as much as on the external landscape described in this sonnet. That the refreshing of the poet’s wounds is required to access the memory of the beloved seems to duggest that Amor holds the key to the poet’s heart. This concept is further explored in Canz. 155. It may also be worthwhile to compare this sonnet to Canz. 188, in which one light (il Sole) brings on a comparison to the other (Laura).
The external system of references situates Petrach’s text in relation to Dante’s representations of Beatrice in Par. 1.61, where he describes her coming as come secondo raggio echoed here in Petrarch’s casting of Laura as a second sun. The second tercet also contains pointed verbal echoes of the opening lines of Inf. 29:
La molta gente e le diverse piaghe
avean le luci mie si inebriate,
che dello stare a piangere eran vaghe.
These lines refer to the punishment of the sowers of discord, described in the previous canto. Cut to pieces by demons at a fixed point along their unending circuit of the ninth bolgia of the eighth circle, their wounds heal as their lap nears its end, only for them to be hacked apart again as they begin their round anew. This torment is echoed in the constant and regular renewal of Petrarch’s sorrows as each new blossoming of spring recalls the fateful moment of his inamoramento (ll. 10-11). Similarly, the fiero passo of l. 9 recalls the passo of Inf. 1, perhaps suggesting an intertextual connection between Amor and one of the three beasts, while the use of the words bella persona to describe Laura recalls Francesca’s words in Inf. 5.101. Thus, we may discern in Petrarch a fall from the paradise of the opening vision of Laura (his second raggio) to the infernal torment triggered by the tempo che rinnova i miei sospiri (Triumphi, TC 1. 1). In addition to this downward motion from the heavenly to the infernal, there is an inward motion from the outward looking fenestra of l. 1 to the core of l. 13 also present in to poem. The contrast with Dante could not be clearer – as Petrarch recalls his love, he is removed from transcendence, becoming more bodily and human. Dante moves towards the sun over the course of the Commedia; Petrarch seems to get further and further away from it as this sonnet progresses.
Part of Petrarch’s modernity is his problematisation of Dantean love. He consciously rejects Dante’s model in favour of a more Cavalcantian non-salvific characterisation, yet he acknowledges that his choice is contrary to reason. The inability to reconcile the two halves of his character, the rational and the emotional, gives rise to the divided Petrarchan self, recalling once more the contrapasso suffered by de Born. Does Petrarch, in a way, place himself in the tradition of Bertran de Born, the poet of war depicted in Inf. 28? The militaristic presentation of Amor in l. 8 (a recurring trope throughout the Canzoniere), and the physical registration of love in l. 11, which often signals the infernal, may allow the possibility of such a reading.
Distinct Virgilian echoes are also present in the poem. The first occurs in l. 5, the sibilance of sola seco si ragiona recalling the passage in Book I of the Georgics in which the raven’s call heralds the great storm:
tum cornix plena pluviam vocat inproba voce
et sola in sicca secum spatiatur harena. (ll. 388-89)
While the call of the raven brings the rains, the memory of Laura’s speech will eventually lead to the poet’s tears in the final line. Later, the final tercet recalls the opening of Book 4 (ll. 4-5) of the Aeneid, in which Dido recalls Aeneas’ face and words:
… haerent infixi pectore vultus
verbaque nec placidam membris dat cura quietem.
As we shall see, this particular strain of intertextuality threats to undermine the poetic voice and raises questions about the inherent claims to truth made by poetry.
Windows often represent a liminal space between the internal and the external. While it is clear that Laura is associated with the first, south-facing window, the reader may wonder what, if anything, is represented by the opposing north-facing window? It seems that Petrarch invites the reader to associate the poet with this second window – the suonare of the cold air seeming to echo the suono / di quei sospiri ond’ io nudrivo ‘l core (Canz. 1), and its wounding by Boreas prefiguring the re-opening of the poet’s piaghe in l. 11 of the present sonnet. The poet’s field of vision, bounded by the narrow frames of the windows in the opening quatrain, seems to expand gradually as the poem progresses to take in the surrounding landscape. He moves from a view of Laura to a view of the sun, from there to the sasso, then to innumerable places where Laura has been, culminating in the fiero passo where Amor sealed his unhappy fate. A parallel temporal progression takes place as words relating to time seem to spark a linguistic chain reaction, moving from la nona to brevi giorni to gran dì to la nova stagion to anno in anno, until the dual spatial and temporal crescendo of memories overcomes the teary-eyed poet.
Laura’s fleeting appearance at the window calls to mind Dante’s donna gentil from the following passage of the Vita nova (35):
Poi per alquanto tempo, con ciò fosse cosa ched io fosse in parte, ne la quale mi ricordava del passato tempo, molto stava pensoso, e con dolorosi pensamenti, tanto che mi faceano parere de fore una vista di terribile sbigottimento. Onde io, accorgendomi del mio travagliare, levai li occhi per vedere se altri mi vedesse; Allora vidi una gentile donna giovane e bella molto, la quale da una fenestra mi riguardava sí pietosamente, quanto a la vista, che tutta la pietà parea in lei accolta. Onde, con ciò sia cosa che quando li miseri veggiono di loro compassione altrui più tosto si muovono a lagrimare, quasi come di loro medesimi avendo pietade, io sentii allora cominciare li miei occhi a volere piangere; e però, temendo di non mostrare la mia vile vita, mi partío dinanzi da gli occhi di questa gentile; e dicea poi fra me medesimo: «E’ non puote essere, che con quella pietosa donna non sia nobilissimo amore». E però propuosi di dire un sonetto, nel quale io parlasse a lei, e conchiudesse in esso tutto ciò che narrato è in questa ragione. E però che per questa ragione è assai manifesto, sí nollo dividerò. [emphasis added]
The parallels with Petrarch’s sonnet are striking: the poet is recalling some past misfortune, he sees a beautiful woman standing at a window, who engenders the desire to weep, and to write a sonnet.
There is an uncomfortable sense of the poet as a voyeur and eavesdropper in this sonnet, observing and listening to Laura’s most intimate moments, unseen and uninvited. He stresses his passivity (l.9, l. 12), but is he being disingenuous? He is, after all, the one watching, listening, and now reporting back to the reader. The window at the beginning of the poem is a window into a private space which the poet has invaded. Laura is presented as self-sufficient and slightly Narcissistic in the second quatrain, absorbed in her own private thoughts – sola seco si ragiona, while the poet stands at a distance from her which he never manages overcome. In fact, the words fixed in Petrarch’s heart are in no way directed towards him. Are the words imprinted in his memories actually Virgil’s from Aeneid IV, Dante’s from the Commedia and the Vita nova? Has he misappropriated words meant for Dido or Francesca, or memories belonging to Dante of Beatrice and the donna gentil? Does he seek to justify his invasion of the beloved’s private space by reference to his literary forebears, claiming such an invasion as the prerogative of the poet and associating it with literary imitation? Is literary imitation itself presented as a kind of theft? As tears are the regurgitation of the heart, is poetic production a regurgitation of literature, achieved after the digestion of classical and contemporary sources?
– Summary by Mike Hodder