May 30, 2011 2 Comments
Conobbi (quanto il Ciel li occhi m’aperse, I knew (so much did Heaven open my eyes
quanto studio et Amor m’alzaron l’ali) so much did eagerness and Love raise up my wings)
cose nove et leggiadre, ma mortali, things new and full of grace, but mortal,
che ’n un soggetto ogni stella cosperse. which all the stars showered on one subject.
L’altre tante sì strane et sì diverse 5 Those many other high celestial and immortal
forme, altere celesti et immortali, forms, so strange and so wondrous, because
perché non furo a l’intelletto eguali they were not accommodated to my intellect,
la mia debile vista non sofferse. my weak sight could not endure.
onde quant’ io di lei parlai né scrissi, Thus whatever I spoke or wrote about her,
ch’ or per lodi anzi a Dio preghi mi rende, 10 who now before God returns me prayers in exchange
fu breve stilla d’infiniti abissi; for praises, was a little drop from infinite depths
ché stilo oltra l’ingegno non si stende, for one’s style does not extend beyond one’s wit,
et per aver uom li occhi nel sol fissi, and though one has his eyes fixed on the sun,
tanto si vede men quanto più splende. the brighter it is the less he sees.
[English trans. by Robert Durling]
A sonnet from the “In morte” section of the Canzoniere, which deals with notions of seeing, understanding, and writing, and their relationship to one another. Petrarch appears to be experiencing a mimetic crisis surrounding his inability to adequately describe in verse those spiritual qualities possessed by Laura which his mind cannot fully comprehend. This gives rise to an anxiety regarding the true value of his literary and humanistic pursuits. Again, we may discern a polemical response to Dante’s poetics on a subtextual level through the re-contextualising of certain episodes taken from the Commedia and Vita nova. The first quatrain deals with Laura’s physical attributes, which, while beautiful, are transient and earthly. In the second quatrain, the use of intelletto (l. 7) signals that we are dealing here with understanding. The poet’s lack of understanding renders his sight defective in that he is unable to clearly discern, and therefore describe, Laura’s spiritual gifts. The first tercet sees Petrarch (perhaps somewhat disingenuously) assert the futility of his lyric poetry, while in the final stanza, the poet is overcome by Laura’s radiance, completing the journey from sight to blindness. Except for l. 10, which deals with Laura and God, ll. 1-11 are written in the passato remoto, while the final tercet switches to the present tense, creating the impression of an eternal but limited present. These closing lines emphasise the fundamental difference between Laura and Beatrice by inverting Dante’s experience in Paradiso I (ll. 43-54):
Fatto avea di là mane e di qua sera
tal foce, e quasi tutto era là bianco
quello emisperio, e l’altra parte nera,
quando Beatrice in sul sinistro fianco
vidi rivolta e riguardar nel sole:
aguglia sì non li s’affisse unquanco.
E sì come secondo raggio suole
uscir del primo e risalire in suso,
pur come pelegrin che tornar vuole
così de l’atto suo, per li occhi infuso
ne l’imagine mia, il mio si fece,
e fissi li occhi al sole oltre nostr’uso.
Beatrice allows Dante to see oltre nostr’uso, while Laura, Petrarch’s sol, makes him blind. There is also the possibility that Petrarch is attacking what he sees as Dante’s hubris, transforming l. 12 of Petrarch’s sonnet – ché stilo oltra l’ingegno non si stende – into a reproof of his predecessor and a warning to those who wish to follow the Dantesque poetic model. Stilo clearly has a metapoetic resonance and could perhaps be seen as a metaphor for the vernacular. Petrarch writes about mortal things which he can understand, Dante about the divine, which is beyond human comprehension and therefore cannot be satisfactorily expressed in poetry.
The word studio in the second line leaves the way open for a number of possible interpretations. Does he mean the literal study of humanae litterae, particularly poetry? Or does he have its Latin cognate studium in mind, meaning eagerness or desire (for Laura or the laurel, or both)? Is it intended to oppose Amor, representing the poet’s rational nature as opposed to the emotional? The concept of studio is also explored by Dante at certain points. At the end of the Vita nova (XLII), he experiences a vision and vows to write no more about Beatrice until he is capable of writing in a style that could properly express her beauty and nobility. In order to achieve this end, he commits himself precisely to studio:
E di venire a ciò io studio quanto posso, sì com’ella sae veracemente. Sì che, se piacere sarà di colui a cui tutte le cose vivono, che la mia vita duri per alquanti anni, io spero di dicer di lei quello che mai non fue detto d’alcuna. [emphasis added]
Similarly, “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona” and “Donne ch’ avete intelletto d’amore” deal, in part, with the relationship of study and love, and the need to understand something before being able to write about it.
At any rate, Petrarch, in contrast to Dante, seems quite clear that the knowledge derived from studio can only take the poet so far. Though it has brought him knowledge, this knowledge is only of mortal things. This would seem to support the angel’s argument in Purgatorio II.112-23, when Casella and Dante are scolded for wasting their time by singing “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona”, which is representative of a form of knowledge unrelated to God.
Petrarch’s Ascent of Mount Ventoux (Familiares 4.1 [English trans.]) may also be relevant in this respect, as it deals with his anxiety regarding his literary pursuits acting as a distraction from knowledge of God.
Petrarch’s choice of adjectives also contain some interesting resonances. Nove (l. 3) and strane (l. 5) are quite similar but are presented in opposition to one another. Novo in particular is a very Dantesque adjective, and the concept of novitate is evoked most memorably at the close of Purgatorio (XXXIII. 142-45), where it signals a spiritual new beginning for the poet, who is now ready to leave the earthly realm and enter Paradise. Petrarch, however, clearly associates novitate with the mortal world in this sonnet.
Nove and leggiadre may also refer to Petrarch’s own novelty and be interpreted as a statement of his poetic originality. Indeed cose nove may be taken as a transliteration of the Latin res novae, indicating revolution or rebellion. Is Petrarch implying that he has undertaken a reformation of vernacular poetry by repudiating the Dantesque model which lays claim to the spiritual transcendence which Petrarch repeatedly fails to achieve? Petrarch’s knowledge is new knowledge, but it is transient. Is Petrarch staging the death of theology as the type of knowledge which he sought? There may also be postlapsarian element to Petrarch’s treatment of earthly knowledge. By presenting it as a barrier to the true knowledge of God, he implies that the type of poetry he is writing is literature in a fallen state.
Logical Puzzles and Traps
The hypallage in l. 7 seems to indicate an unwillingness to allow the intellect to suffer any kind of humiliation, and draws our attention to a number of logical puzzles and traps inserted into the poem at various points by Petrarch, which belie the apparent straightforwardness of this particular sonnet (compared, for example, with 105).
The use of soggetto in l. 4 sees logic invade grammar and syntax. The soggetto can be taken a number of ways – in the context of the poem, the un soggetto which the benevolent stars shower with gifts is, of course, Laura; semantically, it can also refer to a topic. Since Laura is the soggetto of his poetry, it may be taken to refer to Petrarch’s poetry itself; the word also has a grammatical resonance, yet, grammatically speaking, it is the object of cosperse, not the subject. The strident beginning – Conobbi – emphasises the poet, who appears as the soggetto (both grammatically and in the sense of the topic) of the primary clause, but gradually becomes more passive throughout the first quatrain, as actions are performed on him by il Ciel, studio, and Amor respectively. Thus the grammar moves the points of focus around, from the poet in the opening line to Laura in l.4.
A similar possibility for multiple interpretations occurs in the first tercet when Petrarch talks about Laura exchanging prayers for his praises. The poet’s verses are described as “stilla d’infiniti abissi”, yet this may possibly be more appropriately applied to the prayers which Laura, from her heavenly dwelling, showers down upon the poet in the infinite abyss of the mortal world. This also establishes a pleasant symmetry between the stella of l. 4 and the stilla of l. 11, which is re-echoed in stilo in l. 12 .
The concept of gnosis is explored and critiqued by Petrarch. The expectation may be that if Heaven opens one’s eyes (l. 1), one should be able to see everything clearly, not just mortal objects. Petrarch, however, experiences no revelation, and in fact the type of illumination which he describes actually functions as a barrier to seeing (ll. 13-14), and therefore to understanding, following the connection he has made between these in the second quatrain. These final lines thus render Petrarch’s opening lines negative – his eyes have been opened by Heaven and he has raised himself up through love and intellectual endeavour, but this is still not enough to understand, and write about, the divine.
– Summary by Mike Hodder