Canzoniere 124 and Wyatt’s “Love, Fortune and my mind”

Amor, Fortuna, et la mia mente, schiva                          Love, Fortune and my mind, rememb’rer

di quel che vede et nel passato volta,                            Of that that is now with that that hath been,

m’affliggon si’ ch’io porto alcuna volta                           Do torment me so that very often

invidia a quei che son su l’altra riva.                               I hate and envy them beyond all measure.

Amor mi strugge ‘l cor, Fortuna il priva            5             Love slayeth mine heart. Fortune is depriver

d’ogni conforto, onde la mente stolta                             Of all my comfort. The foolish mind then

s’adira et piange; et così in pena molta                         Burneth and plaineth as one that seldom

sempre conven che combattendo viva.                          Liveth in rest, still in displeasure.

Né spero i dolci dì tornino indietro,                                  My pleasant days, they fleet away and pass,

ma pur di male in peggio quel ch’ avanza,       10         But daily yet the ill doth change into the worse,

et di mio corso ò già passato ‘l mezzo.                          And more than the half is run of my course

                                                                                                Alas, not of steel but of brickle glass

Lasso, non di diamante ma d’un vetro

veggio di man cadermi ogni speranza                             I see that from mine hand falleth my trust,

et tutt’ i  miei pensier romper nel mezzo.                         And all my thoughts are dashed into dust.

                                                                                                                                      – Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

Love, Fortune, and my mind, disdainful

of that which it sees and turned towards the past,

afflict me so much that I sometimes feel

envy towards those who are on the other shore.
Love destroys my heart, Fortune deprives it                      5

of every comfort, at which the foolish mind

grows angry and cries; and thus in great pain

it behoves it to live always fighting.
Nor do I hope that the sweet days should return,

but rather that which remains to go from bad to worse,   10

and I have already passed the midpoint of my race.

Alas, not of diamond but of glass

I see every hope fall from my hand

and all my thoughts break in the middle.
Overview and Comparative Analysis

A sonnet from the In vita section of the Canzoniere.  It seems to deal with a period of absence from Laura, as suggested by the final line of the preceding sonnet (Rvf 123), where Petrarch reads in Laura’s sad expression the words “Chi m’allontana ‘l mio fedele amico?”.  Petrarch describes a three-pronged attack on himself by Love, Fortune, and his own mind, the effect of which is to place the poet in a kind of emotional limbo between the memory of happier times past and the anticipation of a bleak, hopeless future.  This emotional stasis is enacted through a Cavalcantian division of the self, while the spiritual impasse faced by the poet implies a critique of Dantean poetics.

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem constitutes quite a faithful rendering of the Italian original, with some slight but significant deviations which will be discussed below.  Wyatt served as an ambassador for Henry’s court, and is known to have travelled to Italy on diplomatic business, where he possibly encountered Petrarch’s poetry for the first time.  He was accused of being a lover of Anne Boleyn and was imprisoned in the Tower in 1538, only to be saved by the intervention of Katherine Howard at the last moment.  Though he married young, it was an unhappy union and he separated soon afterwards.  He never remarried, but was known to have several mistresses throughout his life.  His periods abroad, during which he was forced to endure long separations from his beloved, caused him great frustration and it is possible that his Petrarchan imitations provided an outlet for him to express this dissatisfaction.

Of the three assailants identified by Petrarch in l. 1, his mind seems to be his tormentor-in-chief, the source of the memories of happier times past, presumably spent in the company of Laura, which cause the poet the greatest distress.  It seems as if this happens against his own will, implying that he has little control over his own mind, and establishing the crucial division of the self, the implications of which will be discussed further below.

The second quatrain picks up on the theme introduced in the first and describes the manner in which the poet is tormented and the effect it has on him.  The word battendo, contained within the combattendo of l. 8, suggests the beating of the heart, implying that the very act of living in itself has become a struggle for the poet.

The first tercet maintains the notion of a tripartite division established in l. 1, though this time the division relates to time:

l. 10: the past

l. 11: the future

l. 12: the present

The twelfth line is emotionally neutral, epitomising the passive stance which the poet adopts in the face of the psychological assault described in the octave.

The second tercet provides the greatest interpretive challenge.  Diamanti are often associated with Laura – is that also the case here?  What qualities of the diamond are being emphasised?  What does the vetro symbolise?  What does it mean to have one’s thoughts broken in two?

The equivalent rhyme in l. 14 and l. 11 associates this rupture with the poet’s age and the passage of time.  Is this a foreshadowing of the division of the Canzoniere into two halves, the first oriented toward life, the second towards death?

In general, Wyatt’s poem presents us with less of an obvious contrast between past and present.  In lines 1-2, his mind does not turn away from the present like Petrarch’s does, but merely compares it with the past.  Similarly, l. 9 contains no mention of pleasant days returning, but instead states simply that they fleet away and pass.  There is a less clear temporal division in Wyatt, who juxtaposes past, present and future, so that everything takes place in the now.

Wyatt’s state of mind is more frustrated than confused, and there is no sense of the emotional paralysis which cripples Petrarch.  The first quatrain is quite awkward syntactically.  The repetition of that that in l. 2 and the ambiguous object in l. 4 gives the impression of a poet struggling to adequately express his emotions, his eloquence perhaps compromised by the hate and envy inspired by his hopeless situation (It would seem more natural, yet completely illocgical, to interpret them as a reference to Love, Fortune and my mind; the other possible reading, taking them beyond all measure as a single lexical unit equivalent to Petrarch’s quei che son su l’altra riva, is more satisfying logically, but requires more of a stretch in terms of grammar).

There is a finality to Wyatt’s closing line not present in Petrarch’s, which represents a rupture rather than an end.  The ash in dashed is followed quickly by dust, reminding the modern reader of the Anglican Burial service, though this was not instituted until over a century after Wyatt’s death, so it is unlikely that he intended such an association.  Nonetheless, the sense that the past is irretrievably gone is strong, and of course the association between dust and death would have been familiar to Wyatt in the vulgate source of the later Anglican prayer (Genesis 3.19: “quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris”).

Diamante, Steel, and Double-Edged Imagery

The transformation of diamante into steel is an intriguing move on Wyatt’s part.  The image of the diamond frequently recurs in the Canzoniere, associated at time with Laura (cf 190, 30), and at others with the poet (cf 155).  While in 155 he associates it with his own heart, he claims that Laura’s heart is made of diamonds in 171, emphasising its hardness.  A similar quality is stressed in 108 (ll. 5-8):

prima poria per tempo venir meno

un’imagine salda di diamante

che l’atto dolce non mi stia davante

del qual ò la memoria e ‘l cor sì pieno.

The contrast with vetro in this sonnet seems to suggest that it is this quality of strength and hardness which Petrarch wishes to emphasise here, simply in order to reinforce the fragility of his speranza.  Wyatt’s steel, however, is a more loaded term which is open to multiple interpretations.  It is a very important material in terms of the Renaissance, connected as it is to fighting and therefore the active life.  In this sense it reinforces the idea implicit in Petrarch’s combattendo of life itself having become a constant struggle.  In the context of Petrarch’s overall literary output, the presence of Fortuna and the struggle against it calls to mind the De remediis utriusque fortunae, particularly his treatment of the myth of Heracles, which illustrates the necessity of protecting oneself against the vicissitudes of Fortune.  This idea of “steeling oneself” against an attacker is reflected in Wyatt’s choice of vocabulary, though the poet eventually fails in his efforts, arguably in more dramatic fashion than Petrarch himself.

The immediate temptation when encountering steel in a poem by Wyatt is to associate the image with the ever-present threat of the executioners axe or the assassin’s dagger in the Machiavellian world of the Tudor court.  Wyatt had himself spent time in the Tower on charges of treason, and two of his intimate circle had been beheaded on Tower Green in the mid 1530’s: Anne Boleyn, his alleged lover, and Thomas Cromwell, his friend and literary patron.  Despite this, it must be acknowledged that steel has the potential not only to wound but to protect, both literally in the sense of a suit of armour or a shield, and metaphorically, in the sense of “steeling oneself” against something.  Wyatt’s steel, therefore, is ambiguous in much the same way as Petrarch’s diamante, which can represent both a positive quality, the beauty and steadfastness of Laura, and a negative one, the hardness of heart.

“Out-Petrarching” Petrarch

The possibility of Wyatt having mistaken adira for the third person singular present indicative of the verb ardere was discussed, however it may be unfair to conclude that a misreading was at the root of what turns out to be quite a poetic image, which contrasts the fire of the poet’s rage with the water of his tears, creating a typically Petrarchan antithesis where such a trope is absent in the original.

Wyatt’s “Shakespearean” form, consisting of three quatrains and a closing couplet, has the potential to upset the delicate balance of Petrarch’s original, particularly when the translation is so faithful lexically.  The end-stopped eleventh line causes Wyatt’s twelfth line to be associated structurally with the third quatrain but grammatically with the couplet, potentially weakening the epigrammatic impact of the final two lines.  However, in this instance, the return of the lyric “I”, positioned boldly at the beginning of the penultimate line, gives an emotional impetus to the couplet which focuses the attention of the reader on the dramatic climax to which the poem has been quietly building.

Dantean Echoes

Petrarch’s characterisation of the dead as quei che son su l’altra riva (l. 4) calls to mind Charon’s speech in Inferno III, 84-87:

“…Guai a voi, anime prave!

Non isperate mai veder lo cielo:

i’ vegno per menarvi all’altra riva,

nelle tenebre etterne, in caldo e ‘n gelo.”

Petrarch’s envy of those “su l’altra riva” suggests that he is experiencing his own personal hell which is even worse than that described by Dante in Inferno.

Two further echoes of Dante seem to imply a critique of Dantean poetics.  The first comes in l. 11, which unmistakably references the opening line of the Commedia:

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (Inf. I,1)

Dante’s nostra becomes mio in Petrarch’s poem, signalling the shift from the universal to the subjective which Petrarch enacts throughout the Canzoniere.  The fact that Petrarch has passed the point of life at which Dante’s salvation occurs highlights the failed conversion narrative which pervades the Canzoniere.  When this is viewed in combination with Petrarch’s final line, which echoes the opening to Dante’s sonnet “Tutti li miei penser parlan d’amore” (Vita nova XIII, 8-9), it becomes clear that Petrarch is attempting to invert the Dantean conversion narrative.  While Dante moves from the confusion of the Vita nova to the salvific certainty of the Commedia, Petrarch is unable to get past the first line of either work and remains trapped in the confusion of the Vita nova.  According to Petrarch, Dante’s way to salvation is doomed to failure.

Petrarchan Monomania vs. Cavalcantian Self-Destruction

As previously noted, Petrarch’s transition from Dante’s nostra vita to this sonnet’s mio corso signals his difference from the universalist medieval poetic paragon represented by his older contemporary.  This shift is accompanied by a certain element of monomania which is at times tempered by a Cavalcantian division of the self.  This becomes most obvious in Petrarch’s treatment of his own mind in this poem.  In the opening quatrain, Amor and Fortuna are listed without any accompanying adjectives, while la mia mente engenders a sub-clause which occupies just over one full line of the sonnet.  Similarly, in the second quatrain, Amor and Fortuna are dealt with in the space of a line and a half, while a description of la mente occupies the rest of the stanza.  The poet’s own mind becomes a de facto external cause of the anguish which Petrarch is experiencing.  He takes on the passive role of an observer, even though the implication is that he is at least, if not more, responsible for his woes than the conventional assailants, Love and Fortune.  This very deliberate separation of one’s mind from one’s own self as a whole seems to be an expression of an emotional impasse which sees the transference of emotions from the poet’s heart, the traditional emotional seat, to his mind.  As his heart is destroyed by Love and Fortune, the anger and weeping which is usually associated with that organ in transferred to the mind.  This splitting of the poet’s coherent selfhood is completed in the final line, as his thought break in two.

This gives rise to philosophical and physiological questions regarding the make-up of personality and emotions as a response to a set of external stimuli.

Also to be noted is a distinct echo of Poem 112 (Oimè, lasso, quelle trezze bionde”) from Cino da Pistoia’s Canzoniere in Petrarch’s use of the image of the glass relative to his fragile hope.  Lines 22-26:

Oimè la speranza

ch’ogn’altra mi facea vedere a dietro

e lieve mi rendea d’amor lo peso,

spezzat’hai come vetro,

Morte, che vivo m’hai morto ed impeso.

This particular subtext could potentially reinforce to idea that this final stanza of Petrarch’s poem represents a pre-figuration of Laura’s death and the effect it will have on Petrarch both personally and poetically.  The vetro thus becomes something like a crystal ball in which Petrarch discerns his future doom.

– Summary by Mike Hodder

One Response to Canzoniere 124 and Wyatt’s “Love, Fortune and my mind”

  1. Pingback: Canzoniere 211 « petrarchreadinggroupoxford

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