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.


One Response to Canzoniere 9

  1. Pingback: Canzoniere 310 « petrarchreadinggroupoxford

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