February 2, 2012 1 Comment
Zephiro torna, e ’l bel tempo rimena Hail, Zephyrus! bringing back in sight
e i fiori et l’erbe, sua dolce famiglia, sweet flowers, grass and fine weather again,
et garrir Progne et pianger Philomena, and, once more, Spring! blood-red and pearly white,
et primavera candida et vermiglia. with Procne and Philomela in pain.
Ridono i prati, e ’l ciel si rasserena; The meadows are laughing, the sky is bright;
Giove s’allegra di mirar sua figlia; Jove smiles at seeing his daughter again;
l’aria et l’acqua et la terra è d’amor piena; And Love doth all that lives to love incite;
ogni animal d’amar si riconsiglia. With Love are laden earth and air and rain.
Ma per me, lasso, tornano i più gravi But for me, alas, the heaviest tears
sospiri, che del cor profondo tragge are drawn from the depths of my wounded heart
quella ch’al ciel se ne portò le chiavi; by She who lives in the heavenly spheres;
et cantar augelletti et fiorir piagge, and though birds sing and fields make a fresh start,
e ’n belle donne honeste atti soavi and ladies be beautiful, chaste and mild
sono un deserto, et fere aspre et selvagge. all is, for me, a wasteland, monstrous, wild.
(translation by Jennifer Rushworth)
Thomas Hardy, Proud Songster
The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all Time were theirs.
These are brand new birds of twelvemonths’ growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air, and rain.
The following presentation was given by Jennifer Rushworth:
At first glance it seems that the poem is setting up a straightforward contrast between the joy and colour and new life of Spring, and the darkness and despair and loneliness of the poet. Such a contrast would be quite common in Petrarch: we need only think back to sonnet 9 which we looked at last week, and whose last line read ‘primavera per me pur non è mai’. It is a form of pathetic fallacy in reverse: the poet identifies with the landscape, but only through what he lacks. As in sonnet 9, in sonnet 310 the contrast is between nature (the beautiful, verdant outside world with Spring in its step) and the self (dark, isolated and self-absorbed).
Today’s poem is characterised stylistically by an alternation of polysyndeton and asyndeton. The excess and abundance of Spring is suggested by the long list of nouns linked by the simple conjunction ‘e[t]’, which appears fourteen times in this sonnet. In contrast, when the lyric subject’s plight is described in the first tercet, the poem completely changes rhythm and texture. It becomes slow and laboured, particularly line 9 with the heavy monosyllables (‘Ma per me’), the commas breaking up the line and highlighting the main caesura, the mention precisely of heaviness (the ‘gravi / sospiri’), and the laborious and painful sounding nature of dragging sighs ‘delcor profondo’. The enjambment of ‘i più gravi / sospiri’ is striking, placing great emphasis on the delayed ‘sospiri’ in prime position in the line and somehow conveying a sense of heaviness as the line is similarly dragged over into the next one.
In an ironic way, while Zephyrus (the west wind) is associated with fertile multiplicity, the verb ‘torna’ is only transformed into the plural for the poet in the sestet, where however ‘tornano’ refers to the same thing repeated (endless ‘sospiri’), rather than the joyous plethora of grass and flowers and birds which assailed our eyes and ears in the first quatrain. The poem is marked by a respect for symmetry, going so far as the common structuring device of starting the sestet with ‘Ma’, but present also in the choice of verbs (‘torna’/‘tornano’).
When we first learn about the sonnet form, we are often told that it has a structure of thesis (in the octet), antithesis (at the start of the sestet) and synthesis (in the final line, or final few lines). Here as often in Petrarch we are denied any solution or respite to the stark antitheses. The poet is enmeshed in the past, in sameness, in endlessness, in repetition, in inescapable grief. He has no hope for change or a new future, in contrast to nature’s cyclical rebirth (we note the frequency of verbs beginning with ‘ri’: ‘rimena’, ‘riconsiglia’, even ‘ridono’, and ‘rasserena’). The last line of this poem is shocking in its abruptness: ‘sono un deserto, et fere aspre et selvagge’. The Dantean ring of these words (compare Inferno I, 5: ‘esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte’, or Inferno XIII, 7-8 ‘Non han sì aspri sterpi né sì folti / quelle fiere selvagge’) marks the situation as infernal in its loneliness and barrenness. The rhyme gravi/chiavi/soavi is a further echo of Inferno XIII (58-59).
The contrast between nature and the self is complicated by the mention of Procne and Philomela in the third line, as intimated by the choice of verbs: ‘garrir’ and ‘pianger’. (Note the plosive alliteration in this line which inscribes weeping within the very names of the two sisters, while also harking back to ‘Zephiro’ and anticipating ‘primavera’.) While Procne stands for a swallow, and Philomela for a nightingale (according to Petrarch at least), the mythological story behind these identifications is far from the pastoral idyll this poem appears to evoke. Mythological characters remain central to the depiction of nature in this poem: we find, immediately, Zephyrus, setting the elevated, literary tone for the rest of the poem, and later Jove and his daughter (Venus). In all this a possible model is Virgil’s Georgics, a pastoral text which similarly invokes Zephyrus and Venus in order to describe Spring (II, 328-31). Virgil’s Eclogues are also referenced.
As regards Procne and Philomela, however, the main source is Ovid, from which it is worth briefly recounting the bloody story (see Metamorphoses VI, 422-674). Tereus is married to Procne but falls in love with her sister Philomela, whom he abducts and seduces. When Philomela threatens to tell the world of Tereus’s crime, Tereus cuts off her tongue to silence her. But Philomela manages to weave a web telling her story and send this to her sister Procne. On reading her sister’s story, Procne in revenge kills their son and cooks him and feeds him to her treacherous husband and unsuspecting father. Tereus, on learning of what food he has partaken, pursues the two sisters, only be turned into a hoopoe, and the two sisters are likewise turned into birds. The ‘dolce famiglia’ of line one is undermined by this knowledge of the broken, violent family relationships implicit in line three. The poet’s piteous plight is thus anticipated with line 3 which stands out particularly oddly in the context of a celebration of nature. Instead, the implicit mythological story creates an uneasy undercurrent to the poem’s radiant opening lines. I also therefore would like to read the white and red colours of Spring as equally ominous (and we might recall that Springtime is also the time of Christ’s Passion).
As Nicola suggested last week, we can hear in the repeated ‘ve’ sound (‘primavera’, ‘vermiglia’, ‘Giove’) a hint of Venus, entirely appropriate given the reference to her in line 6 of the poem. Similarly, Laura is only indicated indirectly in this poem, both by ‘quella’ (like the ‘costei’ from last week’s sonnet delayed until the start of line 11 of the poem), and by, again, the scattering of the syllables of her name in ‘l’aria’, which is close semantically and lexically to the more usual senhal ‘l’aura’, ‘the breeze’, and perhaps in ‘l’acqua’ also.
The Laura of this poem is as isolated and remote as the poet feels from the joys of Spring. She is not counted amongst the anonymous, earthly ‘belle donne’, and ‘fere’ for once does not refer to her. (In sestina 22, with which this poem shares a similar vocabulary, e.g. ‘animal’, Petrarch had, for instance, paralleled Laura to an ‘aspra fera’, vv.20-21.) Laura having the keys to his heart is a recurrent topos in Petrarch (see, for instance, poem 155, vv.12-14, or ballad 63). I find the image of the keys in this pastoral poem somewhat too sentimental or urban or clichéd and feel that it jars with the tenor of the rest of the poem.
We can imagine that the ‘sospiri’ in this poem represent poetry itself (the proeminal sonnet after all prepared the reader to expect to hear ‘il suono / di quei sospiri’). In this sense the poet’s complaint to Laura seems somewhat ungrateful; he is representing the inspiration she provides him with as unwanted and painful. On the other hand, perhaps this is a better or truer image of what bringing a poem to life is all about; tearing something slowly away from the obscure depths of one’s self. Importantly, the nightingale’s song was thought to be dangerous and painful to the singing bird (as noted by Isidore), an interesting parallel for Petrarch’s own poesis. As Francesca noticed last week, there is a certain irony to the poet’s claim that the world is dark and barren (a ‘deserto’) when a poem is normally seen as a creative act and a sign of newness.
If I can be forgiven for quoting Freud, the last line resonates for me as a definition of the melancholic state. Freud famously wrote in his essay on ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ that ‘In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself’. Both readings are possible in Petrarch’s last line, depending on ‘sono’ as a third person plural verb (which is ultimately more likely – all the birds, ladies and flowers), or ‘sono’ as first person singular. Since Laura’s death, both the world and the self are empty wildernesses for the poet. This perhaps explains the lack of interest in the ‘belle donne’ who are characterised in classic stilnovist terms (‘soavi’, ‘honeste’) in line thirteen.
To conclude, then, sonnet 310 is a particularly elegant sonnet in a notably noble style and characterised by a structuring contrast between natural time (Spring and rebirth) and time as experienced by the lyric subject (and which is endless, repetitive, and unchanging). The praise of the natural world is dampened by the reference to the violent world of Ovidian mythology, so that the apparently innocent ‘augelletti’ do, on reflection, appear more like ‘fere aspre’, even before the lyric subject has cast his melancholic perception on them. I have included a poem by Thomas Hardy which I think provides an interesting comparison to Petrarch’s poem, and which in part informed my translation of the sonnet.
The ensuing discussion raised the following points:
- Laura’s name is present in ‘or’ sounds (‘amor’, ‘torna’, ‘fiorir’, etc.), not only in ‘l’aria et l’acqua’.
- The poem presents important similarities with a poem by Catullus on the traditional topic of the return of spring (Gardini notes that such intertextuality provides further food for thought concerning Petrarch’s reading of Catullus). It also seems to belong to the genre of the ‘poesia giocosa’, which celebrates nature and man’s place in nature (see, for instance, Dante’s ‘Sonar bracchetti’). This perhaps explains the ‘belle donne’ who appear in the last tercet, oddly in the context of this poem, but wholly predictably on the model of Folgore da San Gimignano’s ‘corone’ of sonnets. (Who are these ‘donne’? Where do they come from?)
- ‘sono un deserto’ is a particularly interesting phrase, given its ambiguity (‘io sono’ vs. ‘loro sono’). Gardini adds that ‘sono’ can also be a contraction of ‘suono’ (defining Petrarch’s poetics as a sonorous desert), and reminds us that ‘sono’ and ‘suono’ rhyme in the proeminal sonnet of the collection.
- As always, Petrarch evades absolute symmetry: ‘fere aspre’ includes both ‘augelletti’ and ‘belle donne’, we must presume.
- The poem also contains unusual stresses and rhythms, such as line 6 (the stress on ‘di’).
- The infinitives (‘garrir’, ‘pianger’, v.3; ‘cantar’, ‘fiorir’, v.12) follow a Latinate model.
- The poem can be seen to set up a contrast between two different types of wind in the octet and sestet, that is, between Zephyrus as a wind of inspiration associated with fertility and blossoming creativity, and the ‘sospiri’ which are a wind of grief.
- The adjectives ‘gravi’ and ‘soavi’ provide further fuel for a meta-poetic reading of this sonnet, since they can refer to stylistic ideals (gravi-tas). The adjective ‘aspre’ in the final line also recalls Dante’s ‘rime aspre’, as well as poem 35 of the Canzoniere.
- There was much discussion about the phrase ‘candida et vermiglia’. Why does Petrarch choose these two colours? What might they signify? One possible reading is in relation to spring/April as the time of Easter and Christ’s Passion. The word ‘candida’ may be simply synonymous with beautiful, but why ‘vermiglia’? Fair complexion and rosy cheeks? Or something more specific? More investigation into Petrarch’s colour references would be required to clarify this question.
- Line 7 makes reference to all four elements, air, water, earth and fire (‘amor’).
In conclusion, this Classical sonnet goes beyond the medieval tradition of the poem on the return of spring to complicate our interpretation of the beauty of nature (hiding dark family secrets), whilst confirming the image of the lyric ‘I’ which sonnet 9 first presents to the reader.