Canzoniere 355

Presentation by Teresa Franco (summary):

(Report by Jennifer Rushworth)

This sonnet appears for the first time in the so-called ‘pre-Malatesta’ copy, and therefore is datable to a time span of between the years 1369 and 1372. It belongs to the older age of the poet and, as such, partakes of the new moralised mode typical of the second section of the Canzoniere. The poem shows Petrarch’s increasing obsession with time, which in this case even becomes the addressee of the triple opening invocation: “O tempo, o ciel volubil…/ o dì veloci…” all of them are responsible for having deceived the poet and distracted him from the truth. The second stanza sets a comparison between the different natures of the fast winged-time and the slow pensive poet, and here the contrast almost reproduces and replaces the uneven relationship the laboriously slow Petrarch had with the fleeing Laura. Indeed, while Petrarch is resorting to quite a traditional depiction of time, which is also wide-spread in the Trionfi, we cannot forget that the image of flight and wings within the Canzoniere pertains to the poet’s self-description too, symbolising his frustrated aspiration and desire. It is by overlapping the two metaphors – the flight of time and that of love – that the poet manages to enhance the sense of self-censorship and self-reproach implied in the entire poem. Moving from the quatrains to the tercets, the contrast between time and the poet is turned into analogy, as the incessant flow of time mirrors the poet’s struggle towards resolution, and the running hours equal his indecisiveness.

This sort of suspension is definitely overcome in the last stanza, where the tenses shift from conditional and infinitive forms to the present tense, supporting a rather assertive tone and the final pronouncement that the poet is ready to abandon his previous commitments. Petrarch’s moving away from his “mal” (second occurrence in the poem, but significantly in the single and not plural form as in line 7) while carrying on devoting himself to art, sounds like a defence of poetry. Therefore, the flowing of time involves, as always, a double dimension: it is perceived both by personal experience (“ab experto”, line 4), and by the actual writing, the “studio” and “bell’arte” Petrarch mentions at the end, quoting one of his favourite ancient poets, Seneca.

Sonnet 355 was originally meant to end a series of poems on repentance, immediately before song 366, which is the prayer to the Virgin Mary and the actual end of the Canzoniere, but as the collection moved towards its final form, the sonnet was removed and placed in its final, present position. The original position may account for the philosophic and religious content, as well as for fact that Laura is never mentioned, not even indirectly (the only exception being the ambiguous “nei miei mali” line 7) and the poem looks very much egotistic in a way. If viewed in the light of the narrative story of the Canzoniere, the most accredited interpretation for the change is that Petrarch wanted to deconstruct the moralised parabola he had himself built on, presenting a finally converted self, by then freed from his “juvenile error” “(il mio primo giovanile errore” of RVF 1) and reconciled with himself and God.

The poem in fact maintains several echoes of RVF 1, for instance themes of shame: where the latter includes the line “di me medesmo meco mi vergogno”, sonnet 355 reads “onde vergogna e dolor prendo”. In each case shame is accompanied by knowledge (“conoscer pienamente”). However, in both sonnets the act of seeing corresponds to two different degrees of self-awareness: “ora ben veggio” of sonnet 1 is still pointing outward, alluding to what others thinks of the poet, while the eyes Petrarch speaks of in 355 are pointing inward, focusing on the soul and God. Lines 7 and 8 together with the following tercet can be considered a beautiful synthesis of Augustine’s thought and teaching, the necessity of a withdrawal that Petrarch explores in the Secretum, and briefly recalls in his famous letter about the ascent on Monte Ventoux, where he  uses precisely the expression: “in me ipsos interiores oculos reflexi”.

In RVF 355 the Latin formula “ab experto” really stands out, breaking the flow of the language. In relation to RVF 1, it is evidently a piece of self-translation, a Latin rendering of the Italian “per prova”. But why would Petrarch choose to use Latin here, it being the only intrusion of Latin into the Canzoniere except for the classical and biblical “miserere” of RVF 366?

Main points of discussion:


There are important points of resonance with Inferno in RVF 355: “infiniti guai” (line 11) repeats the phrase found in Inf. IV, v.9, and also the “traendo guai” of Inf. V, v.48. Echoes can also be heard of the Ulysses canto, for instance his desire to “divenir del mondo esperto” (heard in “ab experto”), and the context of his sin of providing “consiglio fraudolente”.

It is further surprising to find the term “ab experto” in this sonnet, since the Latin phrase belongs to Scholastic theology, a tradition towards which Petrarch often expressed his dislike. Should this temper our understanding of his attitude towards Scholasticism? In terms of the linguistic intrusion, it was recalled that given that for Petrarch Latin was the nobler language and the cultural norm, we might perhaps more properly speak of the Canzoniere as a vernacular intrusion into Petrarch’s Latin output. Given that we find this Latin term towards the end of the vernacular collection, this might suggest a return to Latin as Petrarch’s preferred language of communication and self-expression.

There may be more implicit references to Laura in this poem, despite her seeming absence: in “ora” in a line which then could read as referring to her demise (“Laura […] è passata”, line 9); and also in “dolor” (v.8). While Laura is usually associated with “vertute”, here it seems more to refer to power or ability (valour).

Line 11 evinces a meta-poetic concern with endings: “poner fine” (line 11), which will be echoed later in RVF 366 (“por’ fine al mio dolore”, v.103). Petrarch’s worry about how to end the Canzoniere is reflected explicitly in the text itself. If the poet’s suffering is endless and his conversion is never quite reached, the end of the collection comes to seem arbitrary and unsatisfying, rather than marking any significant turning point, endpoint or change. In this sonnet, formally, the rushing of time is mimicked in the asyndeton of the first quatrain, as by the occurrence of enjambment (lines 1-2, 7-8). While time is in constant motion and continually changing, Petrarch is unable to achieve any sense of progress or change.

It was concluded that the difficulties of this sonnet lie in the ambiguities surrounding the key terms of the poem’s final two lines. What do “studio”, “vertute”, and “bell’arte” mean? What is their relationship to one another? Much of this ambiguity derives from the word “frodi” in line 4, which introduces the worry about deceit and deception into this poem and therefore complicates the interpretation of the sonnet’s finale lines. Elsewhere in the Canzoniere we find the word “frode” in RVF 253 (v.7).

In previous sessions it has been discussed that “studio” is both passion or commitment and literary endeavour, and thus an ambiguous term. Nicola Gardini noted that Petrarch’s use of the word “arte” contrasts with Tasso’s employment of the term, which is always negative, manipulative, lying. In contrast, for Petrarch “arte” tends to be positive, drawing on the pride of the artificer, although in this poem we cannot be sure. Is “arte” duplicitous and fraudulent (but beautiful) or good (and beautiful)? The sonnet’s final phrase is, moreover, potentially self-referential, suggesting that after all the suffering, disillusionment, and painful repetitions experienced by the lyric subject, the end result is “bell’arte”, the sublimation of experience into poetry.

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