April 26, 2012 1 Comment
– English translation from Petrarch’s Lyric Poems, ed. and trans. by Robert M. Durling
Presentation by Nicola Gardini
(Report by Jennifer Rushworth):
In this sonnet the lyric subject complains that Laura has banished him from her heart because there is room only therein for her own image. Laura’s vanity, self-love and physical beauty are central themes.
The poem is structured around two myths, one Christian and one Classical. The second is explicit, with ‘Narcisso’, Narcissus, being named in line 12, although most of this story (which Petrarch takes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) is left implicit and unmentioned. Most notably, the poem leaves unsaid the consequences that identifying Laura with Narcissus has on the lyric subject’s position in the myth. That is, he comes to take the place of Echo, the rejected lover of Narcissus who is transformed into mere voice as a result of her unrequited love and repeats ad infinitum the name of the beloved (as Petrarch does Laura’s name throughout the Canzoniere).
The first myth, that based on a Christian worldview, is even more allusive and elusive, drawing on the association of ‘adversario’ with the devil (although here it is literally revealed as a mirror, ‘specchio’, line 10). The second quatrain on one level seems to repeat the story of the Fall as related in Genesis. Emphasis is placed on the ‘donna’, echoing the strong focus on ‘mulier’ in the Vulgate Bible. Line 6, in particular, can easily be read as a rendition of the Fall, the act of being chased (‘scacciato’) from the ‘dolce albergo’, the garden of Eden, with the resulting state of mankind as that of ‘misero exilio’ (v.7). However, there are surprising differences in the rewriting of this story, the most obvious difference being that while the lyric subject is, like Adam, banished from the garden, Laura remains there, ‘ove voi sola siete’ (v.8). Laura is a stable, fixed point, in contrast to the lyric subject’s movement further and further away. The poem’s concluding mention of ‘l’erba’, grass, returns to the opening diabolic reference (the snake in the garden of Eden crawls through the grass, as the restaging of this event in Purgatorio 8 for instance reminds us). In this respect the poem circles back on itself.
The poem is interesting for its central gap, that of the actual naming of Laura’s heart, which is only alluded to in line 6 (‘dolce albergo’) or obliquely in ‘cor-so’ (v.13). This gap is mirrored in the metrics of line 8, which, while the rest of the poem consists of regular hendecasyllables with the main stress on the sixth syllable, has instead the main stress on the fourth (degno), passing over the reference to Laura’s heart (‘degno-ove voi’). Just as the lyric subject is exiled from Laura’s heart, so the poet seems to take his revenge by condemning the most important signifier (the heart) to linguistic exile.
Much of poem is structured out of negatives (‘non sue’, v.3; ‘non fôra’, v.7; ‘non devea’, v.10). The final line is a last, surprising reversal. Having said that Laura deserves to be transformed into a flower (or perhaps a laurel tree?) for her self-absorption, as happens to Narcissus, Petrarch adds an unexpected twist, ‘benché di sì bel fior sia indegna l’erba’ (v.14). Laura’s worth and beauty is suddenly, as the poem closes, reaffirmed, despite the drive to criticise her for her vainness throughout the rest of the poem.
Laura is present in fragmented sounds throughout the poem, as is often the case in the Canzoniere. Her name appears in ‘Amore’, ‘honora’, ‘innamora’, ‘mortal’, ‘fora’. Yet the most striking sound pattern of this poem is the ‘v’ sound, which is introduced in the first noun of the poem (‘adversario’) and repeated frequently (‘veder’, ‘vostri’, ‘v’innamora’, ‘soavi’, ‘m’avete’, ‘avegna’, ‘ove voi’, ‘v’era’, ‘chiovi’, ‘farvi’, ‘voi’, ‘se vi rimembra’).
The equivocal rhyme ‘fora’ and ‘fôra’ contains two key Laurean senhals, ‘ora’ and ‘aura’, and was highlighted as being a particularly odd juxtaposition of words, suggesting as the pair does that being (‘fôra’) is a matter of alterity, strangeness and alienation (‘fora’, outside). The use of the technique of equivocal rhyme is particularly apt in a poem centred on the Narcissus myth, and thus the repeated sounds voiced by Echo.
It was noted that the use of pronouns makes this poem at first sight complicated; the mirror belongs to Laura and reflects her image, but is Petrarch’s ‘adversario’ (even though, etymologically, it is also Laura’s ‘adversario’ in the sense of ‘ad-versus’, facing her). Several members of the group were tempted to consider Petrarch’s poetry as a further mirror in which Laura can see her image reflected most beautifully. In this respect, Petrarch is partly to blame for his exile as it would be his own poetry in praise of Laura’s beauty which had put ever greater distance between him and the object of his affections.
The ‘donna’ that breaks line 5 is repeated anagrammatically in ‘danno’, v.10, which supports the reference to the story of Genesis where it is woman (Eve’s weakness) that causes Adam’s exile and suffering. The medieval Latin wordplay of Eva (Eve) as responsible for the Fall that is the source of mankind’s ‘vae’, woe, and is redeemed by the birth of Christ and Mary’s ‘ave’ was suggested as one source or consequence of the ‘ve sounds (for instance in ‘donna, m’avete / scacciato’). That Laura is a ‘donna’ who remains in the garden of Eden was thought perhaps to suggest her identification as a ‘donna-angelo’, since in the Biblical story it is an angel that chases Adam and Eve from the Garden, whereas here it is Laura (both ‘donna’ and ‘angelo’, then) banishing Petrarch. The omnipresence of the ‘vi’ sound aids the association of Laura (‘voi’) and place (‘ove voi sola’, Laura’s heart).
The phrase ‘con saldi chiovi fisso’ was considered a Christological reference, although in malo, as while Christ’s affixing to the Cross with firm nails redeems the world, the lyric subject is here not fixed firmly enough, and so is both Adam and a failed second Adam whose exile and ‘danno’ are unending and unconverted. The word ‘chiovi’ was noted to be a hapax in the Canzoniere, and the choice of ‘chiovi’ rather than ‘chiodi’ attributed to a desire to continue the ‘v’ sound repetition.
In the phrase ‘vi rimembra’ both ‘rime’ and ‘membra’ were isolated, the first suggesting how this poem (these ‘rime’) are in aid of reminding Laura of the dangers of her self-love, and the second anticipating the dismemberment of Narcissus and his transformation into a flower.
The final word, ‘l’erba’, was traced through some of Petrarch’s other poems, and counted to appear 52 times in the whole collection (counting ‘erba’, ‘erbe’, ‘herba’, ‘herbe’ altogether). It often appears in reference to Petrarch’s love of the countryside and in contrast to urban life, but it also has negative connotations after Laura’s death (grass grows over her body). While Petrarch remains attached to earthly and solitary sights (woods, grassy meadows, and so forth), Laura inhabits (‘abitar’, v.8) her heart, the Edenic Garden, and will eventually be figured as a heavenly inhabitant.
Few Dantean references were raised regarding this poem, although the reference to the snake in the grass harks back to the Valley of the Princes at the bottom of the mountain of Purgatory. It is also notable that ‘bel fior’ is Dante’s way of referring to the Virgin Mary in Paradiso, thereby setting Laura up as usurping her place and name.