“Italian is a song,” my professor said (entirely in Italian) on the very first day of class. “High, low, high, low. We don’t talk, we sing.”
There are other pieces to this story, but I won’t get into them, because this post isn’t about the joys of learning what is, hands down, the sexiest language on earth. No, it’s about Petrarch’s Songbook (Canzoniere), which is more formally known as Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta, a collection of poetry. I figured that whole “Italian is a song” thing would be a fitting introduction.
The translation I read is by one James Wyatt Cook, professor emeritus of English at my alma mater. He made Beowulf entertaining, taught me everything I know about metrical poetry (yes, I do know what dactylic hexameter is, thank you), and convinced me I should give up on New York and go to Venice instead. So when it came time for my path to cross Petrarch’s, I made a trip to the library and checked out his translation. It was the least I could do.
What of the poetry of Francesco Petrarca (or Frankie P, as I’ve taken to calling him)? Well, naturally, it is very good. But really, it doesn’t mean much to say that Petrarch’s poetry is good, because that’s a statement on par with “Shakespeare wrote some plays.” It becomes pointless in its obviousness.
So instead of reviewing the quality of the poetry itself, I am instead going to tell you what I have learned by reading it. And what have I learned? It’s simple, really. Petrarch was one hell of a creepy bastard. See, it’s like this: in 1328, he first laid eyes on a woman named Laura, a woman he was completely smitten by, a woman who died 20 years later without ever having reciprocated the poet’s feelings. Oh yes, he loved Laura so much that he wrote about her constantly, and many of the poems in the Canzoniere are about her. Take this one, for example:
O lovely hand, you clasp my heart so fast
And in a little span enfold my life;
O hand, where Nature and Heaven bend every art
And all their pains to glorify themselves.
Colored like five pearls from the Orient,
Pure gentle fingers, only harsh and sharp
When in my wounds — Love just in time consents
That you be bare so he can make me rich.
White, graceful, charming, precious little glove
That covered flawless ivory, roses fresh,
Who’s seen in all this world such plunder sweet?
I wish I had the like from that far veil!
Oh, the inconstancy of mortal things!
But this is theft; one comes to rob me too.
Right. So, here we have Petrarch getting all hot and bothered about Laura’s glove. That he stole. I don’t know, but this seems to be not all that far removed from literary panty-sniffing. I know, I know, it’s supposed to be romantic, the way he burns with (unrequited) love for this poor woman, but when he writes stuff like, “Seventeen years by now the heavens have rolled/ Since first I burned, and never am I quenched” (Rvf. 122), I can’t help but think that he’s just being gross and pathetic. SEVENTEEN YEARS!!! (And then some.) Petrarch. Dude. Stop it.
The existence of Laura has been debated by scholar-types, but the scholarship I’ve read leans toward the belief that she was a real woman. I don’t mean to imply that Laura is the only object of Petrarch’s poems, because she’s not. He wrote about other things too, but the collection is heavily weighted toward his obsession with this woman.
But people read reviews to find out if they should bother with the book in question. Do I think you should read Petrarch’s Canzoniere? Sure, if you want to. From a purely poetic standpoint, Petrarch is one of the all-time greats. A master of form (he doesn’t have a form of the sonnet named after him for nothing), and one who obsessively revised his work until it was perfect, Petrarch’s poetry serves as an example of what can be done with writing when it’s carefully crafted, and those who say they’re interested in the craftsmanship of writing would be well-served by checking out his work. Sure, a lot of his imagery might seem a little bit trite to a modern reader, but he was writing in the 1300s, so I’m willing to cut him a little slack on that point. Other than that, though his poems about Laura started making my skin crawl after awhile, he sure did have a lock on the poetics of longing. So, his poems are also good if you’re into that sort of thing.
Anyway, if Italian is a song, then Petrarch knew how to sing it, and his Canzoniere is a testament to that. Nevermind that I think it should be renamed The Stalker’s Songbook…
It’s one hell of a collection of poems.