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Love and The Pilgrimage to Petrarch

Luis Dias

It’s funny how themes keep recurring in my life, and one has to connect the dots to get a much larger picture that I didn’t know was there. It’s really wonderful when this happens.

Let me explain. In my England years, from the moment I got there, I became a devotee of the annual BBC Proms music festival. And I think in 2000, they added the Poetry Proms to the festival at the Serpentine Gallery, with readings by leading poets (I remember in particular Ruth Padel) prior to the evening concerts. This really whetted my appetite for poetry. I went to as many Poetry Proms as I could after that.

So when Stephen Fry (who I admire greatly anyway) released his book The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within in 2007, I went out and got a copy. It was the first time I had read such a lucid, easy, witty description of technical aspects of poetry such as metre, rhyme and form. It is still a book that I return to often.

In its back pages, under an ‘Incomplete Glossary of Poetic Terms’, I came across this description of a Petrarchan sonnet: “A sonnet form addressed from Petrarch’s original cycle of poems to his Laura: the octave rhymes abba abba and the sestet in English can be anything from the original cdecde to cdcdcd, cdcdee and other variations.”

Hmm. Sounds complicated? Well, the alphabets abcde refer to the lines in the stanza of a poem. Elsewhere in the glossary I found explanations to what an octave and a sestet meant in poetic terms, with an octave being as one might guess the first eight lines of (usually) a Petrarchan sonnet, and a sestet a stanza of six lines or the final lines of (usually) a Petrarchan sonnet. Don’t you hate it when the explanation of a word leads you to other words that lead back to the original word? Who the blazes was Petrarch? And ‘his’ Laura? Curiouser and curiouser.

Life took over, and I didn’t dwell on it further. Then, back in Goa, more recently I attended a poetry session by Jeet Thayil at the Goa University, and he referred to the Petrarchan sonnet as well. I felt it was time to look him up.

I learnt that Italian Renaissance scholar, poet and humanist Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) (anglicised as Petrarch) popularised the sonnet form that comes to bear his name today. It has 14 lines, the first part an octave, the second a sestet. The octave presents a ‘problem’, while the sestet offers its ‘solution’, containing a dramatic shift (‘volta’) in the argument, often at its beginning.

I came across the Petrarchan sonnet again while reading up on Shakespeare in his quatercentenary year, when the structure of his sonnets was compared to it.

More recently, Landeg White in his lecture Camões: Made in Goa at the Fundação Oriente spoke of the influence of the Petrarchan sonnet upon the poetry of Camões.

In the introduction to his book ‘The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões’, translated by him into English, White says: “The greatest of these debts [owed by Camões] is transparently to Petrarch.”

He gives examples of sonnets by Camões derived from Petrarchan originals, and comments “As in Petrarch, language itself is a central theme, for while both poets insist on the absolute primacy of personal experience; both poets recognise their dependence on verse idioms to understand love, and to reproduce the same feelings in their readers.”

Ah, love. This leads us to Petrarch’s Laura. His Il Canzionere (Song Book, also known as Rime sparse or “Scattered Lyrics or Rhymes”) contains madrigals, songs and sonnets in praise of his idealised love Laura, whom he first saw in 1327 (even the date of the sighting is known: 6 April, of all days Good Friday) in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon (thankfully after he had already given up his vocation as a priest!), awakening in him a lasting passion. Laura was a married woman and refused to become his mistress.

Little surprise then that Camões’ own song ‘Aquela cativa’ (“The Captive” or “Stanzas to the slave Barbara”) is a poem in the Petrarchan manner. But it is disturbing because she is his captive, and in White’s words “dark-skinned, with black hair and non-European features…. a female prisoner whom the soldier-poet has made his apparently reluctant concubine….a situation of gross sexual exploitation, reflecting the cruel realities of early colonial conquest.”

In 2011, the birth bicentenary year of Franz Liszt, in preparation for my presentation and articles about the composer, I had listened again to and read up about Années de Pélérinage (Years of Pilgrimage), his set of three suites for solo piano. In the second suite Deuxième année: Italie (Second year: Italy), the fourth to sixth movements are settings of three of Petrarch’s sonnets (47, 104 and 123) that he added earlier written for voice and then transcribed for solo piano. Their inclusion in Lara Saldanha’s matinee piano recital just before the close of 2016 brought them into focus and recollection. The sonnets are given good company by Liszt, preceded as they are by Sposalizio (inspired by Raphael’s painting The Marriage of the Virgin) and Il Pensoroso (inspired by Michelangelo’s statue The Thinker). And they are followed by his famous Dante sonata, inspired by a reading of Dante Alighieri’s famous epic poem Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy). Dante was a friend of Petrarch’s father. Liszt seems to be travelling backwards in time, from Raphael (1483-1520) to Michelangelo (1475-1564) to Petrarch to Dante (1265-1321).

The three Petrarchan sonnets 47, 104 and 123 all speak of love for a woman, thought to be Laura although not mentioned by name. But in Liszt’s version of sonnet 104, he added her name to the song text. The transcriptions of the sonnets for solo piano are believed to be among Liszt’s earliest attempts “to introduce poetry into the music of the piano with some degree of style.”

I’ll leave you with the English translation of Sonnet 47, although the Petrarchan format is intact in translation. The original Italian is so much more lyrical and eloquent, of course. To say that Laura had an impact upon Petrarch would be a not-so-poetic understatement.

Sonnet 47

Blest be the day, and blest the month, the year,

The spring, the hour, the very moment blest,

The lovely scene, the spot, where first oppress’d

I sunk, of two bright eyes the prisoner:

And blest the first soft pang, to me most dear,

Which thrill’d my heart, when Love became its guest;

And blest the bow, the shafts which pierced my breast,

And even the wounds, which bosom’d thence I bear.

Blest too the strains which, pour’d through glade and grove,

Have made the woodlands echo with her name;

The sighs, the tears, the languishment, the love:

And blest those sonnets, sources of my fame;

And blest that thought—Oh! Never to remove!

Which turns to her alone, from her alone which came.





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