Poetry for Sunday: Petrarch’s musical rivers

People seemed to enjoy last week’s Poetry for Sunday so I thought I’d try another one this week…

A quick search online revealed this wonderful gallery at the Beinecke Library (Yale) site. Petrarch’s script inspired a generation of Northern Italian amanuenses and calligraphers who developed what would later be called “humanist script.” The inscription at the top of the folio reads: “Here happily begin the songs in verse in elegy of Laura by the illustrious poet Francis Petrarch.”

When I lived in Italy in the 1990s as a graduate student, I had the great fortune to meet a number of twentieth-century Italian poets, including Giovanna Sandri, whose poetry I translated for a collection of modern poetry published by my dissertation adviser. One day, when I was doing research for my dissertation at the Vatican library, she invited me over for a lunch of rice and baby shrimp — “translation and risotto di gamberetti” she wrote playfully in a dedication she signed in a copy of one of her books that she gave to me. Her primary literary interest was the group of Roman poets and the Gruppo 63 poets among whom she had come of age literarily and literally. But when she asked me about my studies devoted to Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, fourteenth-century Italian poet and humanist) she fondly remembered her favorite sonnet. She loved the way that Petrarch ingeniously listed the great rivers of the world in meter (in this case, rhymed hendecasyllables — eleven-syllable lines, the classic meter of Italian medieval lyric).

The following is Robert Durling’s translation of the sonnet and the original Italian. Even if you don’t read Italian, try reading the lines out loud to hear the music of Petrarch’s verse.

The tree in the poem is central to the body of poetry and the new poetical language that Petrarch created for his beloved Laura: the laurel tree (do you hear the paronomasia between Laura and lauro or laurel?), the tree so dear to Apollo the god of music and poetry (among other things) because his beloved Daphne had been transformed into a laurel tree so she could escape his amorous advances.

    Not Tesino, Po, Varo, Arno, Adige, or Tiber, Euphrates, Tigris, Nile, Hermus, Indus or Ganges, Don, Danube, Alpheus, Garonne, the sea-breaker Timavus, Rhône, Ebro, Rhine, Seine, Elbe, Loire, or Hebrus —

    not ivy, fir, pine, beech, or juniper — could lessen the fire that wearies my sad heart as much as a lovely stream that from time to time weeps along with me, and the slender tree that in my rhymes I beautify and celebrate.

    I find this a help amid the assaults of Love, where I must live out in armor my life that goes by with such great leaps.

    Then let this lovely laurel grow on the fresh bank; and he who planted it, let him — in its sweet shade, to the sound of the waters — write high and happy thoughts!

    Non Tesin, Po, Varo, Arno, Adige e Tebro
    Eufrate, Tigre, Nilo, Ermo, Indo et Gange,
    Tana, Istro, Alfeo, Garona, e’l mar che frange,
    Rodano, Ibero, Ren, Sena, Albia, Era, Ebro —

    non edra, abete, pin, faggio o genebro —
    poria ‘l foco allentar che’l cor tristo ange
    quant’un bel rio ch’ad ogni or meco piange
    co l’arboscel che’in rime orno e celebro

    Questo un soccorso trovo fra gli assalti
    d’Amore, ove conven ch’armato viva
    la vita che trapassa a sì gran salti.

    Così cresca il bel lauro in fresca riva,
    e chi’l piantò pensier leggiadri et alti
    ne la dolce ombra al suon de l’acque scriva!

What does wine have to do with any of this? In his prose, Petrarch wrote famously about wine and in particular about the wines of Burgundy, but that will have to wait for another post. Today, let’s just enjoy his musical rivers.

Thanks for reading…

2 thoughts on “Poetry for Sunday: Petrarch’s musical rivers

  1. Very nice, Jeremy. I like the poetry for Sunday idea. Petrarca has been a favorite poet of mine since high school. Leggiadro is a word that we don’t use any more in Italian: too bad.

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