Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (1304-1374), stands out for his ability to examine the individual consciousness, to portray the human capacity for being bound by time and resisting time. Lyric poetry is an ideal locus for this struggle, and when it comes to formal verse, we may have no better teacher. Patrarch’s forms were repetitive yet restlessly inventive, and, most importantly for us, he mastered the tight, ornate form of the sonnet (It. sonetto-“little sound”). English poets of a later century then adapted this form to their own vernacular, making it the most recognizable of all English verse forms.
You could write miles about the sonnet. I’ve compared it to the necktie: so small, so rigidly constrained, yet admitting of enough freedom that the good ones really do stand out.
Petrarch’s most famous sonnets are love songs, the great majority of them written for his eternal muse, Laura. Let’s take a look at one, #189, that plumbs his soul perhaps even a little deeper. Here is his original, followed by 3 translations, printed in order of their composition. –ed.
Passa la nave mia colma d’oblio
per aspro mare a mezza notte il verno
enfra Scilla et Caribdi, et al governo
siede ‘l signore anzi ‘l nimico mio;
à ciascun remo un penser pronto et rio
che la tempesta e ‘l fin par ch’ abbi a scherno;
la vela rompe un vento umido eterno
di sospir, di speranze et di desio;
pioggia di lagrimar, nebbia di sdegni
bagna et rallenta le già stanche sarte
che son d’error con ignoranzia attorto.
Celansi I duo mei dolci usati segni,
Morta fra l’onde è la ragion et l’arte
Tal ch’ I’ ‘ncomincio a desperar del porto.
My galy charged with forgetfulness
Thorrough sharpe sees in winter nyghets doeth pas
Twene Rock and Rock; and eke myn enemy, Alas,
That is my lord, sterith with cruelness;
And every owre a thought in rediness,
As tho that deth were light in such a case.
An endless wiynd doeth tere the sayll a pase
Of forced sightes and trusty ferefulnes.
A rain of teris, a clowde of derk disdain
Hath doen the wered cordes great hinderaunce,
Wrethed with errour and eke with ignoraunce.
The stares be hid that led me to this pain,
Drowned is reason that should me confort,
And I remain dispering of the port.
(trans. Thomas Wyatt, 16th cent.)
Charged with oblivion my ship careers
Through stormy combers in the depth of night;
Left lies Charybdis, Scylla to the right;
My master—nay my foe sits aft and steers.
Wild fancies ply the oars, mad mutineers,
Reckless of journey’s end or tempest’s might;
The canvas splits ‘gainst the relentless spite
Of blasts of hopes and sighs and anxious fears.
A rain of tears, a blinding mist of wrath
Drench and undo the cordage, long since worn
And fouled in knots of ignorance and error;
The two sweet lights are lost that showed my path,
Reason and art lie ‘neath the waves forlorn:
“What hope of harbor now?” I cry in terror.
(tr. Thomas Bergin, 20th cent.)
My galley, loaded with forgetfulness,
rolls through rough seas, at midnight, during winter,
aiming between Charybdis and sharp Scylla;
my lord, ah no, my foe, sits at the tiller;
each oar is wielded by a quick, mad thought
that seems to scorn the storm and what it means;
an endless wind of moisture, of deep sighs,
of hopes and passions, rips the sails in half;
tears in a steady downpour, mists of hate,
are loosening and soaking all the ropes,
ropes made of ignorance, tangled up with error.
The two sweet stars I steer by are obscured;
Reason and skill are dead among the waves;
And I don’t think I’ll ever see the port.
(tr. David Young, 2004)