Petrarch, Rime 140:
Two translations by
Thomas Wyatt and
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

 

     The Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) was an older contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. He died in 1374, and his life was shaped by the forces of the rising Italian renaissance, the growth of humanism, and the Black Death of 1348-50, which carried off the great lyrical love of his life, Laura. The bulk of his poetry is addressed to an idealized Laura; it is both an outgrowth of mediaeval traditions of so-called "courtly love" and something that hearkens back to the lyric poetry of the ancient world. Petrarch has been considered in many ways to be the literary father of the Italian renaissance, as Giotto was its artistic father; he spent many years of his life recovering and collecting the works of ancient Latin authors, both the poets and Cicero.

     Perhaps the finest of Petrarch's works are his sonnets, which appear in a collection called simply the "Rime" (two syllables -- it's Italian); the form was immediately popular throughout Europe, and has never entirely gone out of fashion in English. The sonnet is a poem of exactly fourteen lines; typically it falls into two sections, the first eight lines setting up the problem, and the last six taking the poem in a different direction. Not all sonnets are in exactly the same meter, but there is typically an exceedingly tight rhyme scheme. The Petrarchan sonnet has a rhyme scheme of:

ABBA ABBA CDC CDC

     Because Italian is a language extremely rich in rhyming possibilities, this is not especially hard to achieve. You will note the repetition of common end sounds (especially in -a) that this allows here. English, on the other hand, is a very rhyme-poor language, and bringing the sonnet form into English was a constant challenge for the poets who took it up. Variant forms of the sonnet appeared almost immediately, but the best known was surely the Shakespearean sonnet, which has the scheme:

ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

     The difference in structure was also reflected in the content of the Shakespearean sonnet, which tends to "break" between the body and the last two lines, rather than between the octave and the sestet. Nevertheless, this was a long time in coming, and poets did not in fact abandon other options for some time.

     Following is a sonnet of Petrarch (#140) which found favor with two rough contemporaries during the reign of Henry VIII. I have placed alongside it my own literal but rather boring and unpoetic translation; the two translations follow. Both Wyatt and Surrey were courtiers of some prominence, and their fates illustrate the precariousness of life under Henry: of the two, Wyatt was constantly in trouble, and may have been implicated in the problems with Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn; Henry Howard, the son of the Duke of Norfolk who was Thomas More's erstwhile ally, was executed at a very young age mere days before Henry's death on a trumped-up charge of treason. Both were literary pioneers, and through their rough metrics here you can see signs of real genius poking through.

     Note here I would like you to really try to read these poems closely: spend some time with them; figure out which one you like best and why; explore the figures, the metaphor of love and the soldier; and consider how each word in each line leads (or does not lead) to the overall effect of the poem.

 Amor, che nel penser mio vive et regna
e 'l suo seggio maggior nel mio cor tene,
talor armato ne la fronte vene;
ivi si loca et ivi pon sua insegna.

Quella ch'amare e sofferir ne 'nsegna,
e vol che'l gran desio, l'accesa spene,
ragion, vergogna, e reverenza affrene,
di nostro ardir fra se stessa si sdegna.

Onde Amor paventoso fugge al core,
lasciando ogni sua impresa, et piange et trema;
ivi s'asconde et non appar piu fore.

Che poss'io far, temendo il mio signore,
se non star seco infin a l'ora estrema?
che bel fin fa chi ben amando more.
 Love, who lives and rules in my thought
and holds his chief seat in my heart,
sometimes armed comes into my face;
and there makes camp and places his banner.

She who teaches me to love and suffer,
and wants reason, shame, and respect restrain
my great desire and burning hope
takes offense inwardly at our ardor.

Therefore Love, fearful, flees to the heart,
abandoning it all, and cries and shakes;
he hides himself, and is seen abroad no more.

What can I do, when my master is afraid,
except stand with him to the bitter end?
He makes a fine end, who dies loving well!

     Compare this with these two: note the slight differences, and the assumptions each poet seems to bring to the poem. Which is most accurate? Which is most original? What is the implication of each? What is the result of each? Both of these men were very learned, masters of a number of languages, and are at the head of the modern English lyric traditions -- and yet they are very different. How do you account for these differences -- that is, what are they, and what do they mean?

 Sir Thomas Wyatt Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
The long love that in my thought doth harbor,
And in mine heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretense
And therein campeth, spreading his banner.
She that me learneth to love and suffer
And will that my trust and lust's negligence
Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence
With his hardiness taketh displeasure.

Wherewithal unto the heart's forest he fleeth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth, and not appeareth.
What may I do, when my master feareth,
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.
Love, that doth reign and live within my thought,
And built his seat within my captive breast,
Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought,
Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.
But she that taught me love and suffer pain,
My doubtful hope and eke my hot desire
With shamefast look to shadow and refrain,
Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.

And coward Love, then, to the heart apace
Taketh his flight, where he doth lurk and plain,
His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.
For my lord's guilt thus faultless bide I pain,
Yet from my lord shall not my foot remove:
Sweet is the death that taketh end by love.