Petrarch, Rime 140:
Two Tudor translations


Bruce A. McMenomy

Amor, che nel penser mio vive e 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, e piange e trema;
ivi s’asconde e 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!

 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.

These frequently-anthologized poems by early masters of the English renaissance are both translations from Petrarch’s Italian. Accordingly they involve the same basic narrative content, the same central metaphor, and the same overall structure. They are built around the conceit of love as a warrior or knight, who, in the octave, makes bold to declare himself through a blush, and is promptly rebuked by the beloved; the sestet finds him running away to hide, leaving the poet to reflect on his plight as a faithful servant of a cowardly master. The image is one of Petrarch’s more engaging extended metaphors, with a quiet humor rooted in the self-effacing and self-defeating pretense of passing the buck. By attributing the offensive, cowardly, and ridiculous behavior to a third-party “love,” he appears to be distancing himself from an embarrassing situation. He can condescendingly paint this personified love as a blustery miles gloriosus one moment and a coward the next, while at the same time depicting himself as the constant but hapless servant, bound willy-nilly to attend a capricious master. All the while, of course, we see the machinery of the metaphor; we see the puppet-strings by which “love” moves; we understand the specious distinction on which the face-saving dodge is built; we are not taken in. Nor are we meant to be. In the process, we wind up laughing along with the poet. By letting us in on the joke, he turns it into an occasion for amusement and light reflection.

Petrarch has accomplished this multilayered sleight-of-hand by using a complex poetic structure that any translator will disregard to his cost. The first and second halves of the octave are connected by a remarkable responsion at every level: the two quatrains introduce the principal players — Love and the beloved — and provides them with some background before saying what they actually do. They are virtually identical in order of presentation: the subject is named, then expanded with a large relative clause that runs through the end of the second or third line, and finally the predicate is given efficiently and without fanfare. The result is a general sense of retardation or postponement of action, which answers both the narrative reality of the lover’s own reticence and the poetical-tactical problem of building up a conceit solid enough to support the lines that follow. Taken as a whole, the quatrains are an uphill movement toward the crisis of the poem, at which point the figure must be fully established, and capable of taking on a life of its own in a brief kinetic burst of three lines’ duration.

In the sestet we meet a cascade of verbs: its first three lines deliver a staccatto sequence of actions, decelerating from hurried movement to a static condition of hiddenness. The sestet is linked to the octave, too, by a deft internal correspondence: the first halves of each end with a line beginning with ivi (there), marking love’s arrival at a new place, to which the second half will be a reaction.

The final three lines are superficially reflective and withdrawn, even self-mocking: the poet stands apart from the event, analyzing it almost dispassionately, measuring its effect on him, and reaching a conclusion akin to resignation. The situation seems indeed hopeless, but not humorless: at the end the poet gives himself over, not to despair, but to something just short of a shrug and a wry grin, and a posturing reference to dying for his love. There is a potential for a certain amount of bittersweet self-deprecation here. It is not entirely disingenuous, but neither should it be taken at face value. The continuing charm of the poem depends on this equipoise.

All this can be found in Petrarch’s original, and it stiffens the poem’s superficial charms with a sense of purpose and internal cohesion. The translators, as well, have either captured or reinvented much of this structural byplay. Both poets follow Petrarch’s lead in positioning the relative clauses to delay the completion of the idea; both properly reach the crisis at the end of the octave, and change to a more hurried delivery for the sestet — though, as we shall see, to a different degree. Both step back in the final three lines, and assume a less hurried, more reflective and mock-philosophical tone. Wyatt even manages (though Surrey does not) to capture the correspondence between octave and sestet with a positional and semantic parallel to Petrarch’s ivi...ivi: “And therein campeth...and there him hideth”).

Nevertheless, not all the worth of these English versions is borrowed glory: both are achievements of considerable sophistication in their own right. By an accumulation of subtle variations, moreover, the two translators, constrained as they may be by their model, have taken their basic materials in different directions. The cumulative impact of their variations is striking — to the point that the careful reader will get a very different sense of the events behind the metaphor.

The first distinction has to do with the overall aspect of the narrative: is it describing a single critical event, or is it something that is repeated? Without explicitly saying so, Wyatt’s version casts the events to form a story of a particular and unique occurrence. By the mere addition of the word “oft”, on the other hand, Surrey compels us to assume instead that this is a scene played out repeatedly between him and the lady.

The presence of “oft” in the translation is itself problematic. Surrey has almost certainly placed it here to convey his (correct) understanding of the word talor in the original (cf. mod. It. talora, “sometimes.”) Wyatt may have misunderstood the word, however, to mean something much more like tale, “thus,” and so creates no aspectual change in the action.

Whatever its source, though, “oft” makes Surrey’s poem fundamentally simpler by force of reductive distillation of the events, a process that continues throughout. Such occurrences, we assume, have happened before; we may assume they will happen again. Surrey’s account becomes more commonplace, because we are told that it is commonplace; it becomes more simply amusing, because its repetition leads us to reason that the event has had, or will have, no enduring consequences. We may assume that these events have not materially affected the poet’s chances of winning the lady, or, in fact, that any real change has come about. Wyatt’s version has a sharper, more regretful tone about it, not unlike the wistfulness of “They Flee from Me” and “Whoso List to Hunt”: it becomes the confession of a transgression that may have cost him dearly, recalled (perhaps repeatedly) in a more penitent leisure. Wyatt’s technique is often to move from the general case to the particular, as in the particularizing lines of “They Flee from Me”: “Thankéd be fortune it hath been otherwise, Twenty times better; but once in special...”

The particularity of Wyatt’s account is also heightened by the fact that it is narratively progressive (as is Petrarch’s): the first quatrain shows a sequence of three separate actions — “into my face presseth”...”therein campeth”...”spreading his banner.” One action follows another: we become engaged with it and begin to follow the personified love as if he were a real character in a story. Though Surrey describes static conditions in more detail (detail that is unnecessary, however, from the viewpoint of translation) he reports only the one action: “in my face he doth his banner rest.” Compared with Wyatt’s sequence of blustery entry, confident encampment, and (finally) declaration of his presence, “he doth his banner rest” seems rather flat — even boring. Even the verb — “rest” — denotes the cessation of action rather than positive movement. For Surrey, this apparently does not matter: the placement of the banner — the blush itself — is the part of Petrarch’s narrative sequence that really counts. In terms of motivating the lady’s response this is undoubtedly true; the other actions are, to a greater or lesser extent, internal to the mind of the poet. In Surrey’s version, therefore, we are led to look less at the motivation and process of love; despite the stronger vocabulary of personification, (“Love” as opposed to “The long love”) he is less interesting as a character.

Prosodically, as well, Surrey’s highly predictable masculine rhyme-scheme and highly regular metrics enforce a sense of repose at the end of the quatrain, fully in keeping with the word “rest.” The vowel is more closed than those of “banner” that preceded it, but it is on the stressed syllable.

Wyatt’s rendition, on the other hand, embodies the idea of unfolding in several ways: the rhyme — a feminine rhyme that sounds both diffident and imprecise — opens from the center out (abba); rhythmically, the quatrain closes with a gallop much like the “Adonic section” that formed the end of Latin or Greek epic hexameters ( ¯ ˘ ˘ | ¯ × ). Even Wyatt’s vowels open out toward the end of the line: “and therein campeth, spreading his banner.” His hero is in position, and is declaring himself in the epic mode.

Wyatt’s meter has of course been somewhat less regular all along; and there is legitimately room to question whether his apparent genius for metrical irregularity is anything more than a happy combination of his own incompetence with the zeal of scholars to find someone new to dote upon. C. S. Lewis is reluctant to accord Wyatt the same standing that many other twentieth-century scholars have given him.

The question is, perhaps, one of intention, and thus more or less beyond appeal, since we cannot ask Wyatt questions. For our purposes, the question must be one of measurable success: and the number of times Wyatt has shown himself able to hit the target may bespeak either a profoundly developed instinct and uncanny luck, or critical acumen of an order Lewis claims is impossible. Whatever its cause, however, his sounds have a degree of correlation with his sense that cannot be dismissed as mere sloppiness, or the vagaries of a yet-imperfect verse form. It is not the mere fact that his rhythms are (in Hopkins’ terms) “sprung” that is interesting, but the fact that the spring is always — or nearly always — expressive. From the beginning of this poem, we see a remarkable metrical freedom, but it is used with confidence and control. The initial “long love” demands to be treated as two long syllables in a row, and thus both embodies its own terms metrically, and provides a weighty point from which to launch the verse. Viewed another way, it expresses the stasis from which the movement later proceeds.

A fairly natural reading of the first quatrain of Wyatt’s version will yield something like the following:

˘ ¯ ¯ ˘ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘
˘ ˘ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯
˘ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯     (or, though perhaps less likely: ˘ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ¯ ˘ )
˘ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘

Compare this with Surrey’s:

¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯
˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯
¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯
¯ ˘ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯ ˘ ¯

The latter supports very few metrical deviations from the rigid iambic pattern, and then only in the first foot of the line. The rest is virtually inexorable, and lacks Wyatt’s flexibility and freedom.

The second part of Wyatt’s first line begins an internal rhyme that hints at (but does not deliver) a rhetorical climax: that is, “heart” echoes “harbor” so closely that we expect to hear “and in my harbor...” The full sequence, of course, leads elsewhere, and expresses a fairly subtle relationship: love is native to the poet’s heart; thence it strikes out into the face (to which the thoughts are apparently adjacent) with more warlike urgency and, in the process, becomes an affront.

Even Petrarch, who has most of these elements in place — heart, thought, and face — does not dispose them in so linear a fashion, nor in such a dynamic relationship with the martial figure of love (though seggio maggior can probably be seen as the knight’s own castle).

Surrey’s rendition is almost entirely devoid of these overtones. Instead, he seems to be concentrating chiefly on visual imagery. “Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought” is apparently a reference to the redness of the blush, and it succeeds in conveying this notion, though the line seems unduly convoluted in its syntax, and certainly not clear enough to be strikingly visual. The third line seems more or less to be marking time, to await the arrival of a more propitious rhyming opportunity for “rest.”

In the second quatrain, both poets can be seen at their best. Surrey’s first line, “But she that taught me love and suffer pain,” is fraught with complexities. To the reader encountering the line for the first time, it is syntactically protean. Parts of speech change underfoot, even after the fact, and there is a lingering grammatical ambiguity of some significance. The first part offers few problems: “But she that taught me” is rigidly and unambiguously faithful to the Italian. With “love,” however, we enter a domain of shifting terms. At first blush (so to speak), “love” looks very much like a noun. “She that taught me love,” makes a certain amount of pedestrian grammatical sense. “And” does nothing to upset this. “Suffer,” however, is only a verb, and we are forced to construe it as equivalent to “to suffer”. Once we have done this, however, we are forced backwards through the line, to construe “love” the same way: it becomes a verb under the influence of the later parallel. These facts do remain stable once we have determined them. Not so the final word of the line, “pain.” It is obvious that “pain” is here the direct object of “suffer,” and though it does not correspond to anything in the Italian, it seems reasonable enough. It is, however, possible — but not necessary — to construe “pain” as the object of the double verb “love and suffer” — i.e., to suffer pain, but also to love it — at which point the line takes on a darker view of the soul behind it.

Through the rest of the quatrain, Surrey toys elaborately with the sounds and spellings of words, taking special delight in chiasmus, alliteration, and assonance. “My doubtful hope and eke my hot desire” itself offers a chiastic pattern of alliteration, “d...h...h...d,” pivoting on the (palindromic) word “eke” and with the word “my” repeated in each half. “With shamefast look to shadow and refrain,” offers alliteration in “sh” and some (probably coincidental) assonance in “shame”... “refrain”. In the last line of the group, the chiasmus of assonance, pivoting on the significant word “converteth” is too great to ignore: “smiling grace” - a stressed vowel pattern of “i...a” — turns “straight to ire” — ”a...i”. Surrey’s technical achievement here is undeniably adroit. It is harder to see, however, how these effects, as crafty as they are in themselves, actually serve the more organic purposes of the poem.

Wyatt’s verbal pyrotechnics are less lavish than Surrey’s, but his acoustical effect is remarkable both for its achievement and for the extent to which it serves the narrative goal of the poem. Perhaps the most obvious effect is the alliteration of “r” in “be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,” but it is in the area of vowel tonality that Wyatt achieves the most striking and relevant effects. Vowel tonality is not often examined in English poetry, but this is almost certainly an oversight in the case of certain Tudor and Elizabethan poets. The first two lines of this second quatrain are rich in low vowels, by assonance connecting “love” and “suffer” — more or less implicit in the Petrarchan exemplar — with each other, but also with the remarkable internally-rhymed “trust and lust’s negligence,” which, due to the collision of incompatible stops and liquids at word junctures, is almost impossible to say quickly or brightly. From this wallowing exposition of the lady’s desire for discretion and reserve, the tone rises sharply in the last two lines to encompass brighter, high front vowels, provoking on the tonal level the very climax that love’s “hardiness” has brought about.

Both poems have to this point been carefully hypotactic, with balanced rhetorical clauses waiting to be resolved by the addition of the main clause. At this point, however, Wyatt changes direction. When love begins to flee, its balanced classic composure begins to break down. The next three lines offer three separate clauses, all of them independent, and a participial expansion (”leaving his enterprise with pain and cry”) which, because it is not positioned in such a way as to anticipate any other element in its superordinate clause, acts much like another independent clause itself. The net effect of this sentence, gasped out in increasingly brief phrases, is to give the flight a breathless, urgent quality appropriate to its subject matter and altogether different from the periodic buildup that has come before. The feminine rhyme between “fleeth” and “appeareth” is so insubstantial as to seem virtually accidental: again, producing a jangled and unsettled effect.

Surrey’s treatment never achieves so pure a break between the octave and the sestet; and while the narrative tenor of this first triplet is definitely changed, it is not supported by as much poetical apparatus. The clausal construction is still primarily hypotactic, and its delivery more rhetorical than either Petrarch’s or Wyatt’s. The verb of the main clause is deferred until the second line, where it appears after several clarifying adverbial phrases. It may be possible to construe the last clause, “and dare not show his face,” either as genuinely independent or as one of two subordinate clauses depending on “where.” In either case, however, it presents a much more unruffled exterior: the approach seems far less anxious. This is, of course, probably consistent with the fact that this poem concentrates on a scene played out repeatedly in the relationship, whereas Wyatt’s (as has been observed) represents it as a one-time occurrence.

It is perhaps worth noting that Wyatt has here independently extended the metaphor of the soldier in the field by introducing the notion of the forest of the heart. The forest is not in Petrarch’s version, nor is it in Surrey’s, but the addition sustains and supports the imagery of the cringing soldier much more credibly than the more analytic approach given in the other two.

Surrey’s version is not without some inventiveness, though: in his hands, lasciando ogni sua impresa (rendered much more closely by “leaving all his enterprise”) becomes “his purpose lost.” The change further distances love from the responsibility for the action: it is not so much one of desertion (which is, I think, what Petrarch and Wyatt were both driving at) as of a loss of direction.

Such a weakened sense is problematic, in that it is at odds with the last three lines of the poem, which explicitly require the poet to have established love’s guilt. It is an exercise in rhetorical exculpation built on a presupposition of the guilt of another; but that presupposition has been only feebly advanced, and then mostly attenuated by excuse. The result is inevitably a little perplexing, and Surrey founders toward a conclusion that is all superficial wit without much substance. It is as if he has himself been affected by a loss of purpose.

There are, of course, finely turned bits of Tudor wit and polish. The repetition of “pain” at the end of line twelve nicely echoes the fifth; the balanced period moves imperturbably to line-end, where the syntactical sense is neatly closed as well. There is also a certain arch, almost automatic cleverness to be claimed for the use of the word “foot” in a poet’s references to his own work (a tradition that can be traced as least as far back as the beginning of Ovid’s Amores), but it is no more than conventional. It is available for the taking: Surrey conventionally harvests it and puts it in its conventional place.

The closing line is an aphoristic sententia — “Sweet is the death that taketh end by love.” It seems a clever attention that “love,” which is said to be the end, does in fact come at the end of the line and of the poem. The meaning of the phrase is a little harder to decrypt. It is unclear whether the difficult syntax of “death that taketh end” is merely slightly tortured for effect, or whether it is meant to support a further ambiguity on the order of “love and suffer pain.” What does it mean for death to take an end? It could mean for death to reach fulfillment — i.e., a fulsome rendition of “die.” It could also mean just the opposite; and in the context of Christian rhetoric going back at least to Paul, in which Christian redemption is represented as the death of death itself, one cannot help but be uncertain about this. But despite the internal balance of the period, and its accumulation of witty “features,” none of these things apparently supports an organic relationship to the rest of the poem. What is the point?

Wyatt’s phrasing is far less superficially clever, but it is immediate and engaging. It calls up the image of the exile army encamped in the field, the cameraderie of soldiers enduring harsh conditions beyond their control — faithfulness as we see it sketched in the remarkable nighttime dialogues of Shakespeare’s Henry V. As Surrey abstracts his poem into a kind of philosophical exercise that attempts to assign each modicum of blame fairly — an absurdity, given the overall thrust outlined above — he does little to convince us of either the strength or significance of his love, or of the importance of the narrative we have seen. Wyatt, on the other hand, has no need for such rationalization. Like Petrarch, he does not protest his innocence at all. Instead he closes with the particular instance and the concrete image, and lets them speak for themselves. In almost every case, this is the stuff of memorable poetry.

Whether this attests Wyatt’s genius or his good luck is probably immaterial. Perhaps it is more a matter of discipline than of either: because he has subordinated the cleverness of the parts to the purpose of the whole, his closing draws continuous and real organic growth from the metaphor he has set up earlier in the poem, and its expression of emotional content seems more genuine as well.

Work in progress: do not redistribute.
Copyright © 1997, 2007, Bruce A. McMenomy.