A love poem a day for the woman you adore – what can be more romantic? This was the gift of Italian writer Petrarca: 366 sonnets penned way back in the fourteenth century, later collected into the Rime in vita e morte di Madonna Laura – Petrarch’s Sonnets.
Francesco Petrarca was in a church when he first laid eyes on his muse, Laura. It was a moment that changed his life – and made literary history:
It was the day the sun’s ray had turned pale
with pity for the suffering of his Maker
when I was caught, and I put up no fight,
my lady, for your lovely eyes had bound me.
It seemed no time to be on guard against
Love’s blows; therefore, I went my way
secure and fearless-so, all my misfortunes
began in midst of universal woe.
Love found me all disarmed and found the way
was clear to reach my heart down through the eyes
which have become the halls and doors of tears.
It seems to me it did him little honour
to wound me with his arrow in my state
and to you, armed, not show his bow at all.
Petrarca channeled all of his feelings into a new poetry form: the sonnet, fourteen lines with a formal rhyme scheme. His writing laid the foundation for the modern Italian language and for the lyrical poetry that developed during the Renaissance, in particular what came to be called the Petrarchan sonnet.
What stands out most in Petrarca’s sonnets, for me, is the depth of the passion with which he writes. He loves Laura ardently – but she is out of reach. She belongs to another! (Historians believe she was Laura de Noves, the wife of Count Hugues de Sade.) Thus he pours out all of his unrequited love onto the paper as a means to cope. He later wrote: ‘I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair – my only one’. Only Laura’s premature death released him from the grip of emotion. In a letter he confessed that her passing was ‘bitter but salutary for me’; that it‘extinguished the cooling flames’. His heart had calmed, but his sonnets remained as testament to his love. And they are so beautiful!
Today, I’m sharing with you my favouritePetrarca poem; I find it so moving, so evocative (the man who thinks and weeps and writes!), so universal in its truth. If you’d like to read Petrarca’s sonnets for yourself, they are readily available online, or collated in a free ebook available on Amazon:
Love leads me on, from thought to thought,
from mountain to mountain, since every path blazed
proves opposed to the tranquil life.
If there is a stream or a fountain on a solitary slope,
if a shadowed valley lies between two hills,
the distressed soul calms itself there:
and, as Love invites it to,
now smiles, or weeps, or fears, or feels secure:
and my face that follows the soul where she leads
is turbid and then clear,
and remains only a short time in one mode:
so that a man expert in such a life would say
at the sight of me: ‘He is on fire, and uncertain of his state.’
I find some repose in high mountains
and in savage woods: each inhabited place
is the mortal enemy of my eyes.
At every step a new thought of my lady
is born, which often turns the suffering
I bear to joy, because of her:
and, as often as I wish
to alter my bitter and sweet life,
I say: ‘Perhaps Love is saving you
for a better time:
perhaps you are dear to another, hateful to yourself.’
And with this, sighing, I continue:
‘Now can this be true? And how? And when?’
Sometimes I stop where a high pine tree or a hill
provides shade, and on the first stone
I trace in my mind her lovely face.
When I come to myself, I find my chest
wet with pity: and then I say: ‘Ah, alas,
what are you come to, and what are you parted from!’
But as long as I can keep
my wandering mind fixed on that first thought,
and gaze at her, and forget myself,
I feel Love so close to me
that my soul is satisfied with its own error:
I see her in many places and so lovely,
that I ask no more than that my error last.
Many times I have seen here vividly
(now, who will believe me?) in clear water
and on green grass, and in a beech trunk,
and in a white cloud, so made that Leda
would surely have said her daughter was eclipsed,
like a star the sun obscures with its rays:
and the wilder the place I find
and the more deserted the shore,
the more beautifully my thoughts depict her.
Then when the truth dispels
that sweet error, I still sit there chilled,
the same, a dead stone on living stone,
in the shape of a man who thinks and weeps and writes.
I feel a sole intense desire draw me
where the shadow of no other mountain falls,
towards the highest and most helpful peak:
from there I begin to measure out my suffering
with my eyes, and, weeping, to release
the sorrowful cloud that condenses in my heart,
when I think and see,
what distance parts me from her lovely face,
which is always so near to me, and so far.
Then softly I weep to myself:
‘Alas, what do you know! Perhaps somewhere
now she is sighing for your absence.’
And the soul takes breath at this thought.
Song, beyond the mountain,
there where the sky is more serene and joyful,
you will see me once more by a running stream,
where the breeze is fragrant
with fresh and perfumed laurel.
There is my heart, and she who steals it from me:
here you can only see my ghost.