literary immortality July 6, 2012
I’ve been spending the last few days transcribing my copy of Susanna Dobson’s Life of Petrarch (1777) and as I plug away on the typing I am musing on immortality.
The other day I alluded to and listed Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” and as I read it, I am thinking of the comparison between Will’s unknown inspiration, and Petrarch’s Laure. Here’s that sonnet again:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The immortality happens in the closing couplet. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. “This” is, of course, Will’s poem. He claims that he has made his beloved immortal by describing her (or him) in this poem. The immortality has limited value, being as we have no idea of whom he was speaking, but the moment of loving adoration is captured for all time.
Petrarch is a little more specific. He names his love, and of course, the people of his time knew exactly who she was. He calls her Laure, and his poetry abounds with symbolism of the laurel. A crown of laurels was (and still is) a mark of distinction. Petrarch believes she is his crown and his success. History (particularly the Abbé de Sade in his Mémoires sur la vie de François Pétrarque, 1764) records her as Laure de Noves, wife of Hugues de Sade. (In English, we call her Laura).
Here is Petrarch’s Canzoniere 6 which shows a play on the laurel at the end:
Now so depraved is my poor fool, desire,
To persecute this lady, turned in flight,
Unloosed of Love’s entrapments, footing light,
Ahead of my slow run he flies. Prior
To my objections, by the roads most dire,
The more I call, the more he takes to flight;
Restraint is weak, nor has the spur its bite
When Love and nature in him do conspire.
And then he grasps the bridle to direct
The way, and takes me for a vassal, hastes
Post-haste, as though to death, my worsened state
To reach at last the laurel and collect
The bitter fruit of others’ plagues, the tastes
That grieve one more, unless they consolate.
(trans. “Hypocorism” on Yahoo Answers)
This poem is echoing the section that I’m transcribing at the moment. Laura is being stalked. Petrarch follows her about Avignon, gazing dreamily at her or trying to talk to her. She covers her face and takes off in the other direction. You can almost hear her running steps while Petrarch shouts rhyming verses extolling her beauty. It’s a wonder her hubby Hugues didn’t call him out and beat him to a pulp! (Now that’s an interesting scene, isn’t it? Hmm. Expect to see something along those lines).
The summary of this vague sort of comparison between Will and Francesco is that to truly be immortalized, the beloved needs a name, and a personality. Laure seems far more real than Will’s anonymous beloved. While Laure is busy running in the opposite direction, pulling her veil over her head, and trying to maintain her virtue against the onslaught of Petrarch’s devotion, Will’s beloved is a static object, simply receiving affection and adoration. There is no sense of individuality. Nonetheless, the love does become immortal because it is recorded. Words are powerful.
Here’s an afterword by poet Jacopo Sannazzaro (1458–1530). A hundred years earlier, Petrarch had lived at the spring that is the source of the Sorgue River, writing his canzonieres to Laura beneath the limestone cliffs that echo with the burbling of the river.
Sorgues, the River Laura de Sade
THE NYMPH by Sorga’s humble murmurings born,
Illustrious now on wings of glory soars;
Her high renown its awful echo pours
Wide o’er the earth. Splendors like these adorn
Her, destined, in her modest beauty’s morn, 5
To charm the eye of Petrarch. Her the doors
Of fame’s proud dome enshrine; the radiant stores
Of fancy blaze around her; nor does scorn
On her low birthplace and obscurer tomb
Glance a triumphant scowl. What suns illume 10
With lustre like the Muse? How many dames,
Wise, chaste, and lovely, of distinguished race,
Have slept in death forgotten, lost their names,
While hers from age to age beams with still heightened grace.
(Trans. Capel Lofft)
Indeed. The words craft immortality; the love brings fame.