Bruce's Reviews > Petrarch: The Canzoniere, or Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta

Petrarch by Francesco Petrarca
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's review
Sep 01, 2008

really liked it
Read in August, 2008

Today I finished reading Petrarch’s large collection of poems entitled, “Canzoniere,” consisting mostly of sonnets and including canzones, sestinas (among my favorites, the sestina being a verse form made up “of six stanzas of six lines, concluding with a three-line tornata that repeats all of the rhymes of the poem, each stanza using six different words in end-rhyme position repeated in a different end position in all six stanzas: abcdef/faebdc/cfdabe/ecbfad/deacfb/bdfeca” a form obviously having strict construction and a peculiar haunting effect – all this being far more than you probably wanted to know), and an occasional ballata. There is much that could be said about this work, and I am ill-equipped to make profound observations or comments, knowing little about the history or characteristics of Italian poetry at the time this was written, but it is at least clear to me that it can be appreciated at several levels, one level being the verse story of Petrarch’s unconsummated love for the unattainable Laura, his idol and ideal, a figure who seems to function much as did Beatrice for Dante although in an apparently more secular way, more as an unattainable muse than a spiritual guide, although Laura does take on some of those latter characteristics after her death. Another level seems to be the exploration of poetic forms themselves, the continual wrestling with the potentialities and limits of fixed forms throughout the entire 366 poem cycle. And there also appears to be a recognition and exploration of the fact that language itself is ultimately incapable of fully explaining and exploring the ineffable, the nature of Love itself, the nature indeed of poetry itself. And finally (probably not so finally, but at least a temporary “finally”), the cycle does trace a spiritual journey of the poet himself, although even that ends in a somewhat ambiguous way, providing the reader with the sense that there may be an element of wryness or “tongue-in-cheekness” remaining even then.

I had long wanted to read Petrarch but had been dissuaded by unenthusiastic reviews of various translations. Then I learned about this translation by Mark Musa, and I found it quite wonderful. The poetry reminds me much of Dante, which is probably not surprising since they both were Italian poets of about the same vintage, Petrarch following Dante by about a generation. I have never studied Italian as a language, but I found the Italian version of each poem on the facing page very helpful. Since Musa uses Petrarch’s meter but writes in unrhymed verse, one needs the rhyme scheme of the original for reference and appreciation. Indeed, I found that anyone knowing other Romance languages, Latin, and English can note many cognates and roughly translate the poems, anyway, particularly after 517 pages! And it is fun to read the Italian aloud even if one can’t truly translate it, the sonority being quite marvelous.

Musa provides a superb introduction in which he discusses Petrarch and his poetry, well worth spending time in reading before plunging into the poems themselves.

I thought this was a wonderful book and am so glad that I read it.

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