.

When softly my sustaining comfort stirs
Herself to offer solace coveted,
Advancing toward the left side of my bed
With that sweet courtly reasoning of hers,
In fearful homage all my being murmurs,
“O happy soul, from what sphere do you come?”
__A little frond of palm, and some
Fresh laurel she draws outward to be seen,
__Whispering, “From the pure serene
Far Heaven empyrean do I proceed,
To bring you consolation in your need.”

With humble words and gestures I express
My thanks, and wonder how she knows my plight.
“Your sighs and ceaseless weeping storm the height
Of Heaven, and render my peace there the less,”
She says. “Does it cause you such distress
That I have left this misery behind,
__The very best of bliss to find?
It should please you, if you love me so well
__As when you ventured to excel
All lovers with your tender, plaintive looks,
And poets who composed most ardent books.”

“I weep for nothing,” I respond, “except
Myself, here yet in shadows and in pain,
For you are Heaven’s prize, I ascertain,
As sure as if I saw you there upswept.
Why would Nature and God form you adept
Beyond your peers in virtue’s cultivation,
__Unless assuredly salvation
Were destined your reward for holy deeds?
__O rare soul whom the Spirit leads,
You are one who, with us, would live on high,
And when released, to Heaven at once could fly.”

“Do not,” I go on, “my restlessness impugn;
Sore solitude produces only weeping.
Would I had perished as an infant sleeping
New cradled, from Love’s bitter trials immune.”
“Tears,” she rejoins, “your melodies untune.
Much better had it been to raise your wings
__And rightly gaze at mortal things,
Including those sweet fallacies of yours,
__For if the love your verse outpours
For me be true, you should make good your vows,
And gather at least one of these fair boughs.”

“Tell me what leaves from those two twigs are sprung,”
I plead, “I weep because I yearn to ask.”
“Your pen,” she states, “ought to take up that task,
Since you to honor one so much have sung.
The palm is victory, for though still young,
Myself and the world I quelled; this labor’s laurel
__Marks my triumph earned by moral
Conduct, thanks to the Lord who gave me strength.
__If other leaders rule your length
Of years, turn now to make my Lord your friend,
That we may be together at your end.”

“Is this gold hair the knot that yet results
In my constraint? And are these eyes my sun?”
I cry, and she replies, “At last have done
With words like those of fools in erring cults.
I am an unclothed spirit who exults
In Heaven; what you seek has long been earth.
__But bringing you true balm of worth,
I stand here now as ever I shall be,
__More beautiful in charity,
No longer wild, kinder than you have known,
Safeguarding your salvation and my own.”

__I weep; she dries my tearful face
Gently with her hands, and sighs with great
__Affection, but then becomes irate
In speech that could break boulders by its arts,
And after, with my sleep, she departs.

.

Translator’s note:  Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374) carefully created a sequence of 366 poems, mostly sonnets, telling of his love for Laura, a Provençal lady.  The story and the poet’s work cover many years, from the day he met Laura in 1327, to long after her demise in the first wave of the Black Death (1348).  In poems before the pivotal event of the lady’s death, Petrarch as lover hears her voice only as enchanting music.  This poem near the very end of the collection is the only one in which a meaningful dialogue takes place.  In form, it is a canzone or “long song” with unique shape.  Petrarch’s work was the single most important influence on European love poetry for 300 years after his death.

__

Italian original Canzoniere del Petrarca 359

Quando il soave mio fido conforto
per dar riposo a la mia vita stanca
ponsi del letto in su la sponda manca
con quel suo dolce ragionare accorto,
tutto di pièta et di paura smorto
dico, “Onde vien tu ora, o felice alma?”
Un ramoscel di palma
et un di lauro trae del suo bel seno,
et dice, “Dal sereno
Ciel empireo et di quelle sante parti
mi mossi, et vengo sol per consolarti.”

In atto et in parole la ringrazio
umilemente, et poi demando, “Or donde
sai tu il mio stato?” Et ella, “Le triste onde
del pianto di che mai tu non se’ sazio,
coll’aura de’ sospir’, per tanto spazio
passano al Cielo et turban la mia pace.
Si forte ti dispiace
che di questa miseria sia partita
et giunta a miglior vita?
Che piacer ti devria, se tu m’amasti
quanto in sembianti et ne’ tuoi dir mostrasti.

Rispondo, “Io non piango altro che me stesso
che son rimaso in tenebre e ’n martire,
certo sempre del tuo al Ciel salire
come di cosa ch’ uom vede da presso.
Come Dio et Natura avrebben messo
in un cor giovenil tanta vertute,
se l’eterna salute
non fusse destinata al tuo ben fare?
O de l’anime rare
ch’ altamente vivesti qui tra noi
et che subito al Ciel volasti poi.”

“Ma io che debbo altro che pianger sempre
misero et sol, che senza te son nulla.
Ch’ or fuss’ io spento al latte et a la culla,
per non provar de l’amorose tempre.”
Et ella, “A che pur piangi et ti distempre?
Quanto era meglio alzar da terra l’ali,
et le cose mortali
et queste dolci tue fallaci ciance
librar con giusta lance,
et seguire me (s’ è ver che tanto m’ami),
cogliendo omai qualcun di questi rami.”

“I’ volea demandar,” respond’ io allora,
“che voglion importar quelle due frondi?”
Et ella, “Tu medesmo ti rispondi,
tu la cui penna tanto l’una onora.
Palma è vittoria, et io giovene ancora
vinsi il mondo et me stessa; il lauro segna
triunfo, ond’ io son degna
mercé di quel Signor che mi die’ forza.
Or tu, s’ altri ti sforza,
a lui ti svolgi, a lui chiedi soccorso
sí che siam seco al fine del tuo corso.”

“Son questi i capei biondi et l’aureo nodo,”
dich’ io, “ch’ ancor mi stringe, et quei belli occhi
che fur mio sol?” “Non errar con li sciocchi,
né parlar,” dice, “o creder a lor modo.
Spirito ignudo sono e ’n Ciel mi godo;
quel che tu cerchi è terra già molt’ anni.
Ma per trarti d’affanni
m’è dato a parer tale, et ancor quella
sarò più che mai bella,
a te più cara, sì selvaggia et pia,
salvando inseme tua salute et mia.”

I’ piango; et ella il volto
co le sue man m’asciuga, et poi sospira
dolcemente, et s’adira
con parole che i sassi romper ponno;
et dopo questo si parte ella e ’l sonno.

.

.

Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.  


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21 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    I don’t know.
    I only feel the love, enough to last 300 years.

    Reply
  2. Brian Yapko

    This is very beautiful, Margaret, and I so wish I knew some Italian so I could better comment on the quality of the translation. What I can clearly see is how difficult it must have been to maintain the sense of the original Petrarch and yet translate it into rhyming poetry — poetry that is, in fact, deeply moving and memorable. This is my first exposure to Petrarch and it’s one that touches me.

    Regarding the relationship between Petrarch and Laura, is this truly a dream? It almost seems as if Laura has already died and is coming to him as an angel (I assume that is what is meant by an “unclothed spirit”…?) Their spiritual versus material relationship reminds me of Dante and Beatrice. Is that off-base? I say that because their interchange seems less concerned with romantic love as it is fraught with tension between Petrarch’s earthly (sweet fallacies) values and Laura’s clearly superior values of heaven — moral conduct, self-mastery (the palm and laurel) and salvation.

    Thank you for this poetry which carries a depth which makes me want to read and re-read it.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      From Poem 267 on, Petrarch knows Laura is dead. Here at Poem 359, line 3 says he is in bed, and the final line says Laura and sleep depart together. That means the canzone describes a dream. Since Petrarch implies that he does not sleep any more afterward, he suggests that this is a God-given dream worthy of close attention. Dreams in earlier hours of the night can be attributed to digestion or to excited passions. But when bodily motions have calmed after several hours of sleep, that’s when meaningful dreams happen. Laura is not an angel, but a human soul now in heaven. In line 6, Petrarch addresses her as “happy soul,” and when she describes herself as an “unclothed spirit,” she means a human soul without the body which is its clothing. When she says it has been given her to appear (Italian rendered as “I stand here now”) “as ever I shall be,” she means God has granted her to look the way she will look forever, after she receives her earthly body glorified at the time of the general resurrection.

      The comparison with Dante and Beatrice is apt. In Dante’s poems-plus-prose sequence “La Vita Nuova,” the young poet is always overjoyed to receive a “salute” from Beatrice. That’s a greeting acknowledging him in a friendly way. But “salute” can mean health, safety, and salvation as well. “Beatrice” was the personal name of Dante’s beloved, but I’m sure you know the name also means “one who blesses.” Petrarch uses the name in Poem 366, his grand finale Canzone to the Blessed Virgin, where Laura fades into the background because Mary is the “vera beatrice” or “true Beatrice.” Dante’s Beatrice also gives way to Mary as Dante approaches the culmination of his Paradiso.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Thank you, Margaret, for your detailed reply and additional background. It is truly a beautiful translation of a deep poem.

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    A fantastically good translation, and a tour de force of Englishing, especially when one considers the complexity of the rhyme scheme.

    One small typo: in the last line of the original Italian, the word should be “questo,” not “questro.” –fixed Mike

    Reply
  4. From Green Mountain

    timely. i am trying to communicate to my wife that the way i feel about her is petrarch’s love.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks so much. Petrarch’s love was certainly an enduring love that saw everything good and beautiful in his beloved.

      Reply
  5. Paul Freeman

    It must have been so traumatic to lose your beloved to a sudden scourge like the Black Death. It’s equally remarkable he kept her memory fresh and alive so long afterwards.

    Thanks for the read, Margaret.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Paul. I think Petrarch would have said that Laura’s memory stayed fresh of its own power. At the end of the sequence, even as he is concerned with his own unreadiness for death, he says it would kill him to presume her different than his praises have made her, because that’s how she actually was. In other words, being faithful to reality is being faithful to Laura. And he says that, in the very context of turning to the Blessed Virgin Mary and asking her to prepare him (as only she can) for a happy death. Petrarch’s own story of a soul wasn’t well understood by Renaissance sonneteers who followed him en masse, but each of them in his own way glimpsed some of its attractions.

      Reply
  6. Julian D. Woodruff

    As far as I can tell, this is an adroit and sensitive translation, as you always seem to produce, Margaret.
    As an aside, I’d like to say that Petrarch’s poetry is the textual root of the Italian madrigal corpus of the Renaissance–another reason to render this genius thanks.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Julian. The Italian Renaissance musicians achieved a marvelous development, starting with Petrarch’s four brief song texts. I imagine later poets were quite pleased to write madrigals to be set by these composers. You may know better than I whether Italian composers sometimes turned poet to create words for their own music, as did some English madrigal composers.

      Reply
      • Julian D. Woodruff

        This is not a question I’ve considered, Margaret. It is conjectured that Gesualdo composed some of his madrigal texts (a prominent if not happy example).

  7. BdW

    as per Buceli da Werse:

    Of course, all translation is a double failure: first, failing its original, and second, by failing poetry, aurally, metrically, etc.; and yet Ms. Coats’ successes are sweet: first, she kept Petrarca’s canzone’s rhyme scheme, though replacing Italian unaccented syllables with English accents [It is Byron in “Don Juan” who wins the laurels here.]; second, she quietly draws from the English sonnet tradition, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, et al.; and third, but most importantly, she faces nonEnglish text, courageously. If, in time, her work in French and Italian poetry seeps into her poetry, English poetry will be better for it.

    Reply
  8. Margaret Coats

    Bruce, this IS my English poetry. I take your reference to my sweet successes as a compliment, and thank you very much for it! Of course no translator (even in prose with no constraints of poetic form) can ever fully render a poem into another language. To emphasize, the translator can never fully render even the meaning (much less the poem) into another language. I always look at my “translations” as new English poems, and the success I try to achieve is first to make them good English poems. I give the meaning and the form of the original as much as it is in my power to do so. Rhyme scheme and the proportions of line and stanza are what I do here. Meter is impossible. Not only is Italian meter syllabic and English meter accentual, but the way of counting syllables in Italian poetry allows for incredible variation in the number of syllables per line. The lines above are supposed to have eleven syllables each. But one of those lines has fifteen syllables as pronounced in modern speech, and seventeen if we count the number of vowels. Still, it fits Italian poetic convention as a hendecasyllabic line.

    We have had some good translations of Italian canzoni at SCP, that are nevertheless rough in English meter. I offered this one to Evan as a canzone in regular meter. Readers of English should find comfortable iambic pentameter in most of its lines, and iambic tetrameter in the cut lines. Good English meter is in fact the most difficult task in this poem.

    I have rendered nine Italian canzoni into English. With one, as an experiment, I used English hendecasyllablic lines. Check out my first stanza for Petrarch’s Poem 268, the canzone he writes shortly after learning of Laura’s death.

    What should I do? What counsel do you impart,
    Love, when it is time to die,
    And I delay much more than I could desire?
    My lady is dead, and took with her my heart.
    Soon to follow her on high,
    I must break with the guilt of many years’ fire,
    For no more can I aspire
    To see her here, and this waiting both annoys
    And ravages me, whose joys
    Since her departure have all turned to weeping;
    My life’s every sweetness was in her keeping.

    The English meter is rough. Some of the longer lines have five accents and some four. Some of the cut lines have four accents and some have three. English grammar and syntax are good (the thought is comprehensible), but the English music is faulty because it is made of regular numbers of syllables, which wrecks any possibility of a recognized pattern of English accents. Accentual meter best pleases readers of English, because it best conforms to their familiar language and to their literary tradition–including that of the sonnet writers you mention. With regard to concepts in love poetry, they draw from Petrarch, rather than Margaret Coats drawing from them to translate this Petrarchan poem!

    Reply
  9. BdW

    Italian, poetic, feminine endings remind me not only peripherally of Latin and Greek dactylic hexameter spondees, but even Geoffrey Chaucer’s lively iambic pentameter couplets, whose poetry, is an excellent example of English poetry permeated with French and Italian poetry, as I mentioned to M. P. Lauretta.

    I appreciate your embracing non-native linguistic text, as have so many writers since the Ancients, including the recent Italian PostModernist Roberto Calasso (1941-2021) in his prose. That is vital to any great literature.

    Here is a fun sketch, but of no import.

    Margaret Coats
    by Buceli da Werse
    “Who is the other who walks beside you?”
    —B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    She was alone, but felt someone was following afar;
    but when she turned around, saw only unpaved road—no car.
    One time there was a tiny swirl of dust, no more than that,
    but it was golden in the evening, near the grape-vined plat.

    She wondered at an apparition, felt, but not there seen,
    at Le Barroux, the Benedictine Abbey in Provence,
    some twenty years ago, those days long passed into the past,
    but lasting still—indulgences, in sweet remembrances.

    She realized just recently that she could speak with him,
    great laureate Petrarca, in ballata, on a whim,
    once walking quietly on monastery property,
    where monks asleep, prepared for their psalm-chanting properly.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      You have my delighted gratitude for this fun sketch in your characteristic lines. I hope I may copy it into my archives to accompany my “Meeting Petrarch” poem. You capture much background information that I revealed in SCP comments, and although I have this as a reminder to myself in prose notes, it is a pleasure to have it in poetic form.

      Of course I agree that it is good for a poet, and beneficial for the literary tradition of a language, to have an acquaintance with poetry in other languages. In fact, the multilingual Petrarchan tradition has passed down one particular kind of love lyric, that I call the lyric of cultural transfer, as something every love poet can domesticate in his own work. It acknowledges influence, but with a certain pride draws love into his own cultural milieu by means of his own verse. This is the sestet of Petrarch’s Canzoniere 146, as translated into English prose by Robert Durling. Addressing Laura (and remember, she’s Provencal, not Italian), he says:

      with your name, if my rhymes were understood so far away, I would fill Thule and Bactria, the Don and the Nile, Atlas, Olympus, and Calpe. Since I cannot bear it to all four parts of the world, the lovely country shall hear it that the Apennines divide, and the sea and the Alps surround.

      For an example in English, there’s Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 8, perhaps of interest to you as a sonnet in hexameter.

      Reply
  10. Tom Rimer

    I remain in awe of Margaret’s ability to recreate in English the complexities, both in terms of content and style, of a poem such as this. As I wrote to her separately, I seem to be an outlier here, but in the end I still find (with my modern sensibility, I guess) the powerful sentiments that lie within the poem are too often caught up in what seem to be to be verbal gymnastics indulged in for their own sake. But I am well aware that this is a minority opinion. The translation itself couldn’t be better or more evocative.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Tom, Petrarch does do verbal gymnastics in the way that Augustine does. He carried a pocket copy of Augustine, by the way. Augustine’s Latin and Petrarch’s Italian are sometimes arranged in an artistic manner that they doubtless considered beautiful, although it slows down reading comprehension. By this I mean they do something crazy like lay out words of a sentence in symmetrical groups of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, with no regard for the reading order of an ordinary sentence. Maybe they planned to cause the reader to think more carefully, if he had to puzzle out the sentence into normal usage, word by word. Somewhat fewer gymnastic feats in this poem, because of the dialogue, but they belong to Petrarchan style.

      Beyond word artistry, the lover’s introspection had recently become a standard part of love poetry. No one does it more thoroughly than Petrarch. As we see in this poem, he delves into the effects of love on his eternal salvation. He is brutally honest with himself about his defects, much more so than any of the English Petrarchans. When this becomes a part of English poetic tradition, the poets almost all split love and religion into separate sets of poems. Thus you and I are unused to hearing this kind of discourse from poets. You all the less, as your academic specialty is Japanese literature.

      And here you’re dealing with a canzone, a long work intended to deal extensively with the aspect of love under consideration. What’s under consideration in this poem is the stunning impact of a dream that seems real. Petrarch recognizes Laura right away, but over and over he has to renew the recognition, and struggle to comprehend what she says. It’s almost as if she were the writer of his difficult sentences, and makes him puzzle them out.

      I am very glad you brought up your difficulties with this poem. I’m sure others have thought similar things and not stayed around to comment. As you say, and I know, modern sensibilities of English speakers are not attuned to this kind of work. And personal taste has something to do with it. I much appreciate the friendship that overcame all that enough for you to read and comment!

      Reply
  11. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, your skillful and breathtaking translation of ‘Petrarch’s Canzone on a Dream of Laura’ is exquisite. I love the form, I love the content, and I am in awe of your abilities to bring this priceless poetic gift to those of us who don’t speak Italian. Dr. Coats, you have my fullest admiration and appreciation. It’s access to poems like these that inspire and delight. Thank you very much!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Susan, as we can all imagine, there is much wonderful poetry in other languages, to which few of us have access. I am so glad, therefore, that SCP places a high value on translation and encourages it. This poem is indeed a splendid lyric by one of the world’s great master poets, and I’m happy I was able to do it justice in your opinion. Thanks!

      Reply

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