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Canzone to the Virgin

by Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374)
Translated by Margaret Coats

Virgin beautiful, vested with the sun
And crowned with stars, who pleased the Sun supreme
So much that within you He hid his light,
Love spurs me to speak words in your esteem,
But only with your aid are they begun,
And with his warmth, whose love in you gleamed bright.
Her I invoke who kindly will requite
__All offering their prayers through her.
__Virgin, if human woe can stir
Your mercy by its misery outright,
Hear me, and in my favor intervene;
__Give succor to my warfare’s dearth,
Though I am earth, and you are heaven’s Queen.

Virgin wise, numbered in that fair choir
Of blessed virgins for their prudence known,
Indeed the first, who holds the brightest lamp,
O steady shield to peoples who lie prone
Beneath the blows of Death and Fortune dire,
Because of whom comes triumph to their camp,
O comforting refreshment cool and damp
__For fevers blind of mortal men;
__Virgin, whose beaming eyes have been
Appalled by nails that left their brutal stamp
In your dear Son’s sweet flesh despitefully,
__Turn now to see my doubtful state
Disconsolate, and sagely counsel me.

Virgin pure, in every way perfected,
Gentle mother and daughter of your Son,
You light this life, and that beyond adorn.
Of you the Father’s sole begotten One—
O window clear whence glory is reflected—
To save us at the time foretold was born.
One earthly dwelling place He could not scorn:
__The chosen maid whom He reveres;
__Virgin most blest, who turned Eve’s tears
To joy, and crushed the curse that made us mourn,
Make me—you who can—deserve his grace.
__Forever blessèd you are found
In heaven crowned, still pleading for our race.

Virgin holy, in grace most plenteous,
Who by the highest true humility
Mounted to heaven where my prayers you mark,
You brought to birth the Fount of piety,
The Sun of justice who illumines us,
Though we are wrapt in error thick and dark.
In you three dearest names trace their sweet arc:
__Those of daughter, mother, and spouse.
__Virgin whom heaven’s wealth endows,
Lady of the King, who from bondage stark
Has freed the world and brought it hope for bliss,
__In his grave wounds relieve my heart,
With all my art I beg, true Beatrice.

Virgin sole in the world, without a peer,
Who by your beauties’ bloom enamored Heaven,
On earthly pathways none like you has trod;
Chaste acts and pious thoughts are holy leaven
By which you raised virginity sincere
And fruitful as a living shrine to God.
My life can be true gladness, if you nod
__In favor to my prayer, O Mary,
__Virgin sweet and solitary.
Where sin abounded, shower grace abroad;
Bend my will toward good—my knees I bend.
__Deign to direct my wayward mind;
Guide me, refined, to a true-hearted end.

Virgin bright and infinitely stable,
Above this world’s tempestuous sea the star
Whom every faithful helmsman trusts as guide,
Look down and see how stormy winds unbar
Waves from the depth, driving me, unable
To steer, into huge whirlpools, terrified.
But ever on you has my soul relied:
__A sinner I am, I confess,
__Virgin, bring home the harborless.
Let not your enemy my fate deride;
Remember that to save us from our sin,
__God in your cloister took our flesh,
And through your fresh perfection is our kin.

Virgin, how many tears I now have shed,
Vain pleas and prayers sent forth in endless ranks,
Proud products of my pain and near damnation.
The day that I was born on Arno’s banks
Began the quest through which I have been led,
In a life of naught but futile tribulation.
Mortal beauty, works’ and words’ temptation,
__Pressed on my soul a grievous load;
__Virgin from whom my comfort flowed,
Hasten—this very year my life’s duration
May close. The days as swift as arrows fly,
__In misery and misdeeds spent,
But penitent I near the hour to die.

Virgin, she is earth who brought me gloom,
And while yet living kept me in sore grief.
My thousand ills she never could survey,
And had she known them, it is my belief,
All would have been the same, for to presume
Her changed is death to me—her fame’s decay.
Heaven’s Mistress, our Goddess if we may
__Address you so without offense,
__Virgin of pre-eminent sense,
You see all, and though others turn away,
It is nothing for your powerful dominion
__To bring an end to my long woe,
And I will owe to you renewed redemption.

Virgin in whom I place my every hope,
I know you can and will fulfill my need.
At life’s completion leave me not alone,
But think of God—my being He decreed.
Regard his image as you see me grope
Out of the vice for which I must atone.
Medusa and my guilt made me a stone
__Sweating with slimy humors vain;
__Virgin, turn sinful sloth to sane
And pious weeping, whence my fully grown
Devotion may flow forth in tears of sadness
__Unmixed with earthy soil accursed,
As in my first vow, voiced before my madness.

Virgin so human, enemy of pride,
With tender fondness for our common nature,
Have mercy on a humble heart contrite.
A bit of earth I formerly could venture
To love with faith profusely magnified;
What should I do for you, our kindred’s height?
If from this circumstance of pain and blight
__Your hands my spirit liberate,
__Virgin, I purge and consecrate
To you my thoughts, my wit, and all I write,
My tongue, my heart, my tears, my untold sighs;
__Disclose a lovelier abode,
And hear my mode of worthier replies.

The day approaches and cannot be far;
__Time runs, then flies as moments roll.
__Virgin unique and ever sole,
Now death, now conscience, with my poor heart spar.
Commend me to your Son as morrows cease,
__True man and God supremely true;
May He, for you, take back my breath in peace.

__

Translator’s note: This poem is the final one in Francesco Petrarca’s sequence of 366 lyrics concerned mainly with his love for Laura, a lady whom the poet celebrates as the embodiment of beauty and virtue. Laura also represents the glory of fame achieved by Petrarch through his writings. The poet made a careful arrangement of the sequence. As the many years of his life covered by it passed, he added poems, re-ordered them, and replaced some earlier ones with others, to create a work with the same number of lyrics as the number of days in a year, plus one. The final one is a figure of the passage of time into eternity. In it, the poet looks toward death with the repentance for love obsession and for vain pursuit of glory that is the principal theme of the sequence as a completed whole. He no longer vacillates between earthly temptations and heavenly attractions, but feels the trepidation of any man facing divine judgment and unsure of the outcome.

Although many kinds of Italian lyric have been called “canzone” (long song), the Petrarchan canzone is prominent among them for refined artistic expression. The poet creates a new shape for each canzone: number of stanzas per poem, number of lines per stanza, line length, and rhyme scheme contribute to the unique shape. Rhyme sounds change with each stanza, and normally no rhyme sound may be used more than once in the entire poem. The final shorter stanza is called a “commiato”; it follows the pattern of the other stanzas’ latter lines. Unlike the envoi of French lyrics, which addresses the poem’s recipient, the commiato usually addresses the canzone itself. In the Canzone to the Virgin, Petrarch does not address the canzone, thus showing that he, having renounced concern for fame, no longer cares about his poem’s reception in the world.

__

Italian original Canzoniere del Petrarca 366

Vergine bella, che di sol vestita,
coronata di stelle, al sommo Sole
piacesti sì che ’n te sua luce ascose:
amor mi spinge a dir di te parole,
ma non so ’ncominciar senza tu’ aita
et di colui ch’ amando in te si pose.
Invoco lei che ben sempre rispose
chi la chiamò con fede.
Vergine, s’ a mercede
miseria estrema de l’umane cose
giamai ti volse, al mio prego t’inchina,
soccorri a la mia guerra
ben ch’ i’ sia terra et tu del Ciel regina.

Vergine saggia et del bel numero una
de le beate vergini prudenti,
anzi la prima et con più chiara lampa,
o saldo scudo de le afflitte genti
contr’ a’ colpi di Morte et di Fortuna,
sotto ’l qual si triunfa, non pur scampa,
o refrigerio al cieco ardor ch’ avampa
qui fra i mortali sciocchi:
Vergine, que’ belli occhi
che vider tristi la spietata stampa
ne’ dolci membri del tuo caro figlio
volgi al mio dubio stato
che sconsigliato a te ven per consiglio.

Vergine pura, d’ogni parte intera,
del tuo parto gentil figliuola et madre,
ch’ allumi questa vita et l’altra adorni:
per te il tuo Figlio et quel del sommo Padre
(o fenestra del Ciel lucente altera)
venne a salvarne in su li estremi giorni,
et fra tutt’ i terreni altri soggiorni
sola tu fosti eletta.
Vergine benedetta
che ’l pianto d’Eva in allegrezza torni:
fammi, che puoi, de la sua grazia degno,
senza fine o beata,
già coronata nel superno regno.

Vergine santa, d’ogni grazia piena,
che per vera et altissima umiltate
salisti al ciel ond’ e’ miei preghi ascolti:
tu partoristi il Fonte di pietate
et di giustizia il Sol che rasserena
il secol pien d’errori oscuri et folti.
Tre dolci et cari nomi ài in te raccolti,
madre, figliuola et sposa,
Vergine gloriosa,
donna del Re che’ nostri lacci à sciolti
et fatto ’l mondo libero et felice,
ne le cui sante piaghe
prego ch’ appaghe il cor, vera beatrice.

Vergine sola al mondo, senza esempio,
che ’l Ciel di tue bellezze innamorasti,
cui né prima fu simil né seconda:
santi penseri, atti pietosi et casti
al vero Dio sacrato et vivo tempio
fecero in tua verginità feconda.
Per te po la mia vita esser ioconda
s’ a’ tuoi preghi, o Maria,
Vergine dolce et pia,
ove ’l fallo abondò la grazia abonda.
Con le ginocchia de la mente inchine
prego che sia mia scorta
et la mia torta via drizzi a buon fine.

Vergine chiara et stabile in eterno,
di questo tempestoso mare stella,
d’ogni fedel nocchier fidata guida:
pon mente in che terribile procella
i’ mi ritrovo sol, senza governo,
et ò già da vicin l’ultima strida.
Ma pur in te l’anima mia si fida,
peccatrice, i’ nol nego,
Vergine, ma ti prego
che ’l tuo nemico del mio mal non rida.
Ricorditi che fece il peccar nostro
prender Dio per scamparne
umana carne al tuo virginal chiostro.

Vergine, quante lagrime ò già sparte,
quante lusinghe et quanti preghi indarno,
pur per mia pena et per mio grave danno.
Da poi ch’ i’ nacqui in su la riva d’Arno,
cercando or questa et or quell’altra parte,
non è stata mia vita altro ch’ affanno:
mortal bellezza, atti et parole m’ànno
tutta ingombrata l’alma.
Vergine sacra et alma,
non tardar, ch’ i’ son forse a l’ultimo anno;
i dì miei più correnti che saetta
fra miserie et peccati
son sen’ andati et sol Morte n’aspetta.

Vergine, tale è terra et posto à in doglia
lo mio cor, che vivendo in pianto il tenne
et de mille miei mali un non sapea;
et per saperlo pur quel che n’avenne
fora avvenuto, ch’ ogni altra sua voglia
era a me morte et a lei fama rea.
Or tu, Donna del ciel, tu nostra Dea
(se dir lice et convensi),
Vergine d’alti sensi:
tu vedi il tutto, et quel che non potea
far altri è nulla a la tua gran vertute:
por fine al mio dolore
ch’ a te onore et a me fia salute.

Vergine in cui ò tutta mia speranza,
che possi et vogli al gran bisogno aitarme:
non mi lasciare in su l’estremo passo;
non guardar me, ma chi degnò crearme,
no ’l mio valor, ma l’alta sua sembianza
ch’ è in me ti mova a curar d’uom sì basso.
Medusa et l’error mio m’àn fatto un sasso
d’umor vano stillante.
Vergine, tu di sante
lagrime et pie adempi ’l meo cor lasso,
ch’ almen l’ultimo pianto sia devoto,
senza terrestro limo,
come fu ’l primo non d’insania voto.

Vergine umana et nemica d’orgoglio
del comune principio amor t’induca
miserere d’un cor contrito umile;
ché se poca mortal terra caduca
amar con si mirabil fede soglio,
che devrò far di te, cosa gentile?
Se dal mio stato assai misero et vile
per le tue man resurgo,
Vergine, i’ sacro et purgo
al tuo nome et pensieri e ’ngegno et stile,
la lingua e ’l cor, le lagrime e i sospiri.
Scorgimi al miglior guado
et prendi in grado i cangiati desiri.

Il dì s’appressa et non pote esser lunge,
sì corre il tempo et vola,
Vergine unica et sola,
e ’l cor or conscienzia or morte punge:
raccomandami al tuo Figliuol, verace
omo et verace Dio,
ch’ accolga ’l mio spirto ultimo in pace.

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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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20 Responses

  1. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, thank you for this most accomplished translation of a lengthy, heartfelt text with a decidedly demanding rhyme scheme. I wish I spoke Italian (let alone Medieval Italian!) to be able to comment intelligently on the translation itself. However, from my Latin I get a strong sense of the integrity of your translation. This is such beautiful poetry it makes me truly feel for Petrarch in a way that the other lyrics that I’ve read did not. At number 366 it would seem that he saved the best for last. I have one little question: Am I right to assume the poetic reference to “Beatrice” is a general reference of character (i.e. “one who brings joy “) rather than a reference to an actual person? (Dante’s beloved of course springs to mind.) I note that in the original Italian “beatrice” was in lower case.

    Either way this is splendid, meticulous and moving work. Well done, Margaret!

    Reply
  2. Margaret Coats

    Thank you, Brian. Yes, Petrarch saved the best for last, and this poem is to me the finest lyric ever written. I have spent years trying to make my translation nearly perfect. You are correct that the word “beatrice” means “one who blesses” and does not necessarily refer to a particular person. I capitalize it in translation because the root meaning does not stand out in English, and I do think Petrarch also had in mind Beatrice, the beloved of Dante. The two poets were 40 years apart in age, and Petrarch met Laura a few years after Dante died. That means the story of Dante’s Beatrice was well known to Petrarch and others of his time. By calling the Virgin Mary the “true Beatrice,” Petrarch is complimenting Dante for his achievements, including his love poetry and the role given Beatrice in The Divine Comedy. He also alludes to the final scene of Paradiso, where Dante comes as close as a living man can to the Beatific Vision, when Mary looks at him, and then turns away to look toward God. Dante sees something of God through her, which he cannot do otherwise, because Mary as mother of Christ is the mediatrix of all grace.

    Reply
  3. Shaun C. Duncan

    This is stunning, Margaret. Being hopelessly monolingual, I can’t really comment on the literal qualities of the translation, but successfully replicating the lyricism of Petrarch’s original language and the complex rhyme scheme in English is an incredible achievement in itself. Your translation reads as if it were an English-language original.

    Reply
  4. Margaret Coats

    Thank you for this great compliment, Shaun. I use iambic lines rather than Italian hendecasyllables to make the English sound natural, but otherwise I have tried to reproduce Petrarch’s consummate craftmanship. Notice that the rhyme scheme is abcbaccddcefe, which makes it look as if the “f” line is unrhymed–but it isn’t. There is an internal rhyme at precisely the same place in the last line of every stanza. This is a master technique used only in this canzone, not in any of the other 28 canzoni the poet wrote. A special gift for the Virgin!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Margaret, thank you for drawing attention to that penultimate “f” rhyme and the following internal rhyme. It is astonishing both in the original and in your translation and is something I would never have picked up on without your spotlighting it for us. “Master technique” indeed! Brava!

      Reply
  5. Cheryl Corey

    I may not know Italian, but after I read your translation and notes, I would say that what you’ve written is a “tour de force”. The time that you invested in this piece was well worth it.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for reading, Cheryl! As this is such a long poem, I really wanted it to be as smooth as possible for readers like you who are willing to take on the challenge of a masterpiece from another language.

      Reply
  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, I am humbled by your ability to translate with such attention to the fine details and love for the poem that you bring the beauty and splendor of the original to life for those who do not speak Italian. For that I am wholly grateful. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Susan, for making the effort to read and comment. I was just re-reading the Italian, and found Petrarch calling the Virgin, “gentle thing.” Wish I had managed to render that, but not every detail comes through. I am so glad you found beauty and splendor in what I was able to bring out.

      Reply
  7. Phyllis Schabow

    Margaret Coats could have written this poem, not just translated it. That is because she is committed – heart and soul – to the Woman of Genesis about whom this poem speaks so well. The word “choir” is in the opening lines of the poem. It is in a Latin choir that Margaret sings her love for the Blessed Mother of God the Son, and expresses through word and song, the love all saints must have for the person who is in the Heart of the Holy Trinity.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Phyllis, for your reading and comment, for the faithful help you give in our Saturday Latin choir, and for your own love of Our Lady expressed by personal example and in your work of distributing literary treasures.

      Reply
  8. Talbot

    Margaret, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you’re a wonder.

    “Above this world’s tempestuous sea the star
    Whom every faithful helmsman trusts as guide,
    Look down and see how stormy winds unbar . . .”

    (These are *particularly* good.)

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks as always, Talbot. It’s good to hear from you about this incomparable original. I myself really like the turbulent lines just following the ones you cite as “particularly good.” Or maybe the whole stanza. Appreciate your attention very much.

      Reply
  9. Loretta Garcia

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this exquisite tribute to our Blessed Mother in heaven.

    Amazing and quite beautiful, very impressive translation Dr. Coates!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Loretta. It is amazing how Petrarch with each stanza finds some new perfection of Our Lady to praise as he makes his prayer. You can probably follow some of the Italian, and I am pleased that you find my English beautiful as well.

      Reply
  10. Tom Rimer

    Margaret –reading and pondering the beauties of this translation gave me a sharp reminder of the possibilities, and the limitations, of translation. I found several other translations of this poem and compared them to yours, but there was no competition: reading yours is such a striking and moving experience in every regard.

    But then I began to read a bit of the poem in the original (knowing just a bit of Italian) and the richness of the sheer sounds themselves goes far beyond anything that can ever be captured in English, which, even at its most beautiful, lacks such opulence. This makes me reflect in turn on the translations of Japanese poetry I have published and how far they are from reflecting the musicality of that classical language. So I feel again only a sense of humility. But we must all keep trying.

    I discovered that Palestrina has set this text to music. Do you know this setting? I would like to find a CD of the music if I knew just to find it.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Tom, thank you very, very much. From a translator so experienced as yourself, your comment means a great deal. As you would probably agree, we translate best when we have lived with the original and discovered how much it has to offer. All the more true when dealing with a masterpiece of this order. The beauties we find inspire us to render the original as well as practically possible, so that readers unfamiliar with the original language can appreciate some of the thought and the artistry. For this particular poem, I think Petrarch found himself incapable of “translating” the celestial beauty of the Blessed Virgin–but he tried his very best, just as you say the rest of us must do.

      I had forgotten about Palestrina’s musical rendering, but you can find several recordings on YouTube by searching for “Vergine bella Palestrina.” As these are only a few minutes long, Palestrina may have done selected phrases, or the first stanza only, rather than the entire poem. Or if he set the whole, it may be on a CD by one or more of the groups who give a YouTube sample. Palestrina is such a master of fitting text to notes that I cannot imagine his being satisfied to repeat the first stanza arrangement for the other nine and a half stanzas! And I see that the earlier composer Guillaume Dufay also set “Vergine bella.” This gives me much to listen to!

      Reply
  11. Clare Tierney

    For a long, complicated poem this is easy to read. Your translation is successful. Very beautiful, and a sincere honor to Mary. Thanks

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Clare, for reading and letting me know how you liked it. I’m sure Petrarch himself would be satisfied with your comment, because Mary is the only one whose opinion he cared about when he wrote the original!

      Reply
  12. R M Moore

    Dear Margaret,
    My gratitude to you for your linguistic gifts. Well remembered are the years gone by when you impressed your many students with the study of Ecclesiastical Latin, never to be a dead language. Thank you.

    Reply

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