Art Madsen, M.Ed.
The Fourteenth Century in Italy, in spite of the Black Death, was a period of expansive literary and artistic accomplishment. In fact, Italy surpassed, during what we now call the Italian Renaissance, France and Spain combined in overall creativity for this specific century. As most literati realize, Boccacio’s writing certainly graced this era, along with the fluid and musical verses of the somewhat less appreciated Petrarch, especially as reflected in his Canzoniere. However, there was more than just elegance, melancholy and musical charm in these Canzones.
It would be enlightening to examine, in two translations, Petrarch’s Canzone Number 267 to determine what balance there seems to be between selfishness and selflessness in his love for the Beatrice of Petrarch’s life, Laura. Beneath the amorous poetry that lulls the reader into an immediate acceptance of Petrarch’s adoration of Laura, both in this Canzone and throughout his entire compilation, there lies a certain self-centered undercurrent that disturbs the reader.
Examining the attached Kline translation of the lower half of Canzone 267, which is clearer in its phrasing than the older Musa rendering, the reader notes that Laura obviously means quite a bit to Petrarch. All other grief dwindles when he realizes that she is no longer there. But he seems to define his love of the deceased Laura in egotistical phrasing: “I burn for you, and I breathe for you.” In other words, to paraphrase his sentiments, “I limit my life, over which I have control, to my adoration of you, …for my own sake.” Petrarch’s “I/You” model is an interesting see-saw of love, wherein each end of the see-saw is dependent on the other. Yet, Petrarch seems to be the more dominant of the two partners, by virtue of his presence and her absence. Musa’s translation defuses this model, switching prepositions, tone and physical positioning of the two parties. … “in you I breathe” . Here, Laura almost becomes the body enveloping Petrarch. What a paradox for the reader who happens to glance at Kline and Musa together!
As we move deeper into this same stanza, using Kline, we see that Petrarch now, at last, selflessly admits that he belongs to her, on the surface, but is still defining himself (as the center of the pair) in terms of her (the subordinate party of the pair). And the final line of this stanza in Kline shows all of Petrarch’s (self-centered image) other grieving diminishing, because his grief over her alone is so great in her absence. He makes of Laura the center of his essence, turning the image toward his grief-stricken self. What does Musa do with this same phrasing at the end of this stanza? Musa removes an egocentric “I”, and prefers the simple phrase “deprived of you,…” But he then confirms that Petrarch experiences no other personal pain, except that related to Laura’s absence, revealing a certain selfishness in this translation as well.
In the last stanza of Canzone 267, a similar pattern emerges, with the Kline translation accentuating, on balance I feel, the self-centeredness of Petrarch and the Musa version diffusing the image of Petrarch’s words (he says “those words”, as opposed to Kline’s “my words”) spoken on the winds for a departed Laura. Once again, depending on the mood and tone created by the translator, the reader cannot be exactly sure of the degree of selfishness or selflessness of Petrarch in his love for Laura.
Kline and Musa Translations
Last Two Stanzas
It is fitting that I burn for you, and breathe for you,
since I am yours: and if I am parted from you,
I suffer less from all my other grief.
You filled me with hope and with desire,
when I departed, living, from the highest delight:
but the wind did not carry my words to you.
Translation, T. Kline, 2001.
it is for you I burn, in you I breathe
for I am yours alone; deprived of you,
I suffer less for all my other pains;
With hope you filled me once and with desire
The time I left that highest charm alive,
But all those words were scattered in the wind.
Translation, Mark Musa, 1985.
Petrarch Selections from the Canzoniere and Other Works,
Oxford World’s Classics, 1985, Reading, Berkshire, U.K.