Robert Mueller and Petrarcan Mirrors

Petrarcan Naissance

by Robert Mueller

Here is a poem from the great sequence of poetry using the native Italian tongue, instead of being written in Latin, by Francesco Petrarca and covering much of a life lived during the 14th century. Readers will know him as Petrarch. The time he lived is important to the extent he is regarded as a proto-Renaissance-humanist and well ahead of his time. The later developments emphasizing human autonomy are already in evidence in Petrarca’s poetry, and it is intriguing how individual accomplishments may fit into the mold. The nature of what Petrarca titles the writing of fragments in and about the vernacular (rerum vulgarium fragmenta) may be understood as a writing that comes piecemeal. The scenes and the thoughts that bear upon them relate to an experience born of recurring possibilities that are not confined to a single shape and pattern. Here, then, is no. 46 of the sequence, a poem in the sonnet form:

L’oro et le perle e i fior vermigli e i bianchi
che ‘l verno devria far languidi et secchi
son per me acerbi et velenosi stecchi
ch’ io provo per lo petto et per li fianchi.

Però i dì miei fien lagrimosi et manchi,
ché gran duol rade volte aven che ‘nvecchi;
ma più ne colpo i micidiali specchi
che ‘n vagheggiar voi stessa avete stanchi.

Questi poser silenzio al signor mio
che per me vi pregava, ond’ ei si tacque
veggendo in voi finir vostro desio;

questi fuor fabbricati sopra l’acque
d’abisso et tinti ne l’eterno oblio
onde ‘l principio de mia morte nacque.

[from Robert M. Durling’s edition of the poems (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976)]

Golden beaming, pearls, and the white and the crimson flowers that are bound to dry out and become wilted in winter are for me the sharp and poisonous stabs that I feel in my breast and sides.

Therefore will my days be filled with constant tears and cut short, for it is a rare instance that heavy sorrow grows old; but I really blame the murderous mirror that you have worn out with your longings directed towards yourself.

This mirror put a clamp on my lord of love, who was pleading my case for you, so that he became silent seeing how your desire found its completion in you alone.

This mirror was crafted upon the waters of the abyss and painted in the colors of eternal oblivion from which arose the beginning and reality of my mortal state.

The reader notices first off the writer’s pursuit of the signs by which beauty and splendor are recognized. Flowers in variegated colors, i fior vermigli e i bianchi, form a natural mix with the introduction of a pearly and golden gleaming, l’oro et le perle. How these opening urgencies offer a blend of splendid effects is important. In the quartet’s forward motion, the elements that participate in beauty’s fashioning are not captured except as the extension of nature’s thematics. If winter’s prerogative (‘l verno devria far) is to dispel the glow of nature’s participants, it only serves to enrich their emotive modalities. The stings of the seasons on their disruptive course add to the blending of nature and affect that, privy to the terms of expression, instigates the sonnet’s coordination of value and feeling. As is often the case, Petrarca strives for ingenuity in bringing the point home, and so the quartet gathers its pulses by means of the pricks of dismay that pierce breast and flanks, per lo petto et per li fianchi.

With the second quartet, we move to the effectual agent of attraction. This actor’s impositions do not rate as tenor or vehicle amidst the composition of elements signifying splendor and beauty. Rather it is a secure meshing with the features of gold, pearls and flowers crimson and pale by which the specular gazing keeps its grip on the look of attraction. And thus it is a strange reserve and a strangely inhibited composure that the poet assembles as the redoubt of his passions. Even the homicidal mirror (i micidiali specchi), flush with an emotional directive to a woman caught observing herself, is made to fit. Strong language is this murderous charge. The drowning and dissolution radiating the scene (along with the hint of a senescent sorrow, gran duol rade volte [rarely] … ‘nvecchi) are an attempt to measure up to that forceful image. The weepy days, , of tears, lagrimosi, and loss of confidence, manchi, add an interlocking sense of agency and concern to the troubling aspects of a tenacious refusal. The woman’s constraint and disregard are not proof, however, of the progressive dissipation featured in strains of brightly dispatched woes as they mark their swift and sympathetic course. The feelings that are missing out, manchi, and the vibrancy that exhausts itself, stanchi, are called forth from within the mirror. In surveying his options, the poet does not so much frame a disconnect as undertake an ascent percolating in and through the violent perdurance that is the shaming of desire.

It is safe to say that at the volta, where the first eight lines are followed by six lines divided into tercets, the poem’s movement is quickened. The first of these two tercets narrates an immediate and discernible result. The mirror’s fruitless magic is such as to silence the love-making altogether. The lord of Love (signor mio) vacates his post; he simply stops in his tracks. It is as if a mutual preoccupation is taking place. The force of attraction takes its uninviting course; she is otherwise engaged, and all he can do is look on in shock: ond’ ei si tacque (Amor is tongue-tied) / veggendo in voi finir vostro desio (watching you fulfill your self-desires).

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