Robert Mueller and Petrarcan Mirrors

In the final tercet is where the quickening finds its pace as a quickening of life as life to death mirrored in death to life. The pleadings, special as ever, take an extravagant plunge towards the philosophical and theological currents of an amatory experience, plenty personal and not, as first imagined, grinding to a halt. She stands there stiff and still, but a pulsating plasticity (questi fuor fabbricati, by such means were mirrors crafted) pronounces a beginning, a principio that distinctly echoes the creation story from Genesis. Only here it is a stolen image, as self-absorbed as it can be to rob and destroy a life in the initial current of its fugal momentousness. The tightly guarded fulminations (che ‘n vagheggiar voi stessa avete stanchi, the cause of the introspective enchantment drained of its force and creating a dangerous immobility) occasion the real concerns tallied in the final tercet. The poet rides the wave of countering motility to stress his disapproval and yet make of her comeuppance (or that of the accursed mirror) a lesson in furtherance and dignity. Dealing with a crushing obstinacy, he somehow manages a new beginning as of a passage to death that is the lover’s realization and acceptance, onde ‘l principio de mia morte nacque. This contradictory outpouring befits a cosmology of gazing, as upon the waters of that other and divine beginning, in a standing still and a suspension whose only progress and choice are the writer’s true birth, nacque. A bold response reverses the lack of a response. It is not yet a Lucretian swerve, as in Stephen Greenblatt’s Italian annals (The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W. F. Norton & Company, 2011), but a breakthrough to the term and glory of life. It is not Venus’ misty emergence, but nevertheless a birth out of the waters over the face of the abyss that centralizes the powerful exactions of an emotive streaming and puts a writerly response in charge. Such are the complications and the reward not drowned in failure after all. Of such is that paradoxical descent into eternal awareness naming a life in forgetful dayspring, the eterno oblio that is its perimetal and final conviction.

A sense of being in exile helps Petrarca to emerge from the hierarchical worldview that precedes him. The critical dilemmas facing Petrarca’s literary pursuits proceed, in Benjamin Boysen’s terms, from a changed world that, having “portrayed itself through … systems typical of a metaphysical totality, now dissolves into an infinite diversity, leaving the question of the world’s surrounding order blowing in the wind” (“The Triumph of Exile: The Ruptures and Transformations of Exile in Petrarch,” Comparative Literature Studies 55, no. 3 (2018): 497). That being the case, it is fascinating to note how a sonnet that puts individual action, or inaction, so much in question arrives at an ontological realization (the principio or origin born of the knowledge of death, de mia morte nacque). Granted the infinite diversity of Petrarca’s writing, one somehow finds, as in a transcription of that diversity, a singularity in his depictions of a worldly soul in exile. In Boysen’s view, it is the strategy of exile that allows the poet the freedom to “rediscover the world and himself” (at 504). Surprisingly, that discovery may be present in the most turbulent of emotive contestations. Often enough there is no sense of connection, and for the suitor there can be much uncertainty. Yet here in sonnet 46 a solemn warning turns into a curious affirmation. The sonnet closes, however tempestuously, on a well-centered foundational track as the poet’s principio collapses into the re-soundings that are the picture of eternity and achieve integration into a world made new, if that can be believed.

True, Petrarca’s poem keeps to the tradition of the lover’s complaint. Thus his negative judgement upon the reflective mirror of a soul tarnished by eternal obscurity, tinti ne l’eterno oblio, illustrates his accommodation to the fact of exile. Yet the poet’s triumph need not be squared only with a distanced purview. It might also figure in an idea that in part catches Boysen as well (see at 505). It might also be the triumph of a flair for composition, and hence in pointing in so many instances towards a vital center while thrilling to the rush towards a limit and a willing embrace of what lies elsewhere.


Copyright© 2022, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.

Author’s Bio: Robert Mueller is the author of numerous essays on poetic topics. Sharon Dolin, Barbara Guest, Eleni Sikelianos, John Ashbery and Edmund Spenser are among the poets who are the focus of his studies over the years and in the course of obtaining a PhD in comparative literature from Brown University. A volume of literary and philosophical interests, Hereafter Knowing in Sonnets and Their Similars, is soon to appear from Lexington Books.

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