Poetic Obsession

PetrarchPoetry in translation. An oxymoron? Perhaps. At least to a certain extent. Without exception, something is lost along the way. And, this something, regardless of its significance, is irretrievable. For the way is dark, the prospect daunting.

Take Dante, for instance. Would you want to descend those swirling terza rima depths without your own personal Beatrice in hand? Such an enterprise takes uncommon dedication to get it somewhere in the vicinity of right. One cannot ever get it quite right.

In the case of Robert Pinsky, it took more hubris than anything. I remember him boasting to a packed auditorium of how he confided to his wife (his Beatrice) in bed one night that he could do it — Dante’s Inferno, that is. That he was ready for the challenge of rendering at least one-third of The Divine Comedy into rhyme-challenged English. And so he did, admirably enough, with brio and all that. But you see, that is how a poet hands another poet’s lines over to his own time, in his own language. A scholar, more academic than poet, might, on the other hand, leave a poem more faithfully realized, line by line, in another tongue.

But that leaves us with an argument over fidelity. Is meticulous, word-for-word accuracy necessarily the best tack? Or, is it better to err on the side of spiritual truth — getting the overall essence of the thing across the language barrier? Who can say? Perhaps the happiest translator is the one who cuts his or her losses and runs to the next project.

For David R. Slavitt, his new translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere follows closely on the heels of his interpretation of Dante’s La Vita Nuova, which, he, befittingly, gave new life. In La Vita Nuova, the young Dante pines for his beloved on the streets of Florence well before she leads him through the underworld. Alas, his longings are not reciprocated by Signorina Beatrice. Just as the truly epic love of lesser known Francesco Petrarca was never requited.

Petrarch (as he is known in English), first saw Laura de Noves on Good Friday, April the 6th, 1327. From that day until his death he wrote sonnet after sonnet in her honor. Much as Cezanne painted his favorite model, Mont Sainte-Victoire, over and over en plein air, Petrarch penned his anguished amore (for Laura was already betrothed to another) in countless fourteen-liners, laying his heart bare for posterity, which, in turn, has laid the laurel of esteem on his legacy. In so doing, he secured for his beloved a place on the mantel of great muses.

But if my rhymes have purpose, it is to make
your name live on among the wise and clever
eternally. My tributes are for this.

Thus concludes Sonnet 327 (out of a total of 365 — one for each day of the year), turned deftly in Slavitt’s contemporary English. Written in the wake of her death (which occurred twenty-one years to the day after his first encounter with her), this poem attests to Petrarch’s ever waxing devotion to Laura in death. Here are the last two stanzas of Sonnet 352:

You left that splendid body here in the earth
that cloaked it like a veil when you returned
to your Maker’s realm as your destiny.

Your departure occasioned a drastic dearth
of Love and Courtesy. The light that burned
in the sky dimmed to a dismal vacancy.

But let us return to the beginning of this seven hundred year old love story. In his early sonnets, Petrarch set the tenor for a lifetime of poetic obsession. I will leave you with the first stanza of his third sonnet.

It was on that day when the sun’s bright rays fade
in pity for its maker’s passion that I
was taken unprepared at the instant when my
eyes met yours and I was at once betrayed.



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