In poem 23, the sequence’s long middle poem, Petrarch fully recounts
his fall and its consequences. “While blaming sunlight that had
fled, / I gave my melancholy tears free rein / and let them fall
wherever they would run; / no snow has ever vanished in the sun
/ or felt like me as I slipped down a drain / and near a beech became
a fountainhead. / I kept pursuing where this wet trail led. / Who
ever heard of men becoming springs? / And yet I speak of clear
and famous things.” Metaphors and famous myths like those of men
becoming springs represent universal truths that are as clear as
Unlike Professor Maio, I do not think that Petrarch’s “deepest torments
are shockingly foreign and mysteriously antiquated.” Most of the
people I know have experienced some form of intense, and often prolonged,
unrequited love, be it romantic or parental. Many of us, Christian
or otherwise, have engaged in bitter dispute with God (by whatever
name) over issues that involve the core integrity of our being.
Certainly many poets have deeply felt the emotional frustration,
melancholy, confusion, and lack of control that stem from intense
grappling with life’s riddles.
Nor do I agree that “Laura is a poetic invention” or “the poems’
speaker an invention, a literary alter ego of Petrarch.” In an
academic atmosphere of nothing but text, it might be difficult to
believe that some people have genuine feelings that can be articulated
in poems. My stance is that the poet Petrarch is Petrarch the man,
and that Laura is no more an invention than any of us might be to
any other of us.
Petrarch’s poems of unrequited love are more than occasions to discuss
“all unrequited desires” or the allure of forbidden fruit. They
are testimonies to his actual experience in all its interconnected
dimensions, including physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual,
Laurette may have been impervious to Petrarch’s entreaties, but
the words of sonnet 1 to those of us able to hear not only communicate,
but enact in a real sense a communion. “I seek, from others tested
by love’s art, / both pity and their pardon for my crime.” His
art transcends time, cultural differences, and cynicism, touching
that universal realm that is profoundly human. His wish, expressed
in the 14th Century, is fulfilled whenever an empathetic
reader enters the reality of his poetic world — a complex paradox
Petrarch would no doubt have recognized.
Though any articulation is, of course, a representation, my experience
of these poems is that they convey the immediate, intense feeling
and thought of an authentic soul tormented by paradox, mystery,
and self-contradiction. I was thoroughly compelled, moved, and impressed.
For that experience I am indebted not only to Petrarch, but to Juster’s
wise selections and skillful poetics.
It may seem that I have spent more time talking about Petrarch’s
poetry than Juster’s translation of it. But this is a compliment.
It is perhaps the greatest irony of translation that the better
it is, the more directly it draws the reader’s attention away from
itself and into the original.
Longing for Laura is accessible enough to serve as an introduction
to Petrarch and complex enough to occupy aficionados. It will no
doubt prove to be an important contribution to the canon of translations.