Given that Petrarch is second only to Shakespeare as the most widely
translated Renaissance writer, and that his Canzoniere contains
many of world’s greatest and most popular love poems, it might seem
redundant to add yet another translation to the stacks. But A.M.
Juster’s new translation is notable not only for its masterful handling
of the poetry but for his choice from the Canzoniere’s 366
poems of the 24 poems he has titled Longing for Laura.
Any translation, even prose, is difficult, because there is rarely
a true one-to-one correspondence between a word and its equivalent
in another language. Much is lost when the original language uses
allusion, pun, or any kind of verbal strategy that invests the word
with more than its literal value. Poetry is impossible to translate
in any absolute sense because of its heavy use of word play and
symbolism, its sculpted compression, and the musical textures used
to charge the sensuousness of its imagery.
Formal poetry is even more constrained, especially the sonnet, with
its strictures of 14 lines, iambic pentameter, and specific rhyme
scheme. Because of the limited number of rhymes in the Petrarchan
(Italian) sonnet, it is the most difficult of all forms to translate
into English. Add to that the need to update the vernacular and
idiom of one era into that of another and it is clear that any translator
of Petrarch is forced to make compromises.
The choices are to give as literal a translation as possible, without
regard to form, or to “write” a formal poem as close to the original
poem as possible. Juster has chosen the latter. As Professor Samuel
Maio assures us in the book’s introduction, Juster’s translations
of the sonnets (the predominant form in the Canzoniere and
in Longing for Laura) “remain true to the Italian
and true to Petrarch’s abbaabba rhyme scheme. Even more remarkable,
Juster does so in a modern idiom that preserves the integrity and
flavor of the Petrarchan original….Juster translates with a poet’s
ear for the sonic beauty of language.”
The reader of a translation must make compromises, too, but Juster
asks us to make very few, and all are justified. I would certainly
not complain, for example, that he compresses elements, or that
a phrase rendered closer to the original could end the first poem
with “what thrills us in the world is but a brief dream” instead
of Juster’s version, which ends, a bit less poetically, “what thrills
/ us in the world is but a dream that’s brief.” Translation that
remains this true to the sense while maintaining the iambic pentameter
and preserving the rhyme is a formidable task that when well accomplished
the reader could easily take for granted.
At least as important as Juster’s faithful translations of the individual
poems is his assemblage into this sequence, which creates a narrative
that cuts to the quick of Petrarch’s emotional and spiritual agony.
Central to the sequence’s tension is the unresolved mystery of paradox
and its metaphysical implications.
Love is the core paradox that binds the narrative together. The
youthful, proudly “virtuous” Petrarch suddenly finds himself stricken
with love or rather lust — for “Laura,” the beautiful, spiritual,
and married (and therefore unattainable) Laurette de Noves, whom
Petrarch first met in the Church of St. Clare in Avignon in 1327.
For over thirty years Petrarch suffered from his unrequited love
for her, for twenty years during her life, for ten years following
her death. In these poems he clearly recognizes that it is her
righteousness that has rejected him, yet he cannot, in his words,
help but feel that his songs (poems) of lust should humble her abrasive,
violent heart. She is his sweet yet bitter adversary whose gaze
has transfixed him, who has enchained his heart, whose light sears
and destroys him. Her rejection of him that keeps him innocent
is the source of his guilt. Through his prayers for her mercy he
has lost the light. Her hardness has turned him into living stone.
Spent by her whom he has never had, he is trapped between the living
and the dead. He cries for death and the “clearer sight of someone
better not to see.” He knows that in spite of all the power she
has over him, she is not really in control; she is a “phantom guide,”
whose brilliance gives his heart a “sharper view,” a clearer understanding
of the ways of the heart, even though his eyes are veiled with despair
so he is deprived of the light (either her, or the grace of freedom
from her) he pursues. Paradox breeding paradox gives birth to these
In poem 2, Love is identified as God, who punishes countless crimes
“with grace,” and at the same time is personified as Cupid (Eros),
who takes out his bow “like an assassin marking time and place.”
Agape and Eros collude as well as collide at the point where Petrarch
becomes helplessly obsessed with Laura. His fall is so immediate
that Love does not even have time to ready his weapons for battle.
Nor can Love free Petrarch from the “butchery” that his single arrow
has inflicted, nor help his victim find “higher ground,” the grace
from this brutal version of “grace.”
Even Love can’t solve Petrarch’s dilemma; his fate is sealed. Even
Love can’t rescue Petrarch from love; not even grace can rescue
him from the punishments of grace.