Francesco Petrarca was a great scholar and writer who anticipated and helped to create the Renaissance humanist movement while also influencing such writers as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare. He most famous works are a series of poems depicting his love for a young woman named Laura whom he idealized and worshipped from afar. His many love poems are considered the very archetype of exalted romantic passion; though in later life he repented of having wasted much of his life in pursuit of a mere earthly woman. This poem is written in a particularly complex variation on a form called the sestina. Each stanza consists of six lines which end in a word which is repeated at the end of a line in all the other stanzas, but the words occur in a different order. After the sixth stanza occurs a seventh in which all six words are used in only three lines. It is most challenging to create a moving, passionate poem within such strict rules; but the insistent repetition of the final words suggests an obsession which never swerves from its object.
What qualities does Petrarch ascribe to Laura? Who is more vividly depicted in this poem, the lover or his beloved?
A young lady beneath a green laurel
I saw, whiter and colder than is a snow (1)
untouched by the sun for many, many years;
and her speech and her beauty and her face and all her hair
so pleased me that I carry her before my eyes
forever wherever I am, on hill or shore.
When my thoughts will come to rest on that shore
when the green leaves are no more on the laurel,
when I have quieted my heart, dried my eyes,
then you will see burning ice and snow; (2)
to await that day, I have fewer hairs
than I would be willing to spend in years.
But because time flies and fleeing go the years
and death suddenly casts one from shore,
crowned either with brown or with white hair, (3)
I will follow the shadow of that sweet laurel
through the burning sun or through the snow,
until the last day closes these eyes.
Never have there been seen such beautiful eyes,
in our times or in the first years,
dissolving, melting me as the sun does the snow,
from which flows so large a tear-filled shower
which Love floods at the foot of the hard laurel
with all its diamond branches and golden hair.
I fear I first will change this face and this hair (4)
before she will with pity raise her eyes,
she, my idol sculpted in living laurel,
for it is today now seven years
since I have gone sighing from shore to shore
both night and day, both in heat or in snow.
Within fire, though without white snow,
alone with these thoughts, with whitened hair,
weeping I go over every shore,
in order to make pity run in the eyes
of one who will be born in a thousand years, (5)
if so long can live a tended laurel.
The topaz sun all aureate (6) above the snow
is outshined still by the yellow hair near those eyes
which lead my years so rapidly to shore.
Translated by Richard Hooker
(1) These images refer to Laura’s “coldness” toward the poet, refusing to return his love.
(2) The laurel is an evergreen, and burning ice and snow are impossible; so Petrarch is saying he will never quiet his heart or dry his eyes: he will love her forever.
(3) Death can strike down young men as well as old ones.
(4) I will grow winkled and gray.
(5) Petrarch expects that people a thousand years from now will read this poem and sympathize with him.
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