Petrarch Laura Francesco Petrarch and Laura For a woman he would never know
For a woman he could never have
He should change the world forever
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I go thinking:
I'vo pensando and
Petrarch's paths of desire

Analysis of canzone 264 from Canzoniere.

by Holly Barbaccia

In his canzone 264 ("I'vo pensando"), which consists of seven eighteen-line stanzas and a 10-line envoy, Petrarch articulates his competing desires for spiritual immortality, literary fame, and erotic fulfillment as an internal dialogue. He writes his inner conflict as a kind of contrasto among three of his own "voices," and the debate resolves with Petrarch in a state of metaphysical paralysis, unable to end his inner deliberation and change the course of his pursuit. The canzone (a kind of incipit to the second, in morte section of the Rime Sparse) epitomizes the concept of interior delay, which seems on the surface to derail the progress of desire towards its goal, but which Petrarch reveals as an unavoidable consequence of uncontrollable, unfulfillable longing.

In the opening stanza, Petrarch describes thought as a kind of movement or journey ("I'vo pensando" ["I go thinking"]; emphasis mine) (1), yet his thought process only leads Petrarch around in circles. At the same time, this internal, circular repetition contrasts the inevitable teleological movement of external time, for Petrarch sees "giorno il fin più presso" ("every day the end coming near") in verse 5, and to a certain extent, he clearly longs for some kind of end. Indeed, he explains: ". . . mille fiate ò chieste a Dio quell'ale / co le quai del mortale / carcer nostr'intelletto a Ciel si leva" ("a thousand times I have asked God for those wings with which our intellect raises itself from this mortal prison to Heaven") (6). Petrarch's desire for ale in this stanza resonates with Boethius' Consolatio Philosophiae: in Book IV, Lady Philosophy tells Boethius that she can "fasten wings to [his] mind by which it could lift itself into heaven" (IV.1). Petrarch's analogous longing for wings with which to leave the mortale carcer of his body recalls Boethius' conceit, and indicates a simultaneously philosophical and suicidal desire for transcendence, for mobility, for escape. However, in the next ten lines of the first stanza, Petrarch describes himself as "ché chi possendo star cadde tra via" ("one who has fallen along the way") (12). Unable to get up off the "terra" (5), Petrarch remains literally grounded in the mortal world, incapable of righting himself to continue along his via ("way," but perhaps with the aural pun on vita, "life"). Though he expresses a trust in the "pietose braccia" ("merciful arms") (14) of Christ, which he sees before him in his mind's eye, he fears because "ch'altri me sprona et son forse a l'estremo" ("another spurs me and I am perhaps at the end") (18). This other, of course, is Amor, who figures in the Canzoniere as a concurrently external and internal force. Here, Petrarch imagines his own erotic desire for Laura as "other" than himself (ch'altri), and here, as always, Amor (and, implicitly, Laura, Amor's agent) wears the sprona. Ultimately, Petrarch does not so much fear reaching the "end" of his mortal days as he fears reaching the wrong end, forced off the straight path by his merciless desire for Laura. The third stanza begins the real inner debate, as "L'un penser parla co la mente" ("One thought speaks to my mind") (19). This personified, vocalized thought criticizes Petrarch's hopeless, constant yearning for ("agogni") Laura in verse 20, and again emphasizes the need for Petrarch to act quickly in reconfiguring his desire, for time presses on towards the end ("il tempo passa" in verse 22). This voice urges Petrarch to give up on the pleasures of the mortale carcer: "Prendi partito accortamente, prendi, / et del cor tuo divelli ogni radice / del piacer che felice / nol po mai fare et respirar nol lassa" ("Decide wisely, decide, and from your heart pluck up every root of the pleasure that can never make one happy and does not let one breathe") (23-26). Here, the canzone's own form emblematizes the brevity of earthly joy, as "del piacer che felice" gets the shortest line in verse 25. Felicity and pleasure are fleeting, the voice tells Petrarch, and it attempts to restore to him a sense of his own agency: "Mentre che 'l corpo è vivo, / ai tu 'l freno in bailia de' penser tuoi" ("As long as your body is alive, you have in your keeping the rein of your thoughts") (32-33). The voice drives Petrarch to take up the reins of his own desires, to control his own journey, "ché dubbioso è 'l tardar . . . e 'l cominciar non fia per tempo omai" ("for delay is perilous . . . and to begin now will not be early") (35-36). Durling's translation of dubbioso as "perilous" perhaps does not quite account for Petrarch's equation of tardiness with doubtfulness (a spiritual sin), but in the Italian, the transgressive nature of Petrarch's delay -- it keeps him from following the right path, and by logical extension, puts him on the wrong path -- reveals itself.

The near-suicidal impulse of the first stanza turns quasi-homicidal in stanza three, as Petrarch's internal voice wishes Laura had never been born (40). Yet the voice acknowledges the impossibility of erasing Laura from Petrarch's heart, where her eyes have burned her own image there. The voice calls the flame of erotic desire "fallace" ("deceiving") (45), and calls it good luck that Laura never allowed that "giorno" (46) of erotic consummation to occur. Part of Petrarch rejoices in the perpetually asymptotic nature of his sexual desire for Laura, for if his journey towards her had actually led to the day of fulfillment, his "salute" ("salvation," but also overall spiritual health) (47) would be compromised. Finally fully revealing its own purpose in speaking, the voice instructs Petrarch: "or ti solleva a piu beata spene / mirando 'l ciel che ti si volve intorno / immortal et adorno" ("now raise yourself to a more blessed hope by gazing at the heavens that revolve around you, immortal and adorned") (48-50). Powerfully deconstructing the Dantean universe of the Vita Nuova and the Commedia, Petrarch's Laura and his notion of an "immortal et adorno . . . ciel" must exist as separate entities here: at once, Petrarch recalls Dante's conflation of divine and earthly love in the phrase "beata spene" (which resonates, of course, with Beatrice's name), and insists upon redefining them as mutually exclusive in the context of his own poem's metaphysics. The voice, now revealed as the desire for spiritual immortality, presses Petrarch to seek the greater joys of Christian salvation (figured perhaps as philosophical transcendence, but identifiable nonetheless).

However, another voice responds to this first one, and it looks at first very much like erotic desire. "Un pensier dolce et agro" ("a sweet sharp thought") (55) speaks, and it "preme 'l cor di desio, di speme il pasce" ("oppresses [Petrarch's] heart with desire and feeds it with hope") (58-59). Yet this voice reveals a different kind of "desio" than the reader might expect -- it wants "fama gloriosa et alma" ("kindly glorious fame") (60) for Petrarch; in other words, it wants the laurel, not Laura. Later in the stanza, this second thought configures literary immortality as stable: "ond' io, perché pavento / adunar sempre quell ch' un'ora sgombre, / vorre 'l ver abgracciar, lassando l'ombre" ("therefore, since I fear to be always gathering what one hour will scatter, I wish to embrace the truth, to abandon shadows") (70-72). The scattered (or freed) elements in verse 71 refer simultaneously to Petrarch's desires, to his rhymes, and to Laura (whose slippery self evades his best attempts to assemble her via blazon). But in the process of writing even scattered verses, Petrarch finds a way to hold truth -- the neo-Platonic notion here of abandoning the fleeting shadows of the mortal world for the insubstantial yet infinitely more real truth behind it recalls the Boethian impulse of the first stanza, but ties it explicitly to literary immortality here.

Finally, the "altro voler" (an internalized expression of the external Amor) dominates these first two voices: again, Petrarch figures erotic desire as other, and indeed links it with the self-destructive project of "scrivendo d'altrui" ("writing about another") (73, 76). Though he recognizes the truth, Petrarch has no control over his own direction: ". . .anzi mi sforza Amore / che la strada d'onore / mai nol lassa seguir chi troppo il crede" ("rather Love forces me, who never lets anyone who too much believes him follow the path of honor") (92-93). Again, Love distracts Petrarch from the right road with his reins; he paralyzes Petrarch's "barchetta" (82) with his knots. Yet even the clear knowledge that the "crede" he offers Amor directly contradicts the faith he should reserve for God cannot rein in Petrarch's scattered desire:

Ché mortal cosa amar con tanta fede
quanto a Dio sol per debit convenci
più si disdice a chi più pregio brama.
Et questo ad alta voce anco richiama
la ragione sviata dietro ai sensi;
ma perch' ell' oda et pensi
tornare, il mal costume oltre la spigne
et agli occhi depigne
quella che sol per farmi morir nacque,
perch' a me troppo et a se stessa piacque.

[For the more one desires honor, the more one is forbidden to love a mortal thing with the faith that belongs to God alone. And this with a loud voice calls back my reason, which wanders after my senses; but although it hears and thinks to come back, its bad habit drives it further and depicts for my eyes her who was born to make me die, since she pleased me and herself too much.]

Again recalling Dante's successful conflation of earthly and divine love through Beatrice, Petrarch makes it clear that his desire for Laura does not lead him towards heavenly love, but towards his own death.

The last stanzas return to a meditation on the end of Petrarch's days: in verse 115, he sees his hair changing ("ma variarsi il pelo / veggio") to white as he ages. External time speeds towards its telos, while Petrarch's internal universe remains in an eternal temporal loop: "che co la Morte a lato / cerco del viver mio novo consiglio, / et veggio 'l meglio et al peggior m'appiglio" ("for with Death at my side I seek new counsel for my life, and I see the better but I lay hold on the worse") (134-136). Desire for Laura unambiguously becomes the peggior for Petrarch. The canzone ends with him "pur deliberando" ("still deliberating") (130), winding away and wasting the days of his life in loving a mortal cosa. The last verse of the canzone is heavy on same-sounding rhyme words (veggio, meglio, peggior, m'appiglio), suggesting finally that best and worst, seeing and seizing, have become nearly indistinguishable in Petrarch's confused, divided, and scattered interior. Delay overshadows the possibility of action, and Petrarch ends the canzone in a state of psychological and metaphysical paralysis, the hoped-for transcendent wings mutated back into a pair of mortal hands, grasping still at Laura.

All quotations from R. Durling's edition of the Rime Sparse

© Copyright 1999-2006
Peter Sadlon
Updated Sept 10th 2007

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