Thursday, March 4, 2021



from Canzoniere, Number 7

Gluttony, sleep, pillows of idleness,
have banished every virtue from the world
whereby our nature, conquered by its habits,
has almost lost its way along the road;

so spent is every good light from the heavens
which should inform our human life that he
is pointed out as some remarkable thing
who would make water flow from Helicon.

Who wishes for the laurel, or for myrtle!
"In poverty and naked goes Philosophy,"
the masses bent on making money say.

You will have few companions on that road,
so all the more I beg you, noble spirit,
do not abandon your magnanimous task.

-Petrarch, tr. Mark Musa

Petrarch to a friend thinking of abandoning the writing of poetry.

This edition is from University of Indiana Press, translated and annotated by Mark Musa, with an introduction by Musa and Barbara Manfredi. This edition a bit overdoes the notes, I feel, but still, perhaps useful: the friend to whom this poem is addressed would seem to be unknown. Helicon is the spring sacred to the Muses. 

I also am not sure what Warhol's Liz Taylor is doing on the cover.

My knowledge of Italian from the 1300s is strictly limited, but I do think magnanimous is probably not well-chosen, though it fits his blank verse scheme. The Italian is magnanima, it looks alike, but magnanimous has a very specific meaning in English these days. At the very least I think the force of the original Latin words in magnanima would be much more present for Petrarch's audience, more than we sense in magnanimous now. Think 'great-souled.'

The Italian, for whom it's useful:

La gola e 'l sonno et l'oziose piume
ànno del mondo ogni vertù sbandita
onde' è dal corso suo quasi smarrita
nostra natura vinta dal costume

et è si spento ogni benigno lume
del ciel per cui s'informa umana vita
che per cosa mirabile s'addita
chi vol far d'Elicona nascer fiume.

Qual vaghezza di lauro, qual di mirto?
"Povera et nuda vai, Filosofia,"
dice la turba al vil guadagno intesa.

Pochi compagni avrai per l'altra via:
tanto ti prego più, gentile spirto,
non lassar la magnanima tua impresa.


  1. I just picked up my Petrarch which I haven't even read yet. I should start thinking about it. Lovely excepts. I know my Italian acquaintance doesn't think much of Musa's The Divine Comedy translation so it doesn't surprise me another word might fit better. And I'm going to consult you on translation when I start reading Petrarch. 😉

    1. I plead incompetence right from the start! It's the only translation I have, and I'm only on page 10 or so.

      I do like that it's bilingual, though.

      A friend gave it to me when her mother died because she liked the thought that her mom's Italian books would go to somebody who might read them. I'm afraid this is the first one of those I've even started...


  2. Well... at this stage of my life I wish I'd been a bit more intent on il vil guadagno. I think you struck the right balance, or at least a righter one, wouldn't you say?

    1. I suppose it doesn't pay... to completely ignore il vil guadagno, and I guess I've done pretty well on the balance. Sometimes I think I could have cut loose even a little earlier, though.

      Hope you're keeping well! The, to me, incomprehensible Sanskrit letters suggested it might be you, but still I had to squint at the picture...

  3. Yes, I'm commenting on Blogger for the first time in many years, and this was the state I left my profile in. Maybe I'll change it. The picture is one of our best, but it's old, we're older. I have silently haunted your blog over the months, as your statistics may have told you. I read a few poems of Petrarch years ago, and found him more difficult than Dante, despite Petrarch's being younger, for historical-linguistic reasons I don't know: presumably Petrarch's Italian was geographically not in the direct line of descent from Dante's Tuscan. I was surprised by how easy this sonnet was, just now. (In my usual fanatical way, I avoided looking at the translation.) You're right about magnanimo. I actually tend to forget how restricted the word's sense has become in English: I most often hear it from my own mouth during my daily Sanskrit reading, as a translation of one of the few Sanskrit words that have become current in Western languages, mahatma, which also means precisely "great-souled".

    1. Interesting that you find Petrarch more difficult than Dante; this is the first time I've tried Petrarch in Italian, and I'm finding him easier than Dante. (The poem above does seem particularly straightforward--which may have contributed to my appreciation.) My Italian Dante has Italian notes, which keeps me honest, and this one's notes are in English (even if wildly overdone). I also try to look at the Italian first, but the English is on the facing page in this edition.

      I was thinking the difference was in the subject matter: Dante's full of Guelphs and Ghibellines & stuff I have to look up; Petrarch is love poetry. It may have helped I was just reading Propertius so that sort of imagery was all fresh in my head.

      Interesting about mahatma--I hadn't realized that was what the elements of that word boiled down to. I'm a little vague on how good Petrarch's Greek was, and even what things he had access to, but the idea of megalothumos (great-souled in Greek) is big in classical religious practice. The sort of epithet you apply to Heracles if you're interested in the idea of man becoming God.

    2. Oh, yes, I meant to say, I sometimes see there've been hits from India & I hope it's you--I'm glad you've been reading it at times & I'm glad you commented now.

      Of course, the counter says I've had a thousand hits from Sweden this last week. I assume that's some sort of bot. My all-time top referrer remains some sort of porn site. Naked Sophy with her finger up her whatever may have her computer looking at my blog, but I suspect she hasn't been reading it...

  4. That's a curious coincidence: just yesterday I finished reading William Styron's last novel for the fourth time, and am about to begin his first for the second time, and this time may complete it for the first. I was planning to begin rereading Set This House on Fire, which moved me, but the birth of the first novel of the autofictional Stingo plays such an important role in Sophie's Choice that it got me wanting to give it another try.

    1. I really should read Styron one of these days. I've read none of the major ones.

      I think I can safely say, though, that Sophy ≠ Sophie.

  5. I'm sure I remember Dante as easy because I too was always reading heavily annotated Italian editions, plus I approached him very early, immediately after I had learned the grammar of the modern language, plus, a few years before I learned Italian, I had gone through a period of obsession with him, reading every translation I could find (at a time when I didn't have access to a university library), so I knew his work well by the time I approached him in the origonal, whereas I never read Petrarch in English, and only read a few of his poems without notes.

    mahatma: mahaa, great, aatmaa, soul, a possessive compound, "having a great soul". It's so common as to be banal in the Mahabharata, so that my Cambridge Sanskrit prof (whose Penguin-published abridged translation I would regard as the best even if I didn't know him) translates it simply as "noble".

    1. If I'd thought about it I might have guess the aatmaa part. Noble probably would have better in the Petrarch, too, though it didn't have enough syllables.

      That's the John D. Smith translation? I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

  6. That's the one, yes. I would be surprised if it's not in the Toronto library system.