We're sorry to do it to you, but we'll need to have this discussion in Italian. While some translations work hard to keep the rhyme scheme, alliteration, assonance, and internal rhymes intact, it's mostly impossible to do. A lot really does get lost in translation.
Petrarch is terribly sensitive to the way words sound (he did, after all, change his family name so that it would sound better). Let's start with a simple case of alliteration, right in the first line (where both "ch" and the "c" in "acque" are hard C's, but the one in "dolci" is not): "Chiare, fresche et dolci acque."
But wait—there's more. Petrarch really likes to pile on the echoing sounds once he gets going. Check out line 24 ( "could never in a more secluded port"): "non poria mai in più riposato porto." You might also notice the internal slant rhymes in that line, of which our poet was so fond: "non poria mai in più riposato porto."
There is another visually attractive instance of alliteration a few lines past this (8-10):
[...] leggiadra ricoverse
co l'angelico seno;
aere sacro, sereno
And then, we get the motherlode—a set of nine alliterations in the space of three lines, again with the hard C sound (where you see "ch," "c," and the beginning sound in "qu"):
ch'Amor quest'occhi lagrimado chiuda,
qualche grazia il meschino
corpo fra voi ricopra. (16-18)
You might also—if you're very clever—notice the near rhyme in line 18, where "corpo" and "ricopra" are mirrored sounds. There's more alliteration to be had in Canzone126, but you get the general idea. Petrarch is clever with those consonant repetitions.
But he's also really good with vowels. For the sake of all the other things you have to do today, we'll give you just one example of assonance and internal rhyme. It's a really good one, though, from line 3: "pose colei che sola a me par donna."
Where do we even begin with this gem? The first two words give us the first internal rhyme of the poem, and sets up an assonance focusing on the O sound ("pose colei che sola a me par donna") and one on the final "e" sound (pronounced like a long A in English). Whew.
Okay, one last important item you need: enjambed near rhymes (with an internal rhyme on the side). Yes. It's so exciting that we're going to block quote only two lines:
[…] torni la fera bella et mansueta,
et là v'ella mi scorse. (29-30)
You've got to look and listen pretty closely to see that enjambed near rhyme, but we think it's worth it. It certainly highlights the melodic nature of Petrarch's work. But don't take our word for it. Hop over to Peter Sadlon's website and listen to the mp3 of the ever-suave Moro Silo narrate the poem in its original glory.
When it's not simply referred to by its number, this poem takes the first line of verse as its title. Why? It wasn't part of the convention of the late fourteenth century to give short poems—or even in some cases, long ones—unique titles. This has partly to do with the reality of manuscript production: you wouldn't take up extra space on a page to place a unique title since it was expensive and time-consuming to procure the materials. Take a look at the manuscripts in the Petrarchive to see the set-up of the pages (and the lack of titles therein).
Canzone(or "Song") 126 is part of a larger work that has several names. Petrarch himself called it Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, or Fragments of Common Things. That "vulgar" bit in the Latin title isn't Petrarch being ridiculously humble. He's saying that the work is written in Italian, or the "vulgar tongue."
The work has also been called the Rime Sparse (Scattered Rhymes), which refers to a phrase in the first poem in the collection. And finally, the title Canzoniere (Book of Songs) has gained popularity in the last few decades. All options are equally correct, so find the one you like and stick to it.
Petrarch does not mention specifics concerning the "clear, fresh and sweet waters" he addresses in the poem. But you can bet that scholars have spent a long time debating just which watery body this might be. The consensus is that Laura must have been resting her lovely side near the Sorgue River near Vaucluse, in the south of France. Both Petrarch and Laura grew up in this place and Petrarch had a little home near the river itself there. It's easy to see why the natural setting would have brought the fresh and beautiful Laura immediately before Petrarch's eyes: the place is a little wild, very green and lovely—and divided by the fantastically beautiful river.
An utterly smitten Petrarch is the speaker in this poem (and the other 365 in the collection). Of course, it's never a great idea to assume that the poet is the same person as the speaker. And sure, you could spend a lot of time trying to keep Petrarch the historical figure-poet separate from the speaker of the poem here, but you probably have better things to do.
In this poem, Petrarch plays the role of the unlucky, overwhelmed lover. He's met the perfect girl, but it turns out that she's also perfect for someone else. It can never be. His admiration of Laura's perfections are overcome by the despair he feels at never being able to see her again. Petrarch finds relief in two things: reliving the past, when he could actually see her in the 'hood, and envisioning an early death that will bring him relief and make Laura finally see how great he was.
To be honest, he's kind of a mess. The shifts in time and the movement from memory (the past) to imagination (future) are the result of his manic emotions. It's all very adolescent, especially for an older guy who's a cleric. But our speaker teaches us one very important lesson in this work: love-longing doesn't fade with time.
Petrarch's poetry can require some serious slogging to get through—take Canzone 127, the next poem in the sequence, for instance. But this particular poem is more like a walk in the park (quite literally). Once you understand about the situation with Laura, you've got the key to the matter and substance of "Chiare, fresche e dolci acque."
The way Petrarch plays with time sequences can cause a bit of a kerfuffle (yes, we said it: kerfuffle), but if you're careful about the transitions from one stanza (or strophe) to the next, you should be good. So take a look at the beginning of second stanza and beware:
If it, indeed, must be my fate,
and Heaven works its ways,
that Love close up these eyes while they still weep,
let grace see my poor body
be buried there among you (14-18)
The poet has just moved from his reverie of Laura's gorgeous body in the previous stanza to this morbid little fantasy about his potential death from lovesickness. Fast forward to the last stanza, and Petrarch reaches back into the past before returning to the present moment. Keep your eyes peeled, watch for those verb tenses and transitions—then sit back and enjoy.
Aside from niceties of verse form (and the medieval Italian that it's written in), this is one sure-fire way to verify the parentage of Petrarch's poetry. He can never be separated from his beloved Laura—whether she likes it or not. Since that's the case, you can almost always tell you're looking at a piece of Petrarchan verse by lines like these:
How often I would say
at that time, full of awe:
"For certain she was born up there in Heaven!"
And her divine behavior,
her face and words and her sweet smile
so filled me with forgetfulness
and divided me
from the true image
that I would sigh and say:
"Just how and when did I come here?" (53-62)
Petrarch's eyes are full of Laura's beauty and consequently so are his mind and memory. His gaze extends to the places Laura occupied—the bankside, the church where they first met—so that Laura's body, though never immediately present to him in his later life, is always before his mind's eye. It's no wonder, then, that his ever-burning look is the thing to watch out for in this poetry.
You might have guessed by the name of this form that we're witnessing the very beginning of this special type of poetry in "Chiare, fresche et dolci acque." Petrarch is not really inventing anything new when he uses this form. Nope, he gets the idea from the Portuguese canso and the Provençal troubadours singing their chansons.
But, like any good innovator, Petrarch takes what he knows and riffs on it, altering things to suit his needs. The structure of this poem is pretty straightforward: we've got five strophes (i.e., stanzas) with 13 lines each, and a congedo (farewell) or envoi of three lines at the end.
Each stanza has an internal division into two parts: the fronte and sirma. The fronte, which is composed of two strophes, has a rhyme scheme of ABCABC (where each letter stands for that line's end rhyme). The sirma, which is the tail, usually has some variation of CDEEDFF.
Okay, don't panic! Examples? We've got plenty. Here's one, taken from the second stanza:
S' egli é pur mio destino,
e'l cielo in ciò s'adopra,
ch'Amor quest' occhi lagrimando chiuda,
qualche grazia il meschino
corpo fra voi ricopra
e torni l'alma al proprio albergo ignuda;
la morte fia men cruda
se questa spene porto
a quel dubbioso passo,
ché lo spirito lasso
non poria mai in più riposata porto
né in più tranquilla fossa
fuggir la carne travagliata et l'ossa. (14-26)
We know what you're thinking: "How did you come up with this, Petrarch? Oh yeah, and why, why, why?" Well, if you go back to those Provençal troubadours, you'll get your answer. Because this type of poem was meant for performance (to be sung), it had to be melodic in nature (it's a lyric,after all).
The change from fronte to sirma shows an evolution of the rhyme scheme: ABCABC gets left behind and the verse switches up to a more complex and (mostly) new set of rhymes (CDEEDFF). So the change up in the rhyme scheme allows for a progression of the melody of the poem. No one wants a song that never changes, right?
We know, we know: hendewho and settewhati? Stick with us, Shmoopers. All will be revealed. You see, Petrarch loved the poets of classical antiquity, so he used metrical patterns from Latin and Greek poetry (though he couldn't read Greek). Both Canzone126, and its partner poem Canzone125, have hendecasyllables and settenari (seven-syllable lines with two or three main stresses—and one of them always on the sixth syllable). To be precise, there are nine settenari (short lines) and four hendecasyllables (long lines) in each stanza.
Now, this all very well and good. But before you knock yourself out trying to count syllables in a foreign tongue, a word of caution: the lines can have a few extra syllables in them and still make it under the radar. It's easier to show than tell on this one. Take the sirma of stanza (or strophe) 2, with syllable counts in parentheses:
La morte fia men cruda (8)
se questa spene porto (7)
a quel dubbioso passo: (8)
ché lo spirito lasso (7)
non poria mai in più riposato porto (13)
né in più tranquilla fossa (8)
fuggir la carne travagliata et l'ossa. (12) (20-26)
There's not an 11-syllable line in sight here, and two of the 7-syllable lines are actually... carry the one… eight syllables. Don't sweat it. Focus on the pattern of stress. The long lines (i.e., the alleged 11-syllable lines) must have a stress on the tenth syllable. The short lines (i.e. the supposed 7-syllable lines) must have a stress on the sixth syllable. Note that they do, more or less.
It's crucial to hear the poem read aloud in order to catch these stresses and to hear the effect they have on the sound of the poem. Take a listen to Moro Silo narrating Petrarch's Canzone126 and ride the melodic waves of Petrarch's medieval Italian.
You've probably heard the phrase "in the blossom of youth" before. It makes sense to us because we've all seen the unblemished beauty of a newly-blossomed flower. Take a rose, for example. If you've ever touched the blossoming petals, you understand how soft and smooth they are—kind of like the face of a young person, before age moves in.
When we see the flowers in the first and fourth stanzas of this poem, we're definitely meant to make those associations with Laura, who is constantly surrounded and bejeweled with them. For Petrarch, she is forever young and beautiful, always blossoming like the flowers around her. It's a great way to be, if you can manage it.
We know that Petrarch's Laura is meant to be Laura de Noves, the very real wife of the Marquis de Sade (the ancestor of the infamous one), but she's also much more than that. In the Canzoniere, Laura is the epitome of all that is womanly, pure and beautiful. It's no wonder that so many people over the centuries have doubted her existence. Who could possibly live up to that ideal?
But Laura also embodies something much darker and more difficult for Petrarch. For him, she is discontent, frustrated sexual desire, constant yearning. In short, she is madness. While his love for her leads Petrarch to establish new forms of poetry and to create the most beautiful and ground-breaking verse the world had ever seen, it also led him to distrust his judgment and doubt his own talent (see Canzone125)—or even his ability to keep on living.
This doesn't stop Petrarch from crushing on her, though, especially because of her beauty. You may notice in this particular poem that we never really get a good glimpse of Laura, but we do see a whole lot of nature where her body should be. Sometimes it's even a little difficult to see where Laura ends and the natural world begins:
[…] kind branch on which it pleased her
(I sigh to think of it)
to make a column for her lovely side;
and grass and flowers which her gown,
richly flowing, covered
with its angelic folds (4-9)
So who's doing the beautifying here: the woman or the flowers and trees? It's quite hard to tell, and it doesn't get easier. By the time we get to stanza 4—where we see the shower o' flowers—Laura is basically nothing more than a bosom, a lap, and some curly blond hair. Petrarch leaves it to the natural world to work its magic on our imaginations.
In the end, Laura really becomes the natural world. If that sounds too bizarre for you, take a look at lines 64-65: "and since then I have loved/ this bank of grass and can find peace nowhere else." Since Petrarch can't have her body, he associates her with the places in nature where she once walked.
In stanza 2, Petrarch introduces the curious image of the "secluded port":
then death would be less harsh
if I could bear this hope
unto that fearful crossing,
because the weary soul
could never in a more secluded port,
in a more tranquil grave,
flee from my poor belabored flesh and bones. (20-26)
This is the moment when Petrarch fantasizes about his own death, hoping to leave his struggles against his passion for Laura behind him. The metaphor of the secluded port is mysterious, as it was likely meant to be. But to what does it refer? It's possible that line 24 is in an appositive—or parallel—construction to line that follows it and refers to the same thing: the grave. The idea of a grave being compared with a secluded port is intriguing.
Or it could be referring to something even cooler and creepier: Petrarch's body. Since we have a "weary soul" docked in the "secluded port," we've got the suggestion of a soul-body combo. The overall idea here for both lines 24 and 25 is that death couldn't possibly find a more willing victim. Petrarch conveys that with the image of the "tranquil grave" (i.e., the tenant of the grave won't be tormented by dying early). The "secluded port" as body would support this reading too, since Petrarch is divided from society by his lovesickness and very willing to give up his fight.
There may be intense desire and sexual longing at the back of these words, but you won't see anything explicit here. (Head on over to Ovid or Boccaccio if you're looking for something more titillating). We might say that Petrarch is being suggestive in places, like lines 43-46:
[there] were flowers in a rain upon her bosom,
and she was sitting there
humble in such glory,
now covered in a shower of love's blooms:
a flower falling on her lap
Or perhaps a flower is just a flower. Petrarch's gaze is also very intently focused on Laura's remembered body—and not just on her bright eyes and charmingly blonde curls. He focuses first on her "lovely body" (3) and her "lovely side" (7), both of which make the beleaguered poet sigh. All occurrences told, however, Canzone 126 is still far tamer than a Disney princess movie.