Chiare Fresche et Dolci Acque Summary
A heart-sick Petrarch revisits a spot by the river where his beloved Laura once lounged, looking fetching among the flowers that fall from the trees. His memories give him pleasure, but they also highlight the fact that he can never have her—and it throws him into despair. Petrarch finds relief in imagining an early death, which will help him out in two ways: 1) He won't have to suffer lovesickness anymore, and 2) Laura might finally realize her feelings for him, and cry over his loss.
But memory intrudes and he's back on the grassy riverside, hopelessly remembering Laura's divine beauty. In the end, Petrarch is a mess. He can't find comfort in anything but revisiting the places where she's been and reliving old encounters.
Clear, cool, sweet running waters,
where she, for me the only
woman, would rest her lovely body;
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;
sacred air serene
where Love with those fair eyes opened my heart:
listen all of you together
to these my mournful, my last words.
- You should know something about Petrarch's emotional baggage before reading the Canzoniere. First and foremost, there's Laura, his main squeeze. Petrarch saw her for the first time when she was 17 and could never get her off his mind. But he could also never have her—she was married to someone else and then died while still young. So this explains the longing we see in the first stanza for "she alone who seems lady to me" and all the sorrow and sighing that ensues.
- Some people have said that Laura didn't really exist—that "she" was really the personification of poetry (symbolized by the laurel). But Petrarch did write his songs for a particular Laura. And a heart-crushed Petrarch had this to say to a friend who suggested that his lady-love was a figment of poetic imagination: "I wish indeed that you were joking about this particular subject, and that she indeed had been a fiction and not a madness."
- In this first stanza (Petrarch uses a Greek type of meter, so the Greek term for stanza, "strophe," is technically the more correct term), it's not clear if the poet is revisiting a place and moment in his memory or if he's really walking around the place. At this point, the narrative situation is this: Petrarch revisits the place on the riverbank (probably the Sorgue in southern France) where he once admired his lady-love. Here, he is assailed by former visions, thoughts, and just a ton of… well, feelings.
- But things don't get painful straight off. As you can see from the first line—"Clear, fresh, and sweet running waters"—Petrarch can still admire the natural beauty in the landscape. He praises the brook near which Laura rested her gorgeous body on a spring day. The freshness of the landscape and the charming flowers emphasize his beloved's youth and innocence. There may be some sighing, but that could mean anything at this point.
- (Maybe the dude had to climb a hill to get there and now he's out of breath.)
- He uses spiritual language in lines 9 and 10 to describe Laura's beauty and purity ("angelic breast") and to explain what she does to the world around her ("sacred bright air"). This language also reinforces the idyllic nature of the place: it's like heaven on earth for peace and visual delight. The grass and flowers take on special beauty—though covered up—because they've come into contact with Laura's clothing. In Petrarch's memory, Laura is saint-like and the epitome of female beauty.
- And that's where all happiness ends: right there, in line 12. That's really too bad, since Love personified had just turned up in line 11 to open his eyes to Laura's perfections. The last two lines of this stanza are a direct address to his audience to hang tight—the bad stuff is coming.
- Metrically speaking, stanza 1 is a happening place. Check out "Form and Meter" to see how Petrarch works some serious assonance in the "vulgar tongue."
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
and let my soul return to its home naked;
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.
- After that dreamy first stanza, you may be a little lost in the first few lines of stanza 2. You may ask yourself, "What happened to all those flowers and the gorgeous girl?" Yeah, that's over now. Stanza 2 is all about Petrarch's morbid fantasy to escape his suffering and possibly—in the future—make some posthumous inroads with Laura.
- The speaker begins by toying with the idea of an early death. Would it be so bad? Not really, if we are to believe the implication in line 3, that personified Love might "close up these eyes while they still weep," and thereby put an end to his suffering. Yes, it would be sad and he doesn't directly wish for this to happen (note the passive-aggressive "If it, indeed, must be my fate/ and Heaven works its ways"). But just in case it does, Petrarch has a fully formed plan in his mind:
1) Get buried in this wonderful place;
2) Be allowed to keep his love memories as he goes into the light; and
3) Let his weary spirit flee from his weak body ("belabored flesh").
- Then, well… death would be pretty okay. Yes, Petrarch is being dramatic, but aside from any real depression he might have felt over Laura, he's also participating in the cultural and poetic conventions of "fin'amor"—something he picked up from the Provençal troubadours that he so admired. In these conventions, lovesickness is a real thing and it could actually sicken and kill you. We may not have any sympathy with this now, but take a look at Shakespeare's sonnets, Sir Philip Sidney, or Geoffrey Chaucer and you will see the tradition alive and well.
- If you're going to get into the spirit of the poem, you've got to develop some sympathy with Petrarch—even if you think he's a bit silly. To help you along, take a look at lines 23-26:
because the weary soul
could never in a more secluded port,
in a more tranquil grave,
flee from my poor belabored flesh and bones.
- Petrarch may not go seeking death at his own hand, but he's so plagued by this frustrated love that his soul will slip away quietly, without any struggle on his part. The metaphorical description of his grave as a "secluded port" and as "tranquil" highlight the fact that his death would not be unwelcomed, nor would it be mourned—at least by him.
- Stanza 2 is the best example of Petrarch's use of settenari (don't freak out, it's a just a seven-syllable line with two or three stresses) in the poem. The accent pattern itself is pronounced in this stanza, quite strong and easy to hear when you listen to it in the original Italian. The strength of the metrical stresses matches the power of Petrarch's emotions here. Lines 19-20 illustrate this well: "la morte fia men cruda/se questa spene porto" ("then death would be less harsh/if I could bear this hope").
- For a more comprehensive discussion of this metrical patterning, check out the "Form and Meter" section.
And there will come a time, perhaps,
that to the well-known place
the lovely animal returns, and tamed,
and there where she first saw me
that day which is now blessed,
she turns her eyes with hope and happiness
in search of me, and—ah, the pity—
to see me there as dust
among the stones, Love will
inspire her and she will sigh
so sweetly she will win for me some mercy
and force open the heavens
drying her eyes there with her lovely veil.
- If you've had the luck to hear The Police's 1978 hit "Can't Stand Losing You," you'll be familiar with the lines "You'll be sorry when I'm dead/ And all this guilt will be on your head." While Petrarch isn't a teenager committing suicide over his lady-love, he's already figured that the best way into his girl's emotional life is to kick the bucket early. Stanza 3 is the continuation of that fantasy, with an extra bit of wish fulfillment on the side.
- Petrarch alludes to a time in the future ("And there will come a time, perhaps") when, inspired by the god of Love himself, Laura will have a change of heart about him (how many love songs have been written about this?). But when she reaches for him? Well, baby, he just won't be there—literally. It doesn't matter that her animal nature has been tamed to his will. She will find only "dust/ among the stones" and will be left with nothing but tears.
- But it will be a double-win for Petrarch, because those tears will not only vindicate his love-sickness, but also act as prayers for his soul ("she will sigh [...] and force open the heavens"). It's really the best possible outcome for a star-crossed love like his.
- It's interesting to note that, in this fantasy, Laura would return to seek him at the church of St. Claire ("there where she first saw me") and not to the lovely spot by the riverside that opens the poem. In this, Petrarch really shows his cleverness and flair for the dramatic. If she had simply walked up to the river and not found him, she'd be like, "Oh, Petey's not at home today."
- But that's not how Petrarch arranges things. In his fantasy, he sends her to the church in search of him so that she will encounter his grave ("see me there as dust/ among the stones"). That's the ultimate guilt trip.
- On the technical side, we'd like to mention an interesting translation choice made in line 3. It is translated here by Mark Musa as "the lovely animal returns, and tamed." The line in Italian reads "torni la fera bella et mansueta" and is translated by Robert M. Durling as "the lovely, gentle wild one will return." Musa's translation of the word "fera" as "animal" may seem weird, but there are moments in the Canzoniere when Petrarch assigns Laura's role to an animal (like a deer). Either translation is fair—which one would you go with?
- There are also some complicated internal rhyme situations in stanza 3, so make sure you check out the section on "Form and Meter" to stay in the know.
Falling from gracious boughs,
I sweetly call to mind,
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,
some fell on her blond curls,
like pearls set into gold,
they seemed to me that day;
some fell to rest on ground, some on the water,
and some in lovelike wandering
were circling down and saying, "Here Love reigns."
- After embracing the idea of his own death, Petrarch pulls a 180 and resumes his besotted admiration of Laura.
- Once again, we're on the banks of the river watching the flower petals fall and bedeck her gorgeous chest and her, erm, lap. Naturally, she has blonde curls.
- Petrarch has a habit of staring at Laura a lot, and giving us little tidbits of descriptions of her. You may have noticed this. But he doesn't really give a comprehensive look at her face or body. He observes her walk, manner, hair color, her smile, her robe—but it's not exactly a portrait. When Petrarch does this—and compares her traits through metaphor or simile—he's creating a blason (a literary device that Petrarch's Canzoniere makes popular).
- So in stanza 4, we get a partial blason that invites us to join in Petrarch's admiration. The flowers land on her breasts, as though beauty attracts beauty. Laura's "blond curls" are also ornamented by the wayward flowers, so that the whole effect is "like pearls set in gold" (48). We can't really know what she looks like, but we know she looks good to Petrarch. In the final line, he tells us that Laura belongs to the court of King Love (i.e., she was made to play the game of love).
- Stanza 4 is quiet and regular, poetically speaking. There are no fireworks here. That's not surprising, though, since Petrarch has fallen back into his reverie on the beautiful Laura.
How often would I 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?"
thinking I was in Heaven, not where I was;
and since then I have loved
this bank of grass and find peace nowhere else.
- Petrarch has retreated completely into his memories of Laura and of how she made him feel. Basically, she makes him a bit stupid when she's in his presence. Again, it seems like a cliché, but remember that this is the fourteenth century—we're seeing the genesis of all these nifty ways of describing the feeling of being in a doomed relationship.
- The level of hyperbole here is quite high: Laura's not only giving us a toothache—she's actually a creature of Heaven. As such, she brings paradise wherever she goes, fooling the smitten Petrarch into thinking that he's actually in heaven.
- This becomes a major problem for him. Laura's divinity "divide[s him]/ from the true image" and makes it impossible for him to accept that he's living and breathing in the real, earthly world. Why is this a problem, you ask? We admit it sounds like a pretty sweet deal.
- Well, he can't live in heaven all the time. Petrarch himself tells us the problem in lines 64-65: "and since then I have loved/ this bank of grass and find peace nowhere else." He can't be comforted by other human beings, only by the memories recalled by the river. Basically, his "lovey" is a spot of landscape far away from other people. The solitude and tranquility of this place, and the fact that it's a grassy plot, echo the image of Petrarch's imagined grave in stanza 2—not good.
- Stanza 5 also seems to be the place where the verse form really falls into place. Petrarch's working those hendecasyllables and settenari to the best of his ability, including that gorgeous last line which clocks in at exactly 11 syllables and four main stresses: "quest'erba sí ch'altrove non ó pace." Why the insistence on regularity? What in the Sam Hill is a hendecasyllable? Check out "Form and Meter" for more.
Envoi, or Congedo
If you had all the beauty you desired,
you could with boldness leave
the wood and make your way among mankind.
- Petrarch addresses this final section—called an envoi, or a congedo (or farewell)—not to Laura or to us, but to his little poem. How do we know that? Well, by reading Canzone125, of course. As you might have guessed, Canzone 125 comes… right before Canzone126 in the Canzoniere. You might also have guessed that it's a lament about being miserable in love—so miserable, in fact, that Petrarch can no longer manage a decent line of poetry. In the end, he disses his own poem, saying that it needs to keep its ugly face hidden:
O my poor verse, how rough you are!
I think you know it:
so stay here in this wood.
- And now the congedo of Canzone126 starts to make more sense… sort of. Again, we have a conflicting set of translations. In addition to Mark Musa's interpretation of line 66 ("If you had all the beauty you desired"), we've got Durling's translation, which is closer in meaning to the Italian: "If you had as many beauties as you have desire, you could/ boldly leave the wood and go among people."
- The difference? Musa's translation speaks only about the desire of the poem to be beautiful (i.e., if you had your way, you'd be beautiful). Durling's interpretation is more complex. His version seems to be saying that the poem itself is jam-packed with desire and wouldn't it be great if the poem had the beauty to match it?
- The general purpose of an envoi or congedo is to allow the poet to have a final word about the poem itself—or to address a real or imagined person directly. The congedo for 126 kind of does both of those things. Petrarch addresses his poem as though it were personified, walking on two legs through the wooded banks of the river and into the wide world.
- But don't be fooled. He's actually talking about (and to) a poem. These final three lines, then, is really a wish that his work can do something that he can't do just at the moment: move into the world (and succeed), away from the place where Laura once was.