His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Italian with the poets I

In this inaugural post, I begin with the first sonnet from Petrarch’s Canzoniere. This is in fact what I hope will become a series on snippets of Italian poetry (Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso, and others) with some philological notes especially suitable for those studying Italian. I trust that neither the linguistic detail nor, for more advanced readers, the banality will greatly ward off enjoyment and appreciation of the post by others!

Before beginning, I can’t help but cite this verse from “Tangled Up in Blue” (4th verse in the New York version, 5th on the album):

She lit a burner on the stove and offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type.”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century.
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you,
Tangled up in blue.

(In the live versions from the Gospel period, it’s no longer Italian poetry, but the book of Jeremiah, with different verses referenced at different shows, that she gives him! In some earlier and later live versions, such as those from the Rolling Thunder Revue and a decade later on Real Live, he passes over this verse completely.) This “Italian poet from the thirteenth century” cannot be the fourteenth-century Petrarch (1304-1374), whose lines are discussed below, and while Dante (c. 1265-1321) is not an impossible choice, perhaps even more fitting is Guido Cavalcanti, born in the mid-thirteenth century and who died in 1300. Of course, the line may refer to no real poet. In any case, who’s gonna complain about a stove-lit pipe, a womanly conversation partner, and Italian poetry (from whatever century)?

Now to our poetic lines. The poem was first printed, as far as I know, in an edition of 1501 from the famous Venetian house of Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio), printed on vellum in Aldine italics; it was edited by Pietro Bembo from Petrarch’s own manuscript. (See an actual-size reproduction of the page with this poem in pl. 23 of Martin Davies, Aldus Manutius: Printer and Publisher of Renaissance Venice [London and Malibu, 1995].)

In this and future posts on the same theme, I’ll give the text in stanzas followed by a few philological remarks that I hope will be of use and interest to Italian students. There is probably nothing necessarily original in these pedagogical bits, but if they make this poetry more accessible, a good end will have been achieved. There are and will be numerous references to Latin and French vocabulary and, less so, morphology, which are merely to highlight some similarities and differences across these languages. (I refer to Spanish, Portuguese, and other romance languages less frequently only because I have less familiarity with them.) While the commentary breaks up the text, this is only for convenience; whenever possible, the poems should, of course, be read without interruption. Texts for Italian poetry, along with translations into various languages, are easily discoverable online. For Dante, for example, see here, and for Petrarch, both the Canzoniere and the Trionfi, see here, not to mention older published volumes on Google Books or Archive.org. The just mentioned sites also include Italian recitations of certain poems. Poetry (and some prose), in whatever language, is for tasting and ruminating orally and aurally, and these proffered recitations are one way to do that.

And now, thus saith Petrarch:

Voi ch’ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ’l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand’era in parte altr’uom da quel ch’i’ sono,

Voi ch[e] you (pl.) who | ascoltate 2pl pres. indic.; L. auscultare | in rime sparse The “scattered rhymes”, a name by which all the canzoniere are known. | il suono L. sonus | quei = quelli (pl. of quello) | sospiri (sg. sospiro) “sigh” | ond’io nudriva onde here not “in order to; so that” as usually in modern Italian, but like L. unde “whence” | nudriva = nutrivo; nutrire “to foster, nurture”. As with era below, the impf. 1sg may end in -a, rather than the expected -o. That it is 1sg, however, is clear from the preceding io. | ’l core now cuore; L. cor, which is neuter, but masculine in I. | in sul mio primo giovenile errore sul = su+il. Note how Italian uses the article and the possessive pronoun together. | quand’era era here = ero (i.e. 1sg, not 3sg) | altr’uom da “another person [uomo, L. homo] than” | quel ch’i’ sono “that which I am”.

del vario stile in ch’io piango et ragiono
fra le vane speranze e ’l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.

del vario stile “in (the) various way[s]”; while sg. in I., best as pl. in E. | piango piangere “to weep” (L. plangere) | ragiono ragionare “to think, discuss” | fra le vane speranze e ’l van dolore “between vain hopes [sg. speranza] and vain sadness”; here van is short for vano. | ove “where” | spero trovar As in E. and many other languages, “to hope” is generally followed by an infinitive (trovar = trovare; cf. F. trouver). pietà Words such as this (libertà, qualità, università) go back to L. words, all feminine, ending in -as, -atis (pietas, libertas, qualitas, universitas); in French they end in (pieté, liberté, qualité, université), in German -ät (Pietät, Qualität, Universität; no *Libertät, though, for which the Germanic Freiheit is used), and in English -y (note that English has both Latinate liberty and Germanic freedom). | nonché “as well (as)” | perdono “forgiveness” (E., F. pardon).

Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;

Ma “but” (F. mais) | ben = bene (I. and L., “well”) | veggio alt. form of vedo | or sí come al popol tutto Note elision in or(a) and popol(o). | favola L. fabula, like tabula / tavola | fui 1sg past of essere (cf. L.) | gran tempo I. gran but F. grande | sovente “often, frequently” (L. subinde) | meco = con me (L. mecum; cf the famous passage from Cicero’s Orator 45.154, in which he says that they said nobiscum, not cum nobis, “quia si ita diceretur, obscenius concurrent litterae”, i.e. sounding like cunnus!) | mi vergogno vergognarsi “to be ashamed, embarrassed”.

et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è ’l frutto,
e ’l pentersi, e ’l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

del mio vaneggiar vaneggiar(e) “to rave, wander”; here again, note the article (in del) used with the possessive pronoun. | vergogna (L. verecundia) is the noun of the verb we saw just above | frutto (L. fructus) one of very many examples of ct > tt | ’l pentersi now pentirsi “to repent” | ’l conoscer conoscer(e), “to know” (L. cognoscere) | chiaramente -mente is the almost ubiquitous adverbial ending, derived from L. mens in the ablative case. Here, too, we see the change chi from older cl (L. clarus; “clearly” in L. is simply clare). | che quanto “[that] how much” | piace al mondo “it pleases [piacere, L. placere] the world” > “the world likes” | sogno “dream” (L. somnium).

So much for these few humble remarks on Petrarch’s words: I hope they’ve been good for someone. Now to go back to read and reread the poem viva voce and without interruption.

Comments on the poem and the rest of the post are welcome!

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