Read SUNSHINE AND PETRARCH. of Oldport Days , free online book, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, on ReadCentral.com.

Near my summer home there is a little cove or landing by the bay, where nothing larger than a boat can ever anchor. I sit above it now, upon the steep bank, knee-deep in buttercups, and amid grass so lush and green that it seems to ripple and flow instead of waving. Below lies a tiny beach, strewn with a few bits of drift-wood and some purple shells, and so sheltered by projecting walls that its wavelets plash but lightly. A little farther out the sea breaks more roughly over submerged rocks, and the waves lift themselves, before breaking, in an indescribable way, as if each gave a glimpse through a translucent window, beyond which all ocean’s depths might be clearly seen, could one but hit the proper angle of vision. On the right side of my retreat a high wall limits the view, while close upon the left the crumbling parapet of Fort Greene stands out into the foreground, its verdant scarp so relieved against the blue water that each inward-bound schooner seems to sail into a cave of grass. In the middle distance is a white lighthouse, and beyond lie the round tower of old Fort Louis and the soft low hills of Conanicut.

Behind me an oriole chirrups in triumph amid the birch-trees which wave around the house of the haunted window; before me a kingfisher pauses and waits, and a darting blackbird shows the scarlet on his wings. Sloops and schooners constantly come and go, careening in the wind, their white sails taking, if remote enough, a vague blue mantle from the delicate air. Sail-boats glide in the distance,-each a mere white wing of canvas,-or coming nearer, and glancing suddenly into the cove, are put as suddenly on the other tack, and almost in an instant seem far away. There is to-day such a live sparkle on the water, such a luminous freshness on the grass, that it seems, as is so often the case in early June, as if all history were a dream, and the whole earth were but the creation of a summer’s day.

If Petrarch still knows and feels the consummate beauty of these earthly things, it may seem to him some repayment for the sorrows of a life-time that one reader, after all this lapse of years, should choose his sonnets to match this grass, these blossoms, and the soft lapse of these blue waves. Yet any longer or more continuous poem would be out of place to-day. I fancy that this narrow cove prescribes the proper limits of a sonnet; and when I count the lines of ripple within yonder projecting wall, there proves to be room for just fourteen. Nature meets our whims with such little fitnesses. The words which build these delicate structures of Petrarch’s are as soft and fine and close-textured as the sands upon this tiny beach, and their monotone, if such it be, is the monotone of the neighboring ocean. Is it not possible, by bringing such a book into the open air, to separate it from the grimness of commentators, and bring it back to life and light and Italy?

The beautiful earth is the same as when this poetry and passion were new; there is the same sunlight, the same blue water and green grass; yonder pleasure-boat might bear, for aught we know, the friends and lovers of five centuries ago; Petrarch and Laura might be there, with Boccaccio and Fiammetta as comrades, and with Chaucer as their stranger guest. It bears, at any rate, if I know its voyagers, eyes as lustrous, voices as sweet. With the world thus young, beauty eternal, fancy free, why should these delicious Italian pages exist but to be tortured into grammatical examples? Is there no reward to be imagined for a delightful book that can match Browning’s fantastic burial of a tedious one? When it has sufficiently basked in sunshine, and been cooled in pure salt air, when it has bathed in heaped clover, and been scented, page by page, with melilot, cannot its beauty once more blossom, and its buried loves revive?

Emboldened by such influences, at least let me translate a sonnet, and see if anything is left after the sweet Italian syllables are gone. Before this continent was discovered, before English literature existed, when Chaucer was a child, these words were written. Yet they are to-day as fresh and perfect as these laburnum-blossoms that droop above my head. And as the variable and uncertain air comes freighted with clover-scent from yonder field, so floats through these long centuries a breath of fragrance, the memory of Laura.

Sonnet129.

“Lieti fiori e felici.”
O joyous, blossoming, ever-blessed flowers!
’Mid which my queen her gracious footstep sets;
O plain, that keep’st her words for amulets
And hold’st her memory in thy leafy bowers!
O trees, with earliest green of spring-time hours,
And spring-time’s pale and tender violets!
O grove, so dark the proud sun only lets
His blithe rays gild the outskirts of your towers!
O pleasant country-side! O purest stream,
That mirrorest her sweet face, her eyes so clear,
And of their living light can catch the beam!
I envy you her haunts so close and dear.
There is no rock so senseless but I deem
It burns with passion that to mine is near.

Goethe compared translators to carriers, who convey good wine to market, though it gets unaccountably watered by the way. The more one praises a poem, the more absurd becomes one’s position, perhaps, in trying to translate it. If it is so admirable-is the natural inquiry,-why not let it alone? It is a doubtful blessing to the human race, that the instinct of translation still prevails, stronger than reason; and after one has once yielded to it, then each untranslated favorite is like the trees round a backwoodsman’s clearing, each of which stands, a silent defiance, until he has cut it down. Let us try the axe again. This is to Laura singing.

Sonnet134.

Quando Amor i begli occhi a terra inchina.”
When Love doth those sweet eyes to earth incline,
And weaves those wandering notes into a sigh
Soft as his touch, and leads a minstrelsy
Clear-voiced and pure, angelic and divine,
He makes sweet havoc in this heart of mine,
And to my thoughts brings transformation high,
So that I say, “My time has come to die,
If fate so blest a death for me design.”
But to my soul thus steeped in joy the sound
Brings such a wish to keep that present heaven,
It holds my spirit back to earth as well.
And thus I live: and thus is loosed and wound
The thread of life which unto me was given
By this sole Siren who with us doth dwell.

As I look across the bay, there is seen resting over all the hills, and even upon every distant sail, an enchanted veil of palest blue, that seems woven out of the very souls of happy days,-a bridal veil, with which the sunshine weds this soft landscape in summer. Such and so indescribable is the atmospheric film that hangs over these poems of Petrarch’s; there is a delicate haze about the words, that vanishes when you touch them, and reappears as you recede. How it clings, for instance, around this sonnet!

Sonnet191.

Aura che quelle chiome.”
Sweet air, that circlest round those radiant tresses,
And floatest, mingled with them, fold on fold,
Deliciously, and scatterest that fine gold,
Then twinest it again, my heart’s dear jesses,
Thou lingerest on those eyes, whose beauty presses
Stings in my heart that all its life exhaust,
Till I go wandering round my treasure lost,
Like some scared creature whom the night distresses.
I seem to find her now, and now perceive
How far away she is; now rise, now fall;
Now what I wish, now what is true, believe.
O happy air! since joys enrich thee all,
Rest thee; and thou, O stream too bright to grieve!
Why can I not float with thee at thy call?

The airiest and most fugitive among Petrarch’s love-poems, so far as I know,-showing least of that air of earnestness which he has contrived to impart to almost all,-is this little ode or madrigal. It is interesting to see, from this, that he could be almost conventional and courtly in moments when he held Laura farthest aloof; and when it is compared with the depths of solemn emotion in his later sonnets, it seems like the soft glistening of young birch-leaves against a background of pines.

CanzoneXXIII.

“Nova angeletta sovra l’ ale accorta.”
A new-born angel, with her wings extended,
Came floating from the skies to this fair shore,
Where, fate-controlled, I wandered with my sorrows.
She saw me there, alone and unbefriended,
She wove a silken net, and threw it o’er
The turf, whose greenness all the pathway borrows,
Then was I captured; nor could fears arise,
Such sweet seduction glimmered from her eyes.

Turn from these light compliments to the pure and reverential tenderness of a sonnet like this:-

Sonnet223.

Qual donna attende a gloriosa fama.”
Doth any maiden seek the glorious fame
Of chastity, of strength, of courtesy?
Gaze in the eyes of that sweet enemy
Whom all the world doth as my lady name!
How honor grows, and pure devotion’s flame,
How truth is joined with graceful dignity,
There thou mayst learn, and what the path may be
To that high heaven which doth her spirit claim;
There learn soft speech, beyond all poet’s skill,
And softer silence, and those holy ways
Unutterable, untold by human heart.
But the infinite beauty that all eyes doth fill,
This none can copy! since its lovely rays
Are given by God’s pure grace, and not by art.

The following, on the other hand, seems to me one of the Shakespearian sonnets; the successive phrases set sail, one by one, like a yacht squadron; each spreads its graceful wings and glides away. It is hard to handle this white canvas without soiling. Macgregor, in the only version of this sonnet which I have seen, abandons all attempt at rhyme; but to follow the strict order of the original in this respect is a part of the pleasant problem which one cannot bear to forego. And there seems a kind of deity who presides over this union of languages, and who sometimes silently lays the words in order, after all one’s own poor attempts have failed.

Sonnet 128.

“O passi sparsi; o pensier vaghi e pronti”
O wandering steps! O vague and busy dreams!
O changeless memory! O fierce desire!
O passion strong! heart weak with its own fire;
O eyes of mine! not eyes, but living streams;
O laurel boughs! whose lovely garland seems
The sole reward that glory’s deeds require;
O haunted life! delusion sweet and dire,
That all my days from slothful rest redeems;
O beauteous face! where Love has treasured well
His whip and spur, the sluggish heart to move
At his least will; nor can it find relief.
O souls of love and passion! if ye dwell
Yet on this earth, and ye, great Shades of Love!
Linger, and see my passion and my grief.

Yonder flies a kingfisher, and pauses, fluttering like a butterfly in the air, then dives toward a fish, and, failing, perches on the projecting wall. Doves from neighboring dove-côtés alight on the parapet of the fort, fearless of the quiet cattle who find there a breezy pasture. These doves, in taking flight, do not rise from the ground at once, but, edging themselves closer to the brink, with a caution almost ludicrous in such airy things, trust themselves upon the breeze with a shy little hop, and at the next moment are securely on the wing.

How the abundant sunlight inundates everything! The great clumps of grass and clover are imbedded in it to the roots; it flows in among their stalks, like water; the lilac-bushes bask in it eagerly; the topmost leaves of the birches are burnished. A vessel sails by with plash and roar, and all the white spray along her side is sparkling with sunlight. Yet there is sorrow in the world, and it reached Petrarch even before Laura died,-when it reached her. This exquisite sonnet shows it:-

Sonnet123.

“I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi.”
I once beheld on earth celestial graces,
And heavenly beauties scarce to mortals known,
Whose memory lends nor joy nor grief alone,
But all things else bewilders and effaces.
I saw how tears had left their weary traces
Within those eyes that once like sunbeams shone,
I heard those lips breathe low and plaintive moan,
Whose spell might once have taught the hills their places.
Love, wisdom, courage, tenderness, and truth,
Made ill their mourning strains more high and dear
Than ever wove sweet sounds for mortal ear;
And heaven seemed listening in such saddest ruth
The very leaves upon the boughs to soothe,
Such passionate sweetness filled the atmosphere.

These sonnets are in Petrarch’s earlier manner; but the death of Laura brought a change. Look at yonder schooner coming down the bay, straight toward us; she is hauled close to the wind, her jib is white in the sunlight, her larger sails are touched with the same snowy lustre, and all the swelling canvas is rounded into such lines of beauty as scarcely anything else in the world-hardly even the perfect outlines of the human form-can give. Now she comes up into the wind, and goes about with a strong flapping of the sails, smiting on the ear at a half-mile’s distance; then she glides off on the other tack, showing the shadowed side of her sails, until she reaches the distant zone of haze. So change the sonnets after Laura’s death, growing shadowy as they recede, until the very last seems to merge itself in the blue distance.

Sonnet251.

Gli occhi di chio parlai.”
Those eyes, ’neath which my passionate rapture rose,
The arms, hands, feet, the beauty that erewhile
Could my own soul from its own self beguile,
And in a separate world of dreams enclose,
The hair’s bright tresses, full of golden glows,
And the soft lightning of the angelic smile
That changed this earth to some celestial isle,
Are now but dust, poor dust, that nothing knows.
And yet I live! Myself I grieve and scorn,
Left dark without the light I loved in vain,
Adrift in tempest on a bark forlorn;
Dead is the source of all my amorous strain,
Dry is the channel of my thoughts outworn,
And my sad harp can sound but notes of pain.

“And yet I live!” What a pause is implied before these words! the drawing of a long breath, immeasurably long; like that vast interval of heart-beats that precedes Shakespeare’s “Since Cleopatra died.” I can think of no other passage in literature that has in it the same wide spaces of emotion.

The following sonnet seems to me the most stately and concentrated in the whole volume. It is the sublimity of a despair not to be relieved by utterance.

Sonnet253.

“Soleasi nel mio cor.”
She ruled in beauty o’er this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home,
And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,
’T is I am mortal proved, and she divine.
The soul that all its blessings must resign,
And love whose light no more on earth finds room
Might rend the rocks with pity for their doom,
Yet none their sorrows can in words enshrine;
They weep within my heart; and ears are deaf
Save mine alone, and I am crushed with care,
And naught remains to me save mournful breath.
Assuredly but dust and shade we are,
Assuredly desire is blind and brief,
Assuredly its hope but ends in death.

In a later strain he rises to that dream which is more than earth’s realities.

Sonnet261.

“Levommi il mio pensiero.”
Dreams bore my fancy to that region where
She dwells whom here I seek, but cannot see.
’Mid those who in the loftiest heaven be
I looked on her, less haughty and more fair.
She touched my hand, she said, “Within this sphere,
If hope deceive not, thou shalt dwell with me:
I filled thy life with war’s wild agony;
Mine own day closed ere evening could appear.
My bliss no human brain can understand;
I wait for thee alone, and that fair veil
Of beauty thou dost love shall wear again.”
Why was she silent then, why dropped my hand
Ere those delicious tones could quite avail
To bid my mortal soul in heaven remain?

It vindicates the emphatic reality and pesonality of Petrarch’s love, after all, that when from these heights of vision he surveys and resurveys his life’s long dream, it becomes to him more and more definite, as well as more poetic, and is farther and farther from a merely vague sentimentalism. In his later sonnets, Laura grows more distinctly individual to us; her traits show themselves as more characteristic, her temperament more intelligible, her precise influence upon Petrarch clearer. What delicate accuracy of delineation is seen, for instance, in this sonnet!

Sonnet314.

“Dolci durezze e placide repulse.”
Gentle severity, repulses mild,
Full of chaste love and pity sorrowing;
Graceful rebukes, that had the power to bring
Back to itself a heart by dreams beguiled;
A soft-toned voice, whose accents undefiled
Held sweet restraints, all duty honoring;
The bloom of virtue; purity’s clear spring
To cleanse away base thoughts and passions wild;
Divinest eyes to make a lover’s bliss,
Whether to bridle in the wayward mind
Lest its wild wanderings should the pathway miss,
Or else its griefs to soothe, its wounds to bind;
This sweet completeness of thy life it is
That saved my soul; no other peace I find.

In the following sonnet visions multiply upon visions. Would that one could transfer into English the delicious way in which the sweet Italian rhymes recur and surround and seem to embrace each other, and are woven and unwoven and interwoven, like the heavenly hosts that gathered around Laura.

Sonnet302.

Gli angeli eletti.”

The holy angels and the spirits blest,
Celestial bands, upon that day serene
When first my love went by in heavenly mien,
Came thronging, wondering at the gracious guest.
“What light is here, in what new beauty drest?”
They said among themselves; “for none has seen
Within this age come wandering such a queen
From darkened earth into immortal rest.”
And she, contented with her new-found bliss,
Ranks with the purest in that upper sphere,
Yet ever and anon looks back on this,
To watch for me, as if for me she stayed.
So strive, my thoughts, lest that high path I miss.
I hear her call, and must not be delayed.

These odes and sonnets are all but parts of one symphony, leading us through a passion strengthened by years and only purified by death, until at last the graceful lay becomes an anthem and a Nunc dimittis. In the closing sonnets Petrarch withdraws from the world, and they seem like voices from a cloister, growing more and more solemn till the door is closed. This is one of the last:-

Sonnet309.

“Dicemi spesso il mio fidato speglio.”
Oft by my faithful mirror I am told,
And by my mind outworn and altered brow,
My earthly powers impaired and weakened now,
“Deceive thyself no more, for thou art old!”
Who strives with Nature’s laws is over-bold,
And Time to his commandments bids us bow.
Like fire that waves have quenched, I calmly vow
In life’s long dream no more my sense to fold.
And while I think, our swift existence flies,
And none can live again earth’s brief career,
Then in my deepest heart the voice replies
Of one who now has left this mortal sphere,
But walked alone through earthly destinies,
And of all women is to fame most dear.

How true is this concluding line! Who can wonder that women prize beauty, and are intoxicated by their own fascinations, when these fragile gifts are yet strong enough to outlast all the memories of statesmanship and war? Next to the immortality of genius is that which genius may confer upon the object of its love. Laura, while she lived, was simply one of a hundred or a thousand beautiful and gracious Italian women; she had her loves and aversions, joys and griefs; she cared dutifully for her household, and embroidered the veil which Petrarch loved; her memory appeared as fleeting and unsubstantial as that woven tissue. After five centuries we find that no armor of that iron age was so enduring. The kings whom she honored, the popes whom she revered are dust, and their memory is dust, but literature is still fragrant with her name. An impression which has endured so long is ineffaceable; it is an earthly immortality.

“Time is the chariot of all ages to carry men away, and beauty cannot bribe this charioteer.” Thus wrote Petrarch in his Latin essays; but his love had wealth that proved resistless and for Laura the chariot stayed.