The Petrarchan Poem: A “Subject” of Love

“I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.” -Spike, from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (Lover’s Walk).

Juliet Landau and James MAsters as Drusilla and Spike from WB's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

Juliet Landau and James MAsters as Drusilla and Spike from WB's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

Francesco Petrarch has been dead for close to 700 years and yet somehow I imagine he still turns in his grave. He was a man who spent a good deal of his life in love with a woman who was married to someone else. Surely Petrarch the Italian poet was no stranger to the elusive nature of love or the frustrating fantasies of unrequited amour. Petrarch had a gift to be able to romanticize his longing and is duly credited with creating a type of sonnet that was the model for Renaissance lyric poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder. Two poems that this paper will be exploring in depth, “The long love that in my thought doth harbor” by Wyatt and a modern prose translation of “Rima 140” by Petrarch both point towards that penchant of the lovelorn to idealize some aspect of their suffering. But first, a little more insight into Petrarch; in his “Letter to Posterity” he writes in regards to his love for the married Laura, “I struggled in my younger days with a keen but constant and pure attachment, and would have struggled with it longer had not the sinking flame been extinguished by death – premature and bitter, but salutary” (Sadlon). Two words stand out in this sentence; “struggled” and “pure.” As I look in depth at the two poems I hope to make it clear that aspects of these two Petrarchan sonnets seem to have an obsession with being subjected (to struggle with) to some higher calling (pure) and that this also was part of the culture of feudalism that was so prevalent during the middle ages and thus would have found its way into the writing of the time. In this case the higher calling is love, as the last line in “Rima 140” emphatically states, “For he makes a good end who dies loving well” (The Norton Anthology, 595).

The Petrarch “Rima 140” poem that this paper looks at is a modern prose translation. The main theme of this version of the poem can be summarized in one word concerning love; “reign.” The poem is rife with examples of the narrator as the subjugated and love as subjugator. The sonnet opens with, “Love, who lives and reigns in my thought” (The Norton Anthology, 595) and clearly sets up the speaker as being someone who is under the control of something else. Next, love “comes forth all in armor” into the narrator’s “forehead” and “sets up his banner” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 595, lines 2-3) as a conqueror of a city would do. The first four lines of the poem introduce the sustained metaphor of love being a noble vanquisher; someone who the narrator says “keeps [a] principal seat in [his] heart” (The Norton Anthology, 595, line 1). Love, having “set up his banner” (The Norton Anthology, 595, line 3) is claiming the speaker as his. Love is likened to a warrior that has won, taking his rival as a prisoner, claiming him like a won territory and thus rightfully subjugating him.

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) was a poet of Florence, considered the founder of Renaissance Christian humanism.

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) was a poet of Florence, considered the founder of Renaissance Christian humanism.

“The long love that in my thought doth harbor” by Wyatt, varies little in this love as conqueror and the speaker as the conquered theme. And while love no doubt has reign over the speaker, the relationship is like that of subject and king. Love is the speaker’s sovereignty; line 14 says, “for good is the life ending faithfully” (The Norton Anthology, 595). This is important because the speaker desires to be the subject of love. This is proven in the speaker’s unending loyalty to love even when love is running away; for instance, in Petrarch’s poem “love flees terrified” (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 595, line 7) and in Wyatt’s poem he “hideth, and not appeareth” (The Norton Anthology, 595, line 11). Even when love “abandon[s] his every enterprise” as it does in line 7 of the Petrarch poem, the speaker remains a loyal subject (The Norton Anthology, 596). The feudal society that both Petrarch and Wyatt would have been accustomed to was a civilization based almost entirely on personal loyalty and service. Therefore, the dynamics between love and the speakers of these poems prove a definitive feudal relationship. Wyatt’s poem asks in the last three lines, “What may I do […] but in the field with him to live and die?” (The Norton Anthology, 595). Love is the triumphant lord who while even in the midst of hardships has the loyalty and the protection of his subjects.

In Wyatt’s poem love leaves “his enterprise with pain and cry” (The Norton Anthology, 595, line 10), the enterprise here being the speaker who has been left and is therefore in pain. This is the general model of the Petrarch poem where the speaker is somehow immobilized by some sense of defectiveness. In “Rima 140” love “at our boldness is angry” (The Norton Anthology, 596, line 6) which seems to point to some felt incompetence on the part of the speaker. Here loyalty obliges the speaker (or subject) to fault himself for love’s abandonment. This only succeeds in pushing him to further prove his loyalty to love to the extent he will eventually lay down in the field and die with love. Switch the word “love” for “throne” and the speaker of the poem quickly becomes the subjects of the court. Is it possible that a double meaning was implicit between the lines? The poets almost seem to be claiming an awareness of the sociology that made a monarchy possible.

Both poems, written over a century apart relate to each other nearly line by line. The inflated comparison of love being a warrior king and the speaker being the defeated rival is typical of what is found in Petrarchan poems. Love is depicted as being something that “hurts so good” (Mellencamp), a pleasurable pain, a sadomasochistic relationship even. It is almost too good to be true that the woman Petrarch loved but never was requited  Marquis de Sade’s ancestor (Penn Libraries).

In the 16th century is was tradition to imitate Petrarchan poetry. Indeed, it seems to have been a standard way to make overtures of love in the middle ages, especially courtly love. Wyatt was a in the service of Henry VIII and knew “the shifting, dangerous currents of Renaissance courts, and court culture” that “shaped his achievements as a poet” (The Norton Anthology, 592). With this in mind the tormented speaker of the sonnet despairing in contradictory terms of his anguish as the worshipper of a contemptuous master easily takes on an intriguing second meaning. Also, the poet’s suffering almost takes on a holy quality because of how grand the object of worship is; after all, what could be grander than love? The speaker must prove worthy by remaining loyal to love, even when love faces trials. (Is this how Wyatt slept at night?)

The beginning of the Petrarchan sonnet is the octave which allows the speaker of the poem to relate the problem (The Norton Anthology, 593). The source of the distress also reveals an oxymoron in that the speaker is allowing for it to happen in some way. In the case of the two poems in this paper the issue is that love has come Caesar style (vini, vidi, vici) and subjugated the speaker who in Wyatt’s poem “in [his] heart doth keep his residence” (The Norton Anthology, 595, line 2) thus showing the conflict that the speaker has.

Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote poetry in the 1500s and he was popular in the court of King Henry VIII. He is rumored to have been in love with Anne Boelyn.

Sir Thomas Wyatt wrote poetry in the 1500s and he was popular in the court of King Henry VIII.

The beginning of the sestet is known as the volta (The Norton Anthology, 593). In “Rima 140” for instance, “love flees terrified” (The Norton Anthology, 596, line 7) which is definitely not a kingly thing to do, but this is also distinctive of a Petrarchan poem; to have a volta, or a switch in action. The end of the poem makes another switch to remark on the quandary or to suggest some relevant elucidation, in this case the speaker of both poems have decided that if love is afraid then they will wait it out with love and quite possibly die for love.

Ultimately, subjugation was a vital construct of the feudalist society in which both Petrarch and Wyatt lived and it seems as though the more disdainful the master, the more the compulsion there was to serve him. Perhaps the overall and greatest conceit then of the Petrarch poem is that love was a metaphor for the social and political temperament of the Renaissance years. Either way, I think Spike, from “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” summed it up best when he said he was not disillusioned about being under love’s control (Lover’s Walk).

Works Cited

“Lover’s Walk.” Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. UPN WB. 24 November 1998

Mellencamp, John. “Hurts so Good.” American Fool. 1982

Penn Libraries.

“Petrarch, Laura, “Letter to Posterity”.” todayinliterature.com. 17 October 2008 <http://www.todayinliterature.com/printtoday.asp?Event_Date=7/19/1374&gt;

Sadlon, Peter. Francesco Petrarch-Father of Humanism. “Francesco Petrarch to Posterity.” 17 October 2008 <http://petrarch.petersadlon.com/read_letters. html?s=pet01.html>

The Norton Anthology of Literature, Eighth Edition, Volume B, The Sixteenth Century/

The Early Seventeenth Century. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.

“Penn Libraries Events and Exhibitions: Petrarch and his Millieu.” 17 October 2008. <http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/petrarch/petrarch_ milieu.html>

The full quote:

“You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love ’til it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other ’til it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Real love isn’t brains, children. It’s blood. It’s blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”Spike

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