A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Petrarch Part 4

3 May 2013

Dating Service for Poetry


“We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love.”

— Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)


Illustration from a fifteenth-century edition of Il Canzoniere: Laura and Petrarch

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3


Readers of Petrarch’s Canzoniere have been noticing for almost seven centuries now that the author seemed to be subject to spacious mood-swings, his poetry roller-coastering between an expectant hope arising from the minutest nonverbal twitch coming from the general direction of the object of his desire — Laura — to an abject gloom resulting from his unreciprocated cathectic attentions given to her.

This is one matter.  Another matter, which initially may seem unrelated, is that although Petrarch dated some of the manuscripts of poems found in the Canzoniere, there are many poems that are difficult to place chronologically.  Complicating this fact is that, even after Petrarch had written most of the poetry in the Canzoniere over a period of forty years, he continued to revise these poems, rearranging them in the process like shuffling a deck of cards, until the end of his life.  The only clear sense of sequential ordering in the book is in its bipartite arrangement:  those poems written before Laura died, and those written after.

You may be thinking now, we can’t have poems just drifting around without dates; what is needed is an online poetic dating service, where poems can find other poems that are compatible, who can understand each other’s metonymy and accentual rhythm and can form a lasting, post-structuralist relationship and . . . no, that’s not exactly what I mean.  To clarify the situation, to the rescue comes Frederic J. Jones, author of The Structure of Petrarch's Canzoniere: A Chronological, Psychological, and Stylistic Analysis (1995).

In his study, Jones attempted to date the poems of the first part of the Canzoniere by charting cycles of emotional distress.  Employing traditional scholarship through a detailed stylistic and linguistic analysis, he investigated the “presence of rhetorical figures such as oxymoron and antithesis during moments of distress” in order to yield a better understanding of the structure of the work as a whole.

For example, in the sonnet discussed in Part 2 of this blog entry, “Love placed me as a target for his arrow” (poem #133), Jones found “warring, ambivalent passions in their surfeit of antitheses.”  I’m not sure if that means Petrarch was feeling blissful or dejected that day, but it doesn’t sound like he was too relaxed.

But then, for the ultimate poetic dating service, Jones rolled out his secret weapon: catastrophe theory.  What is unrequited love if not a catastrophe?  Jones demonstrated that catastrophe theory actually applies quite well to the psychology of unrequited love, as it postulates a cyclical structure of instability.



For example, first Petrarch might be encouraged by a glance or a smile from Laura, then she ignores him; later, after he feels glum and she feels very sorry for him, he makes clumsy advances, but then she gives him an occhiataccia [a mean look] and when he is rebuffed it is a complete disastro megagalattico [mega-galactic disaster — a term Italians tend to use when the day isn't exactly going their way].  It’s somewhat more complicated than this, with “synchronic reactions” and “diachronic reactions” and such, but you get the idea.

Jones was able to date many of the poems with a relatively high degree of probability.  He ultimately found six lyrical cycles within the Canzoniere (with each period being slightly less than four years) and, in the process, an underlying evolution of Petrarch's style.

Interestingly, Jones’s findings were later supported using differential calculus.  In an article in the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics Journal of Applied Mathematics (Vol. 58, No. 4, pp. 1205-1221, August 1998), “Laura And Petrarch: An Intriguing Case Of Cyclical Love Dynamics,” Sergio Rinaldi explains how he used differential equations to model the dynamics of love between Petrarch and Laura (paying homage to mathematician Steven Strogatz’ “ideal love oscillator").  Rinaldi showed that “the poet's emotions followed for about 20 years a quite regular cyclical pattern ranging from the extremes of ecstasy to despair.”

Rinaldi’s L-P cycle, a limit cycle which has “suitable values of Laura's and Petrarch's behavioral parameters,” demonstrates the “recurrent nature of his amorous experience.”  At last, we have a dating service for Petrarch’s poetry.  If only differential calculus had been around during Petrarch’s time, it may have helped his situation with Laura.


Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530):  Dama col Petrarchino [Lady with a book of Petrarch's rhyme], 1528, oil on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}



The "cooling flames" are extinguished

While Petrarch was en route to Rome and staying in Parma, he wrote his famous ode Italia mia.  It was while he was in Parma, in 1348, that he was informed of Laura’s death.  In a marginal note in his copy of Virgil (you may recall that when Petrarch was a law student this was one of the few books his father mercifully didn’t burn), he wrote that “this luminary disappeared from our world.”  In his "Letter to Posterity", he reflected on the manner in which “premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames.”

Nothing thwarts infatuation like mortality.  But Petrarch was not to be vanquished in his idealization of Laura, although now piled on top of his frustrated desire was an additional load of profound grief.  Thus began the second part of the Canzoniere, later labeled as Rime In morte di Madonna Laura (poems written after the death of Lady Laura:  267-366).  In poem #268 he wrote,“Madonna è morta, et à seco il mio core [My lady is dead, and my heart is broken]."  In poem #323, a canzona, he wrote “poi repente tempesta / orïental turbò sí l'aere et l'onde [then a sudden tempest / from the east churned air and waves]," alluding to the Black Death that is presumed to have killed her, a plague that was referred to as the “storm from the East.”

We had earlier looked at two of Petrarch’s sonnets written while Laura was alive (poems #133 and #246).  One of the sonnets written after Laura’s death, probably in 1352 — “Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena,” (Zephyr returns and brings fair weather, poem #310) — captures Petrarch’s sorrow at that time:


Zefiro torna, e 'l bel tempo rimena,
e i fiori et l'erbe, sua dolce famiglia,
et garrir Progne et pianger Filomena,
et primavera candida et vermiglia.
Ridono i prati, e 'l ciel si rasserena;
Giove s'allegra di mirar sua figlia;
l'aria et l'acqua et la terra è d'amor piena;
ogni animal d'amar si riconsiglia.
Ma per me, lasso, tornano i piú gravi
sospiri, che del cor profondo tragge
quella ch'al ciel se ne portò le chiavi;
et cantar augelletti, et fiorir piagge,
e 'n belle donne honeste atti soavi
sono un deserto, et fere aspre et selvagge.
Zephyr returns and brings fair weather,
and the flowers and herbs, his sweet family,
and Procne singing and Philomela weeping,
and the white springtime, and the vermilion.
The meadows smile, and the skies grow clear:
Jupiter is joyful, gazing at his daughter:
the air and earth and water are filled with love:
every animal is reconciled to loving.
But to me, alas, there return the heaviest
sighs that she draws from the deepest heart,
who took the keys of it away to heaven:
and the song of little birds, and the flowering fields,
and the sweet, virtuous actions of women
are a wasteland to me, of bitter and savage creatures.
— Translated by: A. S. Kline (Copyright © 2002)


Zephyr (Zephyrus) is the personification of the west wind, the first wind of spring.  At the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is a painting that serves as a kind of publicity poster for the spring-like renewal of the Renaissance — Botticelli’s Primavera.  Included in this painting is a portrayal of Zephyrus, a biting, March wind who puffs out his cheeks and turns blue.  Nevertheless, as the 190 different species of flowers documented in the painting indicate, spring has unquestionably arrived.

Thought to have been inspired by a poem written about the arrival of spring (Fasti, Book 5) by Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso; 43 BC–AD 17/18), and possibly a poem by Poliziano (1454-1494) as well, this painting features the mythological figures Mercury, the Three Graces, Venus, Flora, and Chloris, along with blustery Zephyrus, in a springtime garden.


Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipep (Sandro Botticelli) (1445–1510): Primavera, detail showing Zephyrus and Chloris, c. 1482, tempera on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


In addressing the onset of spring, Petrarch’s sonnet — just as Botticelli’s painting — also draws upon Ovid.  In Metamorphoses (AD 8), Ovid recasts the ancient legend of Procne and Philomel, who were turned into a swallow and a nightingale, respectively.  The nightingale, a migratory bird, winters in southern Africa and returns every year to Europe and south-west Asia as a harbinger of the spring.  Its remarkable song is frequently heard at night, hence its name, which means “night songstress.”

I realize that we are fluttering off in a different direction for a moment, but it is worthwhile noting that through the centuries many poets, authors, and composers have evoked the nightingale, including, before Ovid, Homer (7th or 8th centuries BC) in the Odyssey, Aristophanes (c. 446 BC – c. 386 BC) in the Birds, and after, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), and John Keats (1795-1821) in sonnets and odes, and Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) in his story "The Nightingale."

In Symphony No. 6 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the flute imitates the nightingale, and with Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) by Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), a recording of a nightingale is called for in the score. 

Then there is the opera by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), Le rossignol (The Nightingale; 1914), based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen.  And who can forget the song "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" (1940), as well as one of the twentieth century’s greatest electroacoustic works, Philomel (1964), for live and recorded soprano voice with synthesizer by Milton Babbitt (1916-2011)?


Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780–1857): illustration of nightingale from Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas [Natural history of the birds of central Europe], 1905

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


While the swallow, for whatever reason, has not inspired as many poets and composers as the nightingale, its return is also a symbol of spring. This is in spite of the French expression, une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps [rendered in English as “one swallow does not a summer make”].

In the first quatrain of Petrarch’s sonnet, as warm weather arrives, the plants bloom (specifically in the colors white and vermillion, traditionally connoting innocence and passion, but also suggesting spring flowers), and the songs of the swallow and nightingale can be heard.  Continuing in the second quatrain, with love being symbolized by Jupiter’s daughter Venus (her birth was represented in another famous painting by Botticelli), the entire animal kingdom seems to be singing along with Cole Porter, “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it . . . let's fall in love.”

After making these observations with a certain scientific objectivity in the octave, Petrarch suddenly turns inward and the mood darkens at the voltaLasso! [alas], with the heaviest sighs (it is a paradox that a sigh can weigh nothing, yet be heavy), Petrarch vacillates from ecstasy to misery.  In dying, Laura forgot to leave the keys of Petrarch’s heart under the doormat, taking them with her to heaven.  Now, the fields, flowers, bird chicks, even chicks of the human variety — to Petrarch, all of this fun stuff inventoried in the octave amounts to no more than a hazardous waste site.



Next: The continuing aftermath of a 40-year crush:  Petrarch's sonnets and more music, language, and literature in the Renaissance and beyond





The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

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Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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