Poets like Petrarch, who lived in times that savored technical virtuosity and skill at fulfilling strict formal rules more highly than our own does, can suffer badly in modern translations. They’re often either brought over into contemporary blank verse, or straitjacketed into meters and rhyme schemes that are dead to modern ears.
David Young’s translations of the Canzoniere—all 366 of 'em—are remarkable for the way they succeed at combing Petrarch’s medieval Italian into direct demotic English that also approximates the shapely, measured elegance of the form for which he’s famous. Young creates the effect by putting caesuras where the rhymes ought to be, so that you get a feeling of completion at the ends of lines without disrupting the push into the next syntactic unit. The result is that meaning slops freely, almost conversationally, across the sentences while the individual lines preserve a sense of being elevated and formally “wrought.” It might be this combination of colloquial intimacy and technical brio that accounts for the longevity of the Petrarchan sonnet, the most familiar form to survive the Renaissance. Young sheds light on that, too, arguing for Petrarch’s Canzoniere as a sequence as deliberate and epistemologically sharp as Dante’s Commedia, but one that approaches the question of how to narrate the progress of a self through time in a more modern way, relying on echoes, resonances, and readerly inference rather than architectural rigor.
The notes are also helpful and unobtrusive, without a lot of scholarly chrome and fenders, and not a footnote in sight. A great introduction to Petrarch’s under-read achievement.
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