Petrarch's Canzone 23 is a dizzying and dazzling tour de force of transformation. The reader is allowed no illusion of rest from the impelling dynamic of change as the narrative voice describes his passage through six corporeal forms. The poem’s extraordinary complexity derives not only from the fast-moving procession of embodiments of the speaking voice (and the way in which each of these alters and edits its classical antecedents), but also from the many cunning authorial comments which unsettle interpretations even as they suggest themselves. The poem is not best read, however, as an encyclopedic inventory of possibilities like certain epic, oracular, and visionary works — the world as a whole is not the subject for its categorizations, nor do I find love itself to be the central concern of the poem (even in the extremely generalized sense in which all human energy may be regarded as erotic), nor is it — except in a rather specific way — about the elusive definition of the ego.
The particular sort of self the poem does pursue is the poetic self, and the canzone is a self-reflexive commentary, a meditation on the nature of language and poetry, a work of theoretical criticism. It radically questions the validity of literature and explores the fundamentally doubled structure of language. The result in the end is not, though an answer that justifies the poem by placing it in a larger scheme, rather the result is the leap necessary to the “prima etade” of literary ambition, the engagement in struggle with the word which is poetry and which within literature can have no end and no victor.
This sounds, perhaps, extravagant, but the approach is hardly novel. Not only must every poem necessarily make critical statements about the nature of poetry and about previous poems, but the specific tradition of which Petrarch is an exemplar played explicitly from William of Aquitaine to Shakesoeare on the relationship between the poem and the lover. Moreover, Canzone 23 is full of references to speech, writing, and literary fame. Before examining these in detail, I would like to review three earlier critics’ comments on Petrarch which seem to me to approach increasingly close to the point of view I mean to set forth.
Burling in his introductory remarks broaches the possibility of a reading of the poem as criticism by identifying the theme as “the incomprehensible changeability of the self in love” and noting three points in the text at which the author is driven to, in effect, produce poetry within the narration. Further he notes that all the myths the poem recalls concern frustrated or disastrous speech or writing as well as deception or confusion over identity. Finally, he charts the basic antinomies governing the piece as follows: dismemberment vs. integration, death vs. poetic immortality, and sexual fear causing dumbness vs. poetic creation. His comments, however, in the brief scope of the preface, lead to no conclusion more precise than that Petrarch calls attention to the “psychologically relative, even suspect, origin of individual poems and thus of writing itself.”
John Preston Brenkman’s “Narcissus in the Text: Toward an Analysis of the Literary Subject in Ovid, Petrarch, and Yeats” examines Petrarch’s sonnets 45 and 46, mentioning poem 23 as well. In Ovid's telling of the Narcissus myth, Brenkman finds a commentary on the deceptive capacities of language. He locates the critical elements for this reading in the shapeshifting uncertainty of the story's central figures. If Narcissus partakes of some of Echo's qualities, and if the author is not wholly distinct from either, if these identities are unstable through the course of the poem, then all utterance may likewise be doubted.
In Brenkman’s view the confusion of identity so prominent in Petrarch further problematizes the status of the speaker. Suggesting that Petrarch undermines the distinction between body and image which is persistent if unstable in Ovid, he says that as Laura becomes less like Narcissus, the authorial voice resembles him more. Thus the sum of delusion remains always the same and the text “defines its own impasse as discourse” since it leaves no ground from which to judge reality, but only the patterns of appearances.
Marguerite Waller in Petrarch's Poetics and Literary History does a thorough and convincing job along similar lines including a substantial treatment of Canzone 23 with exceedingly insightful and suggestive close readings of several passages. For instance, she is at pains to point out that in the first six lines of the poem, Petrarch does not unambiguously identify love as the source of his difficulty. She also questions the reality of any primal state of “libertade” and of its attainability in the future. The laurel is at once himself and his beloved; he passes through changes and yet never leaves it. Waller would translate 1. 167 “nor for a new figure have I known how to leave” and would interpret it as indicating the poet's imprisonment within language. No medium other than words is available to him and so whatever metaphorical forms of his subject he produces, these “figure only that figural production” itself. “Petrarch undercuts the authority of an allegorical narrative reading, demonstrating that the first figure itself is generated in an equally figural and arbitrary structural moment: the poet becoming identical with the laurel/Laura is one dimension (that of the linguistic signifier or figure), but remaining absent or different from it in another (that of the allegorical or interpretive reading, or figural significance. In the effort to recover the self and to emerge from figural to performative discourse, he cannot be wholly successful, but “while losing the self he gains the sign. While escape from the narrative problematic is impossible, narrative itself becomes possible.
The sort of struggle Waller traces in the poem to make a perfectly signifying work and the partial failure that makes possible a partial victory is particularly likely in light of the place the poem occupies in Petrarch’s oeuvre. A marginal gloss in Petrarch’s hand identifies this poem as one of his earliest and the attempt to write the perfect poem may be seen as the young writer's attempt to work up his arrogance into the decision to write at all by means of the fantasy of success at writing the definitive poem. It is, then, in a way a tale of the birth of literary ambition as well as erotic emergence, and it tests the margins of both realms.
The pun between Laura and the laurel (as a literary prize) joins love of self and love of other. The writer paradoxically demonstrates love for himself and love for the whole world by devoting himself to his work, to his muse. Waller suspects there may be a pun, too, in the word penosa (l. 11; meaning “painful” but penna is pen or quill). She does not mention, though the intention is indisputable, the play between foglia (leaf) and foglio (sheet of paper) in 1. 40 or with the word piuma (feather or plumage but also quill pen) in 1. 51. Having covered himself with pages and pens successively, after dedicating himself to the pursuit of literature the poet then finds himself a stone.
In the serial progression of literary worth I am now delineating this is the withdrawal or descent into self that potentiates poetry. His next incarnation is as a fountain which brings inevitable associations of inspiration and productivity — I would say he has here crossed the stile into the precincts of art. While the penultimate form — the Echo-like stone and voice — raises new problems, it remains for the final transformation, the Actaeon-like stag to bring a dramatic resolution.
Before returning to these last two images of the poet, I would like to discuss the poem’s references to 1anguage and its conclusion. Though Petrarch gets his poem going by asserting that it is efficacious to reduce his pain and he brings the piece to a halt by lofting into the empyrean on poetical wings, the references between to words are almost
exclusively devoted to attesting their inadequacy, their failures. Already by 1. 11 everyone is said to be tired of his carrying on; in 1. 37 he declares wit and speech of no avail; in 52-62 his wailing is continuous only because it is ineffective. Getting directly to the point he tells his reader that his subject is beyond all speech (1. 71), that his pen cannot follow his will (1. 91). Pen and ink again disappoint expectation in 1. 100 and later he says that his words have the form of a lie (l. 156).
All of these negative comments, however, are contained between two which, as I have noted, testify on the contrary to the actual power of speech and of poetry. The last passage is at once highly conventional as a description of poetic flight and very suggestive of sexual realization. As an apotheosis of poetry, though, the poem it ends must be its justification. Further, the complaints about the shortcomings of poetry are stated only in lines of poetry and they thus have a divided content anyway since their very existence as words is evidence that the author trusts in their potency. Only if the reader should indeed find them tiresome and leave off reading long before the conclusion will they have failed, and Petrarch provides even for that case. Line 12 tells us that every valley conveys his complaints so the message is virtually inescapable.
The erotic double-bind is then accompanied or paralleled by a linguistic one. One way in which these profound ambivalences is traced is by the opposition of life and death. In stage one the “living man” is made a tree, clearly a decline in vitality, though not an absolute one. The process continues in form 2 when his hope, the internal essence of his being, is said to be dead. As a stone he is suspended between life and death and from this egg-like latency, he emerges in the fountain which in its exhilarated flow requires no mention of death. As the Echo-like stone he calls death by name, but this is now an objectified death, outside himself. Unlike the earlier death, he is now able to name it and manipulate it verbally.
In the Actaeon-image of form 6, the situation would seem, to be a mortal one, yet again here death is not mentioned. The poet has, in the process of the poem, not banished death, but he has made it a part of his system. After his poem is born, he entertains no illusions about the powers of language, but he understands its nature more fully and by that understanding he controls it. Although the crisis may seem to evaporate in the heavenly flight at the end, the image of fleeing the hounds is not by any means obliterated.
It is a dramatic and compelling moment near the end when the poet says that he is still fleeing the belling of the hounds. At once the reader recognizes the gravity of the situation as it is no longer recounted by a coolly detached voice sneaking elegantly of past travails (and the tone of mastery is important throughout the poem even in the parts that would be most anguished in some common-sense relation), but it speaks of its own present. It would be acceptable to most readers to comment that the sudden grip of panic that seizes the reader’s throat at this point may legitimately be said to indicate a continuation of this elastic present into the moment of the reading in a virtual reenactment of the event described.
But just who are these hounds and of what does their noise consist? And what are those woods from one to another of which the poet is driven? It would be a psychoanalytical reading unusually rich in self-contradiction even to begin to explicate them as emblems of passion, even a passion made up as much of ambition as lust. However, I believe they are more tellingly glossed as the meaning of language pursuing language itself. It is in this sense rather than as psychic impulses that they have outlived Pope Innocent’s hunting dogs and that they still live and pursue their quarry on the page today. They represent both the fund of energy animating language and the desperation that arises from its repeated failures. The tracks of their pursuit are evident throughout the poem.
Images of language as a two-fold structure are very old. In medieval books of rhetoric the most frequent form for this division is simply sound and sense. Words had always been recognized as arbitrary symbols and they had usually be admitted to be not wholly explicable. The bifurcation is reflected in Canzone 23 by a series of images of containment:
1. 20 “that within me” and “I the shell”
1. 24-26 the heart and "frozen thoughts"
1. 34 himself and his garment
1. 73 heart in his breast
1. 75 the beloved in a garment that makes her unrecognizable
1. 82 the poet and the stone
1. 95 heart and death all about
1. 106 the poet clothed in darkness
All of these images convey the sense of what is truly important, truly human contained within a more death-like outer husk which either prevents communication, deceives, or denies the importance of affect. The barrier is broken at least implicitly in all of these instances but surely the most startling and disturbing is the occult surgery the beloved performs in 1. 74. In the terms by which I have been explicating the poem each of the occasions catalogued indicates the doubled character of language which makes possible its deceit (cf . Hesiod and Umberto Eco), and this amazing violation of the boundaries suggests the possible revelation of meaning in language in sudden moments prepared by pain, though more the pain of painstaking craft than that of romantic agony.
If the outer layer in each of my containment images is that indifferent word which in its stubborn physicality seems altogether unresponsive to the demands placed upon it by human users, the withdrawal of the heart by the muse and indeed the very existence of Canzone 23 itself and its absorbing spell demonstrate that this husk is not a final one, that it may make possible an incubation from which a sort of new life can emerge.
The problematic of literary identity remains and the problematic of language itself: nothing can mean exactly what we would have it mean, language is not constructed to perform such a role. If it were a single verse could bring instant illumination to anyone and literary success on that order is impossible. Petrarch's interest may be in that which is (l. 71) “beyond writing,” but only if it provides him with the trajectory along which he wishes to aim, if it gives the excuse that makes him want to write. Though fated not to strike that transcendental target (and so far as the love theme itself goes, does even Norman Mailer still seek the transcendental orgasm?). Petrarch leaves behind a poem which in struggling against these limitations both comes to understand them and overcomes them only to encounter the same problems the next time he is is faced with a blank page.
In the passage following 1. 121 Petrarch suggests these ultimate pretensions with an analogy between the soul, God, and Laura. But the soul is accessible to others only through its outward form and its outward actions, the Lady through her person and the muse through concrete poems. Likewise the maker, whether divine or human, while never equivalent to his creation is pressed in it and the word, however inadequately it conveys meaning, appropriates that very inadequacy as part of its nature. The patterns of ambiguity and deceit that characterize language in general are just those elements that make literature. It is the distance between Actaeon and the hounds, between the word and its meaning, not the congruity of the two that makes poetry, but nonetheless the chase must go on. With the ceasing of the struggle would come the collapse of language.