What if love notes or poems or sonnets weren't simply about a person? Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul.
When we think of love sonnets, most of us think of the sappy ooze of lyricists or the flavorless mush in greeting cards. But when they were first written in the 14th century, their intent was much different.
It all began with Francesco Petrarch in 1304. Like his predecessor Dante, Petrarch was a devout Catholic. He too was exiled from Italy with his family due to civil unrest. Once in France, Petrarch’s father had a successful law practice, and the family prospered, so much so that he arranged the best education money could buy at the time—private tutors. By age 16, Petrarch dutifully followed in his father’s footsteps and studied law first at Montpelier then at Bologna.
Legend tells that since his father was supplying an allowance to Petrarch, he often made surprise visits at university. One such afternoon, Petrarch was quietly reading a book in his rented room when his father suddenly arrived. Enraged at the number of books Petrarch had purchased with his allowance, he promptly threw them out of the window and into the street below.
Now throwing around books at this time was no light matter. Before the printing press, many books were hand-copied and sewn together at great cost. If the story is indeed true, Petrarch likely spent a month’s allowance on one book alone. His personal library held copies of Homer’s Iliad, Cicero's Rhetoric, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid, all of which he loved dearly.
FORGET THE LAW
Meanwhile, his father set fire to the small stash in the middle of the street. Any passerby would know the value of that fire, and naturally disheartened, within a few months Petrarch quit law school and promptly announced he was going to be a writer and poet and take his ecclesiastical orders. Some biographers say that his father died before he could quit; others that Petrarch was simply dissatisfied with the untruthfulness of the law as a whole.
From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good
Petrarch did pursue his minor orders and began to write, and this is where the sonnet as a form was born. The story he tells lies in Sonnet 3. He was in Avignon at service on Good Friday in 1327, "the day the sun's ray had turned pale," a day of “universal woe,” when a light from the cathedral window shone on a woman rows in front of him. It was Laura de Sade, who was already wed or soon to be by most accounts. She was illumined, and a Muse was born. They likely never met or spoke from that moment, but Petrarch wrote hundreds of sonnets about her and to her.
NO STALKING HERE
The thing is Petrarch was not some obsessive stalker, but a man instead who knew love in a different way. That God revealed her to him on Good Friday was everything. For him, Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul, "From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good . . ." (Sonnet 13).
No, there's no such thing as husband poetry. I mean my husband asked me to teach him more about poetry. My husband felt there were decided holes in his education, but I thought surely somewhere in junior high or high school a dedicated teacher must have taught him some famous verse. He swears he remembers nothing of the sort. Thus, three months ago, my husband picked up a volume of Emily Bronte poetry and determined to understand what he read.
He was already a decided Bronte sisters' admirer, so likability wasn't an issue. What did become an issue was rhyme scheme and syllable structure. So what to do? Consult with your English teacher wife of course. As he read poetry before bed each evening, he began to ask me questions like Why does this line have eight syllables and this one has ten?
I know, I know. Nerd alert. How many married couples talk like this before falling asleep? Anyway, I began by asking him not only to count syllables in every line, but to also determine if there was a pattern. How many lines are in the overall poem, sweetie? Did you say 14? So what type of poem is that? What was Bronte imitating? Pretty soon I realized we needed to start at the beginning. All the intelligent Rush lyrics of his youth bred a natural appreciation for poetry and the lyrical art, but that didn't mean he understood the required skills or genius of the poet's work.
This is what we've learned so far in the poetry journey:
STEP ONE: Read poetry you like, poetry you're drawn to. Each person has their own taste of course. Bronte did that for him as did Frost and Seamus Heaney.
STEP TWO: Break apart the poem skeleton. This is tricky because if you spend too much time identifying parts you can also remove the pleasure of reading for the beauty of the thing. At the same time without the knowledge of parts it's hard to appreciate the whole. Think of the human skeleton. Knowing the parts of the body that frame it and allow it to stand and move increases our appreciation of its overall appearance.
STEP THREE: Find a teaching text that's written at your level. Perhaps the most difficult creature to find, an instructional book is a necessary thing unless you already have an English teacher spouse at your side. From homeschooling curricula to college-level texts, there are too many choices. I've read quite a few that make poetry more difficult and even more that make it too simple. The trick is to find the one that fits you. As an adult learner, my husband didn't want a middle school beginner though he was willing. Instead we went entirely old school. Why not learn from two distinguished Yale professors?
MY TOP RECOMMENDATION
Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. It's no longer in print but is a valuable text if you find one. You can learn so much from reading just two chapters on narrative and descriptive poems. Brooks and Warren include plenty of examples AND include their commentary on how the poem works and what it means. So, so helpful to learn from their wealth of experience. Brooks also has his own poetry textbook titled The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. Though I haven't read it yet, it comes with high reviews.
And as a bonus, read Dwight Longenecker's essay "Why You Need Poetry." He provides much needed motivation for why poetry benefits our minds, ourselves, as a creative outlet.
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro' endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –
When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door –
When Butterflies – renounce their "drams" –
I shall but drink the more!
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!
As a poet, Emily Dickinson creates a buffet for the senses and the imagination in “I taste a liquor never brewed.” By her first implication, the reader knows that this poem does not refer to something natural, something “brewed” by man, but to the sense of something hard to define. This mysterious element combined with unusual imagery elicits a playful almost festive theme of the summer season.
Dickinson persistently uses drunken imagery in all its connotations as a metaphor for the exhilaration she enjoys outdoors in the summer. She first mentions that nothing can compare to this heady sensation, no other emotion can “yield such an alcohol.” The imagery continues as she next mentions she is drunk on the very air and summer dew, “reeling” all season long in the “inns” or taverns under the sky. Dickinson even relishes summer more than the insects that thrive then. Lines 9 through 12 show how the bee has had his fill of “drink” from the foxgloves, and the butterflies now “renounce their drams” and can’t drink or even desire another drop. Yet Dickinson exclaims she’ll keep drinking—consuming, absorbing, enjoying all creation.
So much of Dickinson’s description lies in tangible sensation.
First person point of view pervades these first three stanzas, and this is part of the power of this poem. In line 1, Dickinson tastes this “liquor” of summer. In line 5, she is the one who is drunk on air and dew, and in line 12, she shouts that when the bee and butterflies are done drinking, “I shall but drink the more!” Her point of view is just that, not a commentary or guide to how the reader should feel about summer, but an exclamation of her intense emotion in a most unusual metaphor.
However, the perspective of the final stanza shifts as Dickinson describes angels and saints in heaven gazing down through their “snowy Hats” or clouds and “windows” at her. As narrators, they in turn term her a “Tippler,” someone who makes a habit of drinking. Interestingly, a tippler isn’t an extreme drinker or drunk but simply a regular and daily drinker. The angels and saints witness her “Leaning against the - Sun!” not overcome and leaning against a bar or wall in a tavern, but against the sun itself, the epitome of the season. Dickinson is the one regularly “drinking in” the sun.
So much of Dickinson’s description lies in tangible sensation, the taste of drink, or even physical movement, but not in color or sound. Yet the absence of these two senses does not diminish her apparent expression of heart-felt emotion. She remains wholly conjoined to the essence of summer.