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Tuesday, June 15, 1993

in the closed vale

(The following is an epistola metrica composed in English in imitation of and playfully attributed to Francesco Petrarca. The appended sonnet is however genuine and translated from the Italian.)

Petrarch here deliberately gives the impression that he is writing from Vaucluse soon after his brother Gherardo, the presumed addressee of the epistle, has joined the Carthusian order in 1343, perhaps in the winter of 1343-44. But at this time Petrarch was in Naples and then Parma. Parma is vividly mentioned in the poem, but other internal evidence strongly suggests that the letter is of later date, after 1348 at least. If the letter was written at Vaucluse, it would probably date from the period of his residence from 1351-53, after he had begun but not finished collecting his familiarum rerum libri. It is possible that Petrarch composed this letter, among others, with the intention of inserting it at a specific point in the chronology of collected letters and that it was not intended for Gherardo's eyes at all. The letter, however, is stylistically inferior to much of Petrarch's work, and he must have realized this, for it was never included in his finished work, and has only recently come to light, quite by accident. The original is in Latin, with a sonnet appended in Italian.

In the closed vale,

my sweet brother, the swallows
are doing their silent work without complaint.
They are like you; wherever they are the people
are made happier, and everything becomes
much cleaner, as after April rains. It was
April, you know, when you chose to leave me here,
and all your friends, and the long nights of talking
of glorious ancients, and of the fathers of sad
spurned faith, and poor neglected Rome.
Even so was it April when my heart,
as you know, left me for another, never to return
while I have life, so that every laurel
and every breeze might mock my emptiness,
and my soul hung like a green leaf before
the breath of crowds; my reputation was their toy
and their laughter blew me about upon the branch
till I, brown and sere, fell upon the stream
and drifted here, deep in the shadows of my own
closed vale, my sweet brother, that is so like
me, for its hidden spring weeps in winter
and in summer, without end. But you
have been a comfort to me; whether here,
nesting like a swallow in the cliff above
the east bank of the green and tumbling stream;
or far below, in the dusty-throated Babylon
on the plain: a counter to the madness
and corruption of that place, and a complement
of cheerful sufficiency in the other, always
helpful in my crazed efforts to placate
the nymphs of the vale, while honoring the muses
that always make them jealous, so that every
meadow, every garden we built there
was swept away within the year; their fury
undiminished till complete; their victory
leaving no sign of all that I -- that we
had striven to plant or build to beautify
our memories of that place. And just as our gardens
were swept away by the jealous nymphs, I feel
you too have been stolen -- by a jealous God. Please,
my sweet brother, bear with me, for I feel
swollen with sorrows, but I mean no blasphemy!
Does not the Father of Heaven himself say,
"I am a jealous God"? and he takes away
the best, always, because the best is right
for him to take. And I know that it is God
that has taken you, and not some gang of monks
whose heaven is an inn, and whose God
is carried within the circle of their belts!
Rather, I know it is God because only the Father
inspires the life of the silent men, whom you
have been inspired to join with, not a rabble
of cenobitic share-alls, grubbing each
at the other's blanket under a common roof,
breathing garlic in one another's ears
the whole night long, and begging for new wine
or chasing women all the day, making
the name of Christ a joke to the common people,
so that when these beggars go out for alms,
a man may say to them, "What! You here again?"
and call some poor fellow from the ditch
and give the alms to him instead, saying
"Here! In Mohammed's name, for he truly
is stronger than the Christ these fellows talk of!"
But your order, an eremetic city set
on a hill, is cleanly, faithful, quiet, and strong
in the kindly works of our Lord. They and you
are so alike, how could it have been otherwise?
Thus do I say, a jealous God took you,
for he could not bear this filthy world should hold
such a one another day. All
my friends are like you in this; the Lord loves
them all too well; he takes them, one by one;
Remember Parma? It was there, you know,
by the bench I told you I'd had built,
that I, one day, was weeding among the bulbs,
near enough to the little brook to hear
its crystal song above the deeper roar
of the famous city so close by, and a darkness
came and stood upon that bridge, and I
looked up and into that darkness, as I have done
so often at the mouth of the fountain here
(for I am not afraid of caves and darkness,
and love to walk at night, even when
there is no moon), and saw therein our friend,
Giacomo Colonna, striding across
where that branch of the plane tree dips so closely
to the pool, between the bench and the wall.
I greeted him, surprised, and most concerned,
for he was hurrying along, and had no company,
and seemed as if he would not -- could not -- tarry.
He smiled, yet would not be embraced, and said
(I will never forget his words then!),
"Don't you recall the awful storms along
the baleful crest of the high Pyranees?
You hated them; so did I, and now
I am leaving those places forever: I am for Rome."
I wanted to go with him, but he was so stern
it made me afraid to speak; it was clear
that he would not have me go, so I looked
closely on him, to fix his beloved features
forever in my mind, and it was then
that I saw how pale he was, and knew that he
was dead. I have said elsewhere that this
was in a dream, but already I am not so sure.
Colonna died that very day, you know;
So I feel I really saw him. But you I never
see now, asleep or awake, but only remember.
Even as I write, I remember,
and it seems as though I might shape you
with my words. I see you as you were
when we braved the craggy slopes so high
above this shady valley, when we were young.
You took the straight path as it lay before you,
up and over all obstacles,
no matter how fearsome, and never stopped till you
had reached the appointed goal. You were then
just as you are; that is why God loves you
best! While I, wandering this way and that,
sought to take a path that looked the easiest,
but found to my chagrin it turned downhill.
I was lucky to reach the top at all,
but I did! I did! You cannot deny it, brother.
And it was I who brought our precious saint,
Augustinus, with us all that way.
The clouds were lower down, with the late sun
bright on their broad fleecy backs, and the Alps
shone far to the south, between us and
our father-country Italia, and the sea.
At our feet, so near it seemed a dream,
the Rhone, gleaming, in its bed of stones.
All this was first yours, but also mine,
and I brought forth Augustinus from my breast
and gave his benediction to that day:
that men wander through the world gazing
upon the high mountain tops, the great
ocean waves and deeply springing rivers,
and the slow-turning canopy of bright stars,
yet never think to look upon their souls.
This you have done; but this, I fear, I fear
to do, or rather wish to do but always turn
just as I reach the heavenly door, to seek
some easier-seeming path, some flowered way,
and always find, as on that peak, my way
leading down, toward some darkened place.
God be my witness, I often try to turn
there on my pleasant-seeming path, back
to the place where last I saw the door, but it
by then is gone, and nothing there I find
but a smooth expanse of bramble-covered wall.
And now you write to me and say the things
I have so often told myself, troubled,
as you must believe, beyond the common run
of men in sin! Brother, I have even
made a small book wherein I keep
my lapses and successes; already once
I kept myself safe for two years
and seven months; now, it is true, the priest
to whom I go for confession is kept busy,
but I trust the Lord will give me strength.
In living alone, as you know by now, there is
much to be gained. I have here the two
faithful servants and the dog, and visitors
come, but not too often, and the people
of the valley seem to regard me as their judge,
but I do have, as you have seen for yourself,
a space to myself within the walls of my
small house, south windowed, and endowed with one
extravagant-seeming thing: a good scriptorum.
Nearby are the books, my closest friends: they
(Virgil, Cicero, Livy, and the rest,
and Augustinus, my advisor and true
confessor) open continually their great treasures
to me, and through me, to all the world beside.
Do you not rise and pray in the midst of night
that all the saints may bless the wide world?
And the scripture says, "the heartfelt prayer
of a righteous man effecteth much." So too
you pour out the treasures of heaven on
the earth, as I unearth and bring to light
the gold and silver of the past! Brother,
my work is not so unlike yours...except,
of course, that I am able to put my name
on all my little productions! I do admit,
to you, now, dear heart, that I desire
greatly to see my name remembered -- God
forgive this! I see two thirsts in me: the one
to live forever in a name above
the common herd; the other, to nurse along
the hurt that blind boy gave me, years ago
when I was least prepared to defend myself.
Yes, I am still thirsting! Only those
who have never seen her cannot understand!
The light foliage of her hair, the dark
contrasting brows...the all-destroying twin
suns burning in her face, that should
have killed me long since, but Fortune
preserved me, for they have been oft averted;
while my own eyes looked everywhere that she,
I knew, was not, and found her in stones and winds
and even among the roots of trees along
the storm-scoured banks of the river Sorgue.
I have sat upon the grass at midnight
and rained tears on my own breast, because
the stars, so like her in their shining,
wheeled by beyond my reach, as thoughtless
of my suffering as she! And it seems
to me now these two thirsts are one
in some way: that as the light-limbed goddess
vanished, and in her place stood rooted forever
the dreamless, unapproachable laurel tree,
Apollo might have lifted a storm-stolen
branch with which to weave himself a crown
for remembrance; so with me, for to console
myself that tears and smiles, and even my poems,
moved not one, though they move all others,
I might, somewhere along the Appian Way,
pluck some branch of the very tree of hate
and, weaving it round my brows, make it
forever after my crown of love. The Africa
will earn me this, though it is already mine,
but I have begun, my brother, to gather the scattered
leaves that the winds of Love have brought me here
and elsewhere -- if it must be pain, then let the pain
be famed! Famed in France and Italy, and even
as far as the shores walked by Scipio, or
the mountains beyond the sacred land where Christ
walked along the Galilean strand.
Is this dreaming? Perhaps I have dreamed it all;
some will say: "this man invents everything
he says has happened to him"; but, brother,
you know I speak to you truly from the heart,
this heart that is not mine but another's,
for you yourself once loved truly one
who now has gone beyond you and the grave.
What is life? They, the crowd, never
ask, but I have asked, all my days,
and now I tell you what even the ancients most
desired to know, yet never found: this life
of man is a kind of dreaming, whether awake
or sleeping. He rises in a dream, and dresses
with dreaming hands. In the field he dreams of grain,
and at his nets he catches silver dreams.
He looks but cannot see, and hears but nothing
hears, as our blessed Lord tells us; there is
nothing between a man and a man but words,
and our words are all, and only, stuff of dreams.
I make myself in books, brother, because
I want my dreams to go on living yet,
and I know no other way. Is this so evil?
I will tell you more when I come, dear brother,
for I desire much to see you, and
observe the true monastic rule, some days
or even weeks, if the Abbott will allow.
I close by appending a copy of the first
leaf that drifted from my pain, back
to my door here in the wild, so that I might
weave it in the crown that now I wear
here in the closed vale, where it is always
winter in my soul without you, dear brother.

The sonnet:

Apollo, if yet lives the beautiful desire
that set you aflame by the Thessalian coast,
and if your love for the blonde tresses
amid wheeling years, has not found oblivion

through slow ice and sharp, wicked time
enduring while your face yet seems obscured,
protect this loved and sacred foliage
by which first you and then I were caught;

and by the virtue of that hope of love
that kept you up despite your life of pain,
completely clear the air of all falsehood;

we may then both see a wonder in the same way:
seated, our lady, upon the grass
making, with her arms, her own shade.


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