British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

Luca Manini (Università di Parma)


Charlotte Smith and the Voice of Petrarch

Charlotte Smith was one of the first poets who retranslated Petrarch into English, after the blooming of the
Petrarchan sonnet sequences in the Renaissance period. Four of her Elegiac Sonnets are translations from Petrarch
(Canzoniere 145, 90, 279, and 301, rendered as Elegiac Sonnets 13–16). She translates Petrarch’s sonnets in a
free way, transforming them into a micro-text within the macro-text of her sequence, where she concentrates the
love-story between Petrarch and Laura, subtly humanizing the latter and evoking a requited feeling of love on her
part. After her death, Laura appears to Petrarch to tell him that she is waiting for him in Heaven, thus giving a
precise goal to his wandering as an exile on earth. This precise goal, by contrast, is missing in Smith’s Sonnets
where, by contrast, she presents herself as a wanderer, a pilgrim, and an exile looking for a path that constantly
eludes her. If Petrarch addresses Laura as a consoler, Smith addresses a series of female entities (Poesy, the Muse,
Fancy, the moon, nature), but unlike Laura, none of these can offer either shelter or relief to the poetic subject.
Smith’s thematic distance from Petrarch is reflected in the form she chose for her sonnets – not the Italian form as
employed by Milton, but the English form, with which, however, she often experiments, showing her intention to
define a specifically female poetic voice. Nonetheless, she cannot totally avoid the burden of a literary tradition
which has been the domain of male poets, so that, in her poetic world, the only entity that can give her the
oblivion she longs for is Death, which, in her sonnets, is a male personification.

The epigraph to Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets is taken from the final stanza of a poem by Petrarch.1 Four of the ninety-two Elegiac Sonnets are translations from Petrarch. If the epigraph suggests the overall tone of the sonnet sequence, which is one of disconsolate melancholy, the four sonnets make up a sort of micro-text inside the macro-text of the sequence: it is a micro-text with features of its own, which, in the way Charlotte Smith has devised it, establishes with the other sonnets a relationship of complementarity and opposition, in the sign of a contiguity and continuity which becomes willing difference and gap. This micro-canzoniere is to be read alongside the other micro-text contained in the Elegiac Sonnets, that is the five sonnets inspired by Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (sonnets 21 to 25).

The epigraph is the envoi of the Petrarchan canzone ‘Che debb’io far? che mi consigli, Amore?’ (Canzoniere 268):

Non t’appressar ove sia riso e canto
Canzone mio, nò, ma pianto:
Non fa per te di star con gente allegra
Vedova sconsolata, in vesta nigra.2

1 The epigraph was added to the second volume of the 1797 edition.

2 Charlotte Smith deletes the first line of the stanza, which actually reads ‘Fuggi ‘l sereno e ‘l verde, / non t’appressare ove sia riso o canto, / canzon mia no, ma pianto: / non fa per te di star fra gente allegra, / vedova sconsolata in veste negra’. (‘Flee the serene air and the green, do not approach where there is laughing and

-97-

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