In 1975, when I was on my four-month "junior year" junket in France I became transfixed by a Bob Dylan song called "Tangled Up in Blue." In those days, in France, at least, you could go into a record shop, request a recording, and set up in a little cell in the back of the shop to listen with headphones to see if you wanted to purchase the record. I listened to "Tangled Up in Blue" until the manager banged on the door of the listening booth and told me to stop. I listened twice more until I was told in no uncertain terms to leave the shop and not come back.
I was taken, especially, by Dylan's mysterious reference to an "Italian poet from the thirteenth century," who pops up in the middle of the song, as the hero is courting his estranged beloved. The lady gives him a book of poems, which, it turns out were written by a man in pursuit of his own lady. The man was the poet Francis Petrarch, or Petrarca, as he is known in the Italian that I was beginning to study on my own at the time. Petrarch invented the modern sonnet sequence and our modern idea of the lover as a weeping, melancholic poet. I would later notice, to my delight, when I once tried to teach the song to a group of undergraduates, that each of its stanzas is in the form of a sonnet. Dylan had gotten there first, as is usually the case, and figured out the game. If it's a poem, it can be a song.
But Petrarch had many things to teach me, as I began reading him. His roots were in the poetry of the twelfth-century Troubadours, who wrote in the language known as Old Provençal, or Occitan. The first long poem in his collection of interlinked lyrics, sometimes call the "Canzoniere," or "Songbook," is in the form of a sestina. A sestina is a strange poetic form consisting of six stanzas of six lines each. The final word of each line (they are only rhymed through assonance, the repetition of a common vowel) moves around as we move from stanza to stanza, from the end of line 1, in the first stanza, to the end of line 5 in the second, then back to line 3, and so on, until, as we move through the six stanzas, each word has appeared as the last word in each of the six positions in a different stanza. In this way, the poem turns around itself, built on the movement of six key words, placed at the end of the different lines. At the end of the form is a three-line tag that repeats all six of the key words used in the various stanzas that have made up the poem.
It's a crazy, madly artificial poetic form, one that pops up here and there in the work of poets across the centuries. Petrarch's sestina tells of how the rhythms of the seasons come and go, day follows night, and night follows day. The animals realize this and sleep when they are supposed to. Only the poet, who is pining for his lady, cannot sleep. He cannot follow the normal rhythms of the day. He is, we might say, the outlier, the totally unnatural self—the desiring self—whose desire sets him at odds with the natural order of things. His erratic, neurotic, sleeping and waking patterns stand in a kind of tension with the regularity of the rigid poetic form that gives them voice.
Petrarch's poem is indebted to an earlier poem, the first sestina anyone knows about, by Arnaut Daniel, who was widely acknowledged to be the greatest of the Troubadours. When he meets him in Purgatory, Dante calls Arnaut the "better craftsman of the mother tongue." Arnaut's sestina treats his desire to enter into the room where is lady is. Each time he tries to approach her, he cannot. He is tormented by what the first line of the poem calls "lo ferm voler q'el cor m'intra," "the strong desire that enters my heart." Petrarch recalls this language in his own sestina, where he speaks of "lo mio fermo desir," which, he says, comes from the stars. He thus echoes and translates Arnaut's language ("voler" becomes "desir"), and lends the drama of desire a metaphysical dimension.
Arnaut's poem, like virtually all of the Troubadour poems, is constructed of discrete single lines of meaning that are grammatically complete within themselves. Lines may consist of lists of adjectives, or descriptions of situations. Verbs and nouns go together within each poetic line: "I will take pleasure in my joy, in a garden or a chamber," ends the first stanza, in a nice complete sentence.
Here are some more sample lines from Arnaut, in Fredrick Goldin's accurate translation (slightly amended by me):
Let me be hers with my body, not my soul
let her hide me in her chamber
for it wounds my heart more than blows from a rod
and where she dwells her servant never enters.
[Del cors li fos, non de l'arma,
e cossentis m'a celat dinz sa cambra!
Que plus mi nafra-l cor que colps de verga
car lo sieus sers lai on ill es non entra]
As we can see, we get clear grammatical periods that map easily onto the form of the lines. Each one is fairly well balanced and makes sense by itself.
Not so Petrarch. The key moment in the poem comes in the fifth stanza, when he points out that he will soon die. He is, after all, mortal. Before he goes up to the stars in heaven, however, he expresses the hope that he will see pity for him in the face of his beloved:
Before I return to you, bright stars,
. . .
might I see pity in her, for in but one day
it could restore many years, and before the dawn
enrich me from the setting of the sun.
Prima ch'i' torni a voi, lucenti stelle,
. . .
vedess' io in lei pietà, che 'n un sol giorno
può ristorar molt' anni, e 'nanzi l'alba
puommi arichir dal tramontar del sole.
What is important is the run-on lines that shape the expression of desire. The line ending in "in but one day" cannot stand on its own. It is only completed by the first half of the following line, "it could restore many years." The same holds for the line ending in "before the dawn." The message of these lines can only be conveyed across the two lines. The phrase begins in the middle of one line and ends in the middle of the next. In contrast to the Troubadour practice of generating meaning in discrete, grammatically complete lines, Petrarch breaks the form. He pushes against the rigid structure of the sestina, which marks out time as it unspools. Just as he tells us in the opening lines that he is outside of nature—unable to sleep when all the other creatures in the universe are resting—so here is he outside of the form of his own poem, twisting the rigid structure of the sestina in order to give voice to his despair and hope. It is certainly no accident that this breaking of the form comes at the moment that the poet, caught by desire, both acknowledges his mortality and names that thing that could undo time—the "pietà" expressed in a loving glance from his beloved. Time would stop through that gaze, just as he makes it stop by breaking the rigidity of a poetic form that is heavily formulaic.
Petrarch here gives shape to one of the important features of virtually all modern art, which is that it must constantly evoke and use earlier forms, even as it pushes against them. The message of modernity, in this context, is a message of fragmentation of the past that cannot, however, do without it. This was, in slightly different language, the message that Dylan conveyed in "Tangled Up in Blue," when he evoked the language of a love poetry that could both give meaning to the confusion of modern love, and yet not quite redeem it.