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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Sunshine And Petrarch

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As I look across the bay, there is seen resting over all the hills, and even upon every distant sail, an enchanted veil of palest blue, that seems woven out of the very souls of happy days,--a bridal veil, with which the sunshine weds this soft landscape in summer. Such and so indescribable is the atmospheric film that hangs over these poems of Petrarch's; there is a delicate haze about the words, that vanishes when you touch them, and reappears as you recede. How it clings, for instance, around this sonnet!

    SONNET 191.
    "Aura che quelle chiome."
    Sweet air, that circlest round those radiant tresses,
    And floatest, mingled with them, fold on fold,
    Deliciously, and scatterest that fine gold,
    Then twinest it again, my heart's dear jesses,
    Thou lingerest on those eyes, whose beauty presses
    Stings in my heart that all its life exhaust,
    Till I go wandering round my treasure lost,
    Like some scared creature whom the night distresses.
    I seem to find her now, and now perceive
    How far away she is; now rise, now fall;
    Now what I wish, now what is true, believe.
    O happy air! since joys enrich thee all,
    Rest thee; and thou, O stream too bright to grieve!
    Why can I not float with thee at thy call?

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The airiest and most fugitive among Petrarch's love-poems, so far as I know,--showing least of that air of earnestness which he has contrived to impart to almost all,--is this little ode or madrigal. It is interesting to see, from this, that he could be almost conventional and courtly in moments when he held Laura farthest aloof; and when it is compared with the depths of solemn emotion in his later sonnets, it seems like the soft glistening of young birch-leaves against a background of pines.

    "Nova angeletta sovra l' ale accorta."
    A new-born angel, with her wings extended,
    Came floating from the skies to this fair shore,
    Where, fate-controlled, I wandered with my sorrows.
    She saw me there, alone and unbefriended,
    She wove a silken net, and threw it o'er
    The turf, whose greenness all the pathway borrows,
    Then was I captured; nor could fears arise,
    Such sweet seduction glimmered from her eyes.

Turn from these light compliments to the pure and reverential tenderness of a sonnet like this:-


"Qual donna attende a gloriosa fama."
    Doth any maiden seek the glorious fame
    Of chastity, of strength, of courtesy? Gaze in the eyes of that
sweet enemy
    Whom all the world doth as my lady name!
    How honor grows, and pure devotion's flame,
    How truth is joined with graceful dignity,
    There thou mayst learn, and what the path may be
    To that high heaven which doth her spirit claim;
    There learn soft speech, beyond all poet's skill,
    And softer silence, and those holy ways
    Unutterable, untold by human heart.
    But the infinite beauty that all eyes doth fill,
    This none can copy! since its lovely rays
    Are given by God's pure grace, and not by art.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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