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What is the meaning of Petrarch's "Sonnet 131" ("I'd sing of Love in such a novel fashion")?

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Petrarch's "Sonnet 131" reflects his desire to express his love uniquely to capture the attention of both his beloved Laura and future generations. Despite using conventional imagery, he hopes his poetry will evoke compassion and regret in Laura, and ultimately secure his posthumous fame as a great love poet, showcasing the enduring power of art to transcend time.

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In Sonnet 131, Petrarch writes of his ambition to express his love in such a new way as to claim the attention of both his mistress and posterity. There is some irony in this, since the tropes he employs are rather well-worn, borrowed from Latin lyric poets such as Catullus and Propertius, with traditional imagery of roses and marble.

Petrarch begins the octave by wishing that the sheer novelty of the way in which he expresses love (rather than intensity or poetic skill, both of which are more in evidence), would force Laura to love him as he loves her. It is striking that he thinks of reciprocity rather than consummation: not of the two of them being united in love, but of her sighing for him as he now sighs for her. He would like to excite her compassion and regret, looking to the past rather than the future, focusing on the pain she has already caused him rather than any notion of joy in the future.

The sestet turns from Laura to Petrarch's hopes of posthumous fame, whereupon the poet's focus on exciting these emotions becomes clear. His purpose is not really to draw his mistress closer to him, but to affect her profoundly with his poetry, almost as a dress rehearsal for posterity. If he can awake these emotions in her, then he will clearly be remembered as a great love poet, winning eternal glory with his verse.

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"Sonnet 131" is a striking testament to the power of art. Here, Petrarch expresses the desire that his poetry should move people, exert a profound effect upon their emotions. Though the object of his affections may now be cold and cruel, Petrarch is certain that his verses will eventually melt her heart, rekindling her desire and causing her to dissolve into tears of compassion. Petrarch clearly has a high regard for his talents as a love poet. He seems to think that his amorous verses possess almost magical properties; as well as kindling love and desire, Petrarch's poems can also do the exact opposite: turn his audience into marble, that is to say make them utterly indifferent to affairs of the heart.

But Petrarch doesn't simply want his poems to have an effect on his contemporaries, but on posterity. The power of his art, like all art, transcends the time and place in which it was conceived, to speak to the ages. Petrarch candidly admits that he seeks immortal fame in his poems, poems that will redound to his glory long after he has departed from this earth.

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[Remember, that with all art, once it is released to the "public," it means something different to everyone, especially because of the unique experiences each person brings to that piece of art.]

As one who loves poetry, I have found that most poems do not follow a line-by-line organization, with a complete thought in each line, but deliver, instead, a series of ideas that make up, in this case, a fourteen-line heart-felt expression: in the form of a Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet.

In "Sonnet 131," also known as "I'd sing of love in such a novel fashion," the first line indicates that the author is personifying love, and that "she" is often cold and unattainable. The writer states that if it were in his power, he would write in such a novel (new or unique) way, that he would gain control over her.

The author would force her ("love") to sigh a thousand times each day (perhaps something he knows from experience, but certainly something usual for those in love). And he would rekindle, reignite the fires of passion over and over in her mind, which he describes as "cold," indicating that in reality, he cannot move her to change her "behavior" toward him.

In the second part of the octave (eight total lines), the author, still in control, would overpower her so that "love" would become more human, gentle, "compassionate," as someone might cry with regret having cause another pain, now that it cannot be undone. In this set of four lines, the writer infers that "love" is not compassionate, but heartless, feeling no remorse for the heartbreak she brings.

Traditionally, a "shift" takes place between the octave (first eight lines) and the sestet (last six lines), in terms of the poem's structure.

For lines 9-11, the author speaks of scarlet roses on the snow— symbolically, I believe he refers to passion that falls flat in the face of rejection: red roses are symbolic of passion, and snow is symbolic, in this case, of a lack of warmth or requited love.

The reference to "ivory" may be directly symbolic of dreams—dreams of truth. In this segment, the author wishes to discover an ivory that turns one who sees it (perhaps the dream of love?) into unfeeling marble, preventing those persons from being crushed in affairs of the heart.

The last three lines summarize the poet's feelings. He notes that all the "items" on his list so far, he would carry out:

...because I do not mind / my discontentment in this one short life, / but glory rather in my later fame.

"Later fame" may refer in a way to the poet's "afterlife;" what he speaks of may be found in the notoriety or fame brought on by the ability to create art (poetry) which, in its way, provides immortality—which simple love cannot do.

Source: Ferber, Michael. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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