Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Ascent of Mount Ventoux

Ten years ago we spent a pleasant few days in Avignon and I remember wandering around trying to picture the city in the time of Petrarch - not easy with Jeff Koons' giant floral puppy installed in the middle of the Papal Palace.  We had rather cloudy weather but on the last day the sky was somewhat clearer and we suddenly became aware of Mount Ventoux, its summit visible, floating in the hazy distance.  Then it was easy to imagine Petrarch's desire to climb the mountain, a feat he apparently achieved one day in 1336, his only motive 'the wish to see what so great a height had to offer.'

Petrarch's letter describing the ascent draws moral lessons from his tendency to vacillate and climb by the easiest paths: he who ascends by the most direct route will reach the spiritual heights more quickly.  Nevertheless, there is a moment at the summit where Petrarch, like a modern climber, stops to admire the landscape.  He gazes far off towards the mountains around Lyon, the bay of Marseilles, and 'the sea that beats against the shore of Aigues-Mortes'.  It is at this point, however, that he reaches for his trusty copy of Augustine's Confessions and opens it by chance at a passage that makes him feel ashamed and decide to start down the mountain again.  'And men go about admiring the high mountains and the mighty waves of the sea and the wide sweep of rivers and the sound of the ocean and the movement of the stars, but they themselves they abandon.'

Francesco Petrarch, Justo de Gante, C15

Petrarch's Italian poems, the Canzoniere, show in certain images a real feeling for landscape - certainly this is the impression I get from Mark Musa's translations (which were read through before publication by Charles Tomlinson, the author of many landscape poems.)  The most notable example is number 129, ‘Di pensier in pensier, di monte in monte’ which begins 'From thought to thought, mountain to mountain top / Love leads me on.'  A full translation by A. S. Kline is given below (as the website says it "may be freely reproduced"). Note the way Petrarch projects an image of Laura onto the landscape: 'Many times I have seen here vividly / (now, who will believe me?) in clear water / and on green grass, and in a beech trunk, / and in a white cloud...'  This is a good example of the phenomenon I've mentioned a few times recently in connection with the Deleuze/Guattari theory of faciality.

Love leads me on, from thought to thought,
from mountain to mountain, since every path blazed
proves opposed to the tranquil life.
If there is a stream or a fountain on a solitary slope,
if a shadowed valley lies between two hills,
the distressed soul calms itself there:
and, as Love invites it to,
now smiles, or weeps, or fears, or feels secure:
and my face that follows the soul where she leads
is turbid and then clear,
and remains only a short time in one mode:
so that a man expert in such a life would say
at the sight of me: ‘He is on fire, and uncertain of his state.’

I find some repose in high mountains
and in savage woods: each inhabited place
is the mortal enemy of my eyes.
At every step a new thought of my lady
is born, which often turns the suffering
I bear to joy, because of her:
and, as often as I wish
to alter my bitter and sweet life,
I say: ‘Perhaps Love is saving you
for a better time:
perhaps you are dear to another, hateful to yourself.’
And with this, sighing, I continue:
‘Now can this be true? And how? And when?’

Sometimes I stop where a high pine tree or a hill
provides shade, and on the first stone
I trace in my mind her lovely face.
When I come to myself, I find my chest
wet with pity: and then I say: ‘Ah, alas,
what are you come to, and what are you parted from!’
But as long as I can keep
my wandering mind fixed on that first thought,
and gaze at her, and forget myself,
I feel Love so close to me
that my soul is satisfied with its own error:
I see her in many places and so lovely,
that I ask no more than that my error last.

Many times I have seen here vividly
(now, who will believe me?) in clear water
and on green grass, and in a beech trunk,
and in a white cloud, so made that Leda
would surely have said her daughter was eclipsed,
like a star the sun obscures with its rays:
and the wilder the place I find
and the more deserted the shore,
the more beautifully my thoughts depict her.
Then when the truth dispels
that sweet error, I still sit there chilled,
the same, a dead stone on living stone,
in the shape of a man who thinks and weeps and writes.

I feel a sole intense desire draw me
where the shadow of no other mountain falls,
towards the highest and most helpful peak:
from there I begin to measure out my suffering
with my eyes, and, weeping, to release
the sorrowful cloud that condenses in my heart,
when I think and see,
what distance parts me from her lovely face,
which is always so near to me, and so far.
Then softly I weep to myself:
‘Alas, what do you know! Perhaps somewhere
now she is sighing for your absence.’
And the soul takes breath at this thought.

Song, beyond the mountain,
there where the sky is more serene and joyful,
you will see me once more by a running stream,
where the breeze is fragrant
with fresh and perfumed laurel.
There is my heart, and she who steals it from me:
here you can only see my ghost.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember more in the Avignon Papal Palace the Bill Viola film of a man being drenched with water (an experience you can have for yourself in the Thermae Baths in Bath) and then consumed by fire, and then back again to water.

Ventoux was a lovely view. Currently we are enjoying some cheap and good Cotes de Ventoux wine. Nearest we will get to the slopes for a while...