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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

SIGHTSEEING, THE WEATHER, AND THE LYRIC TRADITION (PART 2 OF DRIVING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN WITH ELLA AND FRIENDS)

The first westerner to leave a record of climbing a mountain not for military, surveillance, or allegorical purposes, but just to see what he could see, was Francesco Petrarca.  On  April 26, 1336, with his brother and two servants, he climbed Mt. Ventoux in Provence.  On his way up, he met an old shepherd who told him, “I went up to the top 50 years ago.  Nobody’s been since.  Don’t bother – all you’ll do is get scraped and scratched by rocks and prickers.”  Petrarca and his brother and servants went up anyway.  And saw what they could see.

In addition to being the first recreational mountaineer on record, Petrarca was also the most widely respected moral philosopher in the Europe of his time and a founder of modern standards of classical scholarship.  Historians of ideas and sensibility consider his writings and his manuscript-collecting to be among the first labors of what we now call the Renaissance.   

But he figures into the story of Ella and Friends not only because of his mountaineering, and not because of his early general Renaissancing, but because he was the first popularizer of the sonnet sequence.  English-speaking poetry hounds know him as Petrarch and the sonnets he wrote as Petrarchan sonnets.  Chaucer, his younger contemporary, translated some of them. Wyatt and Surrey translated some too in the early 16th century, introducing the sonnet into English and starting the craze that culminated with long sonnet sequences by Spencer, Sidney, and Shakespeare at the end of that century.  Surrey, in translating Petrarch’s Petrarchan sonnets into a slightly different rhyme scheme, invented the form that later confusingly became known as the Shakespearean sonnet.

Petrarch’s sonnets are about his beloved “Laura,” whom he loves from afar and who does not return his love.  A standard theme of pop song and poetry from Sappho to today, as the classics scholar W.R. Johnson wrote in his terrific book “The Idea of Lyric.”  Johnson is persuasive that when a jukebox “shrieks” at you, “I LOVE YOU BABY AND IF IT’S QUITE ALL RIGHT I NEED YOU BABY,” you are smack dab of the middle of the mainstream of the lyric tradition.  Petrarch was one of the kings of the lyric tradition between the Romans and Shakespeare, whose influence was consciously felt into the 20th century in the sonnets of e.e. cummings.

The lyric tradition touches Ella and Friends in a very direct way.  One of the most famous songs of the collection is “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall,” written by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher and recorded by Ella with the Ink Spots in 1944.  The title is a direct quote from a poem by Henry W. Longfellow, the most famous American poet of the 19th century (though no longer as famous as Whitman) whose poems were known by poetry-lovin’ Americans well into the mid-20th century. (Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert And set "The Rainy Day" to music and published it in 1867; I've never heard the song.)  America was a nation of poetry lovers.  Seattle has a public school named after Longfellow’s closest poetic rival in the hearts of his fellow citizens, the abolitionist poet Whittier.  Newspapers published poetry daily for many decades, and into the 20th century people cut poems out and put them into scrapbooks, similar to today’s practice of forwarding inspirational or humorous stories via e-mail or cutting out cartoons and putting them on the fridge. A couple years ago I found such a family scrapbook among my grandparents' things, one that someone from my great-great-grandfather's generation (or great-great-great) put together. I've found some interesting things in there.

“Into each life some rain must fall” is a beautiful song; Ella and friends sing it beautifully.  Longfellow’s poem is lovely too.  I don’t know whether Longfellow was the founder of the rain-equals-troubles-or-sorrow metaphor; a metaphorical relationship with the weather seems to go back several centuries in the western tradition.  Whoever invented it, they sure weren’t a farmer.  The metaphor bespeaks an alienation from the life cycle, an alienation most of us share to this day.  Rain rain, we need you.  Don’t listen to our complaints.  But don’t come on too strong either.  Moderation, please. And when you do rain, please rain as beautifully as Ella and the Ink Spots sing you.

Listen to me, Nature, listen to me!

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