In a Valentine's special, Nichi Hodgson examines the inane lyrical legacy of the Renaissance sonneteer
Jordan’s ex owes his love lyrics to the Father of Humanism
Scratching the bottom of your chocolate box for a suitable Valentine’s Day offering this year? You could do a lot worse than Peter Andre’s new ‘Unconditional’ love songs album. All warbled from the bottom of Pete’s reupholstered heart (in case you didn’t know, his ex has just married a man with an even greater inversely proportional brain to brawn ratio), it’s probably the most genuine romantic article on commercial offer this February 14. The cynics amongst you may view it as one record company’s craven bid to capitalise on Pete’s status as a former Mr Katie Price, but before you dismiss Pete’s latest platitudes as an Amoeba’s guide to human relationships and trot off to buy the latest Proper Book of Love Poetry, there’s a literary heavyweight due your derisive snort; he’s called Francesco Petrarch, and he’s got the heritage of Western love lyric, including Peter Andre’s ‘poetry’, to answer for.
Born in Arezzo in 1304, the Father of Humanism, as he is regally monikered, was also the progenitor of the love sonnet in Western literature. While attending the Good Friday Mass in 1327, Petrarch espied Laura, a golden-haired beauty, who was to be the inspiration for Il Canzoniere, some 300 sonnets that agonise over the splendour of dolce mia guerrera, ‘my sweet warrior’. A complex love object, Laura is possessed of ‘both beauty of body and goodness of soul’, yet as the archetypal cruel mistress, ‘somewhat lacks sympathy’. The theme of the principessa on a pedestal may have been directly inherited from the medieval cult of frauendienst (literally, woman worship), and the chivalric code of courtly love, but it was Petrarch who really dared to bring a psychological realism to his lady — ‘Only to make peace with your eyes/But it does not please you with your noble mind/to stoop so low’. This, combined with his wincing articulation of romantic suffering, set the template for the personae of the lover and the beloved popular in Western poetry ever since.
The key tropes of a Petrarchan sonnet are now so ubiquitous, they are the oldest romantic clichés in the book. The beloved is the sun, set amongst the heavens and the stars, who beguiles with dazzling eyes, and plunges the lover’s world into darkness by virtue of his/her absence. The lover, meanwhile, is a tossed ship, hopelessly navigating love’s tempests, and the turbulent high seas of the beloved’s moods; or, alternatively, the ailing patient, who threatens to die in a heartbeat, all the while craving just one look, dreaming of just one kiss, barely daring to dream of anything else (yet somehow always managing to). Then there are Petrarch’s trademark paradoxes, which just as readily characterise the beloved (‘the mild and lovely fierce one’, he pronounces Laura) as love itself (that ‘amorous chill’). And whether it be Juliet’s irregularly pentametered complaint to Romeo that ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’, or Bill Whither’s soul speak lament, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone’, Petrarch punctuates our erotic idiom at all points along the high to low brow cultural continuum.
And so to return to troubadour Pete’s latest offerings. Some old, some new, some borrowed, and every single one of them suitably blue and mournful, there’s more than a trace of Petrarch about them. Take ‘Call the Doctor’, a textbook case of Petrarchan suffering — ‘Now my heart’s racing/I’m burning up and I’m pacing’. And how about the even more sophisticated ‘All Cried Out’, which inverts traditional Petrarchan dynamics by casting Pete’s crooner-protagonist in the role of the beloved: ‘You said I give you so much love it lit the stars’, and, ‘You said you would only be complete/By loving every part of me’. It’s a definite improvement on his previous pièce de résistance, the 90s sex-on-the-beach classic, ‘Mysterious Girl’, where any possible Petrarchan sentiment is undermined by Pete’s preening jocularity — ‘No doubt I’m the only man/who can love you like I can’ (unconvincing ‘I and I’ and multiple personalities clearly troubling his 26-pack there). Only when he took a break from singing to show the camera just exactly what Mysterious Girl was missing did his ‘rapper’ sidekick Bubbla Ranks manage to express something more akin to the sonneteer’s sensibility — ‘Girl you are my heart’s desire/And you a love a set me soul on fire’, Jamaican patois aside.
Even if Pete’s new album does suggest a more ‘mature’ approach to seduction, the obvious difficulty in trying to prove that Petrarch is Peter Andre’s lyrical progenitor is the prickly matter of desire, and its consummation (or lack of). ‘Making sweet love’ is, admittedly, one of the more readily-occurring sentiments in Pete’s songs, something Petrarch obviously didn’t share the luxury of being able to express, and aside from Laura’s blowing hot and cold, Petrarch’s chief agony comes from his struggle to reconcile his devotion to God with his more ‘earthly’ desires. Read Il Canzoniere and it becomes pretty obvious that Petrarch’s ardour frequently gets the better of him, as he falls into sensual rapture: ‘Think how gladdening it would be to catch fast within that fine, scarlet lip, where every sweetness and savour seems to be.’ Soon his mind has wandered to her underpinnings: ‘If the outward parts are so lovely, how rare must be the others which she hides!’ He’s talking about her inner beauty, of course, but you can see how easily the original Renaissance Man of Good Intentions could be misinterpreted as a peddler of Dirty Letters, with a flair for smooth-talking sexual metaphor and a devious twinkle in his ‘love-struck’ eye. Still, that’s as racy as it got. No excommunication, no extradition. And no satisfaction.
How, then, did we ‘evolve’ from Petrarch’s barely sweet susurrations, to Pete’s more candid proclamations? The answer lies with those wily Elizabethans, who found the perfect solution to the age-old dilemma of how not to reveal your unwholesome intentions: stop declaring them unwholesome. They did this by appropriating a form of neo-platonic philosophy, a system of belief whereby contemplation of — amongst other things — a higher, archetypal form of mortal love is a necessary rung on the ladder to true spiritual communion. As these new poets saw it, stretching somewhat the pious Platonic doctrine, this adopted world-view allowed them to stop off and take ‘rest’ in various beds as they made their arduous spiritual ascent. When the Metaphysical poets threw a bit of carpe diem ‘die before you die’ into the mix — ‘Love’s mysteries in souls do grow/But yet the body is his book’ (John Donne, ‘The Ecstasy’) — the 17th Century sonneteers had cracked the secular/spiritual conundrum, and soon everyone was satisfied, be it Him Upstairs, Her Indoors, or You Down Below in the cellars ‘tasting’ this year’s lilac wine, with only the scullery maid for company. The literati may have liked to call it ‘anti-Petrarchism’ but most people were happy to accept it as pragmatic. Sex was now an entirely legitimate, romantic component of love lyric. And it has been ever since.
Still not convinced that Western intellectual love poetry propagated Peter Andre? Please note then, his version of Michael Jackson’s ‘She’s Out of My Life’, one of five covers included on his latest album, featuring the most apposite line: ‘And I took her for granted, I was so cavalier.’ Now, is it merely a splendid coincidence that the modern use of the word ‘cavalier’ reinforces the Petrarchan sentiment underscoring ‘Unconditional’? Or evidence (conscious or otherwise) of Pete’s debt to the Grand Lyrical Master?
What it really comes down to is the issue of intellectual snobbery, combined with some sort of nostalgic belief that romance died out with the last of the Knights Templar. But believe this and you fall into the anachronistic trap of thinking that everyone was better intentioned in the golden, olden days when sponges and syphilis were the contraceptives of choice. However consummate those Cavaliers might have been, exploiting your lexical prowess as a foil for your baser intentions is not particularly honourable, and certainly not romantic. Pete may not have the skill to disguise his lust as anything else but then at least he’s honest (‘Mysterious Girl’ being a case in point).
There is of course the very reasonable counter argument that points out that Petrarch is poetry by virtue of the invention and sheer skill of his language, something Peter Andre could never similarly claim. But if you aren’t reading Petrarch’s Rime Sparse in the original Medieval Italian, rather some Cultured Person’s anthology of love lyric, how can you appreciate this anyway?
Besides, anyone who condemns Pete as just a sentimental bicep would do well to remember ‘insania’, Pete’s neological gift to the English language. Just wait: in 300 years’ time they’ll be declaring that a cliché.