In Mary Sidney Herbert’s, Countess of Pembroke’s, 1595 translation of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte (1470), Sidney ‘presents Laura as a vibrant figure of joy and power’ (Hannay et al 265). In fact, Laura has so much joy that, despite her death, even a small amount of it will invigorate Petrarch: ‘Even this my [Laura’s] death, which yealds thee such annoye/would make in thee farre greater gladnesse ryse,/Couldst thow but taste least portion of my joye’ (II.37-39 translated by Herbert). The enjambment replaces the verb ‘annoye’ with the alliterating ‘greater gladnesse’, which through end-rhyme is also absorbed into the verb ‘joye’. The signification is that if Petrarch could ‘taste [the] least portion of my joye’, he would celebrate Laura’s death rather than mourn her. Therefore, Petrarch’s ‘greater gladnesse’ can be further sublimated into Laura’s spiritual joy as they unify in Neoplatonic love. Laura encourages Petrarch to identify with her through an altruistic joy, rather than the excessively narcissistic ‘such annoye’ that is obsessed with how the loss of Laura affects Petrarch as the defeated Lover. In Sidney’s translation, Laura idealises herself through emotional excess rather than being constructed by Petrarch as a sexualised object.
The tension between spiritual joy and narcissistic sadness is broached by Major Macgregor’s translation of the same lines: ‘“…And this my loss, now mourn’d with many a tear,/Would seem a gain, and, knew you my delight/Boundless and pure, your joyful praise excite”’ (II.36-38). In contrast to Sidney’s translation, Macgregor accentuates Petrarch’s mourning. Even in death, Laura reminds Petrarch of how his ‘joyful praise’ adds to her ‘delight’. In fact, Petrarch praises her ‘delight’ so that it becomes his own delight, which has to be ‘[b]oundless and pure’ for him to be able to continue praising Laura in death.
These two translations illustrate the delicate balance of joy and power between Petrarch and Laura. It is a struggle perfectly realised in Laura’s death as, in Macgregor’s translation, her loss becomes Petrarch’s narcissistic gain as he can continue to praise her purity. Yet, in Sidney’s translation, Petrarch is instructed through the verse-line ‘would make in thee farre greater gladnesse ryse’ to break free from his narcissistic sadness and be even happier. The suggestive ‘greater gladnesse’ implies that Petrarch should rise to ‘taste’ Laura’s ‘joy’, which further empowers Laura as the mistress of Petrarch’s sexual desires as he is enslaved to her ‘joy’.
Yet, inevitably, both translations privilege Petrarch’s subjectivity as Laura is objectified as a goal for his desires.
Margaret P. Hannay, Noel J. Kinnamon & Michael G. Brennan. ‘The Triumph of Death: Literary Context’. The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke: Volume I Poems, Translations & Correspondence. Eds. Margaret P. Hannay, Noel J. Kinnamon & Michael G. Brennan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.
Petrarch. Trionfo della Morte. 1470. Trans. Mary Sidney Herbert. 1595. The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke: Volume I Poems, Translations & Correspondence. Eds. Margaret P. Hannay, Noel J. Kinnamon & Michael G. Brennan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.
Petrarch. Trionfo della Morte. 1470. Trans. Major Macgregor. The Sonnets, Triumphs, and Other Poems of Petrarch. Ed. Thomas Campbell. London: George Bell & Sons, 1879.