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Writing in 14th Century Italy, Francesco Petrarca’s or Petrarch’s sonnets not only influenced 16th Century English sonnet sequences but endure today in unlikely places. Featured on the American TV reality show ‘Dance Moms’, Sharon Kenny’s song ‘Hotel Heart’ (2011) is influenced by the Petrarchan blazon to stunning effect. The song also bears a striking similarity to Petrarch’s Sonnet CXXIV from Rime Sparse, which I will examine first before returning to ‘Hotel Heart’:

HE RECALLS HER AS HE SAW HER WHEN IN TEARS.

That ever-honour’d, yet too bitter day,

Her image hath so graven in my breast,

That only memory can return it dress’d

In living charms, no genius could portray:

Her air such graceful sadness did display,

Her plaintive, soft laments my ear so bless’d,

I ask’d if mortal, or a heavenly guest,

Did thus the threatening clouds in smiles array.

Her locks were gold, her cheeks were breathing snow,

Her brows with ebon arch’d–bright stars her eyes,

Wherein Love nestled, thence his dart to aim:

Her teeth were pearls–the rose’s softest glow

Dwelt on that mouth, whence woke to speech grief’s sighs

Her tears were crystal–and her breath was flame.

Like many of his sonnets, Sonnet CXXIV describes Petrarch’s unrequited love for Laura (the daughter of a Provençal nobleman). The sonnet begins mournfully with Petrarch’s recollection of Laura’s sadness on one particular day. The octave (first eight lines of the sonnet) is oxymoronic in that her ‘graceful sadness’ turns ‘the threatening clouds in smiles array’. In other words, even in sadness Laura’s beauty brightens the surrounding landscape.

Her beauty also leads to conflict revealed by Petrarch’s probing verse-line ‘I ask’d if mortal, or a heavenly guest’. Petrarch appears to question his own desire for Laura by wondering if ‘Her image hath so graven in my breast’ is articulating his obsessive love for her in physical or spiritual terms? Where Petrarch’s desire lies and how it effects the sonnet can be examined through the Petrarchan blazon.

The Petrarchan blazon in Sonnet CXXIV signals the volta or change from octave to sestet (remaining six lines), where Laura’s beauty is broken down to body parts and compared to precious metals, stones, jewels and/or natural phenomena (sun, stars, moon, snow, flowers). In Sonnet CXXIV, the effect of the Petrarchan blazon beginning with ‘Her locks were gold…’ eroticises Laura’s sadness. Interestingly, the sestet begins and ends with the oxymoronic ‘…her cheeks were breathing snow,/…and her breath was flame’. Whilst ‘breathing snow’ signifies purity and a chastening of Petrarch’s fleshly desire, the powerful ‘her breath was flame’ registers an uncontainable and even destructive grief. Any association between Petrarch’s admiring recollection of Laura’s sadness and ‘the threatening clouds’ being ‘in smiles array’ is rendered insignificant by ‘speech grief’s sighs’. Petrarch’s poetry cannot compete with Laura’s fiery anguish.

Sharon Kenny cover170x170

Sharon Kenny’s song ‘Hotel Heart’ (that is sung and played with upbeat optimism) is similar to Sonnet CXXIV in that it, too, is about an absent lover who appears to leave the singer in a grief-stricken state:

Hotel Heart

I saw you in my dream last night

You had your smile so white

I thought your teeth were the stars

Your eyes, they were like tiny rivers

Well, it gave me the shivers when you looked right up at me

 

We never got to say a goodbye

We never sat down and cried and watched each others’ tears fall out

So I never got a chance to tell you

Just exactly how well you carved your home in my heart

 

You can stay here a while in this hotel heart

People come and people go everyday

I’ll never let it get cold or dark or crowded

I’ll never give your spot away

 

I bet you thought I’d be much smaller

Well, I’ve gotten much taller

My legs are like trees in the ground

My branches are my tiny fingers

Well, they’ve gotten much bigger

They reach out for so much more

 

Say you’ll stay here a while in this hotel heart

People come and people go all the time

I’ll never let it get cold or dark or crowded

I’ll never turn out the light

 

I like to think you still can hear me

That you’re listening clearly to all the words I start

‘Cause I never got a chance to tell you just exactly how well you carved your home in my heart.

Like Petrarch’s sonnet, ‘Hotel Heart’ begins with the singer’s recollection of her lover. The mini Petrarchan blazon, ‘I thought your teeth were the stars/Your eyes, they were like tiny rivers’ describes the singer’s infatuation with her lover either before or after a passionate encounter. It therefore appears the singer is observing her lover lying down on a bed as ‘Well, it gave me the shivers when you looked right up at me’ implies. There is also a strong indication that the singer and her lover had a one night stand in a hotel through how the song articulates sudden separation: ‘So I never got a chance to tell you/Just exactly how well you carved your home in my heart’. The fleeting encounter between the singer and her lover has an elegiac feel, typical of the Petrarchan sonnet, in which true love makes the absent lover present. Therefore, the oxymoronic notion of the singer’s heart being both a home and hotel shows how love resolves opposition, so that permanence and being iterant along with occupation and vacancy can all share the same space.

The power of ‘Hotel Heart’, then, is through how it successfully taps into today’s hectic lifestyle to imply we are too busy to forge and communicate meaningful relationships. The haunting lyrics, ‘You can stay here a while in this hotel heart/People come and People go everyday/I’ll never let it get cold or dark or crowded’ provides comfort in an otherwise indifferent world. With the care and attention the singer’s heart offers to her lover is perhaps unlike the hotel room in which their brief liaison took place. Rather than being a seedy dilapidated hotel, the idea of immobility causing deterioration and neglect is offset by Kenny’s second use of the Petrarchan blazon:

 I bet you thought I’d be much smaller

Well, I’ve gotten much taller

My legs are like trees in the ground My branches are my tiny fingers

Well, they’ve gotten much bigger

They reach out for so much more

Rather than deteriorating as ‘I bet you thought I’d be much smaller’ suggests, the singer literally spreads her roots to become much stronger. Her ‘tiny fingers’ that ‘reach out for so much more’ illustrate that the singer does not have to be fickle to achieve success.

‘Hotel Heart’ offers a stark contrast between estranged darkness and love’s enlightenment. Furthermore, love’s transformative effects are coupled with verbal power: ”Cause I never got a chance to tell you just exactly how well you carved your home in my heart’. Following the one night stand, if the lover had known the singer loved her/him with all her heart, then perhaps she/he would have been attracted to stability instead of moving on.

The Petrarchan sonnet endures because of love’s eternal bond and transformative effects. Love can literally change the world. With the Petrarchan blazon making lovers closer to nature, however, they are also closer to a fallen world. The danger is that being totally infatuated with someone who is either not interested or unaware ultimately leads to a vacant heart.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to the WDFG assessor who asked probing questions about Sharon Kenny’s ‘Hotel Heart’.

‘Hotel Heart’ and the EP ‘Adjectives & Nouns’ (2011) can be purchased and downloaded from online stores.

Bibliography

Kenny, Sharon. ‘Hotel Heart’. 2011. http://www.thesixtyone.com/s/XMZxZg0Bstb/http://www.thesixtyone.com/s/XMZxZg0Bstb/ accessed 10/09/15.

Petrarch. ‘Sonnet CXXIV’. Trans. Susan Wollaston. The Sonnets, Triumphs, and Other Poems of Petrarch. Ed. Thomas Campbell. London: George Bell & Sons, 1879.

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