Quite Frankly: After Petrarch’s Sonnets, by Peter Hughes: A Review

9781874400660Quite Frankly: After Petrarch’s Sonnets, by Peter Hughes, Reality Street, 2015, 978-1-874400-66-0, £12.50.

This book represents the fruition of Peter Hughes’ ambitious plan to produce a full set of contemporary English reworkings of Petrarch’s 317 sonnets. Hughes has not in any ordinary sense translating Petrarch’s poems into English; he has remade them as early 21st century texts. And yet the Italian master is there all the time, just beneath the surface of the poems in this little book as a counterpoint to Hughes’ English.

These poems transport Petrarch’s 14th century Italy to late 20th/early 21st century Norfolk through the deployment of a wide range of cultural references, ranging from TV to popular songs to post-Thatcher politics to the vicissitudes of life as a fan of Norwich City FC. Indeed, the deft seriousness with which Hughes addresses the impact of the market on contemporary British society and the natural environment is, as I said when reviewing a pamphlet publication of one section of the work before, an explicit refutation of Petrarch’s dismissal of his sonnets as “trifles”. Hughes often deploys humour in these poems, but it is a bitter and angry laughter that is called for. This is the sonnet as social criticism.

However, there is also another layer to the poems, one that reflects the Petrarchan originals more closely. At the core of both sequences is a story of love unrequited and ultimately lost to death. It is highly likely that Petrarch built his idealised Laura from the merest hints and an active imagination. Nevertheless, the emotion rings true and his analysis of the psychology of the situation is what maintains the sequence. This is, if anything, even more the case with Hughes’ elaboration of a similar plot. The love story interweaves with the political and social strands of the sequence in a careful, non-sloganeering unfolding of the old idea that the personal is political.

Readers often identify Petrarch’s Laura with the poet’s laurel wreath and read the sonnets as being in part a reflection on poetry itself. This strand also runs through Quite Frankly; like any good poetry what makes this work stand out is the technical quality of the writing, a subject that cannot be discussed in isolation, but has to be looked at through some kind of comparison with the Italian originals. In the earlier review, I looked at a single quatrain but now I’d like to examine an entire poem, by setting Hughes’ reworking alongside the Italian text and a more conventional 19th century translation by Robert Gutrie MacGregor to give some idea of the sense of the original.


Parrà forse ad alcun che ‘n lodar quella

ch’i’ adoro in terra, errante sia ‘l mio stile,

faccendo lei sovr’ogni altra gentile,

santa, saggia, leggiadra, honesta et bella.
A me par il contrario; et temo ch’ella

non abbia a schifo il mio dir troppo humile,

degna d’assai piú alto et piú sottile:

et chi nol crede, venga egli a vedella;
sí dirà ben: Quello ove questi aspira

è cosa da stancare Athene, Arpino,

Mantova et Smirna, et l’una et l’altra lira.
Lingua mortale al suo stato divino

giunger non pote: Amor la spinge et tira,

non per electïon, ma per destino.
Haply my style to some may seem too free

In praise of her who holds my being’s chain,

Queen of her sex describing her to reign,

Wise, winning, good, fair, noble, chaste to be:
To me it seems not so; I fear that she

My lays as low and trifling may disdain,

Worthy a higher and a better strain;

—Who thinks not with me let him come and see.
Then will he say, She whom his wishes seek

Is one indeed whose grace and worth might tire

The muses of all lands and either lyre.
But mortal tongue for state divine is weak,

And may not soar; by flattery and force,

As Fate not choice ordains, Love rules its course.
some of you may find this high-falutin’

while some may find it lacking in respect

some think I put her on a pedestal

or feel I shouldn’t talk to her at all
all I can say is she deserves better

but the last thing we need is more writers

coming round here like paparazzi

noses squashed against her door & windows
going through her rubbish and taking notes

listening to her voice-mail messages

& making up whatever they can’t find
& more publicity could also lead

to even worse consequences such as

another epidemic of sonnets

The central conceit of the original is preserved in Hughes’ reading; language is inadequate to the task of singing the beloved’s praises, but then again, language is all the poet has at his disposal. How does the 21st century sonneteer deploy this resource? The most immediately obvious difference between the Hughes poem and the Petrarchan original is the lack of rhyme. In this instance, as not infrequently in others, Hughes substitutes anaphora as a structuring device, with the syntactical pattern carrying the load that the phonic one bears in the Italian. This can be seen in both the “strong” anaphoric “some …” repetition in the opening stanza which gives way, after the ‘but’ in the sixth line to a weaker pattern of clauses driven by present participles.

This is not to diminish the role of sound patterns in Hughes’ poem. Here, the short “a” sounds in “Parrà forse ad alcun che ‘n lodar quella” (it may be worth noting that the Italian first lines appear at the head of each of the English reworkings in the book) is picked up in the English, coming to a focus in the Italian loan word “paparazzi” and cumulating in the “as/another” link into the last line. Other vowel patterns play significant structural role, like the series of “o” sounds that link the octave and sestet across:

noses squashed against her door & windows

going through her rubbish and taking notes

Metre also plays a significant role. The jaunty tone of the opening line with its “high falutin’” is due to the line being a trochaic pentameter while the rest of the poem is roughly iambic (with the odd extra unstressed syllable here and there for variety). The self-deprecating irony of the final line at least in part derives from the fact that it only has four stresses and resolves on another trochee, creating a kind of dying fall.

The idea of recreating Petrarch for the 21st century was an ambitious one, and Hughes has succeeded admirably, creating a poem sequence of great technical control that constantly interrogates what it is poetry is for and can do. If it has a fault it may be that 317 sonnets is a lot of reading. However, in this he is faithful to a weakness in the original and he carries it off with the kind of élan that more than compensates.