“His Lyre is now Attuned only to Woe”

The eyes, the face, the limbs of heavenly mold,
So long the theme of my impassioned lay,
Charms which so stole me from myself away,
That strange to other men the course I hold;
The crisped locks of pure and lucid gold,
The lightning of the angelic smile, whose ray
To earth could all of paradise convey,
A little dust are now — to feeling cold.
And yet I live — but that I live bewail,
Sunk the loved light that through the tempest led
My shattered bark, bereft of mast and sail:
Hushed be for aye the song that breathed love’s fire!
Lost is the theme on which my fancy fed,
And turned to mourning my once tuneful lyre.

Francesco Petrarcha
Sonnet 24

I quoted this sonnet, and parts of the following text, in my Star-Cross’d short story “On All Our Houses.” I penned this story nearly two years ago for the Black Death anthology We All Fall Down. In the story, Dante’s son grapples with his daughter’s immanent death to the plague.

To be honest, even though it was published just over a month ago, I haven’t been able to bring myself to revisit this story. It was raw grief when I wrote it, and it feels all the more raw now. 

But today a friend reached out to me after reading it, and she reminded me of the power of Petrarch’s words as he wrote a letter mourning the death of his brother to the plague. Reading that letter now, it feels less a piece of history and more a living voice, speaking to us all, for us all. I present it here, without adornment. Grief speaks for itself. 

O what has come over me? Where are the violent fates pushing me back to? I see passing by, in headlong flight, time which makes the world a fleeting place. I observe about me dying throngs of both young and old, and nowhere is there a refuge. No haven beckons in any part of the globe, nor can any hope of longed for salvation be seen. Wherever I turn my frightened eyes, their gaze is troubled by continual funerals: the churches groan encumbered with biers, and, without last respects, the corpses of the noble and the commoner lie in confusion alongside each other.


The last hour of life comes to mind, and, obliged to recollect my misfortunes, I recall the flocks of dear ones who have departed, and the conversations of friends, the sweet faces which suddenly vanished, and the hallowed ground now insufficient for repeated burials. This is what the people of Italy bemoan, weakened by so many deaths; this is what France laments, exhausted and stripped of inhabitants; the same goes for other peoples, under whatever skies they reside. Either it is the wrath of God, for certainly I would think that our misdeeds deserve it, or it is just the harsh assault of the stars in their perpetually changing conjunctions. This plague-bearing year has borne down on humankind and threatens a tearful slaughter, and the highly charged air encourages death.


From his diseased heavenly pole, cruel Jupiter looks down, and from there he rains upon the earth diseases and grievous mortality. The merciless Fates rush to sever the threads of life all at once, if they can: seeing so many ashen faces of the wretched common people, and so many seeking gloomy Tartarus, I fear that from on high they may have been granted what they wish.


Just thinking of these things, I confess I am frightened and I see before me the snares of imminent death. For where could I hide my head, when neither the sea nor the land nor the rocks full of dark caves show themselves to the one who flees, because death, rushing impetuously into even safe hiding-places, overcomes all things.


Thus, like the mariner caught in a dangerous storm, before whose eyes cruel Neptune has sucked down the other ships in the convoy, who hears the fragile keel cracking in the belly of his ship and the splintering of the oars as they are dashed against the reefs, and sees the rudder carried away amongst the terrifying waves, I hesitate uncertain as to what to do, though certain of the peril. No differently, where unnoticed a deadly fire has taken hold of ancient timbers and greedy flame licks resin-rich floorboards, the household, aroused by the commotion, suddenly gets out of bed, and the father, before anyone else, rushes up to the top of the roof, gazing about him, and grasping his trembling son seeks to save him first from the dangerous fire, and works out in his mind how to escape with this burden through the opposing flames.


Often in fear clasping to myself my helpless soul I too wonder whether there is an escape-route to carry it out from the conflagration and I am minded to extinguish the bodily flames with the water of tears.


But the world holds me back. Headstrong desire draws me and I am bound ever more tightly by deadly knots. That is the state I am in. Dense shadows have covered me with fear. For whosoever thinks they can recall death and look upon the moment of their passing with fearless face is either mistaken or mad, or, if he is fully aware, then he is very courageous.

Francesco Petrarca
“Ad Seipsum” (“To Himself”)