This article is part of a series on Italian Renaissance Literature. See also:
Petrarch, the towering Italian Renaissance poet born in 1304, “Enjoyed the respect of the literati and the confidence of princes,” writes Yale Italian scholar Thomas G. Bergin; “Petrarch was… one of the most remarkable men of all time.” “The greatest kings of this age have loved and courted me,” Petrarch himself writes, confident and dismissive; “They may know why; I certainly do not.” In the palace of the illustrious Giacomo the Younger of Carrara, Petrarch raucously boasts, “I was received by him… not as a mortal, but as the blessed are greeted in heaven.” Petrarch was colossal and commanding. (1)
The poet, however, had a darker side, visible only in his poetry. Good Friday, April 10th of 1327, was the day Petrarch glimpsed – merely once caught eyes with – the ethereal, and life-altering, Laura. “Love stormed my heart as I walked unalarmed,” Petrarch writes, “Through eyes that now but serve to weep my ills” (III: Sonnet 3) (1). Petrarch’s unrequited obsession with Laura lasts a lifetime – past Laura’s death and even to Petrarch’s own death. “Lord, who first imprisoned me in this cell, / Release me,” he writes near the end of his life. “I grant my final years devotedly to you” (Sonnet 364) (2).
Were Petrarch’s infatuated decades wasted, “passed,” as he himself declares, “in worship of a mortal thing” (CCCLXV: Sonnet 317) (1)? Or was his love a source of life, energy, and ultimate creative purpose?
Let’s review Petrarch’s work. Petrarch’s poems describes fierce, unending anguish over his beloved Laura. This obsession torments, as well as, simultaneously, nourishes. Petrarch’s love is his light and his destroyer; it’s his God and his enemy.
Petrarch wanders nature in times of distress. His poems incorporate these walks’ verdant trees and glimmering stars. Religious and celestial themes are also frequently and beautifully employed. Most significantly, however, Petrarch describes his love – his source of life and death – endlessly, with descriptions ranging from the piercingly painful to the beautifully sublime.
I’ve reproduced for the reader fragments of Petrarch’s poems.
When fresh and fair begins the dawn
To chase the lingering shades that cloak’d the earth,
Wakening the animals in every wood,
No truce to sorrow find while rolls the sun;
And, when again I see the glistening stars,
Still wander, weeping, wishing for the day.
Oh! might I be with her where sets the sun,
No other eyes upon us but the stars,
Alone, one sweet night, ended by no dawn…
I shall lie low in earth, in crumbling wood,
And clustering stars shall gem the noon of day,
Ere on so sweet a dawn shall rise that sun. (XXII: Sestina 1) (1)
Petrarch’s love for Laura continues through her old age – as he witnesses, in his own miraculous words, her “fine golden hair changing to silver” (Sonnet 12) (3) – and even past her death. Later, near the end of Petrarch’s life, and after Laura’s death:
In thought I raised me to the place where she
Whom still on earth I seek and find not, shines;
There ‘mid the souls whom the third sphere confines,
More fair I found her and less proud to me.
She took my hand and said: Here shalt thou be
With me ensphered, unless desires mislead;
Lo! I am she who made thy bosom bleed,
Whose day ere eve was ended utterly:
My bliss no mortal heart can understand;
Thee only do I lack, and that which thou
So loved, now left on earth, my beauteous veil.
Ah! wherefore did she cease and loose my hand?
For at the sound of that celestial tale
I all but stayed in Paradise till now. (CCCII: Sonnet 261) (1)
Petrarch wished he had abandoned his love for Laura. Should he have? Petrarch could, destroying his feelings, have achieved peace and contentment. But he would have destroyed his poetic creativity.
We have an obvious tradeoff. Attaining his dream, Petrarch would have experienced happiness, contentment, warmth and security. Failing it, however, he endured bright, burning creative energy, frantic emotion and bursting ideas. Which is better? Which should we seek?
It depends, of course, on our goals. There’s a strong case , however, that the latter is very valuable. Petrarch’s suffering offered deep, artistic meaning; it forced him through universal philosophical understanding; it endowed him with immense poetic beauty. Petrarch’s struggles brought meaning to his life.
In the end, our poet had no choice. Emotion overpowered him. Petrarch did choose, however, to live with an awesome, inextinguishable strength. Laura never loved Petrarch. Instead, the whole world did.
- Thomas Bergin’s “Selected Sonnets, Odes and Letters”. Primarily from Petrarch’s “Canzionere”.
- A good resource for the translated Canzoniere in its entirety.
- Mark Musa’s translation of the Canzoniere