A History of Italian Literature/Chapter VI

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Petrarch's activity as a scholar claimed so much larger a portion of his time and thoughts than his Canzoniere, and the bulk of the latter, considerable as it is, is so small in comparison with that of the mass of his writings, that Symonds seems almost justified in depreciating his work as an Italian lyrist in comparison with his influence as a humanist. Yet Petrarch's Latin works were like the falling rain, which passes away as a distinct existence, though long invisibly operative as a fertilising agent; while his poetry, confined to a definite channel by the restraints of consummate diction and style, flows in a crystal stream for ever. Here and there in other men's books, no doubt, an isolated love-strain of higher quality may be found, but nothing approaching the Canzoniere as an epitomised encyclopædia of passion. The best is transcendently excellent; and if many of the pieces, especially near the beginning, might well have been dispensed with as far as their individual desert is concerned, they still have their value as notes in a great harmony. As his translator Cayley well remarks, "No poet has so fully represented the whole world of love in every tone and variety of play and earnest, delight and pain, enthusiasm and self-reproach, expostulation, rebellion, submission, adoration, and friendship, or regret and religious consolations leading gradually to another sphere of hope and devotion." One thing only is wanting to this encyclopædia of emotion, the rapture of possession. This was not for Petrarch: throughout the first part he is the yearning suitor, throughout the second the dejected mourner. Hardly another man ever sighed or wept with so much constancy or so little recompense.

Who was the object of this unique passion and perpetual grief? So obscure are the circumstances that some have deemed Laura, like the candlemaker's widow at Père la Chaise, "une métaphore, un symbole." Petrarch's friend, the Bishop of Lombes, suspected as much, but Petrarch indignantly protested, and after a while refuted the surmise by a manuscript note in his Virgil, to be treated more fully hereafter. Apart from this, it seems strange that scepticism should have survived his avowal, on a serious occasion, the composition of his address to posterity; where he speaks of his affection for Laura as his sole incitement to worthy fame, and of her own reputation as something entirely independent of his praises. "What little I am, such as it is, I am through her; and if I have attained to any fame or glory, I had never possessed it if the few grains of virtue which Nature had deposited in my soul had not been cultivated by her with such noble affection. What else did I desire in my youth than to please her, and her alone, who alone had pleased me?" The strongest testimony, however, is that of the poems themselves, which are full of traits and descriptions evidently derived from real life, and which would lose all their charm if they could be deemed imaginary. Take this for example:

"As Love pursued me in the wonted glade,
Wary as he, who weening foe to find,
Guards every pass, and looks before, behind,
I stood in mail of ancient thought arrayed:
When, sideways turned, I saw by sudden shade
The sun impeded, and, on earth outlined
Her shape, who, if aright conceives my mind,
Meetest for immortality was made,
I said unto my heart, 'Why dost thou fear?'
But ere my heart could open to my thought,
The beams whereby I melt shone all around;
And, as when flash by thunder-peal is caught,
My eyes encounter of those eyes most dear
And smiling welcome simultaneous found."

How natural and pleasing if the incident be real! and how marvellous the poetical power which can raise such an edifice out of such a trifle! On the other hand, how insipid if the little event, instead of a ripple on the surface of life arrested by the poet's art ere it has had time to pass into nothingness, be but a fiction to enable him to say a pretty thing! The author of so frigid a contrivance could never have been the author of the Canzoniere.

But though Laura's actual existence is certain, her identity is a subject of everlasting controversy. The popular belief near to Petrarch's own day is expressed by an anonymous biographer, who, writing, as is thought, near the end of the fourteenth century, calls her Loretta, and, by adding that the Pope offered Petrarch a dispensation from his ecclesiastical vows in order to marry her, clearly indicates that she was believed to be a single woman. The Abbé de Sade, however, in his life of Petrarch, published in 1767, adduces much documentary and other evidence to identify her with Laura, born De Noves, wife of Hugo de Sade, and an ancestress of the Abbé's own. With one important exception, to be mentioned shortly, the Abbé's proofs are of little weight; they establish the existence of a Laura de Sade, but by no means that she was Petrarch's Laura. An account of the discovery of Laura de Sade's tomb in 1533, authenticated by some very bad verses attributed to Petrarch found within it, although itself genuine, evidently records a clumsy fabrication.

One advantage the Abbé's theory certainly has, the production of an unanswerable reason why Petrarch did not marry Laura; but, on the other hand, his ecclesiastical orders might be a sufficient impediment. The Papal dispensation which might have relieved him of them must surely have relieved him of his preferments also; and if the story is authentic, the offer came in all probability from Clement VI., the Pope by whom he was chiefly favoured, who did not attain the tiara until 1342, fifteen years after his first acquaintance with Laura, when Laura's health seems to have been much impaired, and he may well have thought the time gone by. The objections to his suit having been addressed to a married woman seem almost insurmountable. If his flame was Laura de Sade, she was the mother of a very numerous family, and it appears all but incredible that he should have inscribed so much verse to her both in her lifetime and after her death, and discussed his passion so freely in his Dialogue without the slightest allusion to husband or children; or that the identity of a lady holding so high a position, and celebrated in verses read all over Italy, should so long have remained obscure; or that he should have enjoyed such freedom of access to her as he evidently did. The idea, moreover, seems quite inconsistent with the tenor of the celebrated sonnet, Tranquillo porto avea mostrato Amore:

"Love had at length a tranquil port displayed
To travailed soul, long vexed by toil and teen,
In calm maturity, where naked seen
Is Vice, and Virtue in fair garb arrayed.
Bare to her eyes my heart should now be laid,
Disquieted no more their peace serene—
O Death! what harvest of long years hath been
Ruin by thee in one brief moment made!
The hour when unreproved I might invoke
Her chaste ear's favour, and disburden there
My breast of fond and ancient thought, drew nigh:
And she, perchance, considering as I spoke
Each bloomless face and either's silvered hair,
Some blessed word had uttered with a sigh."

The thought manifestly is, that if Laura had lived a short time longer their intimacy would have given no occasion for scandal. This might be true of an unmarried lady or a widow, hardly of a wife. The sonnet also proves that Petrarch and Laura were nearly of an age, refuting Vellutello's opinion on this point. Salvatore Betti, moreover, has found another Laura, fulfilling, in his estimation, all requisites as well as the Abbé de Sade's.

It must, notwithstanding, be acknowledged that there is one piece of documentary evidence almost sufficient to prove the Abbé's theory in the teeth of all objections, could we but be certain of its genuineness. This is the will of Laura de Sade, made in a condition of extreme sickness on April 3, 1348. We know on Petrarch's own authority that his Laura died on April 6, for the genuineness of the note in his Virgil where he records this fact is now regarded as incontestable. That two ladies of the name of Laura were dying at or near Avignon at the same time is clearly improbable. But is the will itself authentic? or may it not have been altered or interpolated? The Abbé cites it as a document in his family archives; its existence is attested by several persons in the eighteenth century; but it does not appear to have been submitted to the scrutiny of any expert, nor can we learn whether such an examination has ever been made since, or whether the testament is now producible.[1] Should its authenticity ever be demonstrated, but hardly otherwise, we shall be almost compelled to embrace a belief liable in every other point of view to formidable objections.

Although Laura, as depicted by Petrarch, is the most ethereal feminine ideal ever conceived, his passion was certainly not of the Platonic kind. The contrary has been asserted, but is contradicted by every page of the Canzoniere, which is full of reproaches to Laura for her cruelty, incomprehensible if she was not withholding very substantial favours. He certainly did not want for encouragements of a more spiritual nature:

"The mist of pallor in such beauteous wise
The sweetness of her smile did overscreen,
That my thrilled hearty upon my visage seen,
Sprang to encounter it in swift surprise.
How soul by soul is scanned in Paradise
Then knew I, unto whom disclosed had been
That thought pathetic by all gaze unseen
Save mine, who solely for such sight have eyes.

All look angelicaly all tender gest

That e'er on man by grace of woman beamed
At side of this had shown discourtesy.
The gentle visage, modestly depressed
Earthward, inquired with silence, as meseemed,
'Who draws my faithful friend away from me?' "

Long after this, which surely should have satisfied a Platonic lover, he is looking forward to a more perfect consummation of his wishes:

"Love sends me messengers of gentle thought,
Since days of yore our trusty go-between,
And comforts me, who ne'er, he saith, have been
So near as now to hope's fruition brought."

What hope's fruition was we learn from numerous sonnets composed after the death of Laura, in which the poet expresses his thankfulness that his mistress did not yield to his too ardent entreaties, but kept him in order by her frowns, a function attributed to her even in the first book of sonnets:

"O happy arts of excellent effect!
I labouring with the tongue, she with the glance,
Have glory there, and virtue here bestowed."

Laura's attitude towards Petrarch seems not ill expressed in the sonnet composed in the eighteenth century by Ippolito Pindemonte:

"To thee, immortal lady lowly laid
Where Sorga glassed thy loveliness divine,
I bow in worship; not because was thine
The beauty solely for the coffin made;
But for the soul that animating swayed,
And, cold and colder growing, did incline
Brighter and brighter yet to soar and shine
Thy lover's flame of passion unallayed.

For certes his lament had seemed misplaced,
And much the pathos of his music marred,
Had not his lady been so very chaste:
Comey grateful Italy, with fond regard,
To kiss the tomb by such a tenant graced,
And bless the dust that gave thee such a bard."

This peculiar relation of Laura to Petrarch as a monitress, no less than an object of adoration, goes far to establish the reality of his passion, which is exactly that which men frequently entertain for women a little older than themselves, and whom they deem in some measure or some respect their superiors. He feels himself ennobled by his love, a sentiment expressed with great force in the tenth sonnet, one of the earliest, and in many others, especially the beautiful Sonnet clii.:

"Soul, that such various things with various art
Dost hearken, read, discourse, conceive and write;
Fond eyes, and thou, keen sense framed exquisite
To bear her holy message to the heart:
Rejoice ye that it hath not been your part
To gain the road so hard to keep aright
Too late or soon for beacon of her light,
Or guidance her imprinted steps impart.
Now with such beam and such direction blest
'Twere shameful in brief way to miss the sign
Pointing the passage to eternal rest.
Upward, faint soul, thy heavenward path incline;
Through clouds of her sweet wrath pursue thy quest,
Following the seemly step and ray divine."

We do not know whether Petrarch had written any poetry before he tuned his lyre to hymn Laura. His beginnings (the exquisite initial sonnet being in fact the last written of any) are at first feeble and uncertain. It is not until arriving at Sonnet xxii. that he strikes a note worthy of his mature power, and he continues unequal up to about Sonnet lx., when masterpieces begin to occur with frequency; from this point onwards the proportion of absolutely insignificant poems is comparatively small. The interspersed sestines and ballate add little to his reputation; not so the canzoni, which are among his noblest productions. Traces of a chronological arrangement are evident; thus his secession to the Sorga gives birth to a group of sonnets with which those denouncing the Papal Court at Avignon are intimately connected; and in general the poems show a continuous development of style, but there are some signal exceptions. Towards the end of the first book his Muse would seem in danger of flagging, were she not stimulated by forebodings of the death of Laura. The pieces expressing this apprehension form a well-marked group, which may be associated with the doubts and fears which, after Laura's decease, he tells us beset him on his last parting with her (1347):

"The lovely eyes, now in supernal sphere
Bright with the light whence life and safety rain,
Leaving mine mendicant and mourning here,
Flashed with new mood they seemed to entertain,
Saying to these: Take comfort, friends most dear,
Not here but elsewhere shall we meet again."

Mestica, the most critical of Petrarch's editors, seems to think that he wrote no more on Laura in her lifetime after the great spiritual change which he supposes him to have undergone in 1343, when he wrote his dialogue with St. Augustine. We see but slight evidence of any such metamorphosis.

The second book of the Canzoniere, comprising the pieces composed after the death of Laura, resembles the first in their comparative inferiority at the beginning, after a fine introductory sonnet. Either Petrarch's grief had paralysed his powers, or he had not fully realised his loss, or he had not yet hit upon the fitting tone. In a short time, however, he regains his true self, and the second part is generally deemed to excel the first, as pathos excels passion. It is not that the artist is more consummate, but the capabilities of his instrument are greater. The poems generally fall into two groups—laments for Laura's loss, or consolation derived from the realisation of her presence on earth or in heaven. An example of each must be given:

"The eyes whose praise I penned with glowing thought,
And countenance and limbs and all fair worth
That sundered me from men of mortal birth,
From them dissevered, in myself distraught;
The clustering locks with golden glory fraught;
The sudden-shining smile, as angels' mirth,
Wonted to make a paradise on earth;
Are now a little dust, that feels not aught.
Still have I life, who rail and rage at it,
Lorn of Love's light that solely life endears;
Mastless before the hurricane I flit.
Be this my last of lays to mortal ears;
Dried is the ancient fountain of my wit,
And all my music melted into tears."

"Exalted by my thought to regions where
I found whom earthly quest hath never shown,
Where Love hath rule 'twixt fourth and second zone;
More beautiful I found her, less austere.
Clasping my hand, she said, 'Behold the sphere
Where we shall dwell, if Wish hath truly known.
I am, who wrung from thee such bitter moan;
Whose sun went down ere evening did appear.

My bliss, too high for wan to understand,
Yet needs thee, and the veil that so did please,
Now unto dust for briefest season given.'
Why ceased she speaking? why withdrew her hand?
For, rapt to ecstasy by words like these,
Little I wanted to have stayed in Heaven."

This latter mood is in general the more characteristic of Petrarch. Towards the end it prevails more and more, but the same falling-off is observable as in the former book. Petrarch's religious sonnets are exquisite when they involve a direct vision of Laura, but otherwise they are apt to become tame and conventional. It is almost a pity that the most notable exception should ever have been written, though it ranks among his masterpieces:

"Ever do I lament the days gone by,
When adoration of a mortal thing
Bound me to earth, though gifted with a wing
That haply had upraised me to the sky.
Thou, unto whom unveiled my errors lie,
Celestial, unbeheld, eternal King,
Help to the frail and straying spirit bring,
And lack of grace with grace of Thine supply.
So shall the life in storfn and warfare spent
In peaceful haven close; if here in vain
Her tarrying, seemly her departure be.
'Aid me to live the little life yet lent;
Expiring strength with Thy strong arm sustain:
Thou knowest I have hope in none but Thee."

Were this more than a passing mood, it would be painful indeed that Petrarch should have lived to deem his devotion to Laura misspent, and nothing short of ludicrous that he should have accused himself of missing by his Canzoniere the renown which epics or tragedies might have ensured him. Such a passing mood it must have been, for it is contradicted by the succeeding pieces. The book concludes with an impassioned hymn to the Virgin, which may have suggested to Goethe the analogous conclusion of Faust.

The Canzoniere is completed by the Trionfi, allegorical shows entirely in the taste of the Middle Ages, which we shall find repeated in Francesco Colonna's Polifilo. Petrarch successively sings the might of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity, set forth in the long processions of their captives or votaries. A certain circumscription is essential to the full display of Petrarch's genius, and terza rima, a metre favourable to diffuseness, does not exhibit his powers to such advantage as the severe restriction of his sonnets and canzoni. The poem, nevertheless, if a little garrulous, charms by deep feeling and a succession of delightful if not transcendent beauties. The finest portion is the Triumph of Death, when Laura appears, and addresses the poet to much the same effect as in his sonnets written after her decease. "L'on est vraiment touché de voir que dans un âge avancé Pétrarque ne se consolàit encore de l'avoir perdue qu'en se rappelant et se retragant dans ses vers tout ce qui lui faisait croire que Laura en effet l'avait aimé" (Ginguené). It was begun in 1357, and is not entirely complete, though Petrarch continued to add and retouch until within a very short time of his death. The last lines relate to Laura, who, present or absent, is always the inspiration of the poem. Petrarch evidently wrote greatly under the influence of his reminiscences of Dante, and this may account for his unwillingness, frequently attributed to unworthy jealousy, to concern himself with his predecessor in his latter years. He knew that Dante's spirit was more potent than his, and feared to be subjugated by it, as has happened to many. He has himself been imitated by Shelley in the Triumph of Life.

The odes with which the Canzoniere is interspersed are no less beautiful than the sonnets, but are less adapted for quotation, since it is impossible to give any one in its entirety, and they must greatly suffer by abridgment. There is, however, a certain completeness in the first three stanzas of Chiare, fresche, e dolci acque, excellently translated by Leigh Hunt:

"Clear, fresh, and dulcet streams,
Which the fair shape who seems
To me sole woman, haunted at noon-tide;
Fair bough, so gently fit
(I sigh to think of it).
Which lent a pillow to her lovely side;
And turf, and flowers bright-eyed,
O'er which her folded gown
Flowed like an angel's down;
And you, oh holy air and hushed,
Where first my heart at her sweet glances gushed;
Give ear, give ear with one consenting,
To my last words, my last, and my lamenting.
If 'tis my fate below,
And Heaven will have it so,
That love must close these dying eyes in tears,
May my poor dust be laid
In middle of your shade,
While my soul naked mounts to its own spheres.
The thought would calm my fears,
When taking, out of breath,
The doubtful step of death;
For never could my spirit find
A stiller port after the stormy wind,
Nor in more calm, abstracted bourne
Slip from my travailed flesh, and from my bones outworn.

Perhaps, some future hour,
To her accustomed bower
Might come the untamed, and yet the gentle she;
And where she saw me first,
Might turn with eyes athirst
And kinder joy to look again for me;
Then, oh, the charity!
Seeing amid the stones
The earth that held my bones,
A sigh for very love at last
Might ask of Heaven to pardon me the past;
And Heaven itself could not say nay,
As with her gentle veil she wiped the tears away."

Not much need be said of Petrarch's character, whether as poet, scholar, or man. As a poet he deserves to be numbered among the few who have attained absolute perfection within a certain sphere; to whom within these limits nothing can be added, though much may be taken away. The subtraction of the trivial or fantastic from Petrarch's verse leaves, nevertheless, a mass of love-poetry transcending in amount no less than in loveliness all poetry of the same class from the pen of any other man. If immortality is deservedly awarded to a single masterpiece like the Burial of Sir John Moore or the Pervigilium Veneris, it should not be difficult to estimate his claims whose similar masterpieces are counted by scores. Perhaps the greatest of his beauties is the complete naturalness of his ceaseless succession of thoughts transcendently exquisite. If Petrarch has not the thrilling note or transparent spirituality of Dante, his perfect form represents a higher stage of artistic development—too high, indeed, to be maintained by his successors. A just parallel might be drawn between the three great sonnet-writers of the Latin peoples, Dante, Petrarch, Camoens; the three orders of architecture, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian; and the three great ancient dramatists.

It is noteworthy that Petrarch does not appear as the representative poet of the mediæval or of any other period. Horace and Ovid would have admired him as much as his contemporaries did, and he is as fresh and bright in the nineteenth as in the fourteenth century. Many have pursued him, none have overtaken him. His prose works, on the contrary, bear the stamp of their age, and exist for ours mainly as curiosities and documentary illustrations of bygone manners and ways of thinking. This was inevitable; he could not have been the literary sovereign of his age had he been very greatly in advance of it. He looked down upon it sufficiently to dislike it, as he tells us, and prepare a better. As a man he had shining virtues and few faults, except such as are almost inseparable from the characters of poets, orators, and lovers, and which men like Dante only avoid at the cost of less amiable failings. His nearest parallel is perhaps with Cicero, and would appear closer if Petrarch had, or Cicero had not, been called upon to take a highly responsible part in public affairs.

Of Petrarch's vast influence upon English poetry since the time of Wyatt and Surrey, who may be justly called his disciples, it is needless to say anything, except that it is even more to be traced in the general refinement of diction than by the imitation of particular passages.

The best critical edition is Mestica's, founded mainly upon scrupulous examination of a manuscript partly written by Petrarch himself, partly by an amanuensis under his direction. It may almost be wished that Mestica had not such good authority for some of his disturbances of time-hallowed readings. By much the best exegetical commentary is Leopardi's, a model of pregnant conciseness, and invaluable for clearing up difficulties, although frequently proffering explanation where explanation seems needless. The late Henry Reeve's English biography, though condensed, is fully adequate. The appreciation of the Petrarchan sonnet-forms, never to be tampered with without detriment, has been mainly promoted in England by the late Charles Tomlinson.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. Koerting distinctly affirms that it is not. The history of Carlyle and the Squire Papers evinces the extreme danger of touching, tasting, or handling in similar cases.