Page:The Oxford book of Italian verse.djvu/10

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.


between precept and practice and exalts the presentment of human folly and frailty to the height of fine art. Dante's learning is the old wisdom of the schools, but Petrarch is the modern scholar; with him the cult of classical literature becomes a passion which drives him to roam the world in quest of ancient MSS., to learn Greek in his old age, to live in a mental solitude thronged with the ghosts of Athens and Rome. His enthusiasm compels him to attempt, not only treatises such as Dante wrote, but works of art in Latin; and if he had never happened to meet the mysterious lady of Avignon who became the empress of his soul for so many years, he would be remembered, if he were remembered at all, merely as one of the obscure toilers who laid the foundations of modern enlightenment. But the Canzoniere, which he thought quite inferior to his paralysing epic on the Second Punic War, is immortal because it is the first record of all the secret melancholy of a human soul—a soul full of wistful desires and subtle changefulness, with an exquisite feeling for beauty and a poignant sense of the fleeting nature of all fair things—a soul, indeed, possessing all the delicate sensitiveness which we are accustomed to regard as characteristic of modernity. We may say, even, that it was the humanist in him which created the lover, for this student who was intent only on living the visionary life of the mind was for that reason master of an enchanted garden where any scarcely-seen earthly Laura might descend and abide, transfigured and immortalized by his imagination. The perfect lover, of course, is one who never wholly ceases to dream. It was humanism, too, which made him regard Italy as the rightful heir of the authority of ancient Rome.