Petrarch: Sonnets

Dante

Petrarch's is a world apart from Dante and his Divina Commedia. In spite of the metaphysical subject, the Commedia is deeply rooted in the cultural and social milieu of turn-of-the-century Florence: Dante's rise to power (1300) and exile (1302), his political passions call for a "violent" use of language, where he uses all the registers, from low and trivial to sublime and philosophical. Petrarch confessed to Boccaccio that he had never read the Commedia, remarks Contini, wondering whether this was true or Petrarch wanted to distance himself from Dante. Dante's language evolves as he grows old, from the courtly love of his early stilnovistic Rime and Vita nuova to the Convivio and Divina Commedia, where Beatrice is sanctified as the goddess of philosophy – the philosophy announced by the Donna Gentile at the death of Beatrice.[35]

In contrast, Petrarch's thought and style are relatively uniform throughout his life – he spent much of it revising the songs and sonnets of the Canzoniere rather than moving to new subjects or poetry. Here, poetry alone provides a consolation for personal grief, much less philosophy or politics (as in Dante), for Petrarch fights within himself (sensuality versus mysticism, profane versus Christian literature), not against anything outside of himself. The strong moral and political convictions which had inspired Dante belong to the Middle Ages and the libertarian spirit of the commune; Petrarch's moral dilemmas, his refusal to take a stand in politics, his reclusive life point to a different direction, or time. The free commune, the place that had made Dante an eminent politician and scholar, was being dismantled: the signoria was taking its place. Humanism and its spirit of empirical inquiry, however, were making progress – but the papacy (especially after Avignon) and the empire (Henry VII, the last hope of the white Guelphs, died near Siena in 1313) had lost much of their original prestige.[36]

Petrarch polished and perfected the sonnet form inherited from Giacomo da Lentini and which Dante widely used in his Vita nuova to popularise the new courtly love of the Dolce Stil Novo. The tercet benefits from Dante's terza rima (compare the Divina Commedia), the quatrains prefer the ABBA-ABBA to the ABAB-ABAB scheme of the Sicilians. The imperfect rhymes of u with closed o and i with closed e (inherited from Guittone's mistaken rendering of Sicilian verse) are excluded, but the rhyme of open and closed o is kept. Finally, Petrarch's enjambment creates longer semantic units by connecting one line to the following. The vast majority (317) of Petrarch's 366 poems collected in the Canzoniere (dedicated to Laura) were sonnets, and the Petrarchan sonnet still bears his name.[37]


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