Petrarch: Sonnets


Petrarch is best known for his Italian poetry, notably the Canzoniere ("Songbook") and the Trionfi ("Triumphs"). However, Petrarch was an enthusiastic Latin scholar and did most of his writing in this language. His Latin writings include scholarly works, introspective essays, letters, and more poetry. Among them are Secretum ("My Secret Book"), an intensely personal, guilt-ridden imaginary dialogue with Augustine of Hippo; De Viris Illustribus ("On Famous Men"), a series of moral biographies; Rerum Memorandarum Libri, an incomplete treatise on the cardinal virtues; De Otio Religiosorum ("On Religious Leisure")[26] and De Vita Solitaria ("On the Solitary Life"), which praise the contemplative life; De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae ("Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul"), a self-help book which remained popular for hundreds of years; Itinerarium ("Petrarch's Guide to the Holy Land"); invectives against opponents such as doctors, scholastics, and the French; the Carmen Bucolicum, a collection of 12 pastoral poems; and the unfinished epic Africa.

Petrarch also published many volumes of his letters, including a few written to his long-dead friends from history such as Cicero and Virgil. Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca were his literary models. Most of his Latin writings are difficult to find today, but several of his works are available in English translations. Several of his Latin works are scheduled to appear in the Harvard University Press series I Tatti.[27] It is difficult to assign any precise dates to his writings because he tended to revise them throughout his life.

Petrarch collected his letters into two major sets of books called Epistolae familiares ("Letters on Familiar Matters") and Seniles ("Letters of Old Age"), both of which are available in English translation.[28] The plan for his letters was suggested to him by knowledge of Cicero's letters. These were published "without names" to protect the recipients, all of whom had close relationships to Petrarch. The recipients of these letters included Philippe de Cabassoles, bishop of Cavaillon; Ildebrandino Conti, bishop of Padua; Cola di Rienzo, tribune of Rome; Francesco Nelli, priest of the Prior of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Florence; and Niccolò di Capoccia, a cardinal and priest of Saint Vitalis. His "Letter to Posterity" (the last letter in Seniles)[29] gives an autobiography and a synopsis of his philosophy in life. It was originally written in Latin and was completed in 1371 or 1372 - the first such autobiography in a thousand years (since Saint Augustine).[30][31]

While Petrarch's poetry was set to music frequently after his death, especially by Italian madrigal composers of the Renaissance in the 16th century, only one musical setting composed during Petrarch's lifetime survives. This is Non al suo amante by Jacopo da Bologna, written around 1350.

Laura and poetry

On April 6, 1327,[32] after Petrarch gave up his vocation as a priest, the sight of a woman called "Laura" in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon awoke in him a lasting passion, celebrated in the Rime sparse ("Scattered rhymes"). Later, Renaissance poets who copied Petrarch's style named this collection of 366 poems Il Canzoniere ("Song Book"). Laura may have been Laura de Noves, the wife of Count Hugues de Sade (an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade). There is little definite information in Petrarch's work concerning Laura, except that she is lovely to look at, fair-haired, with a modest, dignified bearing. Laura and Petrarch had little or no personal contact. According to his "Secretum", she refused him for the very proper reason that she was already married to another man. He channeled his feelings into love poems that were exclamatory rather than persuasive, and wrote prose that showed his contempt for men who pursue women. Upon her death in 1348, the poet found that his grief was as difficult to live with as was his former despair. Later in his "Letter to Posterity", Petrarch wrote: "In my younger days I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair – my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames. I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did".

While it is possible she was an idealized or pseudonymous character – particularly since the name "Laura" has a linguistic connection to the poetic "laurels" Petrarch coveted – Petrarch himself always denied it. His frequent use of l'aura is also remarkable: for example, the line "Erano i capei d'oro a l'aura sparsi" may both mean "her hair was all over Laura's body", and "the wind ("l'aura") blew through her hair". There is psychological realism in the description of Laura, although Petrarch draws heavily on conventionalised descriptions of love and lovers from troubadour songs and other literature of courtly love. Her presence causes him unspeakable joy, but his unrequited love creates unendurable desires, inner conflicts between the ardent lover and the mystic Christian, making it impossible to reconcile the two. Petrarch's quest for love leads to hopelessness and irreconcilable anguish, as he expresses in the series of paradoxes in Rima 134 "Pace non trovo, et non ò da fa guerra": "I find no peace, and yet I make no war:/and fear, and hope: and burn, and I am ice".[33]

Laura is unreachable – the few physical descriptions are vague, almost impalpable as the love he pines for, and such is perhaps the power of his verse, which lives off the melodies it evokes against the fading, diaphanous image that is no more consistent than a ghost. Francesco De Sanctis remarks much the same thing in his Storia della letteratura italiana, and contemporary critics agree on the powerful music of his verse. Perhaps the poet was inspired by a famous singer he met in Veneto around 1350's.[34] Gianfranco Contini, in a famous essay on Petrarch's language ("Preliminari sulla lingua del Petrarca". Petrarca, Canzoniere. Turin, Einaudi, 1964) has spoken of linguistic indeterminacy – Petrarch never rises above the "bel pié" (her lovely foot): Laura is too holy to be painted; she is an awe-inspiring goddess. Sensuality and passion are suggested rather by the rhythm and music that shape the vague contours of the lady.

Sonnet 227

Original Italian English Translation by A. S. Kline

Aura che quelle chiome bionde et crespe cercondi et movi, et se’ mossa da loro, soavemente, et spargi quel dolce oro, et poi ’l raccogli, e ’n bei nodi il rincrespe, tu stai nelli occhi ond’amorose vespe mi pungon sí, che ’nfin qua il sento et ploro, et vacillando cerco il mio thesoro, come animal che spesso adombre e ’ncespe: ch’or me ’l par ritrovar, et or m’accorgo ch’i’ ne son lunge, or mi sollievo or caggio, ch’or quel ch’i’ bramo, or quel ch’è vero scorgo. Aër felice, col bel vivo raggio rimanti; et tu corrente et chiaro gorgo, ché non poss’io cangiar teco vïaggio?

Breeze, blowing that blonde curling hair, stirring it, and being softly stirred in turn, scattering that sweet gold about, then gathering it, in a lovely knot of curls again, you linger around bright eyes whose loving sting pierces me so, till I feel it and weep, and I wander searching for my treasure, like a creature that often shies and kicks: now I seem to find her, now I realise she’s far away, now I’m comforted, now despair, now longing for her, now truly seeing her. Happy air, remain here with your living rays: and you, clear running stream, why can’t I exchange my path for yours?

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