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Petrarch’s importance for literature and culture is twofold. As one of the humanists, that group of thinkers influenced by classical literatures and intent on reinstating classical learning and values, Petrarch was most influential through his Latin writings: Africa, in which he painted a picture of a pagan and classical hero; De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia (1367; On His Own Ignorance and That of Many, 1948), in which he defended classical poetry; and My Secret, wherein, through his development of an individual voice, he became a paradigm for later Renaissance writers, among them the French essayist Michel de Montaigne.

In truth, the critical trend to call the period of Petrarch (and stretching into the seventeenth century, in some parts of Europe) the Early Modern period rather than the Renaissance helps to understand his pivotal position. Petrarch anticipated modern sensibilities in his individualism, his emphasis on the experience of the poet rather than the nature of the object, and his constant self-analysis. Yet he was also as much someone who belonged to a “renaissance,” a rebirth, specifically of classical antiquity. The one work that endures as Petrarch’s most influential, the Canzoniere, displays many of those characteristics.

Composed of 366 poems, mostly sonnets—fourteen-line poems of iambic pentameter, usually with the abbaabba cdecde rhyme scheme that Petrarch perfected—the Canzoniere is a roughly narrative recounting of the influence that a woman named Laura had on Petrarch. The sequence was composed over a number of years, the entire collection being completed near the end of Petrarch’s life. The unique contribution of the sequence is that the lyrics in it are combined in such a way as to create a sense of narrative unity and to focus the reader’s attention on the voice of the poet, a presence at once unifying and individualizing. The sequence itself is divided into two main sections: poems 1 to 266 about Laura in life and 267 to 366 about Laura after death, the final poem taking the reader beyond human time and Laura’s death into heaven and eternity.

Besides its purely structural aspects, the Canzoniere is significant for the ways in which it ties together the three poetic strands that influenced Petrarch: classical Latin poetry, Romance (predominantly French) literature, and Augustinian meditation. From the classics Petrarch derived many of his conventional topoi (a topos is a type of recurrent poetic formula, such as the poet speaking outside his beloved’s door), his secularity, his pastoral vision of the landscape, and, above all, his urbane accommodation of much of Ovid’s language. From the Romance tradition, he assimilated the cultivated poetic and cultural sensibilities of Provence, the aristocratic worldview. Finally, from Augustinianism he developed his confessional and introspective voice. It is that voice—dignified and confessional, aristocratic and personal, tortured and inspired—that unites the Canzoniere.

Through that central persona, the Canzoniere develops three major themes, all interrelated—the meaning of Laura, the nature of the external landscape, and the question of time. For the speaker of the poem, the character of Laura goes well beyond any particular woman whom Petrarch may have seen in church on Good Friday, 1327. Through the Canzoniere her significance changes constantly. At times, she seems to be the historical person whom Petrarch saw, as in sonnet 3. Other times she becomes linked to the laurel crown of poetic fame, and as such she becomes suggestive of the poet’s own quest for glory and fame (which ended in his being crowned poet laureate). Again, she becomes linked to the idea of poetic inspiration and moral guidance (Petrarch often puns on Laura’s name, l’aura meaning “breeze,” a...

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traditional symbol of poetic inspiration), much like Beatrice did for Dante. Another Laura in theCanzoniere allows Petrarch to investigate the theme of love, both secular and profane; this Laura causes Petrarch both pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, and it is this Laura who, perhaps more than any other, became so influential in the Petrarchan poetry that developed throughout Europe.

Yet as important as Laura is for the sequence, finally it is not Laura but rather her effects on the speaker that become the center of Petrarch’s concern. Often he shows her influence by discussing the world of nature, a nature that becomes a reflection of his inner state. This external world reveals the melancholy, the springtime hope and despair, the comfort of solitary nature, and the reflections of the transience of life that Petrarch discovers in his own experience.

A third major theme in the Canzoniere, the relationship between the poet-speaker and time, again reveals Petrarch as a Renaissance writer. The speaker generally notes the transience of time and learns that the beauty of his world and his beloved must be grasped, either through experience or memory—as, for example, he suggests in the famous Sonnet 90 (“She used to let her golden hair fly free”) or the meditative Sonnet 272 (“Life hurries on, a frantic refugee”). Such poems are part of the carpe diem (seize the day) tradition that stretches back to the classical poets, but they are also part of the early modern sensibility that sees in the remorseless march of time not so much a theological or moral lesson as an indication of the “human condition” of which Montaigne would later speak. Ultimately, only in the final poem of the Canzoniere (Sonnet 366), the poem that transcends human time, does Petrarch finally arrive at any resolution of this tension with time, tension encompassing the questions of love, Laura, fame, and vocation.

Sonnet 1

First published: Rime I, 1358 (collected in Rhymes, 1976)

Type of work: Poem

The poet renounces his earlier life and sets himself and his story forth as an example for the reader.

Although this first lyric, Sonnet 1, in Canzoniere was probably written well after many of those poems eventually included in the collection, Petrarch placed it first as an entry piece for the reader. The poem is by no means “original” in the modern sense of the term, for the rhetorical technique of renouncing previous positions was already conventional in poetry by the time that Petrarch wrote the piece. In this acceptance of poetic tradition and convention, the poem is typical of much in the Canzoniere. Later poets would follow this example, notably Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophil and Stella (1591) and Edmund Spenser in the Amoretti (1595). As an “entrance poem,” the sonnet introduces some of the major themes and characteristics of the entire collection.

The poem is a typical Petrarchan sonnet, with a rhyme scheme of abbaabba cdecde, and the syntax adheres to the octave/sestet structure, each portion composed of a single sentence. In the octave, the speaker renounces his former foolishness, the “errant youth” that he had spent pursuing the “vain and empty hope” of earthly “Love.” He presents himself as “Another man,” one who has learned from his experience and is now imploring “Pardon” and “Pity” from the reader. This first speech of the unifying persona of the Canzoniere not only creates the speaker and the audience but also establishes the relationship between the audience and the speaker by direct address to the reader. By indicating shared experience with the reader (the common experience that “Love can sear”), the speaker introduces one major motif of the collection, especially “Part I: Laura Living”—the destructive qualities of passion and its utter vanity (though these are still, in part, merely conventions of love poetry).

The sestet, as is common in Petrarch’s sonnets, presents a reversal and completion to the movement of the octave, noting the wisdom gained (“nought but shame my vanities have bred”) and the resolution to the sequence, the vision of the transience of earthly matters and the value of the spiritual (“earthly joys are dreams that swiftly pass”). The opening of the sestet, the “now,” also establishes the fictive structure of the sequence, a narrative of the speaker’s life of love.

The major themes of the Canzoniere are all in embryo form: the role of Love (Laura) in his life, the tension between the secular and the sacred, the passing of time. Likewise, in focusing on the personal effects of these themes, the poem provides for the reader an indication of the Renaissance perspective of the poet.

Sonnet 269

First published: Rime CCCX, 1358 (collected in Rhymes, 1976)

Type of work: Poem

In the spring, when signs of new life abound, the poet mourns the loss of his beloved.

This famous Petrarchan sonnet, Sonnet 269, the basis for the translation “The Soote Season” by Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, was probably written in the spring of 1352, after the death of Laura (1348). A traditional Petrarchan sonnet divided into an octave rhymed abbaabba and a sestet with the rhymed variation of cdcdcd, the poem is both a lament over the loss of Laura and a meditation on the relationship between the speaker and the natural world around him.

The opening of the poem, with its classical references to Zephyr (the spring wind), Procne (the swallow), and Philomel (the nightingale), invokes the substance and ethos of classical poetry. Yet the opening is also ironically poignant, for the western wind, Zephyr, has replaced the poet’s own breeze, Laura (l’aura, “breeze” in Italian), and left him without the hope generally associated with spring. The poet paints a concrete picture of the details of the season—the birds, the colors, the fair sky, the “glad” fields—yet notes the paradox that, while all around him the earth is in repair, he experiences only a “sweet despair,” the typical Petrarchan oxymoron describing the experience of love.

Indeed, the second part of the poem, the sestet, shows that the poet is at odds with his context. While the life-giving wind comes to nature, he experiences “only heavy sighs” since Laura has gone to her “heavenly sojourn.” Despite the renewal of the world around him, the speaker’s internal landscape, the world of his experience, is precisely the opposite—“Where deserts burn/ The beasts still prowl on the ungreening sand”—and he finds no resurrection of hope.

The poem is one of the best instances of Petrarch’s use of the natural world as an indicator of human experience. While in other poems the landscape had been an adequate mirror of his own emotional state, however, he now finds nature almost mocking his despair and tormenting with hope when he finds none.