Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1459
Of the 366 poems included in the collection that Petrarch made of his poetry, 317 are sonnets, 29 are canzoni, 9 are sestine, 7 are ballate, and 4 are madrigals. In giving the work the title Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, Petrarch called attention to the fact that the brief poems were written not in Latin but in the vernacular. The work also became known as Rime (Rhymes) and Canzoniere.
In considering the sonnets and songs of Petrarch, scholars invariably compare the poet with Dante, who also wrote in the vernacular Italian instead of Latin. Both these giants of Italian literature centered their poetry on a gracious lady suddenly discovered, idealized, and then praised throughout a lifetime. Dante wrote his La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life) about Beatrice Portinari, whom he met when he was nine years old and she eight; he never stopped worshiping her as the ideal woman, and he continued to celebrate her in his poetry even after her death in 1290. Petrarch’s ideal woman was Laura, possibly Laura de Noves, whom he first met on April 6, 1327, when he was in his twenty-second year. Laura died in 1348 from the plague.
Like Dante, Petrarch kept his passion at a distance—one might say at a poetic distance—from the woman who charmed him. In the works of both Dante and Petrarch, however, it is difficult to believe that the love was merely an excuse for the poetry; something of human passion, not just creative passion, burns in the poetry with a warmth that survives the centuries. It may be that this enduring emotion can be attributed to those distant ladies who set the poets to writing immortal poetry, but it is more reasonable to suppose that poetic genius worked in both cases to turn a sudden fancy into a lifelong poetic enterprise.
Critics have never ceased wondering who Laura may have been, and some question whether she actually existed. Even Petrarch’s contemporaries were not certain, and some of them contended that the Laura of the poems was an invention, an ideal based on no model whatsoever. Petrarch denied the charge, pointing out that it would be madness to spend years writing hundreds of poems about an entirely imaginary woman. More significantly, the poems too deny the charge by the force of their feeling and imagery.
For both Dante and Petrarch the idealization process took them beyond earth to heaven. That is, the poetic figures of Beatrice and Laura are not merely ideal mortal, physical women but also spiritually significant, by their person and manner representing beings who symbolize the highest values the human soul can hope to attain. Dante made Beatrice an inspiration even in Paradise and used her as the central guiding figure of the second half of La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). In writing of the painter Simon, Petrarch comments in poem 77:
But certainly Simon saw paradiseWherein this gentle lady had her place;There he saw her and portrayed in such guiseThat is the witness here of her fair face.
Later, writing more explicitly of Laura after her death, Petrarch speaks of “Seeing her now on such intimate term/ With Him who in her life had her heart’s right,” and, in the same sonnet, 345, he concludes:
For fairer than before, my inner eyeSees her soar up and with the angels flyAt the feet of our own eternal Lord.
It has been traditional to divide Petrarch’s sonnets and songs into two major parts, one including poems written while Laura was living and the other those written after her death. Poem 3 of the collection tells of the first meeting:
It was the day when the sun’s rays turned whiteOut of the pity it felt for its sire,When I was caught and taken by desire,For your fair eyes, my lady, held me quite.
In poem 5, Petrarch works the syllables of the name Laura into his verse in order to describe what happens when his sighs call her with the name that Love wrote on his heart: “Thus to LAUd and REvere teaches and vows/ The voice itself . . .” (“Così LAUdare e REverire insegna/La voce stessa . . .”).
In poem 6 appears one of Petrarch’s many puns on Laura’s name, when he writes of Love as holding the bridle of his desire and thus being directed “Only to reach the laurel and its sour fruit . . .” (“Sol per venir al lauro . . .”). Again, in the following poem, he speaks of the “love of laurel.” It was in part because of such puns that Petrarch was accused of inventing the character “Laura.”
These plays with words were the least of Petrarch’s accomplishments in the sonnet form. He was so adept at using the fourteen lines to express a complete idea or image with all its emotional correlate that poets have taken him as a model ever since. A full appreciation of Petrarch’s work comes only from reading his poetry and sensing the beauty that results from his sensitive use of the sound and sense of language within the sonnet form. Although translation does not always succeed in reproducing the finely wrought rhythms of Petrarch’s verse, the best has the great virtue of coming close to the form, sound, and even syntax of the original. Through such translation, even those who do not understand Italian can gain an appreciation of the original.
One of the advantages of Petrarch’s having chosen to write in the tradition of love poetry is that he writes of his beloved from a poignant distance. In making Laura unobtainable, he secured her forever in his poetry. In poem 16, for example, he reminds his readers that he was never able to possess his Laura:
A rain of bitter tears falls from my faceAnd a tormenting wind blows with my sighsWhenever toward you I turn my eyes,Whose absence cuts me from the human race.
Much of Petrarch’s poetry is concerned with the shortness of life, the inevitableness of death, and the end of all that is fair and young on earth, all matters that are related to Laura. Thus the poetry before her death has a great deal in common with the poetry written afterward. The greatest difference in the later works is that regret and speculation have now taken the place of fear for her loss. Before her death Petrarch amused himself with poetically metaphysical imagery by which he claimed that Laura would outshine stars and draw the angels to her, but after her death the poetic amusement is either absent or tempered by a sober recognition of the fact of death. If Laura is shown reverent respect by anyone in heaven, it is because of her spirit. In the following image from sonnet 127, later readers were reminded of John Donne:
To count the constellations one by oneAnd to pour in a goblet all the seasWas perhaps my intention when I tookThis small sheet to relate such mysteries.
Not all the poems are about Laura. Petrarch writes of Italy at war, of nature, of God and the love of God, of life and death, and of other matters of universal concern. Yet even these poems have a human dimension because they are fixed in the context of the Laura poetry. Perhaps it is because Petrarch had the heart and wit to be a love poet that he compels respect for his thoughts about universal matters as well.
After Laura’s death, Petrarch wrote a sonnet of lament (poem 267), which begins, “Alas! the lovely face, the eyes that save/ Alas! the charming countenance and proud!” In the poem that followed, he asks, “What shall I do? What do you counsel, Love?/ It is now time to die./ And I have waited longer than I would./ My lady died and did my heart remove.” The long lament ends:
Flee the clearness, the green,Do not go near where there is song and laughter,Canzone, follow afterWeeping: you are not fit for merry folk,A widow, without comfort, in black cloak.
Petrarch’s lamentations gradually change character toward the end of the collection. Grief gives way to reflection, and reflection turns his thoughts to spiritual love—thus to the love of God. Laura becomes the symbol of what human beings should strive for, even though in life she was physically desirable as a woman. Because “Death quelled the sun wonted to overwhelm” him and “Dust is the one who was my chill and spark,” Petrarch is able to write in sonnet 363, “From this I see my good” and “I find freedom at last, bitter and sweet/ And to the Lord whom I adore and greet,/ Who with his nod governs the holy things,/ I return, tired of life, and with life sated.”
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