Petrarch and his World REVIEW
Petrarch was one of the first modern humans to spend a good deal of his life trying to figure his own emotions out on paper (King David aside perhaps). Petrarch was a devout Christian most of his life (with not a few moral lapses and no small share of pride) but he found the study of the self as interesting if not more interesting than the study of God. Petrarch' originality, said Edgar Quinet, a 19th-century French critic, "consists in having realized, for the first time, every moment of our existence contains in itself the substance of a poem, that every hour encloses an immortality.”
“Petrarch discovered that the smallest incidence of everyday life could be transformed into poetry,” writes Bishop,
“that they are themselves poetic. However common place his discovery may seem today, it was momentous for literature and for man's awareness of the holy wonder in his existence.”
“His songs delighted his contemporaries because of their verbal beauty and their exultation of love, and because they revealed the poetic quality of common place experience.”
It is difficult for me not to pity Petrarch. To someone who believes that emotional attachments are things that we chose, his life-struggles are to be regarded as completely self-inflicted. If, as Iago tells Rodrigo in Othello, “our wills are our gardens” then Petrarch would have been better served to have defended himself from Cupid’s arrow in the first place. He certainly would not have driven the shaft in deeper with poems of loss and longing his entire life.
Here is his story. On April 6, 1327, 23-year-old Francesco Petrarch laid eyes on a blonde-haired seventeen year old teenager by the name of Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon and, according to his own testimony, found himself literally “smitten” forever after. [Think the Beatles song, I Saw Her Standing There]. “I entered the labyrinth” Petrarch says of that moment in his life. He would always attribute the cause to the maliciousness of Cupid who shot his love arrow at Petrarch because he was so unguarded and yet left Laura undisturbed because she was otherwise. She was, much to Petrarch’s loss and poetry’s gain, already a wife, a mother, and a devout Catholic.
According to Linda Gregerson’s brief 2015 panel discussion presentation “on the History of the Sonnet,”
“Love is something deeply embedded in the tradition [of sonnet writing] – erotic love that must be impeded. Crucial to this love and its function in the lyric poem is that – it’s got to be frustrated – by something. The lady is indifferent. The lady is already possessed by somebody else. Best of all, as both Dante and Petrarch discover, the lady dies. Its great. It makes her extremely useful as an agent of higher longing.” (Chancellor’s Conversations, Poets Forum, 2015 New York City (Poets.org)
Though Petrarch himself may have agreed sporadically, he certainly did not agree easily. He lived with a deep attachment to his vision of Laura for the rest of his mostly pious life, both encouraging and mortifying his affections in turn and often simultaneously. As Petrarch’s biographer, Morris Bishop wrote of the subject of his study, “In the chemistry of the spirit, emotions do not neutralize each other.” Unrequited lovers have been finding consolation in Petrarch’s sonnets for almost 700 years now.
Petrarch wrote poems for and about Laura until she died of the plague in 1348 and then continued to write poems about her until *he* died in in 1374, forty-seven years after his transcendental experience in the church in Avignon.
According to Bishop, the sweet new style of poetry that Petrarch perfected idealized love and the beloved while bringing the woman loved down to earth (unlike Dante’s Beatrice). “Love rises from it sensual origins to a level of purity, where it blends with the divine,” Bishop tells us of this courtly way to think about romance.
“The beloved becomes Gods emissary on earth; her purpose is to guide the poet, to redeem him from earthly evil, to purify him in beauty. Thus, the beloved takes on some of the attributes of divinity, and the poet, by way of earthly love, attains to love divine.”
Petrarch’s mistake was to “nurture an attachment” (as Jane Austen might phrase it) with an idea of a woman who he would never be able to experience as anything other than an abstraction. Where there is a differential between what is wanted and what is, there is suffering the Buddhists would tell us and thus Petrarch suffered (and like Goethe, Rousseau, and Chateaubriand, grew famous and rich from writing about his suffering). Bishop, who greatly admires Petrarch, chalks the suffering up to biopsychology.
“Petrarch’s melancholy states may be explained by the brutal solutions of every day bourgeois common sense. He was a vigorous, sensible, and very emotional man, now passed thirty. He was vowed to clerical rectitude, for which he had no vocation. Nature summoned him to take a mate, to beget children and guard their growth, to perform gladly, for their sake, the humdrum tasks of shelter building and food getting, at the cost of bidding farewell to poetry. But for social and economic reasons he was defying the physiological imperative ...”
Damned imperatives. Perhaps, continues Bishop even more directly, the source of Petrarch’s troubles – “though a stimulation to achievement – was non-ecclesiastical celibacy.” Petrarch once wrote that he felt “forever something unsatisfied in my heart." To Bishop, the something unsatisfied “resulted from his defiance of nature's simplest injunction without his accepting the training or obtaining the rewards of the clerical celibate.”
Alas, Petrarch had the sort of mind that believed that books and God and nature could provide the mind with sufficient contact to offset the deprivations of the other senses. Listen to him as he tries to triangulate past his physiology.
"What good is it for me to enter this wilderness alone, to follow the river courses, to explore the forest, to sit on the mountain tops, if wherever I go my mind follows in the wild just as in the cities? The mind must be laid aside. The mind, I say, must be left at home, but I must humbly pray God to create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me then, at last I will have penetrated the secrets of the solitary life."
“[My books] are friends illustrious in speech, intelligence, government, war, not difficult; they are content with a corner in my humble house, never reluctant or boring, eagerly obedient to my command, ready to come or go at my call. Now these, now those I interrogate, and they answer me at length, telling their tales and singing their songs. Some explore the secrets of nature, some give counsel on better living and better dying; some tell their own high deeds and those of past heroes, and make old times live again in their words. Some drive away my distresses with their cheer, and bring back laughter to me with their fun. Some teach me to bear all burdens, to hope for nothing, to know my self. They are the artificers of peace, war, agriculture, law, navigation. They raise me up in adversity, curb me in prosperity, bid me look to the end, remind me of the swift days and of life’s brevity. For all these gifts they ask a small price only an open door to my house and heart, for hostile fate has left them few refuges in the world and only reluctant friends. If they are admitted, they think any lurking place a mansion, and lie trembling until the frigid clouds may pass and the Muses again be welcomed. They do not require that silken hangings cover my bare walls or that rich foods perfume my table, or that my halls resound with the clamor of many servants attending a throng of guests. My sober troop of books are content with their own provisions and share them with me, as I sit wearily on my rose colored bench. They give me sacred food and pour me sweet nectar:’
Petrarch described this intellectual single man’s compensatory bibliomania in a letter written from Vaucluse between 1345 and 1347.
“Divine favour has freed me from most human passions, but one insatiable lust remains—I can’t get enough books. Perhaps now I have more than I need; but with books as with other things, the more one gets the more one wants. And books have their own special quality. They thrill you to the marrow, they talk to you, counsel you, admit you to their living, speaking friendship. And they introduce you to other books, their friends.”
Petrarch would, like Thoreau, retreat to a waterside nature reserve to drink his fill of thought, of nature, of books, and writing. Vaucluse, France was Petrarch’s Walden. As Bishop puts it, “Vaucluse and Walden would lie close together in a spiritual geography.” But it never worked for long. Petrarch would frequently have to pack his travel bags and search for his missing piece in travel, in awards, in notoriety, in fame, in usefulness, in art, in collecting ancient texts, in anything that he thought might help him fit his Laura-sized soul-hole.
“If the woods and streams could for fill our needs,” Bishop writes,
“Vaucluse would be enough. But nature requires something more. The mob thinks that philosophers and poets are hard as rocks, but in this it is wrong, as in so much. They are too flesh and blood; they keep their human nature, though they reject fleshly pleasures. There is a limit of necessity for both philosophers and poets, and it is dangerous to transgress it."
Over time, Petrarch would accomplish much and write more. But he became less and less of a fulfilled human. And he felt it. And those around him felt it. Whether he would have stopped feeling for Laura had he stopped writing about her is an interesting question. He was a romantic hemophiliac it appears, a hemophiliac who had a talent for picking scabs. But he did at least consider the cure he was not willing to take. “May the patient interrupt the doctor for a moment?” he asks himself in the midst of one of his internal dialogues,
“Let me tell you this – I can never love anyone else. My eyes are so used to gazing upon her, my mind is so used to admiring her, that all that is not she, seems dark and ugly. So if you command me to love another in order to free myself from love, you were asking the impossible. It's all over. I am done for.”
As he puts it in one of his sonnets,
I am in terror when I scrutinize
The minds clear record of our parting day.
I left my heart with her and came away,
And yet my thought to her forever flies.
It is interesting. Petrarch went to school to be a lawyer because that was where the money was. He quit the law as soon as he could saying that he could not bear the idea of “making a merchandise of his mind.” He seems to have done exactly that with his heart. His poems of unrequited love were famous all over Europe and it is his poems, more than anything else he wrote, that we remember him for.
Question for Comment: Morris Bishop writes: “If we say that [Petrarch’s] love was exaggerated, we can only mean ‘exaggerated for us.’ We admit out own incapacity to exaggerate thus. Maybe we are condemning ourselves, not Petrarch.”
When does Petrarch’s level of devotion to Laura become something less than admirable? As soon as it comes into existence? When it creates suffering to no end or purpose? When it leaves the world shy one person’s healthy ability to commit to anyone else?