The Poetry of Petrarch


With you, dear Internet, I can be brutally honest: I was not in the market for a volume of Petrarch's poetry. Beyond the few sonnets I had read in classes scattered throughout my liberal arts education, this master of the early Italian Renaissance did not make the short list, or even the long list, of poets I intended to investigate further. No, I must admit that I was entirely seduced by Dean Nicastro's lovely cover art, which graces the new David Young translation of Petrarch's Canzoniere, put out by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Despite the Harold Bloom blurb marring the back of this beauty, the grace and simplicity of laurel leaves on marbled cream conquered my heart—much like Petrarch's own was conquered upon spying Laura that fateful day in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon. Luckily, unlike Petrarch, I didn't have to pine and moan in solitude; I could buy this pretty prize, bring it home, and ravish it at my leisure.

Which has turned out to be an extremely slow leisure indeed. I've been making my way through these poems since February, my friends, and am only spurred on to finish off the last twenty pages and write it up because people I told about it back then are starting to look at me funny when I meet them in the virtual street. It's not that I haven't been enjoying them, but it's an odd kind of enjoyment, and it's made me realize that I do not read poetry at the same pace, or in the same way, as prose, nor should I try to force myself into doing so. Poetry, after all, is so condensed—a professor of mine once defined it as "language under pressure"—maybe it shouldn't be consumed at the same rate a novel would be, at least not by me.

That said, there is a certain novelistic quality about reading all 366 of the Canzoniere in order. Although each sonnet, sestina, or ballata seems to dwell in exactly the same emotional space as the one before it, a slow progression does take place as the years gradually unfold and the speaker's relationship to his own unrequited love evolves. The early poems give us a man struck by the full force of new infatuation; as it becomes clear that he will never successfully woo his lady (Laura was, unfortunately, already married), he struggles with anger and resentment, which alternate with attempts at acceptance and religious feeling. Every year that passes is marked with an "anniversary" sonnet, so the reader knows when the speaker has loved Laura for six, ten, eighteen years. The speaker's emotional landscape dips and crests; it is marked by such momentous events as a few words exchanged with Laura in public square, or a moment when she allows him to touch her hand. At times he rues the day he ever saw her, and at others affirms she alone gives his life meaning. He is beginning to face the prospect of growing old together (yet apart), when he begins to experience ominous forebodings, and indeed, Laura's sudden death soon strikes him a tremendous blow. The "ominous foreboding" sonnets were some of the poems I found the most interesting, full of atmospheric feeling:

My lady used to visit me in sleep,
though far away, and her sight would console me,
but now she frightens and depresses me
and I've no shield against my gloom and fear;

for now I seem to see in her sweet face
true pity mixing in with heavy pain,
and I hear things that tell my heart it must
divest itself of any joy or hope.

"Don't you recall that evening we met last,
when I ran out of time," she says, "and left
you standing there, your eyes filled up with tears?

"I couldn't and I didn't tell you then
what I must now admit is proved and true:
you must not hope to see me on this earth."

The image of a ghostly Laura delivering the line "Don't you recall that evening we met last, / when I ran out of time...?" strikes me as deliciously Gothic, an impression that only grows when, thirty poems further on, he perceives her spirit returning to the mortal world to haunt and console him. As the narrator continues to struggle with grief and draw toward his own death, one realizes what a dynamic and really quite modern character study the Canzoniere, as a whole, make up.

That said, there are also difficult things about reading Petrarch, and at the top of that list for me was the simply overwhelming influence that the man has had on every lyric poet who followed him. Like all game-defining works, the original sometimes comes to seem as tiredly clichéd as all its successors. At times I could imagine myself into a world before Shakespeare, before Milton, before Dickinson and Eliot, and begin to grasp the hugeness of Petrarch's accomplishment and influence, as in the poems against which Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnets were likely reacting ("A lady much more splendid than the sun"; "her golden hair was loosened to the breeze"), or #190, the likely inspiration for Sir Thomas Wyatt's great "Whoso list to hunt" sonnet. But at other times I failed to make the imaginative leap back to the fourteenth century, and Petrarch's verses came off somewhat stale as a result. True, there were many, many gorgeous lines and passages, ones that reached out and grabbed my language-loving heart:

Below the foothills where she first put on
the lovely garment of her earthly limbs ... (#8)

I walked along beloved riverbanks
from that time on ... (#23)

diamond perhaps, or maybe lovely marble
all white with fear, ... (#51)

that god you follow leaves you pale and wan ... (#58)

she leads a mob of armored sighs around,
this lovely enemy of Love and me. (#169)

that same evergreen I love so well,
despite the ways its shadows make me sad. (#181)

I live in fear, in a perpetual war,
I am no longer what I was ... (#252)

My soul, caught up between opposing glories,
experienced things I still don't understand:
celestial joy along with some sweet strangeness. (#257)

the snares and nets and birdlimes set by Love ... (#263)

But there was no one poem that sustained this kind of arresting, tactile energy that is the heart of poetry to me. Having read the Canzoniere is, I find, intellectually rewarding but not emotionally exhilarating.

And to be honest, I think part of the reason for that is simply my lack of sympathy for the massive project of amorous angst and sentimentality that Petrarch, probably never suspecting what a can of worms he was opening, nevertheless touched off in Western culture. To put it bluntly, it takes a lot for me to love a work about self-loathing and unrequited love. I don't believe in true love at first sight, or in some kind of courtly ideal of valuing one's life at nothing in exchange for a glance or a handkerchief. I have a high capacity for making allowances for a writer's time and place; I do well with Chaucer and Homer and the author of Beowulf. But in Petrarch I felt I was meeting the well-spring of a set of ideas against which I actively rail on an almost daily basis, and I couldn't quite get past that. Love as self-destruction is just not an idea I can tolerate, especially when paired with the veneration of the beloved as an object. These ideas may remain insanely popular in our culture, but they're not romantic; they're tremendously harmful. They are (excuse the expression) jacked. the fuck. up.

The way a simple butterfly, in summer,
will sometimes fly, while looking for the light,
right into someone's eyes, in its desire,
whereby it kills itself and causes pain;

so I run always toward my fated sun,
her eyes, from which such sweetness comes to me,
since Love cares nothing for the curb of reason
and judgment is quite vanquished by desire.

And I can see quite well how they avoid me,
and I well know that I will die from this,
because my strength cannot withstand the pain;

but oh, how sweetly Love does dazzle me
so that I wail some other's pain, not mine,
and my blind soul consents to her own death.

I mean, it's a lovely and well-crafted poem from a technical point of view, but speaking as a pragmatist, No! No blind souls consenting to their own deaths! No casting yourself as a helpless moth drawn to the flame! No, good sir! I'll restrain myself from an analysis of the sonnets in which Petrarch deconstructs Laura into her component body parts, venerating at one moment her hand, at another her eyes, as if they were disconnected entities. Suffice to say, my appreciation of the cycle suffered due to my dislike of the now-persistent tropes Petrarch pioneered all those centuries ago.

Nevertheless, I certainly did enjoy these poems to an extent, and I'm glad I read them all, since one of my favorite things about the volume was witnessing the slow progression and growth of the speaker's character. I'll just be sure to read some, I don't know, Seamus Heaney or something next, to cleanse my poetic palate.


(The Poetry of Petrarch is my first book toward the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge.)


  • What a delightful coincidence to see this post, what, a night or two after asking you about it, Emily?!? I think I'd react in much the same way you did, from the Harold Bloom marring the back of the back opening to being underwhelmed by Petrarch's stalker-like "romanticism." Having only read Petrach in fragments, though, I envy you the experience you've had at least!

  • I totally agree that poetry is not meant for rapid consumption in large quantities. It's like excellent dark chocolate. Savor it.

    I love your description of the beautiful cover!

  • I have to comment again to say that I was just SURE I was going to fail the Captcha test because my first word was this: L'Irresolu," (WITH the comma and quotes at the end, AND an accent aigu over the e, which I don't know how to add.) Whew! That one really was a challenge. But apparently I passed . . .

  • Richard: Haha, well if you define "coincidence" as "your email motivated me to finally get my act together and write up a post," then yes, it was quite a coincidence! :-) As I said, although he's not my new favorite poet or anything, I am glad I read these as a group rather than in fragments - the accomplishment is definitely clearer.

    Kathy: Mmm, excellent dark chocolate... :-) Glad you agree with me there, and I've noticed that the CAPTCHAs are getting wackier as well; the quotation marks on one side only are so disorienting). So annoying that spammers make these things a necessity!

  • I'm so glad you put in your reservations about true love at first sight, etc. Maybe I was cued by your phrase "a certain novelistic quality," but I kept wondering (and I knew nothing about Petrarch before I read your review): did he make all this up? I mean, maybe it was fashionable in Petrarch's time to devote your life to anguish over a love that could not be fulfilled. (I'm also wondering what connection there may be to the courtly love tradition.) It is such a LITERARY story, this sad love for Laura -- who goes and dies! Certainly there are fashions in our day about what love means. Thanks, Emily, for this introduction to Petrarch.

  • Oh Emily, the beginning of your post made me laugh! I have no intention of reading Petrach but I have to admit I would be very tempted by that cover too, it is striking and quite lovely. I agree that poetry should be read slower than novels. Sometimes a poem needs to be read more than once to squeeze out as much understanding as possible or because it is so incredible it demands repeated attention. Poems also need to sit awhile too in way differnt than novels do.

  • Petrarch was a contemporary of Dante!

    I read some Petrarch for a course on poetry I took in college but that's been the extent of it. Since he and Dante knew each other and reading a volume of his poems is "novelistic," I guess I'll be tempted to give him another try sometime.

    That's an interesting thought about poetry being "condensed" and "language under pressure."

  • I'm a very slow poetry reader as well. I've been spending months and months on my poetry reads lately. I like to read only 2-3 poems at a time, and to read them over and over. So I'll spend a half hour at most, although probably less, each time I sit down to read poetry, and I don't do that every day. But it works well for me, especially since I don't feel the urgency to finish a lot of poetry the way I do with prose. I so agree with you about Petrarch's ideas about love -- that would be hard to deal with.

  • Julia: Yes, that's a really good question. I wondered the same thing, frequently. Especially because there's a lot of punning on Laura and laurels - Petrarch WANTED to be a famous, recognized poet; to what extent did he invent a dummy over which to drape his poems, and call it Laura? Either way, it was somewhat less than compelling.

    Stefanie: Yes! I feel like the poems that have really made a difference to me, needed very many readings until they actually impress on my brain more or less permanently.

  • EL Fay: It's...loosely novelistic. It does end UP feeling like a novel (like a sort of modernist novel much more about character study than plot), but when you're down in the weeds it basically feels like someone beating their head against the same problem for 20 years. I guess the contrast between those two impressions is interesting...

    Dorothy: I'm glad to hear all this agreement about reading poetry slowly. I kept feeling a bit guilty for taking so long with this, but I should just give myself permission to take poetry slowly. It's not a race, after all. But yeah, less Woman as Perfect Form in the future. :-)

  • I must say, what I love about reading your posts is seeing your "language-loving heart" at work. Let's face it, there are so many books whose subjects and ideologies must conflict with our own tastes or beliefs, and yet we still find some of them interesting enough to finish and talk about because of our love for language.

    About blind romance, yes what is it that makes it so popular in the arts? Isn't it interesting that these artists whose eyes and minds are sharp enough to perceive and describe the many nuances in life are sometimes portrayed as foolish poets in their works? Practically speaking, yes it is self destructive, most especially if you're not a published poet and actually make nothing "productive" out of your miseries, hehe. Although I'm afraid I can't be as pragmatic as you, my dear Emily, for I myself have gone through several phases of youthful blindness (though I like to believe they are all in the past). There's this thought that hit me just this afternoon: a book can be essentially a sad story, and yet still be filled with beautiful moments. Perhaps that's one reason why we still find these books about heroes who never truly got what they desired.

    I love the phrase "language under pressure", by the way. What a poetic way to describe poetry :)

  • I love this: "when I meet them in the virtual street." I can't believe you made it all the way through. You're my hero.

  • June 2012

    Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
              1 2
    3 4 5 6 7 8 9
    10 11 12 13 14 15 16
    17 18 19 20 21 22 23
    24 25 26 27 28 29 30


    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography