Studies in the Correspondence of Petrarch
THE LETTER TO POSTERITY.
“ You will perhaps have heard something of me ; though who can tell whether so trivial and obscure a name as mine will have penetrated to remote places and distant times ? But if so, you may desire to know what manner of man I was, and the purport of my works, — of those, at least, whose fame has reached you, or of which you may have heard some slight mention. From the first men will differ in their verdict about me ; for it is always prejudice rather than truth which determines their judgment, and there is no measure in their distribution of praise and blame. I was one insignificant member of the great human flock, neither highly nor basely born.”
Such are the opening sentences of that Letter to Posterity which the precursor of the Humanists, Francesco Petrarca, began to write, near the close of his eventful career, and which one cannot help regretting that he should have lacked the time or the strength to complete. For, although it may argue a species of vanity for a man to write a letter to posterity at all, no man, surely, ever had better excuses for self-exaggeration than Petrarch. Yet this fragment of a last confession seems, upon the whole, to be remarkably free from any such vulgar sentiment. The life of the great idealist in friendship, in politics, in letters, and in love strikes himself, as he looks back upon it from the “ windless calm ” of his declining days, with a feeling akin to wonder ; and well it might ! But he surveys it with a passionless gaze, as something virtually concluded and already remote ; and that detachment, for which the saints themselves have often agonized in vain, never perhaps attaining so long as they consciously struggled for it, had come with its full measure of relief and healing to the spirit of the old man at Arquà before he went the way of all the earth.
The life of Petrarch, like the life of every other man who has left a mass of letters behind him, is best studied in those letters. One cannot help wishing that they had been written in the vulgar tongue, especially when one sees what a wonderful instrument of subtle and pathetic expression he made it in his poems. But the notion that letters, whether formal or familiar, could be written in anything but Latin was only just dawning on the world, and was least of all likely to have occurred to the lifelong worshiper of Cicero, and one whose burning zeal in the collection of ancient manuscripts was rewarded by the discovery of a large portion of the Roman’s incomparable correspondence in the dusty library of a convent at Verona.
It is a long way, indeed, from the careless ease and vivacity, the sparkling rush, of Cicero’s familiar epistles to the stiff, scrupulous, and conscious Latinity of Petrarch’s. But the language of the latter is for the most part clear and direct, and not wanting in a certain elegance ; and, at all events, they serve their purpose of self-revelation. It was a labor of love with one of the most scholarly of modern Italians — Giuseppe Fracassetti — to edit, translate into the vernacular, and illustrate with copious notes the entire Latin correspondence of Francesco Petrarca, and the extracts to be made in the following studies will be taken from his text.
In the three volumes which Fracassetti has entitled Epistoæ de Rebus Familiaribus et Variæ, the fragment of autobiography already quoted stands as a sort of preface, and we cannot do better, by way of preliminary sketch, than to follow, until it fails, the clue which the poet himself has here afforded us to the influences which shaped his life.
He first sketches his own personal appearance, with what he evidently means to be an impartial hand : “ I was not very strong in my youth, but I was remarkably agile ; and with no great beauty to boast of, my appearance, after I had come to years of maturity, was pleasing. My complexion was of a pale olive, my eyes were brilliant, and my sight was so strong that not until I had passed my sixtieth year was I obliged, reluctantly, to have recourse to a reading-glass. He goes on briefly to describe the sorrowful circumstances of his birth in exile at Arezzo, “at dawn on the 20th of July, in the year 1304 of this last cycle which we reckon from the birth of Christ.” His parents lmd been banished from Florence two years before, along with six hundred other Florentine citizens, of whom Dante Alighieri was One ; and their party — that of the White Guelphs, if the political nickname any longer matters — were at that moment precipitately retreating from an unsuccessful attempt to break into the forbidden city. It may well have been her anxiety for their fate which hastened the delivery of Petrarch’s mother, Eletta Canigiani, — " Elect of God, both in spirit and in name,” as elsewhere he reverently says of her. He adds that his family were almost in need during the years of his infancy, which were passed upon a small Tuscan farm belonging to his father. At this point he lapses into reflection again. " I have always been a great despiser of riches,” he says; “yet not so much because I should not have liked to he rich as because I hated the cares and responsibilities which are the inseparable accompaniments of wealth. I do not refer to the power of giving magnificent banquets. I have been happier on plain and rather meagre fare than the whole tribe of Apicius with their exquisite dainties. Those convivial gatherings, as they are called, — orgies which outrage decency and good manners, — were always offensive to my taste, and I have found it equally futile and wearisome to bid others to such, or to be bidden by them. And yet con-vivere — to live with one’s friends — is so pleasant that I have known no greater joy than to have mine visit me, and I never willingly sat down to table alone. Of all things I dislike display, not only because it is a bad thing and inconsistent with humility, but because it is a laborious thing, and the foe of all repose.”
“ All my youth long I struggled with one most fierce yet single and honest passion ; and I should have struggled longer, had not death, cruel and yet kindly, suddenly extinguished an already failing flame.” It is thus that Petrarch, at the age of sixty-seven, can briefly allude to Laura de Sade, and then resume, with a certain deadly candor and composure, the self-analysis which had been interrupted by the passing of her gracious phantom : ” I wish I could say that I had been free from all taint of sensuality, but it would be a lie. This I can say emphatically : that, though carried away sometimes by the fervor of my youthful temperament, I always loathed such baseness in myself. . . . Let me pass to other things. I have felt the pride of other men ; I have not been conscious of any in myself. When I was a child, I always thought myself inferior. I have been angry to my own hurt very often ; to that of others, never. I had always a great desire to make honorable friendships, and I have cherished such must loyally. I make this boast fearlessly, for I know that I speak the truth. High-tempered I certainly was, yet prone both to forget injuries and to remember benefits.”
Petrarch must have been thinking of the Colonna as he wrote these words, and of the heavy charge of ingratitude which those generous benefactors of his might once have brought against him, and no doubt did bring. But they were all gone now, those of that gallant house whom he had best loved, and all had long been clear between them and him. Their differences had been purely political ; he could persuade himself that from them personally he had never swerved, and only the energy of his self-justification in this and some succeeding passages would lead one to suspect a lingering sentiment of self-reproach.
“ I was loved and courted,” he says, a little further on, ” by the very greatest monarchs of my time,—why, I know not. They must have seen some reason. With certain of these I associated upon terms almost of equality, reaping no discomfort from their greatness, but rather many advantages. Yet I have voluntarily withdrawn myself from many whom I truly loved, because my passion for independence was such as to repel me from men whose reputation seemed to contradict the bare idea of liberty.”
The reader instinctively runs over in his mind the names of the principal potentates by whom Petrarch was highly distinguished, — King Robert of Naples, the Emperor Charles IV., five or six successive Popes at Avignon, the Visconti at Milan, the Correggio at Parma, the contemporary Doges of Genoa and Venice; and it seems as if a good many of these, and notably of the Italian tyrants, must have come under the condemnation expressed in the last paragraph, and as if, upon the whole, the poet showed himself rather tolerant of association with these uncongenial spirits. We rather wish that he had named those particular magnates whose society he forsook for conscience’ sake. Yet while it is probably true, as one of the keenest of Petrarch’s critics has observed, that the sovereigns who patronized him never took the poet’s political opinions very seriously, it is true no less that he did move about among these great ones of the earth encompassed by what the author of the Imitation calls “ a certain prerogative of the free spirit.” He was, as has been said, an idealist in all things, and his fixed ideal in politics, lofty but impossible, or at least pathetically premature, was that of a united Italy under a dual government, which should have its seat at Rome, with the Emperor for its temporal and the Pope for its spiritual head. Nor did he ever, at any time, lack the courage to uphold and proclaim this ideal, and bitterly to reproach those who had outraged it too deeply, or deceived him, as he thought, with false hopes of its realization.
From this brief allusion to his almost unparalleled social triumphs Petrarch digresses to an analysis of his own mental qualities. “ My mind,” he says, “ was rather well balanced than brilliant; apt for all manner of good and wholesome study, but inclining more especially to moral philosophy and to poetry. As time went on, however, I came to neglect the latter, and to find a hidden sweetness in that sacred lore which I had once despised. I kept my poetry,” he quaintly adds, “ for ornamental purposes, and I was extraordinarily interested in the records of antiquity. For I do not love this age of ours, and but for the men whom I have loved in it I would rather have been born in any other ; and indeed, I have made great efforts to forget the present, and to transfer myself, in imagination, to other times. But though delighting in the historians, I have been annoyed at the way in which they contradict one another, and I have dubiously followed, now the authority of the writer, and anon what seemed to me the likelihood of things.
“ Some said I had the gift of a clear, persuasive eloquence; to me, my own speech always seemed both feeble and obscure. Not that in my ordinary intercourse with friends and acquaintances I ever troubled myself about fine talking, and it is a great wonder to me that a man like Augustus Cæsar should have done so. But when the place, or the circumstances, or the auditor seemed to require it, I have made a certain effort, — I hardly know with what success. Let them decide before whom I spoke. If I could only feel that I had lived well, I should care little whether I had talked well.”
Resuming for a moment the thread of his devious and dreamy narrative, the poet tells us how, when he was nine years old, the whole family removed permanently “to the left bank of the river Rhone in transalpine Gaul, to that city whose name is Avignon,1 where the Roman pontiff holds, and has long held, the Church of Christ in shameful exile ; though it did seem, a few years ago, as if Urban V. would have restored her to her own true seat. But it all came to nothing, as we know, and, worse yet, he voluntarily abandoned his purpose in his own lifetime, like a man who repents him of a good work. . . . But that long and miserable story is by the way. So, then, beside the windiest of streams, I passed my boyhood under the rule of my parents, my youth under that of my own vanities, yet not without some important exceptions. For during four years of this time I was at school in Carpentras, a small town lying a little to the east of Avignon ; and in these two places I got about as much of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic as a boy can learn, or as it is customary to teach in the schools. You know, dear reader, how little that is! Afterwards I went to Montpellier to study jurisprudence, and had four more years there, and thence to Bologna, where I passed three years, and went through a complete course of civil law. I was thought by many to be a young man of much promise, if only I would persevere in that line, which, however, after I lost my parents, I soon abandoned altogether. It was not,” he strikingly adds, “ that 1 did not respect the authority of law, which is great beyond question, and replete with that Roman antiquity in which I delight, but because the practice of it has been depraved by the iniquity of men : and I loathed the labor of acqairing knowledge which I did not wish to use dishonestly, and could scarcely hare used honestly, or, if I had, my scruples would have been imputed to ignorance. In my twenty-second year, therefore, I returned home ; for so I called that exile at Avignon which had been home to me since the close of my infancy, habit being a second nature. It was then that I began to be known, and even to he courted by great people, which amazes me when I think of it now, and, upon my word, I cannot understand it. But I saw nothing wonderful in it at the time, being convinced, after the manner of my years, that I was quite worthy of any sort of distinction. Most of all was I honored by the noble and generous race of Colonna, who were much about the pontifical court at that time, — I should rather say, shed lustre upon it.”
With the same half-remorseful scrupulosity which has been already noted, Petrarch names yet once again “ that man without a peer, Giacomo della Colonna, then Bishop of Lombez, — whose like I think I never saw, nor shall see, — who took me with him to Gascony, where I passed under the shadow of the Pyrenees, in the delightful society of himself and his friends, one all but heavenly summer, a time I can never remember without a sigh.” And after him, “ his brother, Cardinal Giovanni, to whose house I was made for many years as freely welcome as if it had been my own; who was more like a father than a patron to me, or rather like the most affectionate of brothers. This was the time when that love of roving, which is natural to youth, impelled me to travel in France and Germany ; and I made use of various pretexts for recommending this purpose to my elders, but my real motive was a longing for a wider outlook. It was on this tour that I first saw Paris, and plunged with enthusiasm into the history of that city, both authentic and legendary. Returning thence, I fulfilled the fondest dream of my childhood by visiting Rome ; and there again the high-hearted head of the family I have named, Stefano della Colonna, the equal of any one of those men of old whom I have adored, received me into his house, and made no apparent difference between me and his own children. The steadfast love of that great man was mine to the last day of his life, and it lives in me still, and will do so until I also die. But after I came back from Rome, there returned upon me, with intolerable force, a certain instinctive antipathy for all cities, and especially for the life of the most oppressive of all [Avignon] ; and, casting about me for some haven of refuge, I lighted upon that narrow but solitary and pleasant valley which is called the Closed Valley [Vaucluse], about fifteen miles from Avignon, where the Sorgue, the king of rivers, takes its rise. Charmed by the sweetness of the place, I had myself and my hooks forthwith transported thither; and to tell of all I did there, through many, many years, would indeed be a, long matter. Suffice it to say that almost every one of my works, down to these over which I am still toiling in my old age, was either executed, begun, or at least conceived at Vaucluse. For my mind, like my body, was supple rather than powerful, and many an undertaking struck my fancy which I afterwards abandoned as too difficult of execution.”
He goes on to tell how the very aspect of that sylvan spot suggested his Latin Bucolics, and his two books upon the Solitary Life. “And once, as I wandered among the hills, — it was on a Holy Saturday, — the idea suddenly came to me that I might write a heroic poem about the great Scipio Afrieanus, whose name had had a mysterious fascination for me from childhood. So I set to work with much zeal; but ray mind was soon distracted by other things. I called the book Africa, from the name of its hero, and somehow or other, either through my own good fortune or that of the title, many testified great interest in the projected work. The composition lagged, however, and then there happened to me, there in Vaucluse, a most marvelous thing; for on one and the same day 2 I received letters from the Senate at Rome and the Chancellor of the University of Paris, inviting me to come to those respective cities and receive the poet’s laurel crown.”
Always treating his old self with the same semi-indulgent irony, Petrarch goes on to say that while it never occurred to him, at first, to question the judgment of men so eminent concerning his own merits, he was a little puzzled to know which of these two flattering offers to accept; wherefore he asked the advice of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, who was then living so near by that, dispatching his letter on the evening of that memorable day, he received an answer before nine o’clock the next morning. The cardinal’s counsel jumped with the poet’s own humor, and he decided in favor of Rome. “ So thither I went; but though so benevolent a judge of my own performances, I found I did blush a little at accepting the verdict of those who had summoned me, . . . and so I decided to go to Naples, to Robert, that consummate philosopher and king ” (he was already a correspondent of Petrarch’s), “ no less renowned as a scholar than as a ruler, — the only monarch of my time who was equally the friend of learning and of valor, — and undergo an examination by him.”
This ordeal proved no light one, for it lasted three days ; but it ended triumphantly for the poet, and King Robert was so delighted with the fragment of the Africa which was submitted to his approval as graciously to request that the poem might be dedicated to himself. He even offered to bestow the laurel crown there in Naples, with his own royal hands. But the poet excused himself on the ground of his overmastering sentiment for Rome; and this the sympathetic monarch understood, and sent him on his way rejoicing, and reinforced by the most glowing testimonials. “ And so I, hitherto only a simple scholastic, received the poet’s wreath amid the rapturous applause of as many Romans as were able to witness the ceremony. Yet it availed me nothing in the way of knowledge, that laurel, and it did procure me no little envy. That, however, would be too long a story for this place.”
We perceive that the writer, although interested in his own past, is already tiring a little of the self-imposed task of writing out its annals, literary and other. He tells us how, on the return journey from Rome, he visited Parma, and “ remained for some little time the guest of those men of the house of Correggio, who were all so very good and liberal to me, and so sadly at variance among themselves ; but who nevertheless ruled that city [Parma] better than it was ever ruled before within the memory of man, or ever will be again. And always mindful of the honor I had received, and anxious lest it should seem to have been bestowed unworthily, one day when I had gone up into the mountains ” (he had often, it seems, to lift up his eyes unto the hills ” for help to his inspiration), “ as I drew near that place in the territory of Reggio, beyond the river Enza. which is called Sylva Plana, something in the very look of the landscape moved me to put pen once more to my long-neglected Africa. My languid interest in the work revived, and I wrote a little every day until I returned to Parma, where, having established myself in a secluded and tranquil house, which I afterwards bought and still own, I worked away with such zeal that I finished the poem in what still seems to me an incredibly short space of time. And then I went back to my transalpine solitude by the Sorgue; . . . and afterwards I returned again to Parma, and lived there and at Verona a long time ; and everywhere, thank God, I found myself loved and cherished far more than I deserved.”
He then proceeds to relate how, during all this period over which he is hurrying so fast, he had been receiving advances of the most earnest and flattering description from Jacopo di Carrara the younger, " a man who had hardly, nay, who had not, his equal among the nobles of his generation ; and with no hope of happiness ” (it was 1348, the terrible year of the plague, when Laura died and Cardinal Giovanni Colonna), “ but merely to appease the importunity of this great man, whom I did not know, I came to Padua, and received from him such a welcome as may await the souls ot the blessed in heaven. . . . He knew that from boyhood up I had held church preferment,3 and so, that he might bind me still more closely, not to himself only, but to his country, he made me a canon of Padua ; and if he had but lived longer, I think my restless wanderings would have ended then and there. But nothing endures among mortal men, and sweet beginnings hasten to a bitter end. Before two years were over, God had taken from me, his country, and the world one of whom neither I, nor that land, nor the world itself was worthy.”
The poet’s reminiscences break off at this point, when he had reached his fortysixth year, and had still a quarter of a century to live. As a record of events they are exceedingly meagre ; and even as a catalogue of his own works, which he set out with the express purpose of making, they seem, as far as they go, almost capriciously imperfect. There is barely a word of all that beauteous body of Italian verse collected under the apt title of II Canzoniere, or The Singer, and comprising both the sonnets to Laura and the noble Canzoni, through which alone Petrarch has held his place in the heart of mankind. There is nothing about that curious and very moving composition, in the form of three dialogues with the spirit of St. Augustine, called by him My Secret, written eight years before the point at which he drops his recollections, and in which he makes full confession, to the greatest of all doctors in the diseases of the human soul, of the havoc his unique passion for a woman had wrought in his own inner life. His most unconstrained and steadfast friendships, which were not by any means all with kings, princes, and cardinals, are not so much as mentioned. There is no word of his only brother Gerard, three years younger than himself, who was with him at the University of Bologna, and who shared, for a few years after their return to France, his immense popularity in the most frivolous and corrupt circles of the Avignonese court, and became a Carthusian monk at thirty-five, to the profound and half-envious emotion of the poet. Still less is there any distinct reference to the two children born during those worldliest years in France, and legitimized by decree of Clement VI. : the boy Giovanni, who was the great anxiety and the saddest disappointment of Petrarch’s later middle life : and the daughter Francesca, who was honorably married at twenty, and who, with her little ones, became the chief joy and comfort of his last decade. There is no allusion to the pair of lifelong friends whom he made during that “ divine summer ” which they all passed with the Bishop of Lombez, and whom he always called his Lælius and his Socrates; nor to Guido Settimo, his schoolmate at Carpeutras ; nor to Tommaso Caloria of Messina, his fellow-student at Bologna ; nor to Philippe de Cabassoles, Bishop of Cavaillon, and afterwards Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had a castle in the Closed Valley, of which the ruins may still be seen ; nor to that yet more distinguished ecclesiastic, Prior Dionysius of Borgo San Sepolcro, professor of theology in the University of Paris, who first gave Petrarch St. Augustine’s Confessions to read, and thus drew from the poet the one perfect characterization of their affecting style (“all the charm of all the Muses flowering often in a lonely word ”) when he called them scatentes lacrymis libros, — books running over with tears. Others of those whose very existence was bound up with the mental and the spiritual history of the laureate were Francesco Nello, Prior of the SS. Apostoli in Florence ; Francesco Bruni and Mainardo Accursio, whom he besought to share his simple home at Parma ; Zanobi di Strada, the Florentine schoolmaster, and Niccolò Acciajuoli, the Grand Seneschal of Naples; Cola di Rienzo, the swift passage of whose blazing star across the firmament, of Petrarch’s life seemed to eclipse for the time being its very planetary lights ; and last, but not least, brave, bright, loyal Giovanni di Certaldo, whom we commonly call Boccaccio. To each and all of these, and many more, he opens his heart, and tells his thoughts and experiences so fully in his letters that it is possible to reconstruct from them the whole scenery of his long career. Meanwhile, we will add to this preliminary sketch a few extracts from the dialogues of the Secretum, where the poet himself had so sincerely sought to bury and embalm his great passion long before its resurrection in the nobly mystical sonnets which were written after Laura’s death.
“ How came I into this world, and how shall I depart from it?” This, Petrarch says, is the question which used to beset him in his sad and wakeful nights, “ for sleep does not visit souls that are ill at ease.” But while he thus wrestled with his coward thoughts the spirit of Truth came to him, in the guise of a radiant and commanding woman, and bade him take personal counsel of that great Christian Father, for whose immortal work of self-examination Petrarch appears to have had, up to that time, little more than an æsthetic sentiment. The soul of Augustine then arose and embraced him compassionately, and they talked together for three whole days “ in the silent presence of impartial Truth. And though much of what was said appeared to he directed against the manners of our age and the vices common to all mortals, and the indictment to be rather of the human race than of myself, yet that which concerns me personally is most deeply tixed in my memory. Wherefore I have written it all down, and made this book, which I would not have numbered with my others, nor get any glory from it.” Here, then, is Petrarch’s exquisite reason for not having named the Secretum to posterity : “ I had a higher end in view, which was to be able to taste again, as often as I would, the sweetness of that colloquy. So, then, my little book, go not abroad among men, but he content to stay with me, and to fulfill your name ; for you are my Secret, and so you will be called. And to avoid, as fully says, the awkwardness of perpetually writing, ‘said he’ and ‘said I,’ and to make it seem as though the speakers were actually present, I have used no roundabout phrases to distinguish the words of my glorious interlocutor from my own, but have merely prefixed our proper names. This fashion, which I learned from my dear Cicero, he himself learned first from Plato.”
We have been beguiled by the singular grace of this little envoi, which is not an envoi at all, into lingering over it perhaps a trifle too long. The reader will not fail to have noticed a great similarity between the donnée of Petrarch’s Secret and that of the Consolations of Boethius, and one wonders, rather, that the poet himself should not have mentioned here the catechumen of divine philosophy ; especially since it must have been at almost precisely this time that Cola di Rienzo was lighting his wild torch at that of the “ last of the Romans,” and adopting his starry device. For Augustine to cite Boethius would of course have been an anachronism; nor is it inconsistent either with the poetic unities or with the eternal necessities that the authors so abundantly quoted by the great Christian Father should be, almost without exception, pagan, — Cicero, Horace, Juvenal, even Ovid, and, at second hand, Homer; but first, last, and always, Virgil. From time immemorial it has been true, and it probably will be true while time lasts, that the man who seeks to pull himself up from despondency by his own proper force, and array himself against the powers of darkness out of his own inner armory, must get his best encouragement and most animating example from unbaptized men. The preliminary counsels even of St. Augustine are almost purely stoical. The whole gist of the first dialogue is to persuade the sorrowful poet that no man is ever crushed under a burden of spiritual woe save by his own fault.
In the second, the counselor undertakes to identify, one by one, the hidden sources of his pupil’s weakness, and he begins by charging him with holding far too high an opinion generally of his own accomplishments and deserts. Petrarch repels this accusation with much warmth. “ You amaze me,” he cries, “ by thus reproaching me with many things which I know never entered my mind! I have not overestimated my own wits, which is perhaps the only sign of wit I have ever shown. . . . Unless you are saying this merely to try me, you know that I have always been profoundly conscious of my own insignificance ; and if ever I have had a fleeting sense of superiority, it has come from perceiving the ignorance of others.” . . .
“ Exactly,” pursues the unflinching monitor; “ but to depreciate others is a far more insufferable species of pride than unduly to exalt one’s self. I would much rather have seen you setting up others above yourself than haughtily treading all your fellow-beings underfoot, and forging for yourself a buckler of humility out of your contempt for other men.”
“ Say what you will,” Petrarch answers doggedly, but not altogether ignobly, “ I do not think highly either of myself or of them; and I am positively ashamed to repeat all that I have learned concerning the majority of men.”
“ And yet,” says Augustine, “ to despise one’s self is most salutary; to despise others, not only full of danger, but totally useless to the sold. But let us pass to other things.”
There is a deeper touch of nature in what immediately follows than the poet himself perhaps intended. What can it have been but an obscure suspicion of his own coldness toward Dante which led him to cry out at this point, “ Accuse me of anything but envy ” ! And Augustine himself is for once made to answer, " On the whole, I think you are exempt from that sin ; I wish you had suffered as little from your pride ! ” The specific charges which follow, of servitude to the pleasures of sense, are accepted by the poet not wholly without remonstrance, but with far more of candor and humility. To the last and most serious count of this part of Augustine’s indictment he simply bows his head; but his manner of doing so deserves notice, because it illustrates so curiously the way in which Virgil had become a Bible to the mediæval mind, which read all manner of figurative and mystical meanings into the Mantuan’s limpid verse. “ You know Virgil,” Petrarch says to his mentor, " and through what perils he led his brave hero during that dreadful last night of the destruction of Troy ? ”
“ How could I fail to know,” asks the saint, “ what is perpetually declaimed in all the schools ? ” and he recites the whole of the sad and impassioned passage beginning " Quis cladem illius noctis.”
“ Now,” says Petrarch, “just so long as Venus walked beside him, between the foe and the fire, he saw naught of the wrath of the offended deities, though his eyes were open wide; and he was deaf to all but earthly sounds while her voice was in his ears; but the moment she had vanished, you know what befell. . . . ‘ Then saw I the terrible faces of the great gods hostile to Troy.’ I gathered from this that to commune with Venus destroys our vision of the divine.”
“ You have, indeed,” says Augustine, “ discovered the light beneath the cloud.” He then observes that, as their talk has been so long, it will be better to postpone until another day what more he has to say on this most vital point, and he closes the second interview with certain dry but bracing counsels to the poet to fight as for dear life against his own insidious tendency to melancholy, “that fatal pest of the soul which the men of to-day call acidia, but the ancients simply œgritudo,” — sickness par excellence.
In the beginning of the third and last dialogue, Augustine comes abruptly to the point toward which all his monitions had been tending, “ Hitherto,” he tells his patient succinctly, “your soul has been bound on either hand by two chains of adamantine strength, which prevented your meditating to any good purpose either on life or on death, . . . the love of a woman, and the love of your own renown.”
“ Just heavens ! ” cries Petrarch, “ do you call those fetters which you could strike off at a word from me ? ”
“ I know not,” murmurs the saint, “ if I shall succeed.” . . .
“ But why ? ” pursues the poet, in a transport of revolt. “ What have I done that you should strip me of my most beautiful affections, and condemn to perpetual darkness the serenest portion of my being? . . . I will grant you that love is either the vilest passion or the noblest act of the soul. . . . To love a base and bad woman were indeed a proof of madness ; but how if the very embodiment of all goodness attracts my love and reverence ? What then ? Do you make no difference in objects so diverse ? Is there no such thing as purity ? Let me tell you, for my own part, that whereas I regard a love of the former kind as the heaviest and deadliest burden which can be laid upon the soul, I can conceive no higher boon than a love of the second. But speak,” he scornfully appends, “ if you think otherwise; for opinions are many, and judgment is free.”
A. Opinions are many, indeed, but truth is always one. . . .
P. You are wasting breath. Let me answer you in the words of Cicero: “If I err in this, I err of my own free choice, nor will I part with my error while I live.”
A. Cicero was reasoning of the immortality of the soul. . . . Now the hope of a future life, even though it were delusive, might conceivably act as a healthful spur to the spirit of man; but yours is an error capable of plunging you into the depths of all infamy, where modesty, reverence, and self-restraint — nay, your very perception of truth — will disappear.
P. I repeat that you are wasting words. I cannot remember ever to have loved an unworthy object; or rather, I have loved the highest beauty, and that supremely.
A. But a beautiful object may be basely loved ; so much is certain.
P. I, however, have sinned neither in my nouns nor in my adverbs. Press me no more.
A. Would you die as the fool dieth, with a jest upon your lips ? Or will you not rather take a medicine for your sorrowful and ailing mind ?
P. Go on. . . .
A. Forgive me, then, if I begin, as I must, by arraigning your heart’s delight.
P. One moment. Do you know of whom you speak ?
A. Of a mortal woman. . . .
P. Nay. Thaïs and Livia were mortal women, but I have forced you to the mention of one whose soul, exempt from earthly cares, glows only with divine desire; whose very look, if truth there be, is bright with the image of celestial beauty; whose manners are a pattern of perfect honor; nothing base, nothing mortal, either in the tones of her voice or in the glance of her eye. . . .
A. And yet the day is coming which will close those eyes in death.
P. Oh! God forbid! That I shall never see!
A. Yet the day shall surely come.
P. I know it. But the stars are not so hostile to me as to reverse the order of nature in her death. I came into the world before her, and I shall first go hence.
A. Yet the time has been when you feared the contrary. You can hardly have forgotten that once, in an hour of deep distress, you sang your love a funeral song, as though she were already at the point of death.4
P. Oh, yes, I remember, and I shudder even now at the thought of what I suffered. I had a terrible sense of having been deprived, somehow, of my own nobler half, of having survived that which alone made life sweet to me. That song was a lament for something which I thought had forsaken me in a great rain of tears. I recall the sense, though I have forgotten the words.
A. No matter for the tears and woe occasioned by that fatal presentiment; . . . the pang will return; . . . the rather now, when every day brings the end on apace, and that fair frame, spent with manifold shocks and disorders, has lost so much of its old vigor.
P. But I too am worn with sorrow, and older yet than she. If she is pacing to her death, I run to mine !
A. What madness to pretend to deduce the order of death from that of birth! What is the deepest sorrow of bereaved old age, if not the early death of its own offspring ?
P. You shall not affright me thus! You know that I love my lady’s body less than her soul. . . . So, then, since you ask me what I would do if she were to die before me. I say I would console myself with those words of Lælius, wisest of the Romans: “ It was her goodness that I loved, and that is living still.”
A. Do I then know naught of “ lovers’ baseless dreams ” ? . . . But yours should be a deeper knowledge and a nobler strain.
P. Yet this one thing I will never cease to say. Call it gratitude or folly, as you will, the little that I am I owe to her; nor should I ever have attained to aught of name and fame, if she had not fostered by her own affection the tiny seed of virtue which nature implanted in my heart. She recalled my young mind from all that was base ; she drew me back, as I may say, with grappling irons, and constrained me to lofty aims. For why should not the soul be changed into the likeness of that which it loves? And sure there was never so mordant a slanderer as to dare nibble with his dog’s tooth at that fair fame of hers, or who could find aught to reprove, I will not say in her actions, but in her gestures or her lightest words. Those who respected nothing else abstained in reverent wonder from maligning her.
With this noble tribute, the essential justice of which is confirmed by all those who have gone most deeply into the question of the actual relations between Petrarch and Laura, we will close our extracts from his Confession. It was made eight years before the point at which he drops his formal reminiscences, and six years before the death of Laura de Sade.
The dialogue with his personified conscience goes on for many pages more, and our faith in the sincerity whether of the accusing or the pleading voice is confirmed rather than impaired by the fact that it comes to no definite conclusion. “ We are relapsing into the old arguments,” are Augustine’s last words. “ God be with you, and lead your wandering steps to steadfast ground.”
“ Amen,” answers the poet; “and let me not, in following the voice which calls me, fill my own eyes with dust; but may the tumult of my soul subside, and the noise of the world be still, and ambition beset me no more.”
They are the words of a man who has passed through a great spiritual crisis, but has come out of it so weak that he hardly realizes his own deliverance, or knows whether he have vitality enough left to rally.
There are two among Petrarch’s later sonnets, usually numbered 313 and 314, in which be gives lyrical expression to his own last word upon the intimate theme of the Secret. The thought in the second of these sonnets is plainly, to the poet’s mind, a necessary complement of that in the first; and if the accent of the penitent seems slightly conventional in the former, in the other it is entirely human and spontaneous ; while the amende it contains is as naive and touching as its picture of the great lady and the great beauty “ unspotted from the world ” is full of dignity and refinement. They may be rendered thus : —
That erst I lavished on a mortal love,
Suffering not my soul to soar above,
Though wings were mine, and win men’s nobler praise.
But thou, acquaint with all my evil ways,
Immortal and invisible King of Heaven,
Succor a feeble creature, passion-driven,
And fill my lack with largess of thy grace!
That I, who lived at sea, and lived in strife,
May haply die in port, and die at peace,
Making a brave end of a wasted life;
And for my few remaining days, in these,
And in the last, let thy strong hand upbear.
I have no hope or resource otherwhere !
And O serene and sweet serenities,
All full of ruth and spotless tenderness!
And apt my fiery pleading’s to repress
(I know it now ! ) in all compassionate, wise,
Mild speech, instinct with gentle courtesies,
Yet clear and radiant with honor’s light!
Blossom of goodness! Fount of beauty bright,
Cleansing the soul of every low surmise!
The heaven we crave still hovered in that glance,
Now strong to hold all frowardness in check,
Now comfort giving and sweet countenance
To one who all his ill desert doth reck.
Ay, blessed be that noble variance !
It saved a soul, which else had gone to wreck!
Harriet Waters Preston.
- The sentence of banishment had been provisionally lifted from Petrarch’s father some time earlier, but on conditions which the latter was unwilling to accept.↩
- September 1, 1340. Petrarch was then thirty-six.↩
- Petrarch was already canon of the cathedrals of Lombez and of Parma, and might, if he would, have been papal secretary.↩
- Sonnet cxeiii.: “ O misera ed orribil visione.”↩