Letters from Petrarch
Petrarch and His World
If it is no longer easy to form a true idea of Petrarch and his work, the responsibility is more ours than his. He is more copious and explicit about his own nature, aims, and activities than any writer before him and most since his day. No one ever took more pains to present himself to posterity in the form by which he wished posterity to know him. But most of his works are in Latin, and English translations are few and not very accessible. Moreover, the last more or less complete edition of Petrarch’s oeuvre was published in 1581 and some individual texts have not been reprinted since then. If petrarch is known at all it is not for the Latin works, by which he himself and his contemporaries set most store, but for the Canzoniere, the sequence of 366 Italian poems, mostly sonnets, to Laura, the object of his devotion in life and in death. These poems have been frequently reprinted and translated even in the last century, though they are nowadays less read than talked about. A hundred can identify a Petrarchan conceit for one who has looked through more than a page or two of the Canzoniere.
Of the secondary, non-specialist literature on Petrarch in English, E.H.R. Tatham’s two volumes (1925-26), covering only a portion of Petrarch’s life, are long out of print. So is J. H. Whitfield’s Petrarch and the Renascence (1943). Without the late E.H. Wilkins’s admirable Life published in 1961, and without these two volumes by Mr. Bishop—one a translation of some of the Latin letters and the other a discursive study—the field would be thin indeed. These are the only books of their kind available.
IS IT TRUE, in other words, that Petrarch must be a classic because nobody reads him? Certainly it is easier to define his greatness in terms of his historical importance, for even the Canzoniere has fallen out of the central position it once had as the pattern of European lyric poetry for three centuries. In its day, of course, it was supreme. Petrarch’s Laura is the forerunner of Stella, Delia, the Dark Lady, and Petrarch’s images—the sigh-tempests, crystal tears, the eyes that kill, drown, or kindle the lover, the ice and fire, the comfort and despair of love—are the staple of Renaissance verse. We speak of them, a little wearily, as such. But the Canzoniere stands as a great poetic achievement in itself, in its insights and explorations, its dazzling rhetoric, and above all its magnificent lyric stamina. The loss is ours if we do not read it.
Petrarch’s significance, however, goes much further than this. It may be misleading to call him—as Tatham did—the first modern man of letters, but it is certainly true that all modern readers and writers owe him a debt. He was the first to insist explicitly on the value and excellence of secular learning …