The European Fortunes of Petrarch


An Sonjae (Brother Anthony)

Sogang University, Seoul


People might well ask if it is today still possible to view Petrarch as a writer having real, current significance, 700 years after his birth, to consider him as a living influence and not simply as someone once famous and now long dead. Naturally, we are happy to see some of his poems translated into Korean, for his poems are notoriously beautiful, but surely today we cannot expect to find many general readers, even of poetry, reading his works with cries of delight? What remains today as Petrarch¡¯s heritage, and how has that heritage fared through the centuries? After all, the last edition of Petrarch's Complete Works was published in 1581, and although a number of texts have not been reprinted since then, and a new edition might seem necessary, one of the main events planned to mark the 700th anniversary of his birth was simply to have been a computerized reconstruction of his physical appearance, made after the opening of his tomb last year. What Petrarch looked like is perhaps not a very important question, a matter of mediatic curiosity rather than of scholarly significance; it is therefore comfortingly ironic that the skull in his coffin was found not to be his, but that of a woman. There now seems to be no hope of establishing the size of Petrarch¡¯s nose or the shape of his jaw. We shall have to go back to what he wrote instead.

In more theoretical terms, we can view Petrarch as almost a classic case of the process that major works of literature undergo. Once a work is made public, distributed, the first step is that of recognition. The earliest readers have to find in it a particular significance, a quality that makes it worth recommending to others. This is its initial reception. The initial reception of a work is reflected in its influence on those who write in its immediate shadow; sometimes the work is so monumental that its impact simply inspires admiration, amazement. It is so exalted that it cannot be imitated, as in the case of Dante or Shakespeare. Usually, though, as in the case of Petrarch, the first sign of reception is imitation. Certain aspects of the work are admired, isolated, simplified, codified, and turned into a model for many others. Perhaps no writer has been so often imitated as Petrarch, and those who admire deeply his work would surely agree that this imitation, the ¡®highest form of flattery,¡¯ fails always to penetrate to the inner core that alone bestows on Petrarch¡¯s work, his poems, their true value and beauty. Imitation is always a form of parody, of pastiche.

Already during the period of reception, and especially in the stage of the stereotyped imitations, there will be signs of resistance. Where a writer stands towering high above the common run of mortals, the resistance will be a version of what Harold Bloom has called ¡®anxiety of influence,¡¯ for writers have to go on writing under a shadow that seems to suggest that they will never produce works of comparable value. But in the case of Petrarch and many others, resistance is often simply the response of more creative writers refusing to imitate a limited model without taking some kind of critical distance. European Anti-Petrarchism is a fine instance of this resistant reading of a reputed work. At a given moment we find a more radical process, rejection, when the previously admired, ¡®influential¡¯ work is found to have gone past its ¡®best-by date¡¯ and to have lost its ability to interest a new generation of readers and writers. From that time on, it is ¡®out of date¡¯ or ¡®old-fashioned.¡¯ Then, sooner or later, a new generation rediscovers the work, reinvents its on its own terms. This is the stage of rediscovery, which may be repeated several times over the centuries, of ¡®re-appropriation,¡¯ when a work written in a previous age is found to have qualities that make it interesting for a quite different world. Translation into Korean of Petrarch¡¯s poems can be seen as a form of re-appropriation.

When it is question of Petrarch¡¯s ¡®work¡¯, those of us who study the evolutions of Europe¡¯s poetry naturally think first and foremost of the immense influence in centuries long past of the poems he composed in Italian, the Rime Sparse or Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, familiarly know as the Canzoniere. Their widespread popularity across Europe in the earlier 16th century is an undisputed fact, and today a number of discerning readers of Italian at least still value them for their purely poetic qualities, though it may be difficult for those qualities to come across in translation.

Scholars more interested in the history of thought will have other priorities, and will probably focus more on certain of Petrarch¡¯s Latin writings. Others might want to concentrate on his life itself, the direct influence he exerted on his contemporaries. In Italy, he is still celebrated as a nationalist, something that can hardly be exported. Which Petrarch is most significant? It is also possible to say that he chiefly influenced later generations by provoking hostile responses, encouraging many to define their paths in opposition to the style and content of what he seems to be proposing in his poetry, especially. It might be claimed that, in European love poetry, Anti-Petrarchism has been at least as creative a force as Petrarchism. Resistance is often the most dynamic aspect of reception.

Petrarch is commonly hailed as the ¡®Father of Humanism,¡¯ for many have argued that the starting-point for the centrality of Man (in the generic sense of the individual human person) in modern thought and experience is to be found in Petrarch's claim, expressed in his De vita solitaria (1346), that the time had come ¡®to reveal man to himself once more.¡¯ Certainly he agreed with his age in considering that the supreme nobility of being human could only be found in the Christian vision of man's nature as God's creation, the ¡®image of God.¡¯ That divine origin united all, and was the origin of the moral obligation to be each at the service of the common good. Yet at the same time, Petrarch found the highest portrayal of active human dignity in the ancient writers of classical Greece and Rome. He is said to have written of his own sense of being ¡®between two peoples, the ancient and those not yet born, looking backwards and forwards at one and the same time¡¯ (quoted without reference by Estenssoro). Janus was always an ambivalent figure, and we still cannot decide whether to speak of a Renaissance (looking back to the ancient world) or of an Early Modern Period (looking toward the present age).

Two great names come before Petrarch in the history of European thought, great summits of what we can only call Medieval Humanism: Aquinas (1225 - 1274) and Dante (1265 – 1321). Hard acts to follow, giants who might be emulated perhaps, but never imitated. Aquinas was already long dead when Petrarch was born, but Petrarch once saw Dante, in 1312, when Petrarch's father was taking his family to Avignon from Arezzo. On the way they passed through Pisa, and there the child Petrarch glimpsed Dante. Petrarch was seventeen when Dante died, yet he only accepted the Commedia into his library when he was fifty-five, after Boccaccio gave him a copy he himself had written out. Petrarch wrote telling Boccaccio that he had once seen the poet, but it is usually said that the name of Dante does not itself figure in any of his letters. Petrarch¡¯s troubled response to Dante is conveyed in the surely apocryphal story that he always had a portrait of Dante on his table, turned upside down. Dante, after all, was an Aristotelian, a scholastic thinker, and that was something that Petrarch had no sympathy with.

Sir Richard Southern¡¯s way of situating Petrarch in relation to Dante and Scholasticism deserves to be quoted at length:


Thomas Aquinas and Dante are the two greatest interpreters of the scholastic tradition in which human beings are given a fully intelligible place in a universe in which order has been extracted from disorder. (. . .) This is the humanism of the medieval schools. It is as far removed from the élitism of Renaissance humanism as it is from the godlessness of modern secular humanism; but whether we consider its inherent grandeur or its influence on the future, it has a good claim to be considered the most important kind of humanism Europe has ever produced. (43-44)


Southern locates the first rejection of the scholastic method in Italy, in the fourteenth century, with Petrarch the leader of the revolt:


There emerged a new kind of humanism which was concerned, not with exploring an ever-growing area of systematic intelligibility and of general well-being, but with the perfecting of individual sensibility among a social élite. Petrarch, who above all stood for this new kind of humanism in the mid-fourteenth century, looked back with disillusionment at the achievements of the last two centuries. (. . . ) The hopes of the past had to be buried. But such hopes are never buried with simple, quiet resignation: they have to be buried with scorn and derision, and a certain sense of betrayal. Hence the change of mood which set in during the middle of the fourteenth century gradually hardened during the next two centuries into a fixed belief that the clerical schools of what came contemptuously to be envisaged as a trough between two periods of civilization – and therefore dismissively called the Middle Ages—with their formalized procedures and legalistic distinctions, were not simply the agents of a great failure, but the promoters of a great deception. (55-6)


Southern concludes:


The way was open for the cultivation of sensibility and personal virtue, and the nostalgic vision of an ancient Utopia revealed in classical literature. Instead of the confident and progressive scholastic humanism of the central Middle Ages, the new humanism retreated into the individual, and consequently into the aristocracy of privileged individuals and the constellation of scholars and artists whom they supported. The aristocracy replaced the clergy as the guardians of culture; and literature and observation replaced systematic theology and science. (56)


Petrarch, we realize through this, can indeed be considered as the ¡®Father of the Modern,¡¯ as Burckhardt and Renan claimed, because he first denounced the scholastic enterprise; this denunciation was then taken up and developed by Erasmus and the Northern Humanists, it widened into the campaign against ¡®superstition¡¯ known as the Reformation, and was trumpeted by Descartes and Sir Francis Bacon at the beginning of the Age of Reason, which believed that humanity¡¯s task was not to ask real questions at all, but only to formulate by mathematics and verify by experiment the purely mechanical ¡®laws¡¯ governing the movements of bodies in the cosmos – seeking not explanation but description in approaching nature, and cultivating subjective sensibility in approaching the self.

The model Petrarch followed most closely was St. Augustine, the world¡¯s first self-aware autobiographer; like him, he was fundamentally attracted by neo-Platonism and mainly concerned to find a way of combining the Christian faith with pagan values. His life was mostly spent quietly in what humanists called otium: living in retirement, reading, thinking and writing. It is no coincidence that Petrarch is, famously, the first person in Europe known to have climbed a mountain in order to admire the view, while he was living in southern France. Yet when he reached the top of Mont Ventoux in 1336, he opened Augustine's Confessions, and fell on a passage directing him to look inwards: ¡®men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.¡¯

His career moved between the poetic and the thoughtful, yet the final task he set himself was the last revision of the Italian poems, the Rime Sparse, that he had begun to compose in his youth. He says that he first glimpsed Laura on April 6, 1327 and seems to have begun writing poems about the feelings inspired in him by her some ten years later. From 1338 he wrote Africa in Latin hexameters, dealing with the Second Punic war and especially with the adventures of Scipio Africanus, in pseudo-epic fashion and it was mainly for this work that he felt he deserved to be crowned in ancient fashion with poetic laurels on Easter Day, 1341 in the Roman Capitol.

Petrarch had a very high, some might say romantic view of Rome; it symbolized for him all the achievements of the greatest men of the Roman Empire, people whose lives he had in 1338 begun to record in his prose De viris illustribus (On famous men). In 1343, shocked into introspection about his own fundamental values after his brother took the radical step of becoming a Carthusian monk, he composed his most intensely private work, Secretum, not intended for publication, in which he and Augustine are shown engaged in deep debate about the true nature of virtuous living for a Christian humanist. There Desire and Narcissism compete for the right to be seen as his besetting sin. In 1346 he wrote the De vita solitaria in praise of a life removed from the complicated world of church politics at Avignon.

Leaving Avignon, he came to live in Milan in 1353, near the church where Saint Augustine had received baptism after his conversion. He continued to write, although he had lost interest in writing Latin poetry, and most of his later work is philosophical. His most popular work was perhaps the least original one; De remediis utriusque fortunae, a treatise on good and bad fortune in Boethian mode written between 1354 and 1360. It was much translated in the centuries that followed, into German by Niklas von Wyle in the later 15th century, into Czech by Gregorius Gelenius in 1501, into Italian by Remigio Fiorentino in 1549, into English by Thomas Twyne in 1579 . . . Yet who reads it today?

In 1345 he had visited Verona and found in the cathedral library there a unique manuscript containing letters of Cicero. It gave him the idea of collecting and publishing his own letters to various people; this he finally began to do in 1359, resulting in Epistolae familiares. It ended up being a compilation of 350 letters. In many ways Petrarch is the first of the modern philosophical egotists, combining in these public letters moral and political reflexions with many details of personal experience, in a form of what was later to become the literary essay. In another, final defence of his own philosophical position, De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia (On his own and many people's ignorance, 1367), he argues in favour of pietas (piety) as the highest morality. The result of all this is perhaps the most intensely unread collection of works by any famous writer. Apart from a few of the letters to Boccaccio and especially the account of his climb of Mount Ventoux, what has remained alive of all the Latin writing Petrarch was so proud of?

 It is the Rime Sparse, the Canzoniere to which he gave definitive shape in the last months of his life, that stands as Petrarch¡¯s most enduring work of self-expression. This uniquely new and too frequently imitated work was the first ¡®sequence,¡¯ a collection of lyrics suggesting a coherent story without any accompanying narrative, and Petrarch, not Laura, is at the centre of it. Various models dominated Petrarch¡¯s enterprise. He seems to have taken Dante¡¯s Vita Nuova, little known though it was at the time, and stripped it of its framing prose narrative to produce a sequence of poems ordered more or less according to the chronology of the story they evoke, mixing together poems of varying length and form as never before. The poems of the troubadors gave him many examples but perhaps the strongest single model was, ironically, that offered by Dante¡¯s rime petrose of 1296, complaints against a Cruel Lady, whose stony-hearted attitude to the lover risks turning him to stone, like the head of Medusa. Echoes of myths suggesting the potentially narcissistic image of the petrified lover play a central role in the Rime Sparse. ¡®Nothing comparable existed before Petrarch celebrated the self in each and every one of the poet¡¯s fluctuating states of mind and feeling throughout his adult life¡¯ (Estenssoro). Auerbach calls it a ¡®lyrical self-portrait¡¯ in which human memory is what the universe revolves around. Ungaretti has hailed the way it is ¡®capable of making us feel in four lines the presence of the material world and of memory, and of how rapid is the transition between the two.¡¯ Considering how much the Post-modern age is fascinated by the fragmentary, the incomplete and the ambivalent, its lack of interest in Petrarch is puzzling; perhaps if it were not so allergic to formal perfection, it might have less difficulty approaching his poems.

The essential framework of human experience to which Petrarch¡¯s sequence gives expression can be seen as a series of dialectical oppositions: presence – absence, presence – distance, absence – loss. In the Canzoniere, presence (that of Laura) is celebrated in the poems ¡®in vita¡¯ and absence in the poems ¡®in mortuo.¡¯ Yet the presence of that living other is never total, and often the distance between lover and beloved is such as to make presence seem like absence. Yet that can never compare with the absence experienced after the death of the beloved. ¡®She is in her grave¡¯ (Worsdworth, ¡®She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways¡¯), is a fact of irretrievable loss, an utter end in physical terms. Petrarch¡¯s solution, one which he learned from Dante and perhaps also the troubadors, was memory. In the Platonic framework of his unfulfilled longing, it is memory that enables his to bridge the gulf separating presence from absence, presence from distance, absence from loss, even life from death. This memory is less the power of a nostalgic recalling of another past than the anaphora of Platonic epistemology; in life as in death, the effect of any thought of Laura is to permit an idealized knowledge of the thinking self. At the same time, the main problematic feature of the dialetic between presence and distance is the irruption of an alternative way of experience and knowledge, that of physical desire. The conflict between idealizing memory and urgently possessive desire is the main source of tension in the Canzoniere and its imitations. It is Petrarch¡¯s too rapid rejection of physical desire, and the awareness that he had illegitimate children with other women, that gave rise to the strongest currect of resistance, the mockery of his too disincarnate view of life often expressed in anti-Petrarchan poetry.

The other great Italian work of Petrarch's later years, the Trionfi (Triumphs), composed from 1352 onward, depicts in a schematic way the story of Petrarch's struggles faced with love. There are six Triumphs: first is the triumph of Desire over the heart; next is the victory of Chastity (who is Laura) over carnal desire; but Death triumphs over Laura. Fame, it is true, triumphs over Death, as is seen in the lives of the famous heroes and thinkers of the classical past, yet Time must in the end triumph even over Fame, without the Christian conviction that Eternity (which is heaven with Laura) triumphs over Time. The first English translation of these poems was made by Henry Parker, Lord Morley and published in England in the 1550s, the poems having already been published in Spanish by 1512, and there were other translations across Europe, of course; but the Triumphs have never enjoyed anything like the success of the Rime.

The first person to translate a sonnet by Petrarch into another language was Geoffrey Chaucer, only a few years after the poet¡¯s death. He might even have seen Petrarch with his own eyes, for in 1372-3 he was sent as part of an embassy to Genoa and Florence; but only a year before his death, the great man was probably not receiving obscure foreign visitors. In the late 1380s Chaucer composed his Troilus and Criseyde, on the basis of Boccaccio¡¯s Filocolo. Into this, wishing to strengthen the sense of bewilderment love causes Troilus, he introduced a translation of one sonnet by Petrarch, S'amor non è, che dunque è quel ch'io sento? without any indication of who it was by, or where he got it from. We have no way of knowing if he possessed any form of manuscript of the Rime Sparse as a whole or whether the poem had come to him in isolation.


If no love is, O god, what fele I so?

And if love is, what thing and whiche is he!

If love be good, from whennes comth my wo?

If it be wikke, a wonder thinketh me,

Whenne every torment and adversitee

   That cometh of him, may to me savory thinke;

  For ay thurst I, the more that I it drinke.  (T&C Book 1:400-406)


It is a fascinating moment, for Chaucer could hardly have chosen a sonnet more characteristic of the paradoxical vision of love later to be known as ¡®Petrarchan,¡¯ marked by insecurity, hesitation, introspection and self-interrogation, that was destined to beget a vast posterity. It even ends with an oxymeron of the kind that would later be put by anti-Petrarchan Shakespeare into the mouth of Romeo, as a sign of fatuous immaturity : ¡®For heat of cold, for cold of heat I dye.¡¯ The poem comes early in the story, spoken by Troilus just after his first sight of Criseyde, while he is trying to understand his confused emotions. Most striking is the way Chaucer turns the story of Troilus¡¯ love into a mocking critique of such things, foreshadowing the mocking anti-Petrarchan literature of two centuries later.

Like Ronsard, Sidney and Shakespeare, in a later age, Chaucer had no sympathy for the endless self-analysis and pathetic, love-sick complaining of a man seemingly made less than fully masculine by love for a woman. In the end, Criseyde leaves Troilus in Troy and finds herself another man among the Greeks. Petrarch¡¯s personal ¡®love story¡¯ was almost certainly unknown to Chaucer; otherwise, we might feel that already he was trying to rewrite it, like Ronsard and others later. As it was, he presumably knew that Boccaccio claimed at the start and end of the Filocolo to be telling the story of Troilus¡¯ sufferings in the desperate hope that such a story might touch the heart of the unkind lady he loved, whose departure had caused him such distress that he could not go on living without her. Rejecting this as an experience not available for people of his low social rank, Chaucer claims to know nothing at all about such things and ends with an explicit rejection of passionate human love, which, he says, is nothing compared to the eternal love of God. And Chaucer¡¯s poem ends with praise of God quoted from Dante¡¯s Commedia!

After Chaucer, no English writer showed any knowledge of Petrarch until well into the Tudor era, when two powerful courtiers of Henry VIII¡¯s times, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard Earl of Surrey, each translated a few of his sonnets in sonnet form (Chaucer¡¯s version is in rime royal) in the earlier decades of the 16th century, and wrote new poems in imitation of his. Yet no complete English translation of the Rime was made until the later 19th century, although Thomas Watson, a friend of William Byrd, is said to have translated them into Latin late in the 16th century. By contrast, we should note the full translation into French by Vasquin Phileul published in 1555 and that into Spanish published at Venice in 1567. A Spanish version of the Triumphs had appeared by 1526.

The initial enthusiastic reception of Petrarch¡¯s poetry beyond Italy can be explained by the way the humanists of the 15th and 16th centuries felt that it was time for a new beginning, when vernacular poems would be written with the stylistic elegance found in the Classics. Petrarch's Rime Sparse was recognized as the highest example of such poetry. It was the stylistic side of the Canzoniere that they felt should be imitated, rather than the unique, private love-experience that had inspired its poems. The most influential person in this new venture for European poetry was the Italian Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), a leading humanist, who edited the works of Dante and Petrarch in 1501 for publication by the Aldine Press in Venice. In 1505, Bembo published his own work, Asolani, a dialogue about various kinds of love that is the basis for very much renaissance love-literature across Europe. The first speaker, Perottino, talks about all the pains and sufferings of unrequited love; the second, Gismondo, enjoys requited love and mocks the anguish of so much love-poetry; Lavinello offers a form of Platonizing compromise, insisting that the love of a lady's beauty may lead the man on towards a discovery of God's own beauty; he is contradicted by a hermit, who insists that only spiritual love can be good. All except the hermit compose poems expressing their approach, those of Lavinello being the most noble in style. Above all, Bembo demanded that new poetry should be clear in style and simple in vocabulary, avoiding difficult Latinisms and obscure mythological references, while the poetic form itself should be refined and complex.

Unfortunately, perhaps, a few years before Bembo Antonio Tebaldeo and Serafino dell'Aquila had published poems that inspired many poets to imitate the most artificial aspects of Petrarch's style and imagery, such as the conceit of the lady seen as a house with a golden roof (hair) and ivory doors (teeth), with little cupids shooting arrows from her eyes, or the imagery of the lover's heart being a raging fire. Italy had already chosen Petrarch as its model for vernacular poetry; Bembo gave this choice a new theoretical and practical basis in his Prose della volgar lingua (1525). Bembo sees harmony as the main quality to be looked for in lyric poetry, a balance between gravity and sweetness. Finally, in 1530, Bembo published his own love poems, in the same year as Iacopo Sannazaro, the author of Arcadia, died and friends published his love poems full of idyllic melancholy, while Bembo's Asolani appeared in a new edition. 1530 may thus be seen as a vital year for the evolution of what has come to be known as ¡®Pet¡©rarchism¡¯ throughout Europe.

Jürgen Geiss¡¯s study shows that the role of Germany and the Netherlands in the whole process of Petrarch¡¯s diffusion is remarkable, with far more works being printed there than in Italy. The first work by Petrarch to be printed there, interestingly enough, was the Historia Griseldis that Petrarch adapted from Boccaccio¡¯s Decameron, and that Chaucer in turn adapted to form the Clerk¡¯s Tale. It was first printed in or just before 1470, and in the following 50 years, 27 different editions of it were published, 21 of them being translations into German! It is a story that stresses unquestioned male authority and the total subjection of women, Laura is far away! In all, 88 volumes containing works by Petrarch were published in Germany before 1530. After this, there was a steep decline of interest in his Latin writings, which can be explained by the fact that the works published were essentially his Latin ones, and after about 1520 there was a growing rejection of his by then antiquated Latin style and his subjects of concern, that were no longer in tune with the post-Erasmus, Reformation world.

The Rime, too, were soon viewed with a more critical eye. Klaus Ley has established that there were 42 recorded printings of them across Europe in the 15th century, no less than 309 in the 16th, but only 50 in all the 17th century, in all languages! The 18th century, no longer inclined to imitate them, rediscovered Petrarch¡¯s poems as classics to be admired without great excitement, thanks to 97 new editions, while the growth of a wider reading public across Europe and a greater interest in poems expressing individual sentiment must explain the 371 editions of the Rime listed for the 19th century, almost as many as the 20th century¡¯s 383!

In the later decades of the 16th century, England¡¯s Edmund Spenser and other poets were strongly influenced by the French Pléiade, a group of seven writers led by Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585), whose ideals were expressed by Joachim du Bellay in his 1549 treatise La Deffense et illustration de la langue francoyse (Defence and illustration of the French language). He argued that the vernacular was capable of a poetic elegance and literary dignity equal to that of Latin. Du Bellay published the first sonnet sequence in French in 1549-50. These writers initially all confessed an intense admiration for Petrarch but we soon find a rejection of the stereotypes associated with Petrarchism. The fully developed anti-Petrarchan rejection of Petrarch¡¯s approach to love dates from 1553 when Du Bellay wrote in his satire Contre les Pétrarquistes, ¡®J¡¯ai oublié l¡¯art de pétrarquiser,/Je veux d¡¯amour franchement deviser...¡¯ (I have forgotten the art of Petrarchizing, I want to speak frankly of love . . .). After that the tide quickly turned against uncritical imitation of Petrarch; Ronsard¡¯s reworkings of the Amours in the Continuation des Amours of 1555 and 1556 clearly move away from the Petrarchan model. In the opening poem ¡®À son livre¡¯ of the 1560 Second Livre des Amours, rather than join in denouncing the insincerity of the style of Petrarchan love poetry, Ronsard questions the validity of the Petrarch-Laura story as such and challenges Petrarch¡¯s fundamental attitude toward non-erotic, unrequited love, which he finds laughably unbelievable: ¡®Il estoit un grand fat d¡¯aymer sans avoir rien, / Ce que je ne puis croire, aussi n¡¯est-il croiable.¡¯ (He was a great fool to love without getting anything, something I cannot believe, so he is not credible). Here we see to what extent the power of desire has taken control of the poet¡¯s vision of love, that no longer finds memory sufficient. It could be that Ovid¡¯s was an influential voice in this transformation, with his erotic, sensuous poetry full of casual sexal encounters. Perhaps also the shift away from simple notions of survival after death connected with the decline of the doctrine of Purgatory in Northern Europe made the Petrarchan (and Dantean) venture less acceptable. Carpe diem soon came to be the only realistic response to the threat posed by the passing of time and Andrew Marvell was in continuity with Ronsard when he wrote, in his ¡®To my Coy Mistress¡¯ ¡®The grave¡¯s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace.¡¯

In England, Sir Philip Sidney¡¯s Astrophel and Stella is a pioneering work, profoundly Petrarchan in form as an extended sonnet-sequence relating a great variety of emotional moments, high and low, but marked by a complete rejection of Petrarchan conventions, not only regarding style and imagery but again, like Ronsard, as regards the likelihood of a ¡®real man¡¯ being prepared to go on in a relationship with no prospect of physical satisfaction. He is only too ready to mock those who unthinkingly imitate the external features of Petrarch¡¯s verse:


You that poor Petrarch's long-deceased woes

    With new-born sighs and denizened wit do sing;

You take wrong ways, those far-fet helps be such

    As do bewray a want of inward touch,

    And sure at length stol'n goods do come to light.

But if, both for your love and skill, your name

    You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of Fame,

    Stella behold, and then begin to endite.  


Astrophel¡¯s intention is not merely to replace Petrarchan styles, but to replace Laura by Stella as he himself will replace Petrarch in the love story and as the author of another, much more ¡®realistic¡¯ sonnet-cycle: ¡®But ah, Desire still cries, Give me some food!¡¯ Here he is very close to Ronsard, whose poems to Marie seem to wish to propose another way of loving to that advocated by Petrarch. Sidney had written in his Defence of Poesy:


But truly many of such writings as come vnder the banner of vnresistable loue, if I were a mistresse, would neuer perswade mee they were in loue : so coldly they applie firie speeches, as men that had rather redde louers writings, and so caught vp certaine swelling Phrases, which hang togither, (. . .) then that in truth they feele those passions, which easily as I thinke, may be bewraied by that same forciblenesse or Energia, (as the Greeks call it) of the writer.


The energy with which Astrophel refuses to abandon the demands of Desire and finally departs radically from the Petrarchan Way of Love by kissing Stella when he finds her asleep in a chair, then curses himself for not having ¡®taken¡¯ more, prepares the way for Shakespeare¡¯s sonnets, that constitute a monument to anti-Petrarchan, or non-Petrarchan love by the explicitly sexual passion aroused by the unknown Dark Lady in both the poet and his ambiguously dear young friend. Unlike these two great cycles of passion, Spenser¡¯s Amoretti and the other less strongly anti-Petrarchan cycles of the period are totally neglected today.

In English verse, the final and most resolutely ¡®modern¡¯ farewell to all that Petrarch stood for in tales of love comes with John Donne. Like Ronsard and Astrophel (Astrophel is not Sidney), Donne¡¯s poems wittily affirm the joys of sexual pursuit, rejecting all idealizing attitudes toward the female, evoking the goal of shared physical passion. But at some point life played a trick on him, he met Anne More, lost his head, then his job, and found himself engaged in a real-life love story that he never turned into a Canzoniere; the Songs and Sonnets published after his death contain wonderful celebrations of mutual love and its contraries, but there is no knowing if any of the poems are representations of his feelings toward the mother of his 12 children, who died in 1617 after giving birth to a final, still-born baby just when Donne was beginning his career in the Church.

These other, Anti-Petrarchan love stories have no patience with a love so idealized, so disincarnate that it easily transcends death and the physical loss of the desired (but never attained) body. But above all, the very perfection of Petrarch¡¯s poetic art seems to many to make it less than suited for the expression of honest male feelings. Perhaps a major difference between southern and northern European sensibilities lies in the different senses of humor, the North showing a fondness for mockery and a strong sense of the ridiculous in the presence of such ethereal ecstasies. Hearty men address the women they desire in hearty ways, laughing at Petrarch¡¯s over-wrought sensitivity; the way Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), in love with an abstract Delia, compares himself to Petrarch offers a suitable conclusion to this survey:


He (Petrarch) never had more faith, although more rhyme;

          I love as well, though he could better show it.

               But I may add one feather to thy fame

          To help her flight throughout the fairest isle,

          And if my pen could more enlarge thy name,

          Then shouldst thou live in an immortal style.

               But though that Laura better limned (depicted) be,

               Suffice, thou shalt be lov'd as well as she.


Daniel pays high tribute to the stylistic perfection of Petrarch¡¯s poetry, and admits the limitations of his own talents; but he knows that his contemporaries rather identify the heartfelt with the rough and spontaneous, what Sidney called ¡®energeia.¡¯ There we find the beginnings of one characteristic feature of what came to be known as Romanticism, a liking for the distinctive, spontaneous, rough, individualized voice in poetry. Three hundred thousand sonnets were written in Renaissance Europe, most of them trying in vain to imitate Petrarch¡¯s! His voice was radically new when it first rang out, but it usually comes to us drowned by the great chorus of his inferior imitators. To us, Petrarch¡¯s sonnets usually sound far too much like Petrarchan sonnets, and we resist them. Early in the 20th century, Pound and Elliot found a means of Modernist access to ancient texts; but today again, the general demand is for the artless poem of unmediated personal experience. Perhaps in another hundred years the pendulum may have swung back again. Petrarch is patient, he will wait.





Petrarch¡¯s Lyric Poems: The Rime sparse and Other Lyrics. Translated and edited by Robert M. Durling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1976.


Hugo Estenssoro, ¡°Tell Laura I love her.¡± In: TLS July 16 2004 12-13


Kenelm Foster, Petrarch: Poet and Humanist. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 1984.


Stephen Minta, Petrarch and Petrarchism: The English and French Traditions. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 1980.


R. W. Southern, Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell. Volume 1. Foundations. 1995.


Jürgen Geiss. Zentren der Petrarca-Rezeption in Deutschland (um 1470 -1525) : rezeptionsgeschichtliche Studien und Katalog der lateinischen Drucküberlieferung. Wiesbaden : Reichert. 2002.


Klaus Ley, Christine Mundt-Espin, Charlotte Krauss. Die Drucke von Petrarcas "Rime" 1470 - 2000 : synoptische Bibliographie der Editionen und Kommentare, Bibliotheksnachweise.  Hildesheim : Olms, 2002.