Posted by: mmkelly | November 16, 2009

Petrarch’s Canzoniere

Over the course of this independent study, we have looked at a wide variety of authors, each thinking in their own unique way. Ovid naturally forms expansive visions of the world; St. Augustine narrows and defines topics to their utmost pith and core; Dante understands the world through meticulous metaphor and analogy. Though Petrarch resembles each of these earlier authors in certain characteristics of his writing—sharing an imaginative curiosity with Ovid, an encyclopedic thoroughness with St. Augustine, and a synergistic utilization of historic and religious source material with Dante—he is uniquely his own. He chooses one topic, almost as a formality, and uses it to explore anything or everything. Laura, this mysterious muse of the poet, is the prism through which Petrarch shines his light on the world, refracting his understanding of life through this central node.

Certainly, this approach lends itself to inconsistency. In describing the variety of emotions and thoughts inspired by his all-consuming love for a woman unable or unwilling to requite, Petrarch manages to describe ideas and emotions that often seem to contradict each other. He describes his love for Laura as both an exercise in masochism (Sonnet 37, All too often we love / Whatever is most strange / And brings along the biggest crowd of sighs! / I am one whom weeping seems to please…”) and also a pure love full of chivalry, a passion for a woman for whom “to weep / is much more sweet than anyone believes” (Sonnet 130). Similarly, while he originally states that her love leads him to spiritual improvement (“I see, my noble lady, / a gentle light that streams from your bright eyes / directing me along the way to heaven…”, Sonnet 72), he comes to believe that her love is a distraction from his spiritual duties, for “To love a mortal being with such faith / as should belong to the Lord God alone / is not allowed to those who live for honour” (Sonnet 264). Indeed, perhaps in the context of one’s immortal state, Petrarch “wasted [his life] in love of a mere mortal thing” (Sonnet 365).

Perhaps the greatest example of Petrarch’s artistic detachment and lack of concern for depicting reality, are his series of “pathetic fallacy” poems (Sonnets 41-3), in which he describes in sequence how Laura’s disappearance and reappearance both have complete control over the weather and then, suddenly, no effect at all. The poems serve more to demonstrate Petrarch’s playful ingenuity in manipulating current literary tropes and imagining new artistic perspective, than to actually depict the extent of his love for Laura. This is a common thread throughout the Canzoniere, where Chaucer presents an incredibly complez and diverse set of opinions about love, while in his Triumphs Petrarch manages a much more consistent and orderly argument for a hierarchy of universal powers. The fact that these two great works of poems express too different visions of art and the world–one expansive and self-contradicting, the other narrowed and consistent–attests to his mind-boggling creativity and disconcerting insincerity. One never knows what the Petrarch actually believes, because he can so nimbly express any opinion.

Similarly, Petrarch’s prodigious mind, able to view his subject from every angle, develops a view of life that distinguishes himself from everyone else: his love for Laura, so deep and profound, so artistically inspiring, provides him with a unique subjective understanding of life and artistic distance from life distinct from the average human being’s existence. Over and over, the poet describes the sorrow and bitterness that his unrequited love for Laura instills within him, he weeps and sighs constantly, he finds himself sick and wounded with Love. In all of this, the histrionics of medieval chivalry, Petrarch feels that he has experienced something which “sever[s] me from all the world” (Sonnet 17). Indeed, “From thought to thought, along each mountain top Love leads [Petrarch] on,” because for a man with such a potent experience of love “no well-trodden ways could ever bring [his] mind to peace.” (Sonnet 129). In light of Petrarch’s mountaineering adventures—his ascent Mount Ventoux of might be the first instance of European mountaineering and illustrates his unique curiosity in the world, the man who climbed simply for the view—this phrase takes on added meaning. He sees his ability to think and imagine as of a higher order than the ordinary, and because he holds such a powerful love in his heart he mounts loftier peaks and inhabits wilder paths than the ordinary human.

Indeed, nature, and the isolation that nature can provide for the wandering soul, is one of the more significant themes of Canzoniere. In Sonnet 35, Petrarch describes how he wanders through the wilderness—through the desert, mountains, and shores—in the attempt to “keep free from people’s obvious interest,” looking “intently less [he] go where human footprints have left any traces.” He claims to be so successful in his wanderings that only the natural environment knows of his mental anguish and “men do not.” Of course, in his attempt to escape the pain of love he is unsuccessful, for no matter how far he walks over what rugged terrain, he can find no place in which “Love does not come too.” The entire set-up of this poem is to use the environment to emphasize Petrarch’s isolated individuality. Only he can access remote nature—find the places where humans have left no traces—and, therefore, only he can commune face-to-face, without any outside distractions, with love. He affirms this use of natural imagery in Sonnet 259, written after Laura’s death, where he describes how his “wish has always been to live alone / (as river-banks, fields, woods are well aware) / avoiding the deaf dull-eyed people here, to whom the way to heaven is unknown.” His love has made him a sort of special human—for “love has made [him] a native of the woods.” (Sonnet 236)—and forces him to seek solitude, fleeing from the unenlightened masses. When Petrarch climbed Mount Ventoux, he used the experience to demonstrate his specialness and uniqueness; and when he writes poetry, a similar thread of narcissism weaves through. Only he had the curiosity and the imagination to climb the mountain, only he has the capacity to plumbthe emotional and spiritual depths inspired by an all-consuming love, and only he can access the higher meaning these experiences evoke within him.

Petrarch, despite his wealth of writing, on occasions insinuates a doubt about the ability of art, poetry, or writing to truly express real feelings or to give full voice to his understanding of the world. Indeed, though Petrarch expends a lifetime writing sonnets about his beloved, he admits, with mock shame that he has “never / managed to fix [Laura’s] name in my verse” (Sonnet 20). He can write all the verse he wants, but it will never be sufficient to fully convey the extent of his love and the extent of Laura’s beauty. He also admits that in writing he has to choose carefully which details to leave in and out. Though this may be an obvious matter in authorship, it is integral to understanding the essential subjectivity of writing: one chooses what is important—what will be included and what will be left out—in one’s work.

Ultimately, the most wonderful and most troubling characteristic of Petrarch’s work is its slipperiness, its ability to constantly reconsider perspective. Over the entire course of the Canzoniere, a collection of three hundred-some poems, Petrarch regards essentially one subject over and over, finding a different way to do so each time. Obviously this is impressive—it requires great creativity and amazing imagination to reconceive and reassess his love for Laura in so many ways. Yet, at the same time, it makes his poetry seem somehow insincere. If Laura is simply an artificial construct used to evoke his brilliance and genius, what we find in the Canzoniere are not poems of love, but rather poems of self-love. The inconsistency of Petrarch’s general poetic sensibility, the reconciliation of contradictory sentiments and ideological frameworks, the employment of symbols in oppositional contexts conveys to the reader that the author, rather than using poetry as a tool of acquiring or interpreting meaning from life, uses poetry as a means of narcissistic self-exposure. Of course, his far more orderly book of poems, the Triumphs, presents the opposite vision of him as a poet–for here he has a unified vision of human virtue and weakness. In the end, the comparison of the two works leaves us with the definite idea that though Petrarch was decidedly a genius–a man who coul reimagine any object, who could see with many eyes–he was also a man, who, somewhat sadly, lacked a message.

Some more things to talk about:
1) Petrarch constantly uses the symbol of the Laurel tree to represent Laura. What exactly about the Laurel makes it suitable for this purpose? Is it simply that the names are similar and the metaphor therefore convenient, or are there deeper parallels to consider?

2) On occasion, Petrarch considers other topics. He writes about other poets of love, the crusades, his own relation to God. How these poems contribute to a greater understanding of his work? How do they inform our understanding of his love for Laura?

3) Several times Petrarch talks of his love is fated and evokes a sort of stoic philosophy (i.e., one should simply accept their fate, be it bad or good). Indeed, one might characterize the entire moral framework of the Canzoniere as revolving around a sort of omnipresent fatalism (see, specifically, 69).

4) Sonnet 87 attaches agency to Laura. Petrarch seems to waver between expressing her as a passive subject who is benignly unaware of his suffering and a more active person who realizes her effect upon him. Doesn’t this matter?

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