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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 5 - Renaissance Literature 


The Lover: Petrarch

The chronological imprecision of the term Renaissance becomes evident in the two hundred and fifty-year gap between Shakespeare and Cervantes, who did their major work in the seventeenth century, and the first great poet of the Renaissance, Francis Petrarch, who lived from 1304 to 1374. Like Dante, Petrarch came from an exiled Florentine family. He departs from the medieval approach of his great predecessor, however, in the way he draws upon classical sources and focuses on human psychology. His transformation of Christian motifs into personal metaphors typifies the Renaissance shift of focus from the divine to the human.

Petrarch popularized the sonnet, one of the most imitated poetic forms ever invented. The adjective formed from his name, Petrarchan, describes both a strict poetic structure (an intricately rhymed fourteen-line poem, the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet) and an extravagant poetic attitude (the lover's detailed praise of his beloved). Although Petrarch did not invent this attitude, which builds on the poetry of courtly love sung by the medieval troubadours of Southern France, his sonnets set a new pattern for such poems. During the Renaissance, following Petrarch's example, young men wrote groups of sonnets, or sonnet sequences, as effortlessly as Rap singers compose their songs, using them not only to praise their ladies, but also as vehicles for unprecedented contemplation of the self, particularly the self in love. Such sonnets are, in fact, the ancestors of today's love ballads.

Petrarch wrote an epic poem in Latin and collected an important library of ancient manuscripts. For love poetry, however, he chose his vernacular language, Italian. He spent many years revising and reorganizing these poems; the last version he worked on before he died contains 366 poems. They mark the significant points of a year as do the prayers in the Christian Breviary (a book of daily hymns and prayers), and thus suggest that the history of human love has a rhythm as sacred as the annual sequence of religious rituals and festivals.

After two introductory poems, Petrarch's Rhymes begin with a description of the day in 1327 on which he first saw Laura, the woman whom he glorifies in his sonnets. The date was April 6, supposedly the anniversary of Christ's crucifixion, when the world went dark. Notice how this sonnet combines classical and religious references in an almost blasphemous way to explain the personal situation the poem dramatizes. The translation, by R. G. Macgregor, was first published in 1854.

From Petrarch's Rhymes              
'Twas on the blessed morning when the sun
In pity to our Maker hid his light,
That, unawares, the captive I was won,
Lady, of your bright eyes which chain'd me quite;
That seem'd to me no time against the blows
Of love to make defence, to frame relief:
Secure and unsuspecting, thus my woes
Date their commencement from the common grief.
Love found me feeble then and fenceless all,
Open the way and easy to my heart
Through eyes, where since my sorrows ebb and flow:
But therein was, methinks, his triumph small,
On me, in that weak state, to strike his dart,
Yet hide from you so strong his very bow.

The lady here is so powerful that she disarms love himself, Cupid, whose arrows can wound only her admirer. Petrarch taught generations of young men that true lovers worship and idealize their beloved. The name Laura indicates both a woman and a laurel tree, cherished by Apollo, the god of poetry. Following Petrarch's example, sonnet sequences attribute abstract virtues to the ladies for whom they were written. In England, for example, these ladies usually were addressed by fictional names which implied their superiority, like Stella (for "star") or Delia (an anagram of "ideal").

Petrarchan poems treat the lady's physical beauties as signs of her spiritual grace. The following example contains a typically complex recollection of classical sources. In praising Laura's hair, Petrarch alludes to a passage in Virgil's Aeneid (Book I, line 319) describing the carefree beauty of Venus, who allows the wind to disarrange her hair. This nineteenth-century translation is by George Frederick Nott.

From Petrarch's Rhymes
Her golden tresses on the wind she threw,
Which twisted them in many a beauteous braid;
In her fine eyes the burning glances play'd,
With lovely light, which now they seldom show:
Ah! then it seem'd her face wore pity's hue,
Yet haply fancy my fond sense betray'd;
Nor strange that I, in whose warm heart was laid
Love's fuel, suddenly enkindled grew!
Not like a mortal's did her step appear,
Angelic was her form; her voice, methought,
Pour'd more than human accents on the ear.
A living sun was what my vision caught,
A spirit pure; and though not such still found,
Unbending of the bow ne'er heals the wound.

The bow which shoots the wounding arrows of love is an idea borrowed from the classical Latin poets, most especially Ovid, author of the Metamorphoses and The Art of Love. It is important to realize that the poets who depicted themselves as pathetic victims of Cupid's attack struck literary poses when they voiced these complaints. In real life, the poets tended to be capable civil servants or distinguished aristocrats. The woebegone lover was a convention, a role that one was expected to play. As we shall see, the poets employ other conventional poses as well.