Changes of Heart

Prue Shaw

  • Petrarch by Nicholas Mann
    Oxford, 121 pp, £7.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 19 287610 4
  • Petrarch: Poet and Humanist by Kenelm Foster
    Edinburgh, 214 pp, £9.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 85224 485 1

Alfieri, writing four hundred years after Petrarch’s death, tells us that when young he had dismissed Petrarch as ‘a bore, whose verses were ingenious and cold’. Many English readers, struggling to come to grips with the Canzoniere, must have reached the same conclusion, the more so if their knowledge of Petrarch was, as it almost always is, filtered through his English legacy: the host of Tudor followers and admirers who reduced the master’s subtle and varied manner to a set of imitable and parodiable mannerisms, at best merely clever, at worst tediously posturing and repetitious. How best to advise the English reader wishing to get the measure of Petrarch has always been problematical. Happily, these two new books should change that.

It is fascinating to see how two scholars faced with precisely the same problems (generally, the bulk, richness and complexity of the material to be dealt with and very limited space in which to deal with it; specifically, that Petrarch is not always a reliable witness to his own past) can adopt approaches so radically divergent one from the other and yet produce accounts of the writer which are equally compelling. The blurring of the boundary between fact and fiction evident in all Petrarch’s works – even, or perhaps especially, the most autobiographical ones – makes Mann an agnostic on questions of fact where Petrarch is our sole witness. He is non-committal on whether Laura really existed; whether the celebrated ascent of Mont Ventoux ever took place; even, it seems, whether Petrarch was crowned poet laureate on the Capitoline in Rome. The tireless process of fashioning and refashioning which the manuscripts enable us to document in individual poems operates equally in the shaping and ordering of the poet’s experience. The works, whether Latin or Italian, prose or verse, are all richly literary in inspiration, often most literary when seemingly most directly rooted in reality; they yield a series of images, of kaleidoscopic self-projections, but allow us to draw no conclusions about the inner life of the author, apart from the obvious one that the instinct for self-revelation and the instinct for self-concealment were inextricably interwoven. The man behind the texts remains an enigma, elusiveness is all. The futility of any attempt to penetrate the all-pervasive shell of fiction to some kernel of truth is Mann’s guiding principle. This elegant account revitalises the cliché that Petrarch was the first modern man and locates his appeal precisely in that modernity – in the conflicts, the contradictions, the ambiguities of a temperament notable for its restlessness, its dissatisfaction, its self-awareness, for whom writing became a way of forging an identity, structuring a personality to bequeath to posterity.

Kenelm Foster reacts to the unreliability of Petrarch’s testimony in exactly the opposite way. Painstakingly, warily, with the utmost caution, he tries to reconstruct the experience behind the words, to make sense of the inner world of the poet: a more difficult (and more dangerous) undertaking, but deemed necessary in order to bring into focus the nature of Petrarch’s achievement. Mann’s study assumes Petrarch’s greatness as love poet, requiring the reader to take that much on trust; nor does Mann privilege the Canzoniere within the opus, which he sees as a continuum revealing identical psychological and intellectual patterns, the same desire to construct an image of the self. Foster, by contrast, devotes two-thirds of his book to the Canzoniere, which he invites us to consider in a new way. Remarkable though his other achievements are – both Mann and Foster offer absorbing accounts of his activities as an intellectual committed to a role in public affairs, as a pioneering textual scholar, as a mediator between the great writers of Antiquity and the modern world – it is Petrarch’s genius as lyric poet that engages Foster most deeply.

At the heart of Foster’s book is a close reading of a handful of poems (not always the obviously beautiful or famous ones), conducted with an exquisite sense of the way metrical and rhetorical structures embody the shifts and subtleties of thought and feeling. He provides what amounts to a manual of Petrarch’s metrical forms and stylistic habits, enabling the reader effortlessly to absorb the technical terminology needed to understand what is going on in a Petrarchan canzone or sonnet – to see, and to see the point of, the intricate, interlocking patterns of organisation.

This central core of example and illustration is built into an argument about the Canzoniere. Foster is simultaneously engaged in a critical debate about the ultimate significance of the work and a scholarly debate about its genesis: what it is and how it came to be what it is. The argument turns on when and why Petrarch decided to collect his scattered lyrics and shape them into a book – the first man since Antiquity to do so.

Foster’s position can be summarised as follows: in mid-life Petrarch, like Dante, underwent some kind of spiritual crisis which led to a radical redirection of his literary energies and talents. In Petrarch’s case this crisis can be dated in the years immediately following Laura’s death (though her death was only one factor among many others). It gave rise to or was closely connected with the decision to collect and edit his Latin prose letters, his Latin verse letters, and his vernacular lyrics, which thus come to constitute the three major anthologies as we know them, the Familiares, the Epistolae Metricae and the Canzoniere; and with the writing of the deeply introspective and self-analytical Secretum. (By this stage, too, Petrarch had virtually abandoned the Africa and with it his ambitions in the Latin epic, a development which must have been deeply troubling to him since the laureateship had been awarded on the confident expectation that the poem would be completed.)

Crucial to the conception of the Canzoniere as a book, Foster argues, is the twofold division in vita and in morte (Laura alive and Laura dead), and the strong element of spiritual conflict. Previous groupings of the poems lack these distinguishing features and are therefore not (pace E.H. Wilkins) to be understood as early ‘forms’ of the Canzoniere at all. The Canzoniere as an entity grows out of and reflects a spiritual crisis and (less clearly and more problematically) its resolution. Against the influential view of Umberto Bosco that the Canzoniere is static, unchanging, senza storia, Foster advances the proposition that it is possible to trace in the book ‘the outlines of a moral autobiography, however faint and uncertain as to details and dates’.

Clearly there are a number of quite separate issues here: the biographical or psychological question of Petrarch’s spiritual history; the scholarly question of the dating of certain key texts, especially the Secretum and the prologue sonnet; and the critical issue of whether the Canzoniere tells a story, whether a ‘pattern of succession and development’ can be detected in it. It is possible to find the account of Petrarch’s mental life persuasive; to accept the chronological arguments, where Foster largely follows the work of Rico; and yet to remain unconvinced by his reading of the Canzoniere.

Foster is disarmingly frank about wanting the story to make sense (‘the alternative to such an assumption would be a purely “aesthetic” reading of the book; and to that I would rather not simply resign myself’); and scrupulously fair in acknowledging the force of arguments which lead to conclusions different from his own. He himself insists on the abruptness with which the concluding penitential sonnets are introduced, and the mismatch between the penitential prologue and the book itself. To this should surely be added the deeply unsettling effect of the placing so close to the end of Canzone 360, the great poem of unresolved debate, which concludes with Reason smiling enigmatically and refusing to adjudicate between the rival claims made for and against Amor, as though Petrarch were wilfully undermining the sense of closure that the penitential poems seem so emphatically to impose. (Foster finds the placing of this poem merely ‘curious’.) Add to this some slight sense of anti-climax in the final prayer to the Virgin (few modern readers would agree that this is one of the high points of the Canzoniere poetically); strong misgivings about his reading of ‘Chiare, fresche e dolci acque’, and a difficulty in seeing the intermittent penitential poems as establishing a linear sequence (rather than a sense of flux or vacillation). These last two points are perhaps worth elaborating.

‘Chiare, fresche e dolci acque’ is the most memorable of all the poems which express Petrarch’s sense of joy in the contemplation of Laura’s beauty. On Foster’s reading, Petrarch in this poem ‘makes of Laura a false final end, a substitute for God’; he misconceives the experience of being transported by her beauty as paradisal. This interpretation is based on ‘a careful study of such key-words here as “spavento” and above all “oblio”; the former being, I think, equivalent here to the Latin ‘stupor’ as used in Secretum III ... to describe the first dazzling effect on Petrarch of Laura’s beauty; and the latter to the consequent “oblivio Dei”,“ God-forgetfulness ”. ’ But to gloss the poem with reference to the Secretum, a text unpublished in Petrarch’s lifetime, is not something Petrarch could have expected of even the most alert of his readers. (More telling, surely, would be a cross-reference within the Canzoniere to the later sonnet ‘Passa la nave mia colma d’oblio’ – Wyatt’s ‘My galley charged with forgetfulness’ – where ‘colma d’oblio’, closely echoing ‘carco d’oblio’ in the canzone and again in rhyme position, clearly does have connotations of danger: the boat in peril on a stormy sea facing imminent shipwreck.) ‘Carco d’oblio’, in context, suggests no more than ‘carried out of myself’, ‘transported’, ‘forgetful of my immediate surroundings, of external reality’; and the poem as a whole presents the experience of contemplating Laura’s beauty as a joyful one of almost visionary intensity.

The Canzoniere moves constantly and restlessly between two poles: the sense that the poet’s love for Laura is a benediction, a true blessing, the only thing which keeps him on the right path, and the sense that it is a folly and will be his undoing. Between these poles we have an infinite variety of modulations, of variations, the most characteristic note of all perhaps being the obsessional state of mind itself and the disorientation it brings. By detecting intimations, however remote, of moral error in poems like ‘Chiare, fresche e dolci acque’ Foster underplays one of the extremes of the poetic experience of the Canzoniere.

In the same way he ignores the shock value of the more startling juxtapositions: the strongly penitential 62, for example, with its sense of futility and unworthiness, follows the almost incantatory ‘Benedetto sia I giorno’. Foster believes the intermittent penitential poems to be connected in obscure ways (which lack of documentation prevents our exploring) with events in Petrarch’s life – the birth of his illegitimate children, perhaps, or his brother’s entering the Carthusian order. But in the absence of documentation such hypotheses remain conjectural; and in any event the effect of reading the poems in the order in which Petrarch chose to arrange them is not linear – any linear sense, insofar as it exists at all, being given by the natural life-death sequence and the obsession with recording the passing of time – but one of vacillation, of fluctuation, which the penitential framework, for all its undoubted and disturbing power, does not entirely resolve.

Irresolution is the key-note in Petrarch: even the seemingly transparent Secretum is inconclusive. Foster is in an unrivalled position to elucidate the debate between ‘Augustinus’ (St Augustine, supposedly, but in fact Petrarch’s conscience) and ‘Franciscus’ (Petrarch himself, in all his vulnerability, persistence, rationalisation, and perverse pleasure in his condition). In Freudian terms this is a debate between super-ego and ego, two aspects of a personality in conflict whose owner had a singular insight into the workings of his own mind and a singular capacity for indecisiveness –therapy rather than confession, precisely because of the open-endedness of the exercise.

On St Augustine Foster writes with incomparable authority: on the real St Augustine, on Petrarch’s reading of him and on the role he played in Petrarch’s life as a model by which his experience could be retrospectively shaped. The great sinner turned great saint: in minor key Petrarch sees this pattern in his own life. The Canzoniere becomes a ‘witness to the sins and errors from which the book as a whole records the poet’s conversion’. But, one must stubbornly insist, this doesn’t quite match up to the experience of reading the Canzoniere. There is something precarious about the conversion, something fragile about the resolve, something not entirely convincing or definitive or final about the renunciation. But perhaps the pattern is not fully worked out. Petrarch was still working on the book at the time of his death.

And this of course is the central ambiguity in a life whose ‘odd convergence of ambiguities’ Foster so unerringly pinpoints. ‘This ardent Italian spent half his life in Provence; this cleric – no priest and having no cure of souls – was virtually a layman; this scholar and intellectual never had to face a classroom of students; this lover passionately, yet platonically, loved another man’s wife; this “celibate” was the father of two children.’ This supreme master of the vernacular lyric affected to attach little importance to his Italian poems (‘nugae’, ‘nugellae’, ‘trifles’); pinned his hopes for immortality on a Latin epic no one reads today; scorned the vernacular even for practical purposes (his gardening notes are in Latin, as are his editorial notes to himself in the margins of his Italian autograph manuscripts: hie placet, when he is satisfied that he has found just the right turn of phrase); yet tirelessly worked to perfect these poems throughout the last twenty years of his life. Where Mann is almost apologetic in reminding us of this paradox (‘a scholarly commonplace’), the attempt to throw some light on it might be considered Foster’s central endeavour: whatever Petrarch may have said to the contrary, ‘it is inconceivable that an artist of his calibre should have spent so much time and trouble on materials he regarded as of only minor importance.’ Indeed, Foster hints at a change of heart in Petrarch himself, a re-evaluation of the vernacular, in those late poems where poetry and the writing of it become the poet’s subject. He offers us an interpretation of the career in which the problem of reconciling the poetic and ethical sides of his nature dominates his closing decades – but ‘the man’s poetic genius was irrepressible.’