The writer Petrarch is famous for his love poems written in praise of his
beloved Laura. His poems have been used as examples of love poetry for years,
and the ideas in his poems have been used by many other poets and writers to
compose their thoughts on love. In his epic poem Don Juan, Lord Byron uses
Petrarch and Laura as an example of the thought that love could only exist
There's doubtless something in domestic doings
Which forms, in fact, true love's antithesis;
Romances paint at full length people's wooings,
But only give a bust of marriages;
For no one cares for matrimonial cooings,
There's nothing wrong in a connubial kiss:
Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch's wife,
He would have written sonnets all his life?
This thought originally came from medieval traditions of Courtly Love. In his poems, Petrarch draws upon the traditions of Courtly Love, especially in his portrayal of his beloved Laura and in his poetic structure, but he also brings a fresh perspective to his poems, which makes them different from those of the rest of the Courtly Love poets.
Francesco Petrarca, better known in English as Petrarch, was born on the 20th of July, 1304 in Arezzo, where his father was in exile from Florence. His family soon moved to Avignon, in order for Petrarch’s father to acquire a job with the Papal Court. On the 6th (or possibly 10th) of April, in 1327, Petrarch saw a woman known to us only as Laura and fell in love. He then proceeded to write love poetry to and about her for the rest of his life.
In Petrarch’s love poems, there are obvious connections to the tradition of Courtly Love. The main way this is seen is through his portrayal of his beloved Laura. She is shown as a golden-haired beauty:
"She was beautiful, of course…Laura’s hair was gold, her complexion snowy, though flushing on occasion. Her eyelashes were ebony, her eyes black. (Could it be that she dyed her hair?) Her mouth was angelic, full of pearls and roses. She sang sweetly, in a thrilling voice. She was fond of finery, twined pearls and gems in her hair, and wore silk gloves, then rare and costly…She was prudent, modest, indomitably chaste."
This description closely matches the way women were portrayed in Courtly Love. To be able to see this, one must take a closer look at the tradition of Courtly Love.
Courtly Love originated with the poems of Ovid. From these poems, the basics of Courtly Love can be seen:
"A man should deceive a woman, if he can, but he must never appear to oppose her slightest wish. To please her he must watch all night before her doors, undergo all sorts of hardships, perform all sorts of absurd actions. For love of her he must become pale and thin and sleepless. No matter what he may do, or from what motives, he must persuade her that it is all done for her sake. If in spite of all these demonstrations of affection she still remains obdurate, he must arouse her jealousy; he must pretend to be in love with some other woman, and when the first one thinks she has lost him, she will probably capitulate and he can clasp her sobbing to his breast."
These thoughts about love formed the basis for love songs and poems written by the French troubadours, who popularized Courtly Love amongst the French royals. The next writer to portray Courtly Love was Chrétien de Troyes, another French writer who wrote romances about King Arthur and the Round Table in the 12th century.
In the late 12th century, Andreas Capellanus was asked by Countess Marie of Troyes to write a book about Courtly Love, and the result was a book called The Art of Courtly Love. This book described what Courtly Love was, and how to obtain and retain it. In it, Capellanus sets out many rules for love, including the following:
1) He who is not jealous cannot love.
2) When made public love rarely endures.
3) Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
4) When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
5) A man in love is always apprehensive.
6) Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
7) He whom the thought of love vexes eats and sleeps very little.
Capellanus also defines what love is—“a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embrace.” He describes a person in love as “captured in the chains of desire and wishing to capture someone else with his hook.” He also describes the procedure for when a lover meets his beloved in public:
"When he is with other men, if he meets her in a group of women, he should not try to communicate with her by signs, but should treat her almost like a stranger, lest some person spying on their love might have the opportunity to spread malicious gossip. Lovers should not even nod to each other unless they are sure that nobody is watching them."
Capellanus continually emphasizes that love must be secret—“When love is revealed, it does not help the lover’s worth, but brands his reputation with evil rumours and often causes him grief.” As far as the woman in Courtly Love was concerned, she was always a beautiful woman with strong character:
"The lady is regularly represented as perfect in all her attributes…Her perfection is pictured in her physical beauty, her character, and her influence upon others. Her physical beauty, when portrayed, accords with the medieval ideal. Her hair is blond or golden; her eyes beautiful; her complexion fresh and clear; her mouth rosy and smiling; her flesh white, soft, and smooth; her body slender, well formed, and without blemish. In character, she is distinguished for her courtesy, kindness, refinement, and good sense…Her influence on others is always ennobling. Her goodness affects all who come near her, making them better."
Her response to the lover’s passion was always coldness.
All of these ideas about love combined to form Courtly Love. Courtly Love then traveled to Italy, and was used by Dante, who wrote at the time of Petrarch’s birth. Petrarch’s father may have even known Dante, since they were both exiled from Florence, so there is no doubt that Petrarch was influenced by Courtly Love as seen in Dante, but he was also probably influenced by the French troubadours, since their poetry was widespread.
From this description of Courtly Love, it is obvious that Petrarch was influenced by it in his portrayal of his beloved Laura. However, it is not just her physical description that matches this tradition, but her response to his poetry also corresponds to Courtly Love. Laura’s response to Petrarch’s poetry was indifference. In poem 22 of the Canzoniere, Petrarch says she is cruel and pitiless. In poem 70, Petrarch says of her response to his poetry:
You see my lady’s heart is hard as stone
and on my own I cannot enter it.
She does not deign to look down low enough
To care about our words
This indifference perfectly matches the coldness of the lady of Courtly Love.
Also, the fact that Laura’s true identity was kept such a secret is based upon Courtly Love. Her identity was kept so secret that scholars have often wondered if she even existed. As mentioned earlier, this was one of the main positions of courtly love—it must be secret. Laura was probably nothing more than an ordinary, happily married woman who was content to receive Petrarch’s attentions from afar:
"We should be pleased, I think, to find her in the exemplary Avignon housewife, chaste and gay, doing her marital and maternal duty, and on the whole rather bored with the poet who was to make her name a familiar symbol for at least two-thirds of a millennium."
Even her husband, if he knew about Petrarch’s obsession, probably did not mind:
"Hugues de Sade knew well the Provençal tradition of the infatuate poetic suppliant. If the poet wanted to sigh at dawn beneath his wife’s window, there was no harm done. Nevertheless, at times he thought the wooer went a bit too far; he confined Laura to the house."
Petrarch’s poems also take some of their structure from the troubadours and Courtly Love. In his poems, he uses five different types of poetic structure. The first type was the sonnet. The Italian sonnet was perfected by Petrarch and was different from the English sonnet, but it consisted of 14 lines, just as the English sonnet did. The first eight lines of the poem are two four-line stanzas, and when the poems are read in Italian, the first and last lines rhyme both with each other, and with the other stanza’s first and last line, and the middle two lines rhyme, both with each other and with the other stanza’s middle two lines. The last six lines are two three-line stanzas, and there are a variety of ways for these lines to rhyme. To demonstrate how these poems would have rhymed, here are the first two stanzas of poem 90 in Italian and then in English:
Erano i capei d’oro a l’aura sparsi,
che ‘n mille dolci nodi gli avolgea;
e ‘l vago lume oltre misura ardea
di quei begli occhi, ch’or ne son si scarsi;
e ‘l viso di pietosi color farsi,
non so se vero o falso, mi parea;
i’ che l’esca amorosa al petto avea,
qual meraviglia se di subito arsi?
Her golden hair was spread out to the breeze,
which entwined it in a thousand sweet knots;
and the beautiful light of those wonderful eyes
burned powerfully, though now they are so dimmed;
and her face seemed to take on tinges of pity,
although I don’t know if this was so or no;
I who had the tinder of love in my heart,
is it any wonder I immediately flamed with passion?
From looking at this poem in Italian, even without being able to read it, it is obvious that all of the words in bold rhyme, and all of the words in italics rhyme, just as described.
The second poetic structure used in Petrarch’s poems was called a madrigal, and was set to music. These poems could have two or three stanzas of three lines each, followed by a stanza of two lines, and would be about pastoral themes, as can be seen from this example.
Diana never pleased her lover more
when just by chance all of her naked body
he saw bathing within the chilly water,
than did the simple mountain shepherdess
please me, the while she bathed the pretty veil
that holds her lovely blond hair in the breeze,
so that even now in hot sunlight she makes me
tremble all over with the chill of love.
The third type of poetic structure used in Petrarch’s poems was the sestina. This type shows the influence of the French troubadours and Courtly Love, since it was invented by troubadour Arnaud Daniel. A sestina consists of six stanzas with six lines each, and a final stanza with three lines. The poem does not rhyme, but rather, each poem has a set of six words which are used as end words. The word used to end one stanza is the word used to begin the next stanza, and no word is used in the same place twice. In the final stanza, only three of the end words are used. Since a sestina is so long, only the last three stanzas of poem 23 are shown here:
Before returning to you, shining stars
or sinking back into the amorous wood
leaving my body turned to powdered earth,
could I see pity in her, for one day
can restore many years, and before dawn
enrich me from the setting of the sun.
Could I be with her at the fading sun
and seen by no one, only by the stars,
for just one night, to never see the dawn,
and she not be transformed into green wood
escaping from my arms as on the day
Apollo had pursued her here on earth!
But I’ll be under earth in a dry wood
and day will be all full of tiny stars
before so sweet a dawn will see the sun.
The fourth type of poetic structure used in Petrarch’s poems was the canzone, which was another poetic form developed in Italy. These poems are usually long and elaborate, with complicated line and rhyme structures. “Italian critics generally prize the canzone as the supreme Italian verse form, and Petrarch’s canzoni as supreme above all canzoni.” Since a canzone is even longer than a sestina, here is just one stanza from poem 50:
It is the time the rapid heavens bend
toward the West, the time our own day flees
to some expectant race beyond, perhaps,
the time an old and weary pilgrim-woman
feeling the loneliness of foreign lands,
doubles her pace, hastening more and more;
and then at her day’s end,
though she is all alone,
at least she is consoled
by resting and forgetting for awhile
the labour and the pain of her past road.
But, oh, whatever pain the day brings me
grows more and more the moment
the eternal light begins to fade from us.
The final type of poetic structure used in Petrarch’s poems was the ballata, which was an accompaniment to dancing. It consisted of a refrain of three or four lines, and another long stanza, where the last word of the short refrain always rhymes with the last word of the longer stanza, as can be seen in this example where the translator has cleverly managed to keep the rhyme.
Madonna, never does your veil discover
your face, in any fashion,
since you surprised my too-unwary passion
unriddling the dear secret of a lover.
Once I was strong and kept my hunger hidden
in a mind dead to all except desire,
and your kind eyes brought ease to my despair.
But Love betrayed me; and I watched retire
your tender smile. I saw your beauty chidden
and a veil bound about your yellow hair.
What I most loved, I see not anywhere;
the prudent veil is drawn
in every weather; and my life is gone
because the light of your eyes is clouded over.
Besides Petrarch’s portrayal of Laura and his poetic structures, there are a few other similarities between his poetry and the tradition of Courtly Love. The first similarity is that in both, love can never be fully attained, usually because the lady is already married. Petrarch often expresses longing for a closer relationship with Laura though sighs, as seen in poem 5, “I summon my sighs to call for you,” and poem 17, where Petrarch is surrounded by “a wind of anguished sighs.” Both Capellanus and Petrarch see love as a battle. Capellanus says that someone in love has been “wounded by one of Love’s arrows,” while Petrarch refers in poem 2 to love striking him with the “mortal blow,” and again in poem 3 to “Love’s blows.”
Even though Petrarch’s poems have much in common with the poetry of the Courtly Love tradition, his poems are still unique. The first reason his poems are unique is because Petrarch portrays Laura not only as an ideal, but also as human:
Laura…is a real woman, whose faults of character are clearly stated. Most of the poems are essentially realistic. They take their rise from actual incidents, which provoke the poet’s emotions and reflections….Petrarch loves Laura humanly before he loves her angelically. He brought woman down to earth.
This first reason Petrarch’s poems are unique is closely tied together with the second reason, which is because Petrarch adds his own unique touches to his poems. He takes everyday events and makes them into beautiful poetry:
[Petrarch’s poems] reveal the poetic quality of commonplace experience. He sang a recognizable human love against a background of a recognizable city, or against a localized natural décor. Laura is a foreground figure in a realistic state setting. We see her in the dawn and under brightening skies, in the green meadows and by purling brooks, treading on flowers, and forever accompanied by singing birds.
Petrarch was the first to realize that the picking up of a lady’s glove, a gift of roses, an eye-inflammation, could provoke thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears. He discovered that the smallest incidents of everyday life could be transformed into poetry, that they are themselves poetic.
The third reason that Petrarch’s poems are unique is because he is very self-centered. His poems are all about him.
Petrarch was fascinated only with himself. Most of his love poems are not so much celebrations of his beloved’s merits as they are analyses of his own feelings in certain situations, usually the sequel of a rebuff. We prize them as masterpieces of self-analysis.
The reader of the Canzoniere…is not long into the poems before he or she realizes that Laura is not the main subject of the work. Petrarch himself is its subject and centre, and the work itself is his own psychoanalytical notebook, an ever-changing portrait of the self.
Even when Petrarch is writing about Laura’s eyes, the poems are always focused on the suffering and losng nights he endures because of her, as can be seen in the last two lines of poem 224:
…I suffer so
Lady, the fault is yours. The hurt is mine.
This theme can also be seen in poem 134:
I find no peace, and I am not at war,
I fear and hope, and burn and I am ice;
I fly above the heavens, and lie on earth,
and I grasp nothing and embrace the world.
One keeps me jailed who neither locks nor opens,
nor keeps me for her own nor frees the noose;
Love does not kill, nor does he loose my chains;
He wants me lifeless but won’t loosen me.
I see with no eyes, shout without a tongue;
I yearn to perish, and I beg for help;
I hate myself and love somebody else.
I thrive on pain and laugh with all my tears;
I dislike death as much as I do life:
because of you, lady, I am this way.
In this paper, we have seen that the love poems of Petrarch which have influenced poets ever since they were written in the 14th century, were largely based on the traditions of Courtly Love. Courtly Love had its beginnings with Ovid, was continued by the troubadours and Chrétien de Troyes, and was set out by Andreas Capellanus in his book The Art of Courtly Love, which gives the rules for love. The influence of this tradition upon Petrarch can be seen mostly in his portrayal of his beloved Laura and in his poetic structures, but also in a few other themes of his poetry. Petrarch’s poems are slightly different from those of Courtly Love, however, since he portrays Laura as a living human being, rather than an allegory or an abstract, uses everyday events to inspire his poetry, and is very self-centered.
Petrarch, Selections from the Canzoniere and Other Works, Translated and Edited by M. Musa (Oxford University Press, 1985).
A. Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, Translated and Edited by J.J. Parry (Columbia University Press, 1960).
A.S. Bernardo, Petrarch, Laura and the ‘Triumphs’ (State University of New York Press, 1974).
M. Bishop, Petrarch and His World (Kennikat Press, 1963).
W.G. Dodd, Courtly Love in Chaucer and Gower (Peter Smith, 1959).
P. Hainsworth, Petrarch the Poet: An Introduction to the Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (Routledge, 1988).
C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1959).
N. Mann, Petrarch (Oxford University Press, 1984).
M. McLaughlin. Handouts and Lecture on Petrarch, 19 Mar. 2002.
Microsoft Corporation, The Encarta Desk Encyclopedia, Microsoft Bookshelf 2000, CD-ROM (2000).
M. Musa, Introduction and Notes, Selections from the Canzoniere and Other Works, By Petrarch (Oxford University Press, 1985).
J.J. Parry, Introduction, The Art of Courtly Love, By Andreas Capellanus (Columbia University Press, 1960).
E.H.R. Tatham, Francesco Petrarca, The First Modern Man of Letters: His Life and Correspondence, Vol. I, Early Years and Lyric Poems (Sheldon Press, 1925).
E.H.R. Tatham, Francesco Petrarca, The First Modern Man of Letters: His Life and Correspondence, Vol. II, Secluded Study and Public Fame (Sheldon Press, 1925).
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