REVIEWSrnIndispensablernPetrarchrnby Thomas FlemingrnPetrarch’s The Canzoniere, orRerurnrnMilgariuni fragmentarnTranslated by Mark MusarnBloomington: Indiana University Press;rn754 pp.. $59.95rnOld-fashioned English professors likernto speak of “the Canon” in reverentialrntones, as if there were a list of greatrnbooks as aneient as the Spartan king listrnand as hallowed as the kyrie. In fact,rnwhat they usually have in mind is a rummagernsale assortment of a few really essentialrnworks jumbled together withrnmany very good books and even morernsecond-rate productions of the 19th century.rnAnglo-American literature, in general,rndoes not rival the literatures ofrnGreece and Rome, France and Itah’,rnand—taken by itself—^American culturerncannot bear comparison with, say,rnits Irish and Polish rivals. The idea ofrnChades Dickens or Scott Fitzgerald—rngood writers though they be—as immortalrnclassics is absurd enough to castrndoubt on the entire conservative defensernof the curriculum.rnIf we were to have a canon of Europeanrnliterature, it would consist, in itsrnlonger form, of the books embodyingrnArnold’s criterion of “the best that hasrnbeen thought and said,” and of a shorterrnlist of really essential books withoutrnwhich we could not be who we are—rn\ritcrs that established a genre or helpedrnto define the sensibility of their own andrnsucceeding ages. The criterion would ret]rnuire a simple test of the imagination: ifrnall the works of Plato or Vergil were destroved,rncould we reconstruct some sensernof wiiat the’ wrote from the literature ofrnsucceeding generations? Or, put negatively,rnif we had to extract all traces ofrnPlato and Vergil from Western literature,rnthe devastation would be unbearable:rnAriosto, Tasso, Milton, Spenser wouldrnbe mutilated bevond repair, once thernVcrgilian influences were removed, andrnthe entire European tradition of philosophy,rnin the absence of the Platonist (andrnAristotelian) traditions, would be reducedrnto a set of cranks and cracker-barrelrnamateurs.rnOf the ancients, I lomer obviouslv belongsrnon such a list, as do Ovid and Cicerornand probably Seneca and Augustine.rnOf more recent writers, Danterncertainl)- qualifies and probably Shakespeare.rnPerhaps Cervantes belongs,rnand—I should like to think—Goethe. Ifrnwe proceed too far, we begin to run intornnational prejudices and questions ofrntaste, but in any canon, no matter howrnshort, there would be room for FrancescornPetrarch.rnThe first of the great Italian humanists,rnPetrarch restored the dignity of thernLatin tongue and inaugurated the searchrnfor manuscripts of lost ancient works; hernused Latin for his voluminous correspondence,rnfor his failed epic Africa, and forrnthe prose essays that largely made hisrnreputation; as a patriotic Italian, he campaignedrnunceasingly for the return of thernPope—and the Emperor—to Rome andrnwas the advisor of princes. Popes, andrnkings. As a poet, he took up where hisrnTuscan predecessors left off and establishedrna dialect and style that have dominatedrnItalian poetry down to our ownrnday, and, in his sonnets, he gave shape tornliterary forms and conventions withoutrnwhich English and French verse wouldrnbe unimaginable.rnThere arc certain writers—not all ofrnthem great by any means—who leae anrnindelible impression of their humanityrnupon the reader. I think of Cicero andrnAugustine (both of whom impressedrnthemselves upon Petrarch), of SamuelrnJohnson and good old Thomas Browne.rnPetrarch, who is another, was the firstrnman since the fall of Rome to leave arnmultidimensional record of his life, in hisrnpoems, his essays, his addresses, and—rnabove all—in the letters that he scrupulouslyrncollected.rnIn his own da}, Petrarch was perhapsrnbest known for his Latin cssa’S and verse,rnbut to subsequent generations he is familiarrnas the oung man who fell in lovernwith a giri he immortalized as Laura—arnname that allowed him an almost infiniternnumber of puns. Petrarch’s sonnetsrnand canzoni, although they have inspiredrnbeautiful imitations in English, havernrarely been well translated. The lovelyrnsweetness of the Italian line is almostrnimpossible to coney in English, and inrnItalian verse it is possible to say quite ordinaryrnthings that have the music ofrnMonteverdi or Bellini. Even a decidedlyrnthird-rate poet like Lorenzo da Ponte wasrnthe perfect match for Mozart in three ofrnhis greatest operas. (When he was notrnchasing women or working a con. DarnPonte was a footsore apostle of Italianrnerse, preaching to the heathens in Austria,rnEngland, and America.)rnSince no Italian poet, not even Leopardi,rnis more musical than Petrarch orrnmore elusive to the translator, MarkrnMusa, in editing and translating Petrarch’srnCanzoniere, has performed arnwonderful service to the English-speakingrnreader. Here, in one volume, arc includedrnthe poet’s own selection of thernbest lyric erse he wrote throughout hisrnlife, accompanied by brief but usefulrnnotes (at the end of the volume, wherernthey belong) and bv blank-erse translationsrnthat are straightforward (if not alwaysrnquite literal) and dignified. No effortrnis made either to show off or tornintrude 20th-century sensibilities—arnpractice increasinglv common by poetsrnwalking—or rather schlepping—in thernfootsteps of Ezra Pound with this essentialrndifference: Pound was an authenticrnpoet and an amateur scholar. He was deliberatelyrnsloppy in his versions from thernProvengal or the Latin, but he knew, inrnhis own chaotic way, several Romancernlanguages. His successors arc as incompetentrnto read Latin and Italian as thevrnare to write Englisli verse.rnI do not pretend to have workedrnthrough every poem and translation inrnthis 800-page volume: poets (and translators)rndeserve better treatment than arnmechanical regimen of 40-50 pages anrnhour, and read at the proper pace, thisrnvolume will occup hundreds of hours.rnAnd, while I am confessing, I should admitrnthat 1 am less familiar w ith Petrarch’srnItalian than with his Latin works, which Irnread so many years ago with DouglasrnTliompson, a fine scholar who soon discoveredrnhow woefully unprepared I was.rnPetrarch was a friend of the Sienesernpainter Simone Martini, and his earlyrnpoems are splashed in the bright colorsrnSEPTEMBER 1996/25rnrnrn