Old-fashioned English professors like to speak of “the Canon” in reverential tones, as if there were a list of great books as ancient as the Spartan king list and as hallowed as the kyrie. In fact, what they usually have in mind is a rummage sale assortment of a few really essential works jumbled together with many very good books and even more second-rate productions of the 19th century. Anglo-American literature, in general, does not rival the literatures of Greece and Rome, France and Italy, and—taken by itself—American culture cannot bear comparison with, say, its Irish and Polish rivals. The idea of Charles Dickens or Scott Fitzgerald—good writers though they be—as immortal classics is absurd enough to cast doubt on the entire conservative defense of the curriculum.

If we were to have a canon of European literature, it would consist, in its longer form, of the books embodying Arnold’s criterion of “the best that has been thought and said,” and of a shorter list of really essential books without which we could not be who we are—writers that established a genre or helped to define the sensibility of their own and succeeding ages. The criterion would require a simple test of the imagination: if all the works of Plato or Vergil were destroyed, could we reconstruct some sense of what they wrote from the literature of succeeding generations? Or, put negatively, if we had to extract all traces of Plato and Vergil from Western literature, the devastation would be unbearable: Ariosto, Tasso, Milton, Spenser would be mutilated beyond repair, once the Vergilian influences were removed, and the entire European tradition of philosophy, in the absence of the Platonist (and Aristotelian) traditions, would be reduced to a set of cranks and cracker-barrel amateurs.

Of the ancients, Homer obviously belongs on such a list, as do Ovid and Cicero and probably Seneca and Augustine. Of more recent writers, Dante certainly qualifies and probably Shakespeare. Perhaps Cervantes belongs, and—I should like to think—Goethe. If we proceed too far, we begin to run into national prejudices and questions of taste, but in any canon, no matter how short, there would be room for Francesco Petrarch.

The first of the great Italian humanists, Petrarch restored the dignity of the Latin tongue and inaugurated the search for manuscripts of lost ancient works; he used Latin for his voluminous correspondence, for his failed epic Africa, and for the prose essays that largely made his reputation; as a patriotic Italian, he campaigned unceasingly for the return of the Pope—and the Emperor—to Rome and was the advisor of princes. Popes, and kings. As a poet, he took up where his Tuscan predecessors left off and established a dialect and style that have dominated Italian poetry down to our own day, and, in his sonnets, he gave shape to literary forms and conventions without which English and French verse would be unimaginable.

There are certain writers—not all of them great by any means—who leave an indelible impression of their humanity upon the reader. I think of Cicero and Augustine (both of whom impressed themselves upon Petrarch), of Samuel Johnson and good old Thomas Browne. Petrarch, who is another, was the first man since the fall of Rome to leave a multidimensional record of his life, in his poems, his essays, his addresses, and—above all—in the letters that he scrupulously collected.

In his own day, Petrarch was perhaps best known for his Latin essays and verse, but to subsequent generations he is familiar as the young man who fell in love with a girl he immortalized as Laura—a name that allowed him an almost infinite number of puns. Petrarch’s sonnets and canzoni, although they have inspired beautiful imitations in English, have rarely been well translated. The lovely sweetness of the Italian line is almost impossible to convey in English, and in Italian verse it is possible to say quite ordinary things that have the music of Monteverdi or Bellini. Even a decidedly third-rate poet like Lorenzo da Ponte was the perfect match for Mozart in three of his greatest operas. (When he was not chasing women or working a con. Da Ponte was a footsore apostle of Italian verse, preaching to the heathens in Austria, England, and America.)

Since no Italian poet, not even Leopardi, is more musical than Petrarch or more elusive to the translator, Mark Musa, in editing and translating Petrarch’s Canzoniere, has performed a wonderful service to the English-speaking reader. Here, in one volume, arc included the poet’s own selection of the best lyric verse he wrote throughout his life, accompanied by brief but useful notes (at the end of the volume, where they belong) and by blank-verse translations that are straightforward (if not always quite literal) and dignified. No effort is made either to show off or to intrude 20th-century sensibilities—a practice increasingly common by poets walking—or rather schlepping—in the footsteps of Ezra Pound with this essential difference: Pound was an authentic poet and an amateur scholar. He was deliberately sloppy in his versions from the Provençal or the Latin, but he knew, in his own chaotic way, several Romance languages. His successors are as incompetent to read Latin and Italian as they are to write English verse.

I do not pretend to have worked through every poem and translation in this 800-page volume: poets (and translators) deserve better treatment than a mechanical regimen of 40-50 pages an hour, and read at the proper pace, this volume will occupy hundreds of hours. And, while I am confessing, I should admit that I am less familiar with Petrarch’s Italian than with his Latin works, which I read so many years ago with Douglas Thompson, a fine scholar who soon discovered how woefully unprepared I was.

Petrarch was a friend of the Sienese painter Simone Martini, and his early poems are splashed in the bright colors of 15th- and 16th-century painting. Here is Laura in the early days:

Green clothes, bright red or dark purple ones

no lady ever wore or hair of gold has twisted in blond braid.

Here she is again, years after her death, revived in memory:

The aura [l’aura=breeze= Laura] sighing gently as it moves

the verdant laurel and her golden hair,

turns, with its aspects new and delicate,

souls into pilgrims wandering from their bodies.

Whiteness of rose born high among hard thorns,

when will the world find one like her again?

Petrarch was no mere amatory poet (like, for example, Tibullus); love was, indeed, his principal but not his only theme, and the Canzoniere has poems on politics, the state of the church, and the future of Italy. In Italia mia he sounded the note of Italian nationalism that will be heard in great Italian poets of nearly every generation. The loveliest land on earth, the home of immortal soldiers and poets, had been turned into a battleground by warring princes who hired foreign mercenaries:

Nature provided well for our condition when she raised up the screen of Alps between us and the German rage; but blind desire fighting its own good then managed to contrive a way to make this healthy body sick.

I wonder how many Italians remembered Petrarch, when Mussolini’s signature on the Pact of Steel drew German troops into their “sweet countryside.”

By far the greater part of the Canzoniere, however, is devoted to his unconsummated love for Laura. But for Petrarch, love was closer to Christian cartias than to sexual desire, and even before her death his love poems take on an increasingly mystical significance. In dreams he sees her as she was when first they met and awakes to the banal reality that “in thirteen forty eight, / at hour one of the sixth day of April, / that soul now blest departed from its body.” He now painfully acknowledges that she was right to deny him what he most wanted, and in vision after vision he sees Laura enthroned in heaven, like some beautiful pagan taken up to Olympus. Eventually he learns to see beyond her physical beauty into a spiritual purity he had been almost blind to, in his infatuation, and in the end, the last canzone is a hymn to the Virgin, who now assumes all the attributes of the beloved. Macaulay (perhaps not the best judge) thought it the most beautiful of hymns. In this carefully wrought masterpiece, the poet who had struggled with his own ambition and worldliness finally realizes that he cannot succeed unaided:

Virgin, in whom I place all of my hope

you can and will help me in my great need:

do not abandon me at the last pass,

not for my sake but His who made me man,

let not my own worth but His own high likeness

in me move you to care for one so low.

Medusa and my sin turned me to stone

dripping useless moisture.

Virgin, now with repentant

and holy tears fill up my weary heart;

at least let my last weeping be devout, without mud of earth,

as was the first and insane vow of mine.

Petrarch’s life was an allegory of love, and in the end he found peace, the last word of his Canzoniere.


[Petrarch’s The Canzoniere, or Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, Translated by Mark Musa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) 754 pp.. $59.95]