The Consciousness of Petrarch
Written by Julien Gagnon
for Prof. Patrick Barnard
In Petrarch’s letter “The Ascent of Mount Ventoux,” which serves as an introduction of sorts to his work, he writes “we look around ourselves for what can be found only within us” (Petrarch 18). Throughout his Canzoniere, Petrarch seems like a man who values his inner world more than the outer world, and yet cannot help but draw quite a lot from the world around him. Laura, the subject of the poems, is the very embodiment of Petrarch’s inner-outer struggle. She is from the outside world, and in that world, she is almost a stranger, inaccessible to him. But in his inner world, he can adopt her, make her a character to which he can give meaning. Throughout his poems, Petrarch struggles with how the external Laura changed him inside. Although he feels passionate love for her, he also deeply regrets that she provokes this change. She makes him dependent on the outside world from which he seeks to distance himself.
In Poem #17, Petrarch introduces the reader to the initial inner-outer conflict that takes place when he sees Laura. This conflict is mostly conveyed through the use of imagery involving eyes and sight. Petrarch’s own eyes are his link to the outer world. In this world he sees Laura’s eyes, which play a different role than his own, being the windows to her soul. They are linked by sight, and sight alone, for Laura does not love him back. Petrarch writes that looking at her, “I am divided from mankind” (27). This line explains how Laura takes the author away from the real world and into an inner world where he is purely fixated on her. From then on, Petrarch is forever at conflict, torn between Laura’s outer image, the mystery of her inner self, and the meaning of both to him:
It is true that your sweet and soothing smile
does calm the ardour of all my desires
and rescues me from burning martyrdom
as long as I keep my gaze fixed in you (27)
The first few lines here emphasize how looking at Laura, the outer Laura of the “real” world, gives Petrarch peace. But he also says that peace comes from looking “in you” (27), meaning into Laura. Her eyes lead to her soul, to her deeper self, her personality, her thoughts and her consciousness, all of which are inaccessible to the author because she does not reciprocate his love. As Laura turns away from him, and Petrarch loses sight of her eyes, the link is broken and he is let loose “at last” (27) from her hold. Her eyes, “those two amorous keys” (27), having previously locked him in, have now locked him out. He then feels hopeless. Laura breaks Petrarch’s heart by turning around, a metaphor which stands for her not loving him back. In terms of eye imagery, this moment has two different implications: the literal “outside” meaning and the more poetic “inside” meaning. In the outside world, Laura simply turns away from Petrarch, refusing to reciprocate his love. In the inside world, by averting her gaze and breaking the link, Laura creates a situation in which Petrarch can never again see her soul, and that is the very reason he writes his poems. He values Laura’s deeper self, and the peace it could bring to his own inner world, much more than her outer beauty. He knows her soul to be more permanent than her body, but as both escape him, he is left to speculate. By turning Laura into the subject of his poems and a character in his mind, he can contemplate her inner self and from there try to make sense of the discord she has created within him.
In Poems #134, #132 and #319, Petrarch emphasizes that love has bound him and has created a struggle within him. However, depending on the poem, he blames different things for having caused these emotions. First of all, in Poem #134, Petrarch’s use of oxymorons allows the reader to get a sense of his confusion, especially when he writes “I fly above the heavens, and lie on earth, / and I grasp nothing and embrace the world” (50). These lines show the duality of Petrarch’s feelings. The heavens are the inner world, the soul. The earth is the outer world, the body, and Petrarch embraces both. Although this might seem like a good thing, because Petrarch clearly does love the passion he feels for Laura, he also deeply regrets it. The outside world has hurt him inside, creating a wound that will never quite heal. That wound is that he grasps neither of the worlds, and that is Petrarch’s true tragedy. He embraces his love, but he cannot grasp it, or as he puts it, “I hate myself and love somebody else” (50). And in the last line of the poem, Petrarch writes, “because of you, lady, I am this way” (50). He blames Laura for all of his confusion, his passion, and sadness. Similarly, in Poem #132, Petrarch uses oxymorons to describe his inner-outer love struggle. He is “Caught in contrasting winds in a frail boat” (49). Petrarch is lost somewhere between what he feels, and what his feelings mean to him, between passion and regret:
If it’s not love, then what is it I feel?
But if it’s love, by God, what is this thing?
If good, why then the bitter mortal sting?
If bad, then why is every torment sweet? (49)
In asking himself these questions, Petrarch is trying to make sense of his struggle, and despite his efforts, he fails. This poem, once again, blames Laura. However, Petrarch’s attitude changes after Laura’s death, when her body is lost forever and the only thing that remains is her soul. In Poem #319, Petrarch blames the outer world instead of her:
O wretched world, changing and arrogant,
a man who puts his hope in you is blind:
from you my heart was torn and now is held
by one whose flesh and bones are turned to dust. (70)
The world caused Laura’s death, and he hates it for that. Try as he might to be independent from the outer world, which has only brought him harm, he is tied to it through Laura. All that remains living of Laura is her soul, “her best form” (70), which he has fabricated through writing.
In Poem #126, Petrarch ties Laura to the outer world location where he first met her, near the Sorgue River in Vaucluse. The first stanza of the poem sets the scene, and the others are Petrarch’s speculation over how Laura would react if he died. This poem is, once more, a sort of meditation over Laura’s deeper self. Petrarch uses eye imagery throughout the poem to convey his struggle, saying that upon his death Laura might revisit this crucial meeting place and turn “her eyes with hope and happiness / in search of me” (41). Having turned away from him before, Petrarch hopes that she might turn back his way and finally return his love. But the essence of this poem truly lies in the setting because Petrarch comes to love it just as he loves Laura:
And her divine behaviour,
her face and words and her sweet smile
so filled me with forgetfulness
and so divided me
from the true image
that I would sigh and say:
‘How and when did I come here?’—
thinking I was in Heaven, not where I was;
and since then I have loved
this bank of grass and find peace nowhere else. (42)
Petrarch is imagining meeting Laura once again in this place. Upon meeting eyes, she fills him with forgetfulness; she dissolves his inner world. He cannot think at the sight of her, becoming speechless. By doing so, Petrarch is divided “from the true image” (42). His speculation is broken, and the poem cannot go on. But his feelings for divine Laura stay tied to the place where he first met her, and where he imagines meeting her again. He becomes dependent on the outer world, this very location and “nowhere else” (42). The Sorgue has changed him forever, just as Laura has, for better or for worse.
To conclude, Petrarch’s Canzionere is a struggle between the inner and the outer world, Petrarch’s insides and outsides, Laura’s body and her soul, love and its meaning, passion and regret and all of the confusion these things cause when mixed together. Petrarch’s consciousness is that of a confused man, and his poems try to make sense of his feelings and of his mind. In the end, the greatest irony is that Petrarch’s struggle in love is not a real conflict. Laura does not love him, period, and so there is no conflict to be found there. However, there is indeed conflict within Petrarch and he tries to show the reader through his poetry that his conflict is in fact very real, at least to him.
Petrarch. Selections from the Canzoniere and Other Works. Trans. and Ed. Mark Musa. New York: Oxford Classics, 2008. Print.
About the Author: Julien Gagnon is an English Literature student at Dawson College. He enjoys reading, writing fiction, and playing video games in his spare time. Julien would like to become an English Professor. He mostly reads classics, modern classics, and literary fiction.