Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

The Petrarch Grotto — an online Petrarch source with original texts, translations, manuscripts.

Petrarch is sometimes called “the first writer of the Renaissance.” His father, like Dante, was exiled from Florence for political reasons. They moved to Avignon (where the “other” papal court was located). Petrarch became a courtier, diplomat, and man of letters (often in Latin). He became poet lauriat of Rome in 1340.

When Petrarch was in his 20s, he supposedly saw Laura in church. She died of plague later in 1348 (on April 6th, the day he first saw her). He has various illegitimate children.

Petrarchan Love Conventions:

* the poet addresses a lady (corresponding to Petrarch’s Laura)
* she often has a classical name like Stella or Delia
* the poet-lover praises his mistress’s superlative qualities using descriptions of beauty supplied by Petrarch: “golden hair,” “ivory breast,” “ruby lips.” She is the object and image of love.
* poet-lover presents himself as ardent and impetuous.
* poet-lover dwells only on the subjective experience, hence on the misery of being in love: hence the occasional appearance of the conventional invocation to sleep to allay the pain (insomnia poems).
* the poet employs contradictory and oxymoronic phrases and images: freezing and burning, binding freedom (see CXXXIV).
* the poet disclaims credit for poetic merits: the inspiration of his mistress is what makes the poetry good, he claims.
* the poet promises to protect the youth of his lady and his own love against time (through the poetry itself immortalizing).

The Italian form functions as a act of intuition complete in itself, seeking to crystalize a tender state of being. The self-centered quality of work is also new.

The Petrarchan poet-lover is continuously at work on his personal drama with all the subtle modulations of feeling. This is all very medieval in its recognition of vanity and sinfulness, but the context is new. The attraction of mortal beauty and earthly values as sublime — that’s the Renaissance.

Later developments include:

* replacement of the Petrarchan metaphor (expressing the unity of all things) with a simile drawn from common observation and direct perception.
* adaptation of the sonnet form for persuasive reasoning.
* inclusion of physical love with the platonic.
* increased self-consciousness about the act of composing itself (love poetry about love poetry).