Friday, October 30, 2009

Philosophy in Poetry: Francesco Petrarca


Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series

Promoting conversation about scholarship

among the diverse academic disciplines at Loyola College

Friday, Oct. 9 at 2 p.m.

Sellinger 004

“Philosophy in Poetry: Francesco Petrarca

Paul Richard Blum

T.J. Higgins, S.J., Chair in Philosophy

Philosophy in Poetry: Francesco Petrarca

(Text as read without credits; poems were also cited in English.)

You, you are sitting there waiting to hear me utter my incoherent thoughts. You expect to hear something about my personal intellectual experience, or maybe of the ways and delays over the span of my academic career.

You may wonder what troubles me; what I tried and failed to achieve and attempt to compare that with your experience, which will allow you to relate with me and understand.

On the other hand, to my embarrassment,I may not be able to live up to your expectations

As such, I should be embarrassed by my hopes, which are nothing but a representation of my vanity, and I should admit that a successful lecture is nothing but a dream.

This is the first sonnet of Petrarch's collection of poems, the so called Canzoniere.

Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond'io nudriva 'l core
in sul mio primo giovenile errore
quand'era in parte altr'uom da quel ch'i' sono,

del vario stile in ch'io piango et ragiono
fra le vane speranze e 'l van dolore,
ove sia chi per prova intenda amore,
spero trovar pietà, nonché perdono.

Ma ben veggio or sí come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me mesdesmo meco mi vergogno;

et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è 'l frutto,
e 'l pentersi, e 'l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes,
of those sighs on which I fed my heart,
in my first vagrant youthfulness,
when I was partly other than I am,

I hope to find pity, and forgiveness,
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.

Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;

and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world's delight is a brief dream.

(Translation by Phil Lu @ SPS) taken from Wikipedia!

The most famous book of European poetry, Petrarch's Canzoniere, opened with a provocation. It speaks about the poetic "I" and addresses squarely the audience. This is a program.

Why should a poet believe that any reader or listener could be in any way interested in his youthful days? in his changes? and what could make an audience feel "pity and forgiveness"?

The answer is certainly not the final line of the poem: "that worldly joy is just a fleeting dream.” Other people's illusions are not a matter of empathy. Of course, love is what we all know, and mostly suffer from, but most importantly: to be the talk of the town, big time (al popolo tutto favola fui gran tempo) -- that's what we all understand: it is an achievement and at the same time an embarrassment.

Francesco Petrarca opens his collected 366 poems by stating that he hopes to become famous and that he is embarrassed about this hope.

You might wonder who was Petrarch, and, of course, what does that opening have to do with philosophy?

Francesco Petrarca was born in the town of Arezzo in Tuscany in 1304.

His father was a lawyer, who for political reasons had to emigrate from there to southern France, where in Avignon the Popes had their residence since 1309. Like his father, Petrarch studied law, first in Montpellier, then together with his brother in Bologna. I mention his brother because he will play an important role at some point in my talk; and I mentioned the law studies, not because that's what you expect from the Wikipedia entry, but because it will be important for Petrarch's life; and his upbringing in southern France in exile because it fostered his admiration for Rome.

At that time the best way to get a job was to be related to a family of Bishops and Cardinals, in this particular case, the Colonna family. Petrarch used his legal skills as a diplomat, he tried to convince the Popes to return to Rome, and also met the Emperor Charles IV several times. As a result he became acquainted with Robert of Anjou, King of Naples, and representative of the Pope during his absence from Rome. In 1341 Petrarch had written a few poems, not many, but enough to convince the King to crown him a Poet Laureate -- the first since the ancient times -- in a solemn ceremony on the Capitol Hill in Rome.

For a short time Petrarch came into the circle of Cola di Rienzo, a Roman underdog who had worked his way up to become a lawyer, who had convinced the Pope to make him Governor of Rome, and who believed in the ancient glory of Rome and strove to restore it; much to the disliking of the Pope. Petrarch and Cola shared that dream of a renaissance of ancient glory. Petrarch even tried to learn Greek. (It would be his admirer Coluccio Salutati to invite qualified teachers of Greek to Florence, which was the beginning of classical learning in Renaissance humanism.) Cola di Rienzo failed, which prompted Petrarch write to him: "Even if you don't mind your own reputation, you should at least care for mine!" You see, for Petrarch it was all about fame and glory.

Petrarch's political connections secured him a property in northern Italy, not far from Padua, where he died in 1374 (100 years after St. Thomas Aquinas, 53 years after Dante (1321), one year earlier than Boccaccio (1375).)

I have not mentioned the most important event in Petrarch life, namely the 6th of April 1327, Good Friday, when he met Laura, the object of his love poems. How do we know of that event? The poet says so (Canzoniere 3):

Era il giorno ch'al sol si scoloraro
per la pietà del suo factore i rai,
quando i' fui preso, et non me ne guardai,
ché i be' vostr'occhi, donna, mi legaro.

Tempo non mi parea da far riparo
contra colpi d'Amor: però m'andai
secur, senza sospetto; onde i miei guai
nel commune dolor s'incominciaro.

Trovommi Amor del tutto disarmato
et aperta la via per gli occhi al core,
che di lagrime son fatti uscio et varco:

però al mio parer non li fu honore
ferir me de saetta in quello stato,
a voi armata non mostrar pur l'arco.

[It was on that day when the sun's ray
was darkened in pity for its Maker,
that I was captured, and did not defend myself,
because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady.

It did not seem to me to be a time to guard myself
against Love's blows: so I went on
confident, unsuspecting; from that, my troubles
started, amongst the public sorrows.

Love discovered me all weaponless,
and opened the way to the heart through the eyes,
which are made the passageways and doors of tears:

so that it seems to me it does him little honour
to wound me with his arrow, in that state,
he not showing his bow at all to you who are armed.

Taken from]

Are we to believe that? Obviously the punch line undoes what it says: love did not even exhibit his weapon to the lady, who herself was armed, i.e., either well protected or having the bow herself. But at the same time, in saying that, Petrarch is aiming his arrow at the object of his love. That's what we usually do on Good Friday, don't we? We go to church and fall in love. Again, I believe the main message is not in the punch line but in the center: "all my misfortune began in midst of universal woe". Petrarch's lovesickness is nothing but the expression of human suffering, of which the death of Christ is the epitome. We are very much used to the understanding that the sweetness of love is always combined with bitterness, Petrarch is taking up a tradition and reinforcing one. That however, doesn't make a poet, nor a philosopher; what makes him a philosopher is that he takes love to be a metaphor for human existence.

No doubt, many poems of Petrarch employ Christian imagery; frequently on the verge of blasphemy. The last poem of the Canzoniere is a litany that can be referenced to both St. Mary and to Laura. This occurs so frequently that I won't mention it every single time.

Petrarch is famous for his poems, and my contention is that these poems are not just aesthetically beautiful expressions of love, but they are Petrarch's philosophy put in verse.

In order to make that evident I will first tell you the famous story of Petrarch's ascent on the Mont Ventoux, and then explain a few aspects of his work by the title "My Secret". However, I will not get us into his more technical philosophical writings, namely his invective against a doctor, in which he claims that philosophy is only worth if it is put into action. I will also skip his treatise "On His Own Ignorance and the Ignorance of Everybody Else", in which he advocates something like a Christian philosophy.

Petrarch initiated the humanist tradition of publishing tractates in the form of letters. He even wrote a Letter to Posterity that describes homelessness, intimacy and alienation, and contradictory impulses as the general condition of being human that binds together antiquity, his own personality, and any human being distant over space and time. One of his letters, inscribed On My Personal Concerns (De curis propriis), tells the following story:

Petrarch lives in southern France; one day he decides to climb a mountain, called The Windy Mountain. The purpose seems to be for physical exercise. He calls his brother to join him. The path is steep, Petrarch tries this way and that way; his younger more energetic brother goes the straight way up. Obviously the brother is the alter ego. Later the alter ego will become an Augustinian Friar. Upon arrival on the mountaintop Petrarch thinks he can see the Mediterranean or maybe Greece -- nonsense! Having accomplished this physical exercise, he starts longing: for Greece, Italy, the past, and so on.

Sobering up he realizes his deep internal conflict: "I do love, sadly. I love what I should rather not love, what I wish I would hate. I love, but unwillingly, under compulsion, sadly and in mourning." At this point he pulls out of his pocket the book he happened to be reading: Augustine's Confessions. He opens it randomly, of course, and reads from the 10th book: "And men go to look in amazement at mountain heights and the huge waves of the sea and the broad flow of rivers and the ocean and the stars and their courses but neglect themselves."

Can it be assumed that Petrarch expected his readers to check the reference? Augustine is speaking about the immense capability of the human mind, particularly human memory. When people gawk at the world they forget the vastness of the human intellect. Petrarch turns it into his gesture of contempt for the beauty of the world that had attracted him to climb the mountain. But let us see what follows.

Immensely irritated he rushes down the mountain to their shelter, and hastily, short of breath, writes down this very letter that we are reading, to that person who had donated him that copy of Augustine's Confessions. The problem is, we know today, and Petrarch knew at his time, that the addressee, an Augustinian Friar, was already dead. Note the antinomy: the poet goes out into the world and is taken aback to himself; he turns his internal disturbance into the urge to communicate it with a personal friend. And in the same way as it doesn't matter that the readers of The Letter to Posterity are not even born, it also doesn't matter that the intended reader of this letter is already dead. What is important is that as human beings we cannot do other than turn to the exterior, question the interior, and revert to other human beings.

Here's another poem: (311)

Quel rosignol, che sí soave piagne,
forse suoi figli, o sua cara consorte,
di dolcezza empie il cielo et le campagne
con tante note sí pietose et scorte,

et tutta notte par che m'accompagne,
et mi rammente la mia dura sorte:
ch'altri che me non ò di ch'i' mi lagne,
ché 'n dee non credev'io regnasse Morte.

O che lieve è inganar chi s'assecura!
Que' duo bei lumi assai piú che 'l sol chiari
chi pensò mai veder far terra oscura?

Or cognosco io che mia fera ventura
vuol che vivendo et lagrimando impari
come nulla qua giú diletta, et dura.

[That nightingale who weeps so sweetly,
perhaps for his brood, or his dear companion,
fills the sky and country round with sweetness
with so many piteous, bright notes,

and it seems all night he stays beside me,
and reminds me of my harsh fate:
for I have no one to grieve for but myself,
who believed that Death could not take a goddess.

Oh how easy it is to cheat one who feels safe!
Who would have ever thought to see two lights,
clearer than the sun, make earth darken?

Now I know that my fierce fate
wishes me to learn, as I live and weep:
nothing that delights us here is lasting.

Taken from]

The Nightingale is out there, it embellishes the landscape with its sorrow. That's the poet's cue. It makes him reflect about his own destiny, he blames the object of his desire for that very desire; he realizes that suffering is learning and learning is living; and finally that in this life nothing is both pleasant and durable. And yet, isn't that a beautiful poem? Why is it that "diletta" and "dura" coexist in wonderful assonance and dissonance? It is the human condition to oscillate constantly and contradictorily between care for the other, being lost to the world; and between reflection, self pity, self motivation, and self neglect. Self-neglect is the precondition for turning outside.

The report about the hike on the mountain has a message hidden in its name: Mont Ventoux means the Windy Mountain; which in Italian Ventoso is an expression for vanity. The journey depicts the successful attempt at gaining fame and consequently shame. The story was included by Petrarch in his collected Letters to Friends, in the section that explains his run, for the coronation as Poet Laureate. Therefore it concludes with the confession that all his thoughts were "wandering uncertainly for so long, … and after being pointlessly tossed here and there, they may be redirected towards what is one, good, true, certain, and steadfast." This motive, vain hopes and unsteadiness, open the Canzoniere and are the central motive of the book "My Secret". The one, God, is an aim and nothing more.

The full title of this book is: "The Inner Conflict of My Concerns" which clarifies one problem from the outset; it is staged as a conversation between St. Augustine and Petrarch, but it becomes pretty obvious soon that Augustine is, again, an alter ego of the poet, or his conscience. Augustine even refers to one of Petrarch's works as "our book". As early as 1330 Petrarch had admitted that both Augustine and Petrarch's love, Laura, might be fictitious (Familiares II 9). The name of the lady connotes laurel. Since Augustine reflects his internal conflicts, as he previously stated, he serves as a counter balance for the passion towards Laura. Therefore, the whole dialogue is a dialogue of Petrarch with himself.

The topic is that which is expressed in Canzona 264: the pity for himself.

I' vo pensando, et nel penser m'assale
una pietà sí forte di me stesso,
che mi conduce spesso
ad altro lagrimar ch'i' non soleva:
ché, vedendo ogni giorno il fin piú presso,
mille fïate ò chieste a Dio quell'ale
co le quai del mortale
carcer nostro intelletto al ciel si leva. …

[I go thinking, and so strong a pity
for myself assails me in thought,
that I'm forced sometimes
to weep with other tears than once I did:
for seeing my end nearer every day,
I've asked God a thousand times for those wings
with which our intellect
can rise from this mortal prison to heaven. …

Taken from]

What is the problem? Augustine asks him (that is Petrarch asks himself): "What are you doing, little man? [homuncio, homunculus, mannequin] Dreaming? What are you waiting for? Have you completely forgotten your unhappy state? Have you forgotten you are mortal?" That's how the book begins. Later Augustine chides Petrarch: "You stupid little man [homuncio]! You really think that all earthly joys and all the joys of heaven will come at your call? … [While many people believe] they could keep one foot on earth and one in heaven, they found they could neither stay down here nor rise up there."

Obviously Petrarch is reminding himself of eternal life and of true virtue. After all, who could argue against St. Augustine? But with all his conflict, Petrarch remains constant, or rather stubborn: "I've heard those old trite fables of the philosophers: that the whole earth is like a tiny dot; that a thousand thousand years are as one year; that human glory cannot occupy either that dot or that one year; and other arguments of the same kind to dissuade us from the love of glory. … I'm not hoping to become God, to live forever and embrace both heaven and earth. Mortal glory is enough for me: that's what I aspire to; being a mortal, I aspire only to mortal things." And he recklessly continues: "My conscience [that is Augustine], which now is all my troubles, tells me that I have always burned with love for what is eternal. [That is the Augustinian part in Petrarch.] … I treat mortal things as mortal, and don't wish to go against nature by nursing immoderate desires. I hope therefore for glory amongst men, paying tribute to the fact that both it and I are mortal." That is a line that could have been attributed to his Satan by John Milton.

And yet Petrarch in this dialogue with himself recognizes an extremely important fact about the human condition. Men can be stubborn and reckless in pursuing earthly goals, on the other hand as long as they are conscious of being reckless and stubborn, "mortal" as Petrarch says, they open for themselves by way of conscience access to the transcendent realm, which, born out of the awareness of the human limitations, condemns all human activities as vain. Mortality and vanity become synonyms. I believe that is the reason why Petrarch says he fell in love on the day of Christ's passion.

The human condition of wandering pointlessly and aimlessly through life, once understood, degrades all human achievements. Therefore, Petrarch dares to say: "that the glory in which one may hope for down here should be pursued while one remains down here. The other, the greater glory, is to be enjoyed in heaven, and no one who gets there would be interested in earthly glory any more." Is he being relativistic? Petrarch states clearly about eternal life "I'm not defecting, I am deferring".

From an Augustinian perspective all human strife is impotence; and yet human beings cannot but keep struggling. So what the Petrarchean man can do is to keep all contradictory desires and wishes in check. Petrarch in the garb of Augustine tells himself "I shall not desert you, as long as you do not desert yourself." And Petrarch the poet promises: "I shall gather up the scattered fragments of my soul and live to myself."

"The scattered fragments of my soul" that's the definitive formula. The Canzoniere was given the title by Petrarch "Rerum vulgarium fragmenta" -- "Fragments in Italian", and as we had heard at the beginning, it's his collection of his scattered thoughts. Petrarch's poetry is the disorder, laceration, and disorientation of humanity, all encapsulated in beauty.