Happy the poet who has his own library, and can look into those sweet books of the past, old familiar books which act like dreams and add perspective to sorrow, just as the sweet cypress tree in the vista marks the misty mile.

I plucked my old paperback Petrarch Selections (Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Mark Musa) from the shelf yesterday and buried myself in a world of black and white, shadows, hopes, and dreams.

Musa reminds us sternly in his introduction:

It was one of Petrarch’s main concerns in his Latin writings to teach his fellow Italians to regard the great writer-statesmen of ancient Rome not as distinguished dead figures of the past but rather as living models of the present and future and worthy of imitation.

How many themes relate to Petrarch!   He was famous in his day—and crowned laureate in Rome—for a forgotten Latin epic, and not for his Italian love sonnets to Laura, known as the Canzionere.  Musa, again from the introduction:

In a letter written two years before his death on 18 July 1374 he refers to his poems written in Italian as nothing more than ‘trifles’ and expresses the hope that they will remain unknown to the world. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he spent a lifetime preparing for the publication of the poems, revising and polishing his ‘trifles’ from at least the second half of the 1330s until his death—this we know from the many corrections and notes in his own copy of the poems, preserved today in the Vatican Library.

Laura, the real person, is unknown, like the figures of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and reading both Sequences, it is obvious the Englishman is responding to the Italian, if in a more overtly secular manner.

W.H. Auden was sure Shakespeare was horrified when his Sonnets were made public, but that’s nonsense; Shakespeare’s Sonnets are addressed to mankind; they reveal no private secrets; and likewise Petrarch speaks to us as he wrestles with his soul in the Canzoniere.  Surely Petrarch was being coy when he called his poems “trifles.”

Petrarch and Shakespeare both stay true to their great theme: What is worldly beauty; what is personhood; in what ways do both illuminate me and deceive me?

I was embroiled in youthful love of poetry and learning when I read Francisco Petrarcha’s opening sonnet in his Rime for the first time, and I was deeply impressed:

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.

translated A.S. Kline, 2002

Anyone reading Petrarch today has to be wary of falling under a religious spell.  Modern poetry distinguishes itself from ancient poetry, if anything, by its secular nature.  I’ve never been religious, but I’ve still had to be careful about falling in love with Petrarch.  Shakespeare, 250 years closer to our day, makes it alright to indulge in a certain religious feeling, and perhaps this is part of Shakespeare’s genius, and yet Petrarch and his burning love for Laura, makes it easy to have one’s cake and eat it, too—we can all revel in Petrarchan aspirations without feeling estranged from contemporary poetry.

We find in the Canzoniere this little gem:

Diana never pleased her lover more
when just by chance all of her naked body
he saw bathing within the chilly waters,

than did the simple mountain shepherdess
please me, the while she bathed the pretty veil
that holds her lovely blonde hair in the breeze,

so that even now in hot sunlight she makes me
tremble all over with the chill of love.

# 52, trans. Musa

I can’t imagine a contemporary poem like this, and not because of any special genius the Petrarch poem exhibits, but because of the innocent connection to simple life and the extraordinary combination of chastity and passion.  Yet it strikes me as being a great Imagiste poem, too.

Petrarch is more of an influence than he is given credit in our time.  The Modernists ignored him.  But look at this poem:

That nightingale so tenderly lamenting
perhaps his children or his cherished mate,
in sweetness fills the sky and countryside
with many notes of grief skillfully played,

and all night long he stays with me it seems,
reminding me of my harsh destiny;
I have no one to blame except myself
for thinking that Death could not take a goddess.

How easy to deceive one who is sure!
Those two lights, lovely, brighter than the sun,
whoever thought would turn the earth so dark?

And now I know what this fierce fate of mine
would have me learn as I live on tears:
that nothing here can please and also last.

#311, trans. Musa

Here is the basis for Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale’ and Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ two of the best known poems of our era.

And this sounds like Whitman, not perhaps by the matter, but in the forthright, optimistic style of  the speech:

Go now, my grieving verse, to the hard stone
that hides my precious treasure in the earth;
and there call her, who will respond from Heaven
although her mortal part be darkly buried,

and tell her I am weary now of living,
of sailing through the horrors of this sea,
but that, by gathering up her scattered leaves,
I follow her this way, step after step,

speaking of her alone, alive and dead
(rather, alive, and now immortalized),
so that the world may know and love her more.

Let her watch for the day I pass away
(it is not far from now), let her meet me,
call me, draw me to what she is in Heaven.

Petrarch is a major poet and a major influence, and deserves more attention today.  He is the template for all great lyric poetry.


  1. Aaron Asphar said,

    October 24, 2011 at 4:18 am

    Hmmm, well this doesn’t seem to bare on any living content whatsover. If we were to ask a thousand people from America or the UK whether we are more or less intelligent, more or less free, more or less whole, happy, healthy than 500 years ago, what would the answers likely be? For sure they’d probably in general bleat better, more. Westerners today tend to have absolutely no suspicion of the extent to which their happiness, health, wholeness has been successively and systematically circumvented, denatured, but actually, who gives a fuck about this right now. I have nastier questions, interspersed with criticism, to follow.

    I speak of the general or perhaps in instances the universal here, not the exceptions. Who really cares actively for others beyond their own finite sphere in the West except those who gain personal recognition for it – in percentage terms? 10%? 1? 0.1? No-one knows. A hegemonic system that has furnished the world its models for guns and armed dictatorships today can only really boast for itself a huge amassment of capital and its accrual of resources at the expense of the great masses of poor under and around them – all Western nations are faceless oligarchies. Independent non-Western nations are generally turned into mere satellite or service economies for the West, if not reduced to ruble or decades of chronic corruption having been reduced to ruble, this by a Western world of largely alienated, egoistic strivers who care only about themselves – on the whole, but they don’t understand themselves, or the system they work in. Aren’t we on the whole all bound to our dissolute and unhappy stations in a community of mutual fear – a total community of subjects who cannot understand either the reality they are ensnared by or the people they have become? In general terms, no-one understands the work they are doing – why they are doing it, what it’s all for and so forth – the proof is in the fact that they spend most of their lives watching TV, eating or chasing commodities as an excuse for a meaningful existence – generally speaking. If you do not know whether the work you do for a living is killing or emancipating for yourself, your loved ones or humanity as a whole, then what are you but a headless chicken – without a mind of your own, compulsively performing and without a life of your own, completely decentred and confused? Alas, I may offend – well we ought to offend some more.

    OK here’s the only question I really wanted to ask because it occurred to me. I want to ask a ‘fucked up’ question, but the thing is, it is ‘fucked up’ to me because it could be deemed a fucked up question. The world over, 2 million people drink themselves to death: I wonder how many would have done so prior to the globalisation of late capitalism. I wonder how many more millions died in Western nations who were mentally sick, alone, poor, alienated, depressed, homeless – or how many died of basically binge eating their emptiness – we know that in America a third of its citizens are obese, 20% of its adults diagnosed as depressed, 10% – diagnosed with mental illness in any one year – what are we talking about with a population of 178 million? How many in the whole of the West then? How many Western old people have died in abject social isolation after years of loneliness and depression over the last year? None of us know. How many years does it take for a silent Western holocaust to occur under our nose? These are post war, peace time realities –dare we even begin to enquire into the effects of Western global hegemony over most of the world? Or, if we’re thinking historically, the cumulative effects of the militarization of most of the whole world? We have no way of estimating the cancerous magnitude of all this misery and we shouldn’t fear a major crisis today because there’s a major crisis every day that none of us are empowered to remotely estimate. In any case we are all too fearful or too egoistic to care in the West, all clinging to our pathetic finite interests, all blinded by socialized ignorance and ideological confusion, all thinking enlightenment is knowing how to best navigate the social structures for our own personal or egoistic or private gains – none of this can really be denied on a social level. We should ask ourselves seriously: was the vehemence and desperation of Al-Qaeda even really even misplaced? Heresy you shout! So this really is a fucking theology set up – we’re ideological fanatics. I want to know. How do we know this is not a pitch black truth we’re all theologically blinded to – or are we going to safely hide behind the Western absence of truth? If your loved ones were blown up would the truth of this be questionable? Who can really say Al-Qaeda weren’t brave souls fighting the most cancerous human phenomenon we have ever known – where’s yr evidence? Well my answer is – I don’t know, and I would like to. The question occurred to me as a humane thinker who faces reality square on. If I knew the whole truth I’d be able to say so, but I don’t. Who really knows, really? Does anyone on this planet really know? Of course not, but we can be damn sure there is two sides of a coin – one which has done absolutely nothing but dominate and oppress the world while ideologically, economically duping and suppressing their population and drugging them with fantasy fictions and commodities, and another which, apart from displaying all appearance of being from a deeply repressive culture (one which survives pretty much unscathed), none of us really understands a thing about. If you ask me we live in a totally fucked up global social order that none of us understand, a situation within which a catastrophic economic collapse could only be a redemption, so we can really reconstitute ourselves and know such things for sure.

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 24, 2011 at 1:48 pm


      There’s no reply to misery, except to ask, ‘What’s troubling you?’ You are obviously miserable, because of the meandering, rant-like repetition of your prose, so I might ask, “What’s troubling you?” You give no indication, since your complaint is all about the world in very general terms. Most people don’t have the luxury of abstractly worrying about the world; they’re worried about their kids, their bills, etc etc. So maybe you’re not that miserable, since you have this luxury. You use the “ego” and “Western” a lot, as if these were the two great ills of existence. I don’t get this. You don’t expect people to be self-interested? Why don’t you expect people to be self-interested? Why don’t you just accept the fact that people are self-interested? I think that would save you a lot of grief. Secondly, “Western” is such a broad term. Can you be more speciic? Like, the British Empire, which created all that’s bad about the American Empire? Talking in this vague, ahistorical manner about the “West” is sort of silly, don’t you think? Don’t you have a thesis that’s a little more focused?


      • October 30, 2011 at 3:43 pm

        Here’s a story Aaron might like, from Oriana Fallaci’s memoir of her experiences in Vietnam, Nothing, and So Be It

        “A family of Americans goes to spend their vacation in the Holy Land and arrives on the very day that Pontius Pilate has Jesus on trial. The family is immediately drawn to this sweet, defenseless, brutalized gentleman called Jesus and telephones its own lawyer to catch a plane and rush to his defense, whatever the cost: ten thousand dollars, a million dollars. But three in the afternoon the lawyer still hasn’t turned up and the youngest boy points to the hill of Golgotha and yells: “Mummy, Daddy! Look what they’ve done to the nice gentleman!” Jesus is crucified. And the Americans rush up the hill. They rush with all their generosity, all their good intentions; they grab a pair of pliers and a ladder and climb up the cross; they scream: “We’re coming, sir, we’re coming!” And, first thing, they take the nail out of his right hand; second thing, they take the nail out of his left hand. So Jesus falls forward, hanging from the cross by his feet.

        “I mean, Americans are like that. They’re not bad, or not always bad; they’re just clumsy.”

  2. Aaron Asphar said,

    October 24, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Yr ma is Washington DC

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 24, 2011 at 7:53 pm

      My pa’s roots are deeper…

  3. Aaron Asphar said,

    October 25, 2011 at 8:13 am

    And I’ll bet you’ll be clinging on to that as a rag, a kind of figleaf to mask that you are an abyss with a face.

    • thomasbrady said,

      October 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm

      It Isn’t Because of Beauty

      It isn’t because of beauty,
      Or what is called the best.
      I love him because he’s different,
      Different than all the rest.

      It does me good to say it,
      Though impossible to explain
      His light which brings me joy,
      And suffering and pain.

      To those who step in this shadowy life
      And know it with eye and brain,
      I was a stranger to you and him
      And now am a stranger again.

      You think you’ll catch the wind with your eye,
      Or distant loss with your brain?
      Here is the light that gives me joy—
      And suffering—and pain.

    • marcusbales said,

      October 26, 2011 at 1:49 pm


      You’re the dog
      That chews my laces
      You’re a cog
      That no gap embraces
      You’re the sloppy song when a broken bong
      Won’t draw;
      You’re a windshield chip, you’re a bitten lip,
      A petty flaw.
      You’re a troll
      You’re a party-pooper
      You’re a troll
      You’re a drunken stupor
      We’re thought-provoking, serious, joking, droll —
      But you can’t get our goat ‘cause you’re a troll.

      You’re the fear
      At the start of classes
      You’re a smear
      On my just-cleaned glasses
      You’re the icky news that brings the blues
      To stay
      You’re spamming and phishing, and we’re all wishing
      You’ll go away.
      You’re a troll
      You’re a blown-out tire
      You’re a troll
      You’re an off-key choir
      A conversation, not aggravation’s our goal –
      But you can’t get our goat ‘cause you’re a troll.

      You’re the knot
      In our garden hoses
      You’re the snot
      From allergic noses
      You’re the pimp or madam who serviced Saddam
      You’re an intern’s salary, the trans-fat calorie
      We disdain.
      You’re a run
      In a nylon stocking
      You’re the one
      That I’m not done mocking
      We don’t like whining, and you’re undermining the whole —
      But you can’t get our goat ‘cause you’re a troll.

      You’re the tart
      In between the lovers
      You’re a fart
      Underneath the covers
      You’re an incomplete, a crumpled sheet,
      A wad,
      You’re an empty can, a hollow man,
      A fraud.
      You’re a clog
      In the bathroom piping
      You’re that dog
      On the internet typing
      Misunderstandings of the second-handings you stole.
      But you can’t get our goat ‘cause you’re a troll.

      • thomasbrady said,

        October 26, 2011 at 3:49 pm

        Aaron’s OK. At least he’s more the “tart between lovers” than the “clog in the bathroom piping…”

  4. Mike Hodder said,

    October 26, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Hi Thomas,

    I enjoyed your post. There’s no doubt that Petrarch’s influence on the development of European lyric poetry was fundamental, but as you point out he has become the forgotten man of the Western tradition in many ways. A group of us at Oxford University has recently begun getting together in quite an informal way to re-read Petrarch’s Canzoniere with a view to reconnecting with the text on a basic semantic level, putting aside all theoretical or critical preconceptions through which interpretation is often filtered. Our focus tends to be on the Medieval and Classical threads evident in Petrarch’s poetry, rather than his influence on subsequent generations (although we have recently been looking at some of Wyatt’s imitations), but I thought you might be interested nonetheless. You can read a summary of our discussions at petrarchreadinggroup.wordpress.com, and of course please feel free to leave a comment if you have any insights of your own.



    • thomasbrady said,

      October 27, 2011 at 2:27 pm

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comments. Wherever Petrarch leads, I’ll follow. I’m teaching Shakespeare’s Sonnets this semester, and I’m really interested in how Shakespeare’s Sonnets play off the Classical/Italian tradition, subverting it, using it, etc. I’ll check out your site!


  5. Mike Hodder said,

    October 28, 2011 at 8:50 am

    Hi Tom,

    I’ve just realised I’ve posted the wrong link in my comment! It should read petrarchreadinggroupoxford.wordpress.com. In hindsight, I should really have chosen a snappier name like you did!


  6. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 3, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    Astonishing. How is it possible not to love Petrarch as a poet no matter what the calendar year is. And yet, as you have pointed out, many don’t or don’t even know he was ever here on earth.

    The following is a poem I wrote today kind of as a reflection on what has transpired with the lyrical soul and with the lyric in general as well as in the art world as a whole which I deem to be littered with the dour “factories of light.” Of course it is also the dilemma of every single human being working just about anywhere in any setting and I don’t see these dilemmas as separate. The poetry is being smashed out of us. Reading essays like yours Thomas Graves, even five years after you wrote them is a good remedy. (One of the best.) Thank you.


    dream heads upon the chopping blocks
    or delved into we manage in the day to day
    to hide our tears in the deluge

    may the rains sweep sorrow away
    and we are the instruments of the GNP
    the case studies

    in the factories of light.
    may we become proficient
    they say and they say and they say

    in doing what they have for us today
    and we are measured incessantly.
    somewhere there was a pastorale

    where we lived, I or you
    as in the fairy tales of our wits
    making the fair trade of the one and only

    cow for the magic beans
    and freeing the captive harp by degrees
    from the giant’s clasp.

    and this is still
    not far beyond our grasp
    if only we could leave could leave could leave

    without being seen to
    or marked down for it,
    the factories of light.

    the inhibitors of flight.

    mary angela douglas 3 december 2016

    Astonishing. How is it possible not to love Petrarch as a poet no matter what the calendar year is. And yet as you have pointed out, many don’t or don’t even know of his existence.

    The following is a poem I wrote today kind of as a reflection on what has transpired with the lyrical soul and with the lyric in general as well as in the art world as a whole I deem to be dour factories of light. Of course it is also the dilemma of every single human being working just about anywhere in any setting and I don’t see these dilemmas as separate. The poetry is being smashed out of us. Reading essays like yours Thomas Graves, even five years after you wrote them ie a good remedy. (One of the best.) Thank you.

  7. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 3, 2016 at 7:15 pm

    well, it wasn’t the following, it was the preceding, but maybe time is circular and it doesn’t really matter about befores and afters as much as we think it does.

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