As to Vaucluse, I well know the beauties of that charming valley, and ten years' residence is proof of my affection for the place. I have shown my love of it by the house which I built there. There I began my article "Africa," there I wrote the greater part of my epistles in prose and verse. At Vaucluse I conceived the first idea of giving an epitome of the Lives of Illustrious Men, and there I wrote my treatise on a Solitary Life, as well as that on religious retirement. It was there, also, that I sought to moderate my passion for Laura, which, alas, solitude only cherished. And so this lonely valley will be forever sacred to my recollections.
--from the Journal of Petrarch
"A literary reputation once attained can never be lost," says Balzac. This for the reason that we find it much easier to admit a man's greatness than to refute it. The safest and most solid reputations are those of writers nobody reads. As long as a man is read he is being weighed, and the verdict is uncertain, which remark, of course, does not apply to the books we read with our eyes shut.
Shakespeare's proud position today is possible only through the fact that he is not read.
We get our Shakespeare from "Bartlett's Quotations": and the statement made by the good old lady that Shakespeare used more quotations than any other man who ever lived is true, although she should have added that he used blessed few quotation-marks.
In all my life I never knew anybody, save one woman and a little girl, who read Shakespeare in the original. I know a deal of Shakespeare, although I never read one of his plays, and never could witness a Shakespearean performance without having the fidgets. All the Shakespeare I have, I caught from being exposed to people who have the microbe.
I never yet met any one who read Petrarch. But every so-called educated person is compelled to admit the genius of Petrarch.
We know the gentleman by sight; that is, we know the back of his books.
And then we know that he loved Laura--Petrarch and Laura!
We walk into Paradise in pairs--just as the toy animals go into a Noah's Ark. Shakespeare is coupled thus: Shakespeare and----
He wrote his sonnets to Her, exactly as did Dante, Petrarch and Rossetti. A sonnet is a house of life enclosing an ostermoor built for two.
Petrarch is one of the four great Italian poets, and his life is vital to us because all our modern literature traces a pedigree to him.
The Italian Renaissance is the dawn of civilization: the human soul emerging into wakefulness after its sleep of a thousand years.
The Dark Ages were dark because religion was supreme, and to keep it pure they had to subdue every one who doubted it or hoped to improve upon it. So wrangle, dispute, faction, feud, plot, exile, murder and Sherlock Holmes absorbed the energies of men and paralyzed spontaneity and all happy, useful effort. The priest caught us coming and going. We had to be christened when we were born and given extreme unction when we died, otherwise we could not die legally--hell was to pay, here and hereafter.
The only thing that finally banished fear and stopped the rage for vengeance, revenge and loot was Love. Not the love for God. No! Just the love of man and woman.
Passionate, romantic love! When the man had evolved to a point where he loved one woman with an absorbing love, the rosy light of dawn appeared in the East, the Dark Ages sank into oblivion, and Civilization kicked off the covers and cooed in the cradle.
Is it bad to love one woman with all the intensity that was formerly lavished on ten? Some people think so; some have always thought so--in the Dark Ages everybody thought so. Religion taught it: God was jealous. Marriage was an expediency. Dante, Petrarch and Shakespeare live only because they loved.
Literature, music, sculpture, painting, constitute art--not, however, all of art. And art is a secondary sexual manifestation. Beauty is the child of married minds, and Emerson says, "Beauty is the seal of approval that Nature sets upon Virtue."
So, if you please, love and virtue are one, and a lapse from virtue is a lapse from love. It is love that vitalizes the intellect to the creative point. So it will be found that men with the creative faculty have always been lovers. To give a list of the great artists that the world has seen would be to name a list of lovers.
The Italian Renaissance was the birth of Romantic Love. It was a new thing, and we have not gotten used to it yet. It is so new to men's natures that they do not always know how to manage it, and so it occasionally runs away with them and leaves them struggling in the ditch, from which they emerge sorry sights, or laughable, according to the view of the bystander and the extent of the disaster. And yet, in spite of mishaps, let the truth stand that those who travel fast and go far, go by Love's Parcel-Post, concerning which there is no limit to the size of the package.
Romantic Love was impossible at the time when men stole wives. When wife-stealing gave place to wife-buying, it was likewise out of the question. To win by performance of the intellect, the woman must have evolved to a point where she was able to approve and was sufficiently free to express delight in the lover's accomplishments. Instead of physical prowess she must be able to delight in brains. Petrarch paraded his poems exactly as a peacock does its feathers.
And so it will be seen that it was the advance in the mental status of woman that made possible the Italian Renaissance. The Greeks regarded a woman who had brains with grave suspicion.
The person who can not see that sex equality must come before we reach the millennium is too slow in spirit to read this book, and had better stop right here and get him to his last edition of the "Evening Garbage."
Lovers work for each other's approval, and so, through action and reaction, we get a spiritual chemical emulsion that, while starting with simple sex attraction, contains a gradually increasing percentage of phosphorus until we get a fusion of intellect: a man and a woman who think as one being.
* * * * * * *
For the benefit of people with a Petrarch bee and time to incinerate, I may as well explain that Professor Marsand, of the ancient and honorable University of Padua, has collected a "Petrarch Library," which consists of nine hundred separate and distinct volumes on the work and influence of Petrarch. This collection of books was sold to a French bibliophile for the tidy sum of forty thousand pounds, and is now in the Louvre.
I have not read all of these nine hundred books, else probably I should not know anything about Petrarch. It seems that for two hundred years after the death of the poet there was a Petrarch cult, and a storm of controversy filled the literary air.
The accounts of Petrarch's life up to the Eighteenth Century were very contradictory; there were even a few attempts to give him a supernatural parentage; and certain good men, as if to hold the balance true, denied that he had ever existed.
Petrarch was born in Thirteen Hundred Four, and the same edict that sent Dante into exile caught the father of Petrarch in its coils.
His father was a lawyer and politician, but on account of a political cyclone he became a soldier of fortune--an exile. The mother got permission to remain, and there she lived with their little brood at Incisa, a small village on the Arno, fourteen miles above Florence.
It is a fine thing to live near a large city, but you should not go there any more often than you can help. A city supplies inspiration, from a distance, but once mix up in it and become a part of it, and you are ironed out and subdued. The characters and tendencies of the majority of men who have done things were formed in the country. Read the lives of the men who lifted Athens, Rome, Venice, Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York out of the fog of the commonplace, and you will find, almost without exception, that they were outsiders. Transplanted weeds often evolve into the finest flowers.
And so my advice would be to any one about to engage in the genius business: Do not spend too much time in the selection of your parents, beyond making sure that they are not very successful. They had better be poor than very rich. They had better be ignorant than learned, especially if they realize they are learned. They had better be morally indifferent than spiritually smug. If their puritanism is carried to a point where it absolutely repels, it then has its beneficent use, teaching by antithesis. They had better be loose in their discipline than carry it so far that it makes the child exempt from coming to conclusions of his own. And as for parental love, it had better be spread out than lavished so freely that it stands between the child and the result of his own misdeeds.
In selecting environment, do not pick one too propitious, otherwise you will plant your roses in muck, when what they demand for exercise is a little difficulty in way of a few rocks to afford an anchor for roots. Genius grows only in an environment that does not fully satisfy, and the effort to better the environment and bring about better conditions is exactly the one thing that evolves genius.
Petrarch was never quite satisfied. To begin with, he was not satisfied with his father's name, which was Petracco. When our poet was fifteen he called himself Petrarch, probably with Plutarch in mind, "for the sake of euphony," he said. But the fact was that his wandering father had returned home, and the boy looking him over with a critical eye was not overpleased with the gentleman.
Then he became displeased with his mother for having contracted an intimacy with such a man. Hence the change of name--he belonged to neither of them. But as this was at adolescence, the unrest of the youth should not be taken too seriously.
The family had moved several times, living in half a dozen different towns and cities. They finally landed at Avignon, the papal capital.
Matters had mended the fortunes of Petracco, and the boy was induced to go to Montpelier and study law. The legend has it that the father, visiting the son a few months later, found on his desk a pile of books on rhetoric and poetry, and these the fond parent straightway flung into the fire. The boy entering the room about that time lifted such a protest that a "Vergil" and a "Cicero" were recovered from the flames, but the other books, including some good original manuscript, went up in smoke.
The mother of Petrarch died when our poet was twenty years of age. In about two years after, his father also passed away. Their loss did not crush him absolutely, for we find he was able to write a poem expressing a certain satisfaction on their souls being safely in Paradise.
At this time Petrarch had taken clerical orders and was established as assistant to the secretary of one of the cardinals. Up to his twentieth year Petrarch was self-willed, moody, and subject to fits of melancholy. He knew too much and saw things too clearly to be happy.
Four authors had fed his growing brain--Cicero, Seneca, Livy and Vergil. In these he reveled. "Always in my hand or hidden in my cloak I carried a book," he says, "and thoughts seem to me to be so much more than things that the passing world--the world of action and achievement--seemed to me to be an unworthy world, and the world of thought to be the true and real world. It will thus be seen that I was young and my mind unformed."
The boy was a student by nature--he had a hunger for books. He knew Latin as he did Italian, and was familiarizing himself with Greek. Learning was to him religion. Priests who were simply religious did not interest him. He had dallied in schools and monasteries at Montpelier, Pisa, Bologna, Rome, Venice and Avignon, moving from place to place, a dilettante of letters. At none of the places named had he really entered his name as a student. He was in a class by himself--he knew more than his teachers, and from his nineteenth year they usually acknowledged it. He was a handsome youth, proud, quiet, low-voiced, self-reliant. His form was tall and shapely, his face dark and oval, with almost perfect features, his eyes especially expressive and luminous.
Priests in high office welcomed him to their homes, and ladies of high degree sighed and made eyes at him as he passed, but they made eyes in vain.
He was wedded to literature. The assistance he gave to his clerical friends in preparing their sermons and addresses made his friendship desirable. The good men he helped, occasionally placed mysterious honorariums in his way which he pocketed with a silent prayer of gratitude to Providence.
A trifle more ambition, a modicum of selfishness, a dash of the worldly-wise, and his course would have been relieved of its curves, and he would have gravitated straight to the red hat. From this to being pope would have been but a step, for he was a king by nature.
But a pope must be a businessman, and a real, genuine king must draw his nightcap on over his crown every night or he'll not keep his crown very long.
Eternal vigilance is not only the price of liberty, but also of everything else. High positions must be fought for inch by inch, and held by a vigilance that never sleeps.
Petrarch would not pay the price of temporal power. His heart was in the diphthong and anapest. He doted on a well-turned sentence, while the thing that caught the eye of Boccaccio was a well-turned ankle.
It seems that Petrarch took that proud, cold position held by religious enthusiasts, and which young novitiates sincerely believe in, that when you have once entered the Church you are no longer subject to the frailties of the flesh, and that the natural appetites are left behind. This is all right when on parade, but there is an esoteric doctrine as well as an exoteric, which all wise men know, namely, that men are men, and women are women--God made them so--and that the tonsure and the veil are vain when Eros and Opportunity join hands.
* * * * * * *
No man has ever taken the public more into his confidence than Petrarch, not even Rousseau, who confessed more than was necessary, and probably more than was true.
Petrarch tells us that at twenty-two years of age he had descended from his high estate and been led into the prevailing follies of the court by more than one of the dames of high degree who flocked to Avignon, the seat of the Papal See. These women came from mixed motives: for their health, religious consolation, excitement.
Petrarch states his abhorrence for the overripe, idle and feverish female intent on confession. He had known her too well, and so not only did he flee from the "Western Babylon," as he calls Avignon, but often remained away at times for two whole weeks. Like Richard Le Gallienne, who has Omar say:
Think not that I have never tried your way To Heaven, you who pray and fast and pray, Once I denied myself both love and wine, Yea, wine and love--for a whole Summer day.
Much of this time Petrarch spent in repenting. He repined because he had fallen from the proud pedestal where he delighted to view himself, being both the spectator and the show.
In his twenty-second year he met James Colonna, of the noble and illustrious Colonna family, and a fine friendship sprang up between them. The nobleman was evidently a noble man indeed, with a heart and head to appreciate the genius of Petrarch, and the good commonsense to treat the poet as an equal.
Petrarch pays James Colonna a great tribute, referring to his moderation, his industry, his ability to wait on himself, his love for the out-of-doors. The friends used to take long walks together, and discuss Cicero and Vergil, seated on grassy banks by the wayside.
"Men must have the friendship of men, and a noble, highminded companion seems a necessity to prevent too much inward contemplation. It is better to tell your best to a friend, than to continually revolve it." Look out, not in--up, not down. Then Petrarch innocently adds, "I vowed I would not have anything to do with women, nor even in the social converse, but that my few friends should be sober, worthy and noble men of gravity."
No man is in such danger from strong drink as the man who has just sworn off. Petrarch with pious steps went regularly to early mass. By going to church early in the day he avoided the fashionable throng of females that attended later. Early in the morning one sees only fat market-women and fishwives.
On the Sixth of April, Thirteen Hundred Twenty-seven, at six o'clock in the morning, Petrarch knelt in the Church of Saint Clara at Avignon. The morning was foggy, and the dim candles that dotted the church gave out a fitful flare. As Petrarch knelt with bowed head he repeated his vow that his only companions should be men--men of intellect--and that the one woman to arrest his thoughts should be his mother in Heaven--peace be to her!
And then he raised his head to gaze at the chancel, so his vow should there be recorded. He tried to look at the chancel, but failed to see that far.
He could see only about ten feet ahead of him. What he saw was two braids of golden hair wound round a head like a crown of glory. It was a woman--a delicate, proud and marvelous personality--a woman! He thought her a vision, and he touched the cold floor with his hands to see if he were awake.
Petrarch began to speculate as to when she had entered the church. He concluded she had entered in spirit form and materialized there before him. He watched her, expecting any moment she would fade away into ethereal nothingness. He watched her. The fog of the cold church seemed to dissipate, the day grew brighter, a stray ray of light stole in and for an instant fell athwart the beautiful head of this wonderful woman.
Petrarch was now positive it was all a dream.
Just at that moment the woman rose, and with her companion stood erect. Petrarch noted the green mantle sprinkled with violets. He also made mental note of the slender neck, the low brow, the length of the head, compared with the height, the grace, the poise, the intellect, the soul! There he was on his knees--not adoring Deity, just Her! The rest of the congregation were standing. She turned and looked at him--a look of pity and reproof, tinged with amusement, but something in her wondrous eyes spoke of recognition--they had something in common!
She looked at him. Why did she turn and look at him? Don't ask me--how do I know!
Perhaps telepathy is a fact after all. It may be possible that man is a storage-battery--man the positive, woman the negative--I really can not say. Telepathy may be a fact--it may hinge on the strength of the batteries, and the condition of currents.
She turned and looked at him. He had disturbed her religious meditations--rung up the wrong number--she had turned and looked at him--a look of recognition--a look of pity, rebuke, amusement and recognition.
He rose and half-tiptoed, half-stumbled to the door, ashamed, chagrined, entranced. Ashamed because he had annoyed an Angel of Light, chagrined because he had lost his proud self-control and been unhorsed, entranced by the fact that the Angel of Light had recognized him.
Still they had never before met. To have seen this woman once would have been unforgetable--her glance had burned her brand into his soul. She had set her seal upon him--he was hers.
He guessed that she knew who he was--he was sure he did not know her name.
He lingered an instant at the church-door, crossed himself foolishly with holy water, then passed out into the early morning bustle of the streets.
The cool air fanned his face, and the gentle breeze caressed his hair. He put his hand to his brow.
He had left his hat--left it in the church. He turned to go back after it, but it came over him that another glance from those eyes would melt him though he were bronze. He would melt as if he had met God face to face, a thing even Moses dare not do and hope to live.
He stood in the church-door as if he were dazed. The verger came forward. "My hat, good Stephano, I left it just back of the fair lady." He handed the man a piece of silver and the verger disappeared. Petrarch was sure he could not find the lady--she was only a vision, a vision seen by him alone. He would see.
The verger came back with the hat.
"And the lady--you--you know her name?"
"Oh, she, the lovely lady with the golden hair? That is Laura, the wife of Hugh de Sade."
"Of course, of course!" said Petrarch, and reaching into a leather pocket that was suspended from his belt under his cloak he took out a handful of silver and gave it to the astonished verger, and passed out and down the street, walking nowhere, needlessly fast.
The verger followed Petrarch to the door and watching the tall retreating form muttered to himself, "He does not look like a man who cuts into the grape to excess--and so early in the morning, too!"
* * * * * * *
That was a foolish saying of Lord Byron, "Man's love is of man's life a thing apart; 'tis woman's whole existence." Does it not all depend upon the man and the woman? The extent and quality of a woman's love as compared with a man's have furnished the physiologists and psychologists a great field for much innocent speculation. And the whole question is still unsettled, as it should be, and is left to each new crop of poets to be used as raw stock, just as though no one had ever dreamed, meditated and speculated upon it before.
As for Petrarch and Laura, Laura's love was of her life apart, 'twas Petrarch's whole existence.
Laura was very safely married to a man several years her senior--a stern, hard-headed, unromantic lawyer, who was what the old ladies call "a good provider." He even provided a duenna, or chaperon of experience, one who knew all the subtle tricks of that base animal, man, and where Laura went there went the chaperon.
Petrarch once succeeded in slipping a purse of gold into the duenna's hands, and that worthy proved her fitness by keeping the purse, and increasing her watchfulness of her charge as the danger of the poet's passion increased. The duenna hinted that the sacrifice of her own virtue was not entirely out of the question, but Laura was her sacred charge. That is, the duenna could resist the temptations of Laura.
This passion of Petrarch for Laura very quickly became known and recognized. The duenna doubtless retailed it below-stairs, and the verger at the church also had his tale to tell. Love-stories allow us to live the lover's life vicariously, and so that which once dwelt in the flesh becomes a thought. Matchmakers are all living their lives over again in their minds.
But besides the gossips, Petrarch himself made no secret of his passion. Almost daily he sent Laura a poem. She could have refused the gentle missive if she had wished, but she did not wish.
Petrarch had raised her to a dizzy height. Wherever she went she was pointed out, and the attorney, her husband, hired another duenna to watch the first. This love of a youth for a married woman was at that time quite proper. The lady of the knight-errant might be one to whom he had never spoken.
Petrarch sang for Laura; but he sang more melodiously than any one had sung before, save Dante alone. His homage was the honorable homage of the cavalier.
Yet Hugh de Sade grew annoyed and sent a respectful request to Petrarch to omit it.
This brought another sonnet, distributed throughout the town, stating that Petrarch's love was as sacred as that of his love for the Madonna, and indeed, he addressed Laura as the Madonna.
Only at church did the lovers meet, or upon the street as they passed. Gossip was never allowed to evolve into scandal.
Bliss Carman tells in a lecture of a fair and frail young thing crying aloud to her mother in bitter plaint, "He loves me--yes, I know he loves me--but only for literary purposes!"
Love as a mental "Martini" is a well-known fact, but its cold, plotted concoction is a poison and not a stimulant. Petrarch's love for Laura was genuine and sincere; and that she fed and encouraged this love for twenty years, or to the day of her death, we know full well.
In Goethe's "Elective Affinities," the great German philosopher explains how a sublime passion can be preserved in all its purity on the Platonic plane for a long term of years. Laura was a married woman, wedded to a man she respected, but could not love. He ruled her--she was his property. She found it easier to accept his rule than to rebel. Had his treatment of her descended to brutality, she would have flown to her lover or else died. One critic says: "Laura must have been of a phlegmatic type, not of a fine or sensitive nature, and all of her wants were satisfied, her life protected and complete. The adoration of Petrarch was not a necessity to her--it came in as a pleasing diversion, a beautiful compliment, but something she could easily do without. Had she been a maid and been kept the prisoner that she was, the flame of love would have burned her heart out, and life for her would have been a fatal malady, just as it was for Simonetta."
And so we find Goethe coldly reasoning that a great Platonic love is possible where the woman is married to a man who is endurable, and the man is wedded to a woman he can not get rid of. "Thus four persons are required to work the miracle," says Goethe, and glides off casually into another theme.
Laura was flattered by Petrarch's attentions: she became more attentive than ever to her religious obligations. She wore the dresses he liked best. In her hair or on her breast there always rested a laurel-leaf. She was nothing loath to being worshiped.
"You must not speak to me," she once whispered as they passed. And again she wrote on a slip of parchment, "Remember my good name and protect it."
A note like that would certainly rouse a lover's soul. It meant that she was his in heart, but her good name must be protected, so as not to start a scandal. The sin was in being found out.
A sonnet, extra warm, quickly followed.
Petrarch was full of unrest. His eyes burned with fever; he walked the streets in despair. Colonna seeing his distress, and knowing the reason of it, sought to divert him. He offered to secure him a bishopric, or some other high office, where his energies would be absorbed.
Petrarch would not accept office or responsibility. His heart was all bound up in Laura and literature.
Colonna, in order to get his friend away from Avignon, then had himself appointed Bishop of Lombes, and engaged Petrarch as his secretary. So the two friends started away for the new field, six hundred miles distant. They had a regular cavalcade of carriages and horsemen, for Colonna was a very rich man and everything was his for the asking. They traveled by a circuitous route, so as to visit many schools, monasteries and towns on the way. Everywhere honors were paid them.
The change of scene, meeting so many new people, and the excitement of making public addresses, revived the spirits of Petrarch. Slowly the intensity of his passion subsided. He began to think of something else beside his lady-love.
Petrarch kept a journal of his trip, which has been preserved for us in the form of letters. At one place on the route a most tragic circumstance came to his notice. It affected him so much that he wrote it out with many sorrowful comments. It seems a certain monk of decided literary and musical ability was employed by a nobleman to give music-lessons to his daughters. The inevitable happened.
Petrarch said it did not--that the monk was wrongfully accused. Anyway, the father of the girl, who was the magistrate of the district, ordered the monk to be sealed up in a cell and to remain there the rest of his life. The girl was sent to a nunnery, and the monk in a few weeks succeeded in killing himself, and his cell became his grave. This kind of punishment, carried out by the judge, who according to our ideas had no right to try the case, reveals the kind of "justice" that existed only a few hundred years ago.
The barbarity of the sentence came close home to Petrarch, and both he and the young bishop tell what they think of the Christianity that places a penalty on natural affection.
So they hastened away from the monastery where had lived the monk whose love cost him his life, on to their own field of labor.
Here Petrarch remained for two years. His health and spirits came back, but poetry had gone by the board. In Lombes there was no one who cared for poetry.
Petrarch congratulated himself on having mastered his passion. Laura had become but a speck on the distant horizon, a passing incident of his youth. But he sighed for Avignon. There was life and animation, music, literature, art, oratory and the society of great men. Besides he wanted to prove to his own satisfaction that he had mastered his love for Laura.
He would go back to Avignon.
He went back; he saw Laura; she saw him, and passing him with a swift glance of recognition moved on. At sight of her his knees became weak, his heart seemed to stop and he leaned against a pillar for support. That night he eased his soul with a sonnet.
To his great embarrassment he found he had not mastered his passion--it was now mastering him. He tells us all this at length, and he told it to Laura, too.
His health began to decline, and his physician advised that he move to the country. And so we find him taking a course of solitude as a cure for love. He moved to Vaucluse, a hamlet fifteen miles from the city. Some of the old-time biographies tried to show that Laura visited him there in his solitude, and that was the reason he lived there. It is now believed that such stories were written for the delectation of the Hearst Syndicate, and had no basis in fact. The only way Petrarch ever really met Laura was in imagination.
Boccaccio, a contemporary and friend of Petrarch, declared that Laura had no existence outside of the imagination of the poet. But Boccaccio was a poet with a roistering proclivity, and truth to such a one in a love-affair is out of the question. Lies and love, with a certain temperament, go hand in hand. Possibly the absurd position of modern civilization towards the love-emotions has much to do with this. We have held that in human love there was something essentially base and bad, and so whenever a man or a woman become involved in Cupid's meshes they are sudden and quick in swearing an alibi, no matter what the nature of the attachment may be.
Boccaccio had to defend himself continually from charges, which most people knew were true, and so by habit he grew to deny everything, not only for himself, but for his friends. The poet needs solitude and society, in right proportions of course.
Petrarch lived at Vaucluse for ten years, making occasional trips to various capitals. Of his solitary life he says:
Here at Vaucluse I make war upon my senses, and treat them as my enemies. My eyes, which have drawn me into a thousand difficulties, see no longer either gold or precious stones, or ivory, or purple; they behold nothing save the water, the firmament and the rocks. The only female who comes within their sight is a swarthy old woman, dry and parched as the Lybian deserts. My ears are no longer courted by those harmonious instruments and voices which have so transported my soul; they hear nothing but the lowing of the cattle, the bleating of the sheep, the warbling of the birds, and the murmurs of the river.
I keep silence from noon till night. There is no one to converse with; for the people, employed in spreading their nets, or tending their vines and orchards, are no great adepts at conversation. I often content myself with the dry bread of the fisherman, and even eat it with pleasure. Nay, I almost prefer it to white bread. This old fisherman, who is as hard as iron, earnestly remonstrates against my manner of life; and assures me that I can not long hold out. I am, on the contrary, convinced that it is easier to accustom one's self to a plain diet than to the luxuries of the feast. I am fond of the fish with which this stream abounds, and I sometimes amuse myself with spreading the nets. As to my dress, there is an entire change; you would take me for a laborer or a shepherd.
My mansion resembles that of Cato or Fabricius. My whole house-establishment consists of myself, my old fisherman and his wife, and a dog. My fisherman's cottage is near to mine; when I want him I call, when I no longer need him, he returns to his cottage. I have made two gardens that please me wonderfully. I do not think they are equaled in all the world. And I must confess to you a more than female weakness with which I am haunted. I am positively angry that there is anything so beautiful out of Italy.
One of these gardens is shady, formed for contemplation, and sacred to Apollo. It overhangs the source of the river, and is terminated by rocks, and by places accessible only to the birds. The other is nearer to my cottage, of an aspect less severe, and devoted to Bacchus; and, what is extremely singular, it is in the midst of a rapid river. The approach to it is over a bridge of rocks; and there is a natural grotto under the rocks, which gives them the appearance of a rustic bridge. Into this grotto the sun's rays never penetrate. I am confident that it much resembles the place where Cicero sometimes went to declaim. It invites to study. Hither I retreat during noontide hours; my mornings are engaged upon the hills, or in the garden sacred to Apollo. Here I would most willingly spend my days, were I not too near Avignon, and too far from Italy. For why should I conceal this weakness of my soul? I love Italy, and hate Avignon. The pestilential influence of this horrid place empoisons the pure air of Vaucluse, and will eventually compel me to quit my retirement.
* * * * * * *
The verdict of humanity seems to be that Laura was the most consummate coquette in history. She dressed to catch Petrarch's attention; wore the flowers he liked best; accepted his amorous poems without protest; placed herself in his way by running on the same schedule.
The "Standard Dictionary" makes some fine distinctions between flirtation, coquetry and coyness. Flirtation means to fascinate and leave the lover in doubt as to his fate--to lead him on and leave him in a maze. It does not imply that he does not have reason for hope. Flirtation is coyness refined to a system.
Coquetry is defined as an attempt to attract admiration and lead the lover up to the point of a matrimonial proposal and then reject him--a desire to gratify personal vanity. Coquettes are regarded as heartless, while flirts are often sincere creatures who adopt certain tactics for the sole purpose of bagging the game. That is, the flirt works to win, the coquette to reject. Coquetry is attention without intention. Flirtation is a race with the intention of being overtaken, and has in it the rudiments of that old idea that a woman must be captured. So we have a legend concerning those Sabine women, where one of them asks impatiently, "How soon does this attack begin?"
Laura was not a flirt. She was an honest wife and became the mother of ten children in her twenty years of married life. When Petrarch first saw her she had a babe at home a year old. In another year, this first babe became "the other baby," and was put on a bottle with its little pug-nose out of joint. There was always one on bread and milk, one on the bottle and one with nose under the shawl--and all the time the sonnets came fluttering adown the summer winds.
Laura was a cool-headed woman, shrewd and astute, with heart under perfect control, her feelings well upholstered by adipose. If she had been more of the woman she would have been less. Like the genuine coquette that she was, she received everything and gave nothing. She had a good digestion and no nerves to speak of.
Petrarch describes her in a thousand ways, but the picture is so retouched that the portrait is not clear or vivid. He dilates on her mental, moral, spiritual and physical qualities, according to his mood, and the flattery to her was never too fulsome. Possibly she was not fully aware before that she was such a paragon of virtue, but believing in the superior insight of Petrarch she said, "It must be so." Thus is flattery always acceptable, nor can it be overdone unless it be laid on with a trowel.
To flatter in rhythm and rhyme, with due regard for euphony and cadence, is always safe, and is totally different from bursting out upon a defenseless woman with buckets of adoration.
Laura evidently knew by intuition that her success in holding the love of Petrarch lay in never allowing him to come close enough to be disillusioned. She kept him at a distance and allowed him to do the dialogue. All she desired was to perform a solo upon his imagination.
Clothes play a most important part in Cupid's pranks. Though the little god himself goes naked, he never allows his votaries to follow suit. That story of Venus unadorned appearing from the sea is only a fairy-tale--such a sight would have made a lovelorn swain take to the woods, and would have been interesting only to the anatomist or a member of the life class. The wicket, the lattice, the lace curtain, the veil and mantilla, are all secondary sexual manifestations. In rural districts where honesty still prevails, the girls crochet a creation which they call a "fascinator," and I can summon witnesses to prove it is one.
Just why coquetry should be regarded as distinctly feminine I can not say. Laura has been severely criticized by certain puritan ladies with cold pedals, for luring Petrarch on in his hopeless passion. Yet he knew her condition of life, and being a man of sense in most ways he must have known that had she allowed his passion to follow its unobstructed course it would have wrecked the lives of both. He was a priest and was forbidden to marry; and while he could carry on an intrigue with a woman of inferior station and society would wink in innocency, it was different with a woman of quality--his very life might have paid the penalty, and she would have been hoisted high by the social petard.
Petrarch was no fool--he probably had enough confidence in Laura to know that she would play the part. I know a successful businessman in Saint Louis, an owner of monopolies, on the profits of which he plays at being a Socialist. This man knows that if he could succeed in bringing about the things he advocates it would work his ruin.
He elocutes to the gallery of his cosmic self, for the ego is a multi-masked rascal and plays I-Spy and leap-frog with himself the livelong day.
Had the love of Petrarch and Laura ever gone to the point of executive session, he would straightway have ceased to write about it, and literature would have been the loser.
It is not likely that either Petrarch or Laura reasoned things out thus far--we are all puppets upon the chess-board of Time, moved by the gods of Fate, and the fact that we know it proved for William Ellery Channing the soul of man. I am both the spectator and the play.
* * * * * * *
Laura died in her fortieth year of "the plague." Seven months after her death her husband paid her memory the compliment of taking a second wife, thus leaving us to assume that the first venture was a happy one, otherwise he would not have been in such haste to repeat it.
The second wife of Hugh de Sade never stirred the pool of ink from which Petrarch fished his murex up. He refers to this second wife once by indirection, thus: "The children of Laura are no longer motherless."
On the death of Laura the poet was overwhelmed with grief. But this paroxysm of pain soon gave way to a calm reflection, and he realized that she was still his as much as she ever was. Her death, too, stopped all flavor of scandal that was in the bond, and thus Petrarch stood better in the eyes of the world and in his own eyes than he did when gossip was imminent.
Petrarch expected to be immortalized by his epic poem "Africa," but it is not read today, even by scholars, except in fragments to see how deep are the barren sands of his thought.
The sonnets which he calls "fragments, written in the vulgar tongue," the Italian, are verses which have made him live. They are human documents inspired by the living, throbbing heart, and are vital in their feeling and expression. His "best" poems are fifteen times as voluminous as his love-poems; they were written in Latin and polished and corrected until the life was sandpapered out of them.
His love for Laura was an idyllic thing as artificial as a monk's life, and no more virtuous. It belongs to a romantic age where excess was atoned for by asceticism, and spasms of vice galled the kibe of negative virtue.
This love for Laura was largely a lust for the muse.
Fame was the god of Petrarch, and to this god he was forever faithful. He toiled unremittingly, slavishly, painfully, cruelly for fame--and he was rewarded, so far as fame can reward.
At Rome, on Easter Sunday in April, Thirteen Hundred Forty-one, with great ceremony, Petrarch was crowned with the laurel-wreath, reviving the ancient custom of thus honoring poets. Petrarch had been working hard to have this distinction shown him at Paris as well as at Rome, and the favorable response to his request at both places arrived on the same day. His heart longed for Rome.
All his life he worked both wisely, and otherwise, for the Holy See to be removed to that city of his dreams. Paris was second choice.
Petrarch had been cramming for exams for many months, and when he set out on his journey in February his heart beat high. He stopped at Naples to be examined by the aged King Robert as to his merit for the honor of the laurel, and "for three days I shook all my ignorance," is Petrarch's reference to the way he answered the questions asked him by the scholars of his time.
The King wanted to go on to Rome to the coronation, but he was too feeble in strength to do this, so he placed his own royal robe upon the young man and sent him to the ancient city of learning, where a three days' proceeding marked an epoch in the history of learning from which the Renaissance began. Petrarch closed the Preraphaelite period in letters.
While there is much in Petrarch's character that is vain and self-conscious, it must not be forgotten that there was also much that was true, tender, noble and excellent.
Petrarch was the founder of Humanism. He is the first man of modern times to make us realize that Cicero, Vergil, Horace, Quintilian and Seneca were real and actual men--men like ourselves. Before his time the entire classic world stood to us in the same light that the Bible characters did to most so-called educated people, say in Eighteen Hundred Eighty-five. Even yet there are people who stoutly maintain that Jesus was something different from a man, and that the relationship of God to Moses, Isaiah, Abraham, Elijah and Paul was totally different from God's attitude towards us.
Before Petrarch's time the entire mental fabric of Greece and Rome for us was steeped in myth, fable and superstition. Petrarch raised the status of man, and over and over again proclaimed the divinity of all humanity.
He realized his own worth, and made countless other men realize theirs. He wrote familiar letters to Homer, Sallust, Plato, Socrates and Seneca, addressing them as equals, and issued their replies. He showed the world that time is only an illusion, and that the men of Greece derived their life from the same source from whence ours is derived, and that in all respects they were men with like tastes, passions, aspirations and ambitions as ourselves.
He believed in the free, happy, spontaneous life of the individual; and again and again he affirms that the life of expression--the life of activity--is the only life. Our happiest moments are when we forget self in useful effort. He held that every man should sing, speak, paint or carve--this that he might taste the joys of self-expression. Constantly he affirms that this expression of our highest and best is Paradise. He combats the idea of Dante that Heaven and Hell are places or localities.
Yet Petrarch was profoundly influenced by Dante. He used the same metaphors, symbols and figures. As a word-artist, possibly he was not the equal of Dante, but as a man, an educated man, sane and useful, he far surpasses Dante. He met princes, popes and kings as equals. He was at home in every phase of society; his creations were greater than his poems; and as a diplomat, wise, discreet, sincere, loyal to his own, he was almost the equal of our own Doctor Franklin.
And always and forever he clung to his love for Laura. From his twenty-third year to his seventieth, he dedicated and wrote poems to Laura.
He sings her wit, her beauty, her grace, her subtle insight, her spiritual worth. The book compiled after his death entitled, "Poems on the Life and Death of Laura," forms a mine of love and allusion that served poets and lovers in good stead for three hundred years, and which has now been melted down and passed into the current coin of every tongue. It was his love-nature that made Petrarch sing, and it was his love-poems that make his name immortal. He expressed for us the undying, eternal dream of a love where the man and woman shall live together as one in their hopes, thoughts, deeds and desires; where they shall work for each other; live for each other; and through this blending of spirit, we will be able to forget the sordid present, the squalid here, the rankling now. By love's alchemy we will gild each hour and day, so it will be a time of joyous hope, and life will be a continual feast-day. And so through the desire and effort to express, we will reach the highest good, or paradise.
Petrarch did not live this ideal life of love and service--he only dreamed it. But his dream is a prophecy--all desire is a promise. We double our joys by sharing them, and the life for the Other Self seems a psychological need. Man is only in process of creation. We have not traveled far; we are only just learning to walk, and so we sometimes stumble and fall. But mankind is moving toward the light, and such is our faith now in the Divine Intelligence that we do not believe that in our hearts were planted aspirations and desires that are to work our undoing. The same God who created paradise devised the snake, and if the snake had something to do with driving the man and woman out of the Garden into a world of work, it was well. Difficulty, trial, hardship, obstacle, are all necessary factors in the evolution of souls.
A man alone is only half a man--he pines for his mate. When he reaches a certain degree of mentality he craves partnership. He wants to tell it to Her! When she reads she wants to read to Him. And when a man and a woman reach an altitude where they spiritualize their love, they are in no danger of wearing it out.
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