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Against Judgment: Petrarch and Shakespeare at Sonnets

Against Judgment: Petrarch and Shakespeare at Sonnets

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60  Chapter Two



dolce error

The funniest interchange in Petrarch’s Secretum occurs at a very intense moment in the dialogue, a moment in which Franciscus and Augustinus are focusing on the stakes and value of Petrarch’s love for Laura. Augustinus pulls out

the big gun; Petrarch is guilty of idolatry: “She has distracted you from love

of the Creator to love of one of the creatures.” Franciscus defends himself by

asserting that “loving her has increased my love of â•›God.” Augustinus counters

that loving God for having created Laura reverses “the right order of things”

and places the physical over the spiritual. Franciscus insists that he has not

“loved her body more than her soul.” His proof of this is that his feelings have

not changed as Laura has grown older: “The bloom of her youth has faded

with the passage of time, but the beauty of her mind—which made me love her

in the first place and [made me] afterwards continue to love—has increased.”

Augustinus responds with the coup de grace: “Are you serious? You mean that

if that same mind had been in an ugly, gnarled body, you would have loved it

just as much?” Here Franciscus immediately starts to backpedal.

In beginning with this passage, I mean to suggest that “Augustinus” was

right about this last point—Laura’s body did indeed matter to Petrarch—and I

mean to suggest that Petrarch, and not only “Franciscus,” knew this. But “Augustinus” has to be seen to be right only from a descriptive point of view—not

necessarily from a moral one. I will argue that in the Canzoniere, Petrarch’s most

important lyric poems, the “scattered rhymes” (Rime sparse) that he so carefully

collected and arranged, there is a sustained insistence on the importance and

value of the bodily and the mortal. In the poems gathered in the Rime, as I will

present them, Petrarch resists the ethical implications of the Platonism—or the

Platonized Christianity—to which he is, metaphysically and religiously, committed. He accepts the soul-body dualism of Platonism, but he refuses to give

the soul an absolute priority and to dismiss and devalue the body. He refuses,

in other words, to adopt a transcendental perspective—though, as we shall

see (and as the Secretum, among many other of his works, shows), he was fully

aware of such a perspective. John Freccero has praised Donne’s love poetry for

. Francis Petrarch, My Secret Book, trans. J. G. Nichols (London: Hesperus, 2002), 63; page

references for the English in the text are to this edition.

. For Neoplatonism in the Secretum, see ibid., 23–24; for how directly the Platonism of

“Augustinus” in the Secretum contradicts the position of the historical Augustine, and on the

fact that Petrarch certainly knew this, see Carol Everhart Quillen, Rereading the Renaissance:

Petrarch, Augustine, and the Language of Humanism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,



Against Judgment  61



“rescuing” human love from “angelic mysticism,” for defending the distinctly

human sphere of love from “the neo-Petrarchan and neoplatonic dehumanization of love.” I want to argue that, regardless of what “neo-Petrarchans”

did, Petrarch does exactly what Freccero credits Donne with accomplishing.

To return to the Secretum, we should note that Augustinus’s attack on

Franciscus goes even deeper than the latter’s attitude toward the body. After

Augustinus has successfully critiqued Franciscus’s erotic obsession, Franciscus says, “I am ashamed, I suffer for it, and I repent it; but I cannot get

beyond it” (Pudet, piget et penitet, sed ultra non valeo). This brings up the

issue with which the Secretum both begins and ends: the matter of the will. At

the beginning of the dialogue, Augustinus claims that Franciscus has willed

his “unhappy state” (not yet specified). As a good Platonist (in ethics as well

1998), chap. 5, esp. 191–95. Oscar Büdel brilliantly contrasts Petrarch’s poetry with the Platonism

of the stilnovisti in “Illusion Disabused: A Novel Mode in Petrarch’s Canzoniere,” in Francis

Petrarch, Six Centuries Later, ed. Aldo Scaglione (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina

Press, 1975), 128–51, esp. 129–30. See also J. W. Lever: “Laura was indeed the living manifestation of heavenly virtue; but she remained part of the natural world, not to be spirited away in

concept and symbol” (The Elizabethan Love Sonnet [London: Methuen, 1956], 3). As Joel Fineman points out—somewhat against the grain of his own argument (see note 1 above)—Giordano

Bruno, a serious philosophical Platonist, saw Petrarch in the love poetry as insufficiently Platonic, as either a mad sensualist or (Bruno’s preferred view) a sustained ironizer of such a figure

(Giordano Bruno, The Heroic Frenzies, trans. Paul Eugene Memmo, Jr. [Chapel Hill: University

of North Carolina Press, 1964], 64–65; quoted in Fineman, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye, 327n25).

. John Freccero, “Donne’s ‘Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,’â•›” English Literary History

30 (1963): 336. I do not mean, hereby, to endorse this as a view of Donne’s love poetry as a whole,

though Freccero is convincing, if perhaps overly systematic and Dantescan, on the particular

poem that he analyzes. Donne’s attitude toward the body varies wildly within the “Songs and

Sonnets.” My colleague Armando Maggi has remarked that “Freccero is right about ‘the angelic

mysticism’ of neo-Petrarchan poetry, but only if seen as a generic concept, not in its concrete

manifestations, because, for example Michelangelo, in his poems, is both very neoplatonic and

very physical. And some of the women poets of the Italian Renaissance are much less ‘angelic’

than Freccero claims” (â•›personal communication).

. Freccero does not address this issue in his direct treatment of Petrarch because he insists

that Petrarch’s lyrics do not actually have a subject matter. See Freccero’s “The Fig-Tree and the

Laurel: Petrarch’s Poetics,” in Literary Theory / Renaissance Texts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins

University Press, 1986), 20–32, esp. 21. According to Freccero, Petrarch’s is “a poetry whose real

subject matter is its own act,” and Freccero mocks those who think to find a representation of

psychology (or anything else) in Petrarch’s “autonomous universe of autoreflexive signs without

reference to an anterior logos” (27).

. English from My Secret Book, 80; Latin from Francesco Petrarca, Prose, ed. G. Martellotti

et al. (Milan: Riccardi, 1955), 184.



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as metaphysics), Augustinus holds that “anyone who has fully recognized his

unhappiness wants to be happy; and anyone who wants this tries to achieve

it.” He also holds the optimistic view, important for this kind of ethics, that

“anyone who tries to achieve [happiness] is able to achieve it” (6). Franciscus

has difficulty believing that the whole issue of happiness is a matter of knowledge and the will, but the problem that emerges is whether the movement from

recognition (or “full” recognition) of the condition of being unhappy leads

as directly as Augustinus states that it does to the desire to be happy (this

leaves aside the questions of whether the desire leads to action on its basis,

and that action to its success). Franciscus appears to grasp very clearly everything that Augustinus says. Yet in their very last exchange, Franciscus asserts,

“But I cannot restrain my desires” (Sed desiderium frenare non valeo), whereat

Augustinus rightly notes, “We are getting back to the old bone of contention.

You are saying your will is impotent [voluntatem impotentiam vocas]” (93).

Petrarch shows in the dialogue the failure of Socratic ethics. In the lyrics, he

goes further and at times seems to accept the perversion of his will, his inability

to desire what he knows to be the highest good. The sustained presentation, in

the first person, of simultaneous awareness of and resistance to moral evaluation—of the failure of clear-eyed moral analysis to determine the self-conscious

agent’s behavior, his affective commitment, and even his self-evaluation—can

be seen as Petrarch’s great contribution to European love poetry. This idea (or

vision) of the self is not unprecedented, but Petrarch’s sustained focus on it is,

and might well constitute a revolution.

. Gordon Braden argues that this is a slight mistranslation, and that the Latin (Prose, 214) is

even stronger here, and should be translated not as “you are saying your will is impotent,” but as

“what you are calling impotence is actually willfulness” (personal communication). This seems

to me a useful, and clarifying, correction.

. Needless to say, my reading of the Secretum differs from that of Thomas Roche, Jr.,

Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 7, who says of the

dialogue, “There can be no doubt who is right” (meaning “Augustinus”). My reading of the

Secretum is in accord with that of Quillen (see note 3 above), and with Hans Baron, Petrarch’s

“Secretum”: Its Making and Its Meaning (Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America,

1985), esp. 221–22. My readings of the Canzoniere and of Shakespeare’s sonnets are equally opposed to those of Roche.

. For this perspective on Petrarch’s achievement, and for a consideration of the precedents

for it, from Vergil and the Roman elegists to the stilnovisti and Dante, see Jennifer Petrie, Petrarch: The Augustan Poets, the Italian Tradition, and the “Canzoniere” (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1983), chaps. 5–7. See also Marco Santagata, Amate e amanti: Figure della lirica

amorosa fra Dante e Petrarca (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1999), 172: “Nella poesia di Petrarca i temi,



Against Judgment  63



Anyone who thinks that Petrarch’s sonnets are somehow simple and

straightforward pieces should be disabused by opening the volume and reading its first poem (there is abundant evidence that Petrarch carefully arranged

the order of the Canzoniere).10 I can think of no other authorially arranged

collection of lyrics—other perhaps than “The Church” section of George

Herbert’s The Temple—that begins with so complex a poem.11 Moreover, I can

think of no other collection of love lyrics that begins with what is essentially a

palinode. Petrarch opens by addressing his readers—there is no pretense that

these poems are not written to be widely read—and he does so in an oddly

intimate way, as if his readers were already familiar with the poems: “You who

hear” (Voi ch’ascoltate) rather than “You who will hear.”12 Moreover, the self

that is writing to these readers (or hearers) has a complex relation to what it is

that the readers “hear.”13 They hear “those sighs with which I nourished my

heart during my first youthful error” (quei sospiri ond’io nudriva ’l core / in sul

mio primo giovenile errore). One would think that the speaker would distance

himself from such errore, but he states, with extraordinary care and precision,

that he was then “in part another man from what I am now” (quand’era in

le immagini, il lessico del dolore e della sofferenza amorosi conoscono un incremento senza

precedenti.”

10. On Petrarch’s careful and continuous arranging of the order of the Rime, see Ernest

Hatch Wilkins, The Making of the “Canzoniere” and Other Petrarchan Studies (Rome: Edizioni

di Storia e Letteratura, 1951); for the composition, dating, and placement of the first poem in the

Rime, see 151–52, 190–93. On the richness of the opening sonnet, in itself and in relation to the

volume as a whole, see Bruce Merry, “Il primo sonetto del Petrarca come modello di lettura,”

Paragone 25 (1974): 73–79.

11. “The Church” section of The Temple begins with “The Altar,” on the complexities of

which see, most recently, Strier, “George Herbert and Ironic Ekphrasis,” 96–109, esp. 106–9,

and the references there given (see chap. 1, n. 81). For the care with which George Herbert

arranged his lyrics, one has only to compare the earlier version of the volume (“the Williams

manuscript” version) and the final version. For a helpful chart, see The Works of George Herbert,

liv–v (see intro., n. 54).

12. Wilkins notes that “the writing of No. 1 proves that Petrarch now [probably 1347] had

in mind the idea of publication” (The Making of the “Canzoniere,” 15). Wilkins also points out

(148) that what is now poem number 34, the sonnet “Apollo, s’ ancor vive il ben desio,” was the

opening poem for the first version of the Canzoniere. Quotations from Petrarch’s Rime are taken

from Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The “Rime Sparse” and Other Lyrics, ed. and trans. Robert M.

Durling (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976). Throughout, translations are Durling’s

unless otherwise noted.

13. On the role of the reader in the Canzoniere, see William J. Kennedy, Rhetorical Norms in

Renaissance Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 241.



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parte altr’uom da quel ch’i’ sono). The speaker is not wholly reformed; he is

still in parte the person caught in the juvenile error. The reader is justifiably

mystified. In what sense can one still participate in what one recognizes as a

“juvenile error”? Augustine’s (the real Augustine’s) theory of imperfect conversion—Saint Paul’s theory—would seem to be at work here.14

Instead, however, of continuing to elaborate on the complexity of the relation between his past and present selves, the speaker of poem 1 returns, in the

second quatrain of the octave, to thinking about his readers. He hopes that they

will be connoisseurs of poetry, appreciating the “varied style in which I weep”

(line 5). Most of all, he hopes that they will see and share the experience behind

the style, and offer the poet not only moral but emotional understanding—“I

hope to find pity, not only pardon” (spero trovar pietà, non che perdono). The

sestet shifts to the way the speaker is in fact different from his past self. He is

now afflicted with deep shame, not merely embarrassment: “I was the talk of

the town” (come al popol tutto / fabula fuiâ•›), and he presents his vario stile as

mere “raving” (mio vaneggiar) that has produced in him not only the feelings

that have already been named and enacted—shame and repentance—but also

a particular cognitive ability. He now has the ability to know something clearly,

and what he has thus come to know constitutes the last line of the sonnet, “that

whatever pleases in the world is a brief dream” (che quanto piace al mondo è

breve sogno). The upshot of the whole process described and evoked in the

poem is a grand metaphysical reflection, not an identifiably Christian moral.

Obviously a “brief dream” is different from a solid and enduring reality, but it

is also not necessarily something one would want to reject.

As we move through Petrarch’s volume, the complexities enunciated in the

opening sonnet persist. There continues to be a contrast between the speaker’s

present and his past, but this conflict persists in being different from the one

we would expect. In poem 55 (not a sonnet), the speaker recounts that in his

“no longer fresh” age, he is still basically the same person that he was earlier,

still burning with love. Instead of improving, he fears that “my second error

[’l secondo error] will be the worse” (line 6). Error, along with love and pain,

seems to be a constant. Poem 59, “Perché quel che mi trasse ad amar” (Because

that which drew me to love) begins to raise the issue of the will. The speaker

14. For the differences between “Augustinus” in the Secretum and the historical Augustine,

see note 3 above. For the historical Augustine’s theory of incomplete conversion, and on how

this differed from the prevailing way of conceiving of conversion in his time, see Peter Brown’s

discussion of â•›book 10 of The Confessions, in Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley and Los

Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), 177–81; for Augustine and Paul, see 150–52.



Against Judgment  65



has to decide how to deal with the fact that he has apparently been barred from

the sight of his beloved. This situation does not lead to any diminishment of

the lover’s passion, and this steadiness is seen not as a natural fact but as something like a decision or a commitment: the current deprivation “by no means

dissuades me from my firm desire”—and the willfulness is even stronger in the

Italian, where the words for volition are more prominent (del mio firmo voler

già non mi svoglia). The power of the bodily presence of the lady is evoked,

but the memory of that “splendor” is seen as equally strong. The poet laments

the loss of the dolce vista, but insists that his commitment to continuing his

feelings, despite their cost to him, is a matter of honor. By dying well, honor is

gained (ben morendo onor s’acquista), and the poem ends with a clear assertion: “I do not wish Love to loose me from such a knot” (non vo’ che da tal nodo

Amor mi scioglia).15

As we shall see, this image of the knot (nodo) recurs throughout the poetry.

The poet’s bondage is always seen as having, at least potentially, a relation to

his will that is not simply negative. Poem 61, “Benedetto sia ’l giorno e ’l messe

et l’anno” (Blessed be the day and the month and the year), and poem 62,

“Padre del Ciel” (Father of Heaven), both sonnets, are an odd pair. But they

dramatize Petrarch’s position. Each section of poem 61 begins with a formal

blessing, some version of the opening “Benedetto sia.” The poet accepts, sees

as sacred, his entire situation—his pain, his poems, the fame they have garnered (lines 12–13), and his bondage: her eyes have “bound” him (duo begli

occhi che legato m’ànno [line 4]). In the following sonnet, the poet (let’s call

him “Petrarch”) addresses the Christian God and asks to turn to another life

(torni / ad altra vita).16 Petrarch notes that he has now been in bondage, “subject to a pitiless yoke” (sommesso al dispietato giogo), for eleven years, and asks

that his “wandering” (though bound) thoughts be led to “a better place.”17 We

learn what the better place is—Calvary—by learning that the day of the poem

is Good Friday. The contrast with the asserted “blessedness” of the previous

poem could not be sharper. Yet it is important to see that “Padre del Ciel” is

entirely in the optative mode. There is no suggestion that the “turn” to another



15. Durling’s translation weakens the force of the ending by reversing the penultimate and

final lines of the original.

16. Durling’s translation is somewhat misleading here, since he translates ch’io torni as “that

I may return.”

17. It should be noted that “subject to” does not quite capture the willing submission suggested by the original.



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life that the speaker feels that he wants has actually occurred, or has even begun. His thoughts, in the present, still wander.

In poem 68, the “holy sight” of the city of Rome leads the poet to bewail

his “evil” past, but—and Petrarch’s poems are filled with significant adversatives—“with this thought another jousts” (Ma con questo pensier un altro giostra), namely, the thought that time is passing and the poet should return to see

“our lady” (la donna nostra), that is, Laura. The poem ends with the speaker in

a state of puzzlement as to the outcome of this conflict within himself—“Which

will win I don’t know” (Qual vincerà non so)—and with the acknowledgment

that this conflict is hardly new to him. The next poem, the sonnet “Ben sapeva

io” (I knew well), despite its ominous beginning, presents the poet as having

experienced some sort of momentary and miraculous feeling (beyond what

“natural counsel” can do) that has allowed him freedom from “the hands” of

Amor. In the final tercet, however, a countermiracle occurs: “Love” asserts

its power—“behold your ministers” (ecco i tuoi ministriâ•›)—and the speaker

declares that the person is wicked who resists or hides himself from his destiny (al suo destino / mal chi contrasta et mal chi si nasconde).18 “Destiny,” a

pagan concept, and one that does not allow for free will, shows (to return to

the puzzlement of the previous sonnet) which side will win. The interesting

question, however, is not whether heaven or destiny is the more important

term for the speaker—though that is interesting—but how the speaker feels

about this destino. He seems, in “Ben sapeva io,” rather calmly resigned to it.

The next poem, number 70, is a canzone in which the speaker puts himself in

the whole tradition of Provenỗal and stilnovisti love poetry; he quotes (as he

believes) Arnaut Daniel, Cavalcanti, Dante—and himself.19 The speaker denies

that his condition of erotic longing is externally caused: “[W]ho deceives me

but myself. .€.€. Nay, if I run through the sky from sphere to sphere, no planet

condemns me to weeping” (lines 31–34). The poem ends with Petrarch contemplating his inability to appreciate the inner, moral structure of the creation

(poem 70, 44–45).20 He further notes that if he ever returns to “the true splen18. Durling’s translation, “one cannot fight against or hide from his destiny,” changes the

meaning of the line from acting badly if one resists to being unable to do so. Petrarch’s line

repeats mal.

19. For excellent overviews of these traditions, see, inter alia, Maurice Valency, In Praise of

Love: An Introduction to the Love Poetry of the Renaissance (New York: Macmillan, 1958), and

Mariann Sanders Regan, Love Words: The Self and the Text in Medieval and Renaissance Poetry

(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).

20. These lines are quite difficult (conceptually, not linguistically); my paraphrase is an approximation of their meaning.



Against Judgment  67



dor” (al vero splendor), his eye will not be able to stay still, it is so weakened

by its own fault (l’occhio non po star fermo, / così l’à fatto infermo / pur la sua

propria colpa),21 for which even the transforming power of the lady’s beauty

cannot be blamed (the final line of poem 70 refers the reader back to the great

metamorphosis canzone, poem 23).

Again, poem 70 seems very calm about its propria colpa. In contrast, in

poem 99, a sonnet, Petrarch’s earnest exhortation to others who, like him, have

experienced disappointed hopes, to devote themselves to “the highest good,

which never fails,” turns into comedy. A rather blunt hypothesized voice rebukes the poet in the final tercet for his inability “now more than ever” to follow his own advice. The sonnet on the sixteenth year of Petrarch’s devotion

(poem 118) may seem more genuinely conflicted, but it too seems to present

the will’s puzzlement as a kind of comedy. The play with terms for will and

capacity is too willful: “I wish I wished more, and I do not wish more, and by

not being able to do more, I do as much as I can” (vorrei piu volere, et più no

voglio, / et per più non poter fo quant’io posso).22 The final line, again, seems

more resigned and accepting than anguished—“nor for a thousand turnings

about have I yet moved.” There may even be a hint of self-approval here. Poem

129, the canzone “Di pensier in pensier” (From thought to thought), confronts

the fact that Petrarch enjoys his life of sighs and tears—“I would hardly wish

to change this bitter, sweet life of mine” (lines 20–21)—and it celebrates, as

Oscar Büdel argues, “the mode of conscious adoption of illusion.”23 The poet

confesses in line 37 that he finds that his soul “approves its own deception” (del

suo proprio error l’alma s’appaga).24 The propria colpa of poem 70 has turned

into proprio error in “Di pensier in pensier.” Self-reproach has disappeared,

though analytical awareness has not. The poet knows that he is in “error,” and

in lines 49–52 consciously prefers “sweet deception” (dolce error) to the bleakness of reality (il vero).



21. The tense structure of these lines, in which the future inability is expressed in the present

tense (non po) intensifies the assertion of inability.

22. My translation is slightly altered from that of Durling, who, I think, improperly interrupts the series of â•›“and’s” by translating the second et in the passage quoted as “but”). Heather

Dubrow quotes this sonnet and comments usefully on it in Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism

and Its Counterdiscourses (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 18–19, but she does not seem

to see any comedy or self-mockery in the poem.

23. Büdel, “Illusion Disabused,” 139; see also Gordon Braden, Petrarchan Love and the Continental Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 18.

24. I have substituted “approves” for Durling’s “is satisfied with.”



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“Di pensier in pensier” is not Petrarch’s final word on the matter, but it is

a major statement. In poem 132, the questioning sonnet “S’amor non è” (If it

is not love), Petrarch seems truly and deeply puzzled by his enjoyment of his

sufferings, by the role of his will in his sufferings, and by the question of ↜“conÂ�

sent”: “If I consent to [my suffering], it is very wrong of me to complain” (s’io

’l consento, a gran torto mi doglio). Yet in poem 141, a sonnet meditating on the

self-destructive behavior of butterflies, the speaker notes, quite calmly, that his

soul “consents to its own death” (al suo morir l’alma consente). In poem 207,

the canzone “Ben mi credea passar mio tempo omai” (I strongly believed that

I could now pass my time), Petrarch returns to the position of “Di pensier in

pensier,” though now in moral rather than in cognitive terms: “sweet poison”

(dolce veleno) replaces “sweet error” (dolce error)—“still I do not repent that

my heart is overwhelmed with sweet poison” (lines 83–84). He returns to the

matter of “honor”—recall his words about dying well in poem 59—now affirming “I shall stand firm on the field” (lines 92–93). “Ben mi credea” ends

with Petrarch happily proclaiming that evil, or at least misfortune, is his good:

“There is no good in the world that is equal to my ill” (ben non à mondo che ’l

mio mal pareggiâ•›).25

Like “Di pensier in pensier,” the monumental canzone that begins the second section of the Rime—poem 264, “I’ vo pensando” (I go thinking)—takes as

its subject “thought.”26 Here one voice (one thought), like that of Augustinus

in the Secretum, insists on the freedom and potency of Petrarch’s will, as we

read in lines 32–33: “As long as the body is alive, you have in your own keeping

the rein of your thoughts” (Mentre che ’l corpo è vivo / ài tu ’l freno in bailia de’

penser tuoiâ•›).27 But the poem replaces a Platonic vision of the soul’s (or intellect’s) wings (lines 6–8) with an Aristotelian—or, perhaps better, Augustinian—

25. Durling’s translation, “There is no good in the world that is equal to my ills,” seems to

me to soften the force and starkness of the line by importing the plural. David Quint (in a private

communication) has expressed skepticism about my “Satanic” reading of this line, but I think

that the allusion is appropriate.

26. On the way that the role of this canzone is marked in Petrarch’s manuscript, see Wilkins,

The Making of the “Canzoniere,” 190–93.

27. On the closeness of “I’ vo pensando” to the Secretum, see Baron, Petrarch’s “Secretum,”

47–57. Baron argues, along with Wilkins, in The Making of the “Canzoniere,” 153 (though not

in later works), that the canzone and the original version of the Secretum were composed in the

same year, namely 1347 (before Petrarch had heard of Laura’s death, and in the same period in

which he composed De Otio Religiosum). For Baron’s dating of the composition of the Secretum,

see 1–46. Wilkins (190–93), intriguingly suggests that poems 1 and 264, the opening poems for

each section of the Rime, were composed at about the same time. Fineman sees the poetry as



Against Judgment  69



insistence on habit (costume in line 105, usanza in line 125). The conception

of habit involved here is Augustinian rather than Aristotelian because while

habit is morally neutral in Aristotle’s Ethics, in Augustine’s Confessions habit

(consuetudo) is almost always, as here, morally and spiritually negative.28 In a

typically remarkable and complex phrasing (lines 46–47), Petrarch presents

himself as one who has spent many years “awaiting a day that, luckily for our

salvation, will never come” (aspettando un giorno / che per nostra salute unqua

non vene). What Joel Fineman says of Shakespeare’s relation to the “dark lady”

is exactly à propos here: the lady is “spur to a desire that knows better than

itself.”29 The final line of â•›“I’ vo pensando” is “I see the better, and I lay hold on

the worse” (veggio ’l meglio et al peggior m’appiglio).30 This line is translated

from Ovid’s Medea in the Metamorphoses, but the context seems more resigned

than tragic.31 Pleasure remains “by habit” strong in Petrarch, even in the face of

death (lines 125–26). Analytical clarity only intensifies the dilemma; it does not

resolve it.32 As Wilkins says, “I’ vo pensando” is “not a poem of moral conversion” but rather “a poem of profound moral conflict.”33 In one of the last poems

in the Canzoniere on the matter of choice, Petrarch decides, first, not to accuse

himself for his erotic devotion, as he has done, but rather to excuse himself—or

much more “reticent” than the Secretum, and as somehow repressing or being unable to “speak”

what the prose work is able to acknowledge (Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye, 122).

28. Habit, of course, defines character for Aristotle (see Nicomachean Ethics 1103a17–26, in

Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald [1962; New Jersey, 1999]; hereafter NE). Aristotle

normally thinks of habit in relation to the virtues (though, of course, each of the virtues has

its opposite). In the Confessions, “habit” is consistently associated with sexual pleasure and

need—see, for instance, delectationes consuetudinis meae and consuetudo satiandae insatiabilis

concupiscentiae in 6.12, pondus hoc consuetudo carnalis in 7.17, and the imagined dialogue between consuetudo violenta and continence at the end of book 8 (St. Augustine’s “Confessions,”

trans. William Watts, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912],

1:318, 384, 459).

29. Fineman, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye, 54.

30. Again, as in sonnet 118 (see note 22 above), Durling translates an et as “but.”

31. For video meliora proboque, / deteriora sequor, see Metamorphoses 7.21–22 (Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge: Harvard University

Press, 1977], 1:342). For the significance, in the Roman and in later contexts, of a male poet taking

on the psychology of a woman afflicted with love-madness, see W. R. Johnson, A Latin Lover

in Ancient Rome: Readings in Propertius and His Genre (Columbus: Ohio State University

Press, 2009). Johnson suggests that whenever this occurs in poetry, “the myth of male erotic selfcontrol” is put into question (147).

32. See Petrie, Petrarch, 157.

33. Wilkins, The Making of the “Canzoniere,” 191.



70  Chapter Two



rather, to praise himself—“I used to accuse myself and now I excuse, rather I

praise myselfâ•›” (I’ mi soglio accusare, et or mi scuso, / anzi mi pregio). The sestet

of this sonnet (poem 296) explains that any soul would change its natural mode

(’l suo natural modo) of loving its natural objects—something like life, liberty,

and the pursuit of happiness (d’allegrezza .€.€. di libertà, di vita)—and choose,

as the final line of the sonnet states, “to die content with such a wound, and to

live in such a knot” (di tal piaga / morir contento, et vivere in tal nodo).

The “knot” is Petrarch’s recurrent figure for bondage of the will. But it is

also his image for what makes the human condition ontologically unique. In

writing of “[t]hat subtle knot that makes us man,” Donne is (whether consciously or not) echoing Petrarch.34 In poem 214, “Anzi tre di creata era alma”

(Three days ago, a soul was created), a sestina, Petrarch states that he will not

be cured from the “wound” he received on first seeing Laura until “my flesh

shall be free/from that knot for which it is more prized” (la carne sciolta / fia

di quel nodo ond’è ’l suo maggior preggio). Throughout the Rime, Petrarch remains committed to the special, positive status of the “knot” that body and

soul together form. He is constantly aware of Platonic dualism, and he constantly resists it.35 Even in his most visionary moments—for example, poem

90, “Erano i capei d’oro a l’aura sparsi” (Her golden hair was loosed to the

breeze), where the knots are literal—Petrarch is aware that though Laura’s

walk seems to him “not that of a mortal thing” (Non era l’andar suo cosa mortale), she is not, like Vergil’s Venus (the model for the line), “a goddess who

looks like a woman” but rather “a woman who looks like a goddess.”36 At the

very end of the sonnet, Petrarch insists on this; he asserts that if Laura “were

not such now” (se non fosse or tale), it would not matter. She is not a goddess



34. “The Exstasie,” line 64. One would think from the title of Marianne Shapiro’s Dante and

the Knot of Body and Soul (New York: St. Martin’s, 1998) that Dante uses the image in this way,

but he, in fact, uses the image differently, as Shapiro’s own analysis shows (15–16).

35. This assertion places me in opposition to Thomas M. Greene, in The Light in Troy:

Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), who

seems to equate Christianity (rather than Platonism) with body-soul dualism (125, 129), and

who sees in Petrarch the absence “of qualifications to pathos” (129). Greene is committed to a

view of literary history that sees enacted in most Renaissance texts, and especially Petrarch’s, “a

disruption of classical equilibriums by a modern metaphysical fissure” (142). This view seems

to me to darken Petrarch’s poetry, and to understate the equilibrium that, as I will try to show,

it often attains. At one point in his discussion, with regard to poem 188, the sonnet “Almo sol”

(Life-giving sun), Greene does suggest a less schematic view (140).

36. Ibid., 112.



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