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  • Petrarch's Canzoniere in the English Renaissance, and: Petrarch in English
  • J. G. Nichols
Petrarch's Canzoniere in the English Renaissance. Edited by Anthony Mortimer. Revised and enlarged edition. Pp. 196. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005. Pb. £17.86.
Petrarch in English. Edited by Thomas P. Roche Jr. Pp. xxviii + 324 (Penguin Poets in Translation). London: Penguin, 2005. Pb. £14.99.

Anthony Mortimer's compilation, a revised and amplified version of a book which first appeared thirty years ago, is concerned, as he says, with Renaissance English poems 'that can be traced, however indirectly or partially, to a specific source in the Canzoniere'. Its value is obviousfrom the start, and becomes even clearer the more it is studied. The [End Page 268] introduction provides comments carefully linked to the poems which follow in the main body of the text. This contains sixty-three poems out of the 366 of Petrarch's Canzoniere, each followed by one or more relevant English versions, with occasional footnotes, sometimes critical and sometimes factual. There are frequent references from the poems to comments in the introduction. At the end of the book there is a general bibliography (including a list of the English texts used);a glossary of Renaissance terms which might cause students some difficulty; an index of the English poets (or rather, of the writers of the poems in English, since some of the most polished renderings are by the Scots William Alexander and Drummond of Hawthornden), with the numbers of the Petrarchan poems they imitated; and indexes of first lines, Italian and English. Thus, despite the inherent complications of the theme, it is easy to find one's way around. If there is a lack – which it seems ungrateful to suggest – one might argue for a breakdown by verse form of these much-imitated poems of Petrarch. Such a breakdown does yield interesting results.

The reasons Mortimer suggests for Petrarch's popularity as a model or influence in the English Renaissance are persuasive. Petrarch had shown some of the possibilities of Italian as a vehicle for poetry: this naturally interested English writers engaged in developing their own vernacular. Of course, Dante had earlier shown in his Commedia much greater possibilities, but the very magnitude of Dante's achievement made him a hard act to follow. Moreover, the exclusiveness of Petrarch's language, with its avoidance of technical terms, dialect forms, and recondite allusions, makes him easier to read, especially for a foreigner, and so easier to imitate. As Gianfranco Contini says in his celebrated essay Preliminari sulla Lingua del Petrarca: 'If Petrarch's language is still our language, that is because he restricted himself to a range of things which are unavoidable and eternal, unaffected by the changes which time brings about' (my translation). Trees, for instance, are mentioned in the Canzoniere, but what kind of trees is not usually specified; or we may be told simply that they are beeches, say, or laurels; and there are skies, rivers, towns even, sometimes named, and people, sometimes named, but very little that requires a note for today's reader with some notion of classical mythology. Mortimer might have added too that the Canzoniere, while avoiding the specificity and concrete detail of the Commedia, is nevertheless less ethereal and abstract than, say, the poems of the Vita Nuova, and, for the English writer with an inborn loveof concrete language, therefore much easier to translate. For many Renaissance writers there was also, of course, the advantage that Petrarch was not so obviously and unavoidably Catholic as Dante, with [End Page 269] all the panoply of detail and theology that informs his work. Petrarch's Catholicism was deep and earnest, but much easier to ignore than Dante's.

Mortimer shows how the same few poems of Petrarch are imitated again and again. Two sonnets written in an obviously antithetical style, S'amor non è (132) and Pace non trovo (134) are very popular. This will surprise no one: their main stylistic feature can be transferred without much trouble from one European language to another:

Pace non trovo, et non ò da far guerra;
e temo, et spero; et ardo, et son un ghiaccio

(I find no peace, and...


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pp. 268-277
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Archived 2009
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