- Overcoming Augustinian Dichotomies in Defense of the Laurel in Canzoni 359 and 360 of the Rime sparse
I’ vo piangendo i miei passati tempi i quai posi in amar cosa mortale senza levarmi a volo, abbiend’ io l’ale per dar forse di me non bassi esempi.Rime sparse 365 1
The closing poems of the Rime sparse refer copiously to the major texts in the Latin-Italian literary traditions. Whether Cicero’s De Amicitia, a central text for medieval “courtly” love traditions, 2 Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Dante’s Commedia, which Petrarch unflatteringly called a popular poem, Vita Nuova, or Convivio, Augustine’s Confessions, St. Paul, Propertius, Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid, Macrobius’ Somnium Scipionis, or Ovid, among others, Petrarch fills his poems with references whose nuances expand their ambiguities and connotations. 3 Petrarch deploys these allusions as he develops some of the main [End Page 149] themes of the closing poems, many of which he has explored throughout the collection. These include his affection for literature and fame, his love of Laura, his constant immobility and lethargy, his desire for conversion, and his fear of death.
No figure, whether fictional or true, including Laura, however, can surpass Augustine’s ominous yet ambiguous presence in Petrarch’s “lungo error” (Poem 224). This, of course, is hardly a revelation. Anyone who knows Petrarch even superficially, knows the significance Augustine has in his correspondence, in the Secretum, a dialogue with Augustine, and the Rime sparse. 4 Petrarch’s Augustine is an enduring voice through all his introspective interludes, raised by the poet himself as a judge, a critic, an advocate of Christian spirituality and morality, an admirer of secular literature, a true celibate, and most importantly, as a searcher for the single authentic and integrated inner person who located the path to rise beyond “human things,” for which Orpheus longingly sings but finds elusive nonetheless. 5 Especially in these closing poems, Augustine’s reflective style and literary conviction, moral efficacy, and spiritual assent determine the context for the debates the poet dramatizes.
In 359 and 360 of the Rime sparse, which precede the closing sonnets, Petrarch uses Augustinian self-inquiry to ponder the central activity of [End Page 150] his life, that is, the acquisition of fame through letters. The dominant theme of the closing sonnets, 361–365, is death and perhaps Petrarch’s real or imagined impending death, but the conclusion to 362, “Egli è ben fermo il tuo destino, / et per tardar ancor vent’ anni o trenta / parrà a te troppo, et non fia però molto” suggests that Petrarch contemplated the implications of his imminent, that is, inevitable death regularly. 6 Remorse over his life and the primary activities of his life also inform these closing sonnets. Making use of Augustinian semantic and theological terms, these poems unveil the inconclusiveness of the poet’s erring and labyrinthine quests. In canzone 359 and 360, the poet makes use of Augustinian and Boethian allusions to contemplate his conflicted attitude towards his literary activities which, rather than reversing the Christian allegorical literary poetics in which all words must lead to the single Verbum, attempt to overcome this Augustinian dichotomy between words and the Word through which poetry had been unconditionally challenged. 7
Petrarch, in a radical rethinking of poetic fame, explores how the “signs” which provide secular fame to the poet might be one avenue to God. This is a stunning difference from Dante, who cannot “save” poets whose goal in writing was worldly fame (Brunetto Latini, for example). In fact, only one poet appears in Dante’s Paradiso, and although some are in the intermediate purgatorial terrain, many inhabit hell. Dante must write the “poema sacro” (Par. XXV) to overcome his [End Page 151] exilic worldly status. 8 Petrarch’s argument also breaks with Augustine and Boethius, for while Augustine and Boethius justify secular letters as useful, they still support a hierarchy of poetic purpose to undergird their defenses of the usefulness or consolation provided by secular poetry. Demonstrating how important this issue must have been for Petrarch, when Boccaccio calls up Petrarch’s image in De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, he specifically portrays his friend’s passion for fame...