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[ Text from the edition of the translation by William H. Draper ]
 
 

INTRODUCTION
 

Most modern writers on Petrarch agree in stating that of all his works the Dialogues which he calls Secretum meum are the one which throws most light upon the man himself.

Yet no English translation has hitherto been published. A French version by M. Victor Develay was issued a few years ago, and received the recognition of the French Academy; and, considering the great importance of Petrarch in the history of the Renaissance, not merely in Italy but in Europe, it is time that a similar opportunity of knowing him more fully was offered to English readers; for there are signs on both sides of the Atlantic that the number of those interested in him is steadily growing. The reason for this is undoubtedly the fact that, as the whole work of Petrarch comes to be better known, interest in him as a man increases. Mr. Sidney Lee has lately reminded us of his wide range and predominating influence in the matter of the sonnet in France and in Elizabethan England, as well as in his own country; and yet that influence was very far indeed from revealing all that Petrarch was. It was largely an influence of style, a triumph of the perfection of form, and his imitators did not trouble much about the precise nature of the sentiment and spirit informing the style. When this came to be weighed in the balances of a later day, the tendency of English feeling was to regard his sentiment as a trifle too serious and weak. The love-making of the Cavaliers brought in a robuster tone. When once the question was raised, "Why so pale and wan, fond lover?" there was really no good answer to it on Petrarchan lines, and the consequence was that his name and fame suffered something of eclipse among us. But eclipses are transient events, and when literary England felt once more the attraction of Italy in the end of the eighteenth century it was not only Dante who began to resume his sway and to provoke translation, but Petrarch also. Then attention was turned chiefly to his Italian poetry, but also in some degree to the general body of his Latin works and to his Letters, of which it is reported that Fox was among the first to perceive the high value. In England the pioneers in this direction were Mrs. Susannah Dobson, who published first a Life of Petrarch in two volumes in 1775, which had by 1805 reached a sixth edition, and, soon after, another volume called Petrarch's View of Life, purporting to be a translation, but in fact a very loose and attenuated abstract of the treatise De remediis utriusque Fortunæ, which nevertheless reached a new edition in 1797. Then came a volume of Essays on Petrarch (Murray 1823) by the Italian exile Ugo Foscolo, and a little later a second Life of the Poet by no less a person than Thomas Campbell, also in two volumes.

Testifying to the re-awakened interest in Petrarch, numerous translations also of his poetry were published by Lady Dacre, Hugh Boyd, Leigh Hunt, Capel Lofft, and many others, who took up after a long interval the tradition begun by Chaucer and handed on by Surrey, Wyatt, Sir Philip Sidney, Spenser, Drummond of Hawthornden, and George Chapman.

Then for a while there was a pause, and the main drift of such attention in England as could be spared for things Italian in mid-Victorian days was concentrated on the greater luminary of the Divine Comedy and the exciting political events of the sixties; though some attention was drawn to things connected with Petrarch by Lytton's novel of Rienzi, which was first published in 1835 and had a considerable vogue.

Meanwhile in Italy itself his fame was well served by the excellent collection and reprint of his Latin letters by Fracasetti in three vols. (1859-63), and since that time there have appeared several important works dealing with the larger aspects of his life and work, most notable among them being Koerting's Petrarka's Leben und Werke (Leipsig 1878), and in France M. P. de Nolhac's Pétrarque et l'Humanisme (two vols., 1907, new edition), with other subsidiary works, and four small volumes by M. Henri Cochin, elucidating what is known of Petrarch's brother Gherardo and some of his many friends. Amongst ourselves in late years, following the labours of J. A. Symonds in his history of the Renaissance, we have Henry Reeve's small but well-planned volume in the "Foreign Classics for English Readers," and, more recently still, Mr. Hollway Calthrop's Petrarch: his Life, Work and Times (1907), and Mrs. Maud Jerrold's Francesco Petrarca: Poet and Humanist (1909).

It is significant that both the last writers single out the Secretum for its psychological interest, the former stating that "to those who feel the charm of Petrarch's nature and the intense humanity of his character, these three Dialogues are the most fascinating of all his writings"; and the latter "that this conflict of the dual self is of quite peculiar interest."

Mrs. Jerrold indeed goes so far as to say that Petrarch "plunges into the most scathing self-examination that any man ever made. Whether the book was intended for the public we may well doubt, both from the words of the preface and from the fact that it does not appear to have been published till after the author's death. But however this may be, it remains one of the world's great monuments of self-revelation and ranks with the Confessions of S. Augustine"—a verdict which to some critics will seem to have a touch of overstatement, though hardly beyond the opinion of Petrarch's French students, and not altogether unpardonable in so enthusiastic an admirer of her subject, and a verdict which at least would not have been displeasing to Petrarch himself.

Among the many points of human interest to be found in the Dialogues not the least is the one connected with Accidie, a theme which has of itself attracted special study in the present day, particularly since attention was called to it by the late Bishop of Oxford in his well-known introduction to the Spirit of Discipline. Observers of mental life incline to the view that the form of depression denoted by the mediæval word was not confined to those times or met with only in monasteries, and it is curious that he who is sometimes called the "first of the moderns" should take us into his confidence as to his sufferings from this trouble, and exemplify the truth of the observation to which reference has been made. M. P. de Nolhac, in his interesting work entitled Le Frère de Pétrarque, calls particular attention to this trait in Petrarch's character, and in an appendix on the subject writes, "Mais il faut surtout lire l'émouvante discussion que Pétrarque, dans le second dialogue du Secretum, suppose entre Saint Augustin et lui-meme, les aveux entrecoupés de sanglots qu'il laisse échapper. Cette torture, dit-il, où il passe des jours et des nuits, a pourtant en elle je ne sais quelle atroce volupté tellement que parfois il en conte de s'y arracher" (p. 220). It is the remarking on this note of self-will, this voluptas dolendi, that M. de Nolhac considers is Petrarch's special contribution to the subject and furnishes a new point beyond what is in previous definitions.

The fundamental question raised by these Dialogues is the question of what was the real nature and character of Petrarch, and wherein lay the secret of his extraordinary charm and influence among his contemporaries, and especially among contemporary men? It is difficult to convey in few words how great an impression the study of his Latin works makes in regard to this influence in his own lifetime. Of course, a reader is soon aware of the trait of personal vanity in Petrarch and of certain unconscious littlenesses, as in the matter of his appreciation of Dante; but the strange thing is how little this interfered with the regard and admiration extended to him by many sorts and conditions of men. In the ordinary intercourse of life one is apt to think such a trait fatal to anything like respect, and it must always detract somewhat from the full stature of any mind, but in the case of Petrarch it seems evident that he was one to whom much was forgiven, and that the reason is to be found in the presence in him of so rich an assemblage of other and better qualities that this one hardly counted at all, or was looked on with kindly amusement by friends large-hearted enough to think it nothing compared with what was good and admirable in his mind. We may take it for granted that, as he hints in his "Letter to Posterity," he started with the advantage of a good presence and a sufficient care of his own person and appearance in younger days; and it is evident that he had by nature a certain engaging frankness and impulsiveness, which nevertheless were not inconsistent with the contrasted qualities of gravity and dignity, learned at first from his father and mother and their friends, and cultivated by his study of the Law and afterwards by his attendance on the Papal court at Avignon. One can discern this in his Letters and see it reflected in those that were written to him or about him. But beyond these introductory qualities, as they may be called, there were other deeper traits, of rarer kind, that must be noted before one can understand the position he attained and has held so long. Studying his work from the cool distance of six centuries, one is inclined to judge that the most fundamental quality of his nature was his love of literature, and that every other trait took a subordinate place to this.

It is perhaps doubtful whether this or the life of personal affection, or even of devotion in a monastery, would have gained the upper hand if the circumstances of his life had been different in the matter of his love for Laura; but taking into consideration that she was separated from him apparently by temperament and circumstance, the one course that remained open to him without let or hindrance was the life of literature in the sense of devotion to the great writers of the Past and the practice of the art of writing for himself. He loved this for its own sake, and at the same time he was quickened by the sense of a new learning, which, since his time and largely by the impetus he gave it, has taken form and outline in a wonderful way, but was then only like the first streak of dawn upon the sky.

Petrarch was not the first man to find a certain contradiction between his desires and the possibilities of life around him, and to pass many years under the pain of contrary attractions that could not all be followed to fulfilment This conflict is what gives interest to the Secretum. Some have thought, and the idea was expressed by one of his correspondents, that his love for Laura was very much of a literary pose. Yet that such a view is an insufficient account of it seems pretty clearly established by the work here translated. It is, indeed, plain that his feelings ran a course, and not a smooth one, and did not continue in one stay; he came to see the whole matter in a changed light, and yet not wholly changed; his relation was transfigured, not abandoned, and after the death of Laura, which took place when he was forty-four, it continued as a memory from which the pain had faded away and only what was uplifting remained.

That which persisted unchanged all through his life and seems most to have had the colour and substance of a passion was the love of Letters. To this his friendship, his very real patriotism, and (must we not add?) his religion also were in a sense second. But the mention of this last factor in the life of Petrarch leads one to express the opinion that this has not yet been quite sufficiently reckoned with. That it should not have been thought worthy of such reckoning has probably arisen from the one ugly fact in his life which he himself does not conceal, and indeed expressly refers to in his "Letter to Posterity," in the following words:—

"As for the looser indulgences of appetite, would indeed I could say I was a stranger to them altogether; but if I should so say, I should lie. This I can safely affirm that, although I was hurried away to them by the fervour of my age and temperament, their vileness I have always inwardly execrated. As soon as I approached my fortieth year I repelled these weaknesses entirely from my thoughts and my remembrance, as if I had never known them. And this I count among my earliest happy recollections, thanking God, who has freed me, while yet my powers were unimpaired and strong, from this so vile and always hateful servitude." (1)

Now, although Petrarch did not, as some other men have done, including his own brother, express his repentance by retiring to a monastery, yet there is evidence enough that the change of will here referred to, and professed in the Secretum, was real, and that the older he grew the more he lifted up his heart. Among other signs of this there is the curious little group of what he calls Penitential Psalms, which were translated into English by George Chapman, into whose translation of Homer Keats looked and was inspired

In his Will also there are not a few passages through which one hears a note of genuine penitence. Among other curious points in it is the mention of the exact spot in which he would wish to be laid to rest in some one of seven different places where he might happen to die, the last being the city of Parma, of which he says, "At si Parmæ, in ecclesiâ majori, ubi per multos annos archidiaconus fui inutilis et semper fere absens."

Petrarch must have fully weighed in his own case the pros and cons for such retirement. His treatise De Otio Religiosorum shows that he understood what good side that kind of life has, and his whole attitude towards his brother—generous, and attached, almost to the point of romance—reveals how he could admire it. But in his own case he felt that it would cramp his faculties too much to be endurable, and hinder more than it would help the kind of work to which he had put his hand. There was also another influence that told strongly on this father of Humanism. He whose nature was so full of unsatisfied natural affection had begun in his latter years to find some rest and blessing in the love and tendance of a daughter, the light of whose care and companionship for him shines through his declining days like the rays of the sun in the evening after a dark and troubled day.

But if we are right in judging that the love of Letters was the dominant factor in the life of Petrarch, it was but the main thread in a singularly complex nature. Not much less in substance and strength was his genius for friendship. Indeed, his study of the writers of past ages partook of the nature of friendship, just as his friendship with living men had a deep literary tinge. He loved books and he loved men, and he loved them in the same way. This is by no means a frequent combination in the degree in which it was shown in Petrarch. More often the book-lover becomes a recluse, and the lover of his fellow-men loses his ardour for study.

But not even the love of books and of men took up all the activities of this rich nature. He was also a keen traveller and among the first to write of natural scenery in the modern spirit. He had that in him which, in spite of his love for reading and writing, sent him forth into other lands and made him eager to see men and cities. Yet the love of the country in him prevailed over the love of cities. His many references to his life at Vaucluse, though to readers of to-day they may seem sometimes affected, yet show only a superficial affectation, a mere mode, which does not seriously lessen the impression of his simple taste and his genuine delight in his garden and his fishing, and his talk with the charming old farmer-man and that sun-burnt wife for whom he had such an unbounded respect.

In the two recent lives of Petrarch in English a reader may make closer acquaintance with this side of his character, and will find much that falls in with modern feeling as to simplicity of living and the joys of escaping from "the man-stifled town." But what is still a desideratum is a good English translation of his Letters to his friends, which will add many glimpses of his daily interests and thoughts, and fill up the picture of his interior life as it is disclosed to us in the Dialogues here presented.

What the Secretum gives us is the picture of Petrarch as he was in the crisis of his middle years. It was written in or about the year 1342 when he was thirty-eight, and in these Dialogues we find him looking back over his youth and early life—the sap and vigour of his mind as strong as ever, the recollection of many sensations green and still powerful—but finding that the sheer march of time and experience of manhood are forcing him now to see things with more mature vision. Five years later he will be seen suddenly kindled into surprising excitement in that strange Rienzi episode, but in one of his letters to that unhappy politician there is a sentence which might have been penned by Bishop Butler, and has in it the accent of grave experience: (2) "Ibunt res quâ sempiterna lex statuit: mutare ista non possum, fugere possum" (Things will go as the law eternal has decided: to alter their course is out of our power; what we can do is to get out of their way).

The interest of the Secretum is heightened by remembering the time of life in which it was composed. (3) Some will find most pleasure in reading what men have written De Senectute, and others prefer the charm that belongs to youth; but is there not much to be said for the interest of what men write from that high tableland that lies between the two, in the full strength of their mind when they have lived long enough to know what is hidden from the eyes of youth and not long enough to be wearied and broken with the greatness of the way? Such is the tone that seems to pervade the Dialogues between S. Augustine and Petrarch. In the preface he looks forward to cherishing the little book himself in future years, like some flower that keeps alive remembrance of past days and yet is not cherished for memory only, but to guard the resolution which has been taken to go forward and not back, and, as his French translator suggests, "Is it to be wondered at that these pages, written with such abandon, in which he has laid bare his whole soul, should have been his own favourite work? It was the book he kept at his bedside, his faithful counsellor and friend, and to which he turned ever and again with pleasure in the hours of remembering the time past."

It is not necessary to tell over again the story of Petrarch's lifelong devotion to the study of S. Augustine's Confessions, or to dwell on the obvious reasons for that devotion. Every man loves the book which tells the history of conflicts like his own, and which has helped to give him courage in his warfare and its sorrows and joys.

"That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more;"

sings the poet, but if one reads the experience of those who have suffered and contended and conquered, and is sure that their load was as heavy as his own, then there is a spirit which is breathed over from one life to another, and which even though it tells us how great is the burden of sorrow in the world, yet also tells us that a man is not alone, but that there are companions in patience who a little strengthen each other and give the sense of fellowship from age to age, donec aspiret dies et inclinentur umbrae.

Many of the letters of Petrarch's later years show how wistfully he waited for that day. But they also show how gallant a heart he kept, and how faithful to those friends that remained, including the one so lovable and generous and true, Giovanni Boccaccio, who survived him little more than a year.

Petrarch passed the end of his life in a modest house which he built in one of the loveliest parts of Italy, that to English readers will be for ever dear because of the haunting music that Shelley wove around its name.

It was in the Euganæan Hills at Arqua where Petrarch chose to wait for the dawn, and, till it came, to go on working among the books he loved as his own soul.

"Many a green isle needs must be
In the deep wide sea of misery,"

and to read the story of his last years there is to think of one of those green isles. These were days of calm, and the book of the Secret ends with the expression of hope for a deeper calm still. In due time it came, but, as the English Poet sang, after more than six centuries—

The love from Petrarch's urn
Yet amid yon hills doth burn,

 

PETRARCH'S SECRET
 
AUTHOR'S PREFACE
 

Often have I wondered with much curiosity as to our coming into this world and what will follow our departure. When I was ruminating lately on this matter, not in any dream as one in sickness and slumber, but wide awake and with all my wits about me, I was greatly astonished to behold a very beautiful Lady, shining with an indescribable light about her. She seemed as one whose beauty is not known, as it might be, to mankind. I could not tell how she came there, but from her raiment and appearance I judged her a fair Virgin, and her eyes, like the sun, seemed to send forth rays of such light that they made me lower my own before her, so that I was afraid to look up. When she saw this she said, Fear not; and let not the strangeness of my presence affright you in any wise. I saw your steps had gone astray; and I had compassion on you and have come down from above to bring you timely succour. Hitherto your eyes have been darkened and you have looked too much, yes, far too much, upon the things of earth. If these so much delight you, what shall be your rapture when you lift your gaze to things eternal!

When I heard her thus speak, though my fear still clung about me with trembling voice I made reply in Virgil's words—

"What name to call thee by, O Virgin fair,
I know not, for thy looks are not of earth
And more than mortal seems thy countenance." (4)

I am that Lady, she answered, whom you have depicted in your poem Africa with rare art and skill, and for whom, like another Amphion of Thebes, you have with poetic hands built a fair and glorious Palace in the far West on Atlas's lofty peak.

Be not afraid, then, to listen and to look upon the face of her who, as your finely-wrought allegory proves, has been well-known to you from of old.

Scarcely had she uttered these words when, as I pondered all these things in my mind, it occurred to me this could be none other than Truth herself who thus spoke. I remembered how I had described her abode on the heights of Atlas; yet was I ignorant from what region she had come, save only that I felt assured she could have come from none other place than Heaven. Therefore I turned my gaze towards her, eagerly desiring to look upon her face; but lo, the eye of man is unable to gaze on that ethereal Form, wherefore again was I forced to turn them towards the ground. When she took note of this, after a short silence, she spoke once more; and, questioning me many times, she led me to engage with her in long discourse. From this converse I was sensible of gaining a twofold benefit for I won knowledge, and the very act of talking with her gave me confidence. I found myself by degrees becoming able to look upon the face which at first dismayed me by its splendour, and as soon as I was able to bear it without dread, and gaze fixedly on her wondrous beauty, I looked to see if she were accompanied with any other, or had come upon the retirement of my solitude alone; and as I did so I discerned at her side the figure of an aged man, of aspect venerable and full of majesty. There was no need to inquire his name. His religious bearing, modest brow, his eyes full of dignity, his measured step, his African look, but Roman speech, plainly declared him to be that most illustrious Father, Augustine. Moreover, he had so gracious a mien, and withal so noble, that one could not possibly imagine it to belong to any other than to him. Even so I was on the point of opening my lips to ask, when at that moment I heard the name so dear to me uttered from the lips of Truth herself. Turning herself to him, as if to intervene upon his deep meditation, she addressed him in these words: "Augustine, dear to me above a thousand others, you know how devoted to yourself this man is, and you are aware also with how dangerous and long a malady he is stricken, and that he is so much nearer to Death as he knows not the gravity of his disease. It is needful, then, that one take thought for this man's life forthwith, and who so fit to undertake the pious work as yourself? He has ever been deeply attached to your name and person; and all good doctrine is wont more easily to enter the mind of the disciple when he already starts with loving the Master from whom he is to learn. Unless your present happiness has made you quite forget your former sorrow, you will remember that when you were shut in the prison of the mortal body you also were subject to like temptation as his. And if that were so, most excellent Physician of those passions yourself experienced, even though your silent meditation be full of sweetness to your mind, I beg that your sacred voice, which to me is ever a delight, shall break its silence, and try whether you are able by some means to bring calm to one so deeply distressed."

Augustine answered her: "You are my guide, my Counsellor, my Sovereign, my Ruler; what is it, then, you would have me say in your presence?"

"I would," she replied, "that some human voice speak to the ears of this mortal man. He will better bear to hear truth so. But seeing that whatever you shall say to him he will take as said by me, I also will be present in person during your discourse."

Augustine answered her, "The love I bear to this sick man, as well as the authority of her who speaks, make it my duty to obey." Then, looking kindly at me and pressing me to his heart in fatherly embrace, he led me away to the most retired corner he could find, and Truth herself went on a few steps in front. There we all three sat down. Then while Truth listened as the silent Judge, none other beside her being present, we held long converse on one side and the other; and because of the greatness of the theme, the discourse between us lasted over three days. Though we talked of many things much against the manners of this age, and on faults and failings common to mankind, in such wise that the reproaches of the Master seemed in a sense more directed against men in general than against myself, yet those which to me came closest home I have graven with more especial vividness on the tablet of my memory. That this discourse, so intimate and deep, might not be lost, I have sot it down in writing and made this book; not that I wish to class it with my other works, or desire from it any credit. My thoughts aim higher. What I desire is that I may be able by reading to renew as often as I wish the pleasure I felt from the discourse itself. So, little Book, I bid you flee the haunts of men and be content to stay with me, true to the title I have given you of "My Secret": and when I would think upon deep matters, all that you keep in remembrance that was spoken in secret you in secret will tell to me over again.

To avoid the too frequent iteration of the words "said I," "said he," and to bring the personages of the Dialogue, as it were, before one's very eyes, I have acted on Cicero's method and merely placed the name of each interlocutor before each paragraph. (5) My dear Master learned this mode himself from Plato. But to cut short all further digression, this is how Augustine opened the discourse.


________________

(1) Translation by H. Reeve.

(2) De rebus fam., vii. 7.

(3) The profile portrait, reproduced by kind permission of Mr. T. Fisher Unwin, publisher of Mr. E. J. Mills' book on Petrarch, is from Lombardo's copy of the De viris illustribus, finished about five years after the death of Petrarch, and is believed to be an authentic picture of him in later life.

(4) Æneid, i. 327-28.

(5) De Amicitiâ, i.


EDIZIONE DI RIFERIMENTO: "Petrarch's Secret or the Soul's Conflict with Passion (Three Dialogues Between Himself and S. Augustine", translated from the latin by William H. Draper, Chatto & Windus, London, 1811







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