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INTRODUCTION AND BIOGRAPHY
His reputation. Few names in literature have been more widely and permanently distinguished than that of Petrarch. Crowned with the laurel upon the Capitol at Rome as a great poet and historian, honoured above all others of his time, the chosen guest, companion, ambassador, and adviser of prince, pontiff, king, and emperor, he has come down to us after six centuries as second only to Dante among the five great classic authors of Italy and as worthy of the companionship of Homer, Virgil, Horace, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, and Goethe on the world’s roll of fame.
He was one of the great poets, and yet, except to those who are conversant with the Italian language, Petrarch is little more than a bright name. Few have read his works. Doubtless, much of his fame is due, not to his writings, but to the fact that he was foremost among the great scholars who awakened the world to the knowledge and the literature of antiquity after the long sleep of the Middle Ages. He loved the Roman poets, orators, and philosophers—Virgil, Cicero, Seneca—with a perfect love. He was indefatigable in his search for manuscripts, rummaging in libraries and archives and copying the texts with his own hand, and he discovered among other works the Institutes of Quintilian and some of the letters and orations of Cicero.
Of his voluminous writings all except the Canzoniere or Song Book are in Latin, but although these constituted, during his lifetime, his chief title to distinction in scholarship and literature, they are now, with the exception of his personal letters, mostly forgotten. It is those poems in the Italian tongue, which he at one time depreciated, that are still read and admired wherever that tongue is spoken.
Its causes. What is there in this collection of poems which gave to their author such widespread and lasting renown? Macaulay insists that their popularity is largely due to a curious tendency of human nature to enjoy in literature that egotism and revelation of personal characteristics and sufferings which we detest in conversation and of which the popularity of Rousseau, Wordsworth, and Lord Byron are such obvious illustrations.
The poems of Petrarch are little more than the expression of his feelings upon a subject in which the world is greatly interested—the love of a woman. He was, moreover, if we except Dante, the first distinguished writer of amatory verse in modern times, after woman had assumed that new claim to veneration and respect which had been allowed to her by Christianity, by chivalry, by the tourney, and by the courts of love. Not that Petrarch’s poems were strikingly original. He imitates in many places the formal and artificial style of the troubadours as well as the more natural methods of some of his Italian predecessors, and he engrafts upon this modern poetry much that he has drawn from his rich classical resources. But at their best, the lyrics of Petrarch are indescribably beautiful and entitle him to a high place among the immortals.