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Petrach's Genius: Pentimento and Prophecy.

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991). 225 pp. ISBN 0-520-07293-6. $34-95.

The author of this study of Petrarch's Canzoniere writes as a theologian, and proposes a reading which takes Petrarch's own |theological' claims for poetry seriously, something which, it would seem, secular students of Petrarch, fascinated by his supposed anticipations of modernity, have failed to do. Regrettably, |theologians abandoned Petrarch to those scholars who dealt with the ambiguities of life and literature: historians and literary critics'. It could be objected that modern scholarship has given much attention to the strong influence of Augustine on Petrarch. But it is with an |Augustinian' reading of Petrarch that Dr Boyle takes issue in particular, especially with the view taken by Freccero and others of the Canzoniere as reflecting a |poetics of idolatry'. Petrarch's view of poetry, and indeed of Christianity, was, she maintains, a non-Augustinian, humanistic one. In the Secretum, Petrarch is defining his poetics against |Augustine' (a |man of straw' or |devil's advocate) or the ascetic outlook he is taken to represent.

The book, then, is concerned with applying Petrarch's |humanist poetics' as set out in his Latin writings to the Canzoniere, which is in effect read as if it were the Bucolicum Carmen. Apollo is a type of Christ and this poetic-prophetic allegory may be related to what is seen as a pervasive use of solar imagery, from the dazzling light of Laura's beauty to such emblems as the phoenix. The |genius' of the book's tide has its origins explored from the Roman natal spirit to Ciceronian ingenium, the English |genius' being used, perhaps misleadingly, to translate both terms, as well as the Italian ingegno, thus giving Petrarch's vocabulary a numinous charge which it does not necessarily bear. But what Boyle wants to insist on is Petrarch's belief in vatic inspiration. Love of Laura is the ecstatic love of the spiritually illuminating ideal of poetry and beauty, a love wounded at times by cupidity. Her death represents the dashing of Petrarch's hopes of being a poet with a prophetic message for his contemporaries; but as a heavenly ideal the love of poetry still attracts him in spite of weakness. Petrarch, named |Franciscus', shares the prophetic ideals of the Franciscan movement: hence he meets Laura in the church of St Clare; her burial in the church of the friars minor, conventuals who persecuted the |Spirituals', marks the destruction of the poet's hopes for reform in the Church.

This reading has the merit of taking Petrarch's Latin writings on poetry seriously, but a thoroughly allegorical mode of interpretation carries its own risks, including that of arbitrariness. Meanwhile, the polemical nature of the work makes it unbalanced. There is a tendency to undervalue the moral and self-analytical sensus litteralis of very many of the sonnets. The dismissal of Augustine, especially in the introduction, is unconvincing and fails to appreciate the strong case for the latter's relevance to the Canzoniere, and in particular the importance of the De Vera Religione, which Dr Boyle does not mention. She is incorrect in taking l'idolo 0f 30.27 as a hapax legomenon (p. 5): it is found in 128.76 and 137.9, in both cases with the sense of |false god', which she does not wish to admit. Nevertheless, in spite of these and other reservations, the work remains a stimulating interpretation of the Canzoniere which should not be ignored.
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Author:Petrie, Jennifer
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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