Shawn L. Bird

Original poetry, commentary, and fiction. All copyrights reserved.

soul vs a woman July 7, 2012

I’m transcribing the text of Life of Petrarch by Susanna Dobson (1777).  This day’s words offer a fascinating view of Petrarch’s hopeless devotion.  He climbs Mt. Ventoux with his brother, has a profound spiritual awakening, and determines to avoid Laura and the distraction his affections for her have on his spiritual devotion.  Laura, who has sedulously avoided him for nearly a decade, is alarmed at this change in his behaviour to her, and with a few words of attention, sucks him right back to her feet where he belongs.  lol.  I have to say, this section seemed rather familiar.  Obviously, men and women have not changed much in six hundred years!  

Here is the passage.  In brackets are the page numbers in my original 1777 copy of this work.  (sic) indicates a verbatim spelling from the original.  I have switched ‘f’ to ‘s’ in words as required (to avoid lines like “he attempted the moft diftant expreffion”), but otherwise have kept all spelling,capitalization, and punctuation as it is in the original.

An imagined view of Petrarch and Laure, which looks to be set at Fontaine de Vaucluse.

THIS year, in 1336, at the end of April, Petrarch, always curious and eager to see new objects, took a journey to Mount Ventoux.  This is one of the highest mountains in Europe, and having a few (104) hills near it so lofty as to intercept the prospect, it presents from its summit a more extensive view than can be seen from the Alps or the Pyrennees.  Petrarch gives this account of his journey in a letter to father Dennis:

“HAVING passed my youth in the province of Venaisson, I have always desire to visit a mountain which is described from all parts, and which is so properly called the mountain of the winds.  I sought a companion for this expedition; and, what will appear singular, among the number of friends that I had, I met with none quite suited to my mind: so true it is, that is is rare to find, even among persons who love one another the best, a perfect conformity in taste, inclination, and manner of thinking.  One appeared to me too quick, another too slow; I found this man too lively, the other too dull; there is one, said I to myself, too tender and too (105) delicate to sustain the fatigue; there is another too fat and too heavy, he can never get up so high; in fine, this is too petulant and noisy, the other too silent and melancholy.  All these defects, which friendship can support in a town and in a house, would be intolerable on a journey.  I weighted this matter, and finding that those whose society would have pleased me, either had affairs which prevented them, or had not the same curiosity as myself, I would not put their complaisance to the proof.  I determined to take with me my brother Gerard, whom you know.  He was very glad to accompany me, and felt a sensible joy in supplying the place of a friend as well as a brother.”

“WE went from Avignon to Malaucene, which is at the foot of the mountain on the North side, where we slept the night, and reposed ourselves the whole of the next day.  The day after, my (106) brother and myself, followed by two domestics, ascended the mountain with much trouble and fatigue, though the weather was mild and the day very fine.  We had agility, strength, and courage; nothing was wanting; but this mass of rocks is of a steepness almost inaccessible.  Towards the middle of the mountain we found an old shepherd, who did all he could to divert us from our project.  It is about fifty years ago, said he, that I had the same humour with yourselves; I climbed to the top of the mountain, and what did I get by it?—My body and my cloaths (sic) torn to pieces by the briars, much fatigue and repentance, with a firm resolution never to go thither again.  Since that time I have not heard it said that any one has been guilty of the same folly.”

“YOUNG people are not to be talked out of their schemes.  The more the shepherd exaggerated the difficulties of (107) the enterprise, the stronger desire we felt to conquer them.  When he saw that what he said had no effect, he shewed us a steep path along the rocks; that is the way you must go, said he.”

“AFTER leaving our cloaths and all that could embarrass us, we began to climb with inconceivable ardour.  Our first efforts, which is not uncommon, were followed with extreme weakness: we found a rock, on which we rested some time: after which we resumed our march; but it was not with the same agility; mine slackened very much.  While my brother followed a very steep path which appeared to lead to the top, I took another which was more upon the declivity.  Where are you going? cried my brother with all his might; that is not the way, follow me.  Let me alone, said I, I prefer the path that is the longest and the easiest.  This was an excuse for my weakness.  I wandered for some time at (108) the bottom; at last shame took hold of me, and I rejoined my brother, who was set down to wait for me.  We marched one before another some time, but I became weary again, and sought an easier path; and at last overwhelmed with shame and fatigue, I stopped again to take breath.  Then abandoning myself to reflection, I compared the state of my soul, which desires to gain heaven, but walks not in the way to it; to that of my body which had so much difficulty in attaining the top of Mount Ventoux, notwithstanding the curiosity which caused me to attempt it.  These reflections inspired me with more strength and courage.”

“MOUNT VENTOUX is divided into several hills, which rise one above the other; on the top of the highest is a little plain, where we seated ourselves on our arrival.”  (109)

“STRUCK with the clearness of the air, and the immense spaces I had before my eyes; I remained for some time motionless and astonished.  At last waking from my reverie, my eyes were insensibly directed toward the fine country to which my inclination always drew me.  I saw those mountains covered with snow, where the proud enemy of the Romans opened himself a passage with vinegar, if we may believe the voice of fame: thought they are at a great distance from MountVentoux, they seemed so near that one might touch them.  I felt instantly a vehement desire to behold again this dear country, which I saw rather with the eyes of the soul than those of the body: some sighs escaped me which I could not prevent, and I reproached myself for a weakness I could have justified by many great examples.

“RETURNING to myself again, and examining more closely the state of my soul; (110) I said, It is near ten years, Petrarch, since thou hast quitted Bologna: what change in thy manners since that time!  Not yet safe in port, I dare not view those tempests of the mind with which I feel myself continually agitated.  The time will perhaps come, when I may be able to say with St. Augustine; if I retrace my past errors, those unhappy passions that overwhelmed me, it is not because they are still dear, it is because I will devote myself to none but thee my God.  But I have yet much to do.  I love, but it is a melancholy love.  My state is desperate.  It is that which Ovid paints so strongly in that well-known line;”

“I cannot hate, and I am forced to love!”

“IF, said I, thous shouldst live ten years longer, and in that time make as much progress in virtue; wouldst thou not be able to die with a more assured hope?  Abandoned to these reflections, I (111) deplored the imperfection of my conduct, and the instability of all things human.”

“THE sun was now going to rest, and I perceived that it would soon be time for me to descend the mountain.  I then turned towards the West, when I sought in vain that long chain of mountains which separatesFranceandSpain.”

“NOTHING that I knew of hid them from my sight, but nature has not given us organs capable of such extensive views.  To the right I discovered the mountains of the Lyonnaise, and to the left the surges of the Mediterranean, which batheMarseilleson one side, on the other dash themselves in pieces against the rocky shore.  I saw them very distinctly, though at the distance of several days journey.”

“THE Rhone glided under my eyes; the clouds were at my feet.  Never was (112) there a more extensive variegated and inchanting (sic) prospect!  What I saw rendered me less incredulous of the accounts of Olympus, and mount Athos, which they assert to be higher than the regions of the clouds from whence descend the showers of rain.”

“AFTER having satisfied my eyes for some time with those delightful objects which elevated my mind, and inspired it with pious reflections; I took the book of St.Augustin’s confessions which I had from you, and which I always carry about me.  It is dear to me for its own value, and the hands from whence I received it, render it dearer still; on opening it I accidentally fell on this passage in the tenth book: “Men go far to observe the summits of mountains, the waters of the sea, the beginnings and the courses of rivers, the immensity of the ocean, but they neglect themselves.”

“I TAKE God and my brother to witness that what I say is true.  I was struck with the singularity of an accident, the application of which it was so easy for me to make.”

“AFTER having shut the book, I recollected what happened to St. Augustin, and St. Anthony on the like occasion and believing I could not do better than imitate these great saints, I left off reading, and gave myself up to the croud (sic) of ideas which presented themselves, on the folly of mortals, who neglecting the most noble part, confuse themselves with vain objects, and go to seek that with difficulty abroad, which they might easily meet with at home.  If, said I, I have undergone so much labour and fatigue, that my body may be nearer heaven; what ought I not to do and to suffer, that my soul may come there also?” (114)

“IN the midst of these contemplations I was got, without perceiving it, to the bottom of the hill, with the same safely, and less fatigue than I went up.  A fine clear moon favoured our return.  While they were preparing our supper, I shut myself up in a corner of the house to give you this account, and the reflections it produced in my mind.  You see, my  father, that I hide nothing from you.  I wish I was always able to tell you not only what I do, but even what I thing.  Pray to God that my thoughts, now alas! vain, and wandering, may be immoveably fixed on the only true and solid good.”

PETRARCH often retired into the most desart (sic) places; and if by accident he met with Laura in the streets ofAvignon, he avoided her, and passed swiftly to the other side.  This affectation displeased her.  Meeting with him one day, she looked at him with more kindness than usual.  Perhaps she wished to preserve a lover (115) of such reputation; or could not be insensible to the constancy of his affection.  A favour so unhoped for from Laura, restored Petrarch to happiness, and put an end to all his boasted resolution.  When he passed a few days without seeing her, he felt an irresistible desire to see her in those places she frequented.  She behaved to him with more ease; he wished to assure her of his love by the most tender expressions, or at least by his sighs and tears; but the dignity of Laura’s countenance and behaviour rendered him motionless: his senses were suspended, his tears dried up, and his words expired upon his lips.  His eyes could alone express the feelings of his soul.  In a sonnet he says:

“YOU could not without compassion behold the image of death stamped on my face; a kind regard, a word dictated by friendship has restored me to life.  That I yet breathe is your precious gift.  (116) Dispose of me, for you are the reviver of my soul; you alone, beautiful Laura, possess both the keys to my heart.”

THE Poets imagined their heart to have two doors, the one leading to pleasure, the other to pain.  It is to this poetic fiction that Petrarch alludes.

LAURA wished to be beloved by Petrarch, but with such refinement that he should never speak of his love.  Whenever he attempted the most distand expression of this kind, she treated him with excessive rigour; but when she saw him in despair, his countenance languishing, and his spirits drooping; she then reanimated him by some trifling kindness; a look, a gesture, or a word, was sufficient.

THIS mixture of severity and compassion, so strongly marked in the lines of Petrarch, is the key to a right judgment of Laura’s character.  It was thus she (117) held for twenty years the affections of a man, the most ardent and impetous, without the smallest stain to her honour; and this was the method she though best adapted to the temper and disposition of Petrarch.


2 Responses to “soul vs a woman”

  1. I started reading and was caught by the phrase ‘ I fought a companion for this expedition;’ . I struggled to understand why he would do that and in what context until remembered the f to s changes you had reminded me of. All became clear.I’m so glad you made the changes necessary to the rest of the text to save brain strain on my part.

    • Shawn Bird Says:

      I think I have since fixed that one. Transcription seems inevitably to be rife with errors. You can see clearly how those monks copying the ancient Hebrew, that required them to figure out the missing vowels in order to figure out the message, were bound to make errors! I find that my keyboard has a couple sticky spots that lead to skipped letters and spaces when I’m typing at full speed. Challenges to the great work! lol You’re welcome for the changes. The interesting punctuation requires enough effort!

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