Francis Petrarch
Familiar Letters

From James Harvey Robinson, ed. and trans.
Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters
(New York: G.P. Putnam, 1898)

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Scanned by Jason Boley and Jacob Miller in August, 1995.
Proofread by Monica Banas, Stephanie Hammett, and Heather Haralson in April, 1996.
Proofread and pages inserted by Faisal Shahid, December 2000.

To the Abbot of St. Benigno

[Page 162] Strangely enough I long to write, but do not know what or to whom. This inexorable passion has such a hold upon me that pen, ink, and paper, and work prolonged far into the night, are more to my liking than repose and sleep. In short, I find myself always in a sad and languishing state when I am not writing, and, anomalous though it seems, I labour when I rest, and find my rest in labour. My mind is hard as rock, and you might well think that it really sprang from one of Deucalion's stones. Let this tireless spirit pore eagerly over the parchment, until it has exhausted both fingers and eyes by the long strain, yet it feels neither heat nor cold, but would seem to be reclining upon the softest down. It is only fearful that it may be dragged away, and holds fast the mutinous members. Only when sheer necessity has compelled it to quit does it begin to flag. It takes a recess as a lazy ass takes his pack when he is ordered up a sharp hill, and comes back again to its task as a tired ass to his well-filled manger. My mind finds itself refreshed by prolonged exercise, as the beast of burden by his food [Page 163] and rest. What then am I to do, since I cannot stop writing, or bear even the thought of rest? I write to you, not because what I have to say touches you nearly, but because there is no one so accessible just now who is at the same time so eager for news, especially about me, and so intelligently interested in strange and mysterious phenomena, and ready to investigate them.

I have just told you something of my condition and of my indefatigable brain, but I will tell you now an incident which may surprise you even more, and will at the same time prove the truth of what I have said. It happened at a time when, after a long period of neglect, I had just taken up my Africa again, and that with an ardour like that of the African sun itself. This is the task which, if anything will help me, I trust may some time moderate or assuage my insatiable thirst for work. One of my very dearest friends, seeing that I was almost done for with my immoderate toil, suddenly asked me to grant him a very simple favour. Although I was unaware of the nature of his request, I could not refuse one who I knew would ask nothing except in the friendliest spirit. He thereupon demanded the key of my cabinet. I gave it to him, wondering what he would do, when he proceeded to gather together and lock up carefully all my books and writing materials. Then, turning away, he prescribed ten days of rest, and ordered me, in view of my promise, neither to read nor write during that time. I saw his trick; to him I now seemed to be resting, although in reality I felt as if I were bound [Page 164] hand and foot. That day passed wearily, seeming as long as a year. The next day I had a headache from morning till night. The third day dawned and I began to feel the first signs of fever, when my friend returned, and seeing my plight gave me back the keys. I quickly recovered, and perceiving that I lived on work, as he expressed it, he never repeated his request.

Is it then true that this disease of writing, like other malignant disorders, is, as the Satirist claims incurable, and, as I begin to fear, contagious as well? How many, do you reckon, have caught it from me? Within our memory, it was rare enough for people to write verses. But now there is no one who does not write them; few indeed write anything else. Some think that the fault, so far as our contemporaries are concerned, is largely mine. I have heard this from many, but I solemnly declare, as I hope some time to be granted immunity from the other ills of the soul - for I look for none from this - that I am now at last suddenly awakened for the first time by warning signs to a consciousness that this may perhaps be true; while intent only upon my own welfare, I may have been unwittingly injuring, at the same time, myself and others. I fear that the reproaches of an aged father, who unexpectedly came to me, with a long face and almost in tears, may not be without foundation. "While I," he said, "have always honoured your name, see the return you make in compassing the ruin of my only son!" I stood for a time in embarrassed silence, [Page 165] for the age of the man and the expression of his face, which told of great sorrow, went to my heart. Then, recovering myself, I replied, as was quite true, that I was unacquainted either with him or his son. ''What matters it,'' the old man answered, ''whether you know him or not? He certainly knows you. I have spent a great deal in providing instruction for him in the civil law, but he declares that he wishes to follow in your footsteps. My fondest hopes have been disappointed, and I presume that he will never be either a lawyer or a poet. At this neither I nor the others present could refrain from laughter, and he went off none the better humoured. But now I recognise that this merriment was ill-timed, and that the poor old man deserved our consolation, for his complaints and his reproaches were not ungrounded. Our sons formerly employed themselves in preparing such papers as might be useful to themselves or their friends, relating to family affairs, business, or the wordy din of the courts. Now we are all engaged in the same occupation, and it is literally true, as Horace says, ''learned or unlearned, we are all writing verses alike."

It is after all but a poor consolation to have companions in misery. I should prefer to be ill by myself. Now I am involved in others' ill-fortune as well as in my own, and am hardly given time to take breath. For every day letters and poems from every corner of our land come showering down upon my devoted head. Nor does this satisfy my foreign friends. I am overwhelmed by floods of missives, no longer from France alone, but from Greece, [Page 166] from Germany, from England. I am unable to judge even my own work, and yet I am called upon to be the universal critic of others. Were I to answer the requests in detail, I should be the busiest of mortals. If I condemn the composition, I am a jealous carper at the good work of others; if I say a good word for the thing, it is attributed to a mendacious desire to be agreeable; if I keep silence altogether, it is because I am a rude, pert fellow. They are afraid, I infer, that my disease will not make way with me promptly enough. Between their goading and my own madness I shall doubtless gratify their wishes.

But all this would be nothing if, incredible as it may seem, this subtle poison had not just now begun to show its effects in the Roman Curia itself. What do you think the lawyers and doctors are up to? Justinian and Aesculapius have palled upon them. The sick and the litigious cry in vain for their help, for they are deafened by the thunder of Homer's and Virgil's names, and wander oblivious in the woody valleys of Cirrha, by the purling waters of the Aonian fountain. But it is hardly necessary to speak of these lesser prodigies. Even carpenters, fullers, and plough men leave the implements of their calling to talk of Apollo and the Muses. I cannot say how far the plague, which lately was confined to a few, has now spread.

If you would find an explanation for all this, you must recollect that although the delights of poetry are most exquisite, they can be fully understood only by the rarest geniuses, who are careless of [Page 167] wealth and possess a marked contempt for the things of this world, and who are by nature especially endowed with a peculiar elevation and freedom of soul. Consequently, as experience and the authority of the most learned writers agree, in no branch of art can mere industry and application accomplish so little. Hence---and you may find it comical although it disgusts me---all the poets are nowadays to be found on the street corner, and we can descry scarcely one on Helicon itself. They are all nibbling at the Pierian honeycomb, but no one can manage to digest it. How delightful indeed must this gift be to those who really possess it, when it can exercise such a fascination over sluggish minds, and in our vain and degenerate age can induce even the most avaricious to leave the pursuit of gain! On one thing, at least, our country may be congratulated: in spite of all the tares and sterile stalks which cumber the earth, some signs of true youthful genius are to be discovered. Some, if I am not misled by my hopes, will not drink in vain of the Castalian spring.---I felicitate thee, Mantua, beloved of the Muses, thee, Padua, thee, Verona, thee, Cimbria, thee, Sulmo, and thee, Parthenope, home of Maro, when I see elsewhere the thirsty herd of upstart poetasters wandering drearily among uncertain byways!

It pricks my conscience that I should be responsible [Page 168] in great part for fostering all these forms of literary madness, and should have misled others through my example,---by no means the least of offences. I fear lest those laurel leaves, which in my eagerness I tore prematurely from the branch, may in a way be answerable for the trouble. While, as many believe, they have been the means of bringing true dreams to me, they have caused in others a multitude of delusive visions, which were allowed to escape while all the world was asleep, through the ivory gates, into the autumnal air. But never mind, I suffer for my sins, for I am in a rage if I stay at home, and yet hardly dare nowadays to venture into the street. If I do, wild fellows rush up from every side and seize upon me, asking advice, giving me suggestions, disputing and fighting among themselves. They discover meanings in the poets of which the Mantuan shepherd, or the old blind man of Moeonia never dreamed. I become more and more irritated, and at last begin to fear that I may be dragged off before a magistrate for breaking the peace.

But how I am running on! I have spun a whole letter out of mere trifles . . . I have just arrived here, and will await you as long as I possibly can. I know not whether it be that the air here renders the mind less susceptible to foreign impressions, or whether this ''closed valley" does, as its name indicates, shut out alien preoccupations, but certain it is that, although I have from my earliest [Page 169] manhood spent many years here, none of the inhabitants have yet become poets through contagious contact with me, with the sole exception of one of my farm-hands. Although advanced in years he, as Persius hath it, is beginning to dream on the two-peaked Parnassus. If the disease spreads I am undone. Shepherds, fishermen, hunters, ploughboys,---all would be carried away, even the cows would low in numbers and ruminate sonnets. Do not forget me. Farewell.


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