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 Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

On the Nature of Poetry
To his Brother Gherardo


[Page 261] I judge, from what I know of your religious fervour, that you will feel a sort of repugnance toward the poem which I enclose in this letter, deeming it quite out of harmony with all your professions, and in direct opposition to your whole mode of thinking and living. But you must not be too hasty in your conclusions. What can be more foolish than to pronounce an opinion upon a subject that you have not investigated? The fact is, poetry is very far from being opposed to theology. Does that surprise you? One may almost say that theology actually is poetry, poetry concerning God. To call Christ now a lion, now a lamb, now a worm, what pray is that if not poetical? And you will find thousands of such things in the Scriptures, so very many that I cannot attempt to enumerate them. What indeed are the parables of our Saviour, in the Gospels, but words whose sound is foreign to their [Page 262] sense, or allegories, to use the technical term? But allegory is the very warp and woof of all poetry. Of course, though, the subject matter in the two cases is very different. That everyone will admit. In the one case it is God and things pertaining to him that are treated, in the other mere gods and mortal men.

Now we can see how Aristotle came to say that the first theologians and the first poets were one and the same. The very name of poet is proof that he was right. Inquiries have been made into the origin of that word; and, although the theories have varied somewhat, the most reasonable view on the whole is this: that in early days, when men were rude and unformed, but full of a burning desire---which is part of our very nature---to know the truth, and especially to learn about God, they began to feel sure that there really is some higher power that controls our destinies, and to deem it fitting that homage should be paid to this power, with all manner of reverence beyond that which is ever shown to men, and also with an august ceremonial. Therefore, just as they planned for grand abodes, which they called temples, and for consecrated servants, to whom they gave the name of priests, and for magnificent statues, and vessels of gold, and marble tables, and purple vestments, they also determined, in order that this feeling of homage might not remain unexpressed, to strive to win the favour of the deity by lofty words, subjecting the powers above to the softening influences of songs of praise, sacred hymns remote from all the forms of speech that [Page 263] pertain to common usage and to the affairs of state, and embellished moreover by numbers, which add a charm and drive tedium away. It behoved of course that this be done not in every-day fashion, but in a manner artful and carefully elaborated and a little strange. Now speech which was thus heightened was called in Greek poetices; so, very naturally, those who used it came to be called poets.

Who, you will ask, is my authority for this? But can you not dispense with bondsmen, my brother, and have a little faith in me? That you should trust my unsupported word, when I tell you things that are true and bear upon their face the stamp of truth, is nothing more, it seems to me, than I have a right to ask of you. Still, if you find yourself disposed to proceed more cautiously, I will give you bondsmen who are perfectly good, witnesses whom you may trust with perfect safety. The first of these is Marcus Varro, the greatest scholar that Rome ever produced, and the next is Tranquillus, an investigator whose work is characterised always by the utmost caution. Then I can add a third name, which will probably be better known to you, Isidore. He too mentions these matters, in the eighth book of his Etymologies, although briefly and merely on the authority of Tranquillus.

But you will object, and say, "I certainly can believe the saint, if not the other learned men; and yet the fact remains that the sweetness of your poetry is inconsistent with the severity of my life.'' Ah! but you are mistaken, my brother. Why, even the Old Testament fathers made use of [Page 264] poetry, both heroic song and other kinds. Moses, for example, and Job, and David, and Solomon, and Jeremiah. Even the psalms, which you are always singing, day and night, are in metre, in the Hebrew; so that I should be guilty of no inaccuracy or impropriety if I ventured to style their author the Christian's poet. Indeed the plain facts of the case inevitably suggest some such designation. Let me remind you, moreover, since you are not inclined to take anything that I say to-day without authority, that even Jerome took this view of the matter. Of course these sacred poems, these psalms, which sing of the blessed man, Christ,---of his birth, his death, his descent into hell, his resurrection, his ascent into heaven, his return to judge the earth,---never have been, and never could have been, translated into another language without some sacrifice of either the metre or the sense. So, as the choice had to be made, it has been the sense that has been considered. And yet some vestige of metrical law still survives, and the separate fragments we still call verses, very properly, for verses they are.

So much for the ancients. Now as regards Ambrose and Augustine and Jerome, our guides through the New Testament,---to show that they too employed poetic forms and rhythms would be the easiest of tasks; while in the case of Prudentius and Prosper and Sedulius and the rest the mere names are enough, for we have not a single word from them in prose, while their metrical productions are numerous and well known. Do not look askance then, dear brother, upon a practice which you see [Page 265] has been approved by saintly men whom Christ has loved. Consider the underlying meaning alone, and if that is sound and true accept it gladly, no matter what the outward form may be. To praise a feast set forth on earthen vessels but despise it when it is served on gold is too much like madness or hypocrisy. . . .

But enough of preface, and of apology for form and style. Let me come to the point, without further explanation. You must know that three summers ago, when I was in Gaul, the heat drove me to the Fountain of the Sorgue, which we once fixed upon, you will remember, as the place where we would pass our life. By the grace of God, however, a far more safe and tranquil abode was being prepared for you; while I was to be denied the enjoyment of even the little tranquillity that would have been possible there, since fortune was planning to raise me to a much higher station, very little to my liking.

Well, here I was, with my mind divided, afraid to undertake a task of any magnitude while I was under such a burden of care, and yet quite unable to be altogether idle, because I have been nourished from my infancy on activity, an activity which I hope has been praiseworthy, but which I know has been incessant. So I chose a middle course, postponing all work that was of much importance but doing little odds and ends of writing, trifles that would help me pass away the time. Now the very nature of the region, the forest recesses to which the coming of dawn made me long to flee and forget [Page 266] my cares, and from which only the return of night could bring me home, suggested that I sing a woodland strain. Accordingly I began to compose a pastoral poem, in twelve eclogues, a thing that I had long had in mind; and you would scarcely believe me if I told you in how few days I had it all completed, under the stimulus of the place.

Now the first of these eclogues, in accordance with the intention that I had all along entertained, was about our two selves. Consequently it has won the distinction of being chosen to be sent to you; whether with the result of giving you pleasure or of completely spoiling all your pleasure I scarcely can decide. But that is neither here nor there. In either case this kind of poetry is one that cannot be understood unless a key to it is furnished by the person who constructed it. So, as I would not have you weary yourself to no purpose, I must give you a brief outline, first of what I say, then of what I mean by it.

Two shepherds are introduced, for it is of the pastoral style. Pastoral names are given them, naturally: Silvius and Monicus. Silvius, seeing Monicus lying all alone in a cave, happy and at his ease, envies him and speaks to him, expressing amazement at his good fortune, and lamenting his own estate. Monicus may forget his flocks and fields, and think of rest alone, while he must make his painful way over the rough hills. He marvels the more at this great difference in their lot from the fact that, as he expresses it, one and the same mother bore them both,---so that we may understand [Page 267] that they are brothers. Monicus, in response, throws all the blame for this hard life on Silvius himself, saying that he is under no constraint whatever, but is wandering of his own free will through the trackless forests and over the mountain summits. Silvius replies that there is a reason for these wanderings; the reason is love, nothing less than love of the Muse. To make this clear he begins a rather long story of two shepherds, who sing very sweetly. He tells how he heard one of them in his boyhood, and afterwards the other, and was so captivated by them that he began to neglect everything else. He has been following them eagerly through the mountains, and while doing so has learned to sing, with a skill that others have praised, although he himself is not yet satisfied with it; and he intends to struggle on toward the summit, and either reach it or perish in the attempt.

Monicus now begins to urge Silvius to come into the cave, for he will hear there even sweeter singing. Presently, though, he breaks off, suddenly, as if he saw signs of agitation in the other's face. Silvius, however, offers some excuse, and Monicus continues. When he has finished, Silvius asks who this shepherd is that sings so sweetly; never before has he heard him mentioned. Thereupon Monicus, in the roundabout way that would be natural in an artless shepherd, instead of giving his name describes the land of his birth, making mention, after the fashion of rustics, who often wander in telling a story, of two rivers that spring from one source. Then immediately, as if he saw that he had made a mistake, he [Page 268] turns his words round, and where he had begun to speak of two rivers he goes on to tell of one, which flows from two sources. Both of these are in Asia. Silvius declares that he knows this river, citing in confirmation the fact that a certain youth who goes clad in hairy raiment bathes Apollo in it. In that region, continues Monicus, a singer has arisen. Silvius, upon hearing these words, remembers that he has heard of this man, and proceeds to speak slightingly of his voice and mode of singing, exalting his own by comparison. But Monicus objects, and heaps upon the far-away singer well-deserved praise. Thereupon Silvius after a time pretends to acquiesce, and says that later he will return and test the sweetness of these songs; now he must hurry away. Monicus, wondering at this, begs to know the reason of his haste, and learns that Silvius is intent upon a song of his own which he has begun to compose, concerning a certain famous youth whose deeds he is briefly reviewing, and that he consequently has no leisure now for other things. Monicus accordingly brings the conversation to an end. He bids Silvius good-bye, concluding with an earnest exhortation to weigh well the dangers and chances of such delay. And there you have the sum and substance of the narrative.

Now as to its meaning. The shepherds who converse are ourselves. I am Silvius, you are Monicus. These names are chosen for the following reasons: the former, partly because the scene of the eclogue is of a sylvan character, partly because I always have felt, from my earliest childhood, a hatred of [Page 269] cities, implanted in me by nature, and a love of sylvan life, which has led many of our friends to style me Sylvanus much more frequently than Francesco. Then the other name comes from the fact that there was one of the Cyclops who was called Monicus, that is to say, one-eyed, and there seemed a certain fitness in applying the name to you, since of the two eyes which we mortals all use one to behold heavenly things and the other those of the earth, you have cast away that which looks earthward and are content to employ the nobler one alone.

The cave, where Monicus dwells in solitude, is Montrieux, where you are living your life in the midst of grottoes and woods. Or it may be taken for the very cave of Mary Magdalene, close by your monastery, the place where she passed her period of penitence, and where God lent the props of his grace to your vacillating heart and made you steadfast in the holy purpose which you had so often discussed with me.

For flocks and fields, which you are said to care for no longer, understand your fellow-men and their haunts, which you abandoned when you fled away into solitude. The statement that we had one and the same mother, and father too for that matter, is not allegory but naked truth. The word sepulchre is to be taken as referring to our final abode. The meaning is that heaven awaits you, but Tartarus me, unless divine mercy comes to my rescue. Or [Page 270] the sentence can be taken literally, just as it reads, for you have now a sure abode, and consequently a fairly sure hope of sepulture, while I am still wandering about at random, and everything in my future is quite unsure.

The inaccessible peak, which Monicus upbraids Silvius for struggling toward, panting and exhausted though he is, is the height of fame, the rarer sort of fame, which but few succeed in attaining to. The deserts where Silvius is said to wander are scholarly pursuits. These to-day are desert places indeed, being in some cases forsaken outright, through love of money, in others despaired of and neglected, in consequence of intellectual sluggishness. The mossy rocks are the rich and great, the moss being their inherited wealth, which has slowly gathered about them. Murmuring fountains can be used of men of letters and of those who have the gift of eloquence, inasmuch as little streams of intellectual influence flow from the wellsprings of genius that are within them, with a sound, so to speak, that charms and delights us. As for Silvius' swearing by Pales, that is a shepherd oath, for Pales is the shepherds' goddess. We may understand there Mary, who is not a goddess, to be sure, but yet is the mother of God. Parthenias is Virgil himself. It is not a name of my devising. We read in his biography that he well deserved to be styled Parthenias, or the virgin; so his whole life showed. That the reader may be sure to understand this reference the place is added; the region, as I express it, where Benacus, a lake of Cisalpine [Page 271] Gaul, produces a son that closely resembles himself. This son is the Mincius, a river that we associate with Mantua, which is Virgil's native town.

On the other hand, the shepherd of noble blood who has been brought here from another land signifies Homer. In that passage almost every word has a meaning. Even the inde, which is put for deinde, is used not without a certain mysteriousness, seeing that I came in contact with Virgil when I was a boy, but with Homer afterwards, when I was somewhat advanced in years. . . . The epithet noble is of course Homer's by right, for what is more truly noble than his language or mind? Again, I know not from what valley he has come was added because there are varying opinions as to the place of his birth, no one of which have I accepted in that place in the eclogue. Finally, that Virgil drank at the Homeric spring is a fact which is known to everyone who has to do with poetry. The mistress of whom they both are said to be worthy is Fame, for whose sakes they are poets. Except for their mistresses lovers would not sing. The bristling forest and the mountains that rise into the air, at which Silvius is amazed because they do not follow after these sweet singers, are the uncultivated multitude and the persons who occupy high stations. The descent from the mountain-tops to the bottom of [Page 272] the valleys, and the ascent from the valleys into the mountains again, which Silvius refers to in speaking of himself, are the transition from the heights of theory to the low and level ground of practice, and, conversely, the movement in the opposite direction, when our attitude changes. The fountain which praises the singer is the chorus of scholars. The dry and barren crags are the ignorant and illiterate, who, like the rocks where echo dwells, possess mere voice and power of agreement, without any power of discrimination. The nymphs, the goddesses of the fountains, are the divine minds of scholars. The threshold over which Monicus invites Silvius to pass is that of the Carthusian order, into which assuredly no one has ever been lured by deception, or against his will, as many persons have been into other religious bodies. The shepherd whose singing Monicus prefers to Homer and Virgil is no other than David. The mention of singing to the psaltery is peculiarly appropriate in his case, because of the psalms, which are his work. In the middle of the night, on account of the singing of the psalms in your churches at early dawn. The two rivers from a single source, as Monicus puts it first by mistake, are the Tigris and the Euphrates, well-known streams of Armenia. Then the single river from a double source is the Jordan, in Judaea. For this fact we have many authorities, among them Jerome, who was a diligent student of those regions and lived there for a long time. The names of the two sources are Jor and Dan. By their union both the stream and its name are formed. The Jordan [Page 273] empties, it is said, into the Sea of Sodom, where we are told that the fields are strewn with ashes from the burning of the cities. In this river Christ, we learn, was baptised by John. So the hairy youth is John the Baptist, who was but a youth, virgin, pure, innocent, clad in hairy raiment, unkempt, wearing the skin of a goat, with locks uncombed, with face blackened by the suns. Then by Apollo, whom I describe as son of Jupiter and god of intellect, I mean Christ, who is the son of God, and very God himself, and moreover, as I suggest, our god of intellect and wisdom. For, as all theologians know, among the attributes of the persons that constitute the Holy Trinity, one and idivisible, wisdom belongs to the Son; he is the wisdom of the Father.

Again, the hoarse voice and never-ceasing tears and oft-repeated name of Jerusalem are intended as a reference to David, because of his style, which at first seems rough and full of lamentation, and furthermore because there really is frequent mention of that city in the psalms, sometimes historical, sometimes allegorical. Now there follows a brief enumeration of the subjects which the poets whom Silvius is striving to exalt are wont to sing. To explain all this would take a long time. Besides it is sufficiently clear already to those who are proficient in such matters. And then Monicus replies, excusing this harshness of David, and running with like brevity over the list of subjects which he has treated.

The youth about whose deeds Silvius has begun to weave his song is Scipio Africanus, who laid [Page 274] Polyphemus low upon the African shore. The reference there is to Hannibal, the Carthaginian leader. Hannibal and Polyphemus were both one-eyed, after Hannibal's loss of an eye in Italy. The Libyan lions, in which we know that Africa abounds, are the other Carthaginian leaders, who were hurled from power by the same conqueror. The sacrifices that were consumed are the ships which he burned, the ships upon which all the hopes of the Carthaginians had hung. He destroyed five hundred of them before their very eyes, so Roman history tells us. The designation of starry youth is partly because of the heroic valour which he possessed above all other men, and which Virgil characterises as ' burning,' Lucan as 'fiery'; and partly because the Romans of his day were led by their admiration of him to credit him with divine origin. The Italians are said to praise him from the opposite shore because of the fact that the shore of Italy really was opposed to that of Africa, not alone in temper and feeling but in situation too. Rome itself is directly across from Carthage.

However, although this youth is praised so widely, nobody has sung of him; by which I meant to suggest that although all history is full of his deeds and his renown, and Ennius has written a great deal about him, in his rude and unpolished style, as Valerius calls it, there still is no carefully finished metrical treatment of his achievements as yet. So I decided long ago to sing of him myself, as best I could. My poem of Africa is about him. I began it in my youth, with a high heart. God grant that [Page 275] I may be permitted in my old age to bring it to the happy conclusion which I then dreamed of. The danger which always inheres in such postponement of a well-considered plan, and the mutability and uncertainty of this life of ours, Monicus bids us ponder upon, in his concluding remarks, which scarcely call for further explanation. And you will also understand the few sentences at the close, if you will reflect a little. Farewell.

Written at Padua, on the second day of December, toward evening.

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