When we think of love sonnets, most of us think of the sappy ooze of lyricists or perhaps the mush in greeting cards. But when they were first written in the 14th century, their intent was much different.
It all began with Francesco Petrarch in 1304. Like his predecessor Dante, Petrarch was a devout Catholic. He too was exiled from Italy with his family due to civil unrest. Once in France, Petrarch’s father had a successful law practice, and the family prospered, so much so that he arranged the best education money could buy at the time—private tutors. By age 16, Petrarch dutifully followed in his father’s footsteps and studied law first at Montpelier then at Bologna.
Legend tells that since his father was supplying an allowance to Petrarch, he often made surprise visits at university. One such afternoon, Petrarch was quietly reading a book in his rented room when his father suddenly arrived. Enraged at the number of books Petrarch had purchased with his allowance, he promptly threw them out of the window and into the street below.
Throwing around books at this time was no light matter. Before the printing press, many books were hand-copied and sewn together at great cost. If the story is indeed true, Petrarch likely spent a month’s allowance on one book alone. His personal library held copies of Homer’s Iliad, Cicero's Rhetoric, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid, all of which he loved dearly.
FORGET THE LAW
Meanwhile, his father set fire to the small stash in the middle of the street. Any passerby would know the value of that fire. Naturally disheartened, within a few months Petrarch quit law school and promptly announced he was going to be a writer and poet and take his ecclesiastical orders. Some biographers say that his father died before he could quit; others that Petrarch was simply dissatisfied with the untruthfulness of the law as a whole.
A MUSE IS BORN
Petrarch did pursue his minor orders as a cleric and began to write, and this is where the sonnet as a more popular form was born. Though he did not invent the sonnet, the personal and spiritual nature of his verse is intensely compelling. The story he tells lies in Sonnet 3. He was in Avignon at service on Good Friday in 1327, "the day the sun's ray had turned pale," a day of “universal woe,” when a light from the cathedral window shone on a woman rows in front of him. It was Laura de Sade, who was already wed or soon to be by most accounts. She was illumined, and a Muse was born. They likely never met or spoke from that moment, but Petrarch wrote hundreds of sonnets about her and to her.
Petrarch was not selfishly obsessive, but a man instead who knew love in a different way. That God revealed her to him on Good Friday was everything. For him, Petrarch's unrequited love for Laura was about directing his soul, "From her to you comes loving thought that leads, as long as you pursue, to highest good . . ." (Sonnet 13).
In his first sonnet, for example, Petrarch speaks of himself, not Laura.
O you who hear within these scattered verses
Petrarch does hope those who have loved before will understand his suffering. This, of course, is typical of the ideal of unrequited love sung of during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The greater the sighs, the greater the suffering, the greater the love.
He may appear to be in despair, but he is actually debased, drawn to humility and repentance as he wrestles with his flesh. His spiritual state is clear—he is humbled by how he is drawn to “vanities” or his love for Laura because he knows it is not eternal, but “a quick passing dream.”
From her to you comes loving thought that leads,
It is God’s Love that shines from within her as Petrarch envisions Laura. With gratitude, he is drawn to a Higher Love. Petrarch seems to know that he must pursue the “highest good” or his love will become common and fleshly, “what all men desire.” Rather than wallow in despair, he is filled with hope that his Muse is leading him heavenward.