All references and quotations are from:
Petrarch. The Poetry of Petrarch. Trans. David Young. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
Petrarch (1304-1374) is perhaps the foremost example of a poet that English-language readers are supposed to know about rather than know. Most take their notions of his style from William Shakespeare's famous parody of his work in sonnet 130:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breast are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
One gets the idea. Petrarch describes his lady-love Laura in the most hyperbolic terms. Her eyes are like the sun, her lips as red as coral, her cheeks as red as roses, her hair fine and bright, her breath sweet, her voice like music--she's an angel who walks the Earth. It's not hard to find examples of these conceits in Petrarch's major poetry collection, Il canzoniere, and his unrequited obsession with Laura may strike one as adolescent and tiresome. As Shakespeare suggests, there's more of love in taking pleasure from someone's earthiness than in all the exaggerated rhapsodizing one can muster. The more hyperbolic the description, the more dishonest it is.
It's easy to be dismissive in the way Shakespeare encourages, but one should remember that Petrarch was responding to the challenges that came with being a poet in his time and place. Poets in his lifetime were popular entertainers, and that meant writing and performing love poetry. The work had to be in the traditions established by the troubadours and carried on through the Dolce stil novo poets. That meant hyperbolic treatments of unrequited love for an idealized lady. Petrarch was also working in the shadow of Dante, whose La vita nuova reimagined the conventions of love poetry in the most profound way: love for the idealized lady was the path towards learning love towards God.
Petrarch met those challenges head-on. His work has a grace that, among his predecessors, is second only to Dante's. It often shows a greater refinement, particularly in its development of conceits. Petrarch will often begin with a single trope and develop it into a conceit that defines the entire sonnet. An excellent example is poem 189, a sonnet that, thanks to Sir Thomas Wyatt, is perhaps the most famous of Petrarch's writings:
My galley, loaded with forgetfulness,
rolls through rough seas, at midnight, during winter,
aiming between Charybdis and sharp Scylla;
my lord, ah no, my foe, sits at the tiller;
each oar is wielded by quick, mad thought
that seems to scorn the storm and what it means;
an endless wind of moisture, of deep sighs,
of hopes and passions, rips the sail in half;
tears in a steady downpour, mists of hate,
are loosening and soaking all the ropes,
ropes made of ignorance, tangled up with error.
The two sweet stars I see by are obscured;
reason and skill are dead amid the waves;
and I don't think I'll ever see the port.
Using a ship lost in a storm as a metaphor, Petrarch dramatizes how lost he would be without thoughts of Laura to guide him. The opening octet depicts the scenario of sailing in the encompassing storm, and the concluding sestet describes the consequences: Laura's eyes, likened to the stars used to navigate a ship, cannot be seen. As a result, thought and ability are lost in the confusion, and the narrator describes the despair over never again finding security. The first line is elegantly developed over the course of the poem up through the conclusion. The skill and unity on display are very typical of Petrarch's sonnets, and many consider them the epitome of the form.
Petrarch competes with Dante by locating a potential weakness in his predecessor's work and developing his own material in a way that corrects it. The great innovation of La vita nuova is its reimagination of "courtly love." Dante's narrator is shown growing from a lovestruck adolescent to a mature adult aspiring to God's grace. But Dante couldn't dramatize the narrator's spiritual development with the poems alone. He had to link them using a prose narrative. Petrarch refuses to use prose to link the poems. The pieces are juxtaposed in chronological order, and the development is not spiritual. The evolution is more in the use of language. In any case, Il canzoniere contains the first sonnet sequence in Western poetry. It became the defining approach to lyric poetry in England, with Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare, Robert Herrick, and others following Petrarch's lead. (Shakespeare may have mocked Petrarch's stylistic excesses, but his lyric work is ultimately subordinate to Petrarch's approach.) Producing a sequence of poems describing one's love for a particular lady was a poetic tradition that was still being followed centuries later, as can be seen with such examples as William Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems.
Petrarch also escaped from Dante's shadow by rejecting the view of infatuation as a process in one's spiritual development. Unlike Dante's regard for Beatrice, Petrarch's expressed adoration for Laura never develops into anything more mature or profound. Many of the pieces that make up Il canzoniere are reflections, to one degree or another, of the descriptions in poem 157:
That always cruel and yet honored day
engraved its living image on my heart
in such a way no wit or skill can tell;
but I revisit it in memory.
Her gestures, marked with gracious pity, and
her bittersweet lamenting, which I heard,
made me unsure: a mortal or a goddess?
She made the sky grow clear and bright all round.
Her head was finest gold, her face warm snow,
her eyebrows ebony, her eyes two stars
where Love has never bent his bow in vain;
pearls and crimson roses formed the words
that gathered her exquisite sorrow up,
her sighs were flames, her tears were precious crystal.
Laura primarily exists as a linguistic canvas for hyperbolic description. In this sonnet, Petrarch expresses uncertainty about whether to consider her an earthbound angel such as Beatrice. He occasionally indulges in it in Il canzoniere, but it never leads to a more profound view of her, or of his feelings in the way Dante depicts in La vita nuova. It's just another opportunity for exaggeration.
What one is struck by throughout Petrarch's work is his extraordinary inventiveness. His descriptions of Laura may lack the sophistication one often finds in Dante's renderings of Beatrice, but they have a greater immediacy--describing a woman's eyes as "two stars," for example, is a comparison that needs little elaboration. It's brief and evocative. Petrarch also makes strong use of oxymoron, a technique one doesn't find in the work of his predecessors. An example in poem 157 is "warm snow." Others include poem 34's "fire freezes and there's burning snow" and poem 147's "cooling fires and shivering bouts of hope."
His punning on Laura's name is quite enjoyable. He often likens her to the laurel tree. It's a direct allusion to the mythological Daphne, the beloved of Apollo who was forever beyond the god's reach, and who Apollo honored with the use of the laurel wreath to confer distinction. In Petrarch's time, it had become the symbol of the accomplished poet. For him to effectively say his subject both inspires him and is the symbol of that inspiration's achievement is rather witty. The comparisons of aspects to Laura to gold (l'auro) and the breeze (l'aura) are also clever. His punning reaches an apex of sorts in the opening lines of poem 246: "L'aura che 'l verde lauro et l'aureo crine soavemente sospirando move (The breeze that softly sighs and moves among / the laurel's leaves and through her golden hair.)" He brings all three puns together and makes them work in tandem. It reflects what seems like Petrarch's infinite capacity for finding new configurations and contexts for the same words. It also explains why the language of his poetry never grows tiresome despite its repetition, which extends to his mastery of the sestina, the absurdly convoluted poetic form that Arnaut Daniel both invented and was confounded by. While Arnaut buckles in the face of the sestina's challenge, Petrarch manages an effortless clarity. He seems to write with the greatest of ease, regardless of the challenges.
As Shakespeare demonstrated, Petrarch's work may invite mockery at times, but his work is as much an epitome of the Western medieval poetic tradition as Dante's. La vita nuova reimagines love poetry in the most profound manner, while Il canzoniere seems gloriously frivolous. Dante aimed for sophistication of thought; Petrarch aimed for sophistication of language, with playfulness a key component. One may rate La vita nuova the greater work, but there's no getting around the fact that it is Petrarch who has had the greater influence. Perhaps seriousness in the arts doesn't count for that much after all.