Francis Petrarch, My Secret Book

Francesco Petrarca, Secretum translated by J. G. Nichols as 'Francis Petrarch, My Secret Book'

ISBN: 1843910268 / November 2002 / Pages: 112 / £6.99 /
Hesperus Press

Reviewed by Edmund Hardy

The poet, despairing of his own mortality, is suddenly visited by a splendid woman:

After she had spoken I was still afraid; but I did manage to stammer out those few words of Virgil: 'How must I address you, maiden? Yours is no mortal face, your voice no mortal voice.'
Her name is Truth, and there is another by her side.

I had no need to ask his name: his priestly manner, his modest countenance, his serious gaze, his sober step, the combination of his African clothing and (once he began to speak) his Roman eloquence – all made it clear that this was the glorious St Augustine.
The poet's torpor, his "acedia" (a humanist version of "accidie", the sin of sloth, related here to the Ciceronian "aegritude"), has now brought the greatest doctor from his eternal meditations, and the resulting dialogue – with Truth silently in attendance, her face lighting the alternating lines of thought in this exemplary doubling – will cure the poet, answer his cries with reason; and the cure will be our cure too.

Secretum (My Secret Book) is part of Petrarca's large body of work in Latin, which also includes various letters and treatises on subjects such as the solitary life and religious virtue, moral biographies, a popular work of self-help, De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, as well as a guidebook to the Holy Land, Itinerarium. He worked continually, and famously, on Africa, his unfinished epic poem of Rome and Carthage, perhaps his best known Latin manuscript. Secretum is a revival of the classical method of arguing in utramque partem1, and the form would go on to flourish2. For the Renaissance dialogue tradition partly inaugurated by Secretum the classical culmination of the form was to be found in the works of Lucian and Cicero, particularly, for Petrarca, in the latter's Tusculanae Quaestiones (Tusculan Disputations). Secretum contains all sorts of contradictions(Cicero revered, but also the chosen interlocutor St. Augustine), though there is movement forward to no sweet concord.

Was it truly a secret? There was no copy of Secretum made in Petrarca's lifetime, so the work was certainly private; after his death, Tedaldo della Casa, a Franciscan friar from Florence made the first copy from Petrarca's autograph. If the book is a personal confession, spurred by guilt over earthly passions and that one consuming love for Laura, then it is an oblique one, spoken through a mask, and it is shadowed constantly by an apology. Augustine and Francesco have equal space to make their arguments, Augustine admonishing the poet for his torpor and distraction, Francesco stating the opposite, arguing – in the third dialogue out of three – that his love for Laura is love for a noble soul. In setting out, plainly, the argument against his own indulgences, in the printed speech of a great exemplar, a Christian argument of reason before imminent death, and then setting that argument to attack a presentation of the poet's own justifications, the Secretum would be a constant companion to incite up-building.

Schlegel's idea of the "wisdom of life" (Philosophie des Lebens) which escapes from school and into the novel would be on Francesco's side, arguing for passion; Schlegel cites Sperone Speroni's theory of dialogue as set out in Apologia dei dialogi (1574) where a conversation is figured as a pleasurable labyrinth ("piacevole labirinto") in which we may linger, or a garden full of many fruits, an image we may readily find in Castiglione but only passingly in Secretum, where Augustine claims that a variety of plants in a small space shade each other out: you should be fixed on thoughts of death, never allowing death to be a thought in the distance. Any attempts at conversational digression or storytelling are cut short, attempts perhaps to "go outside" ("Noli foras ire, in te redi; in interiore homine habitat veritas"3De Vera Religione, XXXIX, 72) instead of turning inwards into your own dividing.

In the first dialogue of Secretum, Augustine admits, "I did not change myself until deep meditation had brought all my unhappiness before me". For Francesco, in his despair, the "worst thing of all" is "Everything I see around me, everything I hear, and everything I touch." You will your own unhappiness, argues Augustine, contrary to Francesco's bemoaning of Fortune's portion. It is a Christianized revival of Epicurus' just and enlightened rationality which can examine motives and causes in pursuit of happiness and peace of mind. Petrarca makes Augustine particularly bracing when he dismisses justifications for the love of Laura, and hence all those famous sonnets:

As for saying that she drew you apart from the common herd and taught you to aspire to higher things, what does that mean but that she made you so devoted to her alone and so taken with one person's beauty that you found everything else despicable? You know that nothing in human society is more annoying than that.
If you want the rest of the world to be more conducive in pleasing you, then, says Augustine, you are as arrogant as Julius Caesar when he said, "the human race exists for the sake of the few".

The public can lend glory in their praise (of literary work) and they can destroy the good with false opinion and coarse talk: leave the city, says Augustine, "In the long term it would also be helpful if you could accustom yourself to listening to the din of human beings with some pleasure, as though it were the sound of falling water." This is the civic fountain which is also the potential spray and source of parity, that same realisation which came to Propertius,

Cui fuit indocti fugienda et semita uulgi,
ipsa petita lacu nunc mihi dlcis aqua est. (II.xxiii)4
J. G. Nichols more usually translates from the Italian, work which includes the Canzoniere (Carcanet, 2000), an edition with peerless notes; here his translation from the Latin is concise, often bringing the varying lengths of different clauses into English, an effect which sets this apart from Carol E. Quillen's translation (The Secret, Bedford Books, 2003). It is a pity that the Hesperus Press format does not allow for even brief footnotes which would open out the text a little more, though perhaps the constant quotations and references do send one back to Horace, Cicero, Virgil and Augustine's own works (which are often paraphrased here) to follow up links more fully than if handy footnotes were always providing a contextual digest.

This edition also contains two bonus tracts. 'A Draft of a Letter to Posterity' is a jumble of places and patrons, amplifying the argument on fame and the poet's desire for glory in Secretum. 'The Allegorical Ascent of Mount Ventoux' describes the pain of going astray from the right path, choosing the easier path which goes back down into the valleys, this an expansion on the idea in Secretum of choosing the wrong path at a fork, "You should in fact avoid those tracks which are trodden by the many and, striving for higher things, take that way which has fewer footprints on it" as Augustine says, suggesting that the choice will make all the difference. In this secret book, your moral unhappiness can be laid out before you as a field of agony even as a path of dialogue (il sentiero dei dialogi) winds through to further disparate horizons.


1 Arguing contrary positions.

2 I recently also wrote a review of a contemporary conversation novel, Gabriel Josipovici's Now.

3 "Don't attempt to go out; come back into yourself; within the human being is where truth lives." (My translation.)

4. "I, who once shunned even the street the crude mass takes
now find water drawn at the public cistern sweet."
(Translation by Vincent Katz.)

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Twitter
  • Intercapillary Places (Events Series)
  • Publication Series
  • Newsreader Feed