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He Who Knows What is Good, Yet Does Not Do It: The Wandering Shepherd In Petrarch’s Bucolicum Carmen

Petrarch’s poem Bucolicum Carmen is, first, a work of fiction.  It begins with an invented story about two fictitious brothers—shepherds, in the style of the so-called “pastoral” poems of Virgil and Hesiod.  However, this particular story also carried enormous personal significance for its author, as revealed by Petrarch in a letter to his own brother, a Carthusian monk named Gherardo.  That letter, titled “On the Nature of Poetry,” was delivered to Gherardo with a copy of the first eclogue (section) of Bucolicum Carmen, as a kind of apology, and commentary, explaining and justifying the meaning of the poem.  Taken together, the two works provide an interesting study of the relationships between Petrarch and his career as a poet, his nominal Christianity, and his brother’s sincere faith.

The first of Petrarch’s shepherds, Silvius, represents Petrarch himself.  In the poem, Silvius wanders the hills and mountains perpetually with his flocks, in search of a mystical kind of music he heard when he was younger and has since been trying to reproduce.  Meanwhile, the second shepherd, Silvius’s brother Monicus, sits comfortably in a sheltered cave, satisfied with the music he finds there.  The intended parallel to Petrarch’s life here is not at all disguised—Monicus is Silvius’s brother.  He represents Gherardo, safely ensconced behind the cave walls of the Carthusian order, certain of his purpose in life and satisfied with his fate, both earthly and eternal.  Therefore, the dialogue in Bucolicum Carmen can be read as a generalized conversation between the two real life brothers—Petrarch, the wandering poet, and Gherardo, the sedentary monk—as it appears from the perspective of the former.

The poem begins with Silvius lamenting the fact that although they are brothers, “born of one mother,” he and Monicus have “no hope of last rest together.”[1] It seems that to Silvius this is a foregone conclusion; however long either of them has before they reach that last rest is of no consequence.  The brothers’ respective fates are sealed, and no amount of time or effort will alter this fact.  Petrarch’s explanation of the line in “On the Nature of Poetry” is no less fatalistic—the meaning, he tells Gherardo, is that “heaven awaits you, but Tartarus [Hell] me, unless divine mercy comes to my rescue.”[2] However, this confession brings a strange contradiction within Petrarch to light.  He almost certainly means “heaven” as in the eternal paradise of Christian doctrine, given how steeped Petrarch is in the Christian-dominated culture of 12th century Italy.  (Later on in the same letter, Petrarch refers to Christ as “the son of God, and very God himself,”[3] mentions “the Holy Trinity, one and indivisible,”[4] and speaks extensively about David and the Psalms.)  Also, even if “Tartarus” refers to the Greek pagan Hell and not the Christian one, it still denotes a place of torment and suffering.  However, when Petrarch considers his own fate, he calmly accepts Tartarus like a minor inconvenience.  Perhaps this does not seem too remarkable—there are many people who recognize on some level that the life they are living is not heaven-worthy.  However, at the time when he writes to Gherardo, Petrarch’s decision is strikingly conscious, lucid, and intentional.  He frankly recognizes that some, such as Gherardo, have lived lives worthy of heaven, but that he has not—and accepts the result without blinking.  He does not just fail to change his lifestyle; he chooses not to try, or even to express any kind of agitation at the prospect of eternal suffering.  He is going to Hell with eyes wide open.

To understand this counterintuitive decision, we should allow that the choice is not entirely within his power.  This point is addressed directly in Bucolicum Carmen, when the wandering Silvius declares that “destiny … has shaped different lots for twin brothers.”[5]  The implication is that fate, not Silvius’s (i.e. Petrarch’s) conscious choice, prevents him from living a heaven-worthy life after the fashion of his brother.  However, to simply say that Petrarch does not live that life because he cannot would be an incomplete explanation.  Clearly, “fate” does not control him directly— as though the monastery doors repel him by some kind of magnetism.  Rather, fate keeps Petrarch out of heaven indirectly, by producing the force that causes him to fruitlessly roam the metaphorical hillsides of poetry and scholarship: love.  “Love ‘tis, alas, only love,”[6] that spurs Silvius on across the countryside — and this love does not arise in him as a result of a conscious choice.  From his youth, Silvius says, “only with song was I happy,”[7] and throughout his life, whenever he considers the works of the great poets, he is “inflamed,”[8] and goes up once again “with spirit afire to the hilltops.”[9]  Love is ingrained in Silvius’s nature (and therefore in Petrarch’s) and always has been.  He is destined to love.

Of course, love itself is by no means opposed to the heavenly lifestyle, given that the God which heaven-bound Gherardo worships identifies himself by the name Love.  Therefore, it must be that the heavenly lifestyle appears to Petrarch to lack something of what he loves—otherwise, it would make no sense for love to drive him away from it.   This point suggests one of two things:  either Petrarch’s love is fundamentally misguided, or his understanding of the heaven-worthy lifestyle is flawed. Either the heaven-worthy lifestyle lacks what he loves because what he loves is not heaven-worthy; or it actually does contain what he loves, but he ignorantly believes otherwise.  Therefore, the explanation for Petrarch’s avoidance of the heavenly life depends on what it is that he loves, whether it is present in the heavenly life, and whether he believes that it is.

There are, in fact, two things that Petrarch identifies as the objects of his love:  beautiful poetry— hence Silvius’s statement, “only with song was I happy”[10]— and fame, the metaphorical “inaccessible peak”[11] that Silvius struggles toward.  If either of those two loves is to be considered misguided, it is fame, but the fame which Petrarch refers to is not simply notoriety or the applause of people.  Rather, it is the “rarer sort of fame,”[12] the desire for which proceeds from his first love, that of beautiful poetry.  Petrarch loves beautiful poetry inasmuch as it is beautiful, not inasmuch as it is poetry.  If it were poetry for its own sake that he loved, then all of its forms would charm him equally, but he focuses on the best and most beautiful poems—the works of Homer and Virgil[13].  Therefore, his love of beautiful poetry is, at its root, a love of beauty, and poetry is the form in which he sees beauty most clearly.  If someone loves beauty, it means that they desire to experience it in some way—to see it, take it in, and “possess” it.  Furthermore, it is necessary to exist to experience anything, including beauty.  Therefore, lovers of beauty naturally are driven to preserve their own lives.  Thus, the ultimate desires of a lover of beauty are perfect beauty and unending life; therefore they are Petrarch’s ultimate desires.  It is from them, then, and specifically from the desire for unending life, that his pursuit of fame stems.  What he calls “fame” is his approximation of immortality; that is, his ability to live on through the lasting presence of his work in the world, just as Homer and Virgil have done.  Therefore, his love of fame is not a love of acclaim—for he remains unsatisfied “even though sometimes the nymphs will praise to the skies my verses”[14]—but a love of immortality, which is a necessary result of his love of beauty.

Petrarch’s two loves, then, are beauty and immortality.  Both of these things are present in heaven, which offers everlasting existence in the realm of God, the perfectly beautiful one.  Therefore, since life in heaven will eventually result from Gherardo’s heavenly lifestyle, both of those things are present in that lifestyle.  Petrarch’s rejection of Gherardo’s lifestyle, then, must mean that although the things he loves are present in it, he does not believe them to be.  However, Petrarch does acknowledge that there is beauty in Gherardo’s life by contradicting the opinions he puts in the mouth of Silvius (presumably opinions that he himself previously held, but holds no longer) regarding the poetry of the Psalms.  As he summarizes the first eclogue of Bucolicum Carmen in his letter to Gherardo, he refers to Silvius’s dismissal of David’s music, but then adds that Monicus, in response, “heaps upon the far away singer well-deserved praise.”[15]  It seems that Petrarch believes there is beauty to be found in his brother’s lifestyle.  Perhaps it could be said that he believes that there is more beauty in his, so that the righteous life appears good, but not good enough.  Petrarch does not offer such a direct comparison of the two lives, except to say that one leads to Heaven and the other to Hell.  However, it is worth noting that his writing also betrays a certain lack of understanding of the immortality which Heaven offers him.

Of course, the fact that Petrarch refers to heaven at all indicates that he has a conception of the afterlife, and, moreover, given his familiarity with Christian doctrine, he is almost certainly aware that the afterlife is supposed to be everlasting.  Therefore, how could he reject literal eternal life in favor of a poor corporeal imitation of immortality?  Only if he failed to understand the kind of life which he would be living throughout that eternity.  His mention of Heaven in the letter to Gherardo—“Heaven awaits you, and Tartarus me”[16]— corresponds to the phrase “last rest” in Bucolicum Carmen.[17]  This phrase indicates the error in Petrarch’s conception of Heaven.  He views Heaven, and Hell for that matter, not as states of being, but as final destinations.  He does not believe that heaven offers the actual immortality he is after—that is, the ability to live and experience beauty forever.  Rather, he believes instead in a kind of passive, eternal existence, at rest, with all desires and actions exhausted, and without the possibility of possessing or experiencing anything.  Such a state, although it is called immortality and eternal life, resembles lifelessness more than anything.  Moreover, for Petrarch, pursuing this so-called “immortality” would mean giving up his furious pursuit of fame. He would be surrendering his earthly life, and gaining no life in return; therefore, for him to follow the righteous lifestyle of his brother would appear to be a simple submission to death.  His love, which from his youth has driven him to desire immortality so that he may possess the good forever, will not permit such an action.  Therefore, due to his lack of understanding of heavenly immortality, Petrarch’s love ultimately drives him to avoid the quiet rest of heaven.  He accepts Tartarus instead as the sale price for a happy life on earth, and carries on wandering the hills.

Petrarch’s career, as described in the first eclogue of Bucolicum Carmen and the accompanying letter, serves as a case study of the Biblical man who “knows the right thing to do and fails to do it.”[18]  In this particular case, it is not that the man’s desires are actually evil; instead, he affirms a particular lifestyle is good, without understanding that it is actually also what he desires.  Petrarch understands his and his brother’s religion enough to believe that it is the truth, but not enough to recognize that it is also the ultimate object of the love which has driven his career and his life.

 


[1] Francesco Petrarch, Bucolicum Carmen, trans. Thomas Bergin (Yale University press, 1974), 7.
[2] Francesco Petrarch, On the Nature of Poetry, To his Brother Gherardo, trans. James Harvey Robinson (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1898), accessed January 19, 2016, https://history.hanover.edu/texts/petrarch/pet13.html, 269.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Bergin, Bucolicum Carmen, 7
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Bergin, Bucolicum Carmen, 9
[9] Ibid.
[10] Bergin, Bucolicum Carmen, 7
[11] Robinson, Poetry, 270
[12] Ibid.
[13] Robinson, Poetry, 271
[14] Bergin, Bucolicum Carmen, 9
[15] Robinson, Poetry, 268
[16] Robinson, Poetry, 269.
[17] Bergin, Bucolicum Carmen, 7.
[18] James 4:17, New Revised Standard Version.
References
Petrarch, Francesco. Bucolicum Carmen. Translated by Thomas Bergin. Yale University Press, 1974.
Petrarch, Francesco. On the Nature of Poetry, To his Brother Gherardo. Translated by James Harvey Robinson. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1898. Accessed January 19, 2016. https://history.hanover.edu/texts/petrarch/pet13.html.