Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of Life of Petrarch,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), pp. 202-206


[page 202, continued:]


[Graham’s Magazine, September, 1841.]

WE are not among those who regard the genius of Petrarch as a subject for enthusiastic admiration. The characteristics of his poetry are not traits of the highest, or even of a high order; and in accounting for his fame the discriminating critic will look rather to the circumstances which surrounded the man, than to the merits of the pertinacious sonnetteer. Grace and tenderness we grant him; but these qualities are surely insufficient to establish his poetical apotheosis.

In other respects he is entitled to high consideration. As a patriot, notwithstanding some accusations which have been rather urged than established, we can only regard him with approval. In his republican principles; in his support of Rienzi, at the risk of the displeasure of the Colonna family; in his whole political conduct, in short, he seems to have been nobly and disinterestedly zealous for the welfare of his country. But Petrarch is most important when we look upon him as the bridge by which, over the dark gulf of the Middle Ages, the knowledge of the Old World made its passage into the new. His influence on what is termed the revival of letters was, perhaps, greater than [page 203:] that of any man who ever lived — certainly far greater than that of any of his immediate contemporaries. His ardent zeal in recovering and transcribing the lost treasures of antique lore cannot be too highly appreciated. But for him, many of our most valued classics might have been numbered with Pindar’s hymns and dithyrambics. He devoted days and nights to this labour of love, snatching numerous precious books from the very brink of oblivion. His judgment in these things was strikingly correct; while his erudition, for the age in which he lived and for the opportunities he enjoyed, has always been a subject of surprise.

Upon the whole, therefore, it is not very wonderful that Petrarch has had many biographers. Much, to be sure, of the excessive comment upon his character may be traced to the generating influence of biography in itself. One life as surely begets another as a sum at compound interest doubles itself in a certain space of time. Each personal friend of the hero is anxious to prove a stricter intimacy with him than that enjoyed by the personal friend who wrote before. Contemporary contradictions thus arise, which it is left for posterity to reconcile. In the private library of the French king at the Louvre there exists a Petrarchian Library, consisting of nine hundred volumes illustrative of the life of the poet. It was collected by Professor Marsand of Padua, and a quarto catalogue of it was, not many years ago, published at Milan. The best biography of Petrarch, after the one which now lies before us, is no doubt that of the Abbé de Sade. This prelate, proud of a descent from Laura, consumed the greater part of his life in toilsome journeys, seeking material for a life of her lover. He was unquestionably the most accomplished foreigner who wrote on the affairs of Italy [page 204:] in the fourteenth century. His account of Petrarch has been made the chief basis of Mr. Campbell’s present work. We are sorry to see, moreover, that the author of “The Pleasures of Hope” has followed his authority even in the matter of wholesale vituperation of all previous writers upon the subject. De Sade abuses the whole Italian nation, accusing it, en masse, of gross ignorance in respect to our poet. Mr. Campbell abuses the whole Italian nation and De Sade. Not only this, but he is at great pains to be bitter upon Archdeacon Coxe, who had bequeathed to the library of the British Museum a Ms. Life of Petrarch. Of this Ms., Mr. Colburn, it seems, caused a copy to be taken, and, intending it for publication, requested Mr. Campbell to act as editor. Mr. C. consented, “surrounded himself with as many books connected with the subject as he could obtain, and applied himself assiduously to the study of Italian literature, which he had neglected for many years.”

Having done all this, our editor sat down to his task of arrangement and revision. But the Coxe-Petrarthan Mss. appear to have defied his powers. “If any one,” says he, “suspects me of dealing unfairly with the Archdeacon, let him go to the Library of the British Museum and peruse the work in question — his skepticism will find its reward. He will agree with me that the Coxeian Ms. is placed in a wrong part of the Museum. It should not be in the library, but among the bottled abortions of anatomy, or the wooden visages of the South Sea idols.” Mr. Campbell’s kind offer of permitting any skeptic to satisfy himself by going to the Museum and “perusing” a huge book which he has just declared to be unfit for perusal, puts us in mind of the candour of the Munchausens and Ferdinand [page 205:] Mendez Pintos, who, telling incredible tales of lands at the South Pole or mountains in the moon, confound all doubters with a request to proceed and satisfy themselves by personal inspection.

One thing is certainly very strange: that Mr. Campbell did not think of looking at “the Coxe-Petrarchan Ms.” in the first place — in the beginning of things — before “surrounding himself with as many books as he could obtain,” and especially before “applying himself assiduously to the study of Italian literature, which he had neglected for many years.” He would have saved himself much trouble, and the Archdeacon might have been spared some abuse.

What particularly surprises us in this volume — a large and handsomely printed octavo — is its slovenliness of style. Such a charge as this has never before been urged against the author of “Hohenlinden.” In general he is scrupulously correct. The Archdeacon seems to have bewildered his brains in unsettling his temper. What are we to make of such phraseology as this, occurring in the very second sentence of the work? “It was known that the Rev. Archdeacon Coxe had bequeathed to the Library of the British Museum a Ms. ‘Life of the Poet’ which he had written.” Here “he” implies the poet, but is intended to imply the Archdeacon. Such misconstructions are abundant. We observe, also, far more serious defects — defects of tone. These sentences, for instance, are in shockingly bad taste, — “The most skilful physicians stood aghast at this disease (the plague). The charlatan rejoiced at it, unless it attacked himself, because it put quackery on a par with skill; and compassionate women assisted both physicians and quacks in doing no good to their patients. ... This was a dance of the king of terrors [page 206:] over the earth, and a very rapid one.” Attempts at humour on such subjects are always exceedingly low.

Nor can the general handling of the theme of the book be said to be well done. The biographer has swallowed the philosopher. While we are sometimes interested in personal details, we more frequently regret the want of comprehensive analysis of the poet’s character, and of the age in which he lived. The book has no doubt filled, in a certain unsatisfactory manner, a blank in our biographical literature, since the authorities referred to can scarcely be termed accessible; but, upon the whole, it is unworthy Thomas Campbell — still less is it worthy Petrarch. We cannot say with Crébillon —

  un dessein si funeste,

S’il n’est digne d’Atrée, est digne de Thyeste.





[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of Life of Petrarch)