Harvard University Press
4 min readJul 20, 2019


Francesco Petrarca, commonly anglicized as Petrarch, was a scholar and poet of Renaissance Italy who was one of the earliest humanists. In Petrarch’s hands, lyric verse was transformed from an expression of courtly devotion into a way of conversing with one’s own heart and mind. In Sonnets and Shorter Poems, David Slavitt renders the sonnets in Il Canzoniere, along with the shorter madrigals and ballate, in a sparkling and engaging idiom and in rhythm and rhyme that do justice to Petrarch’s achievement. Slavitt’s deft translation captures the nuanced tone of Petrarch’s poems —both their joy and their grief and despair. Here is an excerpt from Slavitt’s introduction from the book looking at his youth and his obsession with a woman named Laura. Though Laura was already married, the sight of her woke in the poet a passion that would last beyond her premature death on April 6, 1348, exactly twenty-one years after he first encountered her.

Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), whom we call simply Petrarch, was born in Arezzo, where his father, a Guelph and a friend and ally of Dante, had relocated after leaving Florence, which had banished Dante in 1302. In 1312 Ser Petracco moved the family to Carpentras, in Provence, near Avignon, and there Francesco and his brother Gherardo were raised and educated. Provence was the wellspring of vernacular European poetry, and we can suppose that Francesco’s being close to the novelty and excitement of the Provençal troubadours was at least a part of his development as a writer. He may have disliked Avignon’s extravagance and self-indulgence, but his access to the libraries of his patrons there also provided him with an introduction to the classical tradition and especially the work of Horace, Ovid, and Virgil. A significant intellectual resource for him was St. Augustine’s Confessions, a copy of which Dionigi da Borgo San Sepulcro, an Augustinian monk, gave him in 1333 and which surely demonstrated for the young poet the possibilities of drama in the idea of the fallen world and the tension between opposing ideals. Then, and perhaps most important, we know that by 1333 he had found a manuscript of Propertius, which he copied out, and, while Petrarch’s vision of love is quite different from that of Propertius, there are also important correspondences. Loves that are happy and lead to a comfortable and fulfilling life are not the subjects of great literature. For Propertius — as for Dante in La Vita Nuova and for Petrarch — it is the unsatisfying or unsatisfied love that is interesting, endlessly eliciting explanations, redefinitions, self-accusation, and the high drama of torment.

Assuming that she existed at all, Petrarch first beheld Laura at Easter mass on April 6, 1327, in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon when he was twenty-two. Although she died on Easter Sunday in 1348 of the plague, Petrarch’s obsession with her continued for the rest of his life. He did not think of her as a kind of earthly angel, as Dante considered Beatrice. Petrarch’s idealization was of an entirely worldly passion that became a habit of mind, a way of living, and a source of inspiration for an astonishing body of work. There are 366 poems in the Canzioniere — a poem for each day of the year plus a final prayer — and the vast majority of its poems (317) are in the sonnet form.


Petrarch has been of greater influence on English literature than Dante, Boccaccio, Ariosto, or any of that nest of singing birds that was the glory of the Italian Renaissance. Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, did translations or adaptations of Petrarch’s poems during the reign of Henry VIII, and by Elizabeth’s time Petrarch’s way of looking at the world, in which any instant and any mental connection, observation, or mood can be the prompting of a short poem, had been adopted as natural not only by Shakespeare but also by Sir Philip Sidney and all those other adept lyricists of that remarkable age.

If Petrarch did not invent the sonnet, he was surely the poet who gave it life and energy. He is to the sonnet what Haydn is to the symphony. Petrarch has a number of canzoni and longer poems, which are interesting and attractive, but it was the short pieces, the quick takes for which he had a special talent and which turned out to be so influential, that interested me and were what I wanted to bring into English — not only the sonnets but the ballatas and the madrigals as well.

There are some readers who think that less might have been more — that there is too much of a muchness here, with the poet’s obsessive concentration on his love for Laura, in which, inevitably, there is no small degree of repetition. My view is that this is a central part of Petrarch’s intention. As in most poetry, the message is not paramount or even especially important. The repetitive quality of the poems is a way of demanding a closer scrutiny of the formal, craftsmanly aspects of the poems. Their rhymes are not merely decorative but are organic parts of the poems, which function — as most formal poetry does — as hypnotic inductions. To convey at least some suggestion of this in English, I think rhyme is necessary in translating them, even if the rhymes require some slight departure from the literal meaning of some of the sentences.