Petrarchan sonnets are the epitome of love- loving someone so much that everything they are is absolutely perfect. It hurts that you love them so much.
This love is a shallow love, based on physical attributes and how one party, the male, feels. Is this the idea of love that we want to look up to, though? What does this say about our society? As much as we would like to, have we truly progressed past this ideal love? Petrarchan ideas of love have infiltrated our society and though we pride ourselves on how we have adapted through time, the undertones of the Petrarchan tradition continue to haunt us today. What does it say about us if we idealize and base an entire tradition of love sonnets off of a series of blazon’s that obsess over a girl, Laura’s, blonde hair, angelic presence, snowy cheeks and crystal tears? Many may argue that despite the obviously shallow description of Laura, Petrarch’s mentions of “ intelligence in love” and “ her air” allude to his reverence for her as an individual, yet these attributes are describes through the eyes of the author. For example, Petrarch describes Laura as “ A noble lady in a humble home”, yet this line is only found in the context of how Laura “ ruled in beauty” over Petrarch’s heart. After she leaves him (whether she rejects him or dies is unsure) he is the one who is assured repeatedly in the poem Soleasi Nel Mio Cor.
Never once does Laura have any emotion. Never does the author consider how Laura feels about him. He loves her, and that is all that matters. Petrarch’s love may have been real to him, but does that mean that his version of love is what we should base our ideas of love off of today? Now, you may say, despite Petrarch’s clearly shallow and inaccurate depiction of true love, appropriations of his poems (such as by Shakespeare and Sidney) are not shallow by any means. Sidney focuses on the ways that love changes you, for the good and the bad. Similarly, Shakespeare emphasizes the long-term impacts of love.
Donne takes a different approach to adding depth to Petrarch’s base for this tradition. Donne brings in religion, philosophy and, therefore, complexity. Though later poems in this tradition were anything but shallow, the fact that they were based off Petrarch undermines many of their points. Though their love is obviously deeper and more realistic, they still brought surface level attributes to the modern definition of love. Until poets are truly able to separate their physical attractions from their emotional, romantic, and intellectual attractions to women, the women themselves and the authors’ love for the women are severely undermined.
As I have thought about, and consequentially gotten increasingly mad about, Petrarch’s shallow influence on the standards of love, I have come to realize that these characteristics seems eerily familiar. As I prepare to leave for college at a large SEC school with a prominent Greek Life, I am constantly reminded to the dangers of rape culture. This culture, which is so prevalent in our society, is characterized by males disregard for female’s feelings, sexual objectification, and obsession with the object of the male’s “ love”. Just to be clear, I am not blaming Petrarch for rape culture. Rather, I find it honestly terrifying that I am capable of reading a poem that is clearly about the objectification of a woman and discussing its depiction of a “ true love” that set the standard for love poems while witnessing a cultural war against gender inequality.
No longer can we dismiss Petrarch’s disregard for Laura’s feelings (or even personality for that matter) as a cultural standard of that time. That “ cultural standard” undermines our society’s views on women today, centuries later. It is time for us to move on. Petrarch’s sexist and shallow depiction of Laura relates back to many ideas presented by Neo-Platonists and even Puttenham by directly contrasting what the Neo-Platonists and Puttenham claimed as the purpose of poetry. Both the Neo-Platonists and Puttenham asserted (though the Neo-platonists did not do so directly) that poetry as well as all other acts should serve some greater purpose.
To Puttenham this meant writing about important historical events, scientific and philosophical ideas and even astrology. Similarly, the Neo-Platonists assert that everything anyone does should be with the ultimate goal of bettering themselves until they reach a god-like level. Meanwhile, Petrarch, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne and now me are basing their writings off of surface level interactions. Overall, I feel that I have truly gained a lot from reading about the impacts that poetry has on different cultural movements and ideas, yet by doing so I have only come to realize that the poems we have read, namely the Petrarchan sonnets, could not be farther away from the idealized versions of poetry described by many. Rather, these sonnets set up a tradition based in fundamentally flawed ideas.
The ramifications of this can be seen even today. Though the “ love poem” is relatively unpopular in modern culture, the idea of obsession with the object of our affection impacts even the smallest decisions in our lives.