Petrarch in Romantic England

By McCue, Maureen C. | The Byron Journal, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Petrarch in Romantic England


McCue, Maureen C., The Byron Journal


PETRARCH IN ROMANTIC ENGLAND. By Edoardo Zuccato. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. xiv + 241. ISBN 978 0 230 54260 0. £50.00.

Edoardo Zuccato's rich study illustrates the complex web of, and the reverberations from, the Petrarchan revival in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though the Romantic engagement with Italian literature has long been recognised, the extent of Petrarch's role has been overshadowed by scholarly interest in Dante.

Petrarch in Romantic England explores the many 'Fictions of Petrarch', while considering a wide range of British writers and their responses to each other's work. Zuccato's first chapter discusses various biographies of the poet, starting with Susanna Dobson's 1775 abridged translation of the Abbé de Sade's Mémoires pour la vie de François Pétrarque (1764). Zuccato includes works by, among others, Gibbon, Tytler, Sismondi, Hazlitt and Foscolo. The general importance of biographies in the Romantic period has been widely acknowledged and Zuccato illustrates how a biographical empathy, especially in the cases of Hazlitt and Foscolo, shaped popular views and Romantic interpretations of Petrarch, while fuelling an interest in his poetic works. This section highlights how readers of Petrarch were either fascinated or repelled by this figure, his poetics, his morality and his politics. Central to any discussion of Petrarch's life or poetry was the need to make sense of the enigma of Laura and the morality of their love. Zuccato beautifully illustrates the truth of Foscolo's complaint that there were no biographies of Petrarch, only romances. In so doing, Zuccato demonstrates how the figure of Petrarch, the presentation of Laura and the choice of poetry included in biographies, novels and anthologies of poetry were intertwined with the cult of Sensibility and wider critical debates.

The question of how to interpret and respond to Petrarch was a question of how to create a national literary heritage. Building on the work of François Mouret, Zuccato argues that in the eighteenth century, while Dante and other Italian authors were being re-assessed throughout Europe, only in England was there a revival of Petrarch. Importantly, Zuccato shows how this peculiarly English discourse on Petrarch influenced literary production as well as critical debates on the role and propriety of the sonnet, lyric poetry and general amorous discourse. And yet, as Zuccato's work on translations of Petrarch shows, the poet could be seen as effeminate or manly, politically noble or a turncoat. He influenced form and content, images and word choice. Furthermore, depending on which version of his biography one chose, the poet could be invoked for either political or private reasons, for scholarly endeavours or emotional outlet. As such invoking the poet gave a voice to both unconventional men and women.

One of the most important readings Zuccato provides is his reassessment of Thomas Gray. Though Gray's influence on the revival of the sonnet is well known, Zuccato enriches our understanding of 'Sonnet on the Death of Mr Richard West' and 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' by setting them against the backdrop of Petrarch's 'Zephiro torna' and Gray's own Latin translation of 'Lasso, ch'i ardo, et altri non me 'l crede'. …

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