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This review is taken from PN Review 21, Volume 8 Number 1, September - October 1981.

LAURA IN THE DARK Petrarch, Songs and Sonnets from Laura's Lifetime, translated by Nicholas Kilmer (Anvil) £3.50

Mr Kilmer's premise is that 'Petrarch deserves to be valued as a real man, a careful thinker, a good poet.' How else should Petrarch be treated? It is not an encouraging introduction. His choice and style of translation are designed to demonstrate the view that the sonnets and songs Petrarch wrote during Laura's lifetime are, besides love poems, 'also exercises in a moral intelligence that has as its chief aim the . . . renunciation of the misdirections of love's obsessive tyranny.'

This hardly corresponds to the facts. In the canzone 'Nel dolce tempo de la prima stade', Petrarch specifically observes, in Kilmer's translation, 'Because my singing makes the wound less violent/I will sing how I arrived in liberty, looked down upon . . .' In other words, composing helps Petrarch endure his suffering (dolor): it is not a rehearsal of moral truths designed to cure the man of his passion. In his curious introduction, where he describes himself as 'working with Petrarch', as if the process of translation were a kind of literary encounter session, meant to straighten out the poet, Kilmer refers to Petrarch's prose work. My Secret. In this imaginary dialogue with Augustine, Petrarch describes his love of Laura as a vain delusion from which he wishes to escape. He asks Augustine's moral guidance. Kilmer cites this in support of his interpretation of the Rime, but it demonstrates the opposite. Just as Boethius, Petrarch's master in these matters, scrupulously avoided appeal to theological arguments ...


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