Edoardo Zuccato, Petrarch in Romantic England
Mary Anne Myers
With Petrarch in Romantic England, Edoardo Zuccato refines and updates the meaning of “Italian influences” in British literature from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, tilling rich ground for additional study from several critical and cultural perspectives. While Dante’s influence on the “Canonic Six” has long been duly noted, Zuccato’s historical approach demonstrates that Petrarch was actually more popular among the period’s writers, particularly among those women and men who have more recently been included in the field of Romantic studies. Not only does Zuccato’s enterprise dovetail with the expansion of the Romantic canon, it also illustrates how a central question in the period’s debates over Petrarch is keyed to the larger English Romantic movement and its subsequent critical reception. As the author positions the apparent paradox: “Petrarch was recognised simultaneously as one of the masters of love poetry and an extremely skilled rhetorician who exhibited his technical devices with unashamed pride. How could exalted passion and extreme artificiality coexist?” (15). Then as now, disagreements hinged on the issue of sincerity and the connections among feeling, truth, art, and action.
Zuccato, a professor of English Literature at the University of IULM in Milan, evaluates British Romantic responses to fourteenth-century Italian literature from a deep appreciation for both traditions. In asserting that scholarship has heretofore privileged Dante’s influence at Petrarch’s expense, he ascribes causality not only to an earlier focus on an elite group of English poets, but also to the fundamental differences between the two Italian writers’ politics and poetics:
Dante was a major model of the prophet-poet; Petrarch was a model of the scholar-poet and melancholy lover. Dante was a politician and an exile, a man of ideological certainties and unshakable principles; Petrarch was a friend of many princes, a well-to-do scholar who knew how to arrive at a reasonable compromise with political power. It is easy to understand why, after the French Revolution, male Romantics identified with Dante and denigrated Petrarch. On the other hand, it is natural that most women poets preferred Petrarch to a masculine, muscular figure like Dante (ix-x).
In other words, Dante may have been more attractive to the liberal humanist defending the rights of man, while Petrarch appealed to the Burkean conservative favoring revision over revolution. This provocatively clear-cut distinction invites complication. Zuccato is not without his own hypotheses, but the book is perhaps most impressive for its collection of textual evidence that takes Petrarch’s influence beyond the revival of the sonnet form and into the meanings of art, history and morality in the period.
In his first two chapters, Zuccato paints the backdrop for the review of several poets’ treatments of Petrarchan forms and themes by showing how a quick proliferation of presentations, translations and imitations—coupled with varying levels of Italian language proficiency—spawned a wide range of responses to Petrarch and the Laura of the Rime Sparse. He marks the beginning of the eighteenth-century English Petrarchan revival with the 1775 publication of Susanna Dobson’s Life of Petrarch. Collected from Memoires pour la vie de Petrarch, an abridged translation of the three-volume biography by Abbé de Sade published in French in 1764. Dobson’s Life, which went through six editions, portrayed an edited version of Sade’s Petrarch, emphasizing the poet and lover over the scholar and politician. As Zuccato claims, Dobson’s work was received by British readers like a “novel of Sensibility, which told a pathetic love story using prose interspersed with poems” (6).
The Dobson biography evoked reactions from historians Thomas Warton and Edward Gibbons, who elected to focus on Petrarch’s politics. Alexander Fraser Tytler, in a 1784 essay that grew to a book in 1810, argued against Sade for an alternate version of Laura’s identity that removed the taint of immorality from the lovers’ “relationship”, and thereby rationalized an admiration for the poetry. Zuccato describes how Henry Hallam, Pierre Louis Ginguené, Simond de Sismondi, William Hazlitt and Ugo Foscolo all kept the debate about the “real” Petrarch and Laura going through the early 19th century. Zuccato returns to Petrarch’s biographies in the final chapter, mentioning that Thomas Campbell’s version published in 1841 also subordinated the poet to the scholar and politician, but more importantly showed how long British interest in the character of the Italian poet was sustained (134).
In his chapter on available English translations of Petrarch, Zuccato begins by citing a 1976 bibliography (Mouret’s Les traducteurs anglais de Pétrarque 1754-1798) that lists 51 late eighteenth-century British translators producing 398 versions from Petrarch, an indication of interest unmatched in any other country at the time (25). English men of letters earlier in the century had largely excluded Petrarch from their consideration of Italian literature, Zuccato argues, because they deemed him effeminate or trifling in contrast to Dante, or ridiculous in his religious extremes. Among the earliest exceptions well-noted by the author is Thomas Gray, whose poem “On the Death of Mr. Richard West,” written in 1742 and published in 1775, shows influence from Petrarch’s “Zephiro torna, e ‘l bel tempo rimena” (“Zephyrus returns and leads back the fine weather”), a sonnet that became a favorite source for English Romantic Petrarchans (27). From there Zuccato documents the role of several translators, imitators, and anthologists in the vanguard of the later-century interest in Petrarch— including Sir William Jones, Charles Burney, John Nott, William Hayley, William Collier, Thomas Le Mesurier, George Henderson, and Capel Lofft—as he makes the transition from the sonnet revival to a more in-depth review of Petrarch’s place in the work of individual poets.
Zuccato has his favorites—the Petrarchan poetics of Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson gain his greenest laurels for well-argued reasons—but his work covers an exceptionally wide field of writers. William Lisle Bowles, Elizabeth Cobbold, Felicia Hemans, Leigh Hunt, Letitia Landon, and William Preston all get considerable attention without the call-outs he gives to Anna Seward, the Della Cruscans, and Charles Lloyd. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the subject of an earlier book by Zuccato, is the only one of the “Canonic Six” to warrant a chapter-heading focus, based on an interest that eventually extended beyond the sonnets in the Canzoniere and recognized the complexity of Petrarch’s whole body of work in Italian and Latin (106). Zuccato pays special attention to Coleridge’s affinity for the Italian poet’s “philosophy of love,” defined as “a Christianised Platonism mixed with courtly elements” (110). Lord Byron and William Wordsworth get linked in an admittedly rare alliance through their effort to “blot out” Petrarch (135), although Wordsworth’s intense interest in the sonnet and his gendered distinction in sonnet themes make his relationship to Petrarch perhaps more intricate than Zuccato allows. Percy Bysshe Shelley gets credit for drawing on Petrarch’s Trionfi, for finding points of intersection between Petrarch and Dante, and for identifying with Petrarch as a “visionary idealist” (137). Zuccato affirms that John Keats was first influenced by Petrarch via Hunt, and that this influence was manifested largely through Keats’s innovative engagement with the sonnet form (138). William Blake gets just two tangential mentions. The book concludes with a bridge to Victorian Petrarchism through brief consideration of the Brownings and the Rossettis.
In Zuccato’s convincing view, the Petrarchan vogue in England around the turn of the nineteenth century looks in some ways similar to the literary trends of the sixteenth century, when notions of self, other, nation, and authority were also undergoing destabilizing change. Early modernists have mined that period’s Petrarchan and anti-Petrarchan discourse to find important views on gender, class, race, slavery, religion, economies, nationalism, political ambition, internationalism, translation, self-fashioning, performance, subjectivity, objectification, language, art, love, and marriage. Petrarch in Romantic England provides a comprehensive and consolidated foundation for parallel considerations by Romanticists and other scholars focused on the nineteenth century.