Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/285

This page has been validated.

of the Alps calls to his mind Hannibal, and beyond he descries, with the mind's (rather than the bodily) eye, the land for which he longed—Italy. But now he feels the fetters which bind him growing painfully tighter; the image of his mysterious lady below there in Avignon, and whom he had for the first time seen almost exactly nine years before, April 6, 1327, rises before his mind. Of the Ovidian verse which he uses to describe the state of his feelings—

"Odero si potero. Si non, invitus amabo"—[1]

we can hardly say that it expresses a great amount of passion. The grandeur of the surrounding spectacle, the Rhône at his feet, in the distance the flashing mirror of the Mediterranean between Marseilles and Aigues Mortes, bring him back again to the real world. While he abandons himself to these impressions, it occurs to him to open, as though it had been a "book of fate," a little copy of St. Augustine's "Confessions" which he always carried about with him. He read there this passage: "Men go to gaze on lofty mountains and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide currents of rivers, and the vast extent of ocean, and the circling courses of the stars, and they overlook themselves."[2] Taken in connection with the context, the passage does not carry an ascetic meaning, but occurs in the course of a theoretical explanation of memory that rather does credit to the mystic Bishop of Hippo. But Petrarca sees in these words, so directly applicable to his surroundings at that moment, the very finger of God. Full of shame and remorse, and without uttering another word, he descends from the mountain, and that very night addresses to his confessor, Dionigi de' Roberti, the doleful letter from which we take this narrative. The poor fellow had for a moment, forgetful of his soul's welfare, indulged the harmless pleasure of looking out on the entrancing world of sense, when he should have been moodily contemplating his own inner state. So diseased were the intellectual faculties of man in Europe in that age, that this incident sufficed to bring a conscientious, fine-feeling, but not very strong-minded man like Petrarca into a state of intensely painful self-conflict.

Fortunately, the "Decamerone" shows that not all minds were so delicately strung. But in the "Divina Commedia" we curiously enough see a poetic imagination of the highest power, equipped with all the scientific lore of its day, clothing the ascetic view of the world in such a garb of stern reality, that King John of Saxony has been able, from the description given in the "Inferno," to sketch a topographical plan of hell, as though Virgil had conducted, not a poet, but a scientific

  1. "Amores," lib. iii., Eleg. x., v. 35. "If I can, I will hate; if not, I shall love against my will."
  2. This incident occurred in the thirty-second year of the poet's life. The passage from Augustine is as follows in the original: "Et eunt homines admirari alta montium, et ingentes fluctus maris, et latissimos lapsus fluminum, et oceani ambitum, et gyros siderum, et relinquunt seipsos."