The following was a college essay written by Maria Keller. It has been edited and approved by Aidan McIntosh. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.
By Maria Keller, University of Notre Dame
Petrarch’s Poem 264 is a fascinating look into the psyche of a Christian seeing the good but refusing to change his ways. Although the poem is set against a background of conventional Christian morality, it is not a guide to a virtuous life or even a heartening tale of repentance and salvation. Desire, for both earthly love and poetic fame, comes into conflict with the ideals of Christian living in the soul of the speaker, Petrarch. He leaves the reader with no certainty, no closure, as to whether or not he is redeemed, and the speaker is hopeless by the end, declaring that he is “feeling for certain that [he is] perishing.” This poem depicts irrationality within the soul, denying the Socratic logic that to know the good is to do the good. The poem is markedly Augustinian and contains parallel sentiments to the Confessions, but, unlike Augustine, the speaker in Poem 264 continues to wait for divine intervention that never comes.
Within the first stanza, the reader learns that the speaker has an “abundant pity” for himself. His pity is not of his own will, as he claims that he is “seized” by his pity when he is thinking. The reader is also told that this is “a different kind of grief.” Petrarch does not weep over unrequited human love; rather, he is struggling with a deep penitential desire and unanswered prayers. The speaker claims that:
“A thousand times I’ve begged God for those wings with which our intellect can soar to Heaven from this mortal jail. But until now I have received no help.”
These lines are Augustinian in their emphasis on the necessity of grace. Rather than also relying on his own strength to escape the ‘mortal jail,’ the speaker hopes only for divine intervention. He does not deny free will in general, but seems to deny his power to overcome his sinful state as he claims, “if he who can walk straight chooses to fall, / then he deserves to lie upon the ground.” Indulging in worldly pleasures, the reader will learn later, has weakened his will to the point where he has no power outside of divine intervention. The speaker is prompted to this intense penitential desire by “seeing every day the end come closer.” Through his constant self-contradiction, the readers can observe the speaker’s irrationality. Although he claims that his many prayers have been unanswered, he still trusts that “Those arms stretched out in mercy” are “open to him still.” In the next lines, his trust wavers again, as he says:
“I still fear to think how others ended, and I dread my state and am spurred on, and it could be too late.”
The speaker is plagued by waves of uncertainty, casting him back and forth between extremes. He initially despairs of God’s mercy by claiming that his many prayers have been unanswered. He then seems to briefly gain trust in God, but reverts to fearing that he could be too late in his desire to make reparations.
Despite the wavering trust in the first stanza, it is still mostly conventional in its presentation of a repentant sinner. It outlines the psychological state of one who desires to amend his ways but is concerned that God will not grant him mercy. However, the second stanza is less conventional and demonstrates the extreme psychological state of the speaker. The speaker claims that “a thought speaks to the mind,” thereby distancing his thoughts from his mind. This separation points to his intense internal conflict. This stanza also involves Augustinian extremism and introduces explicit parallels with the Confessions. The speaker’s thought urges him to:
“pull out of [his] heart every last root of pleasure that can never bring happiness, nor will it let [him] breathe.”
The thought commands the speaker to reject all earthly pleasures because they bring no happiness. This excessive statement has several meanings. It certainly points to the concept of sin leading to death, but also to the weakening of the will due to sin. His dependence on pleasures deprives him even of the freedom to breathe. The pleasure the thought is describing is a “fleeting good” given to some by “a treacherous world.” Although the thought’s condemnation of fleeting, earthly pleasures is highly Augustinian, the end of the stanza lacks the total dependence on God’s intervention found in the first stanza. The thought argues that “While life is in your body / you have the rein of all thoughts in your hands.” Again, the contradictory ideas about the degree to which the speaker still has free will points to intense psychological conflict.
The thought continues its exhortation to the speaker in the third stanza, revealing to the reader the details of the pleasures in which the speaker has been indulging. The thought likely points to Laura, Petrarch’s unrequited love, as the first pleasure distracting the speaker from “gazing on the heavens whirling round you, / beautiful and immortal.” Unlike Dante’s Beatrice, Laura does not raise Petrarch’s eyes to Heaven; rather, she sets burning “the false flame” where “the flame of other torches could not enter.” Laura ignites in Petrarch a passion that replaces God, rather than leading him to God.
As the first thought ends its speech, another thought remains in the speaker’s mind “with difficult and yet delightful weight.” This thought is the speaker’s desire for glory, which “has been growing with [him] all of [his] days.” Petrarch is also conflicted over this desire; although he enjoys earthly glory, he fears that he and his glory “will share one grave.” This again points to the Pauline association of sin and death. Petrarch’s glory is fleeting, so it will eventually pass away, and he will die with it. The speaker claims that his fear of valuing too highly what is fleeting would drive him to “embrace the truth, and leave the lies” if not for the other passion, which is his love for Laura.
Petrarch’s passion for Laura “seems to block out all others born around it.” He claims that his love “has hold of [him] with reins / against which neither wit nor might avails.” Petrarch contradicts the claim that his thought makes in the second stanza, that he has “the rein of all thoughts” in his hands. By describing how he seems “to see Death standing there before [him], / and [he] would fight for life, and have no weapon,” Petrarch disputes that he has any power to overcome his passion. He reverts to the first stanza’s helplessness, and cries out to God to “wipe from [his] face this shame.” Ironically, Petrarch claims that he knows himself, and is “not deceived by mistaken truth,” so he is confident that Love is forcing him to turn away from God. However, Petrarch’s thought insisted earlier in the poem that he still had the power to control his thoughts. Again, the intense internal battle waging in his soul comes to the surface.
Petrarch further reveals this conflict by distancing himself from a “virtuous disdain” which enters his heart and “pulls all hidden thoughts / up to [his] brow for everyone to see.” His disdain:
“calls back [his] reason which went wandering with the senses; but though it hears and means to come back home, bad habit drives it further.”
Petrarch’s reason conflicts with his habits; he cannot overcome his passion without divine aid. His Augustinian internal conflict drives him to irrationality as he contends that Laura is “the one born only so that I may die / because she pleased me, and herself, too much.” Petrarch reduces Laura to a temptation to sin; he degrades her through his guilt.
Petrarch realizes that he does not have much time left to return to the true path. Although Petrarch is “pierced / by shame and sorrow” on one side, the other side of himself will not free him from habitual pleasure, and it “dares bargain now with Death itself.” Petrarch’s desire for pleasure has made him irrational, but so has his hesitation. He has wasted time obsessing over his decision, and his death approaches. Rather than pursuing happiness in this life, he has wasted away weighing his love for Laura and poetic glory against his love for God. Nearing the end of his life,
“never was there a weight heavier than the one [he carries] now, for with Death at [his] side [He seeks] new rules by which to lead [his] life, and [sees] the best, but still [clings] to the worst.”
His habitual devotion to pleasure has made him incapable of living by the Socratic maxim of knowing the good and doing the good. Not only has sin weakened his will, but it has also made all reason useless. It no longer matters that he knows what is right; his weakness will prevent him from doing the good whether he knows what the good is or not.
Poem 264 explores two sources of irrationality in the penitential Christian: habitual attachment to sin and an Augustinian fear of loving the temporal world too dearly. Petrarch’s attachment to pleasure defeats both his reason and his will. His will is weakened, so his reason is at the best useless, and at the worst partially decayed. Petrarch’s language related to the separation of his thoughts from his mind communicates the decline of his reason. Petrarch is further plagued by Augustinian extremism. He accuses all earthly pleasures, as they have potential to draw him away from God. He even reduces Laura to a mere temptation and seems to see no good in the temporal world. By exploring these two forms of irrationality, Petrarch illuminates the mind of a despairing Christian who has fallen from the true path.
Petrarch, The Canzoniere or Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, trans. Mark Musa (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999), Poem 264, line 129.
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