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From A Literary Source-book of the German Renaissance, by Merrick Whitcomb, PH. D., University of Pennsylvania; 1900; pp. 8-15.
Your letters are always more than welcome, especially when I have need of consolation, a need that I often experience amid the weariness of life. In the first place I cannot pass over in silence a certain ambiguous statement of yours, that you are well aware, from the direction my affairs are taking, that I am likely to make a permanent stay at Milan. You conceal your own feelings in the matter by ascribing your silence to the fact that you have not the hardihood to protest against my resolution. In this manner, by saying nothing, you say more than if you had said much. Surely, silence often plays a great part among the artifices of eloquence. I see in this economy of words your oft-expressed solicitude and forethought, and not yours alone, but that of others. For almost all my friends, except those who are here and who dread the idea of my departure as a calamity — all my friends, I say, prefer that I should be elsewhere. There seems to be a harmony of opinion in this matter. But whither go? Upon this point exists a wide divergence of opinion. Some summon me to Padua, others beyond the Alps, still others to my native country. These appeals would be most opportune, if the affair did not present a difficulty that borders upon the impossible. Still others will invite me elsewhere; each, according to his desire, will offer 9 me this or that place of residence. In all this I am less astonished at the variety of their opinions than at the unanimity which exists in their sentiments of tenderness and affection. When I examine thoughtfully the causes of this variety, I confess the variety itself pleases me, and I am proud of being so dear to my friends, that their friendship for me blunts the edge and dims the clearness of their judgment.
If you should ask me, in the midst of these opinions of my friends, what I myself think of the matter, I can only reply that I long for a place where solitude, leisure, repose and silence reign, however far from wealth and honors, power and favors. But I confess, I know not where to find it. My own secluded nook, where I have hoped not alone to live, but even to die, has lost all the advantages it once possessed, even that of safety. I call to witness thirty or more volumes, which I left there recently, thinking that no place could be more secure, and which, a little later, having escaped from the hands of robbers and returned, against all hope, to their master, seem yet to blanch and tremble and show upon their foreheads the troubled condition of the place whence they have escaped. Therefore I have lost all hope of revisiting this charming retreat, this longed-for country spot. Still, if the expectation were offered me, I should seize it with both hands and hold it fast. I do not know whether I still possess a glimmer of hope, or am feigning it for self-deception, and to feed my soul’s desire with empty expectation. My conversations with my friends, by day and night, in which I speak of almost nothing else, and the sighs which I have mingled in a recent letter to the bishop of the neighborhood, prove that I have not yet wholly turned my hopes aside. Truly it is strange, and I could not tell the reason for it, but here is what I think: our labors, even though announced by fame, can be brought to completion in that place alone where they have been undertaken, as though the place were destined by fate for both the beginning and the end. However much, moreover, I desire to determine the place and the manner of my living, according as my fortunes vary, I find myself confirmed in my indecision by several persons, particularly by 10 you and still oftener by myself. In this, believe me, it is more difficult to arrange the things themselves than to quibble over words, because to provide for the future is not only difficult, but uncertain; so that, although the result may be fortunate, the choice cannot be other than a matter of chance. What would you choose at a moment when your most established resolutions were baffled by a turn of the wheel of fortune? There is but one choice that never fails — to live, in whatever spot necessity or desire has placed us, with a contentment that has its origin in ourselves and not in our fortunes, knowing well that our most extensive plans will have only a brief duration.
But I proceed, recollecting that we had much conversation on this point last year, when we lived together in the same house, in this very city; and that after having examined the matter most carefully, in so far as our light permitted, we came to the conclusion that while the affairs of Italy and of Europe remained in this condition, there was no place safer and better for my needs than Milan, nor any place that suited me so well. We made exception only of the city of Padua, whither I went shortly after, and whither I shall soon return; not that I may obliterate or diminish — that I should not wish — but that I may soften the regret which my absence causes the citizens of both places. I know not whether you have changed your opinion since that time; but for me I am convinced that to exchange the tumult of this great city and its annoyances for the annoyances of another city would bring me no advantage, perhaps some inconvenience, and beyond a doubt, much fatigue. Ah, if this tranquil solitude, which, in spite of all my seeking, I never find, as I have told you, should ever show itself on any side, you will hear, not that I have gone, but that I have flown to it. If I have dwelt at such length upon so trivial a thing, it is because I wish to satisfy you, you and my friends, in the matter of my affairs, of which this is the chief. This desire has been awakened in me by the numerous letters of my friends. Since it is impossible to reply to each one of them, and the greater part of them are of the same counsel, 11 I have conceived the idea of replying to them all at once and of devoting an entire volume to a discourse upon the manner of my life. Alas! I comprehend now that living is a serious matter.
In the following paragraph of your letter you jest with much eloquence, saying that I have been wounded by Cicero without having deserved it, on account of our too great intimacy.† “Because,” you say, “those who are nearest to us most often injure us, and it is extremely rare that an Indian does an injury to a Spaniard.” True it is. It is on this account that in reading of the wars of the Athenians and Lacedæmonians, and in contemplating the troubles of our own people with our neighbors, we are never struck with astonishment; still less so at the sight of the civil ways and domestic troubles which habitude has made of so little account, that concord itself would more easily cause surprise. But when we read that the King of Scythia has come to blows with the King of Egypt, and that Alexander of Macedonia has penetrated to the ends of India, we experience a sensation of astonishment which the reading of our histories, filled as they are with the deeds of Roman bravery in their distant expeditions, does not afford. You bring me consolation, in representing me as having been wounded by Cicero, to whom I am fondly attached, a thing that would probably never happen to me, either at the hands of Hippocrates or Albumazar.
But laying aside pleasantry, in order to acquaint you with the truth, this Ciceronian wound, at which at first I laughed, has converted my mirth into tears. For almost a year it was daily growing worse, so that between weariness and suffering, between physicians and remedies, I fell into despair. Finally, not only overwhelmed with disgust, but weary of life, I resolved to await, without physicians, the end, whatever it might be, and to trust myself to God and to Nature rather than to those peddlers of ointments, who, in attending my 12 case, have taken the opportunity of making some experiments along the line of their profession.
And so it happened. The physicians excluded, thanks to the assistance of the heavenly Physician; thanks to the attentions of a young man who waits upon me, and who, in dressing my wound, has become a physician at my expense, so to speak; thanks also to the use of certain remedies, which I determined by observation were most helpful to me, and to that abstinence which assists Nature, I have returned little by little to that state of health from which I was so far removed. This is the whole of the story. I might add, that although this life is a vale of sorrows, in which I have often met with strange accidents (not strange in themselves, but strange for me, of all men the fondest of repose and the most determined enemy of such tribulations), yet up to this time I have never experienced anything of the kind, if you consider the cause of the trouble, the suffering it entailed and the length of its duration. My beloved Cicero has imprinted in my memory an indelible mark, an eternal stigma. I should have remembered him, but he has brought it about, both internally and externally, that I am positively unable ever to forget him. Once more, alas! I have come to know that life is a severe affliction.
Leaving other things aside, I now come to the occurrence which has covered me with honor and with joy. When I learned that a number of distinguished personages, who certainly were not the least of the princes of Italy, finding themselves at the end of the world, by night, in winter, during a tempest, in time of war, reduced to extremities, were received in my name within the walls of a city and treated with distinction, I was astonished at first, and thought it must be a error in names. Later I recalled with some difficulty the time when, in my youth, I followed into that country him who, by the token of his calm brow, might have led me beyond the Indies. Thirty summers have rolled by since that time, and ten since the death of this grand man, unripe in years, but ripe in virtues. Pursuing this train of recollection I have finally been able to conjecture 13 who it might be that after so long a time still retained a memory of me, whom I, it must be confessed, had almost completely forgotten. I addressed to him by letter, as you have seen, the thanks which he deserved, for in no way could he place me under greater obligation, than by his honorable reception of such great personages, and he will be not the less surprised at my remembrance of him, if he does not dream that he has refreshed my memory with a recent deed of kindness.‡
You ask me finally to lend you the copy of Homer that was on sale at Padua, if, as you suppose, I have purchased it; since, you say, I have for a long time possessed another copy; so that our friend Leo§ may translate it from Greek into Latin for your benefit and for the benefit of our other studious compatriots. I saw this book, but neglected the opportunity of acquiring it, because it seemed inferior to my own. It can easily be had with the aid of the person to whom I owe my friendship with Leo; a letter from that source would be all-powerful in the matter, and I will myself write him.
If by chance the book escapes us, which seems to me very unlikely, I will let you have mine. I have been always fond of this particular translation and of Greek literature in general, and if fortune had not frowned upon my beginnings, in the sad death of my excellent master, I should be perhaps to-day something more than a Greek still at his alphabet. I approve with all my heart and strength your enterprise, for I regret and am indignant that an ancient translation, presumably the work of Cicero, the commencement of which Horace inserted in his Ars Poetica, should have been lost to the Latin world, together with many other works. It angers me to see so much solicitude for the bad and so much neglect of the good. But what is to be done? We must be resigned. If the zeal of strangers shall come to rouse us from our lethargy, then may the Muses and our Apollo help it on! The 14 Chinese, the Arabs and the Red Sea offer in my eyes no more valuable merchandise (merx). I am not unaware of what I say. I know that this nominative (merx) is not used to-day by our grammarians; but it was used by the ancients, possibly not by the very earliest, whose style the ignorance of our times blushes to imitate; but by those nearest to us and the first in science and ability, whom blind and loquacious pride has not yet dared to set aside. In their writings, and notably in Horace, I remember that the nominative of which I speak is often found. Let us put it again into use, I beg of you, if we may; for I do not know why we should not dare to recall from unmerited exile this word banished from the Latin country, and introduce it into the tongue to which we are devoting all our time.
I wish to take this opportunity of warning you of one thing, lest later on I should regret having passed it over in silence. If, as you say, the translation is to be made literally in prose, listen for a moment to the opinion of St. Jerome as expressed in his preface to the book, De Temporibus, by Eusebius of Caesarea, which he translated into Latin. Here are the very words of this great man, well acquainted with these two languages, and indeed with many others, and of especial fame for his art of translating: If any one, he says, refuses to believe that translation lessens the peculiar charm of the original, let him render Homer into Latin, word for word; I will say further, let him translate it into prose in his own tongue, and he will see a ridiculous array and the most eloquent of poets transformed into a stammerer. I tell you this for your own good, while it is yet time, in order so important a work may not prove useless. As for me, I wish the work to be done, whether well or ill. I am so famished for literature that just as he who is ravenously hungry is not inclined to quarrel with the cook’s art, so I await with a lively impatience whatever dishes are to be set before my soul. And in truth, the morsel in which the same Leo, translating into Latin prose the beginning of Homer, has given me a foretaste of the whole work, although it confirms the sentiment of St. Jerome, does not displease me. It possesses, 15 in fact, a secret charm, as certain viands, which have failed to take a moulded shape, although they are lacking in form, preserve nevertheless their taste and odor. May he continue with the aid of Heaven, and may he give us Homer, who has been lost to us!
In asking of me the volume of Plato which I have with me, and which escaped the fire at my trans-Alpine country house, you give me proof of your ardor, and I shall hold this book at your disposal, whenever the time shall come. I wish to aid with all my power such noble enterprises. But beware lest it should be unbecoming to unite in one bundle these two great
princes of Greece, lest the weight of these two spirits should overwhelm mortal shoulders. Let your messenger undertake, with God’s aid, one of the two, and first him who has written many centuries before the other.
(Milan, Aug. 18, 1360.)
* Fracassetti, J.: Epistolae de rebus familiaribus et variae. Florence, 1863. Vol. 3, pp. 364-371.
† Petrarch had been slightly injured by the fall of a heavy volume of Cicero’s Letters.
† It is unknown to what occasion Petrarch here refers.
§ Leo Pilatus.
[For more of Petrarch’s life and other letters, including an adaptation of Whitcomb’s translation and his Letter to Posterity, translated by James H. Robinson and Henry W. Rolfe, on this site, go HERE and for some of his poems in both Italian and English, translated by Lorna de’ Lucchi, on this site. Lastly, his supposed poem left on the tomb of Laura, translated by Lord Woodhouselee is HERE on this site as well. — Elf.Ed.]