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Echoes of the Past

Petrarch
Whittier said, "No voice, however feeble, lifted up for truth dies." Six hundred years have passed since Francis Petrarch, poet, philosopher, and man of letters, lifted up his voice for truth, and that it was neither small nor feeble, is demonstrated by the echo of his words, which has not yet died away.

No matter where we delve into the writings of this classic, the gems of thought abound. In the reflections of Petrarch on the ascent of Mount Ventoux we read: "The life of the blest is indeed set on a high place, strait is the path which leads to it, many are the hills which intervene, and the pilgrim must advance with great strides from virtue to virtue. Lofty is the end of all things, the termination of life, to which our peregrination tends."

"How steadily must we labor to put under our feet, not a speck of elevated earth, but the elate appetites of our terrestrial impulses...I crave your prayers, that whatever in me is vague and unstable may be strengthened, and that the thoughts I waste abroad on many things, may be turned to that one thing, which is true, good, and secure."

And then in a note of confession, "I wept over my imperfections, I mourned the common mutability of human actions."

In the Epistle to Posterity, Petrarch says: "I have lived well, I care but little how I talked: it is a windy sort of glory to seek fame from the mere glitter of words." Speaking of the time when he studied the law, he says: "I was disgusted at the thought of having to study that which I was resolved not to turn to dishonorable, and could scarcely turn to honorable, uses." In the same "Epistle" Petrarch has a word to say upon a very popular social custom: "Banquets, as they are called—or rather eating entertainments, inimical alike to modesty and good manners—have always been displeasing to me. I have counted it an irksome and a useless thing to invite others to such gatherings, and no less so to be invited by others. But to associate with my friends has been so agreeable to me, that I have held nothing more grateful than their arrival, nor have ever willingly broken bread without a companion."

Here are one or two thoughts worthy of remembering: "Turn your back on that which is unworthy of you. God has done great things for you; neither can that be small which you have to do for Him."

"Nothing is so immoral or pernicious as to keep up the illusion of greatness in wicked men."

In one of the last letters he ever wrote, speaking of the emptiness of fame and ambition, he said: "You think that having received, by solemn decree of the Senate, that most honorable title of the Roman Laureate, as the abundant reward of my labors, since it adjudged me equal to the greatest, I should have desired nothing more. But that laurel was obtained when I was young and inexperienced; its leaves have been bitter to me, and, with more knowledge of the world, I should not have desired it. I gathered from that wreath no fruit of knowledge or eloquence, but the keenest envy, which robbed me of repose, and made me pay dear for my fame and youthful ambition. All I gained by it was to be known and marveled at; had I been without it might have enjoyed that state of life which many have thought the best—to be tranquil and unknown."

These extracts would not be complete without a specimen of Petrarch's poetry. The subjoined is a sonnet of rare beauty, translated—

Mourning the waste of my departed days
I wander; days, when vain and worldly things
Drew my soul down to earth, though blest with wings
To reach perchance no vulgar height of praise,
Thou that hast marked my low and worthless ways
Invisible, immortal King of kings!
Succor my soul in these her wanderings,
And on her darkness turn Thy gracious rays,
So shall this life of war and tempest close,
Havened in peace; my sojourn has been vain,
But my departure shall be strong in bliss,
If o'er what little space may yet remain
Thy hand the shelter of its mercy throws—
Thou knowest I have no other hope but this.

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Thomas W. Allen

  • Brother of author James Allen
  • Not much else is known about him. If you have information about this author to share, please contact me.
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