He sees her across a crowded piazza on a Sunday outside of church. She doesn't even know he exists. She will never care. This will not stop him from dedicating his entire life to her. Sound familiar? While the scenario may seem trite or cliché to us now, guys like Petrarch created the conventions we apply to one-sided crushes in our day.
Petrarch had his own betty to worry about. Laura is gorgeous, young, pure of heart. What he loves about her may not hold up on closer inspection, but it doesn't matter—he'll never get the chance to put those qualities to the test. It's kind of an ideal situation. This type of admiration isn't meant to go anywhere or gratify anyone else. Canzone 126 all about Petrarch and his emotional response to a beautiful, untouchable stimulus (or would that be "stimula"?).
Looks schmooks—Petrarch's esteem for Laura is defined not primarily by her beauty, but by the poet's ability to be transported away from reality when he sees her.
In Canzone126, the poet's enjoyment of beauty is complicated by his emotional response to his absent beloved.
If you've ever watched The Princess Bride, you'll understand the usefulness of the term "ultimate suffering" to describe the tormented Petrarch's problem with Laura. While the pain might have been real, we have to rein in our pity. Suffering for love is all part of fin'amor, in which a lover suffers because he can't get his girl. Psychological torment is part of the game and gave material to the troubadours of southern France, whom Petrarch so admired.
The gorgeous things in Canzone126—the flowers, the river, his lady—distract us from Petrarch's pain. But there are tears and sighs and wishes for death embedded in all of that. Moreover, the poet wants us to know that the tone of the poem is sad (just check out line 13). So is it real? Take a look at Petrarch's reply to a friend on the subject and decide for yourself.
Suffering in Petrarch's Canzone 126 is cathartic rather than destructive. Um, yay?
Petrarch has a complex relationship to beauty in Canzone 126. It both soothes his tormented soul and drives him to despair.
While most poetry that begins with a direct address (like this one) does a good job at tricking us into believing we are in the moment, Canzone126 doesn't even try. It's clear from the very beginning that Petrarch is reflecting back on an encounter with his beloved Laura that has remained very fresh in his memory.
But he's not just going on about some beautiful chick that he once saw hanging out on the banks of a river. He's re-evaluating his emotional life, re-living the feelings and thoughts that passed through his mind at the time, and creating a fantasy for the future that can reverse all the disappointments of the past. Never mind that this fantasy requires his death. As long as he can keep the memories of his hopes and desires when he crosses over, it's all good.
Time travel alert: Petrarch uses the past as a way of talking about his vision of the future with an absent Laura.
Geographical location sparks Petrarch's memory in Canzone126 and inspires his fantasy of Laura's change of heart.
Don't let this theme title fool you. Petrarch was never part of a women's studies program nor was he a proto-feminist—like, ever. But we can still talk about female beauty and ideas of femininity since the male gaze in Canzone 126 is so occupied with the ethereal Laura. Her attractiveness has everything to do with her beauty, softness, and innocence. These are the qualities that "divide [him] from the true image" of the world around him and leave him sighing in bliss. And that's just from the memory of Laura.
This brings up another important point about ideal women (or The Ideal Woman): they're untouchable, unattainable—generally not of this world. In this, Petrarch's taking his cue from the troubadours who had been putting their lady loves on a pedestal for years before his poems were ever written. In the world of romantic obsession, there really isn't anything better than a beautiful woman who's out of your league. Who wants pesky reality intruding when you're trying to idolize?
In Canzone126, Petrarch deliberately refuses to show a full portrait of Laura to convey that her beauty is inexpressible and intangible.
The ideal of feminine beauty is less important to Petrarch in Canzone126 than his association of Laura with the natural world.