Francesco Petrarca: Ad Seipsum (To Himself) (Epistola Metrica I, 14: lines 1-55)

Tr. by Jonathan Usher, Univ. of Edinburgh

Boccaccio transcribed this letter, written in Latin verse, in the Zibaldone Laurenziano (MS Laur. plut. XXIX, 8) with a postilla which led scholars to believe that it had been composed for an earlier outbreak of disease which had ravaged Tuscany in 1340. But given similarities with Petrarch's Penitential Psalms and with Familiares VIII, 4 and 7 (datable to 1349), it is now considered more probable that he was writing in response to the Black Death of 1348.

Whereas Boccaccio in the plague description of the Decameron emphasises social consequences and the dissolution of family bonds, resolutely omitting his own private sense of terror, Petrarch in this Metrica, as the self-addressed title indicates, is characteristically, almost selfishly interested in the impact of the pestilence first on his tight circle of friends, second on his own persona, using the plague, in other words, as a kind of 'pathetic fallacy' for his own private disquiet about mortality and the sway of the passions. Amongst the detailed parallels with the Decameron description are the declaration of the plague's uncertain causality (God's punishment or merely unfavourable stellar influences), and the Dantesque image of fire catching hold of something oily (here in Petrarch resinous floorboards, in Boccaccio 'cose secche o unte' [things dry or saturated with grease]). Petrarch's extended description of a house on fire owes something to the episode in the Aeneid where Aeneas escapes from a Troy already in flames carrying his father Anchises and leading his son Iulus by the hand (Aen. II, 721 ff.).

O what has come over me? Where are the violent fates pushing me back to? I see passing by, in headlong flight, time which makes the world a fleeting place. I observe about me dying throngs of both young and old, and nowhere is there a refuge. No haven beckons in any part of the globe, nor can any hope of longed for salvation be seen. Wherever I turn my frightened eyes, their gaze is troubled by continual funerals: the churches groan encumbered with biers, and, without last respects, the corpses of the noble and the commoner lie in confusion alongside each other. The last hour of life comes to mind, and, obliged to recollect my misfortunes, I recall the flocks of dear ones who have departed, and the conversations of friends, the sweet faces which suddenly vanished, and the hallowed ground now insufficient for repeated burials. This is what the people of Italy bemoan, weakened by so many deaths; this is what France laments, exhausted and stripped of inhabitants; the same goes for other peoples, under whatever skies they reside. Either it is the wrath of God, for certainly I would think that our misdeeds deserve it, or it is just the harsh assault of the stars in their perpetually changing conjunctions. This plague-bearing year has borne down on humankind and threatens a tearful slaughter, and the highly charged air encourages death. From his diseased heavenly pole, cruel Jupiter looks down, and from there he rains upon the earth diseases and grievous mortality. The merciless Fates rush to sever the threads of life all at once, if they can: seeing so many ashen faces of the wretched common people, and so many seeking gloomy Tartarus, I fear that from on high they may have been granted what they wish. Just thinking of these things, I confess I am frightened and I see before me the snares of imminent death. For where could I hide my head, when neither the sea nor the land nor the rocks full of dark caves show themselves to the one who flees, because death, rushing impetuously into even safe hiding-places, overcomes all things. Thus, like the mariner caught in a dangerous storm, before whose eyes cruel Neptune has sucked down the other ships in the convoy, who hears the fragile keel cracking in the belly of his ship and the splintering of the oars as they are dashed against the reefs, and sees the rudder carried away amongst the terrifying waves, I hesitate uncertain as to what to do, though certain of the peril. No differently, where unnoticed a deadly fire has taken hold of ancient timbers and greedy flame licks resin-rich floorboards, the household, aroused by the commotion, suddenly gets out of bed, and the father, before anyone else, rushes up to the top of the roof, gazing about him, and grasping his trembling son seeks to save him first from the dangerous fire, and works out in his mind how to escape with this burden through the opposing flames. Often in fear clasping to myself my helpless soul I too wonder whether there is an escape-route to carry it out from the conflagration and I am minded to extinguish the bodily flames with the water of tears. But the world holds me back. Headstrong desire draws me and I am bound ever more tightly by deadly knots. That is the state I am in. Dense shadows have covered me with fear. For whosoever thinks they can recall death and look upon the moment of their passing with fearless face is either mistaken or mad, or, if he is fully aware, then he is very courageous.


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