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Petrarch, confessional, penitence


As the first of Petrarch's six Triumphs, the "Trionfo del Tempo," comes to an end, the poet affirms time's apparent victory over all things in the sublunar world. Not even fame is able to endure time's unrelenting and ultimately disintegrating onslought:

che è questo però che sì s'apprezza?

Tutto vince e ritoglie il Tempo avaro;

chiamasi Fama, ed è morir secondo,

ne più che contra 'l primo è alcun riparo;

così il Tempo trionfa i nomi e 'l mondo!

("Trionfo del Tempo," vvs. 141-45_

What is this that is so highly valued? Greedy Time overcomes and steals all away. Men call it Fame; but it is a second death, and against this, as against the first, there is no defense; thus does Time triumph over the world and Fame.

The speaker transforms this perception into a deep feeling of loss, almost despair, as the concluding Triumph, the "Trionfo dell'Eternità," begins:

Da poi che sotto 'l ciel cosa non vidi

stabile e ferma, tutto sbigottito

mi volsi al cor e dissi: "In che ti fidi?"

Ripose: "Nel Signor, che mai fallito

non à promessa a chi si fida in lui;

ma ben veggio che 'l mondo m' à schernito,

e sento quel ch' i' sono e quel ch' i fui,

e veggio andar, anzi volar, il tempo,

e doler me vorrei, né so di cui,

chè la colpa è ppur mia, che più per tempo

deve' aprir gli occhi, e non tardar al fine,

ch' a dir il vero, omai troppo m'attempo.

Ma tarde non fur mai grazie divine;

in quelle spero che 'n me ancor faranno

alte operazioni e pellegrine."

(vvs. 1-15)

When I had seen that nothing under heaven is firm and stable, all dismayed I turned to my heart and asked: "In what do you trust?" "In the Lord," the answer came, "whoo always keeps his promise to one who trusts in Him." How well I see how the world has mocked me, and I know what I have been, and what I am, and see Time marching, rather flying, and I would complain, but of what I do not know, for the fault is surely my own: much sooner should I have opened my eyes instead of waiting to the end, for to tell the truth I have delayed too long. But divine mercies never come too late: in them I hope that in me they may still perform some deep and excellent transformation.

These verses, together with the statement of time's rapid victory which ended the previous Triumph, epitomize the spiritually debilitating struggle which characterizes so much of Petrarch's literary work. What strikes the reader in this passage is the confessional—almost catechistic—and penitential mode in which it is written. The speaker, profoundly distressed by the spectacle of time's victory over all things in the mutable universe, probes his mind for some remedy or reassurance. In doing so, he confesses (confession, in this instance, as a credal pronouncement—confessio peccati) that he has knowingly avoided acting in accordance with this knowledge until very late in life. The speaker ends his confession somewhat hopefully, however, stating that even though he has reached the extremity of his life, through God's ever-faithful and constant Grace he may yet be able to experience true conversion.