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The Idyl of the Vaucluse by Charlotte Adams


A dusky opening in a range of purpling hills; a vision of a cluster of small white human homes; a shining, murmuring little river spanned by a wooden bridge; a towering background of bald, steep rock, cleft at its base into a shadowy cavern,—such is the first of my memories of the Vaucluse. At the entrance of the little town stands a low white-walled building, over the door of which is a tablet inscribed thus: "On the site of this café Petrarch established his study. Here he wrote the lines—

O soave contrada, O puro fiume,
Che bagni 'l suo bel viso e gli occhi chiari."

On the banks of the classic Sorgue I was offered the photographs of Petrarch and Laura. I took them, and there, with the sweet May sunlight flooding all the sod, with the fresh spring grass and buds bursting into life beneath my feet, with the murmur of the glad young river in my ears, I stood and gazed upon the faces of those lovers of five hundred years ago, whose love was as a spring-time idyl. For they met in the spring, they parted in the spring, their intercourse was like the mingling of young winds with woodland violets; and, dust and ashes though they have been for centuries, they still prefigure to our hearts the eternal spring-time of the world.

And yet, could the picture that I held in my hand be a faithful reproduction of the famous portrait of Laura which was painted at the request of Petrarch by Simon Menimi and charmed him into verse with its loveliness? It represented simply the head and bust. The face was elongated, the cheeks hollow, the hair smoothed down below the ears. The long, oval, half-shut eyes wore a horrible leer, as though the owner were making a painful effort to close them. On the head was a stiff, ungainly jewelled helmet, which terminated low on the forehead in a triangular ornament. The long, slender throat was encircled by three rows of pearls. The dress was cut squarely across the neck, and was checkered off like a draught-board, while over one shoulder was thrown a small lace scarf. The whole expression of the figure was that of serious, earnest sobriety and saintliness, as understood by a mediæval painter and treated according to his conception of his art, which recognized no difference between a man's earthly love and his spiritual patron, and made them equally crude, righteous, quaint and angular.

But I felt that these harsh distorted outlines had naught in common with Petrarch's Laura. For she had golden hair that floated loose in the breeze and was the prison of enchained and captive Love, and she had roses, red and white, upon her face, and a throat of snowy purity, and a smile of such rare gentleness that when she passed them by men said, "Sure this is an angel come from heaven!" That is the Laura who for centuries has beamed upon humanity—a sweet, benign, refreshing presence—from within her lover's sonnets. That is the Laura in whose reality I believe, but the Laura who lies imprisoned and disguised behind the grotesque mask of mediæval art I cannot, will not, recognize. In Petrarch's utterance I find Laura, a pure spiritual shape in mind and body and soul; but in her portrait I see only Laura clogged and choked and bound about with the trammels of early art and the weight of crude, untruthful detail. Thus, I believe that art at its best is but a dull, material, mechanical means for the translation or reproduction of thought and Nature, and that for the swift, living, electric flame of truth we must refer in all ages and climes to speech pure and simple—the speech of the poet.

There are many who doubt that the words in which Petrarch clothed his love for Laura were words of sincerity and truth, and who blame his fatal tendency to utilize every incident and feeling connected with her. Unquestionably, there was a strong element of earthliness, a dilution of the pure essence of his affection, in much that Petrarch wrote. It could hardly have chanced otherwise with a man into whose life worldly intercourse entered so largely. There must have been times when the pure light of revelation was hidden from him, and he unknowingly supplied its place with fancies of a lower kind. His experiences as he met them one by one were, I doubt not, faithfully and sincerely treated, but after they had fallen into the past he was enabled to view them by the cold strong light of the intellect, and the instincts of his nature led him to incorporate them in verse. It has always been a concomitant of the poetic character, except perhaps in those lofty organizations whose utterances are revelations, to regard its own personality objectively and treat it as material for expression in speech. The very word-crystallization that a thought or sentiment, however full of inspiration, must needs undergo to make it palpable, denotes an amount of conscious effort which detracts in a measure from its apparent spontaneity. But in spite of the quaint conceits, the frequent play upon words, the unworthy tricks of speech, the painful sacrifice to rhyme which occasionally mar his verse, I believe Petrarch was sincere. If he was only a pretence and a sham, then all the amatory poetry that has been written since his time, intellectual or analytic, passionate or sensuous, is a pretence and a sham. Petrarch's utterance must needs have been founded on truth, else never could it have stood the test of five centuries, and never would it have assimilated itself, as it has done, with the poetic speech of an entire race. I know of hardly an English poet in whose rhymes in the matter of love, and particularly among those of a narrower range of thought and a lower plane of vision, one cannot trace in a greater or less degree the influence of Petrarch. Thus, to me, Petrarch remains the very king of spring-time poets. There are summer poets, autumn poets and winter poets, but Petrarch was none of these. Neither his passion nor his poetry ever ripened into summer or faded into autumn. He will always typify the early youth of love and song. I can never open his book of sonnets that I do not hear the rustle of young winds in green boughs, and do not catch the faint sweet odor of violets and primroses—the violets and primroses that grow on the banks of the Sorgue in the Vaucluse—the violets and primroses that Laura wore in her hair when Petrarch saw her kneeling in the church of Santa Chiara in Avignon, and loved her all at once.

The bright little river Sorgue is here a rushing brook, tumbling and foaming over the great stones in its bed, and imprisoned between two green sloping banks covered with low trees and bushes and tendrils of creeping ivy. It finds birth, this merry, roaring brook, in a dark, mysterious, shadowy pool, overhung by wild fantastic masses of rock, which loses itself far back in a dim cavern beneath the cliffs. Black and motionless, sullen and inscrutable, it lies, this source of the river Sorgue, a very pool of Lethe, looking as though it knew it drew its sustenance from the deepest heart of the earth, held communication with the hidden powers of Nature, and was one at the core with all the mighty waters of the creation. What a type of the poet's own genius—nourished deep down under the ground in the universal soul of humanity, fed by the elements that centuries of solution have infused into the hidden springs of the intellect, one in thought with all the great minds that have watered the arid fields of lower human intelligence, profound, unsearchable as the earth itself! And yet when it rises to the surface of the world it becomes only a sunny, murmuring river, which dances along among green banks and bushes; and, being noticed by the careless passer-by, who cannot see the deep infinity of waters of which it is the symbol, and knows not even whether they exist, is termed "a pretty stream of thought and fancy, but one that hath no profundity nor seriousness."

Across the river, on a hill just above its banks, a mass of tawny ruin fades away into the blue of the sky and the gray of the cliffs. Wild flowers grow all about it, dark brambles stretch their wanton arms over all its space, and through the clefts in its jagged surface gleam the shining walls of the village below and the hazy brightness of the wide Rhone country. The people call this bit of rare coloring the castle of "La Belle Laure," but we know that it was the home of a great cardinal, Petrarch's trusty friend and generous patron.

Down in the valley among the white village walls nestles a low brown house surrounded by a humble, sweet-smelling space of flowers. It is a dainty little spot of earth, this garden, hallowed by such rare associations. It is more precious than rubies, this small dark house, for it sheltered from the outer world the body and soul of Petrarch. The garden is enclosed by a hedge of sweet pale Provence roses and buds. I remembered, as I stood there with the breath of the beautiful blossoms creeping up about me, how Petrarch tells that walking one bright May day with Laura, a friend and confidant of both approached them and gave to each a rose, "all fresh and culled in Paradise," and said, "Such another pair of lovers the sun ne'er shone upon," and left them with a smile; and they remained all confused and trembling. Yes, I knew instinctively that it was here, on this very consecrated spot, that the sacred meeting had taken place; that he who gave the roses was no other than the good cardinal of the castle; and that those roses of five hundred years ago were the ancestors of the roses now blooming about me, and plucked from this very hedge. No wonder that the perfumes of Paradise are enchaliced in their hearts. Few flowers can boast such high and haughty lineage as these, the bright posterity of those transfigured love-tokens of centuries past. They are glorified for ever by association with the highest, purest phase of human relation. They have reached the apotheosis of flowerhood—the highest destiny vouchsafed to aught that grows. They have become one with thought in immortality.

In the heart of the little garden stands a laurel tree, a shoot from Petrarch's own sacred laurel tree. More young shoots and saplings are springing up about it, all issuing from the great root that lies deep underground—the root of five hundred years ago; and the tree overshadows all the garden and the little crystal brook that sparkles along by the side of the wall. As I gazed at the stately shape, with its shining black berries and its glossy dark leaves, I knew that I had found the keynote to much of Petrarch's music—not always that of his best and most inspired moods. The resemblance of the name of Laura to the laurel; the antique fable of the transformation of Daphne into a laurel, and its adoption by Apollo as his emblem; the old superstition that the laurel was shielded against thunderbolts; his desire to win the laurel crown as the guerdon of his pains, both amorous and poetic,—were chains of tradition and convention which Petrarch had not strength to break, pompous, meaningless hieroglyphics which he felt it his duty to interpret to men, hinderances and trammels to the development of his genius. The laurel tree of Petrarch's garden is a fair type of one phase of the poet's own speech, prone to derive its significance from extraneous sources and overloaded with borrowed metaphor. But the laurel receives a new meaning if we picture to ourselves Madonna Laura reclining in its shadow on the banks of the little river, with flowers scattered all about her garments and little Loves disporting in the air about her wreathed head. Then it becomes instinct with life and vitality, and we wonder why Petrarch deemed it needful to resort to the dead and withered husks of antique fable for what lay there at his own cottage-door, and waited but to be lifted from the sod—a wealth of poetic illustration and conceit.

Since the day when I made the memory of the Vaucluse my own, I have read how a great festival was held there in the summer-tide in honor of Petrarch. I have read how they came, those intellectual debauchees, and rioted and revelled and wrangled and jarred, and poisoned the chaste, calm waters of the sacred river with the hot fumes of literary dissension and argument. I have read how they came, with their heads full of quotations and their notebooks full of impressions and hints for effective rhapsody—how they feasted on the silver trout of the Sorgue, and gathered Laura's roses to adorn their buttonholes, and stripped the consecrated laurel of its leaves to make garlands for their own dull heads, and poured forth international compliments, and glorified one another, and hugged themselves for delight at their fine comprehension of the poet, and fell on their knees before him, and immolated their individual hearts and souls at the shrine of his genius; and, lo! there was not a true appreciater of Petrarch among them all! The right appraiser of Petrarch has been there before and since, but he was not there then. The noise and the bustle and the wisdom of the multitude held him aloof, and he waited until a more convenient season. He comes by preference in the spring-time, knowing that then Nature and Petrarch sing in unison. He is a poet, because it takes a poet to understand a poet, no less than a hero a hero. He is of such simple, foolish mould that when he thinks there is no one near to spy him out he casts himself down upon the sod and kisses it with all tenderness, and caresses the daisies with his finger-tips, greeting them as his younger brethren; for there is something stirring in him which draws him nearer to earth's heart than other men, and he loves to dwell upon his common origin with flower and leaf. He does not fall down and worship Petrarch, because he knows that Petrarch is only one expression of the great power that lives behind all thought and speech—one part of the great whole that lies spread out before him on the river and the cliff. But he takes the old poet by the hand and looks straight into his eyes, and reads there what is written in his own heart, and says, "We twain are brethren and friends, sovereign and equal, for evermore."

If Petrarch had lived earlier in the centuries of Christianity, he would have been a monk. His genius would have found expression in the cloister-life, for the first monks were poets and philosophers. But he lived at a period when that beautiful principle of asceticism was no longer at one with genius. The fine essence of spirituality was gone from it, and it had hardened into senseless form and matter; and the law of his own mind forbade his pledging himself irrevocably to what in one mood seemed highest and most precious, but what another mood might contradict and openly defy. He knew that, although that ascetic temper which took possession of his soul at times when his genius was loudest, most clamorous, most importunate, was the basis of all monastic principle, he might not imprison it, fleeting, evanescent, within the dungeons of vows and formalism. And to-day, no less than in Petrarch's time, the same spirit walks the earth, shines through the actions and speech of all high souls, and yet refuses to bind itself to dull external shows and symbols.

If Petrarch had not withdrawn himself to the solitude of the Vaucluse, I doubt if we should know more of his passion for Laura to-day than could be told in a score of sonnets. For with his mind overloaded by the sights and sounds and honors that were heaped upon him, he never could have separated her from the contingent circumstances that surrounded their intercourse in Avignon. But there, on the banks of the Sorgue, he viewed her image from afar, dismissed all the attendant episodes of palace and revel, court and council, and beheld only the ideal—or rather the real—Laura in her own worth and significance. Surely, never was there verse through which showed so plainly the Nature under whose auspices it was brought forth as those songs of Petrarch. I seem to feel that they were written in solitude, not sublime, but pleasing, and in a narrow valley shut out from contemplation of aught else. And I know, as I leave the Vaucluse behind me, how deep a hold the memory of the loved fountain must needs have taken upon the poet's mind, for I too have made me a picture of a river, and a grotto, and a shadowy pool, and a low brown house, and a stately laurel tree, which will always live in my sense. And these things resolve themselves into one with a few scattered sonnets, and a shadowy gold-haired form, and a handful of sweet small roses, and, lo! I have made incarnate and have bound fast to me for ever that beautiful old-time idyl of the Vaucluse.

Charlotte Adams.