Keep climbing, my friends of the future; though the ideal elude you, do not give up on the journey. Others before you have stuck to the path and found their way out of the Cave and into the glorious light of the Beatific Vision.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Petrarch: On Seeking the Ideal

Even as I write this letter to you who live at the dawn of the third millennium, I perceive that I myself am standing upon the threshold of a new world. Something special is about to be born. Or is it that something old is about to be reborn? I cannot say for sure, but I feel the change around me.

Time lags even as it flies away. Try to hold on to it, and it slips through your fingers. There are so many poetic voices in my head: Homer making sense of the world through telling stories; Virgil yearning for journey’s end; Horace wanting a simple life on his Sabine Farm; Boethius meditating on the turns of Fortune’s Wheel.

Over them all, I hear that great poet who was not a poet: Plato seeking after the ideal that lies outside the Cave. And yet, Dante’s voice speaks louder still, for his ideal was not an impersonal Form but a flesh-and-blood woman, the lovely Beatrice to whom he pledged his faith and his art.

I will not hide from you the fact that Dante is my hero, the poet and the man I most want to be like. He taught me what I would now teach you: that you must have an ideal, a vision of beauty to keep you on track. Even the great Solomon sought after wisdom as if it were a woman to be wooed and loved: perhaps that very same Lady Philosophy who came to Boethius in prison and brought him consolation.

I found my ideal in Laura. As Beatrice was Dante’s spiritual and poetic muse, so Laura has been the fountain of all my inspiration. Please do not think we were ever lovers in the customary sense of the word. She is the ideal woman whom I have loved from afar and whom I have served as a knight does his fair lady in the tower.

I was young when I first met Laura, as Dante was himself when he first laid eyes upon Beatrice. That first encounter changed everything in my life, giving it direction, purpose, and a still, unshakeable center. Alas, my constancy has never been like hers. How often I have gone astray. When she died, I should have followed her soul to heaven; instead, I followed her body to the ground.

Even before she died, I was too apt to make an idol of her. I sang of her physical beauty, not only because it brought me joy, but because I feared it would fade away before I could immortalize it in rhyme.

Oh, I’ve tried, like the Platonic lover, to move beyond the physical to the spiritual, but her eyes hold me with the power of the sun. At times, she is an imperious mistress, disdaining my affections and laughing at my pain. But I am not free to treat her in kind. For, while she is free to rise above her passions, I am ever a slave to my own.

My love for Laura is a sickness that now burns, now freezes my heart. All of my emotions are out of whack, pulling me in opposing directions. Why is it that I cannot find rest, when the lowest of animals sleeps the sleep of the righteous?

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I’m afraid, dear friends of the future, that this letter has lost its organization and its coherence. That’s my own fault. Too much self-pity, too much melancholy, too much reveling in my own isolation. That is the very reason why I chose the demanding rhyme scheme of the sonnet. It forced me to rein in my emotions and give them a shape.

Still, I know that I am my own worst enemy. I am a willing victim who would not be released from the prison Laura has put me in. I am afflicted, yet I love my affliction. I am led astray by my passion for Laura, just as I am led astray by my vain desire for poetic fame—to win that “laurel” that is the coveted prize of all poets.

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Enough! When I speak of Laura I become too distracted and the wings with which my soul would ascend heavenward become crumpled and torn. Let me speak to you instead of the day I climbed Mount Ventoux. There too, as with Laura, my real intent, my real goal transcended the physical challenge. As my body struggled upward toward the peak, the real upward journey was occurring in my soul.

Should not the ascent of the winged soul to God and the Beatific Vision be easier than pushing one’s heavy, intransigent body up the mountain?

At the beginning of my climb, I tried to take the easy way up the mountain, but my attempts were continually foiled. I knew that I needed to follow the steep and narrow path, but I kept hanging back. Then I met an old man who tried to discourage me. He said he had made the climb in his youth, and that the whole ordeal was not worth it; all he did was get his arms and legs scratched up! I was young at the time, and his discouragement only encouraged me more.

Still, as I neared my goal, I faltered again.

It was then that I drew out of my pocket a copy of Augustine’s Confessions that my father confessor had given to me. Opening it at random, my eyes fell upon a passage in which Augustine rebukes himself for seeking the wisdom of the earth and the heavens but knowing nothing about himself.

And that drew me back to Plato and those other pagan philosophers who knew, long before the coming of Christ, that the soul was more important than the body. Oh, how could I have forgotten that? How could I have mired myself in romantic love or the quest for poetic fame? Neither Laura nor the laurel was the final goal. If I stopped there I would stagnate and never rise again.

There, from the mountaintop, I reviewed my life and renewed my commitment to seek after the ideal, to follow the path of virtue and ascend the rising path.

Keep climbing, my friends of the future; though the ideal elude you, do not give up on the journey. Others before you have stuck to the path and found their way out of the Cave and into the glorious light of the Beatific Vision.

—Petrarch

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The featured image is “The First Meeting of Petrarch and Laura” by Marie Spartali Stillman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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