Mask and model: Petrarch's roles in Romantic poetry

Mary Anne Myers, Fordham University


"Mask and Model" argues that women writers in the late eighteenth century helped launch the British Romantic lyric through their affective receptions and transmissions of Petrarch. The British revival of Petrarch in the late 1700s differed significantly from its early modern precedent because women writers were in its vanguard. Drawn to the sensibility of Petrarch's Rime sparse, his sequence of Italian sonnets and songs to the elusive and multivalent Laura, these proto-feminists read Petrarch not as misogynist, as more recent feminist critics have done, but as someone who confounded gender expectations and connected readers to himself and to each other through a professed failure to connect. Sharing his speaker's alienation and longing for reciprocity, these women found in Petrarch the impetus to forge an intimacy with a reading public less by defending Laura than by emulating Petrarch in an androgynous and performative lyric style with the sonnet at its center. In revealing the impact of Petrarch's poetics on women writers, "Mask and Model" also recovers the equally significant but less visible debts to Petrarch among the period's canonical male poets. They too recognized Petrarch as a public figure who confessed private failure in popular poetry, but they were more reluctant to engage him explicitly, perhaps due to his associations with feminine sensibility and revolutionary sympathy. Nevertheless, they recognized that Petrarch's example made the sonnet a connective rhetorical tool that might change a "nobody" to a "somebody" through recognition by readers. "Mask and Model" reads closely and contextualizes overt engagements with Petrarch in the published poetry of Charlotte Smith (1749-1806) and Mary Robinson (1757?-1800), as well as more subtle Petrarchan affects in works by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and John Keats (1795-1821). Each used Petrarch differently as a mask for exploring the possibility of connecting to others in pity, friendship, love, or poetry, but all viewed him as a model for the kind of poetic fame and community of readers they hoped to gain. The chapters of "Mask and Model" describe overlapping Romanticisms that saw the future of British poetry through the lens of a continental and archaic past.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Gender studies

Recommended Citation

Myers, Mary Anne, "Mask and model: Petrarch's roles in Romantic poetry" (2012). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3544403.