ruminant reading


In the latest London Review of Books, Charles Nicholl reviews Christopher Celenza’s 2017 book Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer. Along the way he quotes a passage that we missed in our edited collection on the eating of words. Petrarch is writing to Boccaccio about his immersion in the classics:

“I have read Virgil, Horace, Boethius and Cicero. I read them not once but a thousand times; I did not run by them, but lay down beside them. I brooded over them with every effort of my intelligence. I ate in the morning what I would digest in the evening; I imbibed as a boy what I would ruminate on as an older man. I have ingested those things in such an intimate way that they have become fixed not only in my memory but in my marrow.”

It’s a powerful statement that makes it seems as though the hungry poet has swallowed ancient literature whole, absorbing it into every fibre of his being–going against the grain of recent scholarly accounts of reading that emphasise its necessary selectiveness. But Nicholl goes on to point out that Petrarch was a manuscript hunter who got his classical literature in tantalising fragments, and who published his own writings as fragmenta. And when it comes to the Canzoniere, Petrarch’s ‘mesmeric sequence of 366 sonnets, songs, madrigals, ballads and sestine’, Nicholl recommends restraint, commenting drily that ‘one a day in a leap year is the recommended dosage’.

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