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An Interview with Demetrio S. Yocum, Editor and Translator of “Petrarch’s Penitential Psalms and Prayers”

Demetrio S. Yocum is senior research associate for the Notre Dame Center for Italian Studies. His most recent publications include his monograph Petrarch’s Humanist Writing and Carthusian Monasticism, his co-edited volume At the Heart of Liturgy, and his translation Mary of Magdala: Revisiting the Sources. The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his newest book, Petrarch’s Penitential Psalms and Prayers (May 2024). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.

When did you first get the idea to translate the Psalms of Petrarch? 

After reading them for the first time some twenty years ago. Late in life I developed a profound interest in the biblical Psalms from a liturgical perspective. However, I was utterly amazed when I found out that among Petrarch’s works there was his own rendition of the seven traditional penitential Psalms. While rewritings and adaptations in the vernacular of biblical texts were common in antiquity and the Middle Ages (think of Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures), the idea of rewriting the traditional penitential Psalms in Latin and from a personal perspective was certainly a bold move. In reading Petrarch’s psalms, I also sensed a profound connection with the themes he explores—the need to express one’s deepest fears and anxieties, the internal struggle with personal weaknesses, a profound yearning for forgiveness, and an appreciation for the beauty of creation. As these emotions are profoundly human and timeless, I felt compelled to introduce these compositions to an English-speaking audience for the first time.

How did you research for this book?

I always start with simple questions: “Why and when did Petrarch write his seven psalms?”; “Did the loss of numerous friends and his beloved Laura during the plague of 1348 influence the creation of the work?”; “What relation do they have with the biblical Psalms?”; “What is their significance within his overall body of work?” To answer these questions, I used primary and secondary sources to place Petrarch’s psalms and prayers in their historical, literary, and religious contexts. This involved establishing links to classical texts, Scripture, and the writings of the church fathers—sources that significantly influenced Petrarch—while also considering Petrarch’s own life, work, and poetics.

What did you learn while writing it?

That there is always much more to Petrarch than meets the eye! For example, the only time he refers to his psalms he defines them as “inelegant”. At a closer look, however, they are anything but that. Not only did Petrarch skillfully employ the cursus to infuse rhythmic cadence into his lines but he also drew inspiration from Jerome’s own Latin rendition. There is also a subtler and nuanced attempt to put his own mark on a religious genre by offering a more humanist approach to an established religious tradition. Perhaps more importantly, in his psalms and prayers, Petrarch vividly encapsulates the existential dilemmas and spiritual yearnings experienced by all human beings. Verses like “For me, you created the sky and the stars (what need would you have had of them?),” seem to me to share a deep connection with, for example, those in Paul Simon’s recent solo album, Seven Psalms, such as: “The Lord is my engineer / The Lord is the earth I ride on.”

Who are some of the most important influences on you and your work?

My mother played a fundamental role in nurturing my love for Italian literature and culture. When as an eight-year-old I moved to Italy from Texas knowing only a few words of the language, she became my guide, my Blue Fairy, while I felt like Pinocchio in the Land of Toys. Later in life I have been fortunate to have wonderful mentors and friends, both within academia and beyond, who have deepened my appreciation for literature written in various languages. Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, the trio of Italian literary giants, often referred to as the “Three Crowns,” have always intrigued me due to their unparalleled ability to express the complexities of the human condition and their role in shaping the Italian language we still use today. Through them, I have had the privilege of encountering exceptional scholars at Notre Dame, including Ted Cachey and Zyg Barański, who have played an important role in supporting my research.

What was your writing schedule like while working on this book? 

After the initial enthusiasm, I hit a roadblock and struggled to find the focus and time, especially during the academic year, to advance the project. This challenge reached its apex during the Covid pandemic, prompting me to discuss my writing block with a friend facing similar struggles. Together, we established a virtual “support center” to motivate and encourage each other. This support played a crucial role in helping me persist in my efforts, go beyond the so-called “vomit” draft and continue regardless of the outcome. Then, in the summer of 2022, I rediscovered the joy of working on the project. I developed a deeper connection to the text, dedicating every afternoon to it. Writing seemed to flow from a deeper place, which felt natural and effortless. Reaching that stage in a writing project is, perhaps, one of the greatest joys I have ever experienced.

Who would you like to read Petrarch’s Penitential Psalms and Prayers and why?

The numerous surviving manuscripts and the early printed editions of Petrarch’s psalms and prayers bear witness to their wide circulation. I hope this English edition will reach an audience as vast and diversified, including students and scholars of Petrarch and late-medieval Italian literature, those interested in religious and penitential literature and scholars studying the intersection of literature and spirituality. I also hope it appeals to readers who may not be familiar with Petrarch but seek a deeper connection with mystery, the divine, and the transcendental.

What books are you currently reading?

I’m a fan of French literature: L’oeuvre au noir (The Abyss) by Marguerite Yourcenar, and, in the hope of completing one day Honoré de Balzac’s entire Comédie humaine (a collection of approximately 100 interlinked novels), La Messe de l’Athée (The Atheist’s Mass). I am also rereading Dante’s Paradiso.

What project are you working on next?

I’m currently working on an article about Luigi Marsili, an Augustiniain friar from Florence who was friend with Petrarch and later humanists, especially Coluccio Salutati. I’m also co-editing an interdisciplinary volume on Carthusian monasticism, which examines the order’s history, way of life, and texts. Petrarch’s brother Gherardo was a Carthusian monk and Petrarch’s wrote his treatise De otio religioso after his visit to his brother. So, as you can see, Petrarch is never too far away and a constant source of inspiration for my work.

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