Verse > Anthologies > Hunt and Lee, eds. > The Book of the Sonnet
Hunt and Lee, comps.  The Book of the Sonnet.  1867.
An Essay on the Cultivation, History, and Varieties of the Species of Poem called the Sonnet
III. Of Guittone d’ Arezzo, and of the Sonnets of Dante and Petrarca
MENTION has been made, in the preceding section, of a certain Friar Guittone of Arezzo, who is believed to have been the first to give the sonnet its right workmanlike treatment and versification. Mr. Lofft, in the third volume of his “Laura” (Sonnet 158), has selected a most extraordinary effusion of the Reverend Brother, for the purpose of appending to it the gamut supposed to have been invented by the Friar, his namesake, and of showing the musical accord of the verses therewith. The sonnet has a tremendous accompaniment of its own; no less, namely, than the trumpet of the Day of Judgment, which the good Brother says he shall be “delighted to hear,” together with the awful words that ensue, because the Creator will then see, by his countenance, how he, Friar Guittone, has always loved Him! Not a word is added of pity for those who had not been so pious. Such is not the occasion which other lovers of the Divine Being—St. Francis de Sales, for instance, or Bishop Berkeley, or Dr. Doddridge—would have selected for manifesting this kind of superiority over their fellow-creatures. And yet this same Friar—so great is the difference between what a man actually feels and what he thinks he could feel—has left a veritably tender as well as elegant sonnet on the subject of human love, which accords with the opinion entertained of him as the harbinger of good sonneting.  1
  Guittone d’ Arezzo was followed by the tender Cino da Pistoia, by the noble-minded Guido Cavalcante, and by their great friend Dante Alighieri, who, with the graceful Guido Guinicelli and the others, carried to philosophical heights of refinement those efforts of the brain which the Provençal poets were in the habit of substituting for effusions of the heart; but these transcendentalisms were accompanied with a sensibility and a pathos which not only exonerated the Italians from the charge of a like mistake, but confirmed those demands of real feeling in the sonnet, and in amatory poetry in general, which were soon to be diffused throughout the civilized world by the fame of Petrarca.  2
  Nor is it to be denied, we think, that, as far as feeling and expression are concerned, to say nothing of imagination, the sonnet, in the hands of Dante, reached a perfection which Petrarca himself did not attain. Dante, when religious or political fanaticism did not lower him into one of the most melancholy spectacles on earth,—that of a great understanding overmastered by a violent will,—could be not only a profound thinker and observer, but tender and affectionate in the extremest degree. In imagination, which is the highest requisite of poetry, he surpassed perhaps every other poet in the world, before or since,—certainly was by none surpassed; and if this, in so proud, presumptuous, and irascible a man, says little for the exaltation of poetry itself in comparison with philosophy,—for who supposes Plato and Socrates to have been slaves to such infirmities?—it says nothing—anticlimax apart—against the all-embracing little sonnet, in which a man may show what humors he pleases, provided he show them in a poetical manner. Dante, accordingly, has cursed as well as blessed in his sonnets; while in the very earliest of them, written before he was out of his teens, he gave promise of that rare and intense imagination of which he was afterwards so profuse. Had he written indeed as many poems of this kind, or half as many, as his illustrious successor in this line, and thoroughly applied his faculties to the task, it is to be doubted whether he, instead of Petrarca, would not have set the pattern of the sonnet to succeeding ages, and elevated the nature of its demands besides.  3
  For next to the unquestionable superiority in the highest respect of one of these renowned poets over the other, that of Dante in the Sonnet—as appears to me—was the very important one of grace over elegance; that is to say, of the inner spirit of the beautiful over the outer; of unstudied, as opposed to studied effect; of sentiment expressing itself wholly for its own sake, contrasted with sentiment selecting its words for the sake of the words also.  4
  Not that Petrarca had no grace. Far was he from any such nullity. He had a great deal of grace, but not so much in distinction from the critical sense of it; not such reliance upon it, apart from the aid to be given it by the accomplishments of style. Petrarca has frequent instances, not only of grace, but of passion; to say nothing of the most exalted mind. But he lived in an age of less trouble and more literature than Dante, was more prosperous and in favor, and was also of a nature less given to extremes; so that his poetry, like his life, was altogether of a more equable description; and hence a difference in it from Dante’s, which, if it rendered it not so great, left it still greatly beautiful, and, till society itself became stirred up and impassioned with new revolutions, more popular.  5
  Petrarca has been pronounced monotonous. His subject, no doubt, is monotonous; and it is easy to give a few glances at him and lay him aside under that impression. But how is it that the world has listened to him so long? Ladies, too, may be thought to know something of this matter; and they are all in his favor. Ladies of no great turn for monotony in love have expressly admired him for his variations on that theme; and sentimental ladies have found him as charming in the nineteenth century as he was in the fourteenth. Nor are the other sex, whose good-will he has not so bespoken, less fervid in their extolments. Throughout the whole series of Italian poets, not excepting his fault-finder Tassoni, his praises are constantly sounding; and two of the latest and manliest of them—Alfieri and Foscolo—worshipped the ground he trod on. A reign of five hundred years over the most poetical and musical of countries, with all Europe for its echo, is surely answer enough to a charge of monotony. 1  6
  It is to be acknowledged, however, that you must listen closely, and that the more you know of his language, the more you will find it varied.  7
  What Petrarca did for the sonnet, for its readers, and for his own special renown, as its exemplar, was, first, to free it from the crudities and metaphysics of preceding times, which the lyrical poetry of Dante himself had not thoroughly outgrown; second, to give it a music superior to Dante’s; third, besides beauties of style and modulation obvious to all, to give it others, of which his countrymen only are thoroughly qualified to speak, and of which they always speak with delight; and fourth, to render the sonnet so popular by its abundance, such a favorite with women by its life-long praises of one object, and so welcome to the best of their lovers for the dignity of the author’s character and his exaltation of the passion, that it necessitated a like refinement in the love-making of his countrymen in general; and thus did a good to Italy, which war, a ferocious libertinism, and the sensuousness natural to the South, might have withheld from it for ages. It was on these accounts, that Petrarca’s lesser, though beautiful genius, being brought nearer to our common earth by the revolutions of time and feeling, eclipsed that of the mightier star, Dante, up to a period as late as the present century. And for reasons greater than all others, this last consequence in particular appears to me to have been fortunate,—I would dare to say providential, if I might presume to look into secrets so great; for there was a baneful side of the star, the influence of which it was desirable to arrest, till it could be neutralized by less superstitious times.  8
  As to the conceits which Petrarca is accused of mingling with his better thoughts, and so leaving them for false lights to his successors, such as his antitheses of burning in ice and freezing in fire, his hyperbolical comparisons of his mistress with angels and stars and suns, and his punning identifications of her name with Laurel and with the air,L’Aura,—the charge must be allowed to be true, as far as the indulgence in them became a habit, and so procured them an undue amount of attention; otherwise I would venture to suggest, that, however critically objectionable on these, or on any strictly poetical accounts, they are not so untrue to nature as lovers less enthusiastic suppose; nor would such a lover as Petrarca have been thoroughly true to his passion, had he altogether omitted them. All young, excessive, and idealizing love speaks or thinks occasionally, more or less, in the same manner. All the love of the South and of the East talked so, and had talked so, long before the time of Petrarca. Romeo and Juliet talked so; and so, in all probability, did Shakespeare himself, when he was a youth in his teens, to Anne Hathaway, and very much astonished the daughter of the “substantial yeoman.” Young Dante talked so and looked so to Beatrice; and got laughed at for his pains. Even Ariosto, a sensuous lover in comparison with these, and famous for his being a natural writer, was not without such talk in his Furioso. So long as conceits are natural to passion, they will be vindicable under certain states of feeling in poetry; and Petrarca’s love was so impassioned that, as in known instances of optical delusion, in certain ultrasensitive conditions of the brain, there is reason to believe that he sometimes visibly beheld the image of his mistress before him; and this not only at night-time, but even in solitudes by day. How then are we to wonder that he discerned shadows and intimations of her in the wavings of trees, in outlines of the very rocks, in sunlight and starlight, in the name of the Laurel that was to bind his brows, or in that of the air,—L’Aura,—which was his life and breath? He sometimes even feared what he had seen, and “shivered” in the midst of the wonder and fever of his thoughts. This was no “cold” passion; and the only just objection that can be made to such expressions is the one implied by that epithet; which in the instance, therefore, of Petrarca is unjust.  9
  “If a thing is worth doing at all,” said Johnson, “it is worth doing well.” To show the respect which the great poet Dante had for the making of a sonnet, and the attention which this other of the four great poets of Italy thought proper to bestow on its association with music, I shall conclude the present section with one or two small but curious passages out of the “Early Life”—Vita Nuova—of the former, and a larger one, very curious, from the “Essays on Petrarch,” by Ugo Foscolo.  10
  “This sonnet,” says Dante, speaking of the one beginning,
  “Tutti li miei pensier parlan d’amore,”
“may be divided into three parts. In the first, I lay down the proposition that all my thoughts are of love. In the second, I say that they are discordant, and state this discrepancy. In the third, I mention that in which they all agree,” &c.
  Of another sonnet,—the one beginning,
  “Ciò che m’ incontra nella mente mora,”—
he says, in like manner:—
  “This sonnet is divided into two parts. In the first, I state the reason why I forbear approaching my lady. In the second, I relate what befalls me when I approach her. This second part is subdivided into five different subjects,” &c.  13
  Dante notices also, in his treatise on the “Vernacular Tongue,”—De Vulgari Eloquio,—the minutest requirements of various forms of metrical composition. It is a great mistake to suppose, that, in proportion as a poet is inspired by nature, he cares nothing for the help of art. On the contrary, it may be asserted, that, the greater his inspiration, the greater is his respect for the means through which he is to convey it,—the greater his study of language, of metre, of words. Dante was as great a critic for his time as he was a poet for all time. Spenser wrote a treatise on poetry, which is unfortunately lost; and Milton could have given a critical and musical reason for every verse which he uttered. To suppose the contrary, is to suppose that Beethoven and Paesiello were not as deep in the grammar of their art as professors who can do nothing but teach it; that Raphael could not have given a reason for every line which his knowledge of anatomy rendered true, or Titian for every color which he studied in cheek or landscape.  14
  Now hear the great sonnet-minstrel, Petrarca, recording his experiments with his verses on his lute. But first hear how they are introduced to us by his poetical critic, Foscolo. Cultivators of the sonnet are not to be daunted by them. The lute and the sonnet are no longer married,—no longer even acquainted,—though, on occasion, it is to be hoped they may be. It would be pleasant to hear a good animated sonnet chanted, or otherwise musically impressed on us, by fervid accompaniments of lute or guitar.  15
  “Little,” says Foscolo, “as the Sonetti and Canzoni may appear to our modern composers of operas to be susceptible of music, it is not on that account the less true that these terms are derived from Suono and Canto, and that poets often added notes of music to their stanzas. In the manuscripts, which are still preserved at Florence, of Franco Sachetti and other contemporaries of Petrarch, 2 the following note is to be found at the head of some of their sonnets: ‘Intonatum per Francum:—Scriptor dedit sonum.’ 3 The system of Italian music by counterpoint had been created three centuries before their age by Guido d’ Arezzo; and it is only in our days that it has been refined and complicated by the followers of the German school. Poetry was not then in Italy the mere caput mortuum of music; and the human voice, instead of being a subordinate accessory to the orchestra, filled the most prominent part, and was accompanied by inanimate instruments only so far as was necessary to support it, and to regulate its modifications. The words might then strike the ear with less astonishment than the tunes, but they spoke more forcibly to the heart, and more usefully to the mind. Petrarch poured forth his verses to the sound of his lute, which he bequeathed in his will to a friend; and his voice was sweet, flexible, and of great compass. All the love-poetry of his predecessors, except that of Cino, wants sweetness of numbers; but the sweetness of Petrarch is enlivened with a variety, a rapidity, and a glow, which no Italian lyric has ever possessed in an equal degree.”  16
  And again, in a passage which must have seemed very remarkable to such readers as had been in the habit of considering a sonnet a trifle, Foscolo gives us the following “literal translation of a succession of memorandums” at the head of one of the sonnets that were thus “intoned”:—  17
  “‘I began this,’ says Petrarch, ‘by the impulse of the Lord—Domino jubente—10th September, at the dawn of day, after my morning prayers?’  18
  “‘I must make these two verses over again, singing them—cantando;— and I must transpose them. 3 o’clock, A.M., 19th October.’  19
  “‘I like this—hoc placet. 30th October, 10 o’clock in the morning.’  20
  “‘No: this does not please me. 20th December, in the evening.’  21
  “And in the midst of his corrections,” continues Foscolo, “he writes, on laying down his pen, ‘I shall return to this again; I am called to supper.’  22
  “‘February 18th. Towards noon. This is now well:—however, look at it again—vide tamen adhuc.’  23
  “Sometimes he notes the town where he happens to be:—‘1364, Veneris Mane, 19 Jan. dum invitus Patavii ferior.’ 4 It might seem rather a curious than useful remark, that it was generally on Friday that he occupied himself with the painful labor of correction, did we not also know that it was to him a day of fast and penitence. 5  24
  “When any thought occurred to him, he noted it in the midst of his verses, thus:—  25
  “‘Consider this.—I had some thoughts of transposing these lines, and of making the first verse the last, but I have not done so for the sake of harmony. The first would then be more sonorous, and the last less so, which is against rule; for the end should be more harmonious than the beginning.’  26
  “Sometimes he says: ‘The commencement is good, but it is not pathetic enough.’ In some places he suggests to himself to repeat the same words rather than the same ideas. In others he judges it better not to multiply the ideas, but to amplify them with other expressions. Every verse is turned in several different ways; above each phrase and each word he frequently places equivalent expressions, in order to examine them again; and it requires a profound knowledge of Italian to perceive, that, after such perplexing scruples, he always adopts those words which combine at once most harmony, elegance, and energy.” 6  27
  Petrarca’s lyric poems, which are chiefly sonnets to the amount of more than three hundred, were written during the course of thirty-two years; so that he had plenty of time before him, though he was otherwise an industrious writer and voluminous correspondent. But he would let a sonnet lie polishing at leisure in his mind for months together, like a pebble on the sea-shore.  28
  Cannot others, no less busy, have their sonnet polishing too? The cigar will not hinder it; and the doctor will not quarrel with it, as he does sometimes with the cigar.  29
Note 1. See Alfieri’s Sonnets; Foscolo’s Letters of Ortis; Madame de Genlis’s Petrarch and Laura; and the Margravine of Anspach’s Memoirs. We quote them all from memory. [back]
Note 2. It may be thought strange to see an Italian writing the poet’s name in this old English way, and an Englishman writing it like an Italian; but Foscolo’s spelling was the polite concession of a guest to the country which he had made his home; and it is high time to follow the example of Roscoe and others in writing the word correctly. We no longer say Boccace instead of Boccaccio. Why should we deteriorate the name of his friend? [back]
Note 3. “Sung or chanted by Franco; the writer gave the air.” Franco was not Sacchetti, but a celebrated singer of the time. [back]
Note 4. “Friday Morning.—While idling against my will in Padua.” [back]
Note 5. Did he call this “idling”? or was he speaking only of his stay in Padua altogether? [back]
Note 6. Ugo Foscolo, Essays on Petrarch, (1823,) p. 90 and p. 57. Foscolo was wrong, in common with all the world, in attributing the invention of counterpoint to Guittone d’Arezzo; as the reader may see in the Biographie Universelle des Musiciens by the most learned of musical critics, M. Fetis. [back]
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