Verse > Anthologies > Seccombe and Arber, eds. > An English Garner > Elizabethan Sonnets
Seccombe and Arber, comps.  Elizabethan Sonnets.  1904.
II. The Supremacy of Petrarch
But quite apart from merit and demerit of craftsmanship, the sonneteering activity of Elizabethan England forms an interesting chapter in literary history. The chapter has not yet been fully written. It illustrates an aspect of Elizabethan literature to which due attention has not yet been paid by critics or chroniclers. One is accustomed to regard the literary energy of sixteenth-century England as mainly a national movement, as an outburst of original thought which owed little to foreign influence or suggestion. No student can advance far in his investigations in any direction, least of all in the direction of the Elizabethan lyric, without seriously qualifying this impression. As soon as one closely compares the tone and language of the Elizabethan lyric with those of the lyric in France and Italy during the same epoch, or in the epoch immediately preceding the Elizabethan, as soon as one realises the persistent intercourse between Elizabethan England and the cultivated nations of Europe, one is brought to the conclusion that the Elizabethan lyric in nearly all its varied shapes of song and sonnet was, to a very large extent, directly borrowed from foreign lands. It may be safely predicated that, had not foreign literature supplied the initiative and the example, the Elizabethan lyric would not have come into being, at any rate in the shape which is familiar to us. Our ancestors often improved conspicuously on their foreign models; they gave fuller substance, fuller beauty to the poetry which they adapted to their own tongue from Latin or Greek, from French or Italian. But the inspiration, the invention, is no purely English product. The English renderings are as a rule too literal borrowings to be reckoned, in a justly critical estimate, among wholly original compositions.  1
  The Elizabethan sonnet offers the best of all illustrations of the vast debt that Elizabethan literature owed to foreign influences. For practical purposes the sonnet may be regarded as an invention of Italy. 1 It was at any rate the Italian writers of the thirteenth century who first gave the genre definite or permanent shape and character. Dante (1265–1321) may fairly be reckoned the earliest sonneteer of historic interest. His Vita Nuova, in which he narrates the story of his love for Beatrice, consists of thirty-one lyrical poems linked together by chains of prose. Twenty-five of the poems are regular sonnets. Twenty-six other sonnets figure in the rest of Dante’s minor work, either separately or in sequences, where they are usually intermingled with canzone (i.e., lyrical odes) and ballate (i.e., ballades). The influence of Dante’s efforts was in some degree indirect, but in manner and matter he sounded the key-note of the sonnet of the Renaissance. Most of his quatorzains profess to recite to the lady of his affections the course of his amorous emotion; others soliloquise in general terms on the joys and pangs of love; a few are affectionately dedicated by the writer to friends of his own sex. Love is throughout pictured solely in its ethereal aspects. It is for Dante the worship of beauty and of virtue. His sonnets, in fact, frankly interpret a leading phase of that idealism with which the writings of Plato and his disciples illumined metaphysical speculation in mediæval Europe. The physical attributes of the poet’s mistress by no means escape Dante’s attention. He sings in simple language of her eyes, her smile, her lips, her golden tresses. But all such features reflect for him the splendour of the final type or idea of beauty which has its home in celestial spheres. 2  2
  In the fourteenth century Petrarch (1304–1374) assumed Dante’s mantle, and devoted his main literary energy to sonneteering. Although his sonnets differ little from Dante’s either in form or spirit, Petrarch’s fame as a sonneteer quickly outran that of his predecessor. Petrarch was the sonneteer who finally dominated Western Europe; and no subsequent practitioner in the art in Italy, France, Spain, or England, during the two centuries which followed his achievement, failed to bear witness to his mighty influence. Petrarch wrote sonnets on a larger scale than any before him. The extant poems of this kind from his pen number three hundred and seventeen in all. Arranged in two sequences, the first section, which is addressed to the poet’s mistress Laura during her lifetime, includes two hundred and twenty-seven quatorzains; while the second section, which is addressed to Laura after death, numbers ninety. Variety is given to each sequence by the introduction at irregular intervals of other forms of lyrical verse: ballades (ballate), sestines (sestine), madrigals (madrigali), and odes (canzoni). 3 With greater artistic effect than Dante achieved, Petrarch made of his sonnet-collection a lyrical medley in which the sonnet played the chief, but by no means the only, part. The interruption of sonnet-sequences by ode or briefer lyric effort became, in virtue of Petrarch’s example, an habitual characteristic of European sonneteering at the most flourishing epoch of its history.  3
  Petrarch’s topic, like Dante’s, is the Platonic ideal of love, the glorification of ethereal sentiment. The effort doubtless derived its original impetus from a genuine experience of the poet, but the idealistic web which he weaves about his emotion proves that his work is mainly a conscious exercise of the intellect and imagination, with which his own affairs of the heart have only a remote or shadowy concern. All the phases of elation and despair which love may be deemed capable of engendering in the mind, find artistic reflection in Petrarch’s verse. He sketches with a gentle delicacy of phrase the effect on amorous feeling of spring and summer, of light and darkness, of the presence and absence by day and night of a beloved mistress. He describes with every imaginative embellishment the beauty of his mistress’s features, her intellectual endowments, her high birth. 4 His thought is nearly always true to the ethereal plane which he marked out for himself as his field of labour. Very rarely and very momentarily does he touch earth. At the same time, it is to be noted that a current of religious fervour colours his poetry, especially the second of his sonnet-sequences, which he inscribed to Laura after death; and occasionally he turns altogether from purposes of love to give play to strong political feeling, or to testify affection for a friend or patron of his own sex. But the exaltation of the ideal type of beauty which connotes both mental and physical perfection is his main aim.  4
  The sonnet-sequence in later years was occasionally diverted from that goal which Petrarch most conspicuously sought, but he himself gave the cue for all subsequent variations of the sonnet-topic. Later sonneteers greatly developed the hint that he offered them in the sonnets which he inscribed to his male friends—to his patron, Cardinal Colonna, to Colonna’s father and brother, and to his close ally, the poet Sennuccio. These poems he made vehicles for exuberant adulation, 5 for expressions of admiration and affection. Often the sensual aspect of love, on which Petrarch very lightly touched, gained in the sonnets of succeeding ages mastery over its ethereal aspects. Some sixteenth-century sonneteers, again, impressed either by Petrarch’s pietism or by his political enthusiasm, turned their poems to the purposes of spiritual meditation or of political exhortation. At times metaphysical reflection of a somewhat more technical kind than Petrarch essayed, became the sonneteer’s leading theme. But it is very rarely that the seed had not been sown by the Italian master.  5
  The Petrarchan sonnet experienced some other modifications. Petrarch was a classical scholar, and reminiscences of Horace and other classical writers often emerge in his sonnets. But his successors enjoyed a larger opportunity than he of exploring classical literature. In the sixteenth century some new literary strands came to mingle with the Petrarchan threads out of which the sonnets of Europe were to be woven. The Greek lyric poetry with its airy fancies and its delicate imagery, drawn from the Greek mythology—the cult of Venus, the Cytherean goddess, and of Cupid, her Puck-like son—fused itself after Petrarch’s day with the poetic thought of the later Renaissance. Themes and figures derived from Theocritus or Moschus, from Meleager or Anacreon, were grafted on Petrarchan sentiment and diction. In only slightly less degree, too, certain poetic achievements of the Latins—notably the amorous verse of Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid—offered sonneteers suggestions which Petrarch had neglected. Phrases and ideas conveyed for the first time from sources such as these, were welcomed by Petrarch’s successors no less eagerly than those which came from Greek lyrics.  6
  But in spite of increase in knowledge on the part of succeeding sonneteers in Western Europe, Petrarch’s predominating force was undiminished. He remained the acknowledged ruler of the art. The whole country that was to be occupied by the sonneteers was mapped out by him, and although some districts proved more attractive than others to future settlers, and were cultivated more effectively, the boundaries that Petrarch set up were religiously respected. The process of transferring his work into foreign tongues, the differences in the learning, capacities, and aims of the adapters, evolved an endless variety of superficial differences of thought or expression. But there is no ground for impugning the constant and all-embracing influence that he actively exerted upon sonnet-literature through fully two hundred years.  7
Note 1. The origin of the sonnet (i.e., the quatorzain of fourteen lines) has been traced with great plausibility to a more remote source. It has much in common with the epigram, which is familiar to readers of the Greek Anthology; and when knowledge of the epigrams of Greece spread among scholars of Western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, some early writers of sonnets acknowledged the identity of the two poetic forms by bestowing on their sonnets the name of epigrams. Cf. the collection of Epigrammes in Les Œuvres de Clément Marot, Paris, c. 1550 (pp. 469, 489, 509). The poets of the Greek Anthology, like all the late Greek lyrists, influenced the development of the sonnet as soon as their work became generally accessible. But despite the influence of the Greek epigram on its history, the sonnet seems as a matter of fact to have come first into being independently of classical example. The quatorzain was apparently first designed in the eleventh or twelfth century by the poets of Provence, and the earliest Italian sonneteers worked on Provençal foundations. [back]
Note 2. In form Dante’s sonnets show a rare mastery of metrical effect. They are constructed with great regularity. The fourteen lines are distributed in two quatrains and two tercets. The rhymes, which in no case number more than five, are arranged somewhat variously. Many of Dante’s sonnets follow the formula, a b b a, a b b a, c d e, e d e (or c d e). This is generally claimed to be the standard Italian scheme of sonnet-rhyme, but the exceptions are too numerouss fully to justify this pretension. The concluding rhyming couplet, which is characteristic of the Elizabethan sonnet, is rare in the Italian sonnet, and absent altogether from the French, but it figures in six of Dante’s sonnets and in several of Petrarch’s. The Italian formula for the last six lines occasionally runs c d d d c c, and many other permutations are found. No single scheme of rhyme can be regarded as the universal Italian type. [back]
Note 3. The section inscribed to Laura in life contains, besides the two hundred and twenty-seven sonnets, twenty-one odes of varying lengths, eight sestines, four madrigals, and five ballades. The second sequence contains eight canzoni, one sestina, and one ballata. [back]
Note 4. Cf. especially Sonnets clxxviii. and clxxix., where Petrarch dwells not so much on graces of feature, as on high birth (nobil sangue), charm of intellect (intelletto dolce ed alto), and thoughtful expression (aspetto pensoso). [back]
Note 5. Almost all forms of address which poets of the Renaissance employed when inscribing sonnets to their male friends or patrons are adumbrated in a fine sonnet (No. ccxxvii., concluding the first section), which Petrarch inscribed to his especial patron and friend, Giacomo Colonna. There he deplored with equal warmth the absence of his ‘lord’ and his ‘lady.’ ‘Affection for his lord, and love for his lady are the chains,’ he declares, ‘which bind him fast in sorrow.’
  ‘Carità di signore, amor di donna
Son le catene ove con multi affanni
Legato son, perch’io stesso mi strinsi.’
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