Verse > Anthologies > Seccombe and Arber, eds. > An English Garner > Elizabethan Sonnets
Seccombe and Arber, comps.  Elizabethan Sonnets.  1904.
III. The Sonnet in Sixteenth-Century Italy
In order to apprehend the overwhelming character and extent of Petrarch’s and his successors’ influence on the Elizabethan sonnet, some preliminary knowledge of its course in both sixteenth-century Italy and France is essential. The Elizabethan sonnet is for the most part the reflection of a foreign substance, and only after that foreign substance is closely studied will the reflection be seen in its true light.  1
  For the first hundred years after his death Petrarch’s work was, in Italy, more widely read than imitated. In the fifteenth century, despite great literary activity in other directions, sonneteers were not abundant in Italy. Petrarch’s chief Italian disciple of the era was Serafino dell’ Aquila (1466–1500), whose sonnets and strambotti 1 quickly acquired European fame, and were soon freely plagiarised in France and England as well as in his own country. 2 But it was not till the sixteenth century opened that Petrarch’s influence proved its true capacity. It was only through the middle or the later decades of that century that in Italy itself, no less than in Spain, France, and England, the sonnet flourished in all its luxuriance. The exaggerated popularity which the sonnet then enjoyed throughout Western Europe has not been experienced at that or any other era by any other form of verse. It has been computed that the sixteenth-century sonnets of Western Europe exceed in number 300,000.  2
  The sixteenth century was reckoned in Italy, no less than in France and England, the golden age of literature. But in whatever branch of imaginative literature Italian writers of that century made their reputation, it was their invariable ambition to excel as sonneteers in addition. Italian scholars, who only wrote poetry in Latin, penned numerous sonnets in Latin. Ariosto and Tasso, the brightest stars in the literary firmament of sixteenth-century Italy, wrote sonnets on a generous scale. Hundreds of lesser lights whose brilliancy has long since dwindled did little else through long periods of their lives than court literary fame as sonneteers; Pietro Bembo and Luigi Alamanni, for example, in the first half of the century, or Lodovico Dolce and Battista Guarini in the second half, strained every nerve to win the position of champions of the art. The source of their inspiration was never for a moment obscured. They and the crowd of their competitors felt pride in claiming kinship with Petrarch; they dubbed themselves Petrarchists, and they called their art Petrarchism. The Petrarchan form and spirit lost much of their pristine beauty and dignity as they passed, in sixteenth-century Italy, from pen to pen. The old conceits were distorted into an interminable series of fantastic shapes. Such small traces of sincere emotion as could be placed to Petrarch’s credit were blotted out. The worship of ideal beauty was maintained, usually with a correct formality which approached the grotesque. The sonneteers deliberately worked within a definitely limited range of ideas and images, and no genuine originality in the method of their presentment was countenanced. None the less, there was no slackening in the flow of this degenerate Petrarchism among the master’s countrymen till after the close of the sixteenth century. Throughout that century the Italian printers grew busier year by year in disseminating sonnet-literature. One hundred and twenty-one volumes of sonnet-sequences came from Italian presses in the first quarter of the century; three hundred and twenty-six volumes, most of which bore convincing testimony to the degeneracy of the art, were published during the last quarter. 3  3
  One cause of the sonnet’s persistence in Italy may possibly be found in the stimulus which all lyric poetry derived, during the last half of the sixteenth century, from the invention and wide dissemination there of music of the modern kind. The first Italian musical composers, in their search for words for the newly invented madrigal and part-song, liberally borrowed from the sonnets of Petrarch and his successors. The French and English song-books were often mere adaptations of Italian song-books in both their words and music, and through such agencies the lease of life enjoyed by the Italian sonnet was greatly extended both at home and abroad.  4
Note 1. Strambotti were eight-lined lyrics in various brisk metres. Florio, the Elizabethan lexicographer, in his Italian dictionary, defined them as ‘Country gigges, rounds, catches, virelaies or three men’s songs.’ [back]
Note 2. ‘So great was the admiration felt for this poet [Serafino] by his [Italian] contemporaries, that his epitaph assures the traveller that he may hold it an honour even to have seen his tomb.’—Courthope’s History of English Poetry, vol. ii. p. 51. [back]
Note 3. The vogue of the sonnet is well illustrated in a rare miscellany of previously unprinted sonnets by living writers, which was published in 1591 (Part I. at Genoa, Part II. at Pavia), under the title Scelta di Rime di diversi moderni autori. Non più stampate. More than forty contributors are enumerated, and the poems number 185. A more ample collection of Italian sonnets of the sixteenth century may be found in the first two volumes of Agostino Gobbi’s Scelta di sonetti e canzoni de’ più eccellenti rimatori d’ogni secolo, 4 vols., Venice, 1739. Some 170 writers represent the period 1500–1550, and 130 the period 1550–1600. The incessant reissue of the earlier poetic work of the century during its later half accounts for the steady increase in the number of the poetic publications. A very full bibliography of the sixteenth-century sonnet in France and Italy was lately completed by M. Hugues Vaganay, Librarian of Les Facultés Catholiques of Lyon, an enthusiastic student of the sonnet on the continent of Europe. M. Vaganay’s work is entitled ‘Le sonnet en Italie et en France au XVIe siècle. Essai de Bibliographie comparée’ (Lyon, 1903). It describes several thousand volumes of French and Italian sonnets; but, large as the work is, it by no means exhausts its theme. Italian scholars who only wrote in Latin, penned among their voluminous Latin poems numerous Latin sonnets, which greatly increase the total number of sonnets that were brought to birth in sixteenth-century Italy. Latin sonnets were also very common in France (cf. Gruter’s ample collections: Delitiae C.C. Italorum poetarum, 1608, 2 vols., and Delitiae C. poetarum Gallorum, 1609, 3 vols.). [back]
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