Seccombe and Arber, comps. Elizabethan Sonnets. 1904.
IX. Drayton and Spenser
Early in 1534 a more imposing figure in the annals of Elizabethan sonneteering first took the field. Michael Drayton, a reputed friend of Shakespeare, wrote sonnets at intervals through more than a quarter of a century. But the greater number of his poems in this kind were completed before 1600, and an important instalment was published in 1594 when the sonneteering rage was at its height. It is in one of his latest sonnets that his sonneteering power shows to best advantage.1 Elsewhere he rarely maintains a high level of melody or diction; signs of haste and carelessness in composition abound; he gives the reader the impression that it was with reluctance, if not with his tongue in his cheek, that he yielded to the sonneteering craze. In Sonnet ix. he asks:
As other men, so I myself, do muse
Why in this sort I wrest Invention so.
In Sonnet xxxi. he expresses the hope that his wit will not keep the pack-horse way,
He admits that his sonnets have little connection one with another; they lack any single thread of sentiment to justify their publication as a sequence. In a preliminary address To the Reader he disavows passion:
Drayton ranges over a variety of subjects. Writing in general terms on topics like the celestial numbers, imagination, folly, and the soul, he constantly ignores the lady to whom he professes to owe his inspiration.2 Elsewhere his references to his mistress are the merest conventionalities. In Sonnet xxi. he narrates how he was employed by a witless gallant to write a sonnet to the wench whom the young man wooed, with the result that his suit was successful. There is other evidence to prove that such commissions were familiar to most of the professional sonneteers, and Drayton doubtless speaks truth when he claims personal experience of the practice.
Nevertheless, while he acknowledged that the art as it was ordinarily practised in England was a bastard product, Drayton affected anxiety to persuade his public that, unlike his literary colleagues, he handled none of their well-worn weapons of plagiarism. He announced to his ever kind Mecænas, Ma. Anthony Cooke, Esquire, to whom he dedicated his first volume of sonnets in 1594:
The title of Draytons sonnet-sequence, Idea, gives a valuable clue to one source of his inspiration. The title was directly borrowed from a very extended sonnet-sequence called LIdée, by Claude de Pontoux, a poetic physician of Chalon. LIdée, a sequence of two hundred and eighty-eight regular French sonnets, was published, with a few odes, chansons, and other verse, in 1579, just after the authors death.4
LIdée is to a very large extent based on classical and Italian originals, and presents an unimpressive series of extravagant conceits illustrating a lovers despairing grief.5 The name symbolises the Platonic [idea] of beauty, which was especially familiar to Du Bellay and Pontus de Tyard in France, and to Spenser in England. Draytons soul-shrined saint, his divine Idea, his fair Idea, is the child of de Pontoux Céleste Idée, Fille de Dieu (Sonnet x.)6 Drayton adopted many of de Pontoux developments of this traditional theme. The English writers enumeration of the contrasted sensations which he endures at one and the same moment, is found in the work of every sonneteer who wrote since Petrarch. Ronsards lines (Amours, Livre I. lxxxviii.)
Estre indigent et donner tout le sien,
Posséder tout et ne jouir de rien,
may have suggested Draytons self-contradictory strain, e.g.,
Where most I lost, there most of all I wan.
But Draytons full handling of the established convention perhaps bears a closer resemblance to de Pontoux treatment of it than that of any other. Such lines as
But Drayton by no means confined his sonneteering studies to the volume whence he took his shadowy mistresss name. He worked with equal zeal on the labours of other foreign poets. Draytons sonnet on the Phnixs regeneration by fire (No. xvi.) is traceable through a long series of French adaptations to Petrarch himself (Sonnet clii.). The sonnet on the belief that young eagles are proved to be of the true breed by their power of facing the glare of the sun (No. lvi.) was probably suggested by Watsons Hecatompathia (No. xcix.), which is itself an imitation of Serafino (1550 ed., Sonnetto Primo); but the tradition of the genuine eagles visual capacity was quite as accessible, in the shape that Drayton handled it, in French and Latin verse as in Italian and English.7 His treatment of the perennial dispute between Love and Reason, in which Reason is ignominiously defeated (Idea, xxxviii.), is an obvious copy of Ronsards Sonnets pour Hélène (No. xxi.), which has for burden, La Raison centre Amour ne peut chose qui vaille. Perhaps, too, an added touch or two was derived by Drayton from Desportes lyric, Procez entre Amour au siege de la Raison,8 to which Ronsards sonnet had already given birth. Draytons imitative appeals to night, to his ladys fair eyes, to rivers; his classical allusions, his insistence that his verse is eternal: all these themes recall at every turn expressions from Ronsard, and Desportes, or from their humbler disciples. A little is usually added, and a little taken away; but such slight substance as the sentiments possess is, with rare exception, a foreign invention. Doubtless Drayton was more conscious than his companions of the absurd triviality of the sonneteering habit. No precise foreign origin seems accessible for his sonnet (xv.) entitled His Remedy for Love, in which he describes a potion concocted of the powder of a dead womans heart, moistened with another womans tears, boiled in a widows sighs, and breathed upon by an old maid. This satire is clearly intended to apply to the simples out of which the conventional type of sonnet was for the most part exclusively compounded.
Apart from Shakespeare, Spenser was the most richly endowed of Elizabethan poets who engaged in sonneteering. We have already seen how his earliest work was an avowed adaptation of the sonnets of Petrarch and Du Bellay; but nearly a generation passed before he addressed himself to the composition of a sonnet-sequence of the conventional pattern. It was in 1595 that there was printed for the first time his collection of eighty-eight sonnets. There is every reason to believe that he wrote them about 1592, while he was wooing, at the mature age of forty, the lady who became his wife on 11th June 1594. His sonnet-sequence was thus no fruit of his callow youth, as in the case of most of his contemporaries. It came from his pen when his poetic powers were at their zenith. He had already made substantial progress with his greatest literary achievement, The Faery Queen. But any expectation that his sonnets as a whole consequently claim a far loftier rank than that to which the contemporary efforts mainly belong, is belied by a close study of them.
William Ponsonby, on his own responsibility during the authors absence in Ireland, published Spensers sonnets in 1595. The author bestowed on them the Italian title of Amoretti.9 The publisher described them as sweet and conceited. Such warnings prepare the reader for the knowledge that most of them illustrate the fashionable vein of artifice, and are founded on Italian models.
Not that Spenser failed on occasion to escape from the conventional chains. A few of his sonnets betray rare capacity for the treatment, with poetic directness, of original ideas. His familiar sonnet (No. lxxv.)One day I wrote her name upon the strandis evidence of the highest poetic faculty.
Amid all the conventional imagery, Spenser makes at least three autobiographical statements in his sonnets. Sonnet xxxiii. is addressed by name to his friend Lodowick Briskett, and is an apology for the poets delay in completing his Faery Queen. In Sonnet lx. Spenser states that he is forty-one years old, and that one year has passed since he came under the influence of the winged god. Sonnet lxxiv. apostrophises the happy letters which comprise the name Elizabeth, which he states was borne alike by his mother, his sovereign, and his wife, Elizabeth Boyle.
In their metrical effects, too, Spensers sonnets showed greater originality than most of his English contemporaries. He declined to follow exactly either the ordinary English or foreign model. He formed most of his sonnets of three quatrains alternately rhymed and a concluding couplet. The alternate rhymes were unknown abroad. But he restricted the total number of rhymes in a single sonnet to five, after the foreign fashion instead of employing seven, after the English fashion. The first line of his second quatrain rhymes with the last line of his first quatrain, and the first line of his third quatrain with the last line of his second. Thus each quatrain was insensibly absorbed into its successor, and a continuity which was rare in Elizabethan sonnets was achieved. In two sonnets (x. and xlv.), the poet ventured on a further innovation by winding up the sonnet with an Alexandrine.
But, despite all his metrical versatility and his genuine poetic force, the greater part of Spensers sonneteering efforts abound, like those of his contemporaries, in strained conceits, which are often silently borrowed from foreign literature without radical change of diction. Spenser sought his main inspiration in Petrarch. The first friendly critic (Gabriel Harvey) of Spensers sonnet-sequence greeted him as a Petrarchist, and defended him from censure based on the ground of his subservience to the prevailing habit of imitating the Italian master. Petrarchs invention, Harvey pointed out, is pure love itself; Petrarchs elocution pure beauty itself. All the noblest French, Italian, and Spanish poets, continued Spensers champion, have in their several veins Petrarchised, and it is no dishonour for the daintiest or divinest muse to be his scholar whom the amiablest invention and beautifullest elocution acknowledged their master.10
The metaphors from ships and tempests (Sonnets xxxiv. and lxiii.) are of true Petrarchan lineage. Spensers avowal of sensibility to ice and fire (xxx.), and his appeal to his lady to forsake her glass of crystal clean (Sonnet xlv.), echo with slight variations the Italian phraseology. In identical terms, too, does Spenser follow Petrarch in describing his imprisonment in the net of his mistresss golden tresses, which on occasion wave in the loose wind.11
But vast as is Spensers manifest debt to Petrarch alike in his general scheme and in its details, he did not disdain to borrow at the same time from Petrarchs French and Italian disciples. It is not always possible to determine whether he is the immediate debtor of Petrarch or of Petrarchs followers in Italy and France. His heroine is the wayward mistress, the sweet warrior (Sonnet lvii.) of every sixteenth-century sonneteer. But difference of view is inevitable as to whether she owe most to Petrarchs dolce guerrera, or to De Baifs belle ennemie, or to Desportes douce adversaire. Spenser had clearly immersed his thought in French poetry. Adopting Ronsards imagery, he denounces his mistress in her wrath as a tigress. Like the lady-loves of all the Pléiade, her features are fairer than the flowers or precious stones.12 Desportes, de Pontoux, and Tyard never tire of likening their mistresss eyes to pinks (illets), her cheeks to roses, or her lips to gilliflowers or marjorams. Spenser is not too proud to accept this florid choice of similes (Sonnet lxiv.). Ronsard when in the presence of his mistress noted
Du beau jardin de son printemps riant
Sort un parfum qui mesme lOrient
Embasmeroit de ses douces haleines.
(Amours, Livre I. cxl.)
Spenser expressed a like experience thus
Meseemed, I smelt a garden of sweet flowers,
That dainty odours from them threw around.
(Amoretti, Sonnet lxiv.)
Sun, moon, stars, fire, lightning, diamonds, crystal, glass, sapphires, all pale before his ladys eyes (Sonnets ix. and xv.) in precisely the same manner as other ladies eyes eclipse a like series of objects in the poetry of contemporary France. No traders, Spenser tells us, who spoil the Indias of their treasure, secure merchandise more precious than his lady-loves beauty
Ye tradeful Merchants, that, with weary toil,
Do seek most precious things to make your gain,
And both the Indias of their treasure spoil;
What needeth you to seek so far in vain?
For lo, my Love doth in herself contain
All this worlds riches that may far be found.
If sapphires, lo, her eyes be sapphires plain;
If rubies, lo, her lips be rubies sound;
If pearls, her teeth be pearls, both pure and round;
Despite the many classical precedents for this familiar conceit, Spenser here plainly speaks in the voice of Ronsard alone. It was Ronsard who had, just before Spenser wrote, promised his patron that his lute
Par cest hymne solennel
Respandra dessus ta race
Je ne sçay quoy de sa grace,
Qui te doit faire éternel(Odes, I. vii.);
who had declared of his mistress
Victorieuse des peuples et des Rois
Sen voleroit sus laile de ma ryme(Amours, I. lxxii.);
Longtemps après la mort je vous feray revivre,
Vous vivrez et croistrez comme Laure en grandeur,
Au moins tant que vivront les plumes et le livre.
In two sonnets Spenser identifies his heroine with the Petrarchan [idea] of beauty which had lately played its part in numberless French sonnets by Du Bellay, Desportes, Tyard, de Pontoux, and others. He catches the true idealistic note far more completely than Drayton, who, in conferring on his sonnets the title of Idea, professed to range himself with the Italian and French Platonists. Spenser writes in Sonnet xlv.:
Within my heart (though hardly it can shew
Thing so divine to view of earthly eye),
The fair Idea of your celestial hew
And every part remains immortally.
This reflects Desportes familiar strain:
Sur la plus belle Idée au ciel vous fustes faite,
Voulant nature un jour monstrer tout son pouvoir,
Depuis vous luy servez de forme et de miroir,
Et toute autre beauté sur la vostre est portraite.
(Diane, II. lxvii.)
Like the French writers, Spenser ultimately in Sonnet lxxxvii. disclaims any mortal object of adoration in an ecstatic recognition of the superior fascination of the [idea]:
When he was in his most solemn mood, Spenser invariably cast his anchor in a foreign port. His sonnet to Christ at Eastertide (Sonnet lxviii.) was clearly suggested by Desportes ejaculation at the same season which unexpectedly fills a niche in the poets Amours de Diane. Petrarchs gravest tone resounds in Spensers impressive sonnet (lxxxiii.):
Watson and Sir Philip Sidney had already taught the Elizabethan sonneteer to check any wanton tendencies in his Muse by seeking inspiration at the Petrarchan oracle. In that regard there is much in Spensers sonnets that reminds the reader more especially of Sidneys Astrophel and Stella. The richer tones of Spensers mature genius give the greater part of his Amoretti a literary rank above that reached by the Astrophel of former days. But Spenser, no less than Sidney, to a large extent handled the sonnet as a poetic instrument whereon to repeat in his mother-tongue what he regarded as the finest and most serious examples of poetic feeling and diction in Italy and France.
Note 1. The 1619 edition of Draytons sonnets prints for the first time his finest effort, Since there s no help, come, let us kiss and part! (No. lxi.). Only the sixty-three sonnets, together with the one To the Reader, in that edition, are included in the present collection. The first edition of 1594, entitled Ideas Mirrovr, Amovrs in Qvatorzains, contains fifty-two sonnets in all. Several of these were dropped and others added in the numerous subsequent editions (cf. vol. ii. p. 180, bibliographical note). No complete collection of Draytons sonnets exists. The nearest approach to completeness is found in Poems by Michael Drayton, edited by J. P. Collier for the Roxburghe Club, 1856. [back]
Note 2. Drayton makes no sustained effort to identify the object of his passion beyond associating her in two sonnets with a Warwickshire stream called Ankor, which ran near his birthplace through the Warwickshire forest of Arden.
Ardens sweet Ankor, let thy glory be,
That fair Idea only lives by thee!
Fair Arden, thou my Tempe art alone!
And thou, sweet Ankor, art my Helicon!
Both sonnets bear the heading, To the river Ankor, and in general temper are identical with Petrarchs addresses to the Rhone and to the Po, which had been very literally imitated in France and Italy, and had already inspired Sidneys sonnet to the river Thames, and Daniels sonnet to the river Avon. [back]
Note 3. The reference in the third line is of course to Desportes. The last line is a verbatim quotation from Sir Philip Sidneys Sonnet lxxiv. l. 8. [back]
Note 4. I have to thank M. Vaganay of Lyons for the loan of a copy of this very rare and valuable volume. [back]
Note 5. De Pontoux angry denunciation of his disdainful lady-love is a specially ludicrous example of a formula common to most sonneteers of the period. His Sonnet ccviii. runs:
In Sonnet ccxi. de Pontoux boasts of his superiority to college professors who only depend on Aristotle and Plato for their knowledge of [Idea] (cf. Sidneys Astrophel, lxiv.: I do not envie Aristotles wit). [back]
Note 7. Jacques de Billy (in Sonnets Spirituels, No. 25, Paris, 1577, p. 74) seems to translate Serafinos version of the tradition in a sonnet which is nevertheless described as imité de Grégoire de Nazienze. The French rendering opened thus:
Laigle estant incertain des petits, quil eslèue
Sils sont siens, que fait-il pour tel doute vuider?
Tout droit au lieu les met, où Phebus vient darder
Ses rais, et de soupçon aussi tost se relève.
The conceit is well known to late Latin poetry (cf. Claudian, Cons. Hon. Praef., 118). [back]
Note 8. See the first book of the Amours de Diane, ed. Michiels, p. 53. [back]
Note 9. The volume also contained four epigrams translated from the Greek anthology, and the poets fine Epithalamium. The only epigram of any length or interest (No. iv.), appended to the Amoretti, notably illustrates Spensers identity with prevailing French taste, and its influence upon him. The subject of the epigramCupids complaint to his mother of a bees stinghas been traced to a spurious Theocritean idyll (xix.), and was also adapted by Anacreon (B. 33). Watson read it in a Latin epigrammatist, and based on it his Passion liii. in Hecatompathia. But there were in existence when Spenser wrote at least eight different recent renderings of it into French by as many French poets. Ronsard, De Baif, De Magny, and five others handled the fancy. There can be little doubt that Spensers French reading impelled him to work upon it. [back]
Note 12. It is hardly necessary to quote examples of this characteristic feature of the French school. Probably Ronsards sonnets (Amours, I. xxiii. and liv.) are as representative as any of this aspect of his and his friends work. The former sonnet enumerates coral, marbre, ébène, albâtre, saphyrs, jaspe, porphyre, diamans, rubis, illets, roses, and fin or, as meeting together in the features of his mistress. Spenser cites almost all these objects in the like connection. [back]
Note 13. Cf. Ronsards reductio ad absurdum of the same conceit