Seccombe and Arber, comps. Elizabethan Sonnets. 1904.
The sonnet-sequence of love died hard in England, but, after a time, it fell a victim to ridicule. The dissemination of borrowed sentiment by the sonneteers, and their monotonous and mechanical plagiarisms, had the natural effect of bringing their endeavours into disrepute. The air in England during the last years of the sixteenth century rang with sarcastic protests.
In early life Gabriel Harvey, Spensers admiring critic, wittily parodied the mingling of adulation and vituperation in the conventional sonnet-sequence, in his Amorous Odious Sonnet intituled The Students Loove or Hatrid. Chapman, in 1595, in a series of sonnets entitled, A Coronet for his Mistress Philosophy, appealed to his literary comrades to abandon the painted cabinet of a love-sonnet for a coffer of genuine worth.
But the most resolute of the censors of the sonneteering vogue was the poet and lawyer, Sir John Davies. In a sonnet addressed about 1596 to his friend, Sir Anthony Cooke (the patron of Draytons Idea), he inveighed against the bastard sonnets, which base rhymers daily begot to their own shames and poetrys disgrace. In his anxiety to stamp out the folly, he wrote and circulated, in manuscript, a specimen series of nine gulling sonnets, or parodies of the conventional efforts. Even Shakespeare does not seem to have escaped Daviess condemnation. Sir John is especially severe on the sonneteers who handled conceits based on legal technicalities. In his eighth gulling sonnet, he ridicules effectively the application of law terms to affairs of the heart. Although Sir John here directly aims his shafts at the insignificant author of the most clumsy of the extant collections, Zepheria, many an expert practitionereven Shakespeare in his Sonnets lxxxvii. and cxxxiv.had laid himself equally open to attack.
My case is this. I love Zepheria bright,
Of her I hold my heart by fealty:
Which I discharge to her perpetually,
Yet she thereof will never me acquit[e],
For now supposing I withhold her right,
She hath distrained my heart to satisfy
The duty which I never did deny,
And far away impounds it with despite.
I labour therefore justly to repleave [i.e., recover]
My heart which she unjustly doth impound.
But quick Conceit which now is Loves high shrieve,
Returns it as esloyned [i.e., absconded], not to be found.
Echoes of the critical hostility are heard, it is curious to note, in nearly all the references that Shakespeare himself makes to sonneteering in his plays. Tush, none but minstrels like of sonneting, impatiently exclaims Biron in Loves Labour s Lost (IV. iii. 158). In the Two Gentlemen of Verona (III. ii. 68seq.) there is a satiric touch in the recipe for the conventional love-sonnet which Proteus offers the amorous Duke:
You must lay lime to tangle her desires
By wailful sonnets, whose composèd rime
Should be full-fraught with serviceable vows
Say that upon the altar of her beauty
You sacrifice your tears, your sighs, your heart.
When the sonnet-sequence of love had grown out of date, Ben Jonson, in his play of Volpone (Act iii. sc. 2), looked back on the past days of sonneting, and reproached its votaries with their debt to passionate Petrarch. Jonson condemned the artificial principles of the sonnet root and branch, when he told Drummond of Hawthornden that he cursed Petrarch for redacting verses to sonnets which he said were like that tyrants bed, where some who were too short were racked, others too long cut short. (Jonsons Conversation, p. 4.)
In England no more than on the continent did love, which was nearly always feigned, constitute the sole topic of the sonnet-sequence. But abroad and at home sonnets on religion, metaphysics, and astrology were interpolated at one point or another in many amorous collections. There were also several volumes of sonnets consecrated exclusively to religion and philosophy. Barnes and Constable each wrote an extended series of Spiritual Sonnets. Henry Locke issued in 1597 a collection of no less than three hundred and twenty-eight Sundrie Sonets of Christian Passions, with other Affectionate Sonets of a Feeling Conscience.
The imitative character of the Elizabethan sonnet was not obscured when it was diverted to the service of religion. The English Spiritual Sonnets are all closely modelled on the two series of Sonnets Spirituels, which the Abbé Jacques de Billy published in Paris in 1577.1
Very many separate sonnets, too, were penned throughout Europe, altogether apart from either the amorous or the religious sequences. Elizabethan England was hardly less rich than France or Italy in isolated sonnets inscribed to great patrons and to personal friends. Of detached sonnets to friends or patrons specimens can be found at the beginning or end of nearly every published book of the period. In sonnets of this class Petrarch still remains the predominating influence, modified by later Italian and by French examples. Elizabethan sonnets to patrons commonly echo that affectionate note which the Tuscan master struck in his famous sonnet to his friend and patron, Colonnaa note which was often afterwards developed by his Italian and French, no less than by his English disciples, into a pæan of impassioned devotion to a Mæcenas.
The more closely the different manifestations of the sonneteering vogue in sixteenth-century Europe are studied, the more closely is each seen to conform to one or other of a very limited number of fixed types, all of which owe their birth to Petrarch. However varied the language in which the sixteenth-century sonnet was clothed, its spirit never diverges very far from that of the Petrarchan archetype. In his sweete mourning sonets, wrote Sir John Harington, a typical Elizabethan, in 1591, the dolefull Petrarke seemes to have comprehended all the passions that all men of that humour have felt.2
Shakespeare was the greatest poetic genius who was drawn into the sonneteering current of the sixteenth century. His supremacy of poetic power and invention creates a very wide interval between his efforts and those of his contemporaries. Nevertheless the Elizabethan age was too completely steeped in the Petrarchan conventions to permit him full freedom from their toils. His commanding powers converted into gold most of the base ore which is the fabric of the Elizabethan sonnet in others hands. Yet, as soon as Shakespeares endeavour is minutely scrutinised, the processes of assimilation, which were characteristic of contemporary sonneteers, are seen to be at work in it also. Many a phrase and sentiment of Petrarch and Ronsard, or of English sonneteers who wrote earlier than he, give the cue to Shakespeares noblest poems. Only when the Elizabethan sonnet is studied comparatively with the sonnet of France and Italy are the elements of its composition revealed. When the analysis is completed, Shakespeares sonnets, despite their exalted poetic quality, will be acknowledged to owe a very large debt to the vast sonneteering literature of sixteenth-century Europe on which they set a glorious crown.