Verse > Anthologies > Seccombe and Arber, eds. > An English Garner > Elizabethan Sonnets
Seccombe and Arber, comps.  Elizabethan Sonnets.  1904.
V. The First Coming of the Sonnet in Sixteenth-Century England
In sixteenth-century England the history of the sonnet falls into two well-defined chapters. The form of verse was at its first coming into England recognised as the child of Petrarch, and Petrarch remained the guiding spirit of the sonnet through the Elizabethan era. But Petrarch’s example did not prove strong enough in itself—before it mingled with other developments—to stir in this country an extended or a permanent enthusiasm. It required the added stimulus supplied at a later date by the sonneteering activity of sixteenth-century France and sixteenth-century Italy, to render the sonnet in England a universally popular poetic instrument. The widespread vogue of the sonnet in Elizabethan England was, at the outset, indeed excited by French energy to a larger degree than by Italian. Consequently the first chapter in the history of the English sonnet, which treats of the sonnet under the more or less exclusive sway of Petrarch, is short. The canvas is mainly occupied by the second chapter, which treats of its growth under the spur not merely of Petrarch himself, but, in addition, of the French Pléiade School and of the contemporary Italian Petrarchists.  1
  Petrarch’s fame reached England in his lifetime. Chaucer, who was his contemporary, in the prologue to the Clerk’s Tale, refers to
        ‘Fraunceys Petrarck, the laureat poete
…, whos rethoryke sweete
Enlumined al Itaille of poetrye.’
  In his poem of Troilus and Criseyde (Book I. stanzas 58–60), Chaucer in a spirit of prophecy translated one of Petrarch’s best-known sonnets, which was in the sixteenth century to undergo innumerable renderings and adaptations in every language of Europe. 1 But Chaucer’s cry found no lasting echo. More than a century passed away without any further attempt in England to spread abroad a knowledge of Petrarch’s poetic achievements.  3
  Early in the sixteenth century Petrarch was discovered anew by cultivated Englishmen of Henry VIII.’s Court, who visited Italy and eagerly assimilated the literature of the Italian Renaissance. The elder Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey were the true pioneers of the sonnet in England. Their culture was wide, and they knew many classical writers. They perceived the merit of Petrarch’s predecessor, Dante, and of some of Petrarch’s followers, notably Serafino and Alamanni. To a smaller extent they were impressed too by the rising fame of their own contemporary Ariosto, as well as of Marot and Melin de St. Gelais in France. But it was mainly from Petrarch that they borrowed their inspiration. 2  4
EM>Wyatt and Surrey did their main literary work between 1530 and 1540, but none of it was published before 1557, when it appeared, together with much poetry by other of Henry VIII.’s courtiers, in the volume called Songes and Sonettes written by the ryght honorable Lorde Henry Howard late Earle of Surrey and other. 3 The book was familiarly called, after its publisher’s name, Tottel’s Miscellany.  5
  Sonnets figured largely in this volume. Although their source was never precisely indicated, it was generally hinted at in two anonymous sonnets in the collection, entitled respectively A praise of Petrarke and of Laura his ladie, and That Petrark cannot be passed but nothwithstanding that Laura is far surpassed. The first sonnet opened thus:—
        ‘O Petrarch, head and prince of Poets all,
Whose lively gift of flowing eloquence
Well may we seek, but find not how or whence
So rare a gift with thee did rise and fall,
Peace to thy bones, and glory immortal
Be to thy name.’ 4
The second sonnet began with the lines:—
        ‘With Petrarch to compare there may no wight
Nor yet attain unto so high a style.” 5
  Of Wyatt and Surrey, the two main contributors to Tottel’s volume, Wyatt, who had the advantage of superior poetic feeling although not of metrical skill, was the more voluminous sonneteer. His extant sonnets number thirty-eight. The majority are neither adaptations nor paraphrases; they are direct translations—for the most part of Petrarch. 6 One example of Wyatt’s ordinary method will suffice:—

PETRARCH, Sonnet cix.
Amor, che nel pensier mio vive, e regna,
  E’l suo seggio maggior nel mio cor tene;
  Talor armato nella fronte vene;
  Ivi si loca, ed ivi pon sua insegna,
Quella ch’amare, e sofferir ne’nsegna,
  E vuol che’l gran desio, l’accesa spene
  Cagion, vergogna, e reverenza affrene;
  Di nostro ardir fra se stessa si sdegna:
Onde Amor paventoso fugge al core
  Lassando ogni sua impresa; e piagne, e trema;
  Ivi s’asconde, e non appar più fore.
Che poss’io far, tremendo il mio signore,
  Se non star seco infin all’ ora estrema?
  Che bel fin fa chi ben amando more.
WYATT (Tottel, p. 33).
The long love that in my thought I harbour,
  And in my heart doth keep his residence,
  Into my face presseth with bold pretence,
  And there campeth displaying his banner.
She that me learns to love and to suffer,
  And wills that my trust, and lust’s negligence
  Be reined by reason, shame, and reverence,
  With his hardiness takes displeasure.
Wherewith love to the heart’s forest he fleeth,
  Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
  And there him hideth, and not appeareth.
What may I do, when my master feareth,
  But in the field with him to live and die?
  For good is the life, ending faithfully.
  Wyatt did not entirely confine his study to the sonnets of Petrarch. He paid some attention to the master’s canzone, two of which he borrowed. Nor was he uninterested in the work of Petrarch’s fifteenth-century disciple, Serafino dell’ Aquila. At least two of his songs reproduce Serafino’s fantastic lyrics (strambotti). Even in his satires Wyatt, while betraying the influence of Juvenal and Persius, freely conveyed passages from the similar work of the sixteenth-century Italian Petrarchist, Luigi Alamanni. Nor did Wyatt altogether neglect French literature. He rendered with verbal accuracy a popular sonnet of Melin de St. Gelais (1487–1558). 7  8
  Surrey is hardly less learned a graduate in the Petrarchan school, though his sonnets often adapt his master’s work with greater freedom than Wyatt essayed. But he did not on occasion disdain literal translation. Petrarch’s Sonnet cix., which was rendered into English by Wyatt, was also independently translated by Surrey, his fellow-poet; and it may be of some interest to compare with Wyatt’s version, which has already been quoted, Surrey’s version, which is somewhat more literal and more dexterous.

        ‘Love that liveth and reigneth in my thought,
That built his seat within my captive breast;
Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought,
Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.
She, that me taught to love, and suffer pain;
My doubtful hope, and eke my hot desire
With shamefast cloak to shadow and refrain,
Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.
And coward Love then to the heart apace
Taketh his flight; whereas he lurks, and plains
His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.
For my Lord’s guilt thus faultless bide I pains.
  Yet from my Lord shall not my foot remove:
  Sweet is his death, that takes his end by love.’
Note 1. Petrarch’s Sonnet (cii.) opens:—
  ‘S’amor non è, che dunque è quel ch’i’ sento?’
Chaucer’s fourteen-line translation, which fills two stanzas, each of seven lines, begins thus:—
  ‘If no love is, O God, what fele I so?
And if love is, what thing and whiche is he?
If love be good, from whennes comth my wo?’
See Watson’s rendering of the same sonnet of Petrarch in his Hecatompathia, No. V. Cf. De Baif, i. 102, ed. Marty-Laveaux (Amours de Francine), and Jacques Grévin (L’Olimpe) in Becq De Fouquière’s Poètes Français du XVIe. Siècle, p. 200. [back]
Note 2. According to the familiar language of Puttenham, the Elizabethan critic of English poetry:—‘In the latter end of the same king’s [Henry VIII.] raigne sprong vp a new company of courtly makers, of whom Sir Thomas Wyat th’ elder and Henry Earle of Surrey were the two chieftaines, who hauing trauailed into Italie, and there tasted the sweete and stately measures and stile of the Italian Poesie as nouices newly crept out of the schooles of Dante Arioste and Petrarch, they greatly pollished our rude and homely maner of vulgar Poesie, from that it had bene before, and for that cause may justly be sayd the first reformers of our English meetre and stile.’—(Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie, 1589, ed. Arber, p. 74, ed. 1869.) Again: ‘I repute them [i.e., Wyatt and Surrey] for the two chief lanternes of light to all others that haue since employed their pennes vpon English Poesie, their conceits were loftie, their stiles stately, their termes proper, in all imitating very naturally and studiously their Maister Francis Petrarcha.’—(Ibid., p. 76.) Again: ‘The same Earle of Surrey and Sir Thomas Wyat, the first reformers and polishers of our vulgar Poesie, much affecting the stile and measures of the Italian Petrarca.’—(Ibid., p. 139.) [back]
Note 3. That volume quickly obtained popularity, and was nine times reprinted before 1589; no further edition followed till 1717. [back]
Note 4. Tottel, ed. Arber, p. 178. [back]
Note 5. Ibid. [back]
Note 6. The following sonnets of Petrarch are literally rendered by Wyatt. I give the first lines of the Italian and English in order to facilitate comparison. The sonnets of Petrarch are numbered according to the notation accepted in all modern editions. To Wyatt’s sonnets are attached the page-numbers in Arber’s reprint (1870) of Tottel’s Miscellany, 1557:—
  Petrarch xvii. (Son’ animali al mondo di sì altera vista).
        Cf. Tottel, p. 38 (Some fowls there be that have so perfect sight).
Petrarch xix. (Mille fiate, o dolce mia guerrera).
        Cf. Tottel, p. 69 (How oft have I, my dear and cruel foe).
Petrarch xliv. (Mie venture al venir son tarde e pigre).
        Cf. Tottel, p. 68 (Ever my hap is slack and slow in coming).
Petrarch lxi. (Io non fu’ d’amar voi lassato unquanco).
        Cf. Tottel, p. 33 (Yet was I never of your love aggrieved).
Petrarch lxxxi. (Cesare, poi che’ l traditor d’Egitto).
        Cf. Tottel, p. 37 (Cæsar, when that the traitor of Egypt).
Petrarch xcix. (Amor, Fortuna, e la mia mente schiva).
        Cf. Tottel, p. 69 (Love, Fortune, and my mind which do remember).
Petrarch civ. (Pace non trovo, e non ho da far guerra:)
        Cf. Tottel, p. 39 (I find no peace, and all my war is done).
Petrarch cix. (Amor, che nel pensier mio vive, e regna).
        Cf. Tottel, p. 33 (The long love that in my thought I harbour).
Petrarch cxx. (Ite, caldi sospiri, al freddo core:)
        Cf. Tottel, p. 73 (Go, burning sighs, unto the frozen heart).
Petrarch cxxxvi. (Pien d’un vago pensier, che mi desvia).
        Cf. Tottel, p. 35 (Such vain thought as wonted to mislead me).
Petrarch clvi. (Passa la nave mia colma d’oblio).
        Cf. Tottel, p. 39 (My galley charged with forgetfulness).
Petrarch clxxxviii. (S’una fede amorosa, un cor non finto).
        Cf. Tottel, p. 70 (If amorous faith, or if an heart unfaigned); see also p. 36 (If waker care, if sudden pale colour).
Petrarch ccxxix. (Rotta è l’alta Colonna, e ’l verde Lauro;)
        Cf. Tottel, p. 72 (The pillar perished is whereto I leant).
Note 7. ‘Voyant ces monts de veue ainsi lointaine.’ Tottel, p. 70: ‘Like to these immeasurable mountains.’ [back]

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