Verse > Anthologies > Seccombe and Arber, eds. > An English Garner > Elizabethan Sonnets
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,’
        ‘That every dudgen low Invention goes,
Since Sonnets thus in bundles are imprest.’
  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:—
        ‘Into these Loves, who but for Passion looks;
At this first sight, here let him lay them by!
And seek elsewhere in turning other books,
Which better may his labour satisfy.
No far-fetched Sigh shall ever wound my breast!
Love from mine eye, a Tear shall never wring!
No “Ah me!”s my whining sonnets drest!
A libertine! fantasticly I sing.’
  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.  3
  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:—
        ‘Yet these mine owne: I wrong not other men,
Nor trafique further than thys happy Clyme,
Nor filch from Portes, nor from Petrarchs pen,
A fault too common in thys latter tyme.
Divine Syr Phillip, I auouch thy writ,
“I am no Pickpurse of anothers wit.”’ 3
  But these protests prove on examination to be unworthy of attention.  5
  The title of Drayton’s 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 L’Idée, by Claude de Pontoux, a poetic physician of Chalon. L’Idée, 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 author’s death. 4  6
  L’Idée is to a very large extent based on classical and Italian originals, and presents an unimpressive series of extravagant conceits illustrating a lover’s 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. Drayton’s ‘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 writer’s 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. Ronsard’s lines (Amours, Livre I. lxxxviii.)—
        ‘Estre indigent et donner tout le sien,…
Posséder tout et ne jouir de rien,’
may have suggested Drayton’s self-contradictory strain, e.g.,
        ‘Where most I lost, there most of all I wan.’
(Sonnet lxii.)    
But Drayton’s 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
        ‘Ravished with joy amidst a hell of woe;
Burnt in a sea of ice, and drowned amidst a fire’
repeat without much change de Pontoux’
        ‘Ores de ioye, or’ de dueil ie me pais,
Ore une glace or’ un feu me martire.’
(Sonnet c.)    
  Drayton’s defiance of his critics (see Sonnets xxxi. and xxxix.) echoes de Pontoux’ confident appeals to his ‘Muse’ and ‘Minerva’ to protect him from the assaults of ‘Zoïle mordant’ (Sonnet cxliii.).  8
  But Drayton by no means confined his sonneteering studies to the volume whence he took his shadowy mistress’s name. He worked with equal zeal on the labours of other foreign poets. Drayton’s sonnet on the Phœnix’s 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 Watson’s Hecatompathia (No. xcix.), which is itself an imitation of Serafino (1550 ed., Sonnetto Primo); but the tradition of the genuine eagle’s 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 Ronsard’s 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 Ronsard’s sonnet had already given birth. Drayton’s imitative appeals to night, to his lady’s 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 woman’s heart, moistened with another woman’s tears, boiled in a widow’s 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.  9
  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.  10
  William Ponsonby, on his own responsibility during the author’s absence in Ireland, published Spenser’s 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.  11
  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 strand’—is evidence of the highest poetic faculty.  12
  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 poet’s 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.  13
  In their metrical effects, too, Spenser’s 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.  14
  But, despite all his metrical versatility and his genuine poetic force, the greater part of Spenser’s 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 Spenser’s 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. ‘Petrarch’s invention,’ Harvey pointed out, ‘is pure love itself; Petrarch’s elocution pure beauty itself.’ ‘All the noblest French, Italian, and Spanish poets,’ continued Spenser’s 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  15
  The metaphors from ships and tempests (Sonnets xxxiv. and lxiii.) are of true Petrarchan lineage. Spenser’s 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 mistress’s golden tresses, which on occasion wave in ‘the loose wind.’ 11  16
  But vast as is Spenser’s manifest debt to Petrarch alike in his general scheme and in its details, he did not disdain to borrow at the same time from Petrarch’s French and Italian disciples. It is not always possible to determine whether he is the immediate debtor of Petrarch or of Petrarch’s 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 Petrarch’s ‘dolce guerrera,’ or to De Baif’s ‘belle ennemie,’ or to Desportes’ ‘douce adversaire.’ Spenser had clearly immersed his thought in French poetry. Adopting Ronsard’s 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 mistress’s eyes to pinks (œillets), 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 l’Orient
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 lady’s 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-love’s 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 world’s 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;
If ivory, her forehead ivory ween;
If gold, her locks are finest gold on ground;
If silver, her fair hands are silver sheen.’
(Sonnet xv.)    
  Ronsard had already told the world, that no searcher going from the shores of Spain to India could find ‘si riche gemme en Orient’ as the hue (teint) of his mistress.
        ‘Ny des Indois la gemmeuse largesse,
Ny tous les biens d’un rivage estranger,
A leurs tresors ne sçauroient eschanger,
Le moindre honneur de sa double richesse.’
(Amours, I. clxxxix.) 13    
  Similarly Desportes, whom Spenser followed here with greater literalness, had bidden
          Marchands, qui recherchez tout le rivage more …
  Venez seulement voir la beauté que j’adore,
Et par quelle richesse elle a sçeu m’attiser:
Et je suis seur qu’apres vous ne pourrez priser
Le plus rare tresor dont l’Afrique se dore.
  Voyez les filets d’or de ce chef blondissant,
L’éclat de ces rubis, ce coral rougissant,
Ce cristal, cet ebene, et ces graces divines,
  Cet argent, cet yvoire; et ne vous contentez
Qu’on ne vous montre encor mille autres raretez,
Mille beaux diamans et mille perles fines.’
(Diane, I. xxxii.)    
  Shakespeare alone excepted, no sonneteer repeated with greater emphasis than Spenser Ronsard’s favourite conceit that his verses are immortal, and give immortality to those they commemorate:—

        ‘This verse, that never shall expire….
Fair! be no longer proud of that shall perish,
But that, which shall you make immortal, cherish.”
(Sonnet xxvii.)    
‘Even this verse, vow’d to eternity,
Shall be thereof immortal moniment;
And tell her praise to all posterity,
That may admire such world’s rare wonderment.’
(Sonnet lxix.)    
‘My verse your virtues rare shall eternise.’
(Sonnet lxxv.)    
  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
S’en voleroit sus l’aile 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.’
(Sonnets pour Hélène, II.)    
  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]:—
        ‘Ne ought I see, though in the clearest day,
When others gaze upon their shadows vain,
But th’ onely image of that heavenly ray,
Whereof some glance doth in mine eye remain.
Of which beholding the Idaea plain,
Through contemplation of my purest part,
With light thereof I do myself sustain,
And thereon feed my love-affamish’d heart.’
  Pontus de Tyard had already closed the last book of his Les Erreurs Amoureuses on the identical note:—
        ‘Mon esprit a heureusement porté,
  Au plus beau ciel sa force outrecuidée,
Pour s’abbreuuer en la plus belle Idée
  D’où le pourtrait i’ay pris de la beauté.’
(Les Erreurs Amoureuses, Bk. III. xxxiii.)    
  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 poet’s Amours de Diane. Petrarch’s gravest tone resounds in Spenser’s impressive sonnet (lxxxiii.):—
        ‘Let not one spark of filthy lustful fire
Break out, that may her sacred peace molest.’
  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 Spenser’s sonnets that reminds the reader more especially of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. The richer tones of Spenser’s 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.  25
Note 1. The 1619 edition of Drayton’s 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 Drayton’s 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.

  ‘Arden’s sweet Ankor, let thy glory be,
That fair Idea only lives by thee!’
(Sonnet xxxii.)    
‘Fair Arden, thou my Tempe art alone!
And thou, sweet Ankor, art my Helicon!’
(Sonnet liii.)    

Both sonnets bear the heading, ‘To the river Ankor,’ and in general temper are identical with Petrarch’s addresses to the Rhone and to the Po, which had been very literally imitated in France and Italy, and had already inspired Sidney’s sonnet to the river Thames, and Daniel’s 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 Sidney’s 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:—
  ‘Affamee Meduse, enragee Gorgonne,
Horrible, espouvantable, et felonne tigresse,
Cruelle et rigoureuse, allechante et traistresse,
Meschante abominable, et sanglante Bellonne,
Enyon, Alecto, Megere, Tisiphonne,
Pariuré Niobé, Medee charmeresse,
Impudente, sans foy, sorciere, piperesse,
Brute gloutonne, affreuse ourse, louue, lyonne;
Hayneuse et ennemie, et pleine de rapine,
Cuisiniere d’enfer et fiere Proserpine,
Bourrelle impitoyable, inconstante et legere,
Pandore de tous maux, qui te fuyuent par trouppe,
Orgueilleuse Chimere et filandiere Atrope,
Mettras tu iamais fin à ma longue misere?’
Note 6. Cf. de Pontoux (Sonnet xiv.):—
  ‘S’on dit que i’ayme une beauté mortelle,
Je dy que non: car i’ayme ceste Idee,
Qui de l’esprit de Dieu s’est debordee,
Pour donner forme au monde universelle.’
  Sonnet lxxxvii.:—
  ‘Puis done qu’elle a tout ce que souhaitter
On peut de beau, dois ie pas me vanter
En concevant ce Tout qui est en elle,
Que de Platon l’Idee ie connois
Et d’Aristote ensemble ie conçois
En mon esprit l’essence vniverselle.’
  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. Sidney’s Astrophel, lxiv.: ‘I do not envie Aristotle’s wit’). [back]
Note 7. Jacques de Billy (in Sonnets Spirituels, No. 25, Paris, 1577, p. 74) seems to translate Serafino’s version of the tradition in a sonnet which is nevertheless described as ‘imité de Grégoire de Nazienze.’ The French rendering opened thus:—
  ‘L’aigle estant incertain des petits, qu’il eslèue
S’ils 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., 1–18). [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 poet’s fine Epithalamium. The only epigram of any length or interest (No. iv.), appended to the Amoretti, notably illustrates Spenser’s identity with prevailing French taste, and its influence upon him. The subject of the epigram—Cupid’s complaint to his mother of a bee’s sting—has 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 Spenser’s French reading impelled him to work upon it. [back]
Note 10. Harvey’s Pierces Supererogation (1593), p. 61. [back]
Note 11. Petrarch, Sonnet lxix.; Spenser, Sonnets xxxvii., lxxxi. [back]
Note 12. It is hardly necessary to quote examples of this characteristic feature of the French school. Probably Ronsard’s 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, œillets, 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. Ronsard’s reductio ad absurdum of the same conceit—
  ‘Aller en marchandise aux Indes précieuses,
Sans acheter ny or, ny parfam, ny joyaux.’
(Sonnets pour Hélène, xxiii.).    

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