Issue Four

Summer 2012


Cathy Shrank: Turning Sonnet

By the time that William Shakespeare was composing his sonnets – and certainly before they were printed in 1609 – sonneteering had become susceptible to parody, the first symptom of callow love. Its clichéd status is epitomised by the pat couplet opening Samuel Rowlands’ Epigram 15 – ‘Amorous Austin spends much balleting, | In rhyming letters and love sonneting’ (1600) – and is mocked by Shakespeare himself in plays of the 1590s. Smitten, the bombastic Don Armado in Love’s Labours Lost (c. 1594) calls for the assistance of ‘some extemporal god of rhyme’; ‘I am sure I shall turn sonnet,’ he declares: ‘Devise, wit; write, pen, for I am for whole volumes in folio’ (1.2.183-5). Nor is he alone: the parkland of that play is soon full of lovers, composing what the protagonist of Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1591) calls ‘wailful sonnets’, designed to catch (‘lime’) their mistresses’ attention (3.2.68-9).

The first English sonneteers were the Henrician poets Thomas Wyatt (c.1503–1542) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516/17–1547). Their translations and imitations of Petrarch’s sonnets were the cornerstone of the Tudor bestseller, Songs and Sonnets (aka ‘Tottel’s Miscellany’), which went through eleven editions between 1557 and 1587. The assorted form of Tottel’s volume – mingling fourteen-line sonnets with other forms without distinguishing them – spawned a confused legacy. Mid-sixteenth-century sonnets can be fifty lines long, or a mere couplet, as in Barnabe Googe’s beautifully succinct parody of Petrarchan oxymorons in 1563: ‘Two lines shall tell the grief that I by love sustain: | I burn, I flame, I faint, I freeze, of hell I feel the pain’. George Gascoigne endeavoured to impose order in 1575, in ‘Certain Instructions’ (the first printed treatise on English poetry). ‘Some think that all poems (being short) may be called sonnets,’ he complained, before advocating a set of rules akin to our modern definition: ‘sonnets [are] of fourteen lines, each line containing ten syllables. The first twelve do rhyme in staves of four lines by cross metre, and the last two rhyming together do conclude the whole’.

The posthumous printing of Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (1591) established the fourteen-line sonnet as the norm and prompted the Elizabethan sonnet boom as poets sought to emulate their late, great, literary hero. Sidney’s influential sequence usefully illustrates key trends in te sonnet tradition within which Shakespeare worked. First, there is a habitual self-reflexiveness about the act of writing, a trait found in the Italian sonnets on which the English tradition was founded. As Sidney derides lesser versifiers with their pastiches of ‘poor Petrarch’s long deceasèd woes’ (Astrophil and Stella, 15), he simultaneously signals his awareness of, and position within, a long poetic heritage. Secondly, English sonneteers, from Wyatt onwards, generally took a much more caustic approach to the female figures they address than did their Italian models. Petrarch’s Laura is cruel because she is chaste; the women in English sonnets, because they are fickle. Moreover, whilst Petrarch’s poet-lover learns a higher, divine love through his adoration of the remote and virtuous Laura, English sonnets characteristically eschew such transcendence, remaining fixated on very earth-bound desires. Sidney’s Stella, despite her starry name, is a flesh-and-blood woman, there – in Astrophil’s eyes – for the taking. We consequently witness Sidney’s morally-flawed protagonist exploiting his rhetorical prowess to wheedle the married Stella into an adulterous liaison, and – at one stage (Song 2) – hovering in a rather predatory fashion over her sleeping body. 

This, then, was the tradition that Shakespeare inherited. Unlike Sidney (whose Astrophil and Stella deploys seven different rhyme schemes in the first seven poems), he did not attempt much formal novelty, adhering – for all but three sonnets (99, 126, 145) – to the template laid down by Gascoigne. Where Shakespeare did innovate was in terms of content, including the way in which he pushed to extremes this notion of the attainable woman. The last twenty-eight sonnets, mostly addressed to the dark-haired, dark-eyed mistress, pulsate with post-coital disgust (see in particular Sonnet 129) as the poet-lover lies thrall to a woman recurrently and brutally portrayed as promiscuous: ‘the bay were all men ride’ (137.6).

Like Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Shakespeare’s sonnets also explore the potential, and problems, of persuasion. How they do so shifts over the volume. The first seventeen sonnets are a bravura display of rhetorical invention. As sonnet after sonnet strives to convince a young man to procreate, they manifest the copiousness – the ability to say the same thing in different ways – valued by Tudor writers and readers. Yet, at the same time, this need for repetition ultimately suggests the failure of persuasion. Language has limits, but it is all the poet-lover has, as we see in the latter sonnets as he attempts to cajole (or even threaten) the mistress into compliance. ‘Suit thy pity like in every part,’ he tells her: ‘Then’ – and only then – ‘will I swear beauty herself is black | And all they foul that thy complexion lack’ (132.12-14).

Where the archetypal Elizabethan sonnet compliments the lady, praising her snowy breast or golden tresses, Shakespeare sonnets not only treat of an unconventional, brown-haired beauty: they also make their topic as much about the power-play in which the sonnets originates. Most poignant, however, is the way in which Shakespeare exposes the poet-lover’s desire for self-delusion. Sidney’s Astrophil is rhetorically accomplished, his performance polished (if, in the end, ineffectual): we might be invited, by Sidney as author, to disapprove of Astrophil’s endeavours, but we never glimpse far beyond the facade. Shakespeare, in contrast, shows us a poet-lover straining to convince himself that all is well. Sonnet 42 is a case in point. Abandoned by both friend and mistress (who are enamoured of each other), the poet-lover attempts to resituate himself at the centre of this relationship, recurrently insisting their actions are ‘for my sake’ (ll. 7, 8, 12). Yet the repeated word ‘both’ (ll. 11-12) punctures this pose, reminding us – and him – of the twosome that excludes him. As the web of words proves all-too-fragile, Shakespeare’s sonnets give us a protagonist who is psychologically complex: one through whom we can trace the emotional toll of thwarted desire.  


[Cathy Shrank is Professor of Tudor and Renaissance Literature at the University of Sheffield. She is currently editing Shakespeare’s sonnets for Longman Annotated English Poets; in conjunction with Art in the Park, she will be holding creative workshops on the sonnets in the Ponderosa, Sheffield on 22-23 and 29 September as part of the University of Sheffield’s ‘Festival of the Mind’.]