Historia Literaria IV-I.
Prof. Nair Anaya.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Sidney and Petrarch; Or, The Contemplation of Love.
Tanto piu' di voi, quando piu'
The Renaissance reached its fulfilment in the sixteenth century. English, long neglected by the humanists' preoccupation with Greek and Latin, rose to a wholly new and conscious dignity as a medium of serious literary expression. That English should rise and attain the status of national language is not surprising in view of the fact that the spread of literacy and the introduction of printing, along with the increasingly strong nationalist feeling, did account for its consolidation.1
There was not only a steady progression towards developing a language of their own; English humanists also felt a peremptory need for constructing and shaping literary modes which were akin to their own set of values and culture. As The Norton Anthology of English Literature's introduction to the sixteenth century puts it: "Literary conventions challenged Elizabethan poets to find fit forms for their experiences, to show their learning and virtuosity by the ingenious elaboration of [...] well-known patterns, and to create from these patterns something fresh and new."2
Be it a pastoral poem or a sonnet, the Elizabethan poet would set out to follow the path of 'ingenious invention'. He would sometimes draw on the conventions and modes of the classics or, as the case may be, he could also seek out to emulate the patterns of foreign poets (mainly Italian and French), in order to recreate their poetic utterances.
In Phillip Sidney's sonnets, for instance, the old Petrarchan rhetoric is still at work. Sidney's Astrophel and Stella is the first of the great sonnet cycles, which drew heavily upon the conventions established by Petrarch. The Cambridge History of English Literature says: "Some of [Watson's] successors were gifted with poetic powers to which he was a stranger, and interwove the borrowed conceits with individual feeling, which, at times, lifted their verse to the plane of genuine poetry."3 The quotation could be taken as an accurate reflection on Sidney's poetry, for he really undertook to work upon the already established literary modes and, by so doing, he did succeed in creating poetry of his own. For Sidney, thus, the Petrarchan conventions had to take on a wholly new meaning, if his poetry was to be both genuine and unique.
Petrarch's Canzoniere introduces an intensity and inwardness of feeling and perception formerly unknown in European poetry; and, in its own way, so does Sidney's Astrophel and Stella. Both the 'canzoni' and the sonnets weave together romance, pathos, sensuality, passion and Neo-Platonic love.
As readers of Sidney and
Petrarch, we are deeply struck by the similarities and constant
between these poet's writings. Sidney's very first sonnet says:
And Petrarch's first canzone
goes like this:
Mario Ferrigni in his thought-provoking essay on Petrarch's Canzoniere states that: "Quello che sopratutto lo attrae (Petrarch) e' l'atteggiarsi della donna a spettacolo armonioso di bellezza fisica e spirituale: come in una tela del piu' soave Rinascimento, mentre la natura compie il quadro con le sue armonie di aure, di fronde, di acque, di fiori..."4 The quotation could also be seen as having a bearing upon Sidney's poetry, for he also seems to be thoroughly drawn towards the outward beauty and, more importantly, various inward virtues of the lady. His sonnets aim at reaching a state where carnal desires and Neo-Platonic love are but the same expression of his passion for the lady.
Sidney prided himself on being original. The truth is, however, that many of his ideas, as well as the habits of praising and worshipping the lady's beauty , were far from being new. The poet makes pretence to spontaneous effusion. Nevertheless, prefixed to the many ingenious praises of his lady's beauty, his allegations of her cruelty, and his own varied professions of constant love and consuming pangs of despair, are full references to the literary source of his inspiration—Petrarch.
Let us compare the sestet
in sonnet number VI, and its Italian counterpart: Petrarch's rima XXIX:
What the poet does is to simply
decry the hackneyed modes and figures
of some poetry. He rejects the "sweetest plaint [that] a sweetest style
affords" and resorts to his feeling for the beloved. Paradoxically,
pretence of writing from the bottom of his heart is in itself
As we can see in the next rima:
Sidney's sonnets display
the whole array of poetic passion and cross love; and so do Petrarch's
Canzoni. Sidney is disparaging about the foreign echoes in
poetry. Yet the conventions give us the clue to see what Sidney
to do. If the writer deviates from the established modes, he may swerve
into other devices:
Even though Sidney's verse
is not totally original, either in form or content, there is something
about his sonnets that make them well worth reading. Some of his
and conceits are really his own, and they display exquisite subtlety
tenderness in fancy. Peter Conrad asserts that: "Astrophel and Stella
about love as an exercise in language, both spoken and written. And,
of its brilliant manipulation of the sonnet, it is about the way we
[...] feelings into form; about the poem as emotional effusion and as
coercion."6 The quotation is quite
to describe the sestet in the first sonnet:
Mario Ferrigni asserts that:
"Il dolore amoroso del Petrarca rappresenta dunque, non diremo un
e neppure un pretesto, ma uno spontaneo mezzo rappresentativo,
il quale il poeta effonde, piuttosto che, disappunti d'amore, una piu'
larga e complessa sofferenza dell'anima sua in continuo disidio."7
This is also true of Sidney: his sonnets are but a reflection on what
feels. His poetry is more than just worshipping the lady: the essence
his art is that of being able to render his personal experiences and
emotions into a harmonious frame. Some literary critics state that
may justly be reckoned the first Englishman to indicate the swooningly
beautiful capacity of the sonnet. I agree with them: Sidney deftly
in teaching and delighting!
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