Abraham Avendaño Martínez
Final Essay
Historia Literaria IV-I.
Prof. Nair Anaya.
Term: 2000-1.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Sidney and Petrarch; Or, The Contemplation of Love.

Tanto piu' di voi, quando piu' v'ama.

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 allusions between these poet's writings. Sidney's very first sonnet says:

... And fain verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take pleasure of my pain [...]
Reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain.

It is a typically Elizabethan sonnet in that it presents us with a hierarchical order: from pity to reading to knowledge to grace.

        And Petrarch's first canzone goes like this:

Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse il suono
di quei sospiri ond'io nodriva'l core [...]
del vario stile in ch'io piango et ragiono [...]
spero trovar pieta', nonche' perdono....
Rima I.

        The similarities are striking altogether; both the sonnet and the rima are the impassioned expressions of inner feelings. The poetic voices make clear that they both want to gain the lady's pity and affection through the use of poetry: "And fain verse my love to show" and "del vario stile in ch'io piango et ragiono." The relationship between Astrophel and Stella, thus, is found to be very much alike to that between Petrarch and his muse Laura. Throughout the Canzoniere and the cycle of sonnets, the different stages of a love relationship are built up: from its starting point in the lover's attraction to the lady's beauty, through various trials, throes and pangs, to a conclusion in which love more or less comes to nothing.

        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:

To some a sweetest plaint a sweetest style affords,
While tears pour out his ink, and sighs breathe out his words,
His paper pale dispair, and pain his pen doth move.
I can speak what I feel, and feel as much as they,
But think that all the map of my state I display
When trembling voice brings forth that I do Stella love.

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, this pretence of writing from the bottom of his heart is in itself hackneyed! As we can see in the next rima:

So io ben ch' a voler chiuder in versi
suo laudi, fóra stancho
chi piu' degna la mano a scriver porse:
quel cella e' di memoria in cui s'accoglia
dolce del mio cor chiave?

Rima XXIX.

Petrarch does not want to go on praising the lady just for praise's sake, lest he should find himself tired and stagnant (stancho). Like Sidney, Petrarch wants to resort to his feelings in order to write his poems: "quel cella e' di memoria in cui s'accoglia / dolce del mio cor chiave?".

        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 English poetry. Yet the conventions give us the clue to see what Sidney undertook to do. If the writer deviates from the established modes, he may swerve into other devices:

I never drank of Aganippe well,
Nor ever did in shade of Tempe sit;
And Muses scorn with vulgar brains to dwell;
Poor layman I, for sacred rites unfit.
Some do I hear of Poet's fury tell,
But God wot, wot not what they mean by it;
And this I swear by blackest brook of hell,
I am not pick-purse of another's wit.

        Sidney revolted from the habit of adopting praises, vows and conceits of other poets and professed to follow a different method. He swore "by blackest brook of hell" that he was "not pick-purse of another's wit." His eloquence came from a different source: "his lips were sweet, inspired with Stella's kiss." Once more, Sidney's pretence is rather hackneyed. As The Cambridge History of English Literature deftly puts it: "Yet, the form, no less than the spirit, of Sidney's sonnets renders his protest of doubtful significance. Sidney showed a higher respect than any of his native contemporaries for the metrical institution of the Italian and French sonnet."5 By following the Petrarchan conventions, Sidney succeeded in building up his poetry upon the solid foundations of the Italian sonneteers. And yet, he also strove for shaping a style of his own.

        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 conceptions and conceits are really his own, and they display exquisite subtlety and tenderness in fancy. Peter Conrad asserts that: "Astrophel and Stella is about love as an exercise in language, both spoken and written. And, because of its brilliant manipulation of the sonnet, it is about the way we wrest [...] feelings into form; about the poem as emotional effusion and as structural coercion."6 The quotation is quite appropriate to describe the sestet in the first sonnet:

But words came halting forth, wanting Invention's stay;
Invention, Nature's child, fled stepdame Study's blows;
And other's feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
'Fool', said my muse to me, 'look in thy heart and write'.

The poet states his inability to write. Hyperboles enhance the poet's state of mind ("sun-burned brain", "great with child", "biting my truant pen", "beating myself for spite", "blackest face of woe") and personifications help to throw light on the excruciating process of writing ("other's feet = other poets' poems", "Nature's child = Invention [imagination]", "Study = stepdame"). Finally, the solution to his problem is given by the personification of his inspiration (Muse) who urges him to look in his heart and write. The clue for solving his problem lies in being able to apprehend the essence of his feelings. And, by so doing, to be able to create out of his passion.

        Mario Ferrigni asserts that: "Il dolore amoroso del Petrarca rappresenta dunque, non diremo un simbolo, e neppure un pretesto, ma uno spontaneo mezzo rappresentativo, attraverso 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 he feels. His poetry is more than just worshipping the lady: the essence of his art is that of being able to render his personal experiences and heart-felt emotions into a harmonious frame. Some literary critics state that Sidney may justly be reckoned the first Englishman to indicate the swooningly beautiful capacity of the sonnet. I agree with them: Sidney deftly succeeded in teaching and delighting!


  1. Cf. "The English Language in the Age of Shakespeare."
    The New Pelican Guide to English Literature
    , Vol. II.
  2. "The Sixteenth Century: 1485-1603", 6th ed., p. 406.
  3. Sidney Lee, "The Elizabethan Sonnet: Thomas Watson", p. 288.
  4. Mario Ferrigni, "Recensione sul Canzoniere". p. 103.
  5. Sidney Lee, Op. Cit., p. 291.
  6. Peter Conrad, "The Sonnet: History of a Form" p. 99.
  7. Mario Ferrigni, Op. Cit., p. 105.

  • Barnes, T.R. English Verse: Voice and Movement from Wyatt to Yeats.
    UK: Cambridge University Press, 1967. 20-21.
  • Conrad, Peter. History of English Literature: One Indivisible, Unending Book.
    London: Oxford Press, 1987. 94-105.
  • Ferrigni, Mario. "Petrarca." Centouno Capolavori. Remo Ceserini, Ed.
    Milano: Casa Editrice Valentino Pompiani, 1966. 97-107.
  • Petrarca, Francesco. Canzoniere. Introduzione di Edoardo Sanguineti.
    Milano: Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, 1994. 24-45, 50-75, 100-112.
  • Rogers, Pat. An Outline of English Literature.
    Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 104-107.
  • Sidney, Philip. Astrophil and Stella. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th Ed. Vol I.
    M.H. Abrams, Ed. New York: W & W. Norton and Company, 6th edtion, 1993. 458-474.
  • Lee, Sidney. "The Elizabethan Sonnet." The Cambridge History of English Literature. Vol. III.
    A.W. Ward et al., Eds. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1911. 288-292.

©2000 Abraham Avendaño Martínez. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium Through Express Written Permission.

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