Sonnets before Shakespeare

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The Sonnet

You will find that even in the romantic atmosphere of Romeo and Juliet there is room for satire on the tradition of courtly love. Romeo at the beginning of the play is sighing for his unattainable Rosaline, and is the butt of many jokes by Mercutio (many of them bawdy); after the first meeting between Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio still thinks that Romeo is the quintessential courtly lover, composing love sonnets in the style of Petrarch: "Now is he [Romeo] for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in" (2.4.40-1). Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-74) was one of the great early renaissance Italian humanists, inspiring such later writers as Castiglione, and of course the whole tradition of love poetry which is associated with his name.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) was very much a pioneer in bringing to English poetry the new forms and subjects of the Italian renaissance. His version catches the intensity and despair of the original, Petrarch's sonnet number 189. Sir Thomas Wyatt
Sir Thomas Wyatt

My galley charged with forgetfulness
    Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
    'Tween rock and rock; and eke mine enemy, alas
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;
And every oar a thought in readiness
    As though that death were light in such a case.
    An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain
    Hath done the wearied cords great hindrance,
    Wreathed with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain
    Drowned is reason that should me comfort

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), admired as the ideal courtier at Elizabeth's court, wrote one of the finest of the Elizabethan sonnet cycles, Astrophel and Stella. You will see the way that Sidney has taken Petrarch's sonnet and used it more as a source of ideas than as a model to translate; in particular the last line forces a complete reconsideration of the poem, as we realize that the earlier courtly sentiments were a gloss over an underlying passion of a kind we recognize, sympathetically, as a realistic acknowledgement of physical desire. Peter Bembo would no doubt have shaken his head sadly, but we enjoy the resulting intensity of feeling.

Who will in fairest book of nature know
    How virtue may best lodged in beauty be,
    Let him but learn of love to read in thee,
Stella, those fair lines which true goodness show.
There shall he find all vices' overthrow,
    Not by rude force, but sweetest sovereignty
    Of reason, from whose light those night-birds fly,
That inward sun in thine eyes shineth so.
And not content to be perfection's heir
    Thy self, dost strive all minds that way to move,
Who mark in thee what is in thee most fair;
    So while thy beauty draws the heart to love,
As fast thy virtue bends that love to good.
But ah, desire still cries: "Give me some food."

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
© Michael Best, The University of Victoria, and the Open University of B.C.