Sidney and Petrarch;
by Abraham Avendaño Martínez
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
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
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:
It is a
typically Elizabethan sonnet in that it presents us with a hierarchical
order: from pity to reading to knowledge to grace.
|... 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.
And Petrarch's first canzone
goes like this:
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.
|Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse il
di quei sospiri ond'io nodriva'l core [...]
stile in ch'io piango et ragiono [...]
spero trovar pieta',
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
I can speak what I feel, and feel as much as they,
think that all the map of my state I display
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:
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?".
So io ben ch' a voler chiuder in versi
suo laudi, fóra
chi piu' degna la mano a scriver porse:
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:
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.
|I never drank of Aganippe well, |
ever did in shade of Tempe sit;
And Muses scorn with vulgar
brains to dwell;
Poor layman I, for sacred rites unfit.
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,
not pick-purse of another's wit.
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:
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.
|But words came halting forth, wanting
Invention's stay; |
Invention, Nature's child, fled stepdame
And other's feet still seemed but strangers in my
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
my muse to me, 'look in thy heart and write'.
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
- Cf. "The English Language in the Age of Shakespeare."
Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol. II.
Sixteenth Century: 1485-1603", p. 406.
- Sidney Lee, "The
Elizabethan Sonnet: Thomas Watson", p. 288.
- Mario Ferrigni, "Recensione sul Canzoniere". p. 103.
- Sidney Lee, Op. Cit., p. 291.
- Peter Conrad, "The Sonnet: History of a Form" p. 99.
- Mario Ferrigni, Op. Cit., p. 105.
- Barnes, T.R. English Verse: Voice and Movement from Wyatt to
UK: Cambridge University Press, 1967. 20-21.
- Conrad, Peter. History of English Literature: One Indivisible,
London: Oxford Press, 1987. 94-105.
- Ferrigni, Mario. "Petrarca." Centouno Capolavori. Remo
Milano: Casa Editrice Valentino Pompiani, 1966.
- Petrarca, Francesco. Canzoniere. Introduzione di Edoardo
Milano: Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, 1994. 24-45, 50-75,
- Rogers, Pat. An Outline of English Literature.
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.
A.W. Ward et al., Eds. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University
Press, 1911. 288-292.