Petrarch Laura Francesco Petrarch and Laura For a woman he would never know
For a woman he could never have
He should change the world forever
site map   contact  








Search this Site
Search the Web

English court poets and Petrarchism

Wyatt, Sidney and Spenser

Day School talk, October 1998

by Matthew Griffiths

Note from the author: Please make it clear that my paper on English Petrarchans was only designed as a revision talk for students of the Open University's A205 course on the Renaissance and Reformation: culture and belief. I do not claim special expertise on the theme, but I am happy for web publication with this disclaimer.

My students will remember how we tried to make sense of this year’s part III topic. Using the specimen question, previous examination questions on court culture issues, and some of the ideas that are emphasised by the writers of the units and their case studies, we pinned down several potential areas of debate. These were:

  • the relationships between humanism, chivalric values and court culture, with the related themes of courtly and platonic love, explored through Castiglione, Wyatt, Mantuan court poetry and music, Ronsard and Spenser
  • the way in which the arts were used by rulers to project images and political messages about themselves, their courts, and the destiny of their countries and kingdoms; in which case you have the opportunity to focus on France and England, and the courts of Francis I, Catherine de Medici and Elizabeth I — where you should be making heavy use of both Sidney and Spenser, their ideas about the roles of poets and poetry and the way the Queen is represented in their work
  • the role of women in court culture, both women as ornaments of the court and women as rulers — a theme which is likely to see you drawing (again) on Castiglione, Wyatt, Isabella of Mantua, Ronsard, Sidney and Spenser
  • and finally, a theme that runs not only through the court culture material but through the wider discussion of humanism, ideas and the arts in A205, the relationship between European cultural values and artistic models and the products of the emergent national cultures, which posed as a debate over the extent to which Europe remained culturally unified in the sixteenth century, or saw its culture fragmented as vernacular literatures overcame a common Latinate culture; in the case of court culture it seems to me that this implies that we need to think especially hard about the influence of Italy and the Italian renaissance on northern Europe and its courtly and artistic cultures.

Thinking about these issues made me wonder at how best to treat them in a day school — where clearly there is not time to give each topic, still less each text exhaustive treatment. This lecture therefore has a relatively narrow focus, but in the course of it I hope I can throw light on each of the topics we have identified.

I will spend most of my time discussing the way in which three English poets — Wyatt, Sidney and Spenser, drew on the Italian model established by Petrarch as a source for lyric poetry. They were not the only English Petrarchans; there were, in the later sixteenth-century many imitators of the style, especially amongst courtiers. There was another great sonneteer, too, not a courtier, whom I shall not discuss today, Shakespeare; like Sidney and Spenser he grappled with the implications of Calvinism for the lover, and found yet another, highly individual solution. But it’s best to stick closely to the focus of our course.

The course material is, in fact, quite patchy in its treatment of the Italian models on which our three poets drew. The best discussion of the nature of Petrarchan love poetry has to wait until Block VIII, in the section on Astrophel and Stella; even in the case study of the Faerie Queene there is relatively little on Spenser’s literary antecedents, for which you have to fight your way through the introduction to the set text itself. We will look at texts which are singled out for treatment by the course authors — Wyatt’s poems and Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella — and at a sonnet sequence that is not mentioned in the units, Spenser’s Amoretti. This strategy enables several issues to be confronted. It is a means of exploring the relationship between Italian renaissance vernacular poetry and the way it was imitated and criticised by English poets, two of whom were on an explicit mission to regenerate English as a literary language and blazon English poetry forth as worthy of comparison with the best of Italy and the best of Greece and Rome. The subject matter of Petrarchan love poetry is, of course, sexual; and this enables us to explore aspects of the relationships between men and women in the context of courtly and aristocratic society. By considering, if only briefly, the relationship between our three poets and the English courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, some thoughts are prompted about the position and function of the poet at court — and in Spenser’s case, the poet who would like to have been at court, but found himself rejected; and by looking at the intentions that Sidney and Spenser had for poetry in general and their poetry in particular, we can consider whether their aspirations for the social, moral and especially national role of poetry were accepted or dismissed by a ruler who would, like her contemporaries, have had a view on how the arts might serve the state and the court. Each reflects the irony that the relationship between ruler and poet was not straightforward. While princes and kings and queens might see the function of humanist writers, musicians and dramatists as primarily decorative embellishers of court entertainment, Wyatt, Sidney and Spenser each stood in an ambiguous relationship to the rulers they served or sought to serve. Wyatt walked a dangerous political tightrope but survived where his friend Surrey did not; Sidney and Spenser had views about politics, government, diplomacy and the church which they wanted Elizabeth to adopt as well as personal quests for fame and advancement; Sidney’s policies displeased the Queen and much of what he wrote was written in exile from the court; Spenser wrote the Faerie Queene at the end of a long sojourn in Ireland, hoping that it would secure him a place at court. It didn’t, and even the £50 he was promised by the Queen for his poem was blocked by her chief minister, Burghley.

In touching, to a greater or lesser degree on each of these themes, I hope you will find that I have responded to several of the issues discussed by the block authors. It should also be clear that a topic of this kind engages directly with one of the organising themes of this course, that of authority — cultural and political, and also, as will be clearer when we look at Sidney and Spenser, religious authority. I hope also to prompt some thought about one of the organising themes of this course, that of religion and secularisation — for reasons which may be clearer in a moment.

This discussion is heavily influenced by three works — Garry Waller’s Edmund Spenser: a literary life; David Norbrook’s introduction to the Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, by any standards a landmark anthology in its historical and social approach to English (and Scots and Welsh and Irish poetry) between 1509 and 1659; and Alastair Fox’s The English Renaissance: identity and representation in Elizabethan England. I draw on, and plagiarise, Fox especially heavily. I am impressed by his understanding of how literature can be a means of looking into the sixteenth-century mind, and particularly how sixteenth-century Englishmen defined their moral, religious and national identities during the Reformation; I am further influenced by his argument that when we look at the motives that underlay much of the poetry of the English renaissance, not least Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare, it is hard to accept earlier assumptions that Elizabethan poetry was part of a discrete secular culture. In fact the Protestant convictions of poets were central to the use they made of their Italian models, and to the relationship between poetry and political faction at court — most obviously Spenser’s use of the Faerie Queene — to portray an image of the Queen as the defender and shield of a regenerated Protestant church, of an English (or "British") nation state, and of a set of moral and religious values drawn from Calvinism.



Wyatt and the Petrarchan model

Wyatt is the first English poet since Chaucer to make use of Italian vernacular models in his verse, drawing on the rich legacy of Italian verse that developed from the thirteenth century on alongside the nascent humanism of the Italian city states. Italian authors like Petrarch often switched between the humanist and the vernacular modes of expression, although the two projects — on the one hand the recovery of classical literature, history, philosophy and value systems together with the development of the linguistic tools to accomplish this recovery, and on the other the forging of a literature in a modern European language that would be as rich and as long-lasting as that of Greece and Rome need — need to be differentiated. Early renaissance influences in England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were classical and humanistic, and it was French culture, if anything, that influenced the manners, arts and mores of the court. Wyatt and his contemporary, the earl of Surrey, were the first English poets to imitate the Italians, and while Surrey does so with some technical skill and produces attractive verse, Wyatt adopts Petrarchan expression for deeper and more creative purposes. After their deaths, however, there was to be a delay of two decades or more before poets again founded their output on Italian models, in a different context and with different motives.

Wyatt is presented to you in the course material as an example of a courtier poet, writing for a côterie of aristocrats at Henry VIII’s court. Roger Day suggests that what he wrote, however, was not just a diversion for himself, or an entertainment for his friends and their king, but "poetry that embodies and exemplifies the exercise of power at the heart of the state"; that reflects Wyatt’s life, and his dangerous political and sexual relationships. It is poetry that prompts us to consider not just the poet’s situation, emotions and intentions, but the position of women in courtly society; and how the courtly love tradition could be a medium for thinking and feeling that transcended the conventionally entertaining and witty.

Both Wyatt and Surrey travelled in Italy on their king’s behalf, both became translators and imitators of Petrarch’s sonnets and songs. Their adoption of an Italian style was in part a response to the fact that Italy was becoming fashionable as a source of courtly manners and accomplishments, but, at least in Wyatt’s case, it must have been that the emotional and formal structure of Petrarchan love poetry, its ability to express complex emotional experience, the feelings of the lover torn between conflicting impulses — human love and sexual gratification on the one hand, and the rejection of the world for the divine, a conflict producing guilt, shame, anxiety, intolerable tension and uncertainty — seemed apt to his own circumstances. At the same time it could be enlisted in the games of courtly love played by courtiers. Petrarchan love poetry was nothing new in the Italian court — it amuse the king to introduce it to the English court.

I refer you to Dinah Birch’s summary of the characteristics of Petrarchism in Block VIII, both for the story of Petrarch and his beloved Laura, and for a summary of some of the emotions, tensions and contradictions that are central to this form of verse-making. You might also want to bear in mind Waller’s interpretation of the attractions — and repulsions — of the style. He argues that "playing at love" had deep-rooted psychological as well as aesthetic attractions for the poets that adopted the Petrarchan model; and in some ways this pattern of behaviour can be seen as perverse, with Petrarchism incorporating "the major fantasies of patriarchal gender assignments and sexual pathologies"… sadism and masochism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and other specialist tastes. The beloved is idolised and fetishised; she is not allowed to be the subject of her own desire; the lover wants to possess her exclusively; if she rejects him, she is castigated as cruel and punishing. Petrarchan poems deal alternately in themes of erotic attraction, sadistic punishment and masochistic repulsion. The mistress is cruel, alluring, hard-hearted, frustratingly chaste; idealisation and fear walk hand in hand, but when the beloved does respond the male seeks ways to assert further power over her; at the same time his rejection of her becomes a statement of male autonomy. Waller’s debt to Freud here produces an interpretation in which Petrarchism is intimately bound up with the "premier male perversion that seeks to come to terms with the fear of the beloved’s overwhelming power, fetishism" — the male lover deals with the beloved best through erotic associations with her shoes, clothing pets, portraits, locks of hair, smells and sounds; he "aestheticises her"; her beauty and desirability are a compliment to him; the power of her physical presence is no longer a threat. By the same token the lover’s rejection by the absent, unkind, heartless, beloved is received masochistically — he burns, he freezes, he enjoys the pain of denial and waiting, and the possibility that after pain will come pleasure and gratification.

Over the top… maybe… at whatever level, it is surely the case that for Wyatt Petrarch offered an erotic psychology useful for constructing his own erotic persona as part of the courtly game. But what Wyatt was writing about was more than a game, it was arguably an emotional trauma to which the poetic persona lent distance. We can be more emphatic than Roger Day in Block I and point to the tensions caused on the one hand by Wyatt’s hatred of his wife; and on the other by his desertion in favour of the king by Anne Boleyn, a desertion that rendered her unattainable and at the same time dealt the poet a psychic shock which led him to ascribe Anne’s "betrayal" to treachery and lust. Like Petrarch infatuated with Laura, but from a bleaker and more pessimistic point of view, Wyatt was trapped by an erotic compulsion from which he could break not himself free. What is interesting is how Wyatt, whose attitude to his "beloved" was predominantly anger and scorn, does not simply imitate or copy Petrarch but creatively transforms his model in a way that reflects his different perception of the beloved and, as Day emphasises, conveys a sense of Tudor political realities and the requirements and evasions of survival at court.

The Wyatt poems in the hand out associated with this lecture hopefully exemplify aspects of the discussion so far. You may, for instance, be especially interested to see how close Wyatt can be to Petrarch, even to the imitation of a rhyme scheme, and yet give a poem a different tone; compare "Some fowls there be…" with Petrarch’s Rime 19, "Son animali al mondo"; but for Wyatt’s portrayal of women in general and Anne Boleyn in particular you need to look closely at Ballade XXXVII, "They flee from me, that sometime did me seek" and the complex "Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind" (Sonnet VII). If the Ballade, which describes a relationship with a woman who made advances to the lover, but deserted him in favour of novelty, involves the dissolution of semi-erotic reminiscence into irony, aggression and bitterness, in the process turning women into animals, and depicting gender relationships as a power contest, a play of domination and submission, stands as a good illustration of the way in which Petrarchism can depict not just the conventional thinking of courtly love, but power games in a setting where political danger adds a threatening frisson, "Whoso list to hunt" shows Wyatt replacing Petrarch’s idealisation of the beloved with debased alternatives. Fox sees this as a poem that is almost as much about political protest as a failed affair. It has a direct Petrarchan model, but it transforms its archetype in a way that replaces images of spring freshness with sordid antitheses and obscene allusions. Petrarch’s mistress is a "white doe on the green grass… with two golden horns, between two rivers, in the shade of a laurel" seen "when the sun was rising in the unripe season" — Wyatt’s "beloved" is a hind that men are hunting. Petrarch’s mistress has diamonds and topazes around her lovely neck; Wyatt eliminates the topazes and substitutes "graven" for "written"; the message on Laura’s collar is "nessun mi tochi… libera farmi al mio Cesare parve" (let no one touch me… it hath pleased my Caesar to make me free) suggesting that Laura’s chastity means she belongs to God; Wyatt’s "Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am/ And wild for to hold, though I seem tame" transmutes an emblem of steadfastness and chastity into one of cupidity. Wyatt reverts to the original scripture which Petrarch alludes to, evoking the warning of Christ to Mary Magdalene, parodically comparing Christ’s holiness with the polluted mistress, a possession of a king, not of a God. Wyatt’s poetry is a good illustration of the way in which renaissance and humanist values enabled poets to express a "heightened awareness of subjectivity and individuality", yet we should note Norbrook’s ironic comment on this poem that its shows how the humanist idea of man as a free individual depended on renaissance woman being considerably less free. We might comment also that in this persona, Wyatt was not simply imitating Petrarchan style and subject matter, he was inverting its content and subjecting its assumptions about women to a bitter interrogation.



Sidney and Spenser

The initial adoption of Petrarchism therefore involved transmutation and critique of the genre, not merely fashionable imitation. However, Wyatt and Surrey were isolated figures; the Henrician fashion for Italianate court poetry was short-lived. Literary interest in Italy went into hibernation until the 1560s. However, this decade saw the start of an explosion of interest in Italian writing — poetry, lyric and epic; prose romance, drama — which was reflected in the revival of Petrarchan imitation. In the 1580s and 1590s, the Italian influence moved beyond translation and technical imitation into true creativity, a phase in which Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare are the leading figures. Sonnet writing became especially popular amongst courtiers following the publication of Astrophel and Stella in 1591.

Why the renewal of interest in Italian literature? Fashion was one aspect of this revival; it was not just Italian poetry but manners, clothing, music and the extravaganza of the court festival that were emulated. There was arguably a further aspect to the Elizabethan response to Italy. Fox points out that as Protestantism took root in the pulpit and the works of moralisers (and early Puritan demands that the English reformed church undergo further purification emerged) Italy was the source of a sensuality that was rejected by Calvinist austerity, with divines denouncing her as the symbol of Papism and vice. Notwithstanding this, educated readers, whose background was the humanism of the grammar school and the private tutor, found it hard to resist the humane values and sensual content of Italian fiction and poetry, at the same time as Castiglione’s Courtier was adopted as the handbook for conduct and pleasure at court. When Sidney and Spenser turned to Italian literary models, they did so in a different context to Wyatt — whose Penitential Psalms were a late indication of a new Protestant mood. Block VIII’s authors emphasise that their motives were, moreover, both literary and personal, and bound up with a desire to define an English literary identity that enshrined visions of national, political and religious values that they sought to identify and shape.

We need to remind ourselves that, looking abroad, the educated Elizabethan, fluent in Latin, Greek and Italian, would have recognised the cultural insignificance of English to continentals. English was a rough hewn, northern language spoken only by themselves and by those Scots, Welsh and Irish who had learned English. For Sidney and Spenser, the Anglican Church was a precarious implantation, its establishment the outcome of a royal fiat, not a popular desire for reformation; their Queen’s legitimacy was challenged internally, and threatened by Rome and Spain; their dynasty’s longevity was imperilled by lack of an heir, their country’s diplomacy sailed a dangerous course through the reefs of religious wars and a morass of shifting and fragile alliances. Their work was not simply a reflection of the response of the court and its propagandists to Reformation and Counter Reformation threats, but part of the active creation of a national literary, moral and religious identity in a way that would buttress state, Queen and church. In so doing, they sought to integrate renaissance literary ideals and humane values with their Protestant beliefs and the implications of these for their souls and their perception of the self. Tenably the imitation and transformation of Italian writing was an effort "to construct an illuminated understanding of the right relationship between worldly and spiritual goods". They borrowed the themes, expressive desires and preoccupations of Italian poetry with real human lives and loves, whether in the form of the Petrarchan sonnet sequence — where the conflict between erotic desire and religious prescription made the location of self problematical; — or in the form of the epic romance pioneered by Ariosto and Tasso — where heroic actions are performed by noble characters humanised by love and governed by chivalric gallantry; — or in the pastoral mode — which counterpoised the mutability of worldly troubles with the imaginative possibility of a golden world of idealised simplicity and harmony. But they modified the assumptions of each model to make them consistent with the Protestant sense of human nature and spiritual responsibility; they struggled with the English language to make if of literary worth in an age when the less restrictive and less insular traditions suggested writing in Latin; and they did this in a manner which sought to serve the needs of Queen and court as interpreted by the aristocratic network of relatives and clients associated with the earl of Leicester.

We will return to the aspirations set out in Sidney’s Defence and reflected in the Faerie Queene in a moment. Let us stick for the time being with the idea that the texts we are studying indicate authors trying to come to terms with the cultural separation from the moral and aesthetic values of the continental and Latinate world in the context of a Reformation whose discourse rejected the emphasis on human dignity and human possibility contained within the Renaissance. Two rival value systems were in contention (you might look at the comments on Philip Gosson in Block VIII for a reminder of puritan attacks on imaginative literature) but both Sidney and Spenser are leading examples of those who wished both to participate in the value systems represented by Italian and classical literature at the same as they endorsed Protestant values; they wanted, Fox argues, to celebrate their faith and retain the aesthetic and humane appeal of Italian literary models; their project concerned both literary and national identity and the relationship between the cultural implications of being Protestant and English and a wider European consciousness.



Astrophel and Stella

How do these propositions relate to Astrophel and Stella? Dinah Birch places Sidney at the heart of court politics in the 1570s and early 1580s. She stresses the way in which his writing united political and literary objectives, as well as the fact that the manner of his death made him a figure of myth; For Sidney both poetry and prose should bear a "moral weight — a public significance," but for her his writing remains, like his life, ambiguous, and his political career was a failure, albeit that it created space for his work as a poet. She sees Astrophel and Stella as an attempt to confront and transcend his public situation, and as a result, she suggests, it contains patterns of realisation and evasion that need to be recognised if the sequence is to be understood. Her account emphasises both Sidney’s revival of Petrarchism and the way he emulates Petrarchan patterns in both form and content. The impact of Protestant faith and Calvinist assumptions about the self and the soul, however, mean that the work represents not just imitation, but parody and critique, and contains layers of ambiguity, contradiction and reasoning which are not necessarily resolved.

I am sure she is broadly right about all this; for Sidney and Spenser, the fundamental problem with Petrarchan love was that its male personae were indulgers of sinful desire, the product of egotism and pride. Fox suggests that Petrarchan imitation therefore became a means of exploring the sources and effects of spiritual culpability in erotic experience in order to show not just the problem of remedying this, given the fact of sinful human nature, but also why there was a need to do so in the first place. The love that Sidney was trying to come to terms with seems to have been his foolish infatuation with the married Lady Penelope Rich; the poetry is a means of purging his moral being, reconciling himself to unattainable desire and clarifying the moral meaning of his experience. The strategy followed is to explore the ways in which Astrophel’s experiences as a lover had been faulty. He de-romanticises the Petrarchan commonplaces to present the lover as guilty of wilful self-deception; he is immature; his poetry is self-advertisingly contrived; he perversely refuses to heed his conscience. Petrarch equates love and virtue; for Sidney, Petrarchan love is defined as carnality. His depiction of desire exposes his sin of wilful concupiscence.

I have selected the Sidney examples on the hand out to emphasise these points. No 14 demonstrates Astrophel refusing to listen to the warnings of his friend about the spiritual dangers of his desire:

If it that be sin which doth the manners frame
Well stayed with truth in word and faith of deed,
Ready of wit and fearing nought but shame;
If that be sin which in fixed hearts doth breed
A loathing of all loose unchastity
Then love is sin and let me sinful be.

Ironically Stella is a figure who likewise warns Astrophel about the need for self-restraint, but his response is summed up in Sidney’s imitation of Petrarch’s Rime 248 (A & S no.71). Petrarch’s persona is, in his confusion of the erotic and the spiritual, aware of Laura’s pursuit of virtue and the divine; Astrophel’s perception of Stella is distorted by his own carnality. Once Stella has finally refused Astrophel, the final part of the sequence emphasises his self-regarding despair; he is "living through the self-punitive consequences of remaining in an unregenerate condition." The result is the spiritual paralysis documented in the final sonnet, described by Birch as an expression of "passive distress, loss, grief."



The Amoretti

If Astrophel’s agony is unresolved, with Petrarchan desire exposed for what it is; Spenser offers a solution. Despite the fact that this is not a set text I did not see how we could follow through the impact of Petrarch on Elizabethans without touching on the Amoretti. (Arguably we should, if we had world enough and time, also be giving Shakespeare’s sonnets a going over; but we don’t!) Again, the point of departure for the poem is a real-life courtship, Spenser’s relationship with Elizabeth Boyle; but, just as this courtship ended, not in despair and dissolution, but in marriage, the Amoretti are able to suggest how the sins of egotism and desire can be intercepted and legitimized. In the Amoretti the male lover comes to terms with the inadequacy of Petrarchan expectations; whereas Astrophel remains locked up in self-hood, Spenser’s poetic persona transcends egotism and finds a self-less and Christian love. In the process he interweaves Protestant moral values into the poetry in a way that enable both lover and lady to be judged; his images are those of sin and damnation, heaven and hell, virtue and salvation. In the process, Spenser’s lover, Florinell, confronts and overcomes the traditional, perverted, perceptions of the Petrarchan lover: idolisation and over-valuation of the beloved, oppressive rejection and stigmatisation, self-regarding pain, the masochistic enjoyment of absence, the possessive, and voyeuristic categorisation of the beloved’s physical attractions Like Wyatt and Sidney before him, there are sonnets in this sequence that draw directly on Petrarchan originals, reworked from a fresh and critical perspective. The best example might be Sonnet XLVII, where Spenser harks back to Wyatt’s "Whose list to hunt" and its Petrarchan model, "Una candida cerva."

Spenser clearly knew both the original, and Wyatt’s cynical inversion of Petrarch’s sonnet. His aim may therefore have been to show how loss can be made into gain through the giving of self. The deliberate echoes of Wyatt emphasise the transformative difference that a surrender of self can make. Like Wyatt he converts Petrarch’s pursuit of a white doe into a huntsman chasing a hind, and the lover experiences a similar weariness from this "vain assaye". But whereas Wyatt’s deer, Anne Boleyn, is corrupted by her own lust, Spenser’s is a gentle "deare" who returns the way she has fled and is willing to entrust herself to her lover’s power. The lover has come to control his desire and she has the confidence to allow her own desire to make her responsive to him. She trusts in the vision of married love that the Amoretti affirm. In no. 65, Spenser sets out his answer to the Petrarchan dilemma; desire can be fulfilled only when egotism and lust are replaced by mutual good will and loyalty within a sanctified union; at that point desire can be gratfied in spotless pleasure enjoyed in mutual faith. Appropriately, the Epithalamion that acts as the coda to the published Amoretti, consummates a Protestant vision of Eros fulfilled and celebrates Spenser’s marriage to Elizabeth Boyle in 1594. Whereas Astrophel and Stella was a stage on the journey to Arcadia, it is arguable that for Spenser it was the achievement of the Faerie Queene and its statement about Queen, church and nation that provided the emotional security in which the contradictions of Petrarchan verse could be resolved.



Coda: moral purpose and national identity

I mentioned at the start of this talk that the story of English Petrarchism might help us reflect on the theme of religion and secularisation. I hope that the latter part of this discussion makes sense in this context. This may be "secular" poetry, but its moral weight derives from the force of its concern with the redemption of the Protestant soul. This Protestant background provides the basis for a creative and critical engagement with Petrarchan themes. I hope also that this discussion has been instructive in its investigation of an aspect of the English literary engagement with Italy; Italian literary archetypes were not simply imitated, they were transformed through the effort to validate them as relevant to humanist, Protestant Englishmen. May be I have shown also an aspect of the ways in which Sidney and Spenser interpreted and enacted the roles of poets within or adjacent to the court and its factions. Another Elizabethan poet, George Puttenham, author of the Art of English Poesie, composed at some stage in the 1580s, had his own idea of the role of the poet. It is almost a manifesto designed to counterbalance the very real probability that upper class Elizabethans actually marginalised literary activity as something that juveniles and aspiring courtiers might do to advertise themselves, and an accomplishment that was no more special than the ability to play and instrument or dance gracefully. Puttenham claimed a public responsibility for poetry and set out the roles it could play at and for the court: in descending order of importance poets can praise God, the prince, personal virtue, heroism and courage, and write verse that provides entertainment or emotional solace. It was a view that assimilated and appropriated poetry to the court’s requirements in a way that was quite ambitious but remained essentially decorative, and, for the poet, a way of gaining access to the influential or a place of employment.

The exploration of Petrarchism should reveal that both Sidney and Spenser challenged this limited role for the poet. It is this perspective I would like you finally to take from this talk and apply to your reading of Sidney’s Defence and Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Both gave poetry moral and religious purpose in a Protestant context; both claimed for the poet a central and productive role in the new Protestant state. Poetry offers, Sidney, claimed, skills and moral insights important to monarch, nation and mankind. And the making of a new English poetry would demonstrate that the culture of the new Protestant nation was as sophisticated as the cultures of the old European order, its language, newly wrought and defined through composition, as beautiful and expressive as Italian and the ancient tongues. Thus, for Sir Philip Sidney, the role of the poet was not just to imitate the external world, but to emulate God in creating one that was new:

Only the poet, disclaiming to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms as never were in nature… {Nature’s) world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

(The Defence of Poetry)


Astrophel and Stella may suggest an unstable gap between the poet’s persona and the writer himself, but Sidney’s manifesto for poetry and nation was in part a product of the experience of his own writing as much as of his membership of a political faction. The sonnet sequence enabled him to constitute himself as individual, Christian and poet in a way that was a preparation for the public statements of the Defence and the allegorical message to the nation of his pastoral romance Arcadia. His aim was didactic, that of translating the poet’s visions into everyday life. The Leicester/Sidney circle were activists, promoting the abolition of superstition in the church, longing for the Queen to rally European Protestants; they saw cultural change as part of the same project, wishing on Elizabeth the roles both of a new David — both scatterer of Philistines and the Psalmist — and champion of the muses. The reader of Astrophel and Stella should be "moved to goodness" by the contemplation of images of vice and virtue, as well as delighted by formal poetic artistry; English can be renewed as a poetic tongue; and her poets can move people to virtue and knowledge. Sidney’s Old and New Arcadia were written to put this into practice, but through the medium of the prose pastoral romance, in form derived from the model of Sannazzaro; here Sidney explored personal and political issues in a way that dealt with the larger meaning of both the human situation and the English experience in the context of divine providence, written after 1579 and Sidney’s withdrawal from court. Amongst their direct political references are the allusions to Elizabeth’s courting of the French Alençon; other episodes deal with the fates of unjust rulers.

Spenser was one of the few English poets that Sidney (as Birch notes, with reservations) praised, probably with his pastoral Shephearde’s Calendar in mind. With the Faerie Queene he passed from pastoral to epic, and whereas Sidney’s unfinished New Arcadia had looked pessimistically on the politics of the early 1580s, Spenser’s work can be seen as a "stupendous exercise in flattery" (Waller), a bid from an Irish base to seek patronage in England, prefaced by sonnets addressed to the leading courtiers and ministers. As you will understand from Block VIII, however, Spenser’s ambitions transcended the personal; like Sidney’s they reflect the moral and religious purpose inherent in the Amoretti, but translated into a form that moves from the personal to the national, to the united fates of monarch, race and nation, with the values of Protestant England embodied in Gloriana and her knights. The model again was Italian, but this time not Petrarchan lyric or Mantuan pastoral, but a fusion of the romantic epic forms shaped by Ariosto and Tasso, in which chivalric romance and poetic allegory are combined with British myth, the tales of the chansons de gestes, Aristotle’s account of moral virtue, neoplatonic mysticism and the apocalyptic prophecy of Revelation to construct a Protestant vision of the values that he suggested should inform the policy of Queen, state and church. Elizabeth — Una, Astraea, Gloriana — is guardian of the nation state and regenerator of the primitive Church, and the language and metre chosen to enact this vision, while to us it may seem archaic, was original and inventive, the self-conscious crafting of an English that belatedly, as Sidney had hoped, would compare with Homer and Virgil, Petrarch and the other great Italians. Analysis of the Faerie Queene should, therefore, enable you to confront each of the issues within court culture that I defined at the outset of this talk — the connections between humanist and renaissance values, chivalry and the court; the use of the arts to project not just images of the authority of rulers but messages about the destiny of nations; the position of women as rulers; the engagement of artists and writers associated with courts with European cultural values and models; and the relationship between Italy and the vernacular cultures of the north. It is likely to feature in any answer you try in the exam.


Matthew Griffiths

29 September 1998


I have not had time fully to reference this talk. Had I done so, it would be readily apparent that I have not just drawn on, but heavily plagiarised, the resources below.


Alistair Fox, The English Renaissance: Identity and Representation in Elizabethan England (1997)

David Norbrook and H.R. Woudhuysen, The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse (1993)

Gary Waller, Edmund Spenser: a Literary Life (1994)

OU A205 course materials

Online ediitions (Richard Bear, University of Oregon) of Astrophel and Stella and the Amoretti.

© Copyright 1999-2006
Peter Sadlon
Updated Sept 10th 2007

A Merentha Entertainment Project