Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Poetry is generally still an adjunct profession in the Renaissance, not a primary occupation. The Renaissance poet still operates largely under the medieval notion that art is a craft.

Petrarch (1304-1374) is considered "the first writer of the Renaissance." Although his Italian sonnets rely on courtly love conventions, the Renaissance sees a sort of codification of the material and certainly of the form.

Petrarchan love conventions:

the poet (male) addresses a lady (corresponding to Petrarch's Laura).

she often has a classical name like Stella or Delia.

the poet-lover praises his mistress, the object and image of Love, with praise for her superlative qualities using descriptions of beauty supplied by Petrarch: "golden hair," "ruby lips," "ivory breast."

the poet employs contradictory and oxymoronic phrases and images: freezing and burning, binding freedom (see Petrarch's #134).

the poet-lover dwells only on the subjective experience, hence on the misery of being in love: thus the occasional appearance of the conventional invocation to sleep to allay the pain (insomnia poems).

the poet disclaims credit for poetic merits: the inspiration of his mistress is what makes the poetry good, he claims.

the poet promises to protect the youth of his lady and his own love against time (through the immortalizing poetry itself).

Petrarch's own sonnets are characterized by the phrase (or motto) "emotion recollected in tranquility." These poems capture and crystalize an emotional state of being, but often a melancholy one. The poet seems continuously at work recording all the subtle modulations of feeling. It is said that the self-centered quality of this kind of work is new. But the focus on the subjective state and of the suffering self as opposed to the lady supposedly at the heart of the matter is all part of courtly love poetry and to be found repeatedly in medieval poetry and lyrics. Perhaps the degree of precision in the anatomy of the love process can be claimed as new to the Renaissance. And characteristically Renaissance is the celebration of that attraction to mortal beauty and earthly values as sublime.

Two hundred years later, England began tentatively to move towards its own Renaissance at last in the poetry of Wyatt and Surrey, inspired by and often just loose translations of Petrarch. Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), a diplomat in the court of Henry VIII, and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), the last person beheaded under Henry VII, introduced the Petrarchan sonnet to England in the early- and mid-1500s and sometimes displaying a more original English temperament. Surrey, an uncle of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, established the English sonnet form (iambic pentameter lines rhyming ababcdcdefefgg), also known as the Shakespearean sonnet form. Since we don't have as easy a time rhyming as do romance languages, the English language simply cannot sustain the Italian rhyme scheme of abba abba etc. without devolving into doggerel. (Surrey also, in translations of excerpts from Virgil's Aeneid, the blank verse that eventually would characterize English verse.)

As Petrarchan conventions became established, a simultaneous inclination to sound original emerged. Later English sonnet developments included:

a replacement of the Petrarchan metaphor (expressing the unity of all things) with a simile drawn from common observation and direct perception.

an emphasis in mode upon persuasive reasoning.

the inclusion of physical love with the platonic.

an increased self-consciousness about the act of composing itself (love poetry about love poetry).

For the Elizabethans, "sonnet" referred to any short poem. What we call sonnets (the rhetorically ornate 14 lines of iambic pentameter with the elaborate rhyme scheme) they called "quatorzains."

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) traced an unrequited love relationship through its stages in the sonnet cycle Astrophel and Stella. Although written in 1582 and circulating privately, it was not published until 1591 at which point it helped inaugurate the sonnet vogue with its standard themes: insistence on originality and disclaimers of conventionality, the lady's coldness, the poet's despair, the lady's beauties, invocations to sleep, the immortality of the verse. Sidney often addresses the issue of composition -- how not to be self-conscious and phony -- so we get from him lots of love poetry about love poetry. He has a gift for zinger last lines, but it's also possible to see why the Earl of Oxford called him a "puppy."

Edmund Spenser later in the century offered some technical innovations in the form. His sonnet cycle, Amoretti ("Little Love-Poems") seems to be devoted to his courtship of the woman who became his second wife in 1594. The Spenserian archaism (fake "olde tyme" spelling) is a rather annoying technique for coping with self-consciousness.

Roughly 1200 sonnets survive in print from the Elizabethan 1590s. Among the deservedly big names in sonnet cycles are Thomas Watson (a pseudonym? check out the acrostic in Shakespeare's #76) -- Hekatompathia -- Samuel Daniel -- Delia -- and Michael Drayton -- Idea. The fad declined rapidly and sonnets were no longer the hip thing after the 1590s.

Shake-speares Sonnets is a completely different phenomenon.


Otis, William Bradley, and Morriss H. Needleman. An Outline History of English Literature: Volume I. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1967.

Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995.

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