Petrarchan Conventions & the Sonnet

Petrarchan Conventions

Petrarch wearing the poet’s laurels

Francesco Petrarca  (Petrarch) (1304-1374) was a poet and humanistof the Italian Renaissance, and later poet laureate. On April 6, 1327, while attending mass, Petrarch saw the beautiful Laura, and though she was already married, he fell in love with her. Inspired by her beauty and virtues (including her marital fidelity and chastity), Petrarch composed hundreds of poems dedicated to Laura. Laura died on April 6, 1348 at the age of 38, but Petrarch continued to compose poems about this idealized and ever-more-abstractly rendered mistress. His Il Canzoniere (“Song Book,” also called Rime Sparse “Scattered Rhyme”) contains 366 poems. 317 of those are sonnets  (but with a different (Italian or Petrarchan) rhyme scheme than the Shakespearean or English sonnet).

Sonnets–whether Italian or English–often pertain to the themes and motifs found in Petrarch’s poetry. These Petrarchan conventions include:

  • an idealized mistress

  • the mistress is often absent or otherwise unavailable

  • the mistress is chaste (but may also be emotionally distant or cruel)

  • the poet is of a lesser status or worth than the mistress

  • the mistress’ beauty is often catalogued in a blazon

Shakespeare’s famous “Sonnet 18” (“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”) and “Sonnet 130” (“My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun”) are both indebted to and subvert Petrarchan conventions. On the one hand, the relatively staid format  and recurring topoi—lofty notions of love, the cruel or distant beloved, the devoted but fallible male lover, blind Cupid with his lead and gold darts, the blazon of the beloved, the focus on the gaze, hunting and war metaphors, the lover as a tempest tossed boat, etc.—can quickly become stifling and redundant. On the other hand, this sort of general language of love, seduction, and the emotional states of courtship allows us to really see how certain poets contributed to the development of the sonnet.

When Thomas Wyatt first began circulating sonnets in courtly coterie circles (c. mid-1530s), his sonnets may have seemed like simply English translations of Petrarch’s works, but were really more akin to adaptation. Some read Wyatt’s “Whoso list to hunt”  as his autobiographical rendering of Petrarch’s Canzoniere 190 where the narrator is Wyatt, the doe is his supposed ex-lover Anne Boleyn, and Caesar is Henry VIII. This may be a compelling way to enter into his adaptation but even a close reading demonstrates clear differences: Petrarch’s doe is a mythical creature, all white and gold, rendered free by Caesar, which appears to the narrator and vanishes suddenly, blurring the lines of reality and dreams. Wyatt’s narrator is actively hunting but feels weary and unable to advance, and the deer is relatively normal except that it belongs to Caesar. The seductive dreamlike quality of Petrarch’s poem is lacking and is instead replaced by feelings of sexual or social frustration.

Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (c. 1582, pub. 1591/1598) also follows Petrarchan conventions, but plays with these conventions by creating a developed dramatic narrative, and, even more importantly, creating a self-conscious study of poesis that is ultimately as much about the creative and poetic process as it is about any idealized mistress. Stella is an ‘absent presence,’ physically distant in many of the poems, but cold to Astrophel even when they are within vicinity.  The closest that there is to a seduction occurs when Astrophel steals a kiss from a sleeping Stella. While his poem, like Wyatt’s, suggests a cast of real characters, Sidney’s intention seems to be more about seducing fellow courtiers into reading and enjoying his circulated poems than to seduce his Stella/Penelope. From the opening sonnet, Sidney writes of his inability to write by studying the poetic conventions of others; that is, his seduction poems are, as his highly conventional Muse tells him, more sincere than other writers’ works because he writes from his heart. Several of his sonnets mention other writers (Ovid and Petrarch), or that he is not a pick-purse of another writer’s wit, or that his poems are only for and about Stella and not about the fame and prestige he might achieve as England’s premier sonneteer.

Sir Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti  (1596) creates a calendar that follows a fictionalized courtship process with his future wife Elizabeth Boyle, and expresses many of the common tropes of other sonnets, such as the mistress as  ‘faire proud,’ cruel, and stubborn. Although highly conventional in many of its features, Spenser’s sequence differs from Sidney’s, Shakespeare’s, or (later) Wroth’s sonnet cycle by concluding on a happy note and leading toward the marriage which follows in its accompanying poem Epithalamion. Simply put, Spenser’s sonnet cycle is one of the few which achieves its end within the poem itself; around sonnet 60 and following, the beloved warms up to the poet’s advances and a reciprocal relationship develops. Spenser’s contribution to the genre then is to domesticate the sonnet sequence.

Shakespeare’s own contribution to the sonnet sequence (c. 1590s, pub. 1609) notes the limitations and the triteness of the genre and complicates the seduction sequence by splitting the object of desire into two separate and sometimes conflicting characters. On the one hand, the Poet idealizes a Fair Youth and tries to convince the Youth to marry and reproduce for the first seventeen sonnets. In the famous eighteenth sonnet, the Poet shifts from that focus into a discovery of the procreative and reproductive powers of verse and for a large part of the sequence, the Poet allows the Youth to become his poetic muse and erotic object. The consummation of desire occurs with the Dark Lady of the latter sonnets and unlike the chaste, distant, idealized beauties of earlier sequences, she is unfaithful, too sexually available to both the Poet and the Youth, and she is not a conventional beauty. The Poet never seems to seduce the Youth, but the Dark Lady does, possibly infecting him with venereal disease, and the Youth is also seduced into inappropriate behavior by his undesirable friends. The sequence ends with two sonnets describing the sweating tubs of syphilitic victims. Shakespeare’s cycle shows the devastating effects of desiring the wrong lover—whether it is someone who cannot be seduced, the fickle Youth, or someone who is too seductive, the disloyal Dark Lady.

By the time, Sidney’s niece, Lady Mary Wroth, wrote her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (pub. 1621) the genre felt quite old-fashioned and hackneyed. While her work feels very sincere, probably due to our knowledge of her personal situation of an unhappy marriage and several children fathered by her lover, Wroth’s innovation is in allowing a female narrate the cycle. Instead of a chaste and cruel mistress, Pamphilia (all-loving) expresses her desires and fears in ways that often follow the same conventions as male sonneteers. The poems are not about obtaining the male beloved, but making sure that Amphilanthus (dual lover) learns the importance of the female virtue of constancy. Confronting the fear that if a female beloved consents (and Pamphilia yields to Love in sonnet 7), her male lover may move onto a new object of desire, Pamphilia becomes a paragon of the faithful and suffering lover of a philanderer. She attempts repeatedly to move her lover to be faithful, to express his love, to reciprocate her desires, but even when she fails, she remains constant in her love.

In  As You Like It, Orlando’s hopelessly bad love poems are filled with the tropes of Petrarchan verse.

From the east to western Ind,
No jewel is like Rosalind.
Her worth, being mounted on the wind,
Through all the world bears Rosalind.
All the pictures fairest lined
Are but black to Rosalind.
Let no fair be kept in mind
But the fair of Rosalind.

Using the illustration from Charles Berger’s The Extravagant Shepherd, a literal rendering of the blazon, viewers can over the mistress’ features to read and compare contemporary English sonnets and Petrarchan moments of cataloging the beloved’s beauties. I wanted to try Thinglink out to create an interactive and highly visual introduction to the blazon to help my students understand the formal features, the conventions, the dismemberment/cataloging, and the general weirdness of the trope. You can access the interactive version here.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the beautiful but celibate Olivia is annoyed with Duke Orsino’s  persistence. She refuses to remove her veil so that his messenger may see her face and instead smartly mocks the blazon. She strips away the hyperbolic praises of the blazon and instead just gives a category of her features as though it were items in a will or chore list:

I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labeled to my will: as, item, two lips indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth.

–Olivia, Twelfth Night 1.5

3 thoughts on “Petrarchan Conventions & the Sonnet

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