Curiosities in Sonnet-Literature

Curiosities in Sonnet-Literature (1891)

From Poet-Lore, Volume III, No. II

AMONG the many curiosities in sonnet-literature the dialogue sonnet is distinguished, both by its rareness and difficulty of construction. There are several to be found in the Italian and French collections; but only three have been written in the English language. These, strange to say, are separated by a gap of three centuries, one being written by William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, and the others by Mr. E. W. Gosse and Mr. J. A. Symonds. The earliest dialogue sonnet of French authorship is the famous composition of old Olivier de Magny, a contemporary of Pierre de Ronsard and a true Ronsardist; he was also the lover of Louise Labé, or La Belle Cordière, who was a poetess of high rank and known as the Lyonese Sappho. Magny died in 1560, Ronsard in 1585. In the next century, Colletet (circa 1620) quoted the sonnet, and added, "Je ne sçay pas ce qu'en dira maintenant nostre Cour; mais je sçay bien que toute Ia Cour du Roy Henry second en fit tant d'estime, que tous les Musiciens de son temps, jusques à Orlande, travaillerent à l'envy à Ia mettre en musique, et les chanterent mille et mille fois, avec un grand applaudissement, en la presence des Roys, et des Princes."

The sonnet reads thus:

Magny. Holà, Charon, Charon, Nautonnier infernal.
Charon. Qui est cet importun qui si pressé m'appelle?
M. C'est le cœur éploré d'vn Amoureux fidelle,
Lequel pour bien aimer n'eut iamais que du mal.
C. Que cherche-tu de moy?
M.                                       Le passage fatal.
C. Quelle est ton homicide?
M.                                      O demande cruelle!
Amour m'a fait mourir.
C.                               Iamais dans ma Nacelle
Nul sujet à l'Amour ie ne conduis à val.
M. Et de grace, Charon, conduy-moy dans ta Barque.
C. Cherche vn autre Nocher, car ny moy, ny Ia Parque,
N'entreprenons iamais sur ce Maistre des Dieux.
I'iray donc malgré toy, car je porte dans l'ame
Tant de traits amoureux, tant de larmes aux yeux,
Que le seray le Fleuue, et Ia Barque, et la Rame.

This sonnet was printed in Colletet's "Traitté du Sonnet" in 1658.

It will be noticed that a couplet is inserted at lines nine and ten, a common practice with French sonnet writers, but which is as distinct from the Italian form as the English closing couplet.

In connection with Magny's sonnet, Herrick's short poem, entitled "Charon and Philomel," must be considered, on account of its remarkable similarity in general design, though not in construction.


Philomel. Charon! O gentle Charon, let me woo thee
By tears and pity now to come unto me.
Charon. What voice so sweet and charming do I hear?
Say, what thou art.
Ph.                              I prithee first draw near.
Ch. A sound I hear, but nothing yet can see,
Speak where thou art.
Ph.                                     O Charon, pity me!
I am a bird, and though no name I tell,
My warbling note will say I'm Philomel.
Ch. What's that to me? I waft nor fish or fowls,
Nor beasts, fond thing, but only human souls.
Ph. Alas, for me!
Ch.                         Shame on thy witching note,
That made me thus hoist sail, and bring my boat.
But I'll return; what mischief brought thee hither?
Ph. A deal of love, and much, much grief together.
Ch. What's thy request?
Ph.                                That since she's now beneath
Who fed my life, I'll follow her in death.
Ch. And is that all? I'm gone.
Ph.                                         By love, I pray thee.
Ch. Talk not of love; all pray, but few souls pay me.
Ph. I'll give thee vows and tears.
Ch.                                            Can tears pay scores
For mending sails, for patching boat and oars?
Ph. I'll beg a penny, or I'll sing so long
Till thou shalt say I've paid thee with a song.
Ch. Why, then begin, and all the while we make
Our slothful passage o'er the Stygian lake,
Thou and I'll sing to make these doll shades merry,
Who else with tears would doubtless drown my ferry.

There can be no doubt, after comparing the above poems, that Herrick was indebted to Magny for his idea of this Dialogue Song. Herrick never wrote a sonnet-proper; though he called some of his lyrics sonnets, and wrote many fourteen-line poems in couplets. It is easy to see from his work, however, that the singing capacity of Herrick never rose to sonnet point.

The following translation of Magny's sonnet is here ventured upon:

Magny. Ho! Charon, Charon, Boatman of the Dead!
Charon. What wretch is this that hails me in such haste?
M. A faithful lover's heart by tears made waste,
That for true love received but ill instead.
C. What wouldst thou of me?
M.                                         But the passage dread.
C. Who is thy slayer?
M.                              O question of distaste!
Love made me die.
C.                           Love's thrall hath never paced
My bark, nor valewards shall my sails outspread.
M. Have pity, Charon! I take me now on board.
C. Another Pilot find,--nor Fate nor I
Can e'er supplant this Master Deity.
A. I'll go despite thee, for my soul doth hoard
So many love-signs and such floods mine eyes,
Stream, boat, and oar I will myself comprise.

Another sonnet in dialogue is extracted from Ronsard's "Le Second Livre des Amours" (edition 1629). An English version follows:

Ronsard. Que dis-tu, que fais-tu, pensive Tourterelle,
Dessus cet arbre sec?
Tourterelle.               Viateur, je lamente.
R. Pourquoy lamentes-tu?
T.                                    Pour ma compagne absente,
Dont je meurs de douleur.
R.                                    En quelle part est elle?
T. Un cruel oiseleur par glueuse cautelle
L'a prise et l'a tuce: et nuict et jour je chante
Ses obseques icy, nommant la mort meschante
Qu'elle ne m'a tuee avecques ma fidelle.
R. Voudrois-tu bien mourir et suivre ta compagne?
T. Aussi bien je languis en ce bois tenebreux,
Où tousiours le regret de sa mort m'accompagne.
R. O gentils oiselets que vous estes heureux!
Nature d'elle mesme à l'amour vous enseigne,
Qui mourez et vivez fideles amoureux.


Ronsard. What say'st thou and what doest thou, sad Dove,
On this bare tree?
Dove.                   O Traveller, I mourn.
R. Why mournest thou?
D.                                 My mate is from me torn,
For whom I die of grief.
R.                                 Where does he rove?
D. A cruel fowler with a lime-twig wove
His fate and slew him; night and day forlorn
I chant his dirges here, and death I scorn
That did not kill me with my faithful love.
R. And would'st thou die and follow thy sweet mate?
D. In truth, I pine away in this dark wood,
Where I am ever by my grief pursued.
R. O gentle birds! thrice happy is your fate;
Nature herself appoints you love's own token,
That live and die in faithful love unbroken.

"Le Prince des Poëtes François" also wrote two other dialogue sonnets, entitled "Le Passant et la Genie" and "Dialogue de l'Autheur et du Mondain."

There are Italian sonnets in dialogue by Burchiello, Benincasa d'Arezzo, Lapo Lamberti, and others, to be found in Crescembini, who also quotes a double sonnet in dialogue which is curious. It is between Fiorino and Solfinello, and consists of four quatrains and four tercets, equally divided between the speakers. The formula runs thus:

Octaves | F.--a. b. b. a.
| S.--a. b. b. a.
| F.--a. b. b. a.
| S.--a. b. b. a.
          Sestets | F.--c. d. c.
| S.--c. d. c.
| F.--d. c. d.
| S.--d. c. d.

The double sonnet is not infrequently met within Italian poetry, but is never used by French or English writers; and a double sonnet in dialogue, even in Italian, must be regarded as a tour-de-force.

Of the dialogue sonnets written in English, that of William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, who was contemporary and very friendly with William Drummond, of Hawthornden, demands prior attention. It reads as follows:

A. What art thou, in such sort that wail'st thy fall,
And comes surcharged with an excessive grief?
H. A woful wretch, that comes to crave relief,
And was his heart that now hath none at all.
A. Why dost thou thus to me unfold thy state,
As if with thy mishaps I would embroil me?
H. Because the love I bare to you did spoil me,
And was the instrument of my hard fate.
A. And dare so base a wretch so high aspire,
As for to plead for interest in my grace?
Go, get thee hence! or, if thou dost not cease,
I vow to burn thee with a greater fire.
H. Ah! ah! this great unkindness stops my breath,
Since those that I love best procure my death.

It will be seen that this sonnet was written in the so-called Shakespearian form, viz.,--a. b. b. a., c. d. d. c., e. f. f. e., g. g. [actually, the Shakespearean sonnet is usually defined as abab, cdcd, efef, gg.(--Sonnet Central)]

Another specimen of this rare form of sonnet has been composed by Mr. E. W. Gosse. It is entitled "Alcyone," and is conducted in dialogue by Phœbus and Alcyone. The fable to which it relates is the effect that Alcyone, one of the daughters of Æolus, god of the wind, had married Ceyx, with whom she lived in such perfect happiness that they took upon themselves the names and attributes of gods. This angered Jupiter, who revenged himself by causing a shipwreck, in which Ceyx was drowned, whereat Alcyone, in a fit of grief, flung herself into the sea. They were transformed to Halcyons, or kingfishers. It is probably just before Alcyone's suicide that this dialogue takes place. The allusion in the last line is doubtless to Ovid's long account of the legend:


Phœbus. What voice is this that wails above the deep?
Alcyone. A wife's, that mourns her fate and loveless days.
P. What love lies buried in these water-ways?
A. A husband's, hurried to eternal sleep.
P. Cease, O beloved, cease to wail and weep
A. Wherefore?
P.                      The waters in a fiery blaze
Proclaim the godhead of my healing rays.
A. No god can sow where fate hath stood to reap.
P. Hold, wringing hands! Cease, piteous tears to fall!
A. But grief must rain and glut the passionate sea.
P. Thou shalt forget this ocean and thy wrong,
And I will bless the dead, though past recall.
A. What canst thou give to me or him in me?
P. A name in story and a light in song.

The formula of this is perfectly Petrarchan, viz.,--a. b. b. a., a. b. b. a., c. d. e., c. d. e.

Regarding the above, Mr. S. Waddington remarks: "This poem, we feel assured, would have delighted Walter Savage Landor, and we can imagine him speaking of it in the terms he used with reference to Thomas Russell's 'Philoctetes,'--'A sonnet on Alcyone by Mr. Gosse, which would authorize him to join the shades of Sophocles and Euripides.' It is the best dialogue sonnet that has been written in English."

The spirit is certainly remarkably Greek and the execution very fine.

The limited space and inexorable law of unity which confines the sonnet within its proper sphere precludes it from becoming a vehicle for dialogue, which must be essentially of dramatic effect. As ingenious exercises, the specimens quoted are worth preserving, but as legitimate sonnets they cannot be regarded. There is no reason why a trilogue sonnet or chorus sonnet should not be written; but who would not hesitate to venture so far as this?

E. B. Brownlow.