By John Erskine


THE sonnet, in both the Italian and the English forms, became naturalized in English literature by the practice of Wyatt and Surrey. Their chief model was Petrarch, and they followed him in confining the use of the sonnet to love-plaints or to very personal expressions. It will be remembered that in Tottel's Miscellany, the lyrics devoted to the emotions of the typical lover are usually in the "poulter's measure," and tend to class themselves together. On the other hand the sonnets, though devoted to the same subject, are so far new to English literature that each example remains distinct. When the general use of the long septenaries was declining, and the tendency toward collections of lyrics was taking an artistic form, as in the Shepheards Calender, it was but natural that the sonnet should reappear in its original Petrarchan use, as the unit in an autobiographical series.

This use of the sonnet, which characterizes the years from 1590 to 1600, was not a matter of sudden innovation, but one of growth. Of the few steps in the development that are now visible to us, the principal illustration is Thomas Watson's Hekatompathia, or Passionate Centurie of Love, printed in 1582.1 This is a collection of a hundred "passions," or themes of love. They are supposed to show the different sufferings of one lover, and in that respect, as well as in the verse-form, they have a certain unity. But so far are they removed from any narrative continuity, such as is imposed upon Shakspere's sonnets, or from any basis of fact, that they are collected almost at haphazard, one of them as an afterthought,2 and the poet admits in the preface that all his love-passions are imaginary.3 In these traits the collection probably resembles most of the later sequences. Its early date is responsible for the use of a familiar stanza instead of the sonnet form.

For the period in which they appeared, these lyrics were felt to be extremely scholarly, so that the author, or the editor, thought it necessary to prefix a commentary to each poem. This device is akin to the long narrative titles in the miscellanies, but differs from them in supplying true commentaries, and not prose introductions to the lyrics. A nearer parallel is the use of notes in the Shepheards Calendar,

1 Arber Reprint, 1895.

2 See Introduction to No. xiv. p. 81.

3 Ibid., p. 27. "Yet for this once I hope that thou wilt in respect of my travaile in penning these love passions, or for pitie of my paines in suffering them (although but supposed). . . etc."

and, for a more illustrious example, the explanatory commentaries to the various lyrics in the Vito Nuova. Besides a summary of the poem, Watson's introductions contain frank acknowledgments of indebtedness to other poets; so that each borrowed theme can be readily traced, and the wide range of Watson's reading appreciated. Petrarch is his chief source of inspiration, then Ronsard; after them, the Latin poems of Stephanus Forcatulus, extracts from Sophocles, Theocritus, and Horace, and the poems of Seraphini, Girolamo Parabosco, and other Italian lyrists. Forty-one of the hundred lyrics are thus confessed to be paraphrases.

The subject-matter falls into two very general classes. The first seventy-eight poems deal with the "true estate and perturbations" of love; the rest are printed under the emblem "My love is past," and express the renunciation of love.1 In these two classes the traditional themes are all found, though their treatment is inclined to be either pedantic or fantastic. The poet delights in such propositions as that he "abideth more unrest and hurt for his beloved, than ever did Leander for his Hero,"2 or "he doubteth lest those flames, wherein his soule continually burneth, shall make Charon afraid to grant him passage over the lake of Stix, by reason, his old withered boat is apt to take fire."3

1 See Introduction to No. lxxix. p. 115.

2 Ibid., p. 66.

3 Ibid., p. 85.

There are no autobiographical incidents whatever in the series.

This collection is valuable chiefly as an indication of the new fashion at hand. As poetry, judged by itself, it has little claim on immortality. It is of the quality of the poorer miscellany poems, though the manner is that of a trained rhetorician. The similarity to the miscellany verse appears also in fantastic tricks of style, as in the anagram-lyric, in which the first letters form the quotation, Amor me pungit et urit.1 There is also an echo-sonnet, in which the final phrase of each sentence is repeated:--

"Author. In all this world I thinke none love's but I.

Echo. None love's but I. Author. Thou foolish tattling ghest,

      In this thou telst a lie. Echo. Thou telst a lie," etc.2

One song is constructed upon the rhetorical principle called by the commentator reduplicatio, according to which every clause begins with some word or phrase in the end of the preceding clause.3  This method remains a favorite device of style with the sonneteers. Watson's most absurd exhibition of scholasticism, however, is the Pasquine Piller erected in the Despite of Love,4 a lyric printed in the shape of a column, to be read only with the greatest difficulty, but as a compensation, following out a mathematical order in the words, upon which the author evidently prided himself. Such technical curiosities

1 Ibid., p. 88.

2 Ibid., p. 61.

3 Ibid., p. 77.

4 Ibid., p. 117.

are most familiar to the reader of English literature in the works of the seventeenth century fantastic school, of whom, in this one respect, Watson should be considered a forerunner.

The general structure of this song-series, it should be remembered, was not that of continuous subject-matter; its only unity consisted in the general theme of love, and in the single verse-form employed. The same criticism is true of the first real sonnet-series, Henry Constable's Spiritual Sonnettes to the Honour of God and Hys Sayntes,1 1591. These seventeen sonnets, To God the Father, To the Blessed Sacrament, To Our Blessed Lady, etc., have no other connection but the general theological tone of the subjects. It was the fashion to write religious occasional poems, and to pretend to think more of such performances than of secular verses, but these sonnets are not the most important of Constable's work. They are chiefly remarkable for the employment throughout of the Petrarchan form, and for using that form for other themes than those of love.

This modest little collection is completely overshadowed by Astrophel and Stella,2 published the same year, a sonnet-series that is thought to have given the impulse and form to the numerous later collections. It was the most celebrated book of the sonnet period, and even now gives way only to

1  The Sonnets and Other Poems of Henry Constable, W. C. Hazlitt, 1859, p. 49 sq.

2 Arber's English Garner, i.

Shakspere's. The sonnets fall into two groups, those having an autobiographical intention, and those dealing with conventional themes, more or less linked with the other class, such as the sonnet to the moon, or the one to sleep. From the autobiographical group, a slight sequence of action can be arranged, which fits well with the known facts of Sidney's love affairs. The first eighty-five sonnets deal with the wooing of Stella, who is married; the rest tell how the poet left her from a sense of honor, although she loved him, and how he overcame his passion for her. The basis in fact for this seems to be that Stella, the Lady Penelope Devereux, was at some time proposed as a bride for Sidney, but was married by her friends, against her will, to Lord Rich. She was very unhappy in her marriage, and finally, after Sidney's death, obtained a divorce. Sidney does not appear to have cared much for her until after she was married; then, when it was too late, he came to appreciate her charms, and addressed the sonnets to her. That she loved him is made probable by the cruel treatment she received from her husband, and by the fact that after Sidney's death she was addressed by complimentary poets as his love--a liberty they could hardly have taken had it displeased her.1

1 For general discussions of this subject, cf. Arber's English Garner, i. p. 467 sq.; Hubert Hall's Society in the Elizabethan Age, pp. 90-91; and Dr. Grosart's Introduction, Poems of Sidney, 1877.