By Prosser Hall Frye

The following text is from Literary Reviews and Criticisms, pp. 1-18, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York & London.

EVERYBODY knows that Shakespeare wrote sonnets; but it is not so generally understood how thoroughly the sonnet was a matter of fashion in Shakespeare's day. Some notion of its vogue in those times may be derived from the fact that during the sixteenth century, so it has been calculated, there were more than 300,000 Sonnets produced in Western Europe. These sonnets, particularly those of an amorous nature, were often gathered into collections or "sequences" and were dubbed with the poetic pseudonyms of the inexpressive she's who were their putative inspirers, and who were, in fact, often saluted by their adorers as so many tenth Muses. Of such collections the present reissue of Arber's English Garner [Elizabethan Sonnets. With an Introduction by Sidney Lee. 2 vols. New York: B. P. Dutton & Co.] contains fifteen examples, comprising those of Sidney, Drayton, Spenser, Daniel--in short, representing a large and by all odds the most important part of the sonneteering activity during the Elizabethan period, exclusive of Shakespeare's.

Such is the character of the book. And as it is now one of the most convenient sources for the study of this particular product, it is too bad that the text, which is virtually Arber's with the insertion of some additional matter, should not have been thoroughly revised. In some of the additions, for instance, an old spelling is retained after the present fashion, while in others it has suffered modernisation. Sometimes the syllabic -ed is indicated, sometimes not. The punctuation too ought to have been thoroughly overhauled. And it is to be wished that some one had taken the trouble to provide the Diana with a specification of Constable's contributions.

But these are minor matters after all and need not detain us. The most noteworthy part of the whole performance is the general introduction by Mr. Sidney Lee, who undertakes to assign the Elizabethan love-sonnet to its proper niche in the gallery of comparative literature. In order to indicate intelligibly what he has done, however, it will be necessary to explain briefly the nature of the collection.

What must strike the general reader most forcibly in looking over these sonnets--for with many of them reading is an impossible operation--is their wretchedness from the modern literary point of view. Historically and relatively they may be of some interest and importance; artistically and absolutely--if it is permissible to speak of an absolute in such affairs--they are of little or none either in matter or manner. Of course it is hardly to be expected of Elizabethan poetry, as a whole, that it should display the high and exquisite finish which we regard nowadays as indispensable to verse, particularly to such a kind of verse as the sonnet. Outside of the drama and some short snatches of simple song--and oven here felicity seems often a matter of accident--there was, with few exceptions, no mastery of versification at this time, no certain and assured craftsmanship, such as begins to appear a little later with Drummond of Hawthornden. It is from Ben Jonson that this new idea of art, as a controlled and conscious workmanship distinct from inspiration and ancillary to it, actually emanates. But when Ben Jonson himself ventures outside of his province and undertakes to turn Horace into English rhymes, what a mess he makes of it! While Donne himself, the most remarkable poet between Jonson and Milton, is no very sure hand even with his own couplets. For a regular and masterful technique, then, we are not to look to this period. And especially in the case of these sonnets it is evident on the face of it that the writers are dealing with a form and a versification which, for some reason or other, they have acquired only very imperfectly and which in spite of their efforts still remains strange and foreign-seeming. In the mass their work, judge it by what standard you will, is exceedingly crude and ungainly, marked by lapses of taste and by discordant notes of all kinds, by violent wrenchings and inversions of sense and construction, and by a pathetic powerlessness to marry ictus and accent or to force recalcitrant rhymes into their proper places.

Now and then, to be sure, as might be expected, the gloom is relieved by a few flashes of that brilliant, if fitful, lightning which was at this very time playing about the contemporary drama:

Plain patched experience, the unlettered's guide,


From looking on the earth whence she was born
Her mind remember'th her mortality,

or again

The light-foot lackey that runs post by death.

But such picturesque touches, such sultry gleams of Elizabethan spirit, are exceptional. And in general, it must be acknowledged, one has to grub pretty industriously to find anything worth while. The last advice the writers have thought of following is that of Sidney's muse, "Look in thy heart and write." They present love, not as it is naturally seen by the individual or yet by humanity, but as an arbitrary and invariable convention. Their conception is inevitably composed of two main features: the lover's constancy and desperation, and his mistress's surpassing beauty and coldness.

She has plundered the flower gardens of their sweets, the mines of Ophir and Ind of their treasures, Olympus of its perfections. Her cheek puts the roses to shame, her hand the lilies; her teeth are pearls, her eyes suns; she is lovely--not as Venus, who was rather too eligible a deity for our sonneteers, but as Juno, as wise as Minerva, as chaste as Diana, after whose example she delights to hound her lover to death, Actæon-like, with his own thoughts. As for that unfortunate gentleman himself, he spends his time in lamentation and weeping, when he is not inditing of canzones to his lady; he tosses nightly on a sleepless pillow; in the course of a little time his tears form a fountain by which he sits complaining to Echo, occasionally rousing to arbitrate between his eyes and heart while they dispute whether of the twain is guilty of first admitting love. And all this ingenious nonsense is further exaggerated and dilated by every imaginable sort of conceit, quirk, and oddity. Of the genealogy of Pain, for example, we are informed that he is child to Curse, foster-child to Human Weakness, brother to Woe, father to Complaint, and a guest of Constraint. One thing alone does the reader seldom or never meet with--the thrill of a genuine feeling or the warm pervasive aura of a real personality. It would appear as though these poetasters had deliberately selected some lady of their acquaintance, the more distant the better, and had proceeded to make up on her their literary exercises in accordance with the invariable prescription. In fact Giles Fletcher, author of Licia, admits that for once there is no woman in the case at all--or rather that she is a mere Platonic phantom, a kind of allegorised idea. In one sense, indeed, the writers may be said to have had a kind of basis of fact. Undoubtedly they turned to account such general incidents of their daily experience as were suggestive and could be readily poetised to fit the form. But the basis is always trivial. The main thing was the elaboration of the conventional pattern with which it was to be overlaid. And with the exception of Shakespeare, whose actuality is unmistakable, their final impression is of utter airiness and insubstantiality.

To this general run of mediocrity or worse, as we should now reckon it, there are naturally some exceptions. Principal among such are Sidney's "With how sad steps, O moon!" Come, sleep, O sleep!" and "Leave me, O Love!"; Daniel's "Care-charmer sleep"; Spenser's "One day I wrote her name upon the sand"; and Drayton's exquisite "Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part," certainly the gem of the collection though it belongs in reality to a later period. Most of these are well known or are to be found in the "Golden Treasury." For this reason it will be better to quote a sonet--Barnes's--which is less familiar but well worth reading as an illustration of their higher reaches.

Ah, sweet Content! where is thy mild abode?
Is it with shepherds and light-hearted Swains,
Which sing upon the downs and pipe abroad,
Tending their flocks and cattle on the plains?
Ah, sweet Content! where dost thou safely rest?
In heaven with angels? Which the praises sing
Of him that made and rules at his behest,
The minds and hearts of every living thing.
Ah, sweet Content! where doth thine harbour hold?
Is it in churches with religious men,
Which please the gods with prayers manifold:
And in their studies meditate it then?
Whether dost thou in heaven or earth appear;
Be where thou wilt! Thou wilt not harbour here!
Barnes: Parthenophil and Parthenope, lXVi.

But such exceptions as this are very rare indeed--and as for the rest they are essentially as has been described.

At first thought there is something very curious, almost disconcerting, about this sterility in an age that we have been accustomed to prefer before all others for its spontaneity, imagination, and fire. Half a dozen good sonnets--the list was nearly exhaustive--out of a thousand; and it is difficult to pick up a play of the time without finding more than one evidence of great, if irregular, power! What, then, is the explanation of this anomaly? As a matter of fact, no serious answer to this question has ever been attempted--possibly the question itself could not have been intelligently propounded--before Mr. Lee's introductory essay to these volumes. Of his solution--or rather of the solution which suffers itself to be drawn from his essay--the substance may be briefly explained as follows:

It is hardly necessary to repeat that the sonnet was introduced into England for the first time about the middle of the sixteenth century by Wyatt and Surrey, who had it themselves from Petrarch, the head and front of all sonneteering. But it was not exactly in continuation of this original impulse that the great flood of Elizabethan sonnet literature began to rise in 1591. By that time the sonnet was the rage throughout Europe, not only in Italy, the land of its birth, but also in France, where it had been domesticated by the Pléiade, a group of writers devoted to the importation of Italian literature, among whom Ronsard is the most prominent. And it was from this secondary or derivative source, this cistern or reservoir, that the sonneteers of Elizabeth pumped their supplies. The best of them, such men as Sidney and Spenser, were, to be sure, acquainted with Italian literature at first hand. But even they were indebted in great measure to the French, whereas the feebler run of versifiers had frequently no other support except their English contemporaries. Nor was this debt in any case merely formal or confined to the vague sphere of poetic influence or inspiration. Not only is the whole conception of the genre borrowed, but its procédés and execution are appropriated as well. The same ideas and notions, the same conceits and figures, the same individual features, recur through the entire lineage, Italian, French, and English. Even the vacuous idealism is a remote echo of Petrarchian Platonism. In short, to cut down a long story, the English sonnet is not only a fad and liable to all the abuses of an artificial fashion, it is also a rechauffé, a mere imitation of an imitation, even a line-for-line translation of foreign models, not particularly consonant, it may be added, with the English genius. Of this fact there can be no reasonable doubt after even a cursory examination of Mr. Lee's citations and references. And indeed, the product itself, as has been noticed, shows many of the earmarks of translation; it is stiff and splay, dull, diffuse, and mechanical.

And yet in pirating, the Elizabethans did modify the sonnet to some extent, slavish as from Mr. Lee's account they may appear. As every one knows nowadays, the Petrarchian sonnet had a rhyming scheme in which not only were the first eight lines, constituting the octave, and the last six, the sestet, kept distinct, but also the two quatrains of the former and the two tercets of the latter--a scheme to which the phrasing itself was made to conform. This was the discipline generally followed in sixteenth-century Italy and was also adopted by the French with an unimportant variation of the sestet. In England, however, the inclination was to close with a couplet, whence it became natural for the English to consider the preceding twelve lines as made up of three sets of fours and to rhyme then alternately, often without any distinct or regular memberment, as in Shakespeare's case.

As a result of this structural deformation, there followed a change in the character, or at least in the effect, of the thought, due to the difference in the manner of developing it--a change, though important, to which Mr. Lee calls no particular attention. About the genuine sonnet there was a kind of parallelism encouraged by the two quatrains and the two tercets lying side by side, which imparted a peculiar movement to the ideas committed to their charge; and there was also a kind of cyclic or spiral progress initiated by the sestet, in accordance with which the sonnet, while rising, rounded again to its point of origin. Some allowance ought too to be made for the predominance of masculine rhymes over feminine; but such considerations would lead us too far afield. In the aggregate, then, notwithstanding the closeness with which the English repeated their masters, the change of construction, as it tended constantly to warp and disrupt the assemblage of parts, tended also to break up and modify the concatenation, and hence the general effect, of the ideas. And though it may be too much to say that in this way the English created a new genre, yet there can be no doubt that they seriously transformed the old one--so much so that it can not be judged wholly by the same principles as the original.

Such is, in general, the natural history of the Elizabethan sonnet. In regard to some of Mr. Lee's conclusions, however, a word or two still remain to be said. Against the sonneteers as a body he seems to have made out his case. But to individual exceptions and occasional felicities he is anything but sensitive. On their literary side he has belittled the interest of the sonnets, if not as a matter of principle, at least consistently. To Lodge and Spenser, in particular, he shows but scant justice, to say nothing of appreciation. A great robber Lodge may have been, like Hawkins and Drake and Raleigh; but at the same time there is a comparative ease and fluency about his writing which may explain, if not justify, the favourable opinion traditionally held of him, upon which Mr. Lee pounces with all the gleeful assurance of a positive method. Nor is it quite historical to condemn a man for the practices and manners of his own age and society; while it ought to be remembered that to convict an inhabitant of those spacious times of looting, is not quite the same thing as to convict him of literary incompetence. As for Spenser, on the other hand, Mr. Lee hardly gives him full credit for the technical qualities of his Amoretti, though he makes them a rather more liberal allowance than is usual with him. The Amoretti, to be sure, show no great inspiration; but they do show an advanced knowledge of the musical capabilities of verse, of which Mr. Lee says nothing.

Indeed, this mode of treatment is indicative of his whole procedure. In his enthusiasm for his thesis he forgets that these men, for all their pilfering, preserve a distinctly personal flavour. In spite of conventionality and tradition a sonnet by Lodge is an entirely different matter from a sonnet by Daniel or Constable or any other of the poetic brotherhood.

Thrice happy thou, Endymion, that embracest
The livelong night thy love within thine arms.
Lodge: Phillis, xvii.
Danger hath honour! great designs their fame!
Glory doth follow! Courage goes before!
And though the event oft answers not the same
Suffice that high attempts have never shame.
The Mean-Observer (whom base safety keeps)
Lives without honour, dies without a name;
And in eternal darkness ever sleeps.
Daniel: Delia, xxx.
O that I never had been born at all!
Or being, had been born of shepherds' brood!
Then should I not in such mischances fall!
Quiet my water; and Content my food!
Barnes: Parthenophil and Parthenope, lxv.
Anemone stood there with Daffodilly!
The purple Hyacinth, and the musk Rose!
Red Amaranthus, and the milk-bred Lily!
Zepheria, 33.

In other. words, there is actually something in the work besides the model which it follows. Even formally it is something more than a bare transcript; for though the writers did not succeed in making a correct sonnet, they did occasionally succeed in making something which is not a wholly unacceptable substitute.
Not causeless were you christened, gentle flowers,
The one of faith, the other fancy's pride;
For she who guides both faith and fancy's power,
In your fair colours laps her ivory side.
And as nor tyrant sun nor winter weather
May ever change sweet amaranthus hue,
So she, though love and fortune join together,
Will never leave to be both fair and true.
Lodge: Phillis, xxviii.

And in modifying the movement and the character of the stanza in accordance with English conditions they did also prepare a genre in which Shakespeare was finally able to deliver himself as he might not have been able to do otherwise.

And surely this is no slight failing. To pass judgment upon these sonneteers in the absence of Shakespeare is very much like eliminating its chief practitioner from a consideration of the Elizabethan drama. What a sorry thing it would be under those circumstances and how false our notions of it! And yet Mr. Lee, finding the sonnet without Shakespeare to be nought, has turned about and applied this conclusion to the belittlement of Shakespeare's. Nor is it altogether clear that he has fully perceived the intention of these sonneteers in themselves. The very possibility that all this work was actually meant in the main to be the very thing it is--an essay in ingenuity, an attempt to produce an "intellectual" poetry by a group of "wits," who were in a manner precursors of Donne and the "metaphysicals," and who would have resented the imputation of mere prettiness or even passion as bitterly as Cowley himself--such a possibility he seems to ignore altogether. And hence it is that, failing to relate it to life on the one hand, and on the other missing its most important literary affinity, he has failed, in so far, to grasp its vital significance as a poetic manifestation.

Will it seem unprofitably dilettanteish, then, if we add in closing, that while a discussion of this kind is invaluable from one point of view, there is at the same time something rather dreary and unfilling about it, as there must always be in the discussion of matters purely formal? At all events it is certainly permissible to wish that so acute a scholar might have found time for some of the very significant ethical problems rising around his subject. What was there, for instance, in the disposition of the human spirit in the sixteenth century to give the sonnet such an immense vogue? What has been the result of such a determination upon our own social and individual culture? With reference to the former question M. Doumic has an interesting article in a recent number of the Revue des Deux Mondes. In default of any answer to the second it may be excusable, for the sake of forming some idea of the relation of all this literature to life, to risk ourselves for a moment to a generalisation rather more hazardous than a writer of Mr. Lee's reputation for accuracy would probably care to undertake.

The young man who grows up into life nowadays finds his behaviour and even his emotional attitude toward the other sex regulated for him largely in accordance with certain generally understood traditions and conventions. No matter how uncritical his boyhood may have been, he now finds three sets of feelings thoroughly, elaborately discriminated--romantic love, marriage, and desire, and the psychology, calculations, tactics, and so on proper to each defined and codified. After a little experience he himself is no longer in danger of mixing matters; or if he should happen to do so, he brings society with its average common-sense about his ears. The distinction, however, is obviously modern. The Greeks knew nothing of it--at least systematically. Euripides' Hecuba, in appealing to Agamemnon to avenge the death of Polydorus, conjures him by his love for Cassandra, whom she speaks of as his wife but who is in reality his concubine--a confusion intolerably shocking to the present sense of propriety. And how ambiguous to our minds is Helen's case! As a matter of fact it is to the poets of the Renaissance and their later imitators and successors, the French Pléiadde, the Elizabethan sonneteers, that we are indebted at least for the love part of our code. Their conception of love is a sort of humanistic blending of the Platonic admiration of abstract beauty with the mediæval adoration of woman, and consists, therefore, of two elements, answering in this fashion to the constitution of the humanist himself--a scholastic and a social ingredient.

To all these particular partitions--romantic love, desire, and marriage--there is naturally a common ground of passion patent or obscure. Between imagination and passion the connection is exceedingly close and compelling; and a vast amount of poetry has been inspired by the subterraneous promptings of this emotion, as Mr. Santayana has justly indicated in his essay on the Sense of Beauty. Such was undoubtedly the original motive--or at least one of them--behind the love poetry of the Renaissance. But as the separation between love, marriage, and desire was widened and confirmed by scholastic and other influence then at work, passion was restricted more and more to desire, while marriage became more subject to prudential calculation, and love itself to affectation until it gradually lost all its initiative and spontaneity. Virtually, therefore, the love sonnet, while preserving the convention, had by Shakespeare's time become sexless, and except for its personal pronouns might just as well be applied to men as to women. It is very significant, however, to notice that Shakespeare's sonnets do break through the convention; he is singular in admitting passion into the love sonnet and confounding the categories--a fact that would lead one to infer that Mr. Lee has in his life exaggerated the element of artificiality and imitation in Shakespeare's work. But however this may be, it is evident that the modern feeling for women is changing so rapidly as to be no longer represented by this old literature, the appreciation of which is obviously waning, though we still employ something of the old form and circumstance and shall continue to do so until we can beat out a new ethics--that is, in all probability for some little time to come.