Early renaissance poetry notes


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Early renaissance poetry notes

  1. 1. 1The Meaning of Form in Early English Renaissance Poetry1Dr S. Mngadi (B 723, English Department, University of Johannesburg)Consultation Hours: Monday; Tuesday; Thursday: 10h30 – 12h30; Friday: 10h00 – 12h00(or byappointment)NB: I have covered some of the poems in the selection provided, in view of theexam. The poetry of Walter Ralegh, Queen Elizabeth 1 and Philip Sidney is thusexcluded from the discussion as it will not feature in the exam.IntroductionThe time is out of joint. O cursèd spite, / That ever I was born to set it right! (Hamlet, 1.5. 195-196).Seen in the wider context of the English Renaissance, Hamlet’s words above about “*t+he time” being“out of joint” have far-reaching implications than the specific context of the play Hamlet in which heutters them, i.e. the early 1600s (early 17thcentury) when the play first appeared. In fact, already in theearly 1500s (early 16thcentury), with the appearance of Thomas Wyatt’s English translations of thepoetry of the 14thcentury Italian poet Francesca Petrarca (Petrarch), the sense thatEnglish literature wasbreaking with the morality literature popular in England in the late 1400s (late 15thcentury), andentering a new era, could be discerned in the troubled tone and imagery of Wyatt’s poems.For instance,if one leaves aside the formal similarities, reading Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch’s sonnets, one isimmediately struck by the difference in their preoccupations: whereas Petrarch’s sonnets wereaddressed to Laura, the real woman that Petrarch loved,Wyatt’s poems are addressed to a generic (ornon-specific) “love,” or “she,” ora “hind” (female deer/dear), or “her.” Moreover, the woman in Wyatt’spoems serves a metaphorical purpose rather than the real one that Laura served in Petrarch’s poems.One could even say that the real addressee of Wyatt’s poems is not a woman at all but, instead, themale speaker’s sense of his times as “out of joint” (but metaphorically characterised as the difficultwoman of the chivalric romancesof Petrarch’s time). It is in this sense that I say Hamlet’s words aboveresonate with the character of the Renaissance as a whole, from the early 1500s, through the 1600s, tothe end of the Renaissance in the first half of the 1700s.1This poetry spans the period between 1500 and 1599. It includes poetry written before (pre-Elizabethan) andduring the reigns of Queen Elizabeth 1 (Elizabethan poetry).
  2. 2. 2Wyatt’s poems, then, begin a period of transition of English literature from the literature of theMiddle Ages (or medieval literature) to the early modern literature (or Renaissance literature). It is agenerally accepted fact that times of transition – of change – are anxious times for those living throughthem. When old certainties and habits of thought begin to come under the pressureof new andfundamental questions about the very nature of thought and being, as it happened in the late1400s(late 15thcentury) when scientific discoveries began to threaten the authority of the Catholicchurch and the feudal state, various areas of human endeavour begin to dramatise multiple reactions tothe pressing questions of the day.As one of the areas of human endeavour, literatureplayed its part inthe transition as witness to, and agent for, the search for answersto the meaning/s of change.What isnow called English Renaissance literature, poetry and drama in particular, was at the centre of thissearch: what readers of Shakespeare’sHamletremember most about Hamlet, for instance, are hisstruggles to find answers and to give form to his troubled(Elizabethan) times2than what he actuallydoes. In this sense, in the play his words and the complex shape that they give to his times constitutehis actions upon his time and space, often more so than his physical actions do.One could say this is trueof the pre-Elizabethan poetry of Wyatt and the early Elizabethan poetry of Edmund Spenser and SirPhilip Sidney, for instance.The following discussion of English Renaissance poetry substantiates thebroad historical andconceptual framework that I outline above.Like Cristina Malcolmson, I conceive of the Renaissance inEngland not so much as the rebirth of classical consciousness,3as the term Renaissance has traditionallybeen employed,4as the time of“the production of early modern and modern versions of selfhood, orwhat is termed ‘subjectivity’” (Malcolmson 2; my emphasis).Thus, while in my discussion I pay closeattention to the forms of the poems that I consider, such as the Petrarchan sonnet form, I do so in orderto examine the social and cultural uses to which Renaissance poets put these forms. Indeed, as I noteabove, times of social upheaval and change engender new forms, even if at times some of the newformsare revisions of old ones, as in the case of the sonnet.2Even though Shakespeare disguises this fact by setting the play in Denmark.3That is, of England’s belated consciousness of its European heritage. As I note in my introductory remarks,Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch do not so much mark his return to the chivalric or courtly love tradition in whichPetrarch produced his poetry as borrowing the Petrarchan sonnet form for a different purpose.4This sense of conceiving of the renaissance, as Cristina Malcolmson informs us, was “heralded by Burckhardt inThe Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy in 1860” (1).
  3. 3. 3The function of form in Renaissance poetryLiterary historians have written widely on the historical and political context of English Renaissancepoetry and this discussion draws on some of their work. However, my focus will be on the ways inwhich the poems encodespecific aspects of this literary-cultural history.Early English Renaissance poetry owes its character, but not necessarily its substance, to the courtlylovedoctrine (or the doctrine of chivalry) of Western Europe of the Middle Ages.M.H. Abrams definescourtly love asA doctrine of love, together with an elaborate code governing the relations between aristocraticlovers, which was widely represented in the lyric poems and chivalric romances of westernEurope during the Middle Ages. [. . .] In the conventional doctrine, love between the sexes,with its erotic and physical aspects spiritualized, is regarded as the noblest passion this side ofheaven. The courtly lover idealizes and idolizes his beloved, and subjects himself to her everywhim. [. . .] The lover suffers agonies of body and spirit as he is put to the test by his imperioussweetheart, but remains devoted to her, manifesting his honor by his unswerving fidelity and hisadherence to a rigorous code of behavior, both in knightly battles and in the complexceremonies of courtly speech and conduct. (48-49)There is no doubt that, at the very least, one finds the outlines of the courtly love doctrine of the MiddleAgesin the poetry of early Renaissance England: there is, for instance, a male speaker addressing adifficult woman. Yet one could say the similarities end there: the man in the early Renaissance poemsdoes not “idealize and idolize”(Abrams 48) the woman; in fact, often he scorns her. Moreover, as I notein my introduction, the woman serves a metaphorical purpose in the early Renaissance poems that Ishall examine: she is more of a poetic device for illustrating a point than a real woman. The pointsillustrated in early Renaissance poems often have little to do with love as such, or the relationshipbetween lovers, but rather concern abstract concepts such as social change (in Wyatt’s poems), or thedefence of poetry (in Spenser’s poems), or virtue and constancy (in Sidney’s poems). In this sense, the‘woman’ functions as the opponent or opposing force against which the male speaker-lover asserts hisparticular view on a specific subject or issue. Thomas Wyatt’s poems, for instance, deal with the issue ofsocial change but do so by means of the metaphor of the courtly love doctrine: in his poems, weencounter male speakerswho no longer have faith in the usefulness, in their changing times, of thechivalric tradition that calls for what Abrams above calls “unswerving fidelity to a rigorous code of
  4. 4. 4behavior” (49). The imagery of Wyatt’s poems is of the futile hunt (“Whoso List to Hunt”), or of the malespeaker sailing rough seas with a cruel woman steering the ship (“My Galley”), or of women who wereonce “gentle tame andmeek” but “now are wild . . ./ Busily seeking with continual change” (“They Fleefrom Me”). In Spenser’s sonnets, which were heavily influenced by Philip Sidney’s essay, “An Apologyfor Poetry,” the male speaker is a poet testing his wits against an unappreciative woman (who, in thepoems, is given the identity of nature). In Sidney’s poems, the man, who values the qualities of virtueand constancy, searches in vain to find them in the women of his times.5It must be evident, then, thatwhile the addresser and addressee in these poems remain a man and a woman respectively, as in thechivalric romances of the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance period the content and, to a large extent, theform of their address had changed.With this in mind, let me turn to the discussion of a selection ofRenaissance poems.Thomas WyattThomas Wyatt’s poems, written between 1503 and 1542, before Queen Elizabeth 1’s ascension to thethrone of England, are a good place to start. This is mainly becausetheyregister a more pronouncedsense of transition, that is, of the individual’s social and psychological dislocation, than thelaterElizabethan court lyrics of Spenser and Sidney do.6It could be that, writing at the onset of England’scultural renaissance, that is,in the absence of a literary tradition commensurate with his changing times,and during the turbulent reign of King Henry VIII, before the stabilising nationalist political influence ofQueen Elizabeth 1, Wyattwould have felt his situation somewhat more precarious than Spenser andSidney did their own. As a courtier in the court of King Henry VIII, and a sometime ambassador for theking, Wyatt’s poetry displays the influence of some of his experiences within the court of Henry VIII andduring his ambassadorial travels to places such as Italy, France and Spain. His borrowing from the Italian(or Petrarchan) sonnet, which he would have discovered on his travels, is one example of this influence.Wyatt was also a richly educated man who would have taken a keen interest in the cultural renaissanceof Italy and France, which had already taken place long before England had its own cultural renaissance.5However, of the three poets that I discuss here, Sidney is the closest to the courtly love tradition, in terms of boththe manner of his poems’ address and their subject matter. His strong aristocratic links to the court of QueenElizabeth 1 were an important factor in his artistic choices.6In her recent biography of Thomas Wyatt, Thomas Wyatt: The Heart’s Forest (2012), Susan Brigden states that,“before the Elizabethan prodigies *i.e. Sidney and Spenser+ there had been Wyatt and Surrey, the morning stars ofthe Renaissance in England” (5). Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was Wyatt’s dear friend who translated Petrarch’sRime 140, as “Love, That Doth Reign and Live within My Thought,” which Wyatt had translated as “The Long Love,That in My Thought Doth Harbor.”
  5. 5. 5Further, as regards the influence of his travels on his poetry, which would have been by sea, Wyatt’spoetry is saturated with nautical metaphors: for instance, the imagery of the male speaker sailing roughseas in a war ship (the galley) steered by a cruel mistress (“My Galley”), or the imagery of the speaker asan invaded harbour and of the woman (the long love) as the invading country “spreading his banner”(“The Long Love, That in My Thought Doth Harbor,” Ln. 4). The turbulent reign of King Henry VIII sawWyatttwice thrown in jail (the Tower) by Henry VIII on suspicion of treason. There was also a rumourthat he had an adulterous affair with the king’s wife, Anne Boleyn, whom some critics say is the womanwho, in “Whoso List to Hunt,” says “Noli me tangere [do not touch me+, for Caesar’s I am” (Ln. 13),“Caesar” being thought to have been a reference to Henry VIII. This background must give one a bettersense of the subtext of Wyatt’s poetry; that is, that while on the surface (i.e. in their formal appearance)his poems may appear to be unimaginative copies of the courtly love doctrine of the Middle Ages (inparticular the Petrarchan expression of this doctrine), on closer examination they are poems of andabout his uncertain times. This is a very important point to consider as the basis for the discussion ofWyatt’s poetry.What, then, was the content of England’s cultural renaissance that marked England’s transition frommedievalism to early modernity and which Wyatt’s poetry captured, albeit in a form that seemed illsuited to his times?Here “seemed” is the keyword, for, as I note above, Wyatt’s poems may haveseemed archaic in style but in their subject matter they spoke of an England entering a period of socialand cultural crisis, where older forms and their subject matter, such as the morality literature of the lastdecades of the 1400s,7were becoming increasingly irrelevant to a changing European social, politicaland cultural milieu.8Wyatt’s poems track this crisis mainly in the conceit of the futile hunt or, moregenerally, in their underlying sense of an English world that is losing its old certainties and clear goals –in a nutshell, a world in constant change. One could say that, through this conceit of the futile hunt,what Wyatt posits in his poems is the view that futility itself (or meaninglessness) is the new meaning orgoal that Renaissance man must, to some degree, inevitably embrace.9The Petrarchan sonnet form, with7Here plays such as The Castle of Perseverance or the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight come to mind asexamples of the morality literature that flourished in England in the 1400s. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight mayhave come from a French Arthurian romance.8As I note above, the far-reaching changes in Europe – the challenge to the Catholic Church by Martin Luther in hisreformist 95 theses, for instance; the Copernican revolution in science (astrology); and the rise of humanismagainst feudalism in the literature of the Italian and French renaissance – meant that it was a matter of time beforeEngland would be swept up in these changes.9Here I use the term futility in the modern sense to refer to the condition of the modern human subject latercaptured in the 20thcentury by works such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, for instance. The renaissance is
  6. 6. 6its two parts – the octave expressing the speaker’s frustration and the sestet in which the speakerattempts a resolution – seems to have been a perfect form for Wyatt (and for Elizabethan poets afterhim, albeit with modifications) with which to frame this crisis. To this end, let us examine his sonnet,“Whoso List to Hunt,” more closely:Whoso List10to HuntWhoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind, ˚ female deerBut as for me, alas, I may no more:The vain travail hath wearied me so sore.I am of them that farthest cometh behind;Yet may I by no means my wearied mindDraw from the deer; but as she fleeth afore,Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,As well as I may spend his time in vain:And, graven in diamonds, in letters plainThere is written her fair neck round about:Noli me tangere,11for Caesars I am;And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.E. MS. (from the Edgerton Manuscript)On the surface, the poem is a typical courtly love poem: a male hunter-lover has been pursuing “anhind” (female deer; deer puns with dear: beloved). And, as in the courtly love lyrics of Middle AgesAvignon (in southern France), of which Petrarch’s sonnets are a part, the beloved woman is unavailable,already married to a powerful man (the “Caesar” mentioned in line 13). In the poem, while the malehunter-lover has not given up the pursuit of the beloved woman, he has no doubt that the hunt is butaoften referred to as the period in which this type of dislocated human subjectivity emerged from the feudal subjectof the Middle Ages.10Whoever likes.11“Touch me not (Latin). The phrase (in Italian in Petrarch) has roots in both Petrarch’s sonnet Rime 190 – Wyatt’smain source – and in the Bible (see especially the Catholic Bible, the Vulgate: John 20: 17 and Matthew 22: 21).Renaissance commentators on Petrarch maintained that the deer in Caesar’s royal forest wore collars bearing asimilar inscription, to prevent anyone from hunting the animals. The allusion raises questions about Wyatt’srelation to King Henry VIII (“Caesar,” line 13). Wyatt was accused during his lifetime of having been the lover ofAnne Boleyn, who became Henry VIII’s second wife and a major cause of his break with the Catholic Church”(Ferguson, Margaret et al, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fifth Edition, 2005: 127).
  7. 7. 7futile exercise, and so shares with those men “whoso list to hunt” (who still want to join the hunt)hisexperience, i.e.that his hunt has not borne any fruit. Moreover, “The vain travail hath wearied *him+sore” (Ln. 3), which means that the futile trial, or his futile chase of the woman, has exhausted him. Theoctave (first eight lines) ends with a powerful metaphorforthe futility of his efforts: he says, “in a net Iseek to hold the wind” (Ln. 8).In the last six lines (sestet) the male hunter-lover attempts to arrive at aresolution, which is to “put him *whoso list to hunt+ out of doubt” (Ln. 9), because he *whoso list tohunt+ may “spend his time in vain” (Ln. 10), as the hunter-lover has spent his, pursuing an unavailablewoman.The tone of the poem compliments its message: for instance, the words “alas” (Ln. 2), “wearied”(Ln. 3), and “Fainting I follow” (Ln. 7) carry the emotional content of the futile act, which emotionalcontent threatens to spill over the lines of the tightly-structured sonnet form itself, so to speak.Yet beneath the surface something else is underway in this sonnet. Indeed, it is when one (i) situatesWyatt’s poem in his time; (ii) examines the poetic stance of Wyatt’s poem’s speaker; (iii) attends to thediction or vocabulary of the speaker’s case; and (iv) takes note of the tone or attitude of the speakertowards the woman, that certain anomalies appear between the courtly love lyric, the Petrarchan lyricincluded, and Wyatt’s own.In Wyatt’s poem there is none of the devotional content of the Middle Ages courtly lovelyric.Whereas in Petrarch’s lyrics for Laura, collected in the Rime disperse, Laura features as“Non . . .mortale” (Ln. 9), meaning “not . . . a mortal thing,” or “uno spirto celeste, un vivo sole” (Ln. 12), meaning“a celestial spirit, a living sun,” in Wyatt’s poem the woman is decidedly human and the speaker’sattitude towards her is reproachful. However, let us consider one of Petrarch’s sonnets for Laura, partsof which I have just cited, to illustrate this point further:Erano i capei d’oro a l’aura sparsiche ‘n mille dolci nodi gli avolgea,e ‘l vago lume oltra misura ardeadi quei begli occhi ch’or ne son sὶ scarsi;e ‘l viso di pietosi color’ farsi,non so se vero o falso, mi parea:i’ che l’ ésca amorosa al petto avea,qual meraviglia se di sùbito arsi?
  8. 8. 8Non era l’andar suo cosa mortale,ma d’angelica forma, et le parolesonavan altro, che pur voce humana:uno spirto celeste, un vivo solefu quel ch’i’ vidi; et se non fosse or tale,piagha per allentar d’arco non sana.[Her golden hair was loosed to the breezewhich turned it in a thousand sweet knots,and the lovely light burned without measure in her eyeswhich are now stingy of it;and it seemed to meher face took the colour of pity:I, who had the tinder of love in my breast,what wonder is it if I suddenly caught fire?Her walk was not of a mortal thing,but of some angelic form, and her wordssounded different from merely human voice:a celestial spirit, a living sunwas what I saw, and if she were not such now,a wound is not healed by the loosening of the bow.]In this sonnet, Petrarch’s estimation of Laura is in inverse proportion to his estimation of himself: hispoetic effort is entirely devoted to his beloved Laura, as the plant to the sun (the latter knownasheliotropism12). By contrast, in Wyatt’s Petrarchan sonnets there is none of this heliotropic(or onecould say, devotional) substance; instead, the male speaker is the point of reference, while the ‘woman’12The term heliotropism refers to the unidirectional growth of the plant towards the sun. As the metaphorical sunin Petrarch’s sonnets, Laura occupies an elevated position in the direction of which the poet-lover, Petrarch, aimshis devotional lyrics.
  9. 9. 9(who is referred to generally as ‘the love’)inhabits a metaphorical plane at the opposite, rather than theupper, end. Let us consider, for instance, Wyatt’s “The Long Love, That in My Thought Doth Harbor.”The Long Love That in My Thought Doth Harbor13The long˚ love, that in my thought doth harbour,˚ enduring/lodgeAnd in mine heart doth keep his residence,Into my face presseth with bold pretence,And therein campeth, spreading his banner.14She that me learneth˚ to love and suffer, teachesAnd wills that my trust and lust’s negligenceBe reined15by reason, shame and reverence,With his hardiness˚ taketh displeasure.boldnessWherewithal, unto the hearts16forest he fleeth,Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry;And there him hideth and not appeareth.What may I do when my master fearethBut in the field with him to live and die?For good is the life, ending faithfully.E. MS.(Edgerton Manuscript)On a basic level, the poem dramatises the conflict between (i) love as passion/sensuality and (ii) love assubject to the moderating influence of reason17and then attempts to resolve this conflict. It is a typicalPetrarchan sonnet: the first eight lines (octave) introduce this conflict: as a sensual (or bodily) state, loveresides “in mine heart . . . / Into my face presseth with bold pretense” (Ln. 2-3). As a state of mind,however, sensual love must “Be reined by reason, shame and reverence/ With his hardiness . . .” (Ln. 7).Sensuality is given a male identity, “he,” “his” and “him” (Ln. 4, 8, 9, 10, 11 & 13),and reason a femaleone (in line 5 it is “She that me learneth *i.e. teaches me+ to love and suffer”). In line 8, sensuality“taketh displeasure” at reason’s reprimand, “Wherewithal, unto the heart’s forest he fleeth” (Ln. 9) and“hideth” (Ln. 11), “Leaving his enterprise *i.e. his desire+ with pain and cry” (Ln. 10). The last six lines(sestet), then, present sensuality resolving to follow his “master [i.e. desire]” (Ln. 12) who has fled “untothe heart’s forest” (Ln. 9), and there “with him to live and die” (Ln. 13). It would seem from the13Translated from Petrarch, Rime 140. Cf. The translation by Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, “Love, That Doth Reignand Live within My Thought.”14Raising the flag, i.e. taking up a position for battle and, figuratively, blushing.15Checked; with a probable pun on reigned.16With a pun on heart and hart (as deer).17This is understandable, given that the renaissance increasingly came to be known as the Age of Reason, asopposed to the Age before it, i.e. the age of passions or of the body.
  10. 10. 10rhetorical question in line 13 that the male lover sees his decision to follow his desire as logical: “Forgood is the life, ending faithfully” (Ln. 14). This resolution, needless to say, is the reversal of thePetrarchan resolution: in Petrarch the male lover remains “unswerving” in his “honor” and “fidelity”towards Laura, who, like the mistress of reason in Wyatt’s poem, is the symbol of chastity (Abrams 49).Yet this basic level of the poem’s meaning clearly serves an allegorical purpose, the poem’s deepermeaning lying elsewhere in the radical transformation of the social and cultural milieu of Englandherself, a transformation Wyatt was caught in. George Puttenham, the Elizabethan theorist of poetry,said of Wyatt and his friend Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, they were “the most excellent makers of theirtime” (74; my emphasis). This characterisation of Wyatt as the maker of his time, obviously through hispoetry, takes our reading of his poetry in a historicist direction. That is, it enjoins us to read past thePetrarchan façade of his poems, and the façade of the courtly love tradition, and to discern in hispoemsthe contours of a poetic voice that properly belongs to early (pre-Elizabethan) 16thcenturyEngland, rather than to 14thcentury Provence in which Petrarch wrote (and in which the courtly lovedoctrine flourished).The question, then, is: what might it mean, in the practical sense of interpreting hispoems, to say that Wyatt was the maker of his time? This question has been partly answered above;however, let us look closer at the larger issues that Wyatt’s poems poeticise, and here elements such asimagery, tone, diction, and the allegorical (and metaphorical)significance of his subject matter will becrucial.A quick scan of Wyatt’s poems, “The Long Love, That in My Thought Doth Harbor,” “Whoso List toHunt” and “My Galley,” reveals a recurring cluster of images, terms (diction) and attitudes (tone).Forinstance, in all three poems, the dominant image is of a beleaguered speaker operating with means (ortools) ill-suited for his times, but nevertheless halted by his “trusty fearfulness” (“My Galley,” Ln. 8) ofthe tools of reason from ever embracing them entirely. Here reason, in the form of the “she” in “TheLong Love” or “[t]he stars *the lady’s eyes+” in line 12 of “My Galley,” leaves “his enterprise *desire+ withpain and cry” (“The Long Love,” Ln. 10) or leads him “to this pain” (“My Galley,” Ln. 12). Reason, in otherwords, is an unreliable “consort *companion+” (“My Galley,” Ln. 13) in these times of change. Or, to putit differently, reason is like the unrequited love of the courtly love doctrine, but transposed ontorenaissance England, the Age of Reason.What we have in “The Long Love,” then, is not a conflict arisingfrom two conflicting sense of love in the literal sense. Rather, it isa conflict between historical periods(or times) and faculties (or ways of thinking), that is, between vanishing medievalism (which could be
  11. 11. 11called the age of the senses/body) and the emerging renaissance (the age of reason/mind18). Living inthe turbulent times of change, Wyatt captures the full scale of the uncertaintyof transition in themetaphor of a “galley charged with forgetfulness” (literally a war ship, but metaphorically a lovelornman whom love has caused him to forget himself) passing through “sharp seas in winter nights”/’Tweenrock and rock” (Ln. 1-3). This is the type of metaphorical love which, in “The Long Love,” “harbor*s+” inhis “thought” (Ln. 1) and “campeth” (Ln. 4)in his body and which reason cannot quite dislodge. In“Whoso List to Hunt” we have the image of the speaker’s despair captured in the metaphor of his “vain”(Ln. 3) pursuit of an unavailable “hind” (female deer/dear). Perhaps the most powerful pointer to thepoem’s metaphorical status as a poem about the onset of modernity, aside from the recurring images ofthe speaker’s futile attempts at halting time’s elusive progress, is the last line in which the woman saysshe is “wild to hold, though I seem tame” (Ln. 14). Given that in Petrarch’s sonnets Laura is the verysymbol of constancy, there is enough ground to argue that, by contrast, the woman in “Whoso List toHunt” is the symbol of modernity’s elusive and constantly shifting character.Aside from the imagery of flight from reason (in “The Long Love”), the futile hunt (in “Whoso List toHunt”) and of sailing rough seas without reason as guide (in “My Galley, reason is “*d+rowned . . . thatshould me consort”),these poems are also marked by a recurring tone of weariness and despair. Thistone arises from the same conditions as the imagery: in “The Long Love” the speaker feels himselftrapped between two ways of being and thinking; in “Whoso List to Hunt” he finds himself pursuing notthe Petrarchan beloved but the metaphorical mistress of modernity who is “wild for to hold, though*she+ seemtame” (Ln. 14); and in “My Galley” he feels his being – his fortitude – slipping away fromhimlike a ship tossed about violently and strandedat sea far from “the port” (Ln. 14). This tone and theterms in which it is given voice in the speaker’s “sigh” of despair (“The Galley”), in his “alas”(“Whoso Listto Hunt”) and “pain and cry” (in “The Long Love”), captures quite powerfully the gravity of the speakers’sense of their unsettling times. One could say the same thing about the poems’ diction (the vocabularywith which Wyatt characterises the speakers’ restless world). There is, for instance, the “long love” and“reason” in perpetual conflict in “The Long Love”; the “net” that cannot “hold the wind” in “Whoso Listto Hunt”; and the unreachable “port” in “My Galley,” all of which frame the speakers’ experiences ofliving in the vanishing medieval historical moment without the wherewithal to make the transition tothe new, i.e. renaissance, period to which they must now adaptwithout a trustworthy “consort [orcompanion]” (“My Galley,” Ln. 13). The oxymoron in “My Galley”, i.e. “trusty fearfulness” (Ln. 8),18The 16thcentury French philosopher Renè Descartes captured the shift from medievalism to the renaissance inhis famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am.”
  12. 12. 12captures quite well the perils of transition: the speaker must trust what he fears, i.e. reason, to take himacross what Hamlet calls “the sea of troubles” (or the transitional moment).It is clear from the discussion of Wyatt’s poems that, while on the surface they appear every bit thecourtly love poems of the 14thcentury, beneath the surface lies a more profound reflection by Wyatt onhis own times. George Puttenham’s verdict that Wyatt and his friend Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, were“the most excellent makers of their time” (74) doubtless finds credible support in the three poems that Ihave considered.Edmund SpenserPerhaps the most profound influence on Spenser’s poetry, particularly his sonnets, was Philip Sidney’sfamous essay, “An Apology for Poetry,” which is still regarded as “a classic statement of Renaissanceliterary theory” (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism2005: 324). Spenser and Sidney werecontemporaries and both served at the court of Queen Elizabeth 1 (the daughter of Henry VIII) ascourtiers. Their poetry is characterised by a pronounced sense of classical consciousness that markedEngland’s conscious effort to stake her claim on the renaissance of Italy and France,as part ofEurope,while asserting her own cultural identity.19Indeed, Sidney’s ideas in his essay date back to thework of the 14thcentury Italian classical scholar and writer, Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), who wrotehis own defence of poetry in Book 14 of his Genealogy of the Gentile Gods. Boccaccio said of poetry:This poetry, which ignorant triflers cast aside, is a sort of fervid and exquisite invention, withfervid expression, in speech or writing, of that which the mind has invented. It proceeds fromthe bosom of God, and few, I find, are the souls in whom this gift is born; indeed so wonderful agift it is that true poets have always been the rarest of men. This fervour of poesy is sublime inits effects: it impels the soul to a longing for utterance; it brings forth strange and unheard-ofcreations of the mind; it arranges these meditations in a fixed order, adorns the wholecomposition with unusual interweaving of words and thoughts; and thus it veils truth in a fairand fitting garment of fiction. (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism2005: 258)Now consider Sidney’s defence of poetry in “An Apology for Poetry”:19There are notable references to Italian renaissance writers such as Homer and Dante in their poetry, includingreferences to Greek mythology and pantheon of gods (Cupid, Eros, the Muses, etc.).
  13. 13. 13Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection [to nature], lifted up with the vigor ofhis own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better thannature bringeth forth, or quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes,Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like; so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, notenclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of hisown wit. (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2005: 330).Boccaccio (and Sidney later) was reacting to the Greek philosopher Plato’s accusation of poets as liarsand inventors, as opposed to philosophers and naturalists whom Plato placed above poets as seekers oftruth.Thus in their defences of poetry Boccaccio and Sidney argue that inventiveness is, in fact, thepoet’s strength rather than a weakness.Now, this preoccupation with the power of poetry to remake nature in its image, which is apreoccupation with poetry’s autonomy from imitative disciplines such as natural philosophy (or evenmoral philosophy),is the substance of Spenser’s poetry. In his two sonnets that I discuss here, namely,“Of this worlds Theatre in which we stay” (Sonnet 54) and “One day I wrote her nameupon the strand”(Sonnet 75), this preoccupation is dramatised, literally, in the form of the speakers’ encounters withwhat one might call Platonic figures (in the form of women) who disdain of their art.However, let uslookat the poems.Sonnet 75One day I wrote her name upon the strand,But came the waves and washèd it away:Agayne I wrote it with a second hand,But came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.Vayne man, sayd she, that doest in vaine assay,˚ attemptA mortall thing so to immortalize,For I myselve shall lyke to this decay,And eek my name bee wypèd out lykewize.Not so (quod I), let baser things devizeTo dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,And in the hevens wryte your glorious name.Where whenas Death shall all the world subdew,Out love shall live, and later life renew.
  14. 14. 14On the surface, the conflict in Spenser’s Sonnet 75 takes the formof contrasting views about the extentto which words can serve to immortalise (or preserve) identity beyond its physical demise. The malelover believes that with enough persistence and a belief in the higher virtues of humanity, writing canwithstand (or win against) what “baser things devize” (Ln. 9). On the other hand, the woman who is theobject of his poetic effort is adamant that he is misguided to think that writing (or his “vaine assay”) can“A mortall thing . . . immortalize” (Ln. 6).The conflict is resolved by the male lover’s insistence that whiledeath “shall all the world subdew” (Ln. 13), their “love shall live, and later life renew” (Ln. 14). Thus,contrary to the view expressed in later Renaissance poetry, particularly of the Jacobean period(Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” for instance), that death lays waste all traces of human culture, thismale lover is of the view that writing or art (“My verse” *Ln. 11]), as symbolic culture, transcends thephysical world over which death rules with absolute finality.However, there is another level on which one can read this ‘exchange’. After all, it is not just anabstract philosophical debate about whether culture or nature determines the meaning and worth ofhuman identity. In fact, it is not even a debate at all but, rather, a dramatic monologue in which themale lover constructs an imaginary female adversary – theproverbial straw man – for the purpose ofasserting the idea that poetry is autonomous of nature’s force. In short, what the poem posits isSidney’s idea of the poet “freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit” (something that will alsobe evident in Sonnet 54) and “disdaining to be tied to any . . . subjection *to nature+” (330). Forinstance, the dramatic monologue is set on the seashore (“the strand” *Ln. 1]) and the writing of thebeloved’s name on the sand, which the waves wash away, serves to heighten the stakes in the contestbetween nature (also figured as woman) and poetry (figured as male). The to and fro movement of thewaves is counteracted by the lover’s repeated act of writing her name: “Agayne I wrote it with a secondhand” (Ln. 3). As nature, the woman mimics both the character and behaviour of the sand: like the sandwhich cannot preserve her name, she is mutable (“For I my selve shall lyke to this decay” [Ln. 7]), and asthe sand is subject to the sea’s corrosive effects, she too, or in this case her name, will “bee wiped outlikewise” (Ln. 8), or nature will claim back its own, i.e. dust-to-dust.The male lover must thus find a pointat which he could sink an anchor; and, needless to say, his verse provides such a point. Crucially,however, is that his verse serves not only to anchor him but also to “eternize” the beloved woman’s“vertues” (Ln. 12). This act of symbolic preservation, which the speaker explicitly calls poetry or “verse”(Ln.11), rivals and triumphs over nature, not by imitating it but, rather, by inventing its own ‘nature’.
  15. 15. 15Sonnet 54Of this worlds Theatre in which we stay,My love lyke the Spectàtor ydly sitsBeholding me that all the pageants˚ play,rolesDisguysing diversly my troubled wits.Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,And mask20in myrth lyke to a Comedy:Soone after when my joy to sorrow flits,I waile and make my woes a Tragedy.Yet she beholding me with constant eye,Delights not in my merth nor rues˚ my smart:˚ pities / hurtBut when I laugh she mocks, and when I cryShe laughes, and hardens evermore her hart.˚ heartWhat then can move her? if nor merth nor mone,˚ moanShe is no woman, but a senceless stone.Sonnet 54 (“Of this worlds Theatre”) tackles the same question of the autonomy of art/poetry, that is,its ability to invent a world of its own. In the poem, the world “in which we stay” is itself a “Theatre” (Ln.1) and we are actors in it. Our worth – as it were, the significance of our being – depends on our “wits”(Ln. 4), rather on some pre-determined formula or truth: in short, we remake our worlds as we remakeourselves. This is the basic message of the poem and it appeals to the same idea of poetry posited byBoccaccio and Sidney. Yet, as we have seen in Sonnet 75, Spenser is not satisfied to have the matter reston this supposition: what has come to be known as the Spenserian sonnet is the type that uses dialogue(or an interlocutor) to dramatise its thesis.In Sonnet 54 the speaker makes his case by means of thetheatre metaphor, i.e. the metaphor of a stage performance, which brings up the issue of theperformative dimension of existence (i.e. of the manner in which our existence is governed by ouractions upon our world). On the stage the male speaker performs different acts for a spectator (the“she”)who “ydly sits/Beholding *him+ that all the pageants play” (Ln. 2-3). The crisis in the poem comesabout quite early: there is already a hint in the second line, in the word “ydly *idly+” (Ln. 2), that thepoem will develop along the path of tension between two contradictory understandings of the world.The male performer posits the view that the world is a stage and that we are all actors/performers in it –a well-known English renaissance idea – to which the female spectator reacts with passive disinterest,which the words “ydly sits” (Ln. 2), “constant eye” (Ln. 9), “*w+hat then can move her” (Ln. 13) and “Sheis . . . a senceless stone” (Ln. 14) succinctly capture. The use of “senceless stone” also locates the “she”20Cover (or mask) his emotions; also, act in a masque, a short, allegorical drama.
  16. 16. 16in the world of nature, as the woman of Sonnet 75 is also the voice of nature. However, in her passivedisinterest can be discerned the disapproving stance of a “harden*ed+ . . . hart *heart+” (Ln. 12): “when Ilaugh she mocks, and when I cry/She laughs” (Ln. 11-12). Confronted with the intransigence of thespectator’s demeanour, then, the actor makes one final move: he likens her to a Platonic figure whomBoccaccio would have called and “ignorant trifler” (330).It is evident that both of Spenser’s sonnets develop an argument, using the facility of thedramatic,that poetry transforms our perception of the world. It is a thought that one can substantiate byconsidering both the comments of Boccaccio and Sidney and their obvious influence on thepreoccupation of Spenserian sonnet.Works CitedAbrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Seventh Ed. Florida: Harcourt, 1999.Ferguson, M., et al (eds.). The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Fifth Ed. New York: Norton, 2005.Malcolmson, C. Renaissance Poetry. London & New York: Longman, 1998.Puttenham, G. The Arte of English Poesy. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1911.Shakespeare, W. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.