in verse # 21 : unblank verse

The imp of the perverse — a constant companion — suggested as a title for this installment “blankety-blank verse,” but as its topic is the Elizabethan sonnet, the title above presented itself as an amiable contrast to my last installment.  You will recall from my last post [link] that both the English sonnet and blank verse were inventions of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-47).  However, The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics credits Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) with bringing the sonnet from Italy and adapting it, “showing an immediate preference … for a closing couplet in the sestet,”[i] as in this sonnet which he translated from the Italian of Petrarch:

The long love that in my thought doth harbor,
and in my heart doth keep his residence,
Into my face presseth with bold pretense
And there encampeth, spreading his banner
She that me learns to love and suffer
And wills that my trust and lust’s negligence
Be reined by reason, shame and reverence
With his hardiness takes displeasure.
Wherewithal unto the heart’s forest he flieth,
Leaving his enterprise with pain and cry,
And there him hideth, and not appeareth.
What may I do, when my master feareth,
But in the field with him to live and die?
For good is the life ending faithfully.[ii]

The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet features an octave rhymed abbaabba (or, in Anthony Burgess’s hands, an invocation, Abba Abba[iii])  and a sestet rhymed cdecde or cdcdcd.[iv]  Wyatt used the Petrarchan octet, and a modified version of that second sestet, above.  It was Surrey who modified the rhyme scheme to abab cdcd efef gg, “a pattern more congenial to the comparatively rhyme-poor Eng[lish] lang[uage] in that it filled the 14 lines by 7 rhymes, not 5.”[v]  The difference between the two is best illustrated by a second translation of Petrarch’s sonnet above, this time by Surrey:

Love, that doth reign and live within my thought,
And built his seat within my captive breast,
Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought,
Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.
But she that taught me love and suffer pain,
My doubtful hope and eke my hot desire
With shamefast look to shadow and refrain,
Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.
And coward Love, then, to the heart apace
Taketh his flight, where he doth lurk and plain,
His purpose lost, and dare not show his face.
For my lord’s guilt thus faultless bide I pain,
Yet from my lord shall not my foot remove:
Sweet is the death that taketh end by love.[vi]

Take a minute or so and compare the two sonnets line by line.  The difference between the two sonnets can, I believe, best be explained by the work of translation:  Wyatt translates in the Italian form, with the variable Italian line; note, for example, how many of his lines have fewer or more syllables than 10, and how many of his rhymes are on unstressed final syllables, in the Italian mode.  Contrast that with the regularity presented by Surrey’s iambic pentameter with all rhymes on strong final syllables.  That Wyatt was capable of much more fluent verse in English is demonstrated by his poem “They flee from me:”

They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them, gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild, and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be Fortune it hath been otherwise,
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array, after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
And therewith all sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned, thorough my gentleness,
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go, of her goodness,
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindely am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.[vii]

So while Wyatt, who was capable of fluency and simplicity, attempted to reproduce the sonnet’s Italian features, Surrey refined the sonnet, Anglicizing it.  He was not the only one trying to do so, but it was his innovations that stand as his great gift to the next generation.  But before we look at samples from Sidney, Shakespeare and Donne, let us look at how Edmund Spenser, who kicked off that generation in 1552, attempted to Anglicize the sonnet, as in his Amoretti, sonnet 1.  Note that he uses the rhyme sequence abab bcbc cdcd ee, which parallels in its first nine lines his Spenserian stanza:[viii]

Happy ye leaues when as those lilly hands,
Which hold my life in their dead doing might,
Shall handle you and hold in loues soft bands,
Lyke captiues trembling at the victors sight.
And happy lines, on which with starry light,
Those lamping eyes will deigne sometimes to look
And reade the sorrowes of my dying spright,
Written with teares in harts close bleeding book.
And happy rymes bath’d in the sacred brooke,
Of Helicon whence she deriued is,
When ye behold that Angels blessed looke,
My soules long lacked foode, my heauens blis.
Leaues, lines, and rymes, seeke her to please alone,
Whom if ye please, I care for other none.[ix]

The linking rhymes cannot be blamed for Spenser’s inversions of normal syntax — he has to bear the blame for preferring that quaint throwback to Chaucer — but he exemplifies another feature of the Italian sonnet, the address to a lady[x] assuring her that she is superior to his weak verse.  Spenser was not of the nobility, except possibly as a shirt-tail relation, and took employment, after attending Cambridge as “a sizar or poor scholar” and earning his B.A. in 1573 and M.A. in 1576, “in the retinues of eminent men.” [xi]   Sir Philip Sidney, who was of noble birth, followed Spenser into the latter half of the century in 1554, and left it in 1587 (aged 32).  He introduces his lady, Stella, a little less circumspectly, a gift to other poets:

You that do search for every purling spring
Which from the ribs of old Parnassus flows,
And every flower, not sweet perhaps, which grows
Near thereabouts, into your poesy wring;
You that do dictionary’s method bring
Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows;
You that poor Petrarch’s long deceased woes
With newborn sighs and denizened wit do sing:
You take wrong ways; those far-fet helps be such
As do bewray a want of inward touch,
And sure at length stolen goods do come to light;
But if, both for your love and skill, your name
You seek to nurse at fullest breasts of Fame,
Stella behold, and then begin to endite.[xii]

By now Surrey’s innovation is so firmly entrenched and popular that Sidney can risk a variation in the sestet, though he still follows clearly in Surrey’s footsteps.  But at his back he might have heard the boots of another “poor scholar” (or at least bourgeois pretender).  Certainly both of Surrey’s great innovations — blank verse and the English sonnet — were wildly successful in his own generation, but they found their greatest expression in the works of Shakespeare (born 1564), Donne (born 1573) and Milton (born 1608).  By the death of Elizabeth I on 24 March 1603, Shakespeare was 38, Donne was 30 or 31, and Milton was five years shy of drawing his first breath.  By Shakespeare’s death, on 23 April 1613 — perhaps exactly 52 years after his birth — Donne had written many of his sonnets, especially the erotic ones, but none were published until after his death on 31 March 1631, leading to the inevitable conclusion that April is indeed the cruelest month.  The young Milton would have agreed, had he stopped reading Latin long enough to notice.  But it was what Shakespeare did with the sonnet that shows why we love him.  Summarizing Shakespeare’s situation, Stephen Greenblatt says

Sonnet writing was a courtly and aristocratic performance, and Shakespeare was decidedly not a courtier or an aristocrat.  Yet the challenge of this form proved very agreeable to him.  To be a very public man — an actor onstage, a successful playwright, a celebrated poet; and at the same time to be a very private man — a man who can be trusted with secrets…this was the double life Shakespeare had chosen for himself.[xiii]

Describing his love of what made Shakespeare Shakespeare, Anthony Burgess puts it like this:

As for the baptismal name, we like to think of it as wholly appropriate in its familiar form Will.  We would not want to call Milton Jack, but Shakespeare seems to ask for an intimacy of address.  This has something to do with a great creative libido, a love of bawdry, and the compound invitation we find in the following sonnet [number 135]:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.

There the connotations of the name Will are exploited to the limit….The sonnet is wittily lecherous and must have begged to be copied out, learnt by heart, grinned over in taverns and the Inns of Court.  And there, walking the London streets, is Will with the large will.  Will Shakespeare — the name is a small hymn to male thrust….[xiv]


What Will had done could not be undone, but John Donne was willing to go Will one better.  He took this love song, this saucy poem, this hymn to Hymen with all its bawdry, and baptized it in high-church fashion, as follows in Sonnet XIV, one of his Holy Sonnets (the title is not his, but his publisher’s).  In so doing, he paved the way for Milton to Protestantize, purify, the sonnet.  But Milton is for my next post.  Let’s be done for tonight with this poem from the other John:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearly’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie,
Divorce mee,’untie, or break that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.[xv]

But hold on, I hear you say, Isn’t Shakespeare up next, with his plays, before we bring on the drama of Milton taking on the task of purifying the sonnet?

Your turn.



[i] The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics / edited by Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan ; Frank J. Warnke, O.B. Hardison, Jr., and Earl Miner, associate editors.  — New York : MJF Books, c1993.  The entry on “Sonnet” begins in page 1167 and runs through 1171.  This quote comes from p. 1169.

[ii] Renaissance England : poetry and prose from the Reformation to the Restoration / selected and edited by Roy Lamson and Hallett Smith. – New York : Norton, c1956 (p. 49), whereon a note informs us that this is “A translation of Petrarch, Sonnetto in Vita 91.”

[iii] The title to his 1977 novel positing the meeting in Rome in 1820-21 of John Keats and Guiseppe Gioacchino Belli, “a great poet little known outside Rome, since he wrote in the rough, dirty, blasphemous dialect of the Rome streets” according to the jacket copy.  The hypothetical meeting between the two occupies the first 84 pages; Burgess’s translation of some of Belli’s sonnets the last 41, in the pagination of the edition first published in London by Faber & Faber.

[iv] Thus affirming the editors’ assertion, on p. 1167 of The new Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics, that the sonnet’s rhyme scheme “has, in practice, varied widely despite the traditional assumption that the s. is a fixed form.”

[v] New Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics, p. 1169.

[vi] Lamson & Smith, op. cit., p. 65, whereon a note informs us that this is “Translated from Petrarch, Sonnetto in Vita 91.”

[vii] Ibid., p. 61.

[viii] New Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics, p. 1169.

[ix] Lamson & Smith, op. cit., p. 330.

[x] In this case, perhaps Lady Carey; ibid., p. 330, note 63

[xi] Ibid., p. 310.

[xii] Ibid., p. 241.  Note the generosity with which Sidney offers his mistress to other poets, or at least to their names.  There is absolutely no evidence that he is pimping his muse.

[xiii] Will in the world : how Shakespeare became Shakespeare / Stephen Greenblatt. – New York : Norton, c2004, p. 249.

[xiv] Shakespeare / Anthony Burgess. – New York : Knopf, 1970, pp. 23-24.

[xv] Poetical works / Donne. – Edited by Sir Herbert Grierson. – London : Oxford University Press, 1933, p.299.  I find it interesting that Grierson includes all those extraneous final letters ‘e’ but omits the final ‘e’ on chaste.  Or, rather, that Donne’s first publisher does so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation