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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XII. The Elizabethan Sonnet

§ 15. Giles Fletcher

Giles Fletcher, a former fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, was of maturer age than most contemporary sonneteers, when he brought out his sonnet-sequence of Licia, for he was then 44 years old. On his title-page, he boldly announces that his “poems of love” were written “to the imitation of the best Latin poets and others.” In an address to his patroness, the wife of Sir Richard Molineux, he deprecates the notion that his book enshrines any episode in his own experience. He merely claims to follow the fashion, and to imitate the “men of learning and great parts” of Italy, France and England, who have already written “poems and sonnets of love.” He regrets the English poets’ proclivities to borrow their “best and choice conceits” from Italy, Spain and France, and expresses a pious preference for English homespun; but this is a counsel of perfection, and he makes no pretence to personal independence of foreign models.

A definite, if slender, interest attaches to Bartholomew Griffin’s Fidessa, a conventional sequence of sixty-two sonnets. Griffin was exceptionally bold in imitating home products, and borrowed much from Daniel and Drayton’s recent volumes. But it is worthier of remembrance that one of his sonnets, on the theme of Venus and Adonis, was transferred with alterations to Jaggard’s piratical miscellany of 1599, The Passionate Pilgrim, all the contents of which were assigned to Shakespeare on the title-page.

Only the worst features of the Elizabethan passion for sonneteering—its clumsy inanity and slavish mimicry—are visible in the remaining sequences which were published in the last decade of the sixteenth century. William Percy, in his Sonnets to the fairest Coelia, 1593, bade his lute “rehearse the songs of Rowland’s (i.e. Drayton’s) rage,” and found, with Ronsard, “a Gorgon shadowed under Venus’ face.” The anonymous poetaster who published, in 1594, a collection of forty sonnets under the title Zepheria took his own measure when he confessed

  • My slubbering pencil casts too gross a matter,
  • Thy beauty’s pure divinity to blaze.
  • “R. L. Gentleman,” doubtless Richard Linche, published thirty-nine sonnets, in 1596, under the title Diella, a crude anagram on Delia. He freely plagiarised phrases and imagery of well known sonneteers at home and abroad.

    William Smith, a sycophantic disciple of Spenser, who published fifty-one sonnets under the title Chloris, in 1596, and Robert Tofte, who “conceived in Italy” a sequence of forty sonnets in irregular metres, entitled Laura (1597), merely give additional proof of the plagiarising habit of the day.