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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

§ 17. Elizabethan critics of the sonnet

The pertinacity with which the crude artificialities and plagiarisms of the sonnet-sequence of love were cultivated in the last years of queen Elizabeth’s reign involved the sonnet as a form of poetic art in a storm of critical censure before the vogue expired. The rage for amorous sonneteering came to excite an almost overwhelming ridicule. The basest charges were brought against the professional sonneteer. Sir John Harington, whose epigrams embody much criticism of current literary practices, plainly states that poets were in the habit of writing sonnets for sale to purchasers who paraded them as their own. He mentions the price as two crowns a sonnet, and asserts:

  • Verses are now such merchantable ware,
  • That now for sonnets sellers are and buyers.
  • There is, indeed, other evidence that suitors were in the habit of pleading their cause with their mistresses by means of sonnets which had been bought for hard cash from professional producers. In sonnet XXI, Drayton narrates how he was employed by a “witless gallant” to write a sonnet to the wench whom the young man wooed, with the result that his suit was successful. Other grounds of offence were discovered in the sentimental insincerity of the conventional type of sonnet, which sanctioned the sickly practice of “oiling a saint with supple sonneting.” The adjective “sugared” was scornfully held to be the epithet best fitted for the conventional sonnet. Sir John Harington, in an epigram “comparing the sonnet and the epigram” (Bk. I, No. 37), condemns the sonnet’s “sugared taste,” and prays that his verse may have salt to make it last.

    Sir John Davies was one of those who protested with vehemence against the “bastard sonnets” which “base rhymers” daily begot “to their own shame and poetry’s disgrace.” To expose the futility of the vogue, he circulated, in manuscript, a series of nine “gulling sonnets” or parodies of the artificial vices of the current fashion. In one of his parodies he effectively reduces to absurdity the application of law terms to affairs of the heart. The popular prejudice against the sonnet found expression in most unlikely places. Echoes of the critical hostility are even heard in Shakespeare’s plays. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona (III, 2. 68 ff.) there is a satiric touch in the recipe for the conventional love-sonnet which Proteus offers the amorous duke:

  • You must lay lime to tangle her desires,
  • By wailful sonnets, whose composëd rime
  • Should be full fraught with serviceable vows.…
  • Say that upon the altar of her beauty
  • You sacrifice your tears, your sighs, your heart.
  • Mercutio treats Elizabethan sonneteers somewhat equivocally when alluding to them in his flouts at Romeo:
  • Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his lady was but a kitchen wench: marry, she had a better love to be-rhyme her.(Romeo and Juliet, II, 4. 41–44.)
  • When the sonnet-sequence of love was yielding to the loud protests of the critics, Ben Jonson, in Volpone (Act III, sc. 2) struck at it a belated blow in a contemptuous reference to the past “days of sonneting” and to the debt that its votaries owed to “passionate Petrarch.” Elsewhere, Jonson condemned, root and branch, the artificial principles of the sonnet. He told Drummond of Hawthornden that
  • he cursed Petrarch for redacting verses to sonnets, which he said were like that tyrant’s bed, where some who were too short were racked, others too long cut short.(Jonson’s Conversation, p. 4.)
  • Jonson was here silently appropriating a depreciatory simile, which had been invented by a well known Italian critic of the sonnet, but there is no question that the English dramatist viewed the vogue of the Elizabethan sonnet as, for the most part, a discredit to the age.

    To what extent the critics of the Elizabethan sonnet were moved to hostility by resentment of the practice of clandestine translation from the foreigner offers room for discussion. A close study of the criticism to which many sonneteers were subjected leaves little doubt that plagiarism was out of harmony with the standard of literary ethics in Elizabethan England. The publication, in the avowed guise of an original production, of a literal rendering, not merely an adaptation, of a poem by a foreign contemporary exposed the offender on discovery to a severe censure. It has been suggested that foreign poetry was so widely known in Elizabethan England as to render specific acknowledgment of indebtedness superfluous. But the poetic work which was tacitly translated by Elizabethan sonneteers often came, not from the most popular work of great authors of France and Italy, but either from the obscurer publications of the leading poets or from the books of men whose repute was very restricted. In comparatively few cases would the average Elizabethan reader be aware that Elizabethan sonnets were translations of foreign poets unless the information were directly given him. Moreover, whenever plagiarism was detected or even suspected, critics condemned in no halting terms the plagiarist’s endeavour to ignore his obligation. Of one who published without acknowledgment renderings of Ronsard’s far-famed and popular verse (although, as a matter of fact, the borrower was too incompetent to be very literal), Puttenham wrote thus in his Arte of English Poesie (1589):

  • This man deserves to be endited of pety larceny for pilfering other mens devises from them and converting them to his own use, for in deede as I would wish every inventour, which is the very Poet, to receave the prayses of his invention, so would I not have a translatour to be ashamed to be acknowen of his translation.
  • The word “larceny” is italicised in the original edition. Michael Drayton, in the dedication to his sonnets, in 1594, charged the literal borrowers with “filching.” Again, Daniel, a sonneteer who, despite his great gifts, depended largely on the literal inspiration of foreign verse, was forcibly rebuked by a discerning contemporary for yielding to a practice which was declared, without any qualification, to be “base.” In the play The Returne from Parnassus (part II, act II, sc. 2), the following warning is addressed to Daniel:
  • Only let him more sparingly make use
  • Of others’ wit, and use his own the more,
  • That well may scorn base imitation.
  • To the same effect was Sir John Harington’s ironical epigram, 1618 (II, 30), headed, “Of honest theft. To my good friend Master Samuel Daniel,” which concludes thus:
  • Then, fellow-Thiefe, let’s shake together hands,
  • Sith both our wares are filcht from forren lands,
  • The extravagant character of the denunciation in which some contemporary critics of the plagiarising habit indulged is illustrated by another of Harington’s Epigrams (II, 77), which is headed, “Of a censurer of English writers.” It opens thus:
  • That Englishmen have small or no invention,
  • Old Guillam saith, and all our works are barren,
  • But for the stuffe we get from authors forren.
  • Elizabethan sonneteers who coloured, in their verse, the fruits of their foreign reading with their own individuality deserve only congratulation. The intellectual assimilation of poetic ideas and even poetic phraseology conforms with a law of literature which is not open to censure. But literal translation, without acknowledgment, from foreign contemporary poetry was, with little qualification, justly condemned by contemporary critics.

    Although the sonnet in Elizabethan England, as in France and Italy, was mainly devoted to the theme of love, it was never exclusively confined to amorous purposes. Petrarch occasionally made religion or politics the subject of his sonnets and, very frequently, enshrined in this poetic form the praises of a friend or patron. As a vehicle of spiritual meditation or of political exhortation or of friendly adulation, the sonnet long enjoyed an established vogue in foreign literature. When the sonnet-sequence of love was in its heyday in Elizabethan England, the application of the sonnet to purposes of piety or professional compliment acquired popularity. The art of the sonnet, when it was enlisted in such service, largely escaped the storm of censure which its amorous extravagances excited.

    Barnes and Constable, in close conformity with foreign practice, each supplemented their amorous experiments with an extended sequence of spiritual sonnets. Barnes’s volume of “spiritual sonnets” was printed in 1595; Constable’s religious sonnets only circulated in manuscript. In 1597, too, a humbler writer, Henry Lok, sent forth a swollen collection of three hundred and twenty-eight sonnets on religious topics, which he entitled, Sundrie sonets of Christian Passions with other affectionate sonets of a feeling conscience. Lok paraphrases many passages from the Scriptures, and was well read in the book of Ecclesiastes. His piety is unquestionable. But there is little poetic quality in his ample effort.