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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

§ 18. The sonnet of compliment

Sonnets inscribed by poets in the way of compliment to their friends or patrons abound in Elizabethan literature. James I, in his Treatise of poetry, 1584, ignores all uses of the sonnet save for the “compendious praising” of books or their authors and for the prefatory presentation in brief summary of the topic of any long treatise. The latter usage was rare in England, though Shakespeare experimented with it by casting into sonnet form the prologues before the first two acts of Romeo and Juliet. But, before, during and after Shakespeare’s day, the English author was wont to clothe in the sonnet shape much professional intercourse with his patron. Few writers were guiltless of this mode of address. Not infrequently, a long series of adulatory sonnets forms the prelude or epilogue of an Elizabethan book. Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Iliad are both examples of literary work of repute which was ushered into the world with substantial supplement of adulatory sonnets. Both Spenser and Chapman sought the favour of a long procession of influential patrons or patronesses in a series of quatorzains. Even those self-reliant writers of the day who contemned the sonnet-sequence of love, and declined to make trial of it with their own pens—men like Ben Jonson and Chapman—were always ready to salute a friend or patron in sonnet-metre. Of sonnets addressed in the way of friendship by men of letters to colleagues of their calling, a good example is the fine sonnet addressed by the poet Spenser to Gabriel Harvey, “his singular good friend.”

Some of these occasional sonnets of eulogy or compliment reach a high poetic level, and are free from most of the monotonous defects which disfigured the conventional sonnet of love. To the first book of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Sir Walter Ralegh, the poet’s friend, prefixed two sonnets, the first of which was characterised by rare stateliness of diction. No better illustration is to be found of the characteristic merits of the Elizabethan vogue. Ralegh’s sonnet was written in 1595, when the sonneteering rage was at its height; and, while it attests the predominant influence of Petrarch, it shows, at the same time, how dependence on a foreign model may be justified by the spirit of the adaptation. Ralegh’s sonnet runs as follows:

  • A Vision upon this conceit of the Faery Queene.
  • Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay,
  • Within that Temple where the vestal flame
  • Was wont to burn; and passing by that way
  • To see that buried dust of living fame,
  • Whose tomb fair love, and fairer virtue kept,
  • All suddenly I saw the Fairy Queene:
  • At whose approach the soul of Petrarch wept,
  • And from thenceforth those graces were not seen;
  • For they this Queen attended, in whose stead
  • Oblivion laid him down on Laura’s hearse.
  • Hereat the hardest stones were seen to bleed,
  • And groans of buried ghosts the heavens did pierce:
  • Where Homer’s sprite did tremble all for grief,
  • And cursed th’ access of that celestial thief.
  • “Celestial Thief” is a weak ending, and crudely presents Ralegh’s eulogistic suggestion that Spenser, by virtue of his great poem, had dethroned the older poetic deities. Ralegh’s prophecy, too, that oblivion had, at length, “laid him down on Laura’s hearse” was premature. The tide of Petrarchian inspiration flowed on long after the publication of The Faerie Queene. But Ralegh’s sonnet, viewed as a whole, illustrates how fruitfully foreign imagery could work in Elizabethan minds, and how advantageously it could be applied to new purposes by the inventiveness of poetic genius.