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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

§ 2. French influences

It was contemporary French, rather than older Italian, influences which first stirred in the Elizabethan mind a fruitful interest in the genuine sonnet. The first inspiration came from Clément Marot, the protestant French poet of the early years of the sixteenth century, who was a contemporary of Wyatt and Surrey. He studied Petrarch with ardour, translated into French some of his sonnets and odes and made two or three original experiments in the sonnet-form under the title of “Epigrammes.” Although it was only after Marot’s death that the reign of the sonnet was definitely inaugurated in France, his tentative ventures impressed some of his English readers. But Marot’s influence was fugitive; it was quickly eclipsed. The sonnet was not naturalised in France until Marot’s successors, Pierre de Ronsard and his friends, deliberately resolved to adapt to the French language the finest fruit of foreign literature. Ronsard and his companions assumed the corporate title of La Pléiade, and the sonnet became the rallying flag of their school. In Italy, Petrarch’s sonneteering disciples multiplied greatly at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century; and the French innovators detected in the rejuvenated Italian sonnet a potent influence of domestic regeneration. The manifesto of the new movement in French poetry was written by Joachim du Bellay, one of its ablest champions. He solemnly urged Frenchmen to write sonnets after the manner of Petrarch and the more modern Italians. While pointing out to the French nation the avenues to literary culture which the ancient classics offered them, Du Bellay was especially emphatic in his commendation of the Italian sonnet as a main source of culture: Sonne-moi ces beaux sonnets, he adjured his fellow-countrymen, non moins docte que plaisante invention italienne, pour lesquels tu as Pétrarque et quelques modernes Italiens.

The primary debt that the Elizabethan sonnet owed to the French development of literary energy is attested by the first-fruits of Spenser’s muse—first-fruits which constitute him the virtual father of the Elizabethan sonnet. There seems little question that Spenser, as early as 1569, when a boy of seventeen, contributed some twenty-six sonnets, anonymously, to a pious tract rendered by another hand, from Flemish into English, under the title of A Theatre for Worldlings. There, Spenser made his first entry on the literary stage. With some changes, these youthful poems were reprinted, twenty-two years later, in an acknowledged collection of Spenser’s minor verse, called Complaints, for the whole of which the poet’s responsibility goes unquestioned. Spenser’s early ventures in the sonnet form were divided into two categories, the one entitled The Visions of Bellay, the other The Visions of Petrarch. The latter title is misleading. Both sets of sonnets were drawn directly from the French—the first from Joachim du Bellay and the second from Clément Marot.

Du Bellay’s sonnets were rendered by Spenser literally, though without rime. This embellishment he only added to his revised version. He also undertook, later, the translation of a longer series of Du Bellay’s sonnets, Les Antiquités de Rome, which the English poet rechristened The Ruins of Rome. Elsewhere, in his mature work, a close study of Du Bellay is apparent, and he openly acknowledged his indebtedness to Du Bellay’s delicate muse in a laudatory sonnet which includes these lines:

  • Bellay, first garland of free Poësie,
  • That France brought forth, though fruitfull of brave wits,
  • Well worthie thou of immortalitie.…