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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

§ 3. Spenser and his French masters

The second set of sonnets, which, under the name of The Visions of Petrarch, Spenser penned in his early days, were drawn, not from the Italian, but from Marot’s French poem, in twelve-lined stanzas, entitled Les Visions de Petrarque. There, Marot reproduces canzone XLII in Petrarch’s collection of sonnets to Laura. The French title, which conforms with the subject-matter, is Marot’s invention; Petrarch gave his canzone no specific heading. Spenser’s first draft of 1569 (which was largely recast in the re-issue of 1591) slavishly adhered to the French, as may be seen from the “envoy,” which, in Marot’s verse, runs thus:

  • O chanson mienne, en tes conclusions
  • Dy hardiment: Ces six grand visions,
  • A mon seigneur donnent un doulx desir
  • De briefvement soubz la terre gesir.
  • Spenser first rendered these lines thus:
  • My song thus now in thy Conclusions,
  • Say boldly that these same six visions
  • Do yelde unto thy lorde a sweete request,
  • Ere it be long within the earth to rest.
  • The text of the original Italian differs from both the French and the English, and is of superior point and quality.

    These youthful ventures of Spenser herald the French influence on Elizabethan sonneteering. But, among French sonneteers, neither the veteran Marot nor his junior Du Bellay, to whom Spenser offered his boyish homage, was to play the foremost part in the Elizabethan arena. Du Bellay, though a writer of sonnets on a very generous scale, fell below his leader Ronsard alike in productivity and in charm. Some, too, of Ronsard’s humbler followers, notably Philippe Desportes, were as sonneteers scarcely less voluminous and popular than their master. Ronsard and Desportes were the chief French tutors of English poets at the end of the sixteenth century, and Desportes, for a season, took precedence of Ronsard. “Few men,” wrote Lodge of Desportes, in 1590, “are able to second the sweet conceits of Philippe Desportes whose poetical writings are ordinarily in everybody’s hand.”