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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

§ 8. The sonneteering conceit of immorality

Spenser’s sonnets similarly helped to familiarise the Elizabethan reader with a poetic conceit, which, although not of French origin, was assimilated with fervour by the sonneteers of La Pléiade. The notion that poets not merely achieved immortality through their verse, but had the power of conferring immortality on those to whom their poetry was addressed, was a classical conceit of great antiquity, which Pindar among the Greeks, and Horace and Ovid among the Latins, had notably glorified. The Italians of the renascence had been attracted by the fancy. But Ronsard and his disciples had developed it with a complacency that gave it new life. From France it spread to Elizabethan England, where it was quickly welcomed. Sir Philip Sidney, in his Apologie for Poetrie (1595), wrote that it was the common habit of poets “to tell you that they will make you immortal by their verses.” “Men of great calling,” wrote Nashe, in his Pierce Pennilesse (1593), “take it of merit to have their names eternised by poets.”

Spenser was among the Elizabethan sonneteers who conspicuously adapted the conceit to English verse. Shakespeare, alone excepted, no sonneteer repeated the poetic vaunt with greater emphasis than Spenser. He describes his sonnets as

  • This verse that never shall expire.…
  • Fair be no longer proud of that shall perish.
  • But that, which shall you make immortal, cherish.(Sonnet XXVII.)
  • He tells his mistress
  • My verse your virtues rare shall eternise,
  • And in the heavens write your glorious name.(Sonnet LXXV.)
  • With unbounded confidence he asserts:
  • Even this verse, vow’d to eternity,
  • Shall be thereof immortal moniment;
  • And tell her praise to all posterity,
  • That may admire such world’s rare wonderment.(Sonnet LXIX.)
  • Through all such passages Spenser speaks in the voice of Ronsard. It was Ronsard who had, just before Spenser wrote, promised his patron that his lute
  • Par cest hymne solennel
  • Respandra dessus ta race
  • Je ne sçay quoy de sa grace
  • Qui te doit faire éternel.(Odes, I, vii);
  • who had declared of his mistress
  • Victorieuse des peuples et des Rois
  • s’en voleroit sus l’aile de ma ryme.(Amours, I, lxxii);
  • who had foretold
  • Longtemps après la mort je vous feray revivre.
  • Vous vivrez et croistrez comme Laure en grandeur,
  • Au moins tant que vivront les plumes et le livre.(Sonnets pour Hélène, II.)
  • In the hands of Elizabethan sonneteers, the “eternising” faculty of their verse became a staple, and, indeed, an inevitable, topic. Especially did Drayton and Daniel vie with Spenser in reiterating the conceit. Drayton, who spoke of his sonnets as “my immortal song” (Idea, VI, 14) and “my world-out-wearing rhymes” (XLIV, 7), embodied the boast in such lines as

  • While thus my pen strives to eternize thee.(Idea, XLIV, 1.)
  • Ensuing ages yet my rhymes shall cherish.(XLIV, 11.)
  • My name shall mount unto eternity.(XLIV, 14.)
  • All that I seek is to eternize thee.(XLVII, 14.)
  • Daniel was no less explicit
  • This [sc. verse] may remain thy lasting monument.(Delia, XXXVII, 9.)
  • Thou mayst in after ages live esteemed
  • Unburied in these lines.(XXXIX, 9, 10.)
  • These [sc. my verses] are the arks, the trophies I erect
  • That fortify thy name against old age;
  • And these [sc. verses] thy sacred virtues must protect
  • Against the dark and time’s consuming rage.(L, 9–12.)
  • Shakespeare, in his reference to his “eternal lines” (XVIII, 12), and in the assurances which he gives to the subject of his addresses that his sonnets are, in Spenser’s and in Daniel’s exact phrase, his hero’s “monument,” merely accommodated himself to the prevailing taste, even if he invested the topic with a splendour that none else approached. But had Shakespeare never joined the ranks of Elizabethan sonneteers, the example of Spenser, Daniel and Drayton would have identified the Elizabethan sonnet with the proud conceit.