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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

§ 9. Constable’s Diana

It was not Spenser’s work as a sonneteer which gave him his enduring place on the heights of Parnassus: he owes his immortality to other poetic achievement, which lent itself to larger and freer development. Some of Spenser’s contemporaries, who, although endowed with a more modest measure of poetic power, did not lack poetic feeling, unluckily confined their effort, in obedience to the prevailing vogue, almost entirely to the sonnet. The result was that the dominant imitative tendencies almost succeeded in stifling in them all original utterance. Such an one was Henry Constable, master of a tuneful note, who drank too deep of the Franco-Italian wells to give his muse full liberty of expansion. Like Desportes, he christened his sonnet-sequence by the name of Diana, and Italian words sonetto primo, sonetto secondo and so forth formed the head lines of each of his quatorzains. He was a writer on a restricted scale. Only twenty-three poems figure in the original edition of his volume, which he christened Diana, The praises of his Mistres, In certaine sweete Sonnets (1592). “Augmented with divers quatorzains of honourable and learned personages,” the book reappeared in 1594. The poems there numbered seventy-six; but many of the added pieces were from other pens. At least eight were the work of Sir Philip Sidney. The second edition of Diana was a typical venture of an enterprising publisher, and was devised to catch the passing breeze of popular interest in sonnet-sequences. Its claim to homogeneity lies in its reiterated echo of Italian and French voices. Such of the added poems as can be confidently assigned to Constable himself show a growing dependence on Desportes. Very often he translates without modification some of the Frenchman’s baldest efforts. His method may be judged by the following example. The tenth sonnet in the sixth decade of Constable’s Diana, 1594, opens thus:

  • My God, my God, how much I love my goddess!
  • Whose virtues rare, unto the heavens arise.
  • My God, my God, how much I love her eyes!
  • One shining bright, the other full of hardness.
  • The Diane of Desportes (I, xxvi) supplies the original:
  • Mon dieu! mon dieu! que j’aime ma deesse
  • Et de son chef les tresors precieux!
  • Mon dieu! mon dieu! que j’aime ses beaux yeux,
  • Dont l’un m’est doux, l’autre plein de rudesse.