The Art of
Some Approaches to Renaissance Lyric
(Note: What follows supplements material on poetic
form and on Petrarch and Petrarchism found on class handout.)
The Significance of Fixed Form
Form puts language under pressure. In the love
sonnet, the speaker's most extreme emotions are ordered and controlled by the
strict limitations of the form. The result is a particular kind of poetic economy,
a lovely condensation, compression, concision.
To write within rules offers yet another example
of literature as a kind of serious play.
The sonnet offers infinite riches in a little
room; it's another variation on the Renaissance interest in the microcosmos.
Its single stanza (stanza = room in Italian) could be thought of as a
little world of the emotions.
Popularity of Love Lyric/Sonnet Sequence in
Petrarch as Pop Icon
Consider the popularity of Petrarchs 14th
century lyric sequence the Rime Sparse ("scattered rhymes")
as a model.
- Chaucer is the first English author to translate
a Petrarch sonnet, but ...
- Petrarchs work is popularized in the
early 16th century translations and adaptatations of Sir Thomas
Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
Petrarch the Innovator
The Rime Sparseoffers several significant
- Note its structure: a sequence of lyrics
that evolves into a quasi-narrative organized around a series of meditations
on a single object. (It is as if we get
a photographic album full of snapshots of moods, emotions, visions, recollections;
we are tempted to fill in the white space between them and create a narrative
- In attempting to describe the flux--the contradictions
and the complexity--of his emotional situation, the poet plays with paradoxes
and contradictions. Note Petrarchs fondness for oxymoron (a figure
of speech which combines apparently contradictory words and meanings).
- Petrarchan poetry also makes considerable
use of elaborate and extended metaphors (e.g., the lovers depiction
of himself as a rudderless ship blown about by the cross winds of contradictory
passions). Such elaborated and extended figures of speech are known as conceits.
(Note the particularly highly developed conceit of love as monarch/general
ruling the lovers heart in Rime Sparse#140).
A tip: In reading these poems it is especially
important to follow the unfolding of the poetic logic of their extended metaphors.
A Fruitful Contradiction
The very absence and silence of the lady in the
Petrarchan sequences becomes a provocation to art:
- the characteristic Petrarchan situation is
one where love has struck the poet but not the lady
- writing about desire substitutes for the consummation
- the woman is always mediated through the poets
desires and fantasies
- the poems tend to slide away from representing
the Beloved into introversion, self-analysis, the dissection of the speakers
Petrarch and the Petrarchists
Wyatt, Surrey, and the poets of the next two
generations (Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Mary Wroth) took over the Petrarchan
themes and poetic protocols and played around with them.
The poets of the late 16th century seem especially
- Petrarch's use of paradox and oxymoron to
represent the chaotic emotions of the lover
- his presentation of a male lover as subject
to forces beyond his control
- his description of a perpetual war between
the speaker's passion and his reason
- his externalization of love as an independent
cosmic force (a thunderbolt, a wound, a flame) that assaults the speaker
At the same time, the familiar aspects of "Petrarchism"
are regularly revised and even subverted. Petrarchism becomes a poetic idiom
of great flexibility that can be deployed
- in a deeply serious and elevated fashion
- as a form of interrogation...
Indeed, in any fashion that the poet wishes.
(Cf. Shakespearian examples and also Wyatts
and Spensers revisions of the Petrarchan "love hunt" on your