A Shakespearean interlude

I need to attend to personal business this morning. I thought I might confine myself to posting a note on the Osher course I just completed on “The Petrarchan sonnet in England.” Taught by Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Crewe — the Leon D. Black Professor in Shakespearean Studies emeritus at Dartmouth — this was the course description, which I found to be educational all by itself:

In one of his sonnets, Sir Philip Sidney wrote: “You that poor Petrarch’s long-deceased woes With new-born sighs and denizen’d wit do sing.” Sidney was referring to the plaintive love-sonnets addressed by Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-74) to his beloved Laura in Il Canzoniere, and endlessly imitated by ambitious poets throughout Europe for at least two centuries.

Although departing from Petrarch in various ways, some of the leading English poets of the sixteenth century were “Petrarchans”: they include Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, and William Shakespeare. These poets may have felt burdened at having to repeat “Petrarch’s long deceased woes,” but they were also poetically challenged to the utmost by the need to invent new variations on this theme.

The “Petrarchan” stereotype in criticism is that of a love poem, generally a sonnet, in which an idealizing male lover submits to his chaste mistress and is continually rebuffed by her, a rejection that only renews his anguished pleas.

Petrarchan poems are typically hyperbolic, highly figurative, and formally accomplished; they comprise some of the best-known and most admired lyrics in English. It follows that “Petrarchanism” is far less monolithic than it appears to be in criticism. Nevertheless, the conventions of “Petrarchanism” extend beyond sonnet sequences into, for example, Shakespeare’s plays, and, although now “unpopular,” remain recognizable in contemporary poetry and pop culture.

We will read some of the poets named above and explore some of the manifestations of English “Petrarchanism.”Although departing from Petrarch in various ways, some of the leading English poets of the sixteenth century were “Petrarchans”: they include Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, and William Shakespeare. These poets may have felt burdened at having to repeat “Petrarch’s long deceased woes,” but they were also poetically challenged to the utmost by the need to invent new variations on this theme.

Warming us up for Shakespeare, Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnet cycle was a highlight. The Poetry Foundation has posted a concise biography of Sidney and a good selection of Sidney’s sonnets that are accessible at the bottom of the bio.

The last two of six classes were devoted to Shakespeare’s sonnet cycle. A plot emerges, involving the poet’s young friend and the dark lady. As for the plot, Professor Crewe observed, Shakespeare couldn’t help himself. I thought this was an excellent point. Excavation of the sonnets for biographical purposes is a fool’s errand.

Professor Crewe showed us Shakespeare working within and against and above the Petrarchan conventions. Occasionally, however, a sonnet of inscrutable genius stands out like Stonehenge. This is Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Who are the “they” of this poem? In an essay devoted to the sonnet in Shakespeare As a Political Thinker — reviewed here in the Claremont Review of Books by David Lowenthal — Professor Michael Platt posits dramatists or poets such as Shakespeare himself. Maybe.

Sonnet 135 seems to refer directly to Shakespeare. The Poetry Foundation capitalizes and italicizes the references to Will:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou being rich in Will add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.
Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one Will.

Does Shakespeare directly insert himself into any other of his works? I don’t know. Here the self-references are humorous and obscene. Professor Crewe thought the sonnet was gross. A fellow student thought it was tedious. I think it is playful.

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