Renaissance sonnets and the art of passionate excess.
Courtship is often funny, and sometimes the people involved know that—even when the stakes are high. Courtship is also a power contest with established boundaries: To be courted is to be cast into a passive role. And as its very name suggests, courtship invokes the assertion (or affectation) of courtly manners: elaborate ways of behaving and loving—or writing—meant to seem fit for royalty.
Poetry—and, for speakers of English, Shakespeare's poetry in particular—is part of love's social life, supplying the words in courtship's tangled but deeply imbedded web of behaviors and feelings. Much of the vocabulary of love still deployed today, whether in passion or in parody, in song lyrics or in movies, comes from poems written in a single decade at the end of the 16th century.
Shakespeare wrote his sonnets as part of a literary vogue, the great sonnet fad of the 1590s. Inspired by Sir Philip Sidney's sequence "Astrophil and Stella" (itself based on the Italian sonnets of Petrarch and popularized via early, Napster-like piracy), English poets and booksellers of that decade produced hundreds of sonnet sequences. The product in each case was a series of witty, hyperbolic 14-line love poems, addressed to a lady who, in theory, would be flattered and won by the poet's elaborate, inventive descriptions of her tremendous beauty, her cruel resistance, and the agony she inflicted on the author. She tortures him with her beauty and coldness, he says; and yet his praises, and his clever descriptions of the pain she causes him, will make her immortal.
The idea was seduction by flamboyant eloquence: the male peacock tail of literary suffering. Behind the exquisitely expressed pain of the lover was his flirtatious smile, and the smile complimented his lover's mind as the exaggerated suffering complimented her looks. The appealing balance of the two helped give life to a body of enduring work. The sonnet fad produced still-admired sequences like Samuel Daniel's "Delia," Michael Drayton's "Idea," Edmund Spenser's "Amoretti," and Thomas Lodge's "Phyllis"—as well as more or less forgotten efforts such as Barnabe Barnes' "Parthenope and Parthenophil" and E.C.'s "Emaricdulfe."
For all the formulaic elements in these works, their authors frequently achieved surprising things in the endless search for ingenious new similes, zany puns, and outrageous metaphors: a language show of seduction staged within narrow limits of form and content.
Jaunty and passionate Michael Drayton (1563-1631), for example, knew how to keep things lively in his sequence "Idea's Mirror." Here are a couple of his sonnets:
VI. "How Many Paltry Foolish Painted Things"
How many paltry foolish painted things,
That now in coaches trouble every street,
Shall be forgotten, whom no poet sings,
Ere they be well wrapped in their winding-sheet!
Where I to thee eternity shall give,
When nothing else remaineth of these days,
And queens hereafter shall be glad to live
Upon the alms of thy superfluous praise.
Virgins and matrons, reading these my rhymes,
Shall be so much delighted with thy story
That they shall grieve they lived not in these times,
To have seen thee, their sex's only glory:
***So shalt thou fly above the vulgar throng,
***Still to survive in my immortal song.
Drayton the poet scorns and pities the women whom "no poet sings," women so commonplace and bothersome that they "trouble every street." He invites his yearned-for woman, Idea, to feel celebrated by the comedy of this overblown disdain and also by his eloquent attentions—which, he says (with equally comic hyperbole), will place her in eternity such that queens aspire to her leftover praises. "I exaggerate," Drayton all but tells Idea, "in your honor and to amuse you."
Exaggeration, a charming and candid over-the-top quality, also drives Drayton's description of Idea's power over him:
XXX. "Three Sorts of Serpents Do Resemble Thee"
Three sorts of serpents do resemble thee:
That dangerous eye-killing cockatrice,
The enchanting siren, which doth so entice,
The weeping crocodile—these vile pernicious three.
The basilisk his nature takes from thee,
Who for my life in secret wait dost lie,
And to my heart sendst poison from thine eye:
Thus do I feel the pain, the cause, yet cannot see.
Fair-maid no more, but Mer-maid be thy name,
Who with thy sweet alluring harmony
Hast played the thief, and stolen my heart from me,
And like a tyrant makst my grief thy game:
***Thou crocodile, who when thou hast me slain,
***Lamentst my death, with tears of thy disdain.
Literally, this is a denunciation. But in the elegant courtship game, it's actually a clever compliment to her understanding. He isn't really slain, and she isn't really a monster, but those ways of putting it are tokens of urbane playfulness and passion: a sexy teasing. (The woman is notably generic—I believe Idea's eyes change color in the course of the sequence, presumably as Drayton ended one relationship and began another.)
Samuel Daniel (1562-1620) uses two meanings of volume to court his Delia with Homeric amplitude, with towers and temples constructed within the little room of his sonnet:
Sonnet XLVII: "Read in My Face"
Read in my face a volume of despairs,
The wailing Iliads of my tragic woe,
Drawn with my blood and printed with my cares
Wrought by her hand, that I have honor'd so.
Who, whilst I burn, she sings at my soul's wrack,
Looking aloft from turret of her pride;
There my soul's tyrant joys her in the sack
Of her own seat, whereof I made her guide.
There do these smokes that from affliction rise,
Serve as an incense to a cruel Dame;
A sacrifice thrice grateful to her eyes,
Because their power serve to exact the same.
***Thus ruins she, to satisfy her will,
***The Temple where her name was honor'd still.
Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.