ENGL 204 / 331: Renaissance Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Vernacular Poetry: Theory and Practice
(Sidney's Defense of Poesy and Renaissance Sonnets)
[page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2012]

Required Background Readings (contexts for Sidney's Defense of Poesy):

  • In the NA introduction to the Sixteenth Century, read/review: NA 532 (on the status of English at the beginning of the 16th Century); NA 547-55 ("Writers, Printers and Patrons" and "Tudor Style: Ornament, Plainness, and Wonder")
  • Headnotes for Sir Philip Sidney, NA 1037-9, and for his Defense of Poesy, NA 1044-5; see also comments on Sidney NA 553-4
  • Review concept of sprezzatura from headnote for Sir Thomas Hoby (NA 704)
Required Primary Readings I: 
  • Required Background Readings II (contexts for the sonnets):
  • Primary Readings II:  Sonnets and Sonnet Cycles
    • Wyatt, "Farewell Love" and "My Galley," as well as modern prose translation of Petrarch's Rima 189 (NA 650-52);
    • Surrey, "Alas! So all things now do hold their peace," as well as modern prose translation of Petrarch's Rima 164 (NA 664); 
    • Sidney, Astrophil and Stella # 1, 2, 9, 15, 52, 108 (NA 1084-1101); Fourth Song, NA 1097-8
    • Spenser,  Amoretti # 1, 64, 75, 79 (NA 985-9); 
    • Shakespeare, Sonnets # 3, 18, 29, 30, 60, 65, 71, 73, 126, 127, 130, 138, 144, 147, 152 (NA 1171-86)
    NOTE: discussion of assigned sonnets will carry over to our next class meeting.  It is likely that we will cover at least Wyatt, Surrey, and Sidney in today's class discussion.

    LOOKING AHEAD:  we will discuss Lady Mary Wroth's sonnet cycle, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, as part of our "Women's Voices" unit week 4.

    Vernacular Poetry: Theory and Practice
    [page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2012]


    As you read through the background readings listed above, pay particular attention to aristocratic vs. Puritan attitudes toward poetry and poetry writers; to the discussion of Sidney's Defense of Poesy; to the development of the sonnet form; and to biographical information on Sir Philip Sidney, Wyatt, and Surrey, esp. their roles in development of sonnet form in England. What was the attitude toward intellectual property in the Renaissance? What about copyright (NA 547)? Be able to identify and/or define: vates and poietes (know who uses these terms, what language they are and their meaning); Tottel's Songs and Sonnets (know relevance to history of sonnets in English -- see NA 531 [list of key dates], 648 and 662); Petrarch (language he wrote in and role in development of sonnet form); Joachim du Bellay, Defense and Illustration of the French Language and the sonnet cycle Olive (language he wrote in and parallels to Sidney); Sidney's Astrophil and Stella (what it contains, relevant dates). Know biographical background (social class, religion, education, court activity, lifespan dates) for all assigned poets and publication and/or composition dates (as given in NA) for their works, as well as the role each played in the introduction and development of the sonnet form to England. Know the definition of the sonnet, including meter, number of lines and rhyme schemes for the Italian (Petrarchan) and English (Shakespearean) forms. 

    The Theory: Sidney's Defense of Poesy

    Read carefully the headnote on Sir Philip Sidney and skim the assigned selections from Sidney's The Defense of Poesy, "The Poet as Prophet and Creator" (NA 1048-50) and Conclusion (NA 1082-83). Note that "poetry" is to be understood in the general sense as "literature," including prose; it had two purposes, to "instruct" and to "delight." 

    Given the Humanist's great reverence for Latin literature, what attitude might you expect them to take toward literature in English? What is the significance of the Bible being translated into English (review NA 537-41, NA 671-73)? Where/how do the values and goals of the Reformation overlap with those of humanism? How is the Reformation linked to the new emphasis on English as a language of literature and ideas?

    You need not worry about all the details in the treatise, but should consider and look for the following points as you read:

    In our selections (and in those that are not assigned), note Sidney's somewhat ostentatious display of humanist learning (especially his references to classical texts and quotations in Latin.) Is this emphasis on classical learning in an English-language work defending the literary value of English contradictory? What purpose does it serve? 

    What are the classical origins of the concept or word "poet"? (know Latin and Greek terms vates and poietes and their meanings). As you read the assigned selections, consider how Sidney responds to the charges against poetry (as outlines in the NA headnote).  Note statements that support the two primary functions of literature, to instruct (moral or didactic function) and to delight (aesthetic function). 

    Sidney is highly conscious of the power of poetry -- i..e. of words -- to outlast the poet. Pick out passages that address the power of words. Can they be used to punish (i.e. the enemies of poetry, or of the poet), as well as to "instruct" and "delight"?

    The Practice: Renaissance Sonnets

    As you read the background information on sonnets and sonnet writers and the sonnets assigned for this and the next class meeting, be sure to note the following: the role and influence of Petrarch and of Joachim Du Bellay; decade when sonnets were most in vogue in England; names of the poets and titles and dates of their sonnet cycles, if applicable; role of poets read in development of the English sonnet tradition (e.g.: who introduced sonnet form into England? who developed the so-called English sonnet form? title/date/author of 1st major English sonnet cycle? which poet couldn't resist further complicating the sonnet form? which poet wrote love poetry addressed to both a man and a woman? what poet wrote a sonnet cycle from a woman's perspective?)

    Aristocrats were expected to be able to write poetry -- an activity that was supposed to appear effortless; review in this regard the selection on "Grace" from Hoby's translation of Castiglione's The Courtier (NA 704-06; see also NA 1000-1001). Aristocrats seldom published their own work; doing so would make it appear that one took it too seriously -- or that one wished to profit from publication, hardly an aristocratic attitude. 

    It is interesting to note that Sidney, whose Defense of Poesy is a vernacular language treatise defending the value of literature in the English vernacular, also wrote the first English sonnet cycle, Astrophil and Stella (selections from which are among the assigned sonnets).  Probably written in the early 1580s (ca. 1581-2) and circulated in manuscript form, the cycle was published posthumously in 1591, some five years after Sidney's death.  Its appearance in print sparked many imitations, contributing to the remarkable popularity of sonnets and sonnet cycles in the 1590s:  approximately 1200 (!) printed sonnets from the early 1590s have survived, and many more doubtless circulated in manuscript form.  

    Sonnets are a distinctly vernacular genre (one which did not exist in Classical antiquity, as they were invented by the Italian poet Petrarch). It is therefore not surprising that Sidney, the defender of the legitimacy of vernacular-language literature, should choose to write a sonnet cycle in English.  From this perspective, he is the English equivalent of the French poet Joachim du Bellay, who similarly wrote a vernacular language treatise defending the value of his own vernacular, The Defense and Illustration of the French Language -- and published that treatise along with the first French sonnet cycle, Olive

    As you read the specific poems assigned, consider the following themes:

    1. Pay attention to the treatment of love (and of the various beloveds) in the poems. Which poems are direct adaptations of Petrarchan originals? What is conventional in the various treatments of love, and what is more striking? Does the type of love being celebrated in these poems vary?
    2. Is poetry a theme within the poem? How does the poet refer to his/her own role as poet? What is the purpose of the poem? What does s/he imply about the importance of poetry? Note use of Petrarchan imagery/conventions (see footnotes!). Note importance of themes of death/decay vs. immortality. What are the various ways one can "defeat" death? (As noted above, Sidney asserted the poet's power to "immortalize his subjects in the Defense of Poesy.) 
    3. Note treatment of and attitudes toward women. Are women presented differently in the works of men and of women? Does a woman poet such as Wroth have the same freedom in writing about her love experience as a male poet would? Did (and for that matter, does) society have different attitudes about sexual desire in men and in women? About the expression of sexual desire in men and in women? About women participating in "public discourse" in the first place? How are these differences in societal expectations reflected in the poetry written by women?

    Hints for Reading the Poems:

    1) Read slowly, making sure that you understand the poem's syntax. (You may have to puzzle over it for a while.) You should be able to "translate" the poem into a paragraph of prose that conveys the meaning of the verses. Be sure to consult the notes.

    2) As you read, think about the background information which you have read. See how it is applicable to the poems. In particular, be sure that you can describe the form (rhythm and meter; rhyme patterns; structure of the stanzas.) Also, be aware of use of figurative language in the poems.

    3) Then, read through the poem aloud. Note how the sounds of the poem are part of its form. The sounds of some words or lines draw the ear (rhyme words; imperfect rhymes; use of alliteration or assonance; sudden changes in meter.) Note which words and lines stand out in these ways. Ask yourself why the poet might have chosen to draw our attention to those lines or words. Is the image especially significant? Does the word or line put a new twist on things, or introduce anything surprising? Do the breaks in the structure correspond to shifts in meaning? How does the form of the poem contribute to its meaning?

    Specific Sonnets:
    (NOTE:  we will discuss assigned sonnets over two class meetings)

  • Likely to be discussed day 1: Wyatt, "Farewell Love" and "My Galley," as well as modern prose translation of Petrarch's Rima 189 (NA 650-52); Surrey, "Alas! So all things now do hold their peace," as well as modern prose translation of Petrarch's Rima 164 (NA 664); Sidney, Astrophil and Stella # 1, 2, 9, 15, 52, 108 (NA 1084-1101); Fourth Song, NA 1097-8; possibly Spenser,  Amoretti # 1, 64, 75, 79 (NA 985-9); 
  • Likely to be discussed day 2: sonnets listed above that were not covered at previous class meeting and Shakespeare, Sonnets # 3, 18, 29, 30, 60, 65, 71, 73, 126, 127, 130, 138, 144, 147, 152 (NA 1171-86)

  • Written Assignment for Day 2:

    Write a paragraph-long prose paraphrase of Shakespeare's sonnet 29 ("When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes. . ."), i.e., retell the poem, line for line, in your own words. Follow poem as closely as possible, but retell it in everyday speech, without rhyme or meter, using normal syntax (word order) and vocabulary. Write legibly or type up your summary (which may be collected in class).

    After completing your summary, go back to the "hints for reading" (outlined above) and the linked "Approach to Reading and Writing About Poems" and apply these techniques to sonnet 29. You do NOT have to write all these details out, but you SHOULD use the guidelines to find examples of specific ways in which poetic language, imagery and form contribute to the poem's meaning. Be prepared to cite examples in class and to explain the effect of the details you have noted. 

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