Immortality through poetry

Rev. 21 noviembre 2005

Of Italian origin, the sonnet was introduced into the English literature by Wyatt and Surrey in the early sixteenth century, but it was not until the 1590s that this form reached its peak of popularity among Elizabethan poets. This decade and the following witnessed the publication of many sonnet sequences: Sidney's Astrophel and Stella (1591), Daniel's Delia (1592), Lodge's Phillis (1593), Constable's Diana (1594), Drayton's Ideas's Mirror (1594), Spenser's Amoretti (1595) and Shakespeare's sonnets (1609).

The theme was love, and often these poems were direct translations of Petrarch's sonnets to Laura. Among the conventional subjects which all sonnet sequences included there figured the notion that the poet could immortalize the beauty of his beloved through his verse. We shall analyze two different examples of the treatment of this motif, one by Spenser and the other by Shakespeare.

Spenser: Amoretti LXXV

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
but came the waves and washd it away:
agayne I wrote it with a second hand,
but came the tyde, and made my paynes his pray.
Vayne man, sayd she, that doest in vaine assay,
a mortall thing so to immortalize,
for I my selve shall lyke to this decay,
and eek my name bee wypd out lykewize.
Not so, (quod I) let baser things devize
to dy in dust, but you shall live by fame:
my verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
and in the hevens wryte your glorious name.
Where whenas death shall all the world subdew,
our love shall live, and later life renew.

There are two main types of sonnet forms in the English literature: one is the Petrarchan, which consists of an octave rhyming abba abba followed by a sestet which combines two or three different rhymes; the other is the Shakespearean, organized into three quatrains and one couplet that follow the pattern abab cdcd efef gg. While Italian is a language rich in perfect rhymes, English poets find it difficult to meet the requirements of the Petrarchan rhyme system. Therefore the Shakespearean form, also known as the English sonnet, is the more frequently used of the two.

However, as we can see in Amoretti, Spenser tries to combine both the Italian and the English model. Fourteen iambic pentameters rhyming abab bcbc cdcd ee complete his sonnet. Each quatrain is linked with the preceeding one by a common ryme. In determining the units of content and form within the poem, we should note some indications that point to the idea that Spenser conforms to the English arrangement in three quatrains and one couplet, but there are also evidences that show an octave-sestet division as a more plausible description.

The variations from the iambic pattern are, in this sense, significant. The presence of spondees ("ne dy/, Vyne mn/, Nt s/, Whre whn/as") at the opening of each quatrain and of the final couplet clearly marks the divisions of the poem when it is read aloud. This, together with the graphic distribution of the lines on the paper (notice the indenture), seems to corroborate the idea that the sonnet can be divided into four parts.

The first quatrain narrates the poet's useless attempt to perpetuate his lady's name by writing it on the sand. The second reproduces the young woman's mild reproof for the futility of this effort. The next four lines contain the poet's reply claiming that his poetry will succeed in bringing her an everlasting admiration. And finally, the closing couplet states that their love will outlive the world itself thanks to this poem.

This analysis does not invalidate the opinion that the sonnet can also be divided into two main parts: an octave which develops an idea (in this case, the conviction that the lady is mortal) and a sestet which shows the poet's response to that subject (poetry has the power to immortalize her and their love).

It is true that, with regard to content, this sonnet LXXV from Amoretti is much more simple that Shakespeare's sonnet LV, which, as we shall see, is characterized by a greater compression of ideas. This simplicity is due to the fact that Spenser's main concern is musicality rather than ingenuity in handling concepts, and multiple devices contribute to that musical quality:

The sonnet reproduces a conversation between the poet and his lady. But this kind of dialogue is no more than a literary convention, an artifice that permits the author a clever exposition of the central subject of a poem. No real woman would say what this lady says when she discovers that her lover is drawing her name in the beach. We immediately realize that she is fictitious, that these lines are merely an exercise of verbal wit.

But let us examine the poem part by part. The opening quatrain is built upon a verbal parallelism ("I wrote ... / but came the ... and ...") that suggests the speaker's constancy in the face of the difficulties he comes across when he strives to perpetuate the name of his beloved. Once the sea has wiped off what he has written, he moves away from it and tries anew ("agayne ... with a second hand," stressing the poet's perseverance). But all his efforts are futile, for eventually the tide comes in and destroys his strokes on the sand.

The alliteration with [w] in line 2 ("waves ... washd it away") causes an onomatopoeic effect. With the help of the sibilant consonants these words evoke the foam that the successive waves produce in the beach.

The fourth line closes with a metaphor: "the tyde ... made my paynes his pray." If we say an animal makes another creature its pray, we mean it hunts it, and this constitutes a conventional vehicle to mean that something (in this case "my paynes") is absorbed by something else (the tide). The context implies that the tenor of "my paynes" is the lady's name, which in turn stands metaphorically for the young woman herself: she is the cause of the poet's pains.

The expressions "sayd she" (line 5) and "quod I" (line 9) occupy equivalent positions in their respective quatrains. But this is not the only parallelism that exists between the two structures. If the lady predicts her own death in the third line of the quatrain and the oblivion of her name in the fourth, the sonneteer's reply follows the same pattern and promises first her personal immortality by fame, and then the eternity of her "glorious name" in the fourth line. (A further parallelism can be found in the analogous coordination with and in lines 8 and 12.)

A linguistic pecularity of this conversation that should be noted is the use of the second person. While the poet continually addresses his fried as you, she chooses a verbal form (doest) that corresponds to the pronoun thou. Thou was reserved, from the thirteenth up to the sixteenth century (when it finally disappeared from polite speech), for the conversation with intimates or people of lower rank, while you (originally plural) was used as a sign of respect towards the interlocutor.

Although by the time Amoretti was published you had for the most part taken the place of thou, Spenser retains the latter form for the lady's reproof. This gives her speech a touch of intimacy and softens the reproach. She treats the poet as if his efforts to immortalize her name on the sand were no more than a boyish lark.

A closer analysis of the second quatrain will reveal at least two instances of Spenser's interest for musicality at the expense of lexical richness:

Apart from the slight enjambment in lines 9-10, the only remarkable feature of the third quatrain is the inversion of adjective and noun in "vertues rare". Usually this alteration of the natural order seeks the effect of foregrounding the quality expressed by the adjective. Yet, in this case the musical impact of the sequence "my verse your vertues..." justifies in itself the inversion. Actually, Spenser resorts to hyperbaton throughout the whole sonnet in order to keep rhyme and rhythm, so this line constitutes no exception.

In line 12 the lover promises that his poem will write the lady's name in the heavens (where no sea can "wash it away"). This constrast between our mortality as human individuals ("death shall all the world subdue") and the perdurability of poetry is the core of the composition.

In the expression "death shall all the world subdue," besides the conventional personification of death, we observe an example of metonymy. The poet refers to all his contemporaries when he mentions the world: when everybody who is alive today has died, this poem will still be read by those who live a "later life", says the author.

A new element is introduced in the last line of the poem: love. Poetry not only preserves the memory of the lady beyond her death; it has also the ability to perpetuate love. Curiously enough, the sonnet by Shakespeare that we shall examine next also finishes by assuring that his friend will eternally "dwell in lovers' eyes."

Shakespeare: sonnet LV

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth: your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

The message behind these lines is unquestionably the same that inspired Spenser's sonnet: poetry has the capacity to immortalize. However, despite the theme in common, the two poems differ greatly in tone. Whereas one is the rendering of a dialogue, almost colloquial in style, the other has a highly rhetorical language and the appearance of a discourse.

Already the opening ("Not marble, not the gilded monuments / of princes") shows an effective oratorical device which intends to catch the interest of listeners. The long subject of the initial clause is formed by the yuxtaposition of two noun phrases, both introduced by the negative not, and extends into the second line in an enjambment that obliges the reader to continue without any pause until the end of this line. But since the sense is still incomplete because of the negation at the beginning, the eye has to jump into the third line in search for a release of the accumulated tension, a release that is further postponed by the presence of more, which requires a second term of the comparison in the last line of the quatrain.

Whereas Spenser narrates a rather trivial anecdote, Shakespeare treats the subject of the perdurability of poetry with a grandiloquent style, using words charged with connotations that suggest solemnity: marble, monuments, princes, powerful, war, Mars, death, the judgement, etc. In contrast with Amoretti, where the musical effects were often achieved through the repetition of certain terms, the vocabulary here is richer. The diversity of expressions cluster together in several semantic fields, such as those of masonry (marble, monuments, stone, statues, work of masonry) or war (war, broils, Mars, sword, fire, burn, death, enmity).

The tone is resolute and emphatic right from the beginnig of the sonnet. If the Spenserian lover does not start praising the power of poetry until the ninth or tenth line of the poem, Shakespeare proclaims its superiority already in the first statement. As opposed to the vague promise of permanence beyond death in Amoretti, the poet here assures with determination that his verse will last till the Judgement Day.

The metrical form corresponds perfectly to what we have already mentioned by the name of Shakespearean or English sonnet: fourteen iambic pentameters organized into three quatrains and one couplet, with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The variations from the basic foot in this poem, mainly connected with emphasis, together with the continous caesuras, result in a declamatory rhythm which fits in with the general tone already described.

From the comparison that we have been establishing between the two poems, it may seem that, in the sonnet by Shakespeare, musicality is of less importance than content. Yet, on the contrary, much of what we explained about the sound effects in Amoretti applies here as well. Shakespeare chooses his words not merely for their semantic weight but also for their phonetic quality. Thus, for example, every single line of the sonnet is full of nasals and liquids.

There is also an abundance of [s], as in line 7, whithout doubt the best fragment of the poem in terms of musical achievement. The parallelism in the sequence "Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire" takes place in more than one level.

From a syntactic point of view, the two noun phrases coordinated by the conjunctions "nor ... nor" are composed of three elements that occupy equivalent positions: Mars / war's, his / quick, and sword / fire. The first couple of words are related by similarity, while the last two are both nouns in the function of head of the subject. The morpheme his is actually the genitive inflexion, which for centuries was written separately by a mistake in the interpretation of this form (the possessive case was believed to derive from the contraction of the noun and the pronoun his). This pecularity serves to make the reader perceive the parallelism visually, because it divides the genitive into two words.

From a phonetical perspective, the symmetrical assonace in "... his [i] sword [o:] nor [o:] war's [o:] quick [i] ..." is the unusual regularity that makes this line stand out for its musical quality.

Not exactly a case of alliteration, the presence of [s] in the initial consonant clusters of the stressed syllables in line 4 ("Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time") produces a similar effect.

In short, these examples are just representative of the careful elaboration that accounts for the musical richness of the sonnet.

The Shakespearean form consists of three quatrains and a concluding couplet. These divisions correspond also to the units of content. The first affirms that the poem (and therefore also the person it praises) will not last for a shorter time than the monuments which immortalize princes. Actually—the second quatrain adds—this verse will remain after they all have been demolished by wars. In the third part the sonneteer promises his admired friend that he will be remembered till the end of the world. And the final couplet summarizes the consequence of the preceding statements: until your body returns to life on the Judgement Day, you will remain alive thanks to this poem, and those who read it will imagine you and love you.

To complete this commentary, we shall take a closer look at the sonnet in order to highlight a few other interesting features that have not been noted yet. The terms rhyme and contents in the first quatrain open the metapoetical references of the sonnet and constitute examples of synechdoche (the name of the part stands for the whole). Rhyme (form, appearance) and contents (what is inside, reality) are the two constituents of the poem. Curiously, the former here belongs to the same clause as the "monuments of princes", which are important for their outward form, while the "contents", the substance, is mentioned when the poet addresses his friend for the first time.

The quatrain closes with a concretive metaphor: the stone will be "besmeared with sluttish time". Time is presented as a physical agent actively responsible for the neglect that the monuments will suffer. Time is dirty and, as it passes, it leaves smudges on the stone. But both the adjective sluttish and the verb besmeare have also metaphorical connotations of bad reputation in a moral sense. In the context of the sonnet, these disgraceful undertones ascribed to the "monuments of princes" contrast with the addressee's "praise" that will remain "in the eyes of all posterity."

Apart from its rhetorical devices and lexical choices mentioned above, the solemn language of this sonnet LV is also characterized by other features, notably the use of periphrasis, as in the expresion "work of masonry", or of inversion. The hyperbaton in "'Gainst death and all oblivious enmity / Shall you pace forth" is not there for the sake of rhyme, but rather for its oratorical force.

And, as any real discourse, the sonnet finishes with the conclusion that can be drawn from the previous reasoning it contains. Accordingly, the adverb so introduces the ending couplet, which, typographically marked with the indenting of the line, puts into words the definitive message: "till the judgment that yourself arise, / You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes."