Spenser and Later Sonnet-Writers -- By: Theodore W. Hunt
BSac 68:270 (April 1911) p. 264
Spenser and Later Sonnet-Writers
Very naturally Shakespeare does not stand alone as a sonneteer in the Elizabethan Era.
In common with all forms of literature in prose and verse, the sonnet partook of the general literary awakening which marked the opening of the sixteenth century. Saintsbury, in his recent discussion of Elizabethan literature, speaks of “the extraordinary outburst of sonnet writing” at the time, so notable that, before the close of Elizabeth’s reign, in 1603, more than “a dozen collections, chiefly or wholly of sonnets,” appeared, represented by such authors as Lodge, Fletcher, Daniel, Constable, Watson, Drayton, and, especially, Sidney, quite apart from the more distinctive product of Shakespeare and Spenser. To these minor authors of the era, this special poetic form seemed particularly to appeal, partly because of its structural brevity, and, also, by reason of its pronounced idyllic quality, admitting of the expression of emotion throughout the wide range of human feeling and fancy. That the “fashion changed “as the century closed is suggestively attributed to the overshadowing excellence of Shakespeare and Spenser.
The great epic poet of the time, Edmund Spenser, contributed either originally or as a translator what might be
BSac 68:270 (April 1911) p. 265
called several collections or series of sonnets. One of these series is “The Ruines of Rome,” the product of Bellay, one of the seven compeers under Henry the Second. In the first stanza, which is an invocation, the poet asks the aid of those spirits who of old peopled Rome and added to its fame. As the poem develops, he pictures the city in ruins, repeats “the lamentation of her great names over her downfall and the boasts of her conquerors. Though in ruins, he depicts her as still beautiful, recalls her greatness, feared even by the gods, proclaims her to be without a rival, and calls on the spirits of the Thracian bards and of Vergil himself to aid him in his praise. He dwells with sadness on the causes of her downfall, in ambition, pride, wealth and luxury, civil and foreign wars, and social corruption. Each of the thirty-two stanzas is a poem in itself, as rich in aesthetic beauty as it is in ethical teaching, Spenser adding an envoy to the original, as a formal tribute to Bellay. It is a kind of an abridged poetic study of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, as Gibbon viewed it, and marked by suggestive comments on political philosophy, and life. The structure of the stanzas is that of three regular quatrains and a couplet. Another Spenserian series of the sonnet order is that entitled “The Visions of Bellay,” made up of fifteen stanzas, in which the Italian poet i...
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