Petrarchan Elements in Edmund Spenser’s Sonnets


Petrarchan Elements in Edmund Spenser’s Sonnets

–Menonim Menonimus

Petrarchan Elements in Edmund Spenser’s Sonnets

Petrarchan Elements in Edmund Spenser’s Sonnets

A Sonnet is a form of lyrical poetry on a single theme, especially on ‘love’ composed of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter with a varied rhyme scheme. This form of lyric originated in Italy in the thirteenth century and Alighieri Dante (1265-1321) is said to be its originator. But it was Petrarch (1304- 1374), another Italian poet who gave it a definite form and established it as a special form of lyric. He wrote a sequence of sonnets entitled ‘Canzoniere’ expressing his love for his beloved ‘Laura’. His notion of love is conventional (traditional or classical). The traditional Sense of Love is almost one-sided. In the traditional sense of love, there are three stages or phases as-in the first phase, the beloved remains indifferent and cruel to the poet (love-seeker) but the poet keeps on persuading her to love-making; in the second phase, the beloved seems to show sympathy and consents to the poet’s love-making and in the third phase, she turns against the poet’s calling and in this stage the poet spiritualizes his love and celebrates the beauty and virtues of his beloved rather than showing passionate or carnal desire. Petrarch depicted this traditional notion of love in full in his sonnet sequence. Structurally the sonnets of Petrarch fall into two parts of eight and six lines respectively. The first eight lines are called Octave which expresses the flow of a thought or feeling and the remaining six lines are called Sestet which expresses the ebb of the thought. The rhyme scheme of his sonnet is ‘abbaabba’ in the octave and ‘cdc, cdc’ or ‘cde, cde’ in the sestet. The form of sonnet used by Petrarch is called Petrarchan or Italian form of Sonnet. Most of the English sonneteers, especially the Elizabethan sonneteers were inspired by the Petrarchan form of sonnet. They often imitated the Petrarchan tradition of the theme of love and even Petrarchan structure. Edmund Spenser, one of the pioneers of the English sonneteers, was also influenced by Petrarch. His notion of love and treatment of love in his sonnet sequence entitled ‘Amoretti’ is Petrarchan. But in structure, Spenser made a deviation from Petrarch. Let us bring out the Petrarchan elements in Spenser’s sonnets as below:

As Petrarchan sonnets bear three phases of traditional love, so is done by Spenser in his sonnet sequence entitled Amoretti. For example, Sonnet No. 34 depicts the first phase of the traditional sense of love in which the poet’s beloved ‘Laura’ remains indifferent and cruel to the poet’s passionate calling. The poet illustrates this through the metaphorical imagery of a ‘sailor’ in the sea and of the ‘lodestar’ that guides a ship. But the poet is hopeful that one day he would be able to get the favour of his beloved. He says:

”My Helice the lodestar of my life

Will shine again and look on me at last.”

In Sonnet No. 47, the sonneteer Spenser, imitating Petrarch, portrays the second phase of the conventional notion of love-making. In this sonnet, we see that the poet’s cruel lover, at last, becomes kind to the poet and submits to the poet’s desire. This sense of love is shown again through a Petrarchan metaphor of a ‘huntsman’ and of a ‘deer.’ The poet, being the huntsman chases after the deer (his beloved) and eventually, she submits to the poet’s desire. The poet says:

The gentle deare returned the self-same way

Thinking to quench her lust……

In Sonnet No. 77, the poet Spenser, like Petrarch, spiritualizes his love. It is free from carnal desire; instead, he glorifies the physical beauty and virtues of his beloved. The poet says that his beloved is rich in beauty and virtues. Her two breasts are apples of valuable price, but there is no carnal attraction. He says:

”Two golden apples of unvalued price


Exceedingly sweet, yet void of sinful vice.” 

From the above illustration, it is seen that the notion of love and in the treatment of love, Petrarchan elements are apparently present in the sonnets of Spenser. But in structure, Spenser has made a deviation. Unlike Petrarch, the sonnets of Spenser consist of three quatrains and a concluding couplet the rhyme scheme of which are-abab, bcbc, cdcd and ee.

From the above discussion, we can come to the conclusion that in theme and in the treatment of the theme the Petrarchan elements are visible in Edmund Spenser’s sonnets, but in structure, Spenser has made a novel deviation. 0 0 0

Petrarchan Elements in Edmund Spenser’s Sonnets

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Petrarchan Elements in Edmund Spenser’s Sonnets

N. B. This article entitled ‘Petrarchan Elements in Edmund Spenser’s Sonnets’ originally belongs to the book ‘Critical Essays on English Poetry‘ by Menonim Menonimus. Petrarchan Elements in Edmund Spenser’s Sonnets

Books of Literary Criticism by M. Menonimus:

  1. World Short Story Criticism
  2. World Poetry Criticism
  3. World Drama Criticism
  4. World Novel Criticism
  5. World Essay Criticism
  6. Indian English Poetry Criticism
  7. Indian English Poets and Poetry Chief Features
  8. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry-A Thematic Study
  9. Walt Whitman’s Poetry-A Thematic Study
  10. Critical Essays on English Poetry
  11. Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Novel: Return of the Spirit-An Analytical Study
  12. Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Novel: ‘Yawmiyyat Naib Fil Arayaf’-An Analytical Study
  13. Analytical Studies of Some Arabic Short Stories
  14. A Brief History of Arabic Literature: Pre-Islamic Period
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I am Menonim Menonimus, a Philosopher & Writer.


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