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A Study On Elizabethan Love Sonnets

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1214 words Published: 5th May 2017

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Our anthology of Renaissance poetry focuses on the Elizabethan period and in particular the sonnet as a genre. Furthermore, we have focused on the theme of love as a dominant trend through the sonnets of this time as it will provide a familiar yet central introduction to the Renaissance period for first year college students. Under the parameters of the theme of the love sonnet we have chosen to concentrate on love as a tool for courtship, the poet’s attempt to immortalise his beloved through verse, love conquering depression and the link between love, sex and sexuality which is obvious in the Renaissance period. Using sonnets from Shakespeare, Sidney, Donne and Spenser, we aim to provide a clear rationale as to why the love sonnet really was representative of the Elizabethan era and of the English Literary Renaissance on a broader scale.

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Along with the advancement of Renaissance Italian poetry came the introduction of the love sonnet, a genre which developed through the English Literary Renaissance from Sidney’s time and reached its peak with Shakespeare. “There are periods in the history of any literature when what poets need most is a formal convention which will enable them to study the demands of the medium quite objectively, with a craftsman’s eye, and prevent them from merely splashing about in a language that has not been tempered to meet the precise curve of the meaning. The sonnet form met this need for English poets in the sixteenth century”. (Daiches, 1960, 150) Although the English Literary Renaissance developed further after the Elizabethan period, we feel that the sonnet is representative of Renaissance.

The sonnet as a genre represents the development in the cultural in Elizabethan time spanning from ranging from Sidney to Shakespeare. Sir Philip Sidney first introduces the sonnet to Elizabethan England, demonstrating a strict adherence to the Petrarchan sonnet, both in form and content. This can be seen in the use of unrequited love in Sidney’s collection of sonnets Astrophil and Stella continuing to the later stages of the Elizabethan era with Shakespeare and his interpretation of the sonnet, the Shakespearean sonnet. The difference mainly revolves around the poet’s ideas of love and how it should be defined. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, the poet represents the shift from traditional views of the definition of idyllic love, where beauty is defined by a woman’s perfect outward beauty. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; If snow be white, why her breasts are dun” which is in direct conflict with the unrequited love or chivalric love presented in the earlier Sidney sonnets. In this way it can be argued that Shakespeare represents the development of the sonnet over the span of the Elizabethan period and as such gives a great introductory insight into how love was treated in the Renaissance as a whole.

Similarly, although Spenser’s Sonnet 54 does not flatter the object of his affection in the usual Renaissance manner, it is clear his love is for the woman is strong. A typical use of Elizabethan love sonnets is as a courting mechanism for the poet; a tool for which he can woo his beloved. While Sonnet 54 is unflattering on a surface level, Spenser connects with the object of his affection on a deeper level, a method which may have made a stronger impression on her.

Another aspect of Elizabethan love sonnets is the poet’s attempt to immortalise his beloved’s beauty and the love he had for the subject through verse. Edmund Spenser’s Sonnet 75 and Sonnet 79 are perfect examples of this. Sonnet 75 has a reflective, pensive tone as while it celebrates the beauty of his lover, it laments the transience of the human condition, something which is characteristic of Renaissance poetry. Similarly, Sonnet 79 is a celebration of the poet’s beloved, but unlike Sonnet 75, Spenser wants to immortalise her inner beauty. We felt that this was important as it is not representative of Elizabethan poetry, yet shows that the poets have the capacity to delve deeper than the celebration of physical beauty.

Often we are presented with an image of the Elizabethan poet in a transitory state of depression which he knows will dissipate in time because his wife ultimately makes him the happiest in this world. Sonnet 34 by Spenser likens the poet to a ship lost at sea during a storm at the worst of times. “The Amoretti describes the growth of the poet’s love, moving from lust, the desire for possession of the beloved, to charity, the “experience of the Not-self.” The character of the lady in the sequence is static because her virtue is perfect from the beginning.” (Benson, 1972, 185)

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 14

“In a period where gender identity is so crucial, where being a man (or woman) has such profound meanings, and where these roles were heavily discussed, it seems improbable that there was not a sense of sexual consciousness.” (Hattaway, 2000, 685) This improbability is confirmed by the love sonnets of William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare sonnets can be split up into three different sections. Sonnets 1 – 126 are thought to have been addressed to a young male, whom in Shakespeare’s eyes has outstanding physical and intellectual attributes.

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Although requited love was a theme of Elizabethan love poetry, many poems have been dedicated to unrequited love. Sonnet 30 from Spenser’s Amoretti describes the struggle of a poet who courts a woman who is not in love with him. Using the familiar metaphor of fire and ice and how they are incompatible, he describes his heated fire-like affection and longing for the woman but cannot understand her cold, detached and ice-like distance from him. Spenser’s incredulousness at the way in which his courtship did not melt her cold heart is significant as it gives a modern audience an insight into Elizabethan love as a whole; women had more influence over who could court them than is perceived in modern culture. “Obviously enough, if we read the lady of the Amoretti as a type of Beatrice, all of the sonnets which emphasize her apparent cruelty are in fact fitting expressions of the appro-priate and necessary reaction of perfection to imperfection.” (Benson, 1972, 186) In this same way, Sidney’s Sonnet 31 from Astrophil and Stella portrays exasperation with its subject for her lack of romantic interest. Had Stella paid attention to Astrophil by reading his sonnets dedicated to her, she would have realised the depth of his love for her and in due course returned it.

Furthermore, this poem gives us a wonderful example of chivalric love and courtship that is typical of the Elizabethan age. “Physical union alone did not lead to this “new form” just as lust did not lead to virtuous love. Only from the latter-a love which was constant and true came the union of souls towards which the love of rational creatures was supposed to strive.” (Cirillo, 1969, 84)


Cirillo, A. C., The Fair Hermaphrodite: Love-Union in the Poetry of Donne and Spenser, 1969


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