Let us now have a look at the so-called Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. It was popularized by the great Aretine poet Petrarch, and early examples of the sonnet are often overt imitations of the master. The problem for the English poet is that Italian is a language in which rhyme comes so easily as to be virtually natural. Italian is also a naturally melodious language, whereas in English, the Anglo-Saxon bones of our language too often stick through the soft skin and supple flesh of the Latin and Norman French. On the other hand, it is the very difficulty of writing English sonnets that often makes them more ambitious.
This form falls into two parts, an octave of 8 lines and a sestet of 6. The octave has a complex rhyme scheme that seems to hold the section together: abbaabba.
The sestet may take a number of different forms. Among the more common are: cdecde or cdcdcd or, as below, cdcdee
Here is an early and deservedly famous example by the Elizabethan courtier and soldier, Sir Philip Sidney, from his cycle, Astrophel and Stella:
With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies !
How silently, and with how wan a face !
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
Sure, if that long with love-acquainted eyes
Can judge of love, thou feel’st a lover’s case;
I read it in thy looks; thy languisht grace
To me that feel the like, thy state descries.
Then, even of fellowship, O Moon, tell me,
Is constant love deemed there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be loved, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call virtue there, ungratefulness?
Here is a slightly later poem by the Scottish poet William Drummond, remembered today mostly for his reminiscences of Ben Jonson who visited him, but not a bad poet in his own right who had more than a few happy thoughts.
TO HIS LUTE.
My lute, be as thou wert when thou did’st grow
With thy green mother in some shady grove,
When immelodious winds but made thee move,
And birds their ramage did on thee bestow.
Since that dear Voice which did thy sounds approve,
Which wont in such harmonious strains to flow,
Is reft from Earth to tune those spheres above,
What art thou but a harbinger of woe?
Thy pleasing notes be pleasing notes no more,
But orphan’s wailings to the fainting ear;
Each stroke a sigh, each sound draws forth a tear;
For which be silent as in woods before:
Or if that any hand to touch thee deign,
Like widow’d turtle still her loss complain.
A few notes on Drummond. He was a devoted lute-player, as this poem suggests. Ramage is a lovely word, meaning originally the branch-work of a tree but later the sounds of birds you hear in the branches. The turtle, as all readers of the Authorized Version known, is the turtle dove, not the amphibian. I first came across this poem in Palgrave’s once widely popular Golden Treasury, a fine anthology that reflects Palgrave’s taste for melodious verse.
Sonnets have also been used for quite serious purposes, as the sonnets of Milton and Wordsworth show. Here is a once-famous poem of the novelist George Meredith, which in its short compass has some of the majesty of an epic.
Lucifer in Starlight
On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o’er Afric’s sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.
As a special treat, here is a sonnet of Petrarch. Note how the music and structure of the verse does not sound contrived or insincere. A good translation by Bernard Bergonzi follows:
Padre del ciel, dopo i perduti giorni,
dopo le notti vaneggiando spese,
con quel fero desio ch’al cor s’accese,
mirando gli atti per mio mal sí adorni,
piacciati omai col Tuo lume ch’io torni
ad altra vita et a piú belle imprese,
sí ch’avendo le reti indarno tese,
il mio duro adversario se ne scorni.
Or volge, Signor mio, l’undecimo anno
ch’i’ fui sommesso al dispietato giogo
che sopra i piú soggetti è piú feroce.
Miserere del mio non degno affanno;
reduci i pensier’ vaghi a miglior luogo;
ramenta lor come oggi fusti in croce.
Father in heaven, after each lost day,
Each night spent raving with that fierce desire
Which in my heart has kindled fire
Seeing your acts adorned for my dismay;
Grant henceforth that I turn, within your light
To another life and deeds more truly fair,
So having spread to no avail the snare
My bitter foe might hold it in despite.
The elventh year, my Lord, has now come round
Since I was yoked beneath the heavy trace
That on the meekest weighs most cruelly.
Pity the abject plight where I am found;
Return my straying thoughts to a nobler place;
Show them this day you were on Calvary.