Sidney and Shakespeare:
Contrasting Approaches to the Art of the Sonnet
By Jimmy Maher
The sonnet is among the most restrictive of poetic forms. Its list of requirements are long and daunting, as anyone who has tried to write one can well attest. Paradoxically, though, great flexibility and creativity is possible within the form. Many poets would likely argue that, by placing such restrictions on them at virtually every turn, and by forcing them to distill their words down to such a brief length, the sonnet actually aids their creativity, forcing them to write only those words that are absolutely essential to the experience being conveyed. Like an even more restrictive form of poetry, the haiku, a well-written sonnet is a little jewel reflecting an instant’s feeling distilled down to its absolute essence. As D.G. Rossetti wrote:
The Sonnet is a moment’s monument,
Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour. ("The Sonnet", 1-3)
I will examine the work of two famous practitioners of the art of the sonnet, Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare, and in the process try to convey something of the great potential for innovation within the form when in the hands of a master. Sidney made important changes to the technical form of the sonnet, while Shakespeare vastly expanded the scope of what a poet could write sonnets about and in the process produced work of human relevance unmatched by Sidney or his contemporaries, who remained wedded to Petrarch’s conception of courtly love.
Proof that poets of the English Renaissance considered the sonnet an aid rather than restriction to creativity is provided when we consider the obvious fact that no one forced them to write in this form. These poets were not even strict traditionalists, for they proved willing to alter the form to suit their purposes. Sidney found the traditional Italian form too restrictive and rather unsuited for the different rhythms of the English language, and so he chose to write his important Astrophil and Stella sequence using a modified form of his own devising which freed him from the strict rhyming requirements of the traditional Italian approach. Sidney’s rhymes vary quite widely from sonnet to sonnet, depending on the requirements of the poem. Structurally, he constructs his sonnets as two quatrains followed by a pair of triplets, each generally expressing one complete and separate thought.
If Sidney was willing to alter the traditional structure of the sonnet to suit his purposes, he proved less interested in changing its subject matter. Like virtually everyone who used the form before him, Sidney writes exclusively about courtly love in the tradition of Petrarch. His Astrophil and Stella tells the story in archly romantic terms of the doomed love of the former for the latter. As everyone in Sidney’s own time knew, the narrative is based on real events. Sidney did in fact fall in love with a beautiful, cultured young lady nine years his junior by the name of Penelope Devereux, and claimed Astrophil and Stella to be a chronicle of those events. Whatever their origins, though, it is hard to see these poems as realistic accounts of being in love. They are too romanticized, too idealized. One cannot help but feel at times that these verses are as much about the poet’s pride in his craft and his desire for acceptance in polite literary society as they are about the sweat and passion of a real love affair. The poet himself all but admits to an ulterior motive. In the very first sonnet of the sequence, he tells us that he seeks "studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain" (Damrosch 1043). In the fifteenth sonnet, he halts proceedings long enough to engage in a bit of boasting at the expense of those that believe they can match his eloquence:
You that do Dictionary's method bring
Into your rhymes, running in rattling rows
You that poor Petrarch's long deceased woes
With new-born sighs and denizened wit do sing,
You take wrong ways, those far-fetched helps be such
As do betray a want of inward touch (Jokinen).
He concludes by smugly telling these pour second-class poets that they should first "Stella behold, and then begin to endite" (Jokinen), yet I sense that his access to the fair Stella has little to do with the condescension just displayed.
Much of Sidney’s verse is beautiful. In that sense, he is justified in his egotism. Yet it is beautiful in such a mannered, ornamental way that it threatens at times to fly away on its own silvery wings of eloquence. Stella is an angelic creature, described in the 81st sonnet as "Breathing all bliss and sweet'ning to the heart; / Teaching dumb lips a nobler exercise!" (Joniken), and Astrophil is defined only by his hopeless love for her. There is little of flesh and blood reality to be found here.
The mannered nature of Sidney’s work stands in contrast to that of a slightly later Renaissance poet, William Shakespeare. Unlike Sidney, Shakespeare did not particularly innovate when it comes to the technical form of the sonnet. By the time he began to write, his chosen form, consisting of three quatrains followed by a couplet, all using a fixed rhyme scheme, was already quite well established. In one of the great ironies of literary history, this form became known after Shakespeare’s time as the Shakespearean sonnet, even though Shakespeare had little or nothing to do with its development. Still, if Shakespeare did little to advance the sonnet’s technical form, he had a huge impact on its tone.
It is not as if Shakespeare revolutionized the subject matter of the sonnet. Like Sidney, he writes mostly about love, whether it is between man and man or man and woman. His diction is often equally elevated, and like Sidney he often chooses to compare his beloved to the wonders of nature: "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate" (Harbage 1456). It is even true that at times he seems more concerned with making sure his verse preserves his genius for posterity than with the beloved to whom he is allegedly writing, as in Sonnet 19: "Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong / My love shall in my verse ever live young" (Harbage 1456). Yet at other times he displays a realistic maturity far beyond anything Sidney is capable of, and the sentiments he expresses are made all the more touching by the aura of real life, difficult, disappointing, and painful, that underlies them. Consider Sonnet 29. Here, Shakespeare’s narrator spends the first two quatrains bemoaning his state. He is a poor man of no great talent, looking upon the rich and powerful of the world with envy while living a discontented and dreary existence. Then there is a change in tone, though, as he remembers his love, and suddenly "thy sweet love remem’red such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings" (Harbage 1458). This poem displays an emotional maturity that eludes Sidney. While Sidney describes one whose "beauty draws thy heart to love" (Damrosch 1045), Shakespeare describes the strength that a man draws from a love that one suspects has been with him for years. Sidney describes, albeit beautifully and with consummate skill, what we might today term puppy love; Shakespeare describes the mellow luster of a strong and lasting relationship.
Even more striking in their earthy realism are the so-called "Dark Lady" sonnets. These are written to a lover who possesses none of the ethereal virtues of Sidney’s Stella. She is neither good, beautiful, nor even trustworthy. In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare writes:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head (Harbage 1475).
Shakespeare almost seems to be deliberately subversive in this poem and others like it, mocking the fairy-tale world of Sidney and his contemporaries. Yes there is more to these works than just the desire to shock. As we read them, Shakespeare gradually draws for us a picture of a mutual dependency between his narrator and Dark Lady that is not ideal or romantic, but nevertheless rings very true to life. The narrator is filled with both love and loathing for his lady, with both attraction and repulsion. The complex feelings thus aroused have a mature relevance to life, both then and now, that Sidney (and many of Shakespeare’s more "traditional" sonnets, for that matter) never approaches. Consider Sonnet 138, in which Shakespeare informs us that "When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her, though I know she lies" (Harbage 1477). He goes on to describe a relationship built on self-absorption and self-deception on the parts of both parties. His Dark Lady knows that the narrator is not the handsome young man she flatters him to be, and the narrator knows that she is not faithful to him. Yet as long as nothing shatters the illusion, both can continue to deceive themselves and draw sustenance from the relationship. The psychological complexity and knowing, melancholic wisdom here is quite unlike anything to be found elsewhere at the time. Perhaps this is why Shakespeare more so than of his contemporaries is still so widely read and discussed today.
The sonnet in Sidney’s and Shakespeare’s time was not the archaic straightjacket that it might first appear. Both poets freely adopted the form to suit their own styles and purposes while using its sense of structure as a spur to their creativity. Shakespeare then proceeded to explode the possibilities not only for the sonnet but for all poetry by choosing to abandon, at least at times, other poets’ world of romantic fantasy and to explore the possibilities offered by a realistic exploration of thoughts and feelings in the real world. His poetry continues to be a "moment’s monument" to "one dead, deathless hour." However, the sense of honest ambiguity within that "hour" increases exponentially, and because of that his poetry rings true in a way that Sidney’s does not. Sidney’s sonnets are ornate works of artifice, often beautiful but dead on the page and always of their time; Shakespeare’s are real, breathing evocations of life. His work is for all times.
Shakespeare, William. "Shakespeare’s Sonnets." The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Alfred Harbage. New York: Penguin, 1969. 1453-1479.
Sidney, Sir Philip. "Astrophil and Stella." The Longman Anthology of British Literature (2nd ed.) Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Pearson Longman, 1043-1050.
Sidney, Sir Philip. "Astrophil and Stella." The Works of Sir Philip Sidney. January 2, Luminarium. October 3, 2005. http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/sidbib.htm.