Yes, I've been reading Elizabethan sonnet sequences. No, I don't know why. Yes, there's a lot of them -- they were quite the fad in the early 1590s. No, I don't know why. Yes, they were rather a mixed bag. No, that'd be for the usual reasons -- everything is a mixed bag.
, Samuel Daniel -- Previously noted
(1619 edition), Michael Drayton -- One of the three best. I especially like that Drayton rarely loses sight of the ostensible purpose of the sequence, to seduce, and most sonnets are acts of rhetoric trying to convince someone of something -- his beloved, himself, his audience. This gives the poems a dramatic tension (and makes some, such as the famous "Since there's no help
," all but early forms of dramatic monologue) that's lacking in far too many of his contemporaries -- Shakespeare and Sidney being the notable counter-examples. Note that you really want to read the 1619 edition: Drayton revised over much of his career, generally for the good -- and more, this is where "Since there's no help" first appears. Fortunately, this last means it's the most readily available edition. Amoretti
, Edmund Spenser -- As versecraft, this is wonderful, and I appreciate that it's a sequence with not only an overall plot but, for once, a happy ending. I have to wonder, though, whether systematically recasting the imagery of the Petrarchan tradition in Christian terms is a worthwhile project. Not that Petrarch's Canzone wasn't deeply Christian in matter and manner, but aside from the spiritualizing effects of love, which was already in the air, those parts are not what got abstracted by his epigones. Ultimately, I'm convinced of Spenser's desire to honor his fianceé but not of his passion for her. Also, the guy needed therapy for his obsession with eyes. Srsly -- it's kinda creepy. Astrophil and Stella
, Philip Sidney -- The first and still, as far as I'm concerned, the best sonnet sequence in English. As a work of art, it has not only technical and rhetorical brilliance, it has drama. And a linear plot. And characterization. And even gives his object of obsession a voice in the verse, however small. Not to mention, it set the genre -- not that Sidney wasn't the inheritor of centuries of Petrarchanism, but he imported not just its full form but gave it a tighter form. (Disclaimer: I don't know enough about French models to know what innovations he might have taken from them.) He also experiments in small, ringing changes on variant sonnet forms -- though I also especially like arguments with details of the Petrarchan tradition (he does not fall in love at first sight, nor exhibits the classic symptoms of a Young Man In Love) while otherwise constructing himself in that tradition. Sidney's poetic persona gives the impression is of an intelligent and sensitive young man with a tendency to self-dramatize, writing as much for catharsis as anything else. This could be annoying, but the dramatizing is used to create actual drama, and he uses his gift for colloquial syntax to give his confessionalism a conversational tone. (Significantly, the romantic crisis is related in third person, not first, and that even that distancing breaks down at the end of the scene.) All in all this is, to use the technical term from lit-crit, Good Stuff.Chloris
, William Smith -- It's kinda obvious, really: sonnet cycles and pastoral poetry are both all about the lover's complaint, so why not combine the genres? The result is recommended only for readers with a high tolerance for the conventional machinery of pastorals -- whining shepherds, disdainful nymphs, fluffy flocks, et cet. It's also thoroughly conventional on the sonnet cycle side. The craft is melodious enough to warble it up into the ranks of the second-rate, but only barely. Sonnets
, William Shakespeare -- Gah, what a mess this is. Some of the best poetry written in English mixed with obvious early drafts, salted through with second and third thoughts that are realized not by revising but by starting another poem -- without discarding the first version. The order is manifestly inadequate -- it's a jumbled bag, not a sequence. But that's what we have, incomplete as it is. The tenor is non-Petrarchan mixed with anti-Petrarchan, and the texture is word-dense and image-drunk -- very much not the norm for the genre. If it even is of the genre. Also, the grinding misogyny gets a bit
tiring after a while. Just an eensy-weensy tiny bit.* Withal, magnificent and imperfect.
Not finished: Lodge's Phillis
(got bored), Griffin's Fidessa, More Chaste Than Kind
(tin ear), Constable's Diana
If you read only one, read Sidney's -- possibly after a generous selection of Will's greatest hits, but ahead of reading him entire.
* If the font Sarcasm Oblique is not installed on your computer, this phrase may not display correctly.